To look down on the land, this is what seems to have happened. When the earth formed there was enough rock left over for another world, and the rocky excess was left between the central valley and the high desert of California—a giant's ragged playground of granite, capped with snow and packed with rock-girt basins. The snow water, gathering through endless seasons in the basins, glittered there with the cold and pristine fires of a perfect gem, until, tossing, churning, foaming, roaring, brawling, flinging spray high into the bright, thin air, it overflowed down the canyons.
And this was, and is, the Sierra Nevada.
In the southern one-third of its 430-mile length, this range buckles and heaves and thrusts skyward like no other range in the continental U.S. In the very heart of the High Sierra, and sprawling over 708 square miles of its west flank, is Kings Canyon National Park, one of the last unspoiled, roadless areas in the U.S. Within its boundaries the only evidence of a mechanized civilization is the occasional rumble and yowl of a jet overhead. Near the park's northern edge, where Black Giant Peak broods over its necklace of tiny glaciers, where water and ice have scrubbed and scarred the granite faces, Le Conte Canyon gashes impossibly deep into this world of stone. At its northern end is a cluster of tiny blue-green lakes, and from them the clear water trickles, seeps, gathers and finally becomes a stream.
Here are the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings River, and from this point to its junction with the South Fork, some 45 miles to the southwest, it flows through what might well be the most magnificent setting ever bequeathed a trout stream.
August 23, 1959
Like most big mountain rivers, the Middle Fork is many streams. It glides through alpine meadows, chortles through the heavy shade of fir and cedar and bulls its way savagely through canyons. It can be demure, dangerous and deadly, all within a mile. Like most other streams of the High Sierra, in its upper reaches the Middle Fork and its tributaries are aswarm with the beautiful and coveted golden trout.
Not long ago, when I first set out in quest of goldens on Palisade Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork, the aspen leaves glistened with predawn rain. A blue-gray mist, more like smoke than vapor, rose from the stream and drifted through the gloom of the fir trees. Westward, the sun brushed the high peaks with dusty rose, bright pink and, finally, gold. Then it pulled itself up into the glacier-choked notch between the Middle and South Palisades and sent its first long shaft of light down Palisade Creek. As though the light were a signal, a fish detached itself from the shadows at the bottom of a pool and drifted toward the quick-silvered surface. It swirled, its sides flashing gold, beneath a struggling caddis fly, and the fly disappeared.
I stood there, thrilled and stunned, forgetting all the things jet age men should occasionally forget, forgetting my fly rod even, until Dud Booth, mountain man, professional packer, master practitioner of the dry-fly art, came swinging down the trail on the other side of the stream. Palisade Creek angled sharply to the left 50 yards above me, and at the tip of a gravel bar near the end of a long, swift run Booth took up his position. He worked his fly line out in graceful loops, finally laying his first cast down far up and across the riffle. The current snatched at the leader and flies, Booth flicked his wrist, the rod bowed and a little golden came vaulting angrily out of the water. Dud led him across stream to the shallows, unhooked him and sent him on his startled way.
Again the three-ounce fly rod worked the line out in perfect loops, again the leader and the two flies touched lightly down at the far edge of the run and this time two golden streaks came out of the shadows and attacked the Coachman lead fly and the yellow-bodied gray hackle dropper. It struck me then that I also had a fly rod, and excitedly I began to flay the run before me. Palisade Creek trout, it quickly developed, were not appalled by my lack of technique; they came darting at my flies with enthusiasm. But at the end of 15 minutes of increasingly furious fishing I was no closer to hooking one than when I started. Dud's advice ran through my mind: "Remember, if you feel a golden, it's already too late to set the hook; you got to see him coming." I floated the flies, sank them, cast them straight upstream, straight across, straight down, tried to anticipate rises until my eyes ached with the effort, and still the goldens came and went at will. Finally, my city-dulled reflexes began to sharpen, and I hooked my first fish on the dropper when I struck wildly at another golden streak in pursuit of the lead fly. Then I calmed down and caught and released 12 of the doughty little warriors without moving from the same riffle.
