Unique In All But Name

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

“It can’t be the same,” I thought. I peered northward across 22 miles of open, third-of-a-mile-deep Lake Tahoe water, trying like an idiot to see past the earth’s curvature to the more famous section. “It’s not the same river…is it?”

I was standing in the water of what’s called the “Upper Truckee,” imagining the rambling, freestone, sho-nuff Truckee river a long ways north, which drains from the lake’s outlet. I was feeling the sandy bottom of this sleepy little serpentine rivulet in which my feet were soaked. How…and why…could anyone conclude that this small thing trickling into the lake’s south end, and the western-style river coming out the other end a long day’s horse ride away, was the same river?

As usual a history lesson was needed. In 1844, noted explorer John Charles Fremont, then camped near what Nevada would later call Pyramid Lake, heard of a river a few days west, rich in salmon and trout. He tried unsuccessfully to convince the indigenous people, who had traded him a large salmon, to guide him to this river. Later the same year a different group of explorers became disoriented near what’s now the Humboldt river, and met an old tribal man named “Truckee” who agreed to guide them, thereafter coming to the same freestone flow heard about earlier by Fremont. On arriving they elected to name that river after their guide, which is how the famous Truckee River got its name.

But at the upstream end of the gigantic lake there is no such river. There are a couple of tiny streams, a few of which flow gently out of a grassy meadow area speckled with little lakes. The area was identified in 1859 by surveyor George Goddard, and the swampy meadowland was known for some time as “Lake Valley,” with the 23-mile-long primary stream that trickles from it down to the Lake Tahoe shoreline called “Lake Valley Creek” or sometimes just “the Lake Stream.” Although the reasons and timeframe are still unclear to me, some time later “Lake Valley Creek” was rebranded the “Little Truckee river” and later still the “Upper Truckee,” the primary name used today. The meadow area was labeled “Truckee Marsh” on USGS maps in 1956.

So while the Upper Truckee now also bears the name of Mr. Truckee, tribal elder and guide, I believe no one can really claim to have determined that its waters follow some continuous channel through the 1600-foot-deep bed of Lake Tahoe and emerge as the larger Truckee River at the north outlet. It may simply be marketing–a bid to attract visitors to South Lake Tahoe–or it may be that someone reasoned that the largest outlet river and largest inlet stream can be said to be identical…that might follow for a drowned valley type of lake but it seems a reach for a volcanic caldera filled by rivulets all around its perimeter. Bottom line, I haven’t yet found from whence the name “Upper Truckee” came.

But two different flowers both called ‘rose’ can each be aromatic…just as two streams of differing personalities sharing the name ‘Truckee’ are both the natural home of native wild trout. Whereas the lake’s northerly outlet yields the famous, lively, freestone fishery home to large rainbows and browns for many eastward miles, the little Upper Truckee invites lake-locked salmon and trout spawning runs in season, carries between twelve and 100 inches of depth depending on the runoff stage, follows a lazy, meandering path, lets you jump across it without getting your shoes wet in places, and requires a stealthy fishing style more common to Appalachia and the British Chalks than to comparatively higher gradient western watersheds. Little tributaries join the Upper Truckee as it drains its gentle meadowland, including Angora Creek that’s said to fish well at times too, although it’s significantly smaller than the already tiny Upper Truckee. Another, called Trout Creek, was once a tributary to the Upper Truckee, but the Upper was rechanneled at one point and Trout Creek water now only joins it at higher flows. All these streams are best characterized as creeks snaking through regions of nearly level tall grass and stands of pine.

I recently fished the Upper Truckee for a few hours one morning in early September. Water ranged from a few inches to thigh deep, and was as clear as the air. Fresh bear tracks covered the sandbars, and small log jams parked at the crux of every sharp bend. This late in the season the ticket was dry flies, and I chose, and stayed with, a size-18 Elk Hair Caddis, which seemed fitting for this rustic little place–the stream was begging me not to disrespect it with tinsel and bling, and I was glad to oblige.

Everywhere I looked seemed at a glance to be shallow water surely barren of fish, but I kicked myself more often than not by spoiling what proved to be some nice deep little channel once I’d waded close enough to see it. I began to cast everywhere, just in case, but every cast spoils something else, so that strategy didn’t last either. The water was clear and the bottom coarse sand. I saw no rises to naturals. I did get one nice strike from a good aggressive fish that had poor hook-point-chomping aim. I have no doubt that I drifted my fly over numerous others, especially where channels were three or more feet in depth, but my stealth gene is less well developed for having done so much wet fly fishing in less clear waters. Upper Truckee fish are smart by necessity. The glassy water moved, but slowly, and there were beautiful little riffles at every turn, to make one catch one’s breath.

Forestland on either side in the section I fished helped me avoid showing a silhouette, yet there was ample back-cast room. I was a little over-gunned with a five-weight 9-foot rod. Wading, flow permitting, is the way to enjoy this little creek. I probably covered less than a quarter mile in three hours’ time, finding what looked like the perfect glide every three steps. Had I tried a mile further upstream, or even just above the Angora Creek influx, the character of it would have been different–narrower, with less water, and banks of mostly meadowland. Despite the small size of the creek I think a leader longer than ten feet is recommended in late summer, because it’s otherwise just too easy to put fish down, in water this tranquil and this clear. I’d also recommend a stealth-colored floating line, three-weight or even less.

Evenings might welcome a little tan/yellowish hopper imitation, but as I was out at dawn I stuck with the caddis dry. The whole thing was supremely enjoyable, despite not hooking any fish. It was all about serenity mingling with suspense.

Until recently the Kokanee salmon of Lake Tahoe (a comparatively recent species here, having been introduced into the lake in the 1940’s to create a commercial fishing industry) used mostly Taylor Creek, another nearby tributary that dumps directly into the lake’s south end, for their autumn (generally October) spawning runs. Reports are that as of 2016 that species is also now using the Upper Truckee–brilliantly red, kype-jawed fish lined up by the hundreds in the clear shallow water, all facing upstream…it’s little wonder I saw those bear tracks, probably the result of “scouting” operations for early signs of spawning migration.

If you’re in the North Lake Tahoe area, the main freestone Truckee is a superb fly fishing choice. But if you’re at the lake’s south end, then mixed in with jaunts off to the Carson River and elsewhere you might want to spend an early morn on the Upper Truckee. It’s not the ‘rose’ we’ve heard so much of, but it’s fragrant just the same.

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