By Ian T. Allison , May 2, 1941
Ahead lay Donahue Pass, a formidable barrier of the High Sierras with adjacent crags, glistening snow fields, and lofty weathered buttresses giving an impression of supremacy over all. Even in this early morning hour wispy clouds of delicate coral tints could be seen frolicking near the summit of the pass while at its feet there was rarely a stir except for the omnipresent gurgling song of the glacial stream amid lingering shadows of the forests.
My trail zigzagged up the head of Lyell Canyon, crossed the timber line, and with steep and tiring switchbacks ascended to Donahue Pass, 11,100 feet above sea level, then descended through rock strewn glacial meadows only to rise again over three lesser subsequent barriers, each with their fatiguing climb and exhilarating descent.
At last, after those fifty long weeks of expectation the short two weeks of realization had come. I was starting on the trail from Tuolumne Meadows across the crest of the Sierras to those virgin lakes that lay nestled on the steeper eastern slope. Starting on a quest for that mythical lake which all trout fishermen believe is somewhere. The fish so big that you can walk across the lake on their backs and so rough that they straighten every other hook out. These types of lakes are usually classed with Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth but every angler has it somewhere back in his head to find one someday if he can. Many an old timer has told tales of these places but always seems to forget just how to get back.
Thirty miles of mountain trail is a little too much, to say the least, for the first day out. By five o’clock that afternoon I forded the middle fork of the San Joaquin and started on the last mile to Agnew Meadow, foot sore and weary from the days hike. The country I passed through was abundant with lake and streams, many of them tempting me to stop and fish awhile. Having learned on a 130 mile backpack trip the year before that these waters were fairly well cleaned out by fishermen who pack in, I stuck to the trail.
Knee deep meadow grass and flowering lupen bordered with stately Silver Fir and Juniper giving way to the purple hued volcanic rock formation of the San Joaquin range. This was the picture that Agnew Meadow presented. Here and there clear mountain streams edged with green Azalea bushes bounded toward the middle fork in the canyon far below.
“Say there’s a fellow over at the camp ground looking for someone with an aluminum pack frame like you have there, “a tow headed young fellow said as I passed him on the trail.
“Must be Joe,” I mumbled to myself. “Hardly see how he would be here though.”
Sure enough, after a long search I spotted Joe’s car and camp at the far end of the meadows. The aroma of a camp supper met my nostrils as I approached. “Hope you have plenty to eat Joe. Haven’t had a thing all day.”
“Yimminey twiskers, Allison, I almost gave you up. Been waiting down at the river all afternoon to head you off. Thought you might take the river trail,” Joe said as he threw aside an armful of wood and came forward.
“You said in your letter you would meet me at Evolution Lake on the sixth,” I replied.
“Couldn’t get away in time. Drove all night from Long Beach to catch you here.”
The finest specimen of manhood at fifty I have seen was my partner, Joe Jost. He could hike twenty miles with a forty pound pack on his back in a day. Go cross country over any type of terrain, and still have time to catch a mess of trout before dark. Long will I remember the time when he took me cross country for eleven miles one moonlit night, over passes, down a waterfall and through a river with him carrying a thirty pound pack and me, only a sweater. I have seen him hike twenty miles one evening to his car and back from a lake we had hiked some ten miles into the same morning.
It would be silly to elucidate on Joe’s dry fly technique. There just wasn’t anybody better to my mind. He had fished every lake and stream in this part of the country. Many of them shown in the map and lots of them not. Now if Joe didn’t know where a virgin lake was the there just wasn’t anymore left.
With a sweet fragrance of Silver Fir in the air, as star filled sky above, and a glowing fire lighting the camp we discussed the subject of the best place to locate the perfect fishing spot. “We ought to try a couple of days at Margaret Lakes. It’s a five thousand foot climb out of the other side of Fish Valley. A fellow told me a couple of years ago about them and said hardly anyone gets to them,” Joe proposed.
“Wait a second, I have a new map in my pack. Get a light and we’ll take a look, ”I stated as I went over to get the map.
