California Dreaming

Elsa goes looking for fishing good enough to justify moving to a new home.

Let me set the scene. It’s January 2022, the pandemic is fizzling out, and the world is finally opening up. You’re exhausted from the past two years of living in captivity and craving something completely out of the ordinary; anything that carries an air of newness. It was at this time my partner Cale and I decided that, in only a few short months, we would quit our jobs, travel for a while and move to the United States. Those last few months in Australia flew by, and before we knew it, we were getting COVID tests, packing our bags and jumping on a plane. We landed, and our mini tour of the USA and Canada began.

We caught some incredible bull trout in Jasper, Alberta; lived our cowboy dreams in Montana; and put a lot of effort into relaxing in Hawaii… but what I really want to tell you about is California.

We had set our sights on California as our future home. It’s an exciting state, with national parks, stunning rivers and lakes, year-round perfect weather, plus my sister Bella lives there. However, there was one hurdle to overcome before we could be sure this was where we wanted to be. I had to convince Cale that California is a flyfishing haven. If I couldn’t prove that, there was no way he would agree. So, once we were there, we planned a camping trip with my nature-loving sister, and her hiking-obsessed boyfriend, Kyle. They have a pretty good understanding of the wilderness around their LA home, so they suggested we head to the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, an area packed with beautiful alpine streams and lakes.

The morning of our trip, Cale woke me at 5, we packed the car and got on the road. I’m not a morning person, so I’ll spare you the details of my grumbling. But, after a coffee and a slight mood change, we were out of the city and surrounded by an incredible desert landscape. Coming from Victoria, this sort of terrain was surreal, almost like a movie set. Dusty sand and rocky hills made up the seemingly unending horizon line, the foreground dotted with cactus and low shrubs. It was hard to imagine streams and trout thriving near such harsh conditions, but we soon found out they definitely do. We arrived at the campsite a little after 10 o clock. Not a bad run considering we stopped in the closest town, Bishop, to grab a Reuben sandwich and some peanut butter cookies at the famous Erik Schats Deli, an institution in the area. The town had a distinctly western vibe, from the local saloon to the thrift stores piled with old saddles and cowboy boots. However, we didn’t linger too long in town.

Edge of the Sierra

I could tell Cale’s interest was piqued, but I needed to get him on the water to begin building my case for fishing in California. We drove up to a small alpine village called Aspendell, about ten minutes from camp. We parked on the edge of a picturesque meadow, with tall, vibrant blades of grass, wildflowers of every colour, and almost cliche sunbeams highlighting spots on the ground you could lie in for hours.

Idyllic water.

But there was no time for dozing. We walked the short distance to a little stream, and already we could see at least five fish happily sipping. Very kindly, Cale insisted I have the first cast. I crept quietly down the bank and eased myself into the crystal water. It was a pretty tight area, so I kept my casts minimal. I laid my first cast, blinked, and my fly was gone, demolished by a small but aggressive brook trout. This was my first ever brook trout, and I was mesmerised by the colours and patterns on this fish. They truly are something to behold. I looked at Cale with a subtle smugness, as if to say “See!”.

My plan was working. I had a few more casts and caught another beautiful trout before we continued upstream. Each turn in the creek presented a perfect pool, with fish breaking the surface only metres apart.

Not a bad start to the trip!

The sun made the water completely transparent and, even in this alpine climate, warm enough to be in just a t-shirt. After Cale’s first pool, and first fish, I could see his excitement building. This was his favourite type of fishing. With lush stream banks, big boulders in the water and low-hanging trees, strategic and careful casting was a must. It was the perfect amount of challenge and reward. It wasn’t easy fishing considering the terrain, but that’s what made it the most fun. After a couple of hours of pure joy, sunshine and plenty of fish, we got a surprise… My sister, who was lying in the grass reading her book, popped up, frightening us both, and suggested we head back to camp to get dinner on the fire and discuss the mammoth hike we were embarking on the next day.

Camp water supply.

Campsites in the states are very different to the ones we have in Australia. They are perfectly laid out and manicured, with cute little wooden signs, picnic tables and even water pumps at each plot. Since we are used to parking our van in the middle of nowhere, this was luxury… except for the fact we were back in a tent. (We missed our cosy van bed.) We got dinner on early and kept it simple with bean and queso tacos, homemade pico de gallo, fresh herbs and mango margaritas. As I heated the tortillas over the fire, I watched as the setting sun cast shadows on the sharp mountains which surrounded us. This was pretty damn special. And I knew Cale was thinking the same thing. We sat up chatting and admiring the stars for a while, then we crawled into bed to rest up for our big journey the next day.

