Peninsula Fly Fishers

Blackcap Basin & Blue Canyon
September 2004

by Tony Plutynski

November 2004

Map of hike region
Region of the hike

The plan was to spend nine days in The Sierra National Forest and Blue Canyon Area of Kings Canyon National Park with Carl and Dan. We would fish for at least five of our eight dinners and planned to hike about five to six miles a day on average. Since we had two layover days in Black Basin and three layover days for Blue Canyon it meant that we would have some twelve to fourteen mile days with packs. It was ambitious but not as tough as last years trek to Dumbbell Lakes with at least one pass each day and plenty of cross-country.

I arrived the day before to get the required wilderness permits and to get an extra day to sleep at altitude for the acclimation value. I met Carl and Dan at the agreed trail head near Wishon Res. and we put together our packs for the first day hike to Chimney Lake. It was a three thousand foot climb and about nine miles. Since we got a late start (10 AM) we got in just an hour and a half before darkness. We were tired even though we had had an hour lunch break at the Woodchuck Creek crossing.

We hurriedly put up our tents and scrounged for what little wood there was about. We tried fishing, but there was no action either at Chimney or at Marsh lakes so we had one of our freeze-dried meals and some rum and cocoa, for medicinal purposes to dull the pain of the climb. I checked the weather report on my small AM FM radio before I drifted off to sleep and nothing threatening was reported. I also checked what had happened at the Republican Convention which had started that day. Nothing to report except the police had broken up some demonstrations and locked up some people. Luckily all the members of our hike had the same political leanings, Democratic, so there wouldn't be any heated discussions. Indeed, there were plenty of anti-Republican jokes.

Six Degrees of Wrong Way

The next day our goal was Halfmoon Lake which was only 600 ft. above and about five miles. Because we thought we would get in to the lake early and have plenty of time to fish. As we progressed up the trail we kept looking for the turnoff to Scepter L. and we never spotted it. Finally after we crossed a pass there was a fork and we could see a lake below. The other side of the fork in the trail went up hill. We were frustrated for having spent a night at a lake and visiting another lake and no fish, I decided along with the others to go down to what we thought was Halfmoon Lake. We got to the lake about noon and immediately started fishing from the north shore. All of us were casting our spinning lures and no luck except Dan. He was using a white crappie jig and he promptly caught three nice, up to fourteen inches, brook trout. Neither Carl nor I had any hookups and although I had one strike it just wasn't happening for us.

We had a nice trout dinner cooked in foil and herbs that evening. We also had the lake to our selves but there was evidence that horse packers had used the lake. They left behind a nice grill and coffee pot, which we used and left for the next party. In the evening we all tried various means to catch some brook trout and again the only one with success was Dan with his white jig. Didn't those trout know that they weren't crappie!

Around the fire that evening, lubricated with a little rum, Dan commented disparagingly how small my knife was. He pulled out his 6.5" knife and compared it to my one and a half inch blade. Now this was a serious affront and all I could answer with a little smirk was to ask him how much he carried in his pack that was unnecessary. He replied that he wasn't sure that I could skin a bear with my puny knife. Since this was a man who has chased bears with his hound dogs and chased them up trees, I couldn't really argue with his logic, other than to say that I wasn't planning to skin any bears. He grunted and grudgingly gave me a wicked smile. Some of these doctorates in electrical engineering from Stanford are just not suave. [Maybe they're taking lessons from the Stanford marching band – Ed.]

The next morning we started on what we thought was our way to Portal Lake by going down the long arm of the Lake we were at. Dan pointed out that we were going the wrong way according to his Global Positioning Satellite System, GPS. I asked what he meant and he said that we were going South and that his GPs, said that we should be going to the East and his GPs which had maps downloaded into it didn't even have Halfmoon Lake on it which was strange since we were supposed to be standing on its shore! We sat down and checked our coordinates and we were at a different lake! We were at Crown Lake! That is what three people with more than one hundred twenty five years experience and six degrees and two GPs devices will do for you. Crown Lake was the right shape, same as Halfmoon Lake, but it was oriented the wrong way.

Back On Track

We got on the right trail and stopped at Halfmoon Lake for lunch and a little fishing. It was very easy to catch all the small brook trout, up to eight inches, you wanted there. The trail to Portal Lake was long and tiring, about ten miles and a thousand foot climb. Carl and Dan stripped down and took a dip in the frigid water and I opted for a sponge bath and looked for campsites. There weren't many and the best ones had very little firewood. We set up camp and Dan and I decided to climb the steep cliff to Midway Lake for a little fishing before nightfall. There wasn't really any trail but we made it up to the lake and caught a few small, up to ten inches, rainbow.

