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Ghosts Under the Ice
"Well, we can't fish here," I said as we rounded the corner and got a view of the northern lobe of Anna Lake.
"Look at that! It's still frozen this late in the morning!" The Lady said, excited with the discovery. On our walk the evening before we found that a quarter of the ice and snow had gone from the lake here during the day, Saturday, our first full day at Anna. This is why we climbed over into this area to fly fish today. But overnight all the open water had frozen into a clear layer of ice along with all the melt water in ponds on the surface snow. It was still frozen.
"What do you want to do?" The Lady asked.
"Let's wait it out," I suggested. "We can have a snack and relax. Maybe even take a nap in the warm sun, here out of the wind. We have all day."
The Lady nodded in agreement. Her eyes were focused on the ten feet or so of clear ice along the lake's edge at our feet before the white layer of ice and snow took over, extending across the lake's remaining surface. Her gaze was intense and practiced.
"Look, I can see trout! Two are coming at us!" She exclaimed. I followed her gaze and saw the grayish green backs along with a flash of movement; two nice trout approaching, unhurried, unaffected by our presence.
"Look!" she whispered. "They look like ghosts! Ghosts under the ice!"
I had heard a story a few years back. The kind of story that piqued my interest, got me thinking..................
But, it was also the kind of tale I took with more than a grain of salt, figuring, in reality, it was an exaggeration to just make a good story, something I might do. Or maybe even an outright lie to get me to take the bait and make a hard journey on a wild goose chase. I did not rush on the idea of a visit, but it was a good story that I enjoyed bringing back from memory from time to time. It was a story about large, smart, hard to catch Golden Trout. The kind you travel to Wyoming's Wind River Range to fly fish for. But these Golden Trout, the story told, were in a high mountain lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, fairly close to our home. What if it was true?
A couple of weeks back the Lady asked what we could do over the 4th of July holiday weekend. My answer just popped out. It even surprised me. "Let's go to Anna Lake," I said.
We added an extra day to the weekend and left home late Thursday afternoon. After a quick supper and picking up our overnight permit for the Hoover Wilderness, we settled in for the night in our camper. It was quiet, cool, and the sound of the flowing water of the Little Walker River carried us away into easy sleep.
We were on our way by 8:30 am Friday morning, saddled up with our backpacks, eight miles of beautiful spring time Sierra Nevada terrain ahead of us.
We have been backpacking together for 34 years, 34 wonderful years. I've always helped the Lady with her pack, lifting it, holding it up so she can easily slip into the shoulder harness and hip belt. It became a ritual that was announced with the question, "Ready to saddle up, Little Mule?" Joining us on a backpack trip, after hearing this repeatedly, my oldest brother, Fastshot, penned a limerick -
Monte calls her his "Little Mule"
She burns trail mix and freeze dried for fuel
No matter a hike
Or her fast mountain bike
She always prances and sashays so cool
The prancing and sashaying little mule led the way and "kept us found" on the map.
Around the three mile mark a crossing of the Little Walker River is required.
That red parachute cord was left by a father and son team from Nevada. It was not strong enough nor properly tied off for use as a safety line but, perhaps it gave them the courage to wade across and would help them find the way home.
After Burt Canyon, the Little Walker River, and the trail, swings back to the south and opens into its wonderful headwater valley.
We continued up the valley.
The trail comes and goes as it works its way the valley. This area is not heavily used and does not get much trail maintenance. We like it this way as it requires attention to both your surroundings and your map. High mountain meadow complexes are critical for clean water and habitat. They are also breathtakingly beautiful.
The Lady said this was the darkest purple she had ever seen on an iris.
The old trail sign pointing the way toward Anna Lake that we found in 2013 is now gone. We took a break at the intersection and refilled our water bottles.
We started up.
An old, non-maintained trail leads up to Anna. It is steep, overgrown, crosses cascading creeks, and disappears in a few places. In a couple of spots the route went straight up the fall line, and, especially with our heavy backpacks, it reminded us of mountaineering and we dreamed of a fixed rope for us to jumar up. The hike was marvelous.
In its high cirque sat incredible Anna Lake.
We were alone. The father and son team had headed back for home after spending one night in the valley along Little Walker River after giving up in their attempt to reach Anna.
There are very few campsite opportunities in this rugged terrain at 10,600 feet. This was compounded by the remaining large snowfields. We settled in to a high spot that would serve us well for three nights.
We explored the area as the sun set and night came.
We slept well this night.