Long Lake

We woke at around 7am, anxious to get going, because as far as Cale and I knew, this hike was going to be huge. Although we are pretty fit humans, we aren’t seasoned hikers, and walking up mountains for hours on end is a different kind of fitness. Kyle had done this hike before and told us that close to the peak of the trail, and on the way down the other side, there were several lakes. He said he had never seen so many fish in one spot before. It was this knowledge that gave us the strength to do this hike, because let me tell you, this was not a beginner stroll. We were already at altitude when we started, which took some getting used to. Add in kilometres of steep, rocky switchbacks, plus a little bit of asthma, and you’ve got a challenge.

But, there is something about hiking. The scenery, the people, and the accomplishment are worth every painful step. We reached the first lake, Long Lake. As we walked beside it, we saw several fish swimming along the banks, taking off the surface. The first thing we noticed was they just didn’t spook. You could be standing a metre away and they would continue cruising, completely unaware of us or our rods. We found a grassy spot at the end of the lake to refuel and relax for a while. Naturally, Cale and I set up our rods and started casting, and within minutes Cale had reeled in a stunning brook trout. While we fished, Kyle had gone for a little stroll, following a creek that ran off the lake. He came back sooner than expected and said “Guys, you have to come with me.” He led us along this very small creek, to a pool roughly the size of two cars next to each other. It was packed with too many fish to count. Cale and I took turns casting into it, and every time the fly hit the water, a fish would be on it within seconds. This would spook the rest of them momentarily, but within minutes they would all be back, ready to go again.

The Chocolate Lakes

We had a tough call to make at this point. Do we stay here at Long Lake with our pools of fish, or do we get back on the track and hike up to the next few lakes, called the Chocolate Lakes? Curiosity won. It was only another three hundred metres up, but in the thin air at over 10,000 feet, it seemed like kilometres. We were scrambling up loose rock, there were patches of snow to trudge through (yes, snow in California in June, that’s how high up we were). I think at one point I stopped for a breath every few steps, but we did it. And from then on, it was all downhill… And I mean this literally, not figuratively, because the fishing just got better. We half walked, half skidded down the other side of this peak to find ourselves at the first Chocolate Lake.

This lake was like a moon crater, with very little vegetation and steep rocky hills leading down to the shoreline.

At first, we thought our eyes were playing tricks on us: it looked as if heavy rain was falling exclusively on this lake. It took us a few seconds to realise what we were seeing were the rises of hundreds of trout. We had never seen anything like it. Casting was restricted, but we found a small rock ledge to look over into the deeper water. We saw no less than fifteen fish cruising up and down, taunting us. We couldn’t cast, but we decided to do a little test and dangled a fly in the water. Immediately, the fish in the nearby area swarmed toward it in a frenzy. Kyle informed us the next lake was much prettier with better access, so as much as it hurt to leave, we pushed on. He was right. The next lake looked like an oasis. Mountain flowers scattered along the ground, while trees cast shadows on the banks, and big boulders made perfect scouting spots.

Chocolate brook trout.

Now, I usually hate it when people say this, but this time it’s true… I cannot tell you how many fish we caught. Every cast produced a trout, to the point where even if the wind messed up a cast and the fly landed weirdly in completely the wrong spot, it would still catch a fish. You might think this could get a little boring, the ease of it all. And you would be right – if it wasn’t such a beautiful place to fish and hadn’t taken several hours of hiking through stunning scenery to get to.

Plus, I had definitely proved there is good fishing in California! The sun was getting low in the sky, and with a few hours of hiking left to reach camp, we started our descent, stopping at the remaining Chocolate Lakes for a quick cast as we went. The hike down is always, for me at least, more enjoyable. You feel accomplished, you have the time to look around and enjoy the surroundings, and most importantly, you know that soon you can rest and eat. As we reached the end of the hike, I turned to Cale and asked, “Well, what do you think of the fishing in California?” He replied simply by laughing and rolling his eyes at me. He was convinced.

A place to call home

It was our last night in the Sierras, and instead of cooking at the camp, we thought it would be nice to refuel after our big hike at one of the best-kept secrets of the area. Cardinal Lodge in the little village of Aspendell does a pizza night once a week. It’s an all-you-can-eat situation. You pay a flat fee of $20USD, sit outside on picnic tables rugged up in supplied blankets, and make as many trips up to the pizza oven as you like. The pizzas are incredible and very original, with flavours like Thai green curry and peach cobbler.

Pizza perfection.

You never quite know what you’re going to get, but that’s definitely part of the appeal of this strange and unique spot. This was truly one of those nights where you are just grateful to be alive and able to go on adventures with good people. Sitting there with our pizza and a glass of red in the cold mountain air, chatting with Bella, Cale and Kyle, we were tired but so happy. Yep, we could definitely live in California.