The next day I wanted to get going earlier to explore the many lakes in the Basin and I told Carl and Dan when I would be back to camp and where I would be going. I packed my lunch and fishing gear and headed towards Pearl Lake. My plan was to go to the highest lake that I was going to visit and work my down fishing as I went but I couldn't the raises in Pearl. I stopped and caught about five small, up to ten inches, rainbow. I went on to Division Lake and resisted the raises for the fish looked smaller and on to Ewe Lake. This lake was supposed to have golden trout, my favorite trout. The first cast I caught about a twelve inch golden and this was the reason along with Blue Canyon -- and possibly a chance to fish Tunemah Lake -- was the reason that I chose this area. It took a bit of work but with persistence, some lunch and a nap I was able to catch three goldens. This meant that each of us could have one along with some rainbows for dinner. I walked over to the lake below Ewe and above Bighorn Lake to see if there were any goldens and from what I saw it was too shallow and it would be subject to winter kill, so I didn't fish it. I made my way back to camp at Portal fishing on the way and I saw Carl and Dan making their way up the chain of lakes.

I got to camp and relaxed while reading some Wall Street Journal articles that I had cut out of the Journal to avoid carrying the extra weight. Also the read articles would be great to start the evening fire. Soon Carl and Dan showed up and they said that they had no luck at Ewe Lake and they caught their goldens at the lake I had passed on because I had thought it was too shallow. The next morning since Dan wanted to get back a few days early he decided to stay at Portal Lake while Carl and I made our way over two passes into Blue Canyon. Dan also carried some weight back to be deposited in my car so that Carl wouldn't be carrying so much weight. The best way to over the pass between Blackcap Basin and Blue Canyon we thought was to go past Cathedral Lake and up to the Southeast over what is called Blue Canyon Pass in the book, The High Sierra Peaks, Passes, and Trails by R.J. Secor, page 155.

I had gone over this pass some twenty years ago by myself and then over a pass directly to the east of Finger Peak. I remembered it as difficult but not that bad. However I was some twenty years younger. I also remembered that I had some terrific fishing before I left Blue Canyon to link up with my friends Dick and Brian who I had left behind in Blackcap Basin. The easiest way we figured to get to Blue Canyon Pass from Portal Lake with our packs was to go south from Portal and then around to the east to avoid the cliff that Dan and I had climbed two days before. As Carl and I worked our way around we kept looking for Midway Lake but to no avail. We finally decided to stop and get out my GPs and find out exactly where we were and then put in the coordinates for the pass to direct us.

This worked magnificently and soon we were on the shore of Cathedral Lake having lunch and Carl was having a quick dip. I caught a few rainbows during the break and found a good place to camp in the trees overlooking the lake in case we came back this way.

Over and Down to Blue Canyon

We looked up at the pass and it looked formidable but it was only one in the afternoon and we had plenty of daylight left. We worked our way up the granite slabs and soon we were very tired and at the top of the 11,534 ft. Pass. We then looked at the boulder field that we had to cross to get to the Pass east of Finger Peak and it was formidable with some boulders as large as houses. We started across, but we were both tired.

I was the first one to slip and fall face down on the boulder I was standing on. Luckily I caught myself and was only slightly scratched on my leg. If I would have fallen between the boulders it might have been much worse. I told Carl that I was all right and that remember that most mountain accidents happen on the way down when your guard is down. Later Carl fell and luckily he wasn't hurt. These minor accidents really helped to keep us focused and we had no further mishaps that day. Later we discussed the path that we had chosen and we should have avoided the boulder field by losing some altitude and climbing up some slabs that were slightly past the shortest path over the second pass. When we finally got over the second pass we were both fairly tired and we still had a ways to go to get to some timber at one of the higher lakes in the canyon. We carefully worked our way down to a nice camp site on one of the larger lakes that had some timber. We were both tired and chilled. It was about five thirty and we only had about an hour and a half before the sun went down. It was beginning to cool off and we had to set up the tent and get some warm food into our stomachs. We got the stove going and some water boiling for some egg flower soup and a freeze dried meal. There were fish raising on the lake but we just didn't have the energy to go fishing, set up camp and prepare a meal.

We opted for the easy way to prepare meal and then some cocoa and rum as we watched the fish beckoning to us. Tomorrow was another day and we had two more nights and days to explorer the canyon.

During the night I had a frightening dream that Carl was injured and unconscious and I was trying to use his satellite phone to get help and I realized that I didn't know how to use it. Carl had carried a satellite phone ever since the company that he had worked for had been in on the development of the satellite it used. It is perfect for these remote explorations for it will literally work anywhere on Earth. This was demonstrated one time when he called Dan in the arctic from a remote lake at least twenty miles from the nearest road. I discussed this dream with Carl and he gave me a quick lesson in the phone's use. I am sure that we each felt better for the lesson.

