Day 1: Exploring South Lake Tahoe

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I must confess to a bit of bias: Having recently moved from Montana, I wasn't so sure California could offer much in terms of fishing and wilderness opportunities. I need not have worried. The Golden State has the highest diversity of trout, steelhead and salmon of anywhere in the nation, and a tremendous abundance and variety of wild, pristine habitat sustains such diversity. I recently got to experience a small taste of the California wilds and fishing on a backpack trip with Dave Lass, the Northern California Field Director for Trout Unlimited.

A skilled angler, Dave is as passionate about fish and wildlife conservation as he is about fly fishing. He took me into two spectacular and unique roadless areas, one of which sustains a rare species of cutthroat, which he is fervently fighting to protect.

For our first part of the trip, Dave, myself and his blue heeler, Odin, departed on a beautiful, clear fall day from the Meiss Meadows trailhead near Carson Pass--about 20 miles south of the town of South Lake Tahoe, in the Upper Truckee River drainage of the high Sierras. We hiked a fairly easy going three miles or so, along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, eventually dropping down to Meiss Meadows with views of goliath Lake Tahoe.

In Meiss Meadows there is an old, restored cabin and barn built in 1880 by German immigrant and pioneer Louis Meiss, which he and his family used for almost 100 years bringing stock up to this high Sierra meadow. The Upper Truckee River meanders through these large meadows, at this point more of just a small creek three to four feet wide, and perhaps two to three feet deep in places. From here, the Truckee flows north, gaining size and momentum as it goes, eventually serving as the primary source of clear, clean water for Lake Tahoe, making up over 30 percent of total inflow. The Upper Truckee is also the last stronghold for Lahontan cutthroat trout--listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"It's the only place you can catch Lahontan's in their home waters within the Tahoe Basin," Dave said, right before we dropped our packs, took a break and he proceeded to catch a half-dozen or so of the beautiful, colorful fish on small dry flies. Mostly crouched and sneaking along the creek, with Odin following behind, Dave expertly cast a small caddis onto the few, small clear pools surrounded with thick clumps of willow.

You could watch the small fish, mostly eight to ten inches, occasionally dart out from the sheltered banks and aggressively take the fly. The willows and clear water made this some of the most technical wilderness fishing that I've experienced--so much for the adage that pigeonholes cutthroat as dumb and easy.

After a few hours of fishing, we loaded our packs and hiked another few miles, with a bit of an uphill climb, to Showers Lake where we set up camp under the protective cover of some large Douglas fir and Jeffrey pines. It is a relatively small lake--perhaps a few hundred yards in circumference--and reminds me of the high-mountain lakes I love to fish back in Montana. The high Sierra hosts tens of thousands of alpine lakes, but only a handful of these lakes hold Lahontans, even fewer boasting cutthroat up to 20 inches like Showers Lake does.

Dave beat his way through some thick willows, on the southwest side of the lake, and quickly picked up a few fish on the surface with E/C Caddis and a Parachute Adams Variant, as well as a handful of nicer fish on chironomid droppers suspended 24 inches below the dry fly. We fished until dusk, when it seemed the entire glass-like surface of the lake broke out with dimples from trout rising everywhere. By dark, the wind began picking up, so after a hot meal of noodles and hot chocolate I climbed into my tent and quickly fell asleep--the kind of sleep that comes from a strenuous day of hiking in beautiful, wild country.