Posted by: 1000fish | September 25, 2010

The Cottonwood Death March

Dateline – September 25, 2010. Lone Pine, California

What kind of idiots drive 16 hours to fish for 50 minutes? You’re looking at them.


Spellman and Wozniak, survivors of the Cottonwood Death March, in happier times

It gets tough to find new species to catch in California. Sure, San Francisco Bay will kick out some new oddball for me once in a while, but of the known critters in the state, I’m down to some pretty esoteric stuff. One of the most esoteric is the Golden Trout, a small but beautiful relative of the rainbow trout native to eastern central California.

Golden trout have achieved legendary status among the trout angling community, especially the fly-fishing types who will hike for days and camp at  isolated lakes to pursue them. Goldens are rare, living in only a few watersheds in the western US, and can only be found at altitudes associated with private aircraft – usually 10,000 feet and above. So we are looking at a nasty drive  from the Bay Area, and a nastier hike after that. The season is summer only, as the areas where they live are snowbound the rest of the year, and usually have roads that are locked up with big gates and signs that say things like “DON”T DRIVE PAST HERE OR YOU WILL END UP STUCK IN THE SNOW AND HAVE TO EAT THAT GUY IN THE PASSENGER SEAT.”

My partner in crime for this has been my partner in many, many crimes over the past 18 years. Mark Spellman is certainly a passionate fisherman. I didn’t say he was all that talented of a fisherman, although he could beat my socks off at tennis. But this blog isn’t about tennis. Mark has a gift for making fishing trips a bit more complex than necessary – for example, by forgetting his rain gear during a winter storm on Lake Amador. Mind you, he went anyway wearing a garbage bag, caught a limit of beautiful fish while soaked to the bone, and never uttered a word of complaint. And of course, there are about 5 stories that end with the line “Mark sat there, stunned and covered in s%$#.” (Luckily, this story does not end that way, as we were using my car.)

For years, Spellman and I have said “We really should get a Golden this year” – but we never do. Either it ends up too late in the season, or one of us isn’t free, or I’m somewhere exotic trying to catch a stingray and get dressed at the same time. Suddenly, 10 years had passed, and we really decided to do it this very weekend and not wait another season. Carpe diem – although no carp were involved.

So the trick to this whole mess was that it needed to be accomplished in around 30 hours, because Mark has something in his house that I do not – responsibilities. He could leave work Friday at 4, but he needed to be back at his house late Saturday night, in time to get a few hours of sleep before a busy Sunday. The trip involves about 850 miles of driving, a good portion of which is in mountains. The math was not pretty. But this was our chance – we figured could drive until late, crash in some sort of seedy motel, get up early and be on site by 8am. We had one possibility of catching a fish without a big hike – see below – but if that didn’t work, we would hike up 6 miles, be up on the lakes around 10:30, fish a few hours, be back at the car around 3, and even with a nice dinner break, be home by 11.

I believe it was Moltke who said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

And so we hit the road late Friday afternoon. The conversations on these long road trips range wildly in topics.  We covered the plan for this fishing trip. We covered ideas for future fishing trips. We discussed our respective families. Mark and his wife Heather have 2 kids – and the youngest, a 6 year old boy named Connor, has spent the last two years battling – and beating – a life-threatening illness. Connor is an amazing kid – he takes “nuthin from nobody” – and I think that’s what’s gotten him through all this. It’s always interesting to hear which 3rd-grader he has beaten up this week; and to hear about a kid that age going through blood transfusions and chemo really gives a sense of perspective. Mark is tough – he once went shark fishing in the middle of a bout of food poisoning – but this kid is positively inspirational. I think Mark would have traded every fish he ever caught and a lot more to have never gone through all this, but at least it’s great to know we’ll have Connor as an excuse to go fishing together for many years to come. (“But Mom, I can’t clean my room, Uncle Steve says the striped bass are biting now!”)

                    The Spellmen – Connor, Mark, Heather, and Ashlyn

Traffic was horrible getting out of the Bay Area and then again getting out of Sacramento toward Lake Tahoe, a longer route which we incorrectly believed would feature more freeway time. We discussed jobs and almost everything we know about baseball. So that killed about 6 minutes. Luckily, we also had a huge collection of “Bob and Tom” CDs. “Bob and Tom” are an Indianapolis radio duo, hysterically funny as long as you like juvenile locker room/toilet humor with plenty of  boobie jokes thrown in, which we happen to. Marta, shall we say, is not a big Bob and Tom fan. (“This sort of thing is not funny to normal adults, Steve.”)

The late night ride through the mountains was bracing with the windows rolled down. Now, an intelligent person might suggest simply rolling them up, but an intelligent person would not have eaten twice within 4 hours at Taco Bell. (Also known as UMF – Unsupervised Man Food.) We rolled into Mammoth, CA at about 1AM, found an awful motel – the kind of place where they steal your towels – and crashed until 5:56am, when we were awakened by horrible noises. (See above) We showered (separately) and got back on the road, fuelled by Red Bull and the knowledge that we were just hours from Golden territory. The sunrise was spectacular.

