Backcountry Curious

Seth Blackamore

The Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are among the most extreme elevations in the contiguous United States, with peaks towering over 14,000 feet. Often when describing fly fishing adventures in California, one would assume sandy beaches and warm sunsets. Sure that might have been where I grew up, but the fresh mountain air, snowcapped peaks and wild forest of the Sierras has captured my curiosity and relocated me to this majestic playground.

What’s amazing about these mountains are the numerous backcountry lakes and creeks which hold wild trout, and the only way to get there is on foot or horseback. Adding to the fun is the possibility to catch 5 different species of trout: brook, brown, cutthroat, golden and rainbow. The local phrase, “The Sierra Grand Slam,” is celebrated when an angler lands 4 of the 5 species in one day; a rare accomplishment even to the seasoned locals.

Recently someone asked me for some tips on becoming a better backcountry angler. After a brief pause, I humbly answered, “Curiosity”. You must be curious of what’s over the next ridge, curious to fish new water. This curiosity will push you physically and mentally, allowing yourself the capability to venture deeper in the backcountry.

Hot summer days and long work hours summoned my thoughts for escaping to a cooler, more peaceful serenity of the backcountry. As I sat on my couch looking at a map, I decided it was time to lace up my boots and check out some new water, curious to see what treasures I would find. I called up my local buddy, Brandon Rohr, to plan an overnight backcountry trip. After little convincing, we gathered our gear and hit the trail bright and early the next morning.

Backcountry Curious

Realizing the outdoors is a medicine of its own can be a prescription even for those who aren’t sick.

Ascending on our route we’d occasionally stop for a drink of water and, of course, to fish the small creeks flowing with the fresh snow melt. Hole-hopping through thick brush along the shoreline we found numerous small browns and rainbows eager to slurp up our mosquito dry flies. After quenching our fishing thirst, we continued another few miles down the trail. Switch-backing higher up the mountain, we reached our camp at 11,000 feet, while totaling 6 miles and 3,000 feet elevation gain for the day, not to mention the 40-pound packs on our backs. In the high country, nothing comes easy; you must earn everything. And now with the hard part of the hike behind us, it was time to relax and set up camp.

That evening when the sun dipped below the Crestline, a beautiful starry night illuminated the sky, revealing traces of the Milky Way Galaxy. We sat back and sipped a bottle of dark whiskey, telling fishing tales throughout the night and discussing the next day’s possibilities.

Like a kid on Christmas morning I was awake at first light. Fly rod in hand, I headed down to try my luck. With little surprise, there wasn’t another soul was in sight, just small trout delicately feeding on the calm surface of the lake. The water was crystal clear, allowing me the advantage of spotting fish cruising the shallows. Patiently waiting for the next passerby, I casted my dry fly and immediately caught the attention of a trout. Moments like this are what it’s all about for us anglers; such suspense it is as the process occurs right before your eyes. And to my luck, the first cast of the day kindly produced a beautiful golden trout. The coloration on these fish is a master piece, with vibrant bellies lit up as if red hot to the touch. It is no wonder California’s State Fish is the Golden Trout.

After landing a couple fish I headed back to camp to whip up some hot oatmeal and coffee. Leaning back against a rock as I enjoyed my cup of joe, I listened to the birds as their good-morning tunes echoed throughout the woods. A gentle breeze occasionally greeted me with an aroma fresh from the pines. Getting back in touch with nature is something you’ll never regret. As passionate anglers in today’s busy society we are often so eager to devote our entire day to fishing that we forget to simply stop and look around. Realizing the outdoors is a medicine of its own can be a prescription even for those who aren’t sick.

For the next two hours, I put my fly rod down and reached for my camera. While the goldens effortlessly cruised the shoreline, I sat back and observed as they continued to slurp the top water. These encounters were intimately close, which proved to be exceedingly educational… not to mention totally rad!

After our golden morning we broke camp and headed down the trail, curious to see what the next lake held. Upon arriving, brookies littered the shallow water, and with some quick casts I managed to land a few small, but feisty fish. As I gazed off into the depths of darker water, I was again curious of what else might be lurking out of sight. Switching over to a sinking line, I shot my fly out to the middle reaches of deeper water. After a couple casts, I stuck a healthy brown, who keyed on a leech pattern I tied up a couple nights prior. Just like that, I had three species under my belt before noon. Could it be done, I thought? The Sierra Grand Slam was unintentionally within my grasp; something I haven’t accomplished yet.

Onward we pushed to a suspected rainbow destination, conveniently located downhill another mile or so. The first 30 minutes, produced only a couple browns and a half-dozen brookies. Good problem to have I guess, but was I mistaken about rainbows being here? I shifted around to the inlet side of the lake, hoping the white water held the last piece of the puzzle. Within a few minutes, my luck came through again and I had completed the Sierra Grand Slam with a pristine wild rainbow.

Sure, curiosity can kill the cat. But with some effort and a little luck, curiosity can also guide you to a Sierra Grand Slam, leaving you with a prized memory. Most of my fishing adventures are via the road less traveled, off the beaten path, and with such chance may you also stumble upon your own golden treasures.

Seth Blackamore is a Sage Elite Pro, photographer and author.  His most recent book, Fishin' Trails 2 - 25 More Hikes for Eastern Sierra Wild Trout covers spectacular backcountry destinations in the Eastern Sierras, focusing on longer hikes for larger, wild trout. Get your copy here.