Encouraged with this show of progress, Dud ambled back toward camp to cook breakfast, admonishing me before I left to "save the last 10 for the pan." So I fished slowly down a quarter mile of stream through the winelike Sierra morning, taking trout now in the runs, in the pools and even from the glades, where the tapered leader looked like a rope on the mirrored surface. Nothing big—from seven to 10 inches—but swift and wild and impossibly beautiful symbols of the wild and beautiful land.
From the last bend I could see smoke rising from Dud's fire, and I picked up the last four of my limit between there and the camp. We cleaned all 10 almost before the last four quit flopping in the creel, and they were in the pan minutes later. "Only fit way to eat a golden," Dud observed. "Or any trout, for that matter. Out of the water and into the frying pan."
They came from the pan firm-fleshed and juicy, the richest fish by far that I have ever tasted. I finished five trout, two stacks of buckwheat cakes and three cups of coffee. While the water for the dishes heated over the coals, we followed the bell mare's "tank-tonk-tank-tonk" to where the horses and mules grazed in a meadow. We led them in and saddled them, and Dud patiently reinitiated me into the intricacies of a diamond hitch. Midmorning, as we moved down Palisade Creek toward the mainstream of the Middle Fork, I reflected: if the rest of this pack trip lives up to its first leg, it will certainly be a memorable week. Already it was difficult to believe that only a short 48 hours before I had been embroiled in the usual Sunday traffic in Los Angeles.
Shortly after sunup Monday Dud had moved us out of his Parcher's Camp pack station, located on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, about 20 miles southwest of the Owens Valley community of Bishop. By noon we had worked our way through the deep snow in 11,989-foot Bishop Pass and into Kings Canyon Park. After crossing tarn-sprinkled Dusy Basin (the goldens weren't hitting here this summer, said Dud; a stopover would be pointless), Dud led the way over the switchbacks down the 3,000-foot wall of Le Conte Canyon in less than an hour. It was 20° warmer beside the Middle Fork than it had been in the ice-scrubbed basin above, and I noticed for the first time that my mare had become unaccountably rough-gaited, that my knees were aching unmercifully. Each campsite along the stream was a temptation, but Dud pushed steadily along. Just before my knees gave up the unequal battle we turned at long last onto a side trail for Palisade Creek.
We made camp at dusk half a mile upstream from the Middle Fork, and 10 hours and 20 miles in the saddle faded away while Dud told tales about the golden trout country. Away up at Palisade Creek's headwaters, said Dud—we wouldn't be able to get there and reach our other objectives on this trip—there is a bunch of little glacial lakes, and when the wind comes up and ruffles the surface in the afternoon the goldens start to feed. They come streaking up from the blue-green depths to slash at almost any well-presented fly—husky, deep-bodied fish, running from half a pound to two pounds. One particularly memorable afternoon in the summer of 1956, Dud fished his way around a tarn measuring no more than a quarter mile across and a half mile in length, and in the process landed and released 50 such fish. But, he warned, don't expect them to run to that kind of size here in the creek. No one seems to know why, but while they may get up to seven pounds in the lakes, they seldom exceed a pound in the streams feeding or draining those lakes.
"Tomorrow," he had finished, "tomorrow will be a day you're going to remember for a long time."
This was, as it turned out, a memorable understatement. That first dawn on Palisade Creek made a convert out of me, and I would have been fairly content to have remained there. But 10 miles further down the Middle Fork was our real objective: Simpson Meadow and its rainbow trout.
Below Palisade Creek the tributary-fed Middle Fork puts on heat rapidly and bulls its way savagely down a narrow, boulder-strewn gorge. The trail clings precariously to the sides of cliffs high above the raging water, and since there didn't seem to be much I could do about it anyway I put all my faith in my saddle mare. Apparently she was aware of the decision, for she stopped once to look back at me and then peer long and curiously at a foaming, rock-strewn pool far below. After one quick look of my own, I tightly shut my eyes until the mare moved me on.
We made our only stop—giving Dud a chance to observe that the four-mile stretch through which we had just come is almost never fished because "if you can figure a way to get down to the water, you can't figure a way to get out again"—at one of the Middle Fork's most famous landmarks. This is the Devil's Washbowl, a granite-enclosed cauldron into which the river plunges over a 40-foot cliff. It has long fascinated Sierra mountaineers that a train of a half-dozen pack mules once panicked at this spot, plunged off the trail into that churning whirlpool below and somehow survived. For fishermen, the Washbowl is famous for another reason: above it the Middle Fork is inhabited only by golden trout; below, it is the exclusive kingdom of the rainbow.
