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Mike Stevens – KNEE DEEP

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Saturday, February 11, 2017
An atmospheric river ran through us

Best winter Sierra trip from hell
Knee Deep

Standing on the side-step of my truck, I could feel myself teetering back into a slow-motion return to Earth. So slow, in fact, that I remember thinking, “yep, you’re going down hard, and your legs are too frozen to do a damn thing about it.” Little did I know, as I lay there on my back staring at the menacing clouds above Pleasant Valley Reservoir, that would not be the worst thing that happened that weekend.

THIS SHOT WAS TAKEN moments after WON Editor Mike Stevens emerged from the Owens River after falling in and dropping the fish he was hoping would be in this photo. Just one of a laundry list of misfortunes that made up his January Bishop trip from hell about 20 years ago. Photo courtesy of Brady Garrett

A half-day earlier, and closing in on two decades ago, Brady Garrett and I arrived in Bishop at around five in the morning. The first hit came when, despite turning my luggage inside out, I realized I left my spinning reels at home. I found two Browning reels with spare spools on closeout at Brock’s, and as a tackle shop guy with an employee discount at my disposal, it killed me even to spend $50 on two reels. I must say, those Browning reels ended up putting in a good 10-plus of Eastern Sierra service before they were retired, for what it’s worth.

Brady – who was more of a friend of my younger brother than me, but, you know, he fished – and I headed to Pleasant Valley Reservoir for some January “freeze tubing” as the locals like to call it. Keeping in mind how much I sweat in neoprene waders closer to sea level, I was certain a chemical handwarmer between my socks and the feet of the waders would do the trick, and allow me to shrug off whatever Owens River spring water and snowmelt PVR could throw at me. I hadn’t even kicked out to the zone I wanted to fish before I knew just how mistaken I was.

My partner and I fished about 50 yards apart, and as we teamed up for about one 10-inch stocker rainbow every 5,000 casts, we would break up the monotony and misery by explaining in great anatomical detail exactly how cold we were on the walkie talkies we each had in our tubes. As we kicked back to shore in defeat, we watched an elderly local put on a clinic on rainbows and browns tossing ant eggs – yes, actual ant eggs – less than 20 feet from shore. I would later learn that this was a technique utilized by Native Americans for ages. Who were we with our shiny metal lures?

We walked back to my truck in the parking area no worse for the wear. My post-fishing routine was always to use the flare-side step on my Ford Ranger to get into the bed of the truck so I could take the waders off in there rather than risk putting holes in the feet by standing on the rocky ground in them. It was the moment both feet planted on the step that my legs decided to remember just how numb from the frigid water they were, and to cease all communication with my brain. As I felt myself start to topple over, I did send the signal telling my legs to do something about it, and I was only at about 2 o’clock but moving quickly toward 3 when I realized I needed to brace for impact.

Flat on my back with the wind knocked out of me and Brady’s chorus of laughter bellowing from somewhere on the other side of the truck, I decided that might be the time to call it a day as far as fishing was concerned. That evening, despite ignoring the blinking “chains required” signs on the way into Mammoth for dinner, I managed to make it through one insignificant portion of the weekend – dinner – unscathed.

We left Bishop’s Vagabond Inn early the next morning and headed south of town to attack the Owens River downstream of its intersection with Line Street. I took the dirt road from Line Street that ran parallel to the river, and followed it for, if memory serves, more than a mile but less than three before parking next to one of those warm springs sprinkled throughout the area. A Sierra Drifters Guide Service truck and empty boat trailer was also parked nearby, where it was likely the pick up point for a drift trip that started way upstream between Bishop and Pleasant Valley Reservoir.

Even then, at about 20 years old, I was a bit of a Sierra veteran, but this was my first winter trip. Looking at the stretch of river I settled on, I thought quick action on fast moving baits would be the rule just like it was on the Upper O above Crowley Lake in the warmer months, but reality was far from it. I headed back up to the truck to tie up a rig to fish slow and deep, and that’s when I noticed that I’d locked my keys inside.

So, a couple miles from the nearest paved road with no one around and several miles from Bishop, we decided the best play was to fish as planned, but not venture too far away from the truck. That way, when the Sierra Drifters guide showed up at the end of his day, he could take us back to town where we could get a locksmith and head back out to retrieve it.

