“Just take three steps, stop, and breathe.” The anthem I sang to myself scaling Mount Whitney. After starting down in the Owens Valley, a mere 7,000 feet ago, the backpack fully loaded with a weeks worth of food and fly gear, was getting heavier with each step.
The trail came to a T. I could either veer right and tag the summit, or head left and down in elevation, to a lake teeming with the Sierra Nevada’s most prized possession for the backpacking angler, golden trout. With months of planning, I swallowed the pain and took the exit right up the ramp to the Whitney summit.
With my three steps, stop, and breathe ethos, that beat led me to my first 14,000 foot summit. The backpack was removed from my shoulders and the breathing began to catch up. My gaze veered down to the guitar shaped lake and to the ripples the golden trout were making on the surface, like sound waves to each cast I will strum their way.
Once down and on the shore of the lake, the 7’6” three weight got pieced together. With a small creek cascading into it, the blurs and movement of color in the water were literally like panning for gold.
Flashes of golden’s darted out of the lake and up into the creek. Colors so vibrant their kaleidoscope of patterns could be noticed even by the color blind. And with the constant buzzing sound of mosquitoes flying around my face and ears, I knew what pattern to start with.
The mosquitoes of the Sierra are infamous. Not at any stage of the trail are you free from the burden of these vampires. But the annoyance is a blessing in that trout are eager to sip them from the surface. With my 6X tippet now threaded, the subtle casts at 10,000 feet were producing quality fish. Cast after cast, the lighting bolt of gold came lapping near my legs.
The next day boasted a frost-covered tent with the scratchings and rumblings of a marmot. With camp packed up after a cup of coffee and instant oatmeal, I hit the trail. The day’s agenda was to reach the base of Forester Pass. At 13,200 feet, it is a wall of granite no president could ever construct. But like any wall, they can either fall or be scaled. Forester is one that needed climbing.
The route takes you onto the Bighorn Plateau. The plateau had small bodies of water, which were a welcomed sight after hiking most of the day. A rushing creek looked fishless until an elk hair caddis was tied on and the 10-inch golden splashed its way to hand. Further up the creek, the deeper and slower moving water had fish congregated in pools that pounced at anything thrown their way.
It was early afternoon and a few passing clouds made sure their presence were known. Advice from a hiker told me to never go up and over a pass from four to six pm. Even when the forecast called for nothing, the chance of thunder and lightning is ever present. With a small lake just off trail, the tent was easily set up and my tired eyes lay to rest at 11,900 feet. The highest camp I’ve ever made.
The morning beckoned with blue skies and the orange hue of color blasted on the remnant peaks like the high beams of a car on a building. With coffee and a heavy breakfast, my body was fueled and ready to tackle the pass. The route seemed not only impossible but non-existent. To my disbelief, a tiny cut in the granite gave passage and a trail meandered its way up to it.
Two hours later, I reached the pass, and in that instant I realized I was going for it and undertaking possibly the coolest fishing trip I had ever been on.
Descending in elevation from the pass, it was a struggle to watch footing with the peaks towering overhead on either side. Almost as if I stepped into Pandora, cascading creeks rushed down from the melting alpine snow and into semi frozen lakes. From the lakes, creeks spurted off and continued down into distant meadows. In one meadow, the creek formed into what I thought was the best fishery on trail.
One particular creek had one of the healthiest golden trout populations on trail. On almost every cast an eager trout came splashing to hand. With only a handful of miles hiked and a constant stream of eager trout to bend the rod, a night camped out beckoned.
Further down the creek, I found one of the strangest species of fish in the sierra, a golden-rainbow hybrid. Lower in elevation, different species to came to hand. In fact, this creek is one of the few streams where an angler can catch a, “Sierra Grand Slam”: golden, rainbow, brook and brown trout. But the slow meandering downhill of creeks and trail can only last so long before the up hill begins again, and Glen Pass made its presence known.
The passes in the sierra are somewhat like a game of dominoes. Once you climb over one, you tend to keep knocking the rest down. With Forester Pass being the highest point, the rest of the passes get smaller and smaller, but doesn’t mean they get easier.