We packed some lunch into our day packs and started to explore the canyon. The lake that we were at had plenty of rainbows up to about ten inches that were very easy to catch with almost any lure so we were not worried about having fish meal. I explored up the chain of lakes and they all seemed to have about the same kind of rainbows. Carl went over to explore the lake that was listed as 10,364 on the topo map and it was barren as far as we could tell. He then went down the hill to two small lakes that were right next to each other and he found besides a good swimming lake very good fishing in the larger lake with the same kind and size of fish as the lake that where we were camped. There were few signs of people and I doubt that more than one or two parties visit the canyon each year. Lets face it there is just no easy way to get into the Blue Canyon. The last time that I visited I exited another way and on the way out there was an old abandoned cabin along the Creek, but the cabin hadn't probably been used in more than fifty years for this was a National Park. The cabin was probably built by a shepherd before the park was created to keep track of his flock during the summer grazing season. The roof was caved in and there was no recent signs of recent habitation.

Our last full day in the canyon we decided to go further down the canyon and explore more of the lakes and ponds. When we got up it seemed particularly cold and when Carl checked his thermometer it was thirteen degrees! We huddled around the fire and had our rum and cocoa till the sun warmed up the Canyon. We again took our lunches. I knew from my previous visit that I had had much better fishing but I didn't remember at which lake. Carl wanted to have another swim and visit the lake above his favorite swimming hole. We also took the fixings for a fish lunch, some doubled foil and herbs. I was going to explorer the two round ponds down below the swimming lake. I got to the first pond about nine thirty and it was about one hundred fifty yards across with blue green clear water. I fished all around it and no signs of fish. I was disappointed as I headed down to the next pond.

It was about ten when I started to fish and I had the best rainbow trout fishing I had had in my life for the next hour. From the first cast till the end of the hour it was one fish after another . I caught about twelve fish and had another three or four break off or get off. This include fish from twelve inches up to and including sixteen inches. They were all fat and sassy with plenty of color and many jumps. I kept four for lunch and cleaned them and by the end of the hour I almost felt guilty for how good the fishing was. I was really excited to have Carl experience this fishing for it was better than I remembered from twenty years before.

I timed the hike back to where we had agreed to meet for lunch (twenty eight minutes) and told him of my experience. He agreed to come back to the lake after lunch and give it a try. He had visited the lake above and as far as he could tell it was barren. We had a great lunch and hurried down to my great lake. His first cast he caught a nice fat thirteen inch rainbow and then nothing! It was about one thirty and the feed was off. Who really knows why fish bite or not? Probably the only one who really knows is the fish. We fished about an hour and it was really thoughtful of the fish not to bite for we had about an eight hundred foot climb back to our camping lake. We knew that we could easily catch our fill of eight to ten inch skinny fish for supper.

Creative Exits

The next morning we were leaving Blue Canyon and we were going out a novel way. In the above reference on the same page there was a pass described, Mantle Pass, that if it worked would make our exit allot easier. It was near the lake labeled as at 10,858 ft. on the Mt. Goddard Quadrangle, 15 Minute Series. The description was only two sentences long but it looked allot closer to where we wanted to be.

We worked our way cross country to Lake 10,858 and it wasn't too bad and when we finally made our way to the top of the pass it all seemed to easy after all the suffering that we went through on the previous two passes we went over. We worked our way past Upper Crown Basin Lakes that have small goldens in them and towards to Portal Lake. It began to snow lightly and we hurried our down the trail from Portal Lake towards Halfmoon Lake. That was our destination for the night.

It finally stopped snowing the last hour of the hike but we were plenty tired and cold. Quickly we fired up the stove for some warming soup and another freeze dried meal. Although we knew it was easy to catch plenty of small brook trout in the lake we were just too tired to bother.

The next morning we got an early start for we wanted to fish Crown Lake again and try for those large brook trout that Dan caught on the way in. Dan had lent some of those white jigs to Carl and maybe those fish still thought they were crappies. After that we were planning to walk the rest of the way back to the car, which would make the hike for the day about fifteen miles. It would be a long day. When we arrived at Crown Lake there was another party there with horses and at least fifteen people with kids and lawn chairs. Although this was not the kind of wilderness experience that I was looking for it was the first people that we had met in the seven days.

They had had caught some fish about the size of what Dan had caught and they were using cheese, eggs and about everything else that was legal. We did nothing, so headed down the trail to get back to the car in daylight. It was a long hike and the last mile and a half was compounded by going way past the dam before circling back to where our car was.

It was a good trip and Carl and I had a swim in Dinkey Creek and a great meal in Shaver Lake before sharing the drive back to the Bay Area.

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