I rigged up with a split shot, a single hook and a Berkley trout worm that at the time was hyped new bait. I saw that if I crossed the river via a narrow, shallow riffle, I could attack a deep, slow run from the opposite bank. I felt the split shot ticking along the bottom when a solid fish bit, and I worked the estimated 3-poundish rainbow into the shallow water I was standing in, unhooked it, and yelled for Brady on the opposite bank to grab the camera.

Now, my plan was to cross the river via the same shallow riffle that swapped banks with in the first place, but now, with the sun in my eyes rather than at my back, I couldn’t determine exactly where the shallow area was, and with a decent trout in my hands that I was desperate to release right after getting a photo of it, there was a bit of urgency involved.

I made my best guess and went to cross the river and stepped into no less than four feet of water. I panicked, not wanting water to dump into my waders, which is precisely what happened, and as I emerged from the river without my fish, Brady snapped the photo of me anyway; looking upstream in the direction I thought my fish bolted to, and with a well-defined high-water mark across the front of the shoulders on my light blue shirt and fishing vest. The photo – which was taken on a cheap, automatic film camera long before digital arrived – has a perfect lack of quality and clarity while being just detailed enough to show key elements of the event and rank somewhere between the better-known images of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Now soaking wet from the head down and without the ability to enter my truck, crank up the heat and dry out, the low 40s air temperature quickly upgraded to center stage in this festival of devastation. We continued to fish, and if memory serves, we got into a bit of a rhythm and stuck a decent number of trout, none of course as big as the one I dumped, but enough to feel good about being out there. If anything, being stuck fishing the same stretch within view of the truck we were locked out of taught us a lesson in winter fishing on the Owens; fish slow and deep, and if the area looks fishy, beat it to death. Brady could fish wherever he wanted, but I had to stay near the warm spring because I could only fish for about 20 minutes at a time before the cold got the better of me. So, fish, defrost in the spring – which was only a warm spring, not one of those geological mineral Jacuzzis up the road near Hot Creek – and repeat. The spring just brought me back from “freezing” to “cold.”

It was getting late and colder and there was still no sign of the Sierra Drifters guys. We made the call to hoof it along the dirt road back toward Line Street, that way, if the Sierra Drifters truck came by, he would have to pass us, so we could flag him down, but worst case, if it got dark, at least we were close to town not on some dirt road in the Owens Valley.

After about a mile walking, we both went silent. It was no longer an adventure; it was no longer funny. It was a pain in the ass. With the White Mountains to the east and the silhouetted Sierra to the west, I uttered a line that would not only break the silence, but raise spirits, and it still comes up on the water or over beers to this day:

“Tomorrow, we will be men.”

We eventually made it to Line Street, and I wouldn’t call what we did “hitchhiking” because we literally jumped in front of a truck heading toward Highway 395 so he had to stop. The old local graciously took us to town, but he dumped us off on the south end of town which was opposite of where our hotel was.

Main Street in Bishop at this time of evening features a fair amount of pedestrians in the form of locals, tourists bikers, rock climbers and otherwise, so as we hiked the entirety of the main drag in waders and vests, naturally, we drew some stares and double takes. We did the only thing we could do, wear it: “Evenin’ mam,” “See any trout around here?” and so on.

Our arrival at the now semi-aptly named Vagabond Inn signaled the end of the odyssey for Brady, who proceeded to shower, turn on the TV and order a pizza, but I still had a Ford Ranger to retrieve. The locksmith picked me up in his full-sized truck and we powered down the same dirt road I humped back on, and about 25 yards from my truck, he blows a tire. Having experienced much worse over the past 36 hours, this wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a nice icing to the cake. He unlocked the Ranger, I helped him plug his tire with a kit that he thankfully had on hand, and I headed back to the Vagabond to finally take part in that whole shower, pizza, and TV thing.

My missing reels fell out of a rolled up sweatshirt I took out while looking for the only dry clothes I had for the drive home.

Reader Comments
Those are the kind of trips that you hate while they are happening but you never forget and talk about forever. We have had many. Some fishing, some off-roading and some just camping in general over the years. My adventures in the Eastern Sierra began in 1968 and we still go at least once a year. Thanks for sharing this one.
Ron Kelley
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