“Lets see; Reds Meadow, Fish Valley, yeh, there they are, Margaret Lakes. Huh, this map show a trail to them,” Joe murmured.
“Well there out. If there’s a trail that means too many people get to them.”
There was those unnamed lakes on the other side of Ritter in the north fork but that country was just snow and granite which meant only one day trips. There was Benson Lake, Surprise Lake, Doe Lake, and the rest but they would take too long to get to. After a dozen more lakes had been disqualified, Joe finally pulled one out of the bag.
“Say why didn’t I think of it before? Upper McCabe is the lake you want. Real big fish and nobody gets into it hardly.”
“Where’s she at?” I queried.
“Rim of Yosemite Park. We’ll drive up to Saddlebag Lake tomorrow and leave the car there. It’s about a six mile hike over impassable looking country and no trail. I went in last year and got two limits in two days,” Joe explained.
It was well into the night when we at last gave up the subject and retired to our sleeping bags. Even as we turned over to sleep I couldn’t help but ask more questions. Joe mentioned about the limit being ten pounds and not twenty fish.
Noon the next day found me scrambling along a rocky mountain slope on the west side of Saddlebag Lake. The map had us at about 10,100 feet above sea level. To the south rugged peaks of the Dana group with black and sinister shapes loomed up into the clouds while closer to the west, snow patched glacial crags and moraines towered above us. At our feet a profusion of blue lupen and scarlet paintbrush amid lush green meadow grass carpeted the ground. Rock-bound lakelets fed from the melting snow patches were innumerable. This was truly a virgin country.
“We’re really hemmed in here, “I shouted ahead to Joe who had taken the lead.
“Wait till we get to the base of that ridge then you will really think so,” Joe answered as I caught up to him. He pointed out a high snow capped ridge the stretched between two jagged saw tooth peaks. “Upper McCabe is on the other side.”
“Boy! I can sure see now why not many people ever get into this lake. How will we ever get up that precipice with these heavy packs?” I queried as we both unshouldered our packs for a rest.
“It’s a lot easier than it looks, Allison. On the north end where we go over there is a lot of ledges and crevices which lead right to the top,” Joe explained.
Our topographical maps showed the top of that ridge as 11,500 feet elevation and we felt every foot of the climb. The lack of good physical condition and the altitude made it quite and ordeal to go very fast. On top of it all, some raw carrots that we had been munching on seemed to have all of the sudden turned to lead in our stomachs. Ledges and crevices led right to the top as Joe had mentioned and with a few boosts now and then and a pause or two to catch our breath we surmounted this barrier that has so ling kept back the average trout fishermen.
“What a jewel,” were the words hat came from one awe stricken fisherman as the other gazed in keen contentment. Yes, the scenery that confronted us was so wonderous it was all I could manage to say. Even Joe who had been here before was buoyed up by the sight. Truly it was sanctum sanctorum mid nature’s own resplendent self. What a memorable view. Like a diamond set in some beautiful piece of jewelry, Upper McCabe was set in a high glacial basin snuggled in a the base of some towering rugged crags. A great hummock of granite rock probably formed by some prehistoric glacier bordered the lake on one side while a low ridge spotted with a few stunted conifer held it in on the other side. Boulder strewn meadows were scattered here and there with melting snow patches ever predominate. Some would say desolate, others god-forsaken, but to us it looked like a fishermen’s paradise.
“The best spot to camp is at the far end neat the outlet because you can have running water and that’s about the only place to find wood on the lake,” said Joe as he shouldered his pack and worked across the snow to the head of a steep gulch. “It’s steep going down here so hold on to anything you can find.”
“She doesn’t looks do big from here,” I shouted.
A little further down when Joe paused for a breath he replied, “It will take you a good day to fish her around and don’t forget we’re a mile away yet.”
“How about some nice rainbows for supper” I asked as we emerged on to a little grassy spot.
“Not after I’ve packed these two steaks all the way in. Whatsmore I think there mostly loch-leven in this lake because I don’t remember catching anything else last time,” came Joe’s reply.
