Grandmother pictured with her favorite catch (Photo: McKenna)
As longtime Eastside fishing guide Eric “Otis” Hein once said, “If you’re going to get into fly fishing, you’d better have a sense of humor.”
Of course, anyone who’s ever been married could argue that the same advice is nothing shy of sage when it comes to dealing with your mother-in-law. Naturally, that advice multiplies like love-drunk mayflies when it turns out your mother-in-law can out fish you.
Last fall, my mother-in-law of over seven years, Valdi, came to the Eastside to visit her grandson, Jack—and to stop paying attention to him just long enough to make sure neither her daughter nor I had been eaten by coyotes or abducted by aliens. (Though I’m still not sure about my wife. Sometimes it does seem like she’s spent some time in outer space, and she has been known to occasionally call me “Mork.”)
Toward the end of Valdi’s week-long stay we decided to take an afternoon family excursion up Rock Creek Canyon, to try our luck fly-fishing Mack Lake.
“Calling someone names means you like them? Then the Cowboys and Indians must be lovers.”-Mork and Mindy, 1978.
Rock Creek Canyon basically begins some nine miles west of U.S. 395 from Tom’s Place. The first major feature of the canyon is the popular bait fishing and boat trolling Rock Creek Lake, a 55 acre, sky-blue lake surrounded by large granite boulders. The road turns to one lane above the lake and follows the skinny high mountain creek up to the Mosquito Flats’ parking lot, 10,300 feet high in the mountains; making it the highest paved road in the Sierra Nevada.
From the lot, fishermen, hikers and backpackers are at the doorstep of some truly serene High Sierra landscapes. Dozens of lakes are tucked in between Mosquito Flats and the Little Lakes Valley above it. Meaning anything from short hikes with your mother-in-law, wife, little boy and a half-rack of beer, to multi-day excursions are well rewarded.
It takes a mere 15 minutes of meandering up the trail to get to Mack Lake. Mack is a little lake, covering a measly four oblong acres. It actually looks more like a big hole or lazy eddy in a larger river than it does a lake. Mack is known for an aggressive and healthy species of brook trout that often alight the lake’s surface like popcorn a-poppin’ during dawn and dusk. There’s also legend of some beastly browns lurching in the small lake’s depths.
We fished the inlet as a cool, late-summer breeze swooped down Little Lakes Valley. Valdi was wading about ankle deep in the chilly water and perfectly casting a gray-backed dry fly known as a Humpy on my nine foot, five weight Sage rod.
Valdi comes from Idaho, where the men are men, the sheep are nervous and where every radio station in the state still plays “Abba” and “Captain and Tennille” like they just came out yesterday. The women of Idaho are, of course, good outdoorsy gals who can usually catch, clean and cook just about anything that swims or flies. And my mother-in-law is no different—except she talks more trash.
“Oohhh I’m getting lots of action over hear, Michael” Valdi said several times, while I tried—somewhat successfully—to not whack myself in the back of the head with my fly while trying to cast a sinking line on a buddy’s borrowed K-Mart rod.
“Ooohhh. Yeeesss! Fish on!” Valdi hollered, doing her best Marv Albert impersonation, while I dodged a flying Woolly Bugger.
“Uh Mike, you might want to come over here and take a picture. It’s really a beauty and it doesn’t look like you’re too busy over there anyway,” Valdi said, failing to notice that I was doing something besides ducking and waving around a rod in an utterly useless manner; I was drinking a beer.
Eventually, the infamous flying insects of Mosquito Flats drove us from the lake, but not before dozens of beautiful little brookies would completely ignore my fly as if I had said something nasty about their mothers
For the short stroll back downstream I took my almost year-and-a-half old son, Jack, in the backpack and grabbed my fly rod back from Valdi. As I cast into the basketball and baseball-sized rock strewn creek, Jack mumbled encouragement in his own unique dialect.
“Ball, ball, ball, ball, ball,” he said while pointing across the creek or at a tree or into my earlobe. A couple of casts later, a small brown leapt up and hung in the air just long enough for me to hook him in the lip and yank him across the creek.
Meaning Jack and I had not only caught our first fish together, but he now probably thinks fish can fly. This momentous occasion also meant, for at least this one day, my mother-in-law hadn’t out-fished me — although she’ll probably say that’s only because I fished longer. Otherwise, it would have been a real butt-whooping.
After angling, we headed down the canyon to Tom’s Place for burgers and brews — where I did manage to out-drink Valdi. The restaurant and bar at Tom’s Place Resort is a year-round must-stop, especially for anyone going to Rock Creek. The rustic place has been serving Eastsiders since 1919, when it was still called Han’s Lof (owned by a guy who apparently thought Ts were overrated), so you know a lot of advice about both fishing and marriage has been shared across the old wooden bar
Like the advice the kind New York Times (and Eastside Magazine) writer Bill Becher once gave me while we sat at a bar after a day of chasing trout, “Fishing is a lot like a second marriage. It’s a triumph of hope over experience.”
This piece was first published last September online @ www.theeastsidemag.com. It won first prize in the web-only and Phil Ford humor categories at the Outdoor Writers Association of California awards banquet in May.