Our breakfast spot - and cooking spot - was on the opposite side of a small ridge from our tent.
This was our view.
Up here, surrounded by this awe inspiring landscape, up in the air the angels breathe, nestled in this piece of heaven on earth, what did it matter if that story I had heard about Golden Trout was true or not? But what an incredible place to wet a fly line! The Lady carried the new ghost net she insisted we buy last summer and I put my fly rod together. We studied the open water, insects, and cruising trout. The water was calm and crystal clear; demanding conditions. A trout moved from under the ice and cruised to our left. I placed my cast gently and carefully well ahead of it. The tiny nymph sank in the water as the trout approached. It was on.
What a way to start the morning with a heavy thirteen inch Golden Trout carefully brought to net and released!
The part about them being smart and hard to catch was also true. Just the way I like it. The trout were not keying in on the terrestrials on the surface, blown up on the wind from below. I fished nymph pattern after nymph pattern under my PNW strike indicator. Very little interest. I switched back to dries. I tied on the most realistic bug fly I had in my box - a beautiful delicate creature on a size 16 hook with filmy wings over a black body - six delicate legs artfully tied on. My 6x mirage tippet was six feet long. The wind was still, not a ripple on the water as I placed the fly well ahead of a sixteen inch Golden, a spectacular trout. We waited. The trout deliberately but slowly rose to the fly. Time stopped. It touched the fly with its nose and hung there in the water. It looked over at me and said, "You need to try harder, boy." This was a highlight of the trip.
Distant rumblings of thunder started early afternoon. Storm was coming.
We watched the clouds boil and swirl overhead. We retreated to the shelter of our tent. The Lady read. I went over and over fly fishing tactics in my head. We both drifted off to sleep. Voices woke us. Voices. Our solitude was gone. We got up.
Four people, two couples, were dropping over the rise into Anna's basin. The ensemble was complete with two matching Boston Terriers; dogs, off leash, that completely ignored direction from their owners and this fact, in no way, stifled the owner's constant and louder verbal dialogue directed at these animals. I knew what was coming next. Yes, wet dogs were going to jump on us.
You know, I am not sorry that I may sound intolerant. This is my background. I have worked with search dogs, avalanche dogs, and cadaver dogs. I know how well trained a dog can be. We had a dog of our own. We know how a dog thrives and lives for time spent on training and how they love to do their best for you.
We met the new neighbors. It took them a couple of hours to find a campsite and get settled. They were loud. Not rudely loud, but loud, and we had grown so accustomed to quiet. We'd have to adjust. We returned to fishing.
It was time for a scud pattern under the indicator. A roll cast works best for this set up. Put this stuff up into the air with fore and back casts and it is amazing the mess you can end up with. I can show you. I laid the line and indicator where I wanted on the lake and I watched. The indicator never made the slightest movement. I watched intently when the water was calm. Trout approached and I noticed a small turn. The take was almost imperceptible and the fly was quickly refused. I had to see the take, not an easy task. I felt eight takes and hooked and lost one. The largest of the trip put up a good tussle but came off before coming to the net.
One beautiful Golden Trout had been brought to the net today. This was a great day of fly fishing. Lessons were learned. Would these lessons pay off tomorrow?
The evening was glorious. It was quiet again. One couple was down at the lake's edge, each with a fly rod. These had to be good people. We continued our exploration of the area.
We returned to Anna Lake. Earlier in the day an Osprey dove for fish at Anna. Now a large bird came into the basin and we thought the Osprey was returning. But the wings were different, so we watched. It was an adult Bald Eagle. It landed on a high rocky cliff and joined us in watching the lake.
A few trout were taking emerging insects right below the surface.
The storm had past. Night was descending upon us.
Sunday morning was a bit colder. The new overnight ice was thicker.
We moved over to the east side of Anna to begin fly fishing.
The water was choppy with a wind that constantly shifted in direction. This is good conditions for a scud pattern under my floating indicator. The rocking motion of the bobbing indicator imparts seductive, irresistible movement to the scud dangling below. At least I hoped so. The indicator dove under the surface, a solid take! A beautiful heavy fourteen inch Golden Trout was soon in the net.
I moved down the shore line. A large block of surface ice and snow had moved off shore. I wondered if the trout were still there in the deep water taking refuge. The wind had died. The water was calm. I made my cast and tried hard to see deep into the water. A ghost moved out from under the ice. I watched. The indicator never moved but I saw the trout's gentle take. I lifted my rod. It was on. The Lady was above, as always, on a highpoint watching for trout, bird dogging. She saw as soon as I lifted the rod. She was beside me with the net. We both, at the same time, saw we had a problem. Clear ice still hugged the lake edge out about four feet at the spot we could bring the Golden to shore. We started breaking ice and cleared a path. The 15 inch Golden slid into the net.