Heavy grey shadows of the granite cliffs jagged out on the glassy waters of the lake as the sun dropped behind the ridge and evening came on. We moved slowly along the edge of the lake, tired and weary, to the outlet. A few weather beaten trees clumped together afforded us protection from the wind and rain, if and when it came. Leafing green willow brush at the side of the creek bent their crooked arms us as though yawning after their sleep under the heavy winter snow.
“Leave that fly rod alone and hustle some wood for this fire if you want to eat,” came Joe’s stern command.
“Golly it will be dark again soon. I’d sure like to take a crack at her before it gets too late,” I replied but laid down the rod.
“Don’t worry about that, there will be time enough after we eat these steaks,” and when Joe said steaks he meant real steaks. Each one had a separate frying pan to cook in because of the size. “Grab that carton of salt in my knapsack and throw it over here.”
“What salt,” I replied after fumbling around in Joe’s pack for a while.
“Why I put it in at the Lee Vining, you remember,” said Joe as he started over.
“You put it in the car alright but not your knapsack. I never miss salt anyways,” came my sarcastic reply.
“Yimminey twiskers, no salt for the steaks and how are those trout going to taste without salt,” Joe mournfully stated.
Even with our little bad luck we could hardly be discontented. A crackling fire, a good dinner under our belts, and a virgin lake waiting to be fished. We hurriedly completed the necessary chores of the evening, like laying out our sleeping bags, gathering enough wood for the rest of the evening and for breakfast in the morning, and arranging our supplies. It didn’t take us long to leave the camp with rods assembled and some seven foot leaders dangling in the air waiting for the fly to be tied on.
“Try from those rocks on the other side of the creek. That looks like the best spot,” Joe shouted as I hurried off ahead with rod in hand and headed for the edge of the lake. Joe was right since on the edge of the lake next to our camp you had to cast directly into the wind. Jumping from boulder to boulder I crossed the head of the creek and found the lake to be very deep on the other side. The silence of the settling dusk on the isolated mountain lake only broken by the methodical lap of the water on the rocks gives one an unexpressible feeling. Even that splash of jumping fish could not be heard.
“Funny there not jumping with so many bugs flying over the water,” I whispered to myself. “Lots of circles on the surface though.”
Opening up the fly box I picked a mosquito with a extra heavy hackle and in a few minutes had it floating out over that lake. “Well I’ll be,” I exclaimed in amazement and stopped casting to peer out over the dark water. “No wonder they’re not jumping. These babies are so big they have to roll like a porpoise on the top and suck the bugs in,” I said as the dorsal fins of a few more trout broke the surface. “Must be two feet long if they’re an inch.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Joe working down toward me as her whipped his line out over the lake. “What y’ usin,” came his call in that clipped style that all good fishermen use so as to make the least possible noise.
“No good. Fish can’t see it. Try a Golden Pheasant,” came his advice.
“Haven’t got any,” I shouted back after looking through my fly case.
There was no answer from Joe but a splash of white water and an arching rod was answer enough. It was no eight inch brook trout he had on because he was giving it quite a bit of verbal coaxing. Jumping along those granite boulders in the growing darkness was a risky business but I had to see what these babies looked like.
“Just a little one,” Joe spoke in a calm voice as I came up. “Hard to land ‘um with all these rocks, in the dark. Lucky it isn’t a big one.” It wasn’t long though till Joe eased a nice fourteen incher up on granite slab.
“Almost thick as your arm, just like a bass. Golly look at that head, at least a fourth of the fish,” I exclaimed in astonishment.
“All like that. They starve for half the year while the lake is frozen over. Gives ‘um big heads and stocky bodies,” Joe explained. “Wait till you see a big one. Here tie on this Golden Pheasant. Have to use light colored flies with it gets this dark.”
“Did you see those big ones out there just rolling along the top, sucking in those bugs? Must be at least two feet long,” I asked Joe.
“Wait till the morning. We’ll go over to that point where you can look down and see some old grandpa’s sunning themselves. Saw them last year,” said Joe as he pointed across the lake to a huge granite rock formation that protruded out into the lake. “Better get back to camp. Too dark to see fish now.”
