They came from the pan firm-fleshed and juicy, the richest fish by far that I have ever tasted. I finished five trout, two stacks of buckwheat cakes and three cups of coffee. While the water for the dishes heated over the coals, we followed the bell mare's "tank-tonk-tank-tonk" to where the horses and mules grazed in a meadow. We led them in and saddled them, and Dud patiently reinitiated me into the intricacies of a diamond hitch. Midmorning, as we moved down Palisade Creek toward the mainstream of the Middle Fork, I reflected: if the rest of this pack trip lives up to its first leg, it will certainly be a memorable week. Already it was difficult to believe that only a short 48 hours before I had been embroiled in the usual Sunday traffic in Los Angeles.
Shortly after sunup Monday Dud had moved us out of his Parcher's Camp pack station, located on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, about 20 miles southwest of the Owens Valley community of Bishop. By noon we had worked our way through the deep snow in 11,989-foot Bishop Pass and into Kings Canyon Park. After crossing tarn-sprinkled Dusy Basin (the goldens weren't hitting here this summer, said Dud; a stopover would be pointless), Dud led the way over the switchbacks down the 3,000-foot wall of Le Conte Canyon in less than an hour. It was 20� warmer beside the Middle Fork than it had been in the ice-scrubbed basin above, and I noticed for the first time that my mare had become unaccountably rough-gaited, that my knees were aching unmercifully. Each campsite along the stream was a temptation, but Dud pushed steadily along. Just before my knees gave up the unequal battle we turned at long last onto a side trail for Palisade Creek.
We made camp at dusk half a mile upstream from the Middle Fork, and 10 hours and 20 miles in the saddle faded away while Dud told tales about the golden trout country. Away up at Palisade Creek's headwaters, said Dud—we wouldn't be able to get there and reach our other objectives on this trip—there is a bunch of little glacial lakes, and when the wind comes up and ruffles the surface in the afternoon the goldens start to feed. They come streaking up from the blue-green depths to slash at almost any well-presented fly—husky, deep-bodied fish, running from half a pound to two pounds. One particularly memorable afternoon in the summer of 1956, Dud fished his way around a tarn measuring no more than a quarter mile across and a half mile in length, and in the process landed and released 50 such fish. But, he warned, don't expect them to run to that kind of size here in the creek. No one seems to know why, but while they may get up to seven pounds in the lakes, they seldom exceed a pound in the streams feeding or draining those lakes.
"Tomorrow," he had finished, "tomorrow will be a day you're going to remember for a long time."
This was, as it turned out, a memorable understatement. That first dawn on Palisade Creek made a convert out of me, and I would have been fairly content to have remained there. But 10 miles further down the Middle Fork was our real objective: Simpson Meadow and its rainbow trout.
Below Palisade Creek the tributary-fed Middle Fork puts on heat rapidly and bulls its way savagely down a narrow, boulder-strewn gorge. The trail clings precariously to the sides of cliffs high above the raging water, and since there didn't seem to be much I could do about it anyway I put all my faith in my saddle mare. Apparently she was aware of the decision, for she stopped once to look back at me and then peer long and curiously at a foaming, rock-strewn pool far below. After one quick look of my own, I tightly shut my eyes until the mare moved me on.
We made our only stop—giving Dud a chance to observe that the four-mile stretch through which we had just come is almost never fished because "if you can figure a way to get down to the water, you can't figure a way to get out again"—at one of the Middle Fork's most famous landmarks. This is the Devil's Washbowl, a granite-enclosed cauldron into which the river plunges over a 40-foot cliff. It has long fascinated Sierra mountaineers that a train of a half-dozen pack mules once panicked at this spot, plunged off the trail into that churning whirlpool below and somehow survived. For fishermen, the Washbowl is famous for another reason: above it the Middle Fork is inhabited only by golden trout; below, it is the exclusive kingdom of the rainbow.
The Middle Fork slows just enough in its headlong rush below the bowl to become an eminently fishable stream, yet fishing pressure is very low. At 6,500 feet, the Simpson Meadow area is admirably located, being well below the range of most of the rugged back packers on the famed John Muir Trail that swarm through the Park, but still beyond the reach of anything but a well-outfitted pack train coming up from the bottom.
The river in this area carries something on the order of 200 cubic feet per second of water in the late summer, or fly-fishing, months, and while it's a bit too swift for comfortable wading, plenty of log jams and fallen firs make crossings easy. Numerous gravel bars give the fly caster plenty of working room.
So it was with some puzzlement that Dud noted I had chosen to make my Simpson Meadow debut with spinning tackle. It came to baffle me too. Or, more accurately, the way the rainbows took advantage of it baffled me. They responded with happy abandon to a No. 2 Colorado spinner, but after the strike they'd instantly have me snarled in the nearest roots of a log jam. I lost no fewer than nine rigs before I decided to settle for less action and more results and thenceforth fished only that water far enough from snags to be reasonably safe.