A Golden Opportunity
The golden trout in the Sierra Nevada's Cottonwood Basin have been off limits to anglers since 1966. Now's your chance to finally meet these monsters.
If the biggest, boldest, most beautiful trout in the Sierra Nevadas are what you cotton for, Cottonwood Lakes is the place. Set in their eponymous basin high in the southern Sierras outside of Lone Pine, California, Cottonwood Lakes are a quintet of glistening sapphires conveniently named Cottonwood 1 through 5that are some of the West's best-kept secrets.
Actually, Cottonwood 5 has been a relatively well-known escape for years, but only to those hale and hearty anglers who could manage the strenuous 5.8-mile hike to an elevation of 11,186 feet. The real story now is Cottonwood Lakes 1, 2, 3, and 4, which are closer to the trailhead and open to fishing for the first time in more than 30 years.
LBJ was in the White House the last time some lucky fisherman legally wet a line in the lower part of Cottonwood Basin. In 1918, the California Department of Fish and Game began using the Cottonwood Lakes as breeding ponds for golden trout, the official state fish. Things went swimmingly until 1966, when the DFG put all but the least-accessible lake, Cottonwood 5, off limits to protect the breeding stock.
But over the last 30 years, rainbow trout have infiltrated the ponds and the DFG has been charged by California's Wild Trout program with opening at least one lake and 25 miles of stream each year. These two factors prompted the department to reopen Cottonwood 1, 2, 3, and 4 in 1998.
For the angler, of course, this means a somewhat shorter hike to golden trout that are hungry and fearless. I visited the Cottonwood Basin in August and came away amazed and exhausted. The Cottonwood Lakes trailhead is located 24 miles from the town of Lone Pine (for detailed directions, see the sidebar) at a lung-clenching 10,040 feet. If you are a native flat-lander, be prepared for the symptoms of minor altitude sickness: headache, dehydration, nausea, dizziness. I and my two compaqeros experienced all of them on this trip. If symptoms become severe, descend immediately.
The 4.5-mile hike to Cottonwood 1 begins on a wide, level trail that meanders between stands of ponderosa pine and soon enters the John Muir Wilderness. The first half of the journey winds northward through a shallow valley overshadowed by the granite wall of an unnamed massif rising to the west. As the trail climbs gradually, it crosses South Fork Cottonwood Creek and skirts the edge of several meadows, their lush green carpets dotted with wildflowers just begging to be napped upon. But don't stop now.
Voracious mosquitoes are on the prowl on the cooler, moister sections of the trail, making some kind of repellant a necessity. I made the mistake of passing up my friend's Jungle Juice and paid the price of half a dozen big welts.
Cottonwood 1 is at 11,008 feet, only 968 feet above the trailhead, but the high altitude plus the fact that almost all the climbing is done on the last third of the hike make for a rather strenuous approach. The path switchbacks time and again through a forest of lodgepole and foxtail pines, then climbs almost straight up a series of stone steps, 400 feet in one mile, before finally leveling out at the signed Cottonwood Basin. This is the perfect place to rest and revel in the awesome panorama of the eastern Sierra, with the sharp, gray, granite spires of Cirque Peak (12,900 feet) and an unnamed 12,838-foot point) scraping the impossibly blue sky.
Having checked Tom Harrison's incomparable Map of the Mt. Whitney High Country, we set out for Cottonwood 3, largest of the fab five.
After an easy one-mile hike and a short boulder-hop to the edge of the water, we scouted for fishing spots. We were on the flat south shore of the half-mile long lake, looking at Cottonwood Creek tumbling into it on the west and flowing out on the east. We decided to try the inlet, then work our way around to the north side, the rocky base of a long talus slope.
Working from advice gleaned from one of the tackle shops in Lone Pine, I carried an ultralight spin-cast rig loaded with 4-pound test. I had stayed up late the night before tying 2-pound-test leaders with bubble-and-fly setups, and crimping down the barbs on my hooks. At the lake, I just looped the leaders onto a small snap at the end of my line and cast. I used the smallest flies I had, mainly #14s and #16s, tied about three feet below my bubble.
I began with a Light Cahill and then an Adams, casting into the completely shadeless shallows. After 10 minutes I spotted my first golden trout, a monster that must have been 10 inches long. With its unmistakable color schemelight green head and back, blazing red lateral stripe and belly and yellow sidesthe golden's beauty rivals any other freshwater sport fish. Three minutes later I spotted another huge trout, swimming lazy sine waves as it fed and retreated.
I now realized that this would be a game of sight-fishing and switched to a Royal Coachman. My strategy was to eyeball a fish, then cast in front of it and lead it with my fly, just like Steve Young leading Jerry Rice with the football on a long post pattern. After a few practice casts, I finally got my first strike and reeled in a feisty giant about 11 inches long. I took just enough time to paint a permanent picture in my mind's eye before letting it go. All the lakes but Cottonwood 5 are catch-and-release and require barbless hooks.
Boulder-hopping along the south shore was slow going and strenuous, and by the time I'd circled the lake, I wished I'd stayed there the whole afternoon. There I met an angler named Ken who was on the last day of an 8-day Sierra Club hiking trip. Despite fishing with a broken pole, Ken said he'd nailed about two dozen goldens in the last hour, using a red-and-gold, 1/6-ounce Thomas Buoyant lure. Ken was casting out about 20 feet and slowly retrieving, and got two strikes while he was explaining this to me. It was long past my scheduled departure time, but I quickly switched to hardware and made a few fruitless casts before packing up and heading down the trail.
I'm already planning to return to Cottonwood Lakes and try my lures on Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5. The four hours of round-trip hiking doesn't leave enough time for fishing, so my next journey will be an overnighter. Getting a wilderness permit shouldn't be a problem, since my two buddies and I saw only about a dozen hikers on a perfect August Saturday. Obviously Cottonwood Basin hasn't been discovered by hordes of trout-loving city dwellersyetso if you hurry, there's still plenty of goldens waiting to be reeled in.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication