“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
The John Muir Trail, running across King’s Canyon National Park in sunny California, will always hold a special place in my heart. It isn’t where I landed my wall-mount monsters, or even anything much above 14 inches, but there’s just something about the feel of the crisp crackle in the air, even in the middle of summer; glints of sunlight from roiling waters as clear and clean as one could imagine; the crunch and grumble of smooth river stones as they tumble downstream with the added force of the summer melt; and the trout, lean and delicious, striking hard and fighting viciously.
I was on a long hike and trout was on the menu yet again. Being able to gather protein from the wild means that much more fat and carbohydrates in my food sack and greater freedom to roam. I carried spices, an old plastic Coke bottle three-quarters full of extra virgin olive oil, and precooked rice, along with some snacks and candy.
Starting from Rae Lakes (I stuffed myself with rainbow trout on the shores for half a day before moving on, not knowing when I would eat like that again), I descended for some distance along a river. After steep switchbacks that seemed to go on forever, I finally came to a gentler incline of trail. At 10,000 feet I seemed to cross an imaginary line of mosquitoes; once below this I was swarmed whenever I stopped moving.
My rod and reel were lashed to my hiking backpack and easily retrieved while in motion. I fitted the sections of rod together as I walked along the trail and spotted my next cast target. The river would fluctuate from long, shallow runs to waterfalls and deep pools of waiting trout. I would cast when I found a place that looked likely and had some local advice to use to my advantage.
When I first entered the High Sierra, while purchasing my fishing permit, the owner of the general store shared with me that the fish were under some pressure this year due to the high season and that I should only cast into each section a few times before moving on.
“If they don’t strike within a few casts, they will not. Also, if you pull in one from the pool, they will not strike for at least an hour,” he said as we sat on the front porch, rocking back and forth while I finished off my pre-hike ice cream.
As I hiked I kept one eye on the trail and the other on the river. I took every side trail I could find, all of which usually led to a good place to cast.
Generally when I am fishing a high-alpine area the trout will hide along the overhangs of the bank, and any noise or change in the shadow will spook them, so I approach with soft footsteps each time I move down a side trail. This time I found I was not as lucky in the shallow, rapidly moving areas of the river; the pools or bends in the river were where I had the most luck. However, being that they were so small, I had to find a position some distance away that would still allow me to cast into the trout.
This was certainly a test of my skill, as there were times when I was leaning out over the river, hanging on to a tree branch, working line out from my reel with my thumb!
The last pool was simply boiling with trout. A short waterfall was pouring through rock into the pool, with the fish lying in wait just beyond the turbid waters. The first cast landed with perfect presentation to bring multiple breaching strikes. It was heaven: the perfect cast, the perfect strike, the perfect fish.
I eventually gathered quite a respectable haul of lean mountain trout for dinner. Because I fished as I hiked, I was able to cover some real ground throughout the day—and never felt tired of either activity.
As the stars began to creep out over the trail, I searched for a place to camp. I tend to carry a bivouac sack instead of a tent while on a solo hike, as it is easier to use. After I inflate my sleeping pad, I can basically sleep comfortably anywhere I decide to lay down. I was carrying a bear canister to hold my food and toiletries, so I had a comfortable seat while cooking. Simplicity is really what attracts me to the outdoor lifestyle.
That night I lay beside the river that had provided my dinner and listened to the sizzle of the trout in the frying pan beside me. I try to always carry a few cloves of garlic, and on this trip I had remembered to throw a pack of ground ginger into my kit before leaving, so the trout had been dusted by fresh garlic and ginger. The aroma wafting on the night’s cool breeze was magical.
Sure, the fish were small and the mosquitoes thick, but that didn’t matter to me. The finest trout in the finest restaurant in the world could not have compared to my simple meal that night.
Those are the moments I will always remember.
John Schips is the primary contributor for flannelfishermen.com, a site that celebrates the tradition and romance of flyfishing. Rather than balk at the stereotype of Canadians as flannel-wearing maple syrup swiggers, Schips, who was born in Canada and has enjoyed some of his finest fishing there, embraced the joke, hence the site’s name.