The alpenglow gave the snow patches delicate rose effects and left the peaks and ridges silhouetted against the shy making a scene that always aids the viewer to make a return pilgrimage. As the dark of night came on, myriads of stars took the place of the sun and it seemed as though millions more shone here for the companionship of the mountaineer than for the inhabitor of the planes and lowlands. A nearly full golden moon came up over the ridge and shed its fluorescent light over the mountain fastness and with it came a cold icy wind but from the direction of the lake which soon made us depart from the fire to the protection of our sleeping bags.
“Oh it’s nice to get up in the morning but it’s much nicer to stay in bed,” I sang out as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
“This is really a hard life,” said Joe as he lay in his sleeping bag mid peach and contentment. “What will we have for breakfast?”
“Bacon and eggs, I guess if we didn’t forget them,” I laughed.
The sun was well up and daylight had been on for quite a few hours before we stirred again in our bags. “Well Allison, why weren’t you out with the crack of dawn catching some of those trout? The first and last hours of the day you know are the best times to use a fly,” Joe stated.
“Must have been all that hiking. Slept like a log right up till now. It shouldn’t matter though, these fish ought to take flies anytime if this is a virgin lake,” I replied in a drowsy voice.
“Well lets get up and have breakfast, then we’ll fish around the lake to the point where the big ones are,” Joe said as he crawled out of his bag.
White clouds drifted lazily overhead as gentle breezes buffeted the lakes surface. It was a dazzling sun that shone above as we sat on the granite ledge looking down at the water. Joe’s had was pushed back on his head, his feet dangled loosely over the edge, and his face bore an expression of deep thought.
“Never seen the like of it. Must be that full moon though,” Joe expressed in an earnest tone.
“Must be something,” I replied as I cut a bedraggled black knat off my leader and stuck it in the fly box.
“Here we fished this lake half way around and only these six small one that I caught is all we have to show. That lake is full of fish. Why I caught limits in here last year and now they won’t even look at a fly. Guess they’re feeding all night with that full moon,” came Joe’s explanation of our morning efforts.
“That just goes to show you that you six times as good a fisherman as me, Joe.”
“Look! There’s another one of those grandpa’s. A good twenty-five inches,” Joe exclaimed as he pointed to a large loch-leven that swam leisurely into the deeper blue water.
“Well I’m positive these babies aren’t educated. Not enough people get in here to fish for them. Just too dog-gone full or blind,” I said.
“That moon is going to be full for another week. If the fishing keeps up like this we might as well pull out of here. Guess we should try another day though,” Joe stated. “Let’s go back to camp.”
How many times had I read those articles on fishing by the moon? Just bunk I used to say. It was just a plain case f experience being the best teacher. Here we had a lake without a doubt of its virginity, teeming with fish that you could see with your own eyes, yet out offerings of every imaginable fly were spurned time after time. Was it the moon? Maybe, others might say they weren’t taking flies, should have used bait. My theory was we just had the right place at the wrong time.
“Even our attempts at dusk were not as encouraging as the first night we arrived. Only a few rose to the surface and they were far out in the center of the lake. Abandoning our rods we set about preparing our supper. That spit and crackle of frying trout along with the savory odors they impart that tantalizes ones nostrils, the pine smoke smell from the open fire, and the music of a mountain stream close by are truly a fisherman’s delight. The heavens were beautiful that night as we lay in our bags looking up at them. For fully three hours we watched the stars and planets trying to distinguish the different celestial bodies and constellations. The Milky Way ran like an illuminated highway across the heavens. Intermittently meteorites would shoot across the sky, some with long and lasing flares, others just passing flashes.
It wasn’t the thought of finding a better place that made us pack up and leave early in the morning. Nothing could excel the magnificence of the spot we had come to. Somehow we felt the Upper McCabe was not willing to yield up to our wants at the present. Perhaps this mountain stronghold was indignant at our trespassing.
“Take your last look, Allison,” Joe said as we both stood puffing on top of a snow bank at the crest of the ridge that hides Upper McCabe from the outside world.
“Sooner or later she’ll be calling us back.”
In silence we turned our backs and descended down the steep face of the ridge.