To look down on the land, this is what seems to have happened. When the earth formed there was enough rock left over for another world, and the rocky excess was left between the central valley and the high desert of California—a giant's ragged playground of granite, capped with snow and packed with rock-girt basins. The snow water, gathering through endless seasons in the basins, glittered there with the cold and pristine fires of a perfect gem, until, tossing, churning, foaming, roaring, brawling, flinging spray high into the bright, thin air, it overflowed down the canyons.
And this was, and is, the Sierra Nevada.
In the southern one-third of its 430-mile length, this range buckles and heaves and thrusts skyward like no other range in the continental U.S. In the very heart of the High Sierra, and sprawling over 708 square miles of its west flank, is Kings Canyon National Park, one of the last unspoiled, roadless areas in the U.S. Within its boundaries the only evidence of a mechanized civilization is the occasional rumble and yowl of a jet overhead. Near the park's northern edge, where Black Giant Peak broods over its necklace of tiny glaciers, where water and ice have scrubbed and scarred the granite faces, Le Conte Canyon gashes impossibly deep into this world of stone. At its northern end is a cluster of tiny blue-green lakes, and from them the clear water trickles, seeps, gathers and finally becomes a stream.
Here are the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings River, and from this point to its junction with the South Fork, some 45 miles to the southwest, it flows through what might well be the most magnificent setting ever bequeathed a trout stream.
Like most big mountain rivers, the Middle Fork is many streams. It glides through alpine meadows, chortles through the heavy shade of fir and cedar and bulls its way savagely through canyons. It can be demure, dangerous and deadly, all within a mile. Like most other streams of the High Sierra, in its upper reaches the Middle Fork and its tributaries are aswarm with the beautiful and coveted golden trout.
Not long ago, when I first set out in quest of goldens on Palisade Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork, the aspen leaves glistened with predawn rain. A blue-gray mist, more like smoke than vapor, rose from the stream and drifted through the gloom of the fir trees. Westward, the sun brushed the high peaks with dusty rose, bright pink and, finally, gold. Then it pulled itself up into the glacier-choked notch between the Middle and South Palisades and sent its first long shaft of light down Palisade Creek. As though the light were a signal, a fish detached itself from the shadows at the bottom of a pool and drifted toward the quick-silvered surface. It swirled, its sides flashing gold, beneath a struggling caddis fly, and the fly disappeared.
I stood there, thrilled and stunned, forgetting all the things jet age men should occasionally forget, forgetting my fly rod even, until Dud Booth, mountain man, professional packer, master practitioner of the dry-fly art, came swinging down the trail on the other side of the stream. Palisade Creek angled sharply to the left 50 yards above me, and at the tip of a gravel bar near the end of a long, swift run Booth took up his position. He worked his fly line out in graceful loops, finally laying his first cast down far up and across the riffle. The current snatched at the leader and flies, Booth flicked his wrist, the rod bowed and a little golden came vaulting angrily out of the water. Dud led him across stream to the shallows, unhooked him and sent him on his startled way.
Again the three-ounce fly rod worked the line out in perfect loops, again the leader and the two flies touched lightly down at the far edge of the run and this time two golden streaks came out of the shadows and attacked the Coachman lead fly and the yellow-bodied gray hackle dropper. It struck me then that I also had a fly rod, and excitedly I began to flay the run before me. Palisade Creek trout, it quickly developed, were not appalled by my lack of technique; they came darting at my flies with enthusiasm. But at the end of 15 minutes of increasingly furious fishing I was no closer to hooking one than when I started. Dud's advice ran through my mind: "Remember, if you feel a golden, it's already too late to set the hook; you got to see him coming." I floated the flies, sank them, cast them straight upstream, straight across, straight down, tried to anticipate rises until my eyes ached with the effort, and still the goldens came and went at will. Finally, my city-dulled reflexes began to sharpen, and I hooked my first fish on the dropper when I struck wildly at another golden streak in pursuit of the lead fly. Then I calmed down and caught and released 12 of the doughty little warriors without moving from the same riffle.
Encouraged with this show of progress, Dud ambled back toward camp to cook breakfast, admonishing me before I left to "save the last 10 for the pan." So I fished slowly down a quarter mile of stream through the winelike Sierra morning, taking trout now in the runs, in the pools and even from the glades, where the tapered leader looked like a rope on the mirrored surface. Nothing big—from seven to 10 inches—but swift and wild and impossibly beautiful symbols of the wild and beautiful land.
From the last bend I could see smoke rising from Dud's fire, and I picked up the last four of my limit between there and the camp. We cleaned all 10 almost before the last four quit flopping in the creel, and they were in the pan minutes later. "Only fit way to eat a golden," Dud observed. "Or any trout, for that matter. Out of the water and into the frying pan."