I am so pleased the Lady insisted on getting this net. The net material is so gentle on the fish, the fish stays calm in the net without being held, and makes for an easy release. Highly recommended.
It was time to climb over to the north lobe of Anna and meet up with the beginning of this story - Ghosts Under the Ice.
No fish visible in this short video, but here's the ice, surroundings, and the Lady looking for trout.
Around noon the ice was gone and I began fishing.
Little fish were aggressively taking terrestrials off the surface. I tried ants and beetles. No luck. I had a batch of tiny midge patterns in my vest but just didn't feel like changing over to 7x tippet for smaller fish. I went searching with my scud pattern. No interest in it over here and we did not spot any larger trout. We were also getting lazy. That nap in the sun had done us in.
We returned to near camp. The older couple had left in the morning. The younger couple was spending a lot of time at their camp. A woman, Laura, hiked up cross country from her camp near the base of Flatiron Butte and spent a couple of hours at Anna. She was delightful, happy, and darn tough. We could see how she earned her nickname, Moose. A Bald Eagle flew over twice during her time at Anna. Laura told us that two men hiked in and were doing a route up Flatiron Butte (5.10 A2) and providing her with entertainment and photo opportunities. We said goodbye to Laura. We relaxed and enjoyed our surroundings.
Late in the afternoon the Bald Eagle returned and landed on a rocky highpoint overlooking the lake. We were surprised how vocal it was for several minutes. It then stayed on its perch for over two hours, silent.
The young couple came down from their camp. We pointed out the eagle to them and let them observe with the Lady's see mores.
Cooking supper, we continued watching from our dining area. The sun dipped below the crest and it grew cold. We changed into night clothes, still keeping an eye on the eagle. It made one dive toward the water and pulled up short. It did not return to the highpoint but landed on the steep snowfield.
We were curious how this hunt would go. We wanted to see success. The eagle launched again.
But it did not go for a fish. It flew down and landed on the snow at lake level, right on the edge of the water. The Lady was delighted watching through her see mores. This was quite a show. It went in the water, the eagle just hopped off the edge. It climbed back out and resumed watching the water. It hopped back in and this time, we were amazed, it had a trout. It started eating and the vocalization resumed. A juvenile joined the parent and demanded food. Prior to this we had never seen the youngster but perhaps this explained the earlier vocalizations. The parent resisted, apparently wanting its offspring to fight for its food, to learn to be an eagle. The battle continued until the parent moved off and the juvenile fed. We then witnessed a most remarkable event. They both took to the air. They played, vocalized, flew in formation, and danced in the sky. They touched each other and cried out. It was impossible not to impart human emotions to this display. Our hearts cheered. We wanted to cry out with them, let our voices join in the celebration.
They returned to the snow. The juvenile was on the lake's edge, eyes focused on the water. Was this a lesson? It was now almost dark. We climbed into the tent and into our sleeping bag. We fell into sleep with the voices of eagles still in the air.
We lingered over coffee Monday morning. It would be hard to pull ourselves away from this special place.
But it was time to go. We saddled up the little mule and she led the steep descent down to the valley below.
I couldn't catch up because I was given instructions in cheerful tones. The Lady was happy. "Did you get a picture of the Mariposa Lily?"
"How 'bout the Water Bog Lily?"
"And the Indian Paintbrush?"
The Lady pulled further ahead.
I caught up at the big bend before Burt Canyon. We took a break.
The wildflowers were incredible in the sage as we hiked to the trailhead and our waiting truck and camper.
Want a great tip on how to end a backpack trip with style? The Lady climbed in the camper and pulled a gallon ziplock bag full of cut up chucks of ice cold watermelon out of the chest refrigerator. And she didn't play "Tease a Geezer", she let me have all I wanted and we both gobbled up watermelon with reckless abandon.
Our trip to Anna Lake far exceeded any expectations we may have had beforehand. Every so often a story you hear can be true.
Some of you out there will be angered that I am even making any mention of this area, Anna Lake, and the remarkable fishery that exists there. It takes effort and determination to get to Anna Lake with a backpack. Visitation will remain low. The Golden Trout? They are smart. They can take care of themselves.