Along the north side of Glen, you are greeted by Rae Lakes, and the most stunning location along the trail. Granite spires to the horizon and rocky cliffs to sit atop the lake and spot fish. Brook trout cruise the shoreline. They wait to ambush and strike with a 3-month veracity of starvation.
The slow wind down from Rae Lakes gave me the opportunity to fish the outflow and a chance at a few en-route to the next pass. A suspension bridge marks the change in altitude and up again I went.
Pinchot is the next objective. The trail followed a stream, tempting the taste buds of even the most stubborn angler. But per the four and six o’clock storms, the thunder and lightening began and showed an impenetrable wall. So the tent was erected and head settled for the day over Pinchot tomorrow.
Upon the descent from Pinchot, I was greeted with blue for days. The creeks ran down trail like a flow from a faucet and the animals ran free like they were released from a cage. Pika, marmot and deer scurried about like it was there first visit with a human. Sadly out of all the creatures, the trout remained silent as if they needed no escape from their natural aquarium. A lake invited me in with an epic grassy patch to rest and enjoy lunch, yet the trout seemed well fed.
The reward after the next pass and following day was a lake with a plethora of golden trout, but also one of the prettiest descents of the entire tail. Palisade Lake offered trout teeming with life, attacking anything thrown at them.
Once down, the meadow beckoned open space and area to cast. It was this huge open space with random boulders. A nice break to reset the cycle in my daily quest from one pass to the next. Following yet another river up trail to the next endeavor.
The trail’s namesake pass was the hardest to go over. But achieving the goal and seeing the hut, relief shot through me, and the trail was all down hill until the next fishable body of water.
I set up camp next to Evolution Lake within the basin of the same name, and casted to golden trout. On nearly every cast with the parachute adams lay a fish eager to strike.
Tucked beneath the canopy of pine, a creek slithered its way down from the basin. Each hooked fish on the dry fly brought question to what was hooked. At one spot a golden rainbow hybrid came to hand. Slightly down river, rainbow and a brook trout. And had the trail continued further down stream, brown trout would have surely come to hand. But camping under the trees was a relief to finally get a good nights rest without worrying of thunder and lightning.
The hike up Selden Pass was stressful. It was noon and clouds were gathering for what looked like an explosion of unfathomable proportions. In the creek mouth, goldens were frolicking in the small cascading section. After a few casts the trail dropped and the arrival of the Vermillion Valley Ranch salivated even the thirstiest of backpackers and a great place for a re-supply.
The trail does nothing but go up from VVR, but with every pool and riffle in the creek, a golden is waiting. Some pools were difficult to get to while others not only invited a cast but a dip to cool even myself down from the warm summer heat at elevation.
Over the next pass, there are a number of lakes to choose from. However, similar to a dividing line, Silver Pass almost marked the change of specie. Rainbows and brook trout dominated the landscape. Trout voraciously attacking whichever dry fly I seemed to tie on.
Virginia Lake lay dormant like a dog at the door waiting to go for a walk. Wind was howling and conditions didn’t seem appropriate for a dry fly, so the woolly bugger was tied on. To this day I still have nightmares of the lake, as I couldn’t land a fish.
With Red’s Meadow and Mammoth Lakes in sight, Purple Lake offered a calling card to sight fishing for large rainbows. I casted out with an elk hair caddis and a few twitches of the fly later, an explosion of water with the visual of watching the large rainbow dart out of nowhere.
After a re-supply in Mammoth Lakes, Banner Peak was the next jaw-dropping peak reflecting on a lake with bays and deep sections for trout. With such a photogenic landscape, I found trouble setting the hook while being distracted by granite. But like anywhere else you miss a fish, there will be a chance on the second cast.
Continuing ever north, Donahue Pass is the gateway and border to Yosemite National Park. Below the pass, the infamous climbing of Tuolomne Meadows with the Lyell River flowing its way to the general store and ultimately the end of the trail.
The John Muir Trail is a knee shattering fitness plan unlike any gym trainer could re-create. The trout are the residents, and we are only guests a few months a year. With high altitude and fitness levels required for access, there are few places like it that require such a rigorous test to even have the opportunity to cast. And because of that, it will remain one of the most unique and stunningly gorgeous fishing locations on the planet.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.