All summer long, the popular fishing spots in the Sierra Nevada are crowded with anglers. Parking spots are hard to find in the Bishop and Rock Creek drainages. Anglers line the shorelines of all the Mammoth Lakes and the water is dotted with fishing boats and float tubers trying to catch trout. It almost seems like you need a reservation to get a productive stretch of fishing shoreline in the June Lake Loop. The same is true for Saddlebag Lake, Lundy Lake, the Virginia Lakes, Bridgeport’s Twin Lake, and Bridgeport Reservoir. Thanks to Department of Fish and Wildlife stocking trucks and regular private plants contracted by local fishing and county tourism groups, all of those places have intermittent good fishing in beautiful settings. But some of us like solitude and gullible trout that don’t come from a hatchery truck.
Little streams throughout the Sierra provide that fishing solitude for trout – admittedly small – that were born and bred in the region. These small, wild trout also can be frighteningly easy to catch because the little waters where they live have limited resources and few will pass up an opportunity to snatch a cricket or fly drifted through the pool where they are living.
The best way to find these little out-of-the-way waters is to look at detailed maps near the area you are staying and start exploring. Many waters are right along paved and dirt roads, while others might require hikes of varying lengths. But the key is that these streams are small. Most anglers avoid creeks they can straddle or jump across easily. These are the waters that have the greatest surprises in the variety and number of trout you can catch.
U.S. Forest Service maps are the best maps for the Sierra, and these maps can be obtained at most staffed ranger stations. These maps show all of the open vehicle routes and tell you whether or not you need four-wheel drive vehicles. They also show hiking trails. Happily, those trails generally have portions that follow water courses and lake shores.
Until you get into wilderness backcountry, virtually all of the streams in the region have been planted with trout historically and they now reproduce naturally. I have caught wild rainbows and brown trout standing in the meadow adjacent to Highway 395 near Fales Hot Springs north of Bridgeport. There was a weekend where my brother-and-law and I caught golden trout and brookies in Tamarack Creek. It is located just a short walk from the end of a finger of dirt track off Green Creek Road south of Bridgeport. The beaver ponds on Mill Creek above Lundy Lake are jammed with trout (and mosquitos). On our anniversary, my wife and I caught browns and brookies on dry flies above Rock Creek Lake while nearby backpackers streamed up a trial that connects to the Pacific Crest Trail. There was the time I was surprised by a 12-inch brown trout from Pine Creek, just north of Bishop.
One of my favorite spots a little creek that ran through Junction Campground on Highway 120 at the east entrance to Yosemite National Park. We walked above the campground to where the stream opened up into a meadow. There were small, bright-colored brook trout in every deeper pool and undercut bank.
Sometimes you can be shocked by the size of the fish. In the spring, the tiny tributaries to Crowley Lake (all which have special fishing regulations) get clogged with huge rainbows and cutthroats moving up out of the lake to spawn, and my boys and I have landed and released trout weighing three and four pounds on egg pattern flies from Hilton Creek in the meadows above the lake. Amazing, when you consider you can straddle the braids of this little water in most places.
The best part about the little stream spots is that there were never other anglers that didn’t ride to the place with me in my truck.
Fishing for trout in these small streams requires a few things. First, use light tackle. If you are spinfishing, four-pound test line is plenty and allows you to cast or underhand flip light baits easily. The smallest fly rods you own are appropriate. Second, these are wild fish and might not eat PowerBait or salmon eggs. They didn’t group up on fish pellets. So use natural baits – crickets, small worms, or even bait you collect along the stream (grasshoppers are best). If fly-fishermen were restricted to hopper and ant patterns, he wouldn’t be handicapped. Barbless hooks make it easy to release the small fish. Third, stealth is important. While the trout are likely to smack the bait or fly as soon as it hits the water because food is scarce, they won’t budge from the bottom of the creek or out from an undercut if you’ve spooked them. They are more afraid of predators from above than a growling stomach.
These small streams – especially those in high elevation open meadows – are the perfect place to take kids fishing. Oh, they will still get tangled in streamside brush and they will spook trout, but they quickly learn to sneak up on pools and let the current take their offering to the trout. But most of all they will catch fish – lots of fish. Nothing will hook kids of fishing more than catching and releasing 20 or 30 small trout from a small Sierra stream.
It’s something no kid ever outgrows.