July 5-8, 2020
Yea, i stuck that gopro underwater thinking i could just flip that section around, but i like that upside down view of that golden so much i just kept it.
Of all the fly fishing backpacking trips I do on an annual basis the hike in to camp at Cottonwood Lake 3 is the one that is historically the most difficult for me. It’s only 6 miles. It’s rated as “moderate”. There is only about 1,000 feet of elevation gain and its mostly wide easy trail that gently gains elevation. I have done my share of 15+ mile hikes at altitude. This one seemingly gives me trouble because it starts at 10,000 feet and that the 5th mile is a brutal switch backing set of stone steps that seems to go forever. That 5th mile has got in my head.
The fishing at Cottonwood Lakes is so spectacular at certain times of the year. And it is such a beautiful place, the pain of the hike in is totally worth it. The Cottonwood Lakes are the land of the giant Goldens. You thought a California Golden didn’t get bigger than 10”, right? They don’t. What happened here is the state of CA dumped rainbows into the Cottonwood Lakes years ago for fishing recreation purposes. The California Goldens and the Rainbows crossbred and produced giant Goldens. Wild, just not pure strained. As far as i know, there are no longer any rainbows in the Cottonwood Lakes; they have all been hybridized.
I have backpacked to Cottonwood Lakes 4 times. Every time led by my buddy Warren Lew; a seasoned veteran of the wilderness and of fly fishing. Warren gets the permits and targets right around the fishing season opener of July 1st. Yes, this is one of those places in the Sierras that is not open to fishing until July 1. I have no idea why. I was surprised that I have never written about Cottonwood Lakes on this site. I had to search my own site to prove it. Because it is such a special place. A few years back I did write a magazine article on Cottonwood Lakes for California Fly Fisher Magazine.
On this trip Warren and I were joined by 4 females, so we were a bit out-numbered in terms of “getting a word in edge-wise”: My wife Kelly and her friend Meredith (both of who’s backpacking and fly fishing adventures with me have been chronicled on this site). We were also joined by Warren’s girlfriend/Fiancé Lori and Lori’s step-sister Debbie.
As recommended above 10,000 feet, we acclimated at the trailhead backpacking camp the day before. Mere, Kelly and I got up there a few hours before Warren, Lori and Debbie so we fished Cottonwood creek which is close to the trailhead. Both Mere and Kelly caught their first pure strained California goldens in the couple hours of fishing we did. I caught a whole bunch of little goldens. I was trying really hard to take it easy fully knowing the hike ahead of me in the morning. But it’s hard to go easy when the dry fly fishing is so fun.
You are allowed to have a campfire in the iron pits at the sites in the backpacking campground so we grilled, ate, had a campfire and hit the sack early. Warren and Lori cooked a huge awesome breakfast that following morning so we were well fed and carb’d up for the hike in. Our target was a large primitive site we stumbled into last year on Cottonwood #3. We staggered the hike into two groups. Me, kelly, Mere and Debbie were in the first group that took off. Warren and Lori wanted to do a little cleanup and take it slowly so they went after us. Well, we were at a great pace. My pack was a bit heavier than I wanted it to be on this trip, but it’s difficult to be light when carrying for two people involved. The 3 gals were chatting away so I put a 100 yards of distance in front of them in the chance of seeing some animals. But even at 100 yards I could still hear those three. I was stressing a bit on finding warren’s spot from last year…. Or finding any site that could handle 4 tents. But, generally feeling good after 4 miles. The hike in is beautiful. It includes meadows and multiple views and a few crossings of Cottonwood Creek. Then we hit that set of switchbacks in the 5th mile with all the altitude gain. I was pressing as hard as I could. And I could feel…well hear the gals right on my tail. By the time I reached the top….which seemingly lasted forever…I didn’t feel that badly. But, I was surprised that there was no snow on the summit like there was at the very same time in previous years.
I just love this video….because i love teasing my dear friend Warren so much…
The four of us hiked the plateau with Cottonwood 1 and 2 in view to a spot where Warren reminded me prior that I needed to go off trail and bushwhack directly to the targeted primitive site on Cottonwood 3. I totally missed it…. But lucked out find finding it with the little backtracking. I was relieved. I didn’t want to let my buddy Warren down and there are so few places on Cottonwood 3 you can put 4 tents.
I set up the tent quickly. I had Kelly to help. I started to feel like hell because of the altitude and the hike. I should have rested, but I couldn’t help it. I knew the giant Goldens were waiting for me. I immediately rigged up and started fishing right in front of the camp. I got a bit worried about Warren and Lori because they hadn’t showed up at camp a couple hours after we arrived. But, sure enough they wandered in eventually. Warren asked me to fish to the north end of the lake but I felt so poorly (exhausted) I declined. So not like me. Also not like me is to go easy on the whiskey that first night; which I did. But, I was just exhausted and felt a little bit of the hell of altitude sickness.
Well, the next day was a great one, but I still had an altitude headache that I just could not shake. No matter, I fished all day anyways and had the time of my life. Debbie and I got a head start on the group. We hiked to the North end of the lake, wadered up, and fished the inlet at Cottonwood #3. We did well. There were fish rising everywhere. Kelly and Mere soon appeared as was the plan. Warren and Lori decided to stay near camp and fish there. So, up the mountain I went with Debbie, Mere and Kelly. I didn’t feel so red hot and gaining a bunch more altitude to get to lakes 4 and 5 didn’t help. But, I knew there were big Goldens up there. We fished lake 4 and did well. I remember catching a few nice Goldens at the inlet. Then we went on a hunting hike through 4 and lake 5. Kelly and Mere got a little bored with fly fishing and decided the glacier sitting 500 feet above lake 4 would be a perfect source of ice for the bourbon and the old-fashioned mixings they hiked in. I laughed watching them climb up the shattered granite to that glacier. I may have a dedication to fly fishing, but those two have an unparalleled dedication to a well-made old fashioned….even above 10,000 feet.
I continued to fish successfully as Mere and Kelly hiked back to the camp with their water bottles stuffed with glacial hard packed ice. Warren soon joined me at lake 4. We communicated through our Garmin InReaches which made it super convenient to find each other. And safe. we fished the upper lakes quite successfully.
Kelly and Mere were casting pretty efficiently now so short of me releasing the goldens they caught they were pretty self-sufficient. Debbie was a fishing machine. Like me, she just doesn’t stop until she has to. It was Debbie and I on the water each morning first. In fact, I made it a habit to catch a golden right after the sun rose each morning while taking the first sips of coffee before the morning chores.
It was just a great couple days of dry fly fishing. Always with a Huck Hopper, but sometimes trailed by an emerger of what was hatching. From the minute I started fishing when I got there, nailing my first big golden on a size 12 Huck Hopper within the first few casts to my last cast before leaving. That is pretty much how it went. I fished dries the entire time there. Yea, you can argue an emerger is not a dry, but I was fishing them like dries in the film. I never had a need to nymph. I got consistent takes on top the entire time we were there. We didn’t need to travel far for the fishing to be great. I stayed right in front of the camp and it fished great until dark. It seemed like our time was so short there. So many big goldens; so little time. I Can’t wait until I get back there this coming July.