The Middle Fork slows just enough in its headlong rush below the bowl to become an eminently fishable stream, yet fishing pressure is very low. At 6,500 feet, the Simpson Meadow area is admirably located, being well below the range of most of the rugged back packers on the famed John Muir Trail that swarm through the Park, but still beyond the reach of anything but a well-outfitted pack train coming up from the bottom.
The river in this area carries something on the order of 200 cubic feet per second of water in the late summer, or fly-fishing, months, and while it's a bit too swift for comfortable wading, plenty of log jams and fallen firs make crossings easy. Numerous gravel bars give the fly caster plenty of working room.
So it was with some puzzlement that Dud noted I had chosen to make my Simpson Meadow debut with spinning tackle. It came to baffle me too. Or, more accurately, the way the rainbows took advantage of it baffled me. They responded with happy abandon to a No. 2 Colorado spinner, but after the strike they'd instantly have me snarled in the nearest roots of a log jam. I lost no fewer than nine rigs before I decided to settle for less action and more results and thenceforth fished only that water far enough from snags to be reasonably safe.
Dud, meanwhile, took advantage of the opportunity to put on another fly-fishing exhibition. Virtually the entire time I was fast to tree roots, he was fast to trout. In one swift run of 50 yards he caught 15 rainbows in 30 minutes, keeping five so similar in size and markings they were impossible to tell apart. They were strong, chunky, full-bodied fish, about a foot long and brilliantly colored. These are real wild trout—the area hasn't been planted in 30 years. The first one I took on the spinning rig gave me a hands-full time for two or three minutes, tail dancing across the water 11 times by count. And yet he measured less than a foot in length. I had creeled only six trout when, to Dud's immense relief, I smashed the tip of the spin rod trying to manhandle one particularly muscular specimen clear of a mare's nest of fir roots. Thereafter I stuck with the flies.
Our three days at Simpson fled with outrageous speed. We broke no rainbow records—Dud's biggest fish went just over a pound, mine just under that—but we caught all the trout any reasonable man could want or ask for. I took fish on Black Gnats, Mosquitoes, Red Ants, McGinties, Royal Coachmen and an unnamed green monstrosity of uncertain origin. We caught fish at dawn, at high noon and in the evening; like the kind of fly, the time of day seemed to make a difference only between good fishing and great fishing.
As usual, Dud left the evening fishing on our final day to me. Just after sunset I was working my way lazily around a bend a couple of hundred yards above camp, debating whether to fight the mosquitoes after the up-canyon breeze died, or call it a day—and a trip. To my left the roots of a fallen fir diverted a small flow of water around a gravel island. I had hardly given the little fork a glance on previous occasions; but now, beyond the roots, I heard the heavy "ker-chunk" of a sizable feeding fish.
If I approached from either side, the trout would be certain to see me; his pool was small and shallow, and there was no cover on the adjoining gravel bars. The fir roots towered several feet above my head so it was obviously impossible to cast over them. There was a single chance: if I could float a fly through that maze, it should drift right over the feeding rainbow. I snipped off the dropper, flipped the Coachman onto the water about a foot in front of the roots and held my breath as the current swiftly sucked it out of sight. Almost instantly there was a splash, and the electric shock of a heavy strike ran down the rod. It was an impossible situation from the first: I couldn't even see the fish, and he was only one quick surge from the roots. But I gave it the old college try anyhow. And suddenly I realized that, for some unfathomable reason, the rainbow had come through that tangle on his own, that my line and leader were not fouled and that he was about to arrow past me on his way upstream into the main river.
When I freed him at the edge of a gravel bar a few minutes later and watched him head groggily back for his lair, I thought somehow of a phrase from the 23rd Psalm: "my cup runneth over." So I left the river and made my way back to where Dud's campfire danced cheerily beneath the cottonwoods.
KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
KINGS RIVER MIDDLE FORK