                      Driving south along the Eastern Sierra

We made it to Lone Pine at around 9, got a quick and terrible breakfast, bought a few local lures, and headed the 20-odd miles up the steep grade to the Cottonwood Trailhead. Extraordinarily narrow and winding, with thousand-foot drops on the downhill side, it would have made for good viewing if I had not been scared out of my wits that a truck was going to come careening around a blind corner and send us screaming over the edge. Luckily, we arrived without incident, mostly due to my careful driving at speeds up to 9mph.

Trout expert and reader Andy Batcho, the guy who had made the whole Apache trout thing happen, also had a hand in this misadventure. He had clued me in to some secret streams in the area that were  rumored to have small goldens, and most of our plan was based around catching one in these areas, which did not require a big hike. One might say I was a bit overconfident that I was going to get this done with “the short walk” option. And so we got to one of these carefully guarded secret streams, and discovered that these were crystal clear, about 2 feet wide, and utterly unfishable unless one happens to be an expert fly fisherman, which I am not. I gave it a game try for about 40 minutes, then tired of the humiliation and retreated to the car to formulate “Plan B.”  We were faced with 2 choices – hike up the mountain or go home defeated. We smiled at each other. Ten minutes later, we were heading up the hill, lightly dressed and armed with fishing gear, 2 quarts of carbonated water, a bag of Fritos, and a Red Bull. It was gorgeous and deceptively flat for the first few miles, and we enjoyed wandering through nature on a beautiful late summer morning. I hardly noticed the first inkling of a blister in my right heel, not that it would have helped, because, as we are idiots, we brought along no band-aids or moleskin.


Scenery toward the top of the hike. It didn’t seem so clear at the time, but I think my eyesight was failing from oxygen deprivation.

Winding through the rocky terrain and thinning pine forests, we headed for the Cottonwood Lakes. There are 5 of them, and they are cleverly named Cottonwood Lakes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The scenery was breathtaking, but let’s face it, at 11,000 feet, pretty much everything is breathtaking. Even slight grades left us gasping for breath, and the last mile of the trek was steep. The irritation in my heel continued to grow, slightly but noticeably. I decided to keep ignoring it. And speaking of bad decisions, I wasted close to an hour at a small creek crossing, trying to catch some miniscule goldens that kept darting out from the rocks, getting hooked, and falling off before I could swing them onto the shore.

We finally made Cottonwood Lake #1 at about 3:15 – roughly the time I had been hoping to start the drive home. So the schedule was just plain out the window, but we were here and we were going to do whatever it took to catch a fish. We started throwing spinners into the crystal blue waters, and discovered that the line on the reels was twisted. Note to self – always, ALWAYS change line before a trip of this magnitude. After 15 minutes of re-rigging punctuated with a complex series of hyphenated compound swears, we were at it again.

Spellman at Lake #1. Note that at least 5 fish have jumped in the lake behind him. Yes, he always looks this confused.

Throwing the fly and bubble, I had a couple of taps and was determined to stick it out at the top of lake 1, when I heard Mark yell for me.  I ignored him at first, figuring he had fallen in the water or put an eye out. But he yelled again. I turned around and looked over to the next lake, expecting to see Mark thrashing in the water or bleeding, but instead, he was holding up a fish. It was a small fish, and it was very far away, but I was pretty darn certain it was a golden. I gingerly hopped over to find Mark beaming ear to ear and holding a perfectly beautiful golden trout. “Well I’ll be …” I thought, and I got out the camera to photograph this momentous event.

                                     Spellman’s Golden Trout.

 Mark pointed out where he had caught the fish, and as soon as we had released the critter, I turned around and began casting the fly/bubble combo. I got a few more taps, and just when I was getting ready to change to a spinner, I got a hookup. For a fish that was (generously) 8 inches, it put up a spirited fight, but I got it to the shallows and then survived that breathless moment of swinging it onto the bank. At last, a golden trout, with a huge assist from Spellman. The pictures don’t really do justice to how beautiful the fish really was, especially with the high mountain scenery and clear, fresh, thin air. It positively glowed, and Mark and I traded manly high fives and whoops of celebration in the meadow, with appropriate pauses to catch our breath.

My Golden.  The incredibly cool Akubra hat was purchased in Sydney, Australia. They were out of the one with the crocodile teeth.

                                             The Golden Trout

We kept at it for a few minutes, and I caught one more fish, a bit smaller but even more colorful. But time was against us. As the sun began to move west, I had some notion of what Mount Everest climbers felt like when it was getting too late in the day to summit, and they have to make a deceptively difficult choice between failure and death. Ostensibly, my consequences were limited to an all-night drive, but if Mark was not delivered home for his Sunday obligations, we could in fact face an icy death from Heather.

Editorial note – the 1000Fish blog has an editorial policy against lowbrow anti-wife humor, and the above was in no way meant to be such. Heather Spellman is a lovely woman and kicks Mark out to go fishing whenever it fits into the insanity of a schedule that involves 2 kids, 2 jobs, a house that is never quite remodelled, and their normal friends. Heather is by far the better-adjusted of the two of them, even after my unfortunate performance at their wedding, and she would probably prefer that Mark get out of the house more often than he does. How Mark managed to marry her, I have no idea – like me, he has done far better than he deserves. 

So even though we had just gotten there, we really needed to start back down the hill. Spellman set a good pace and was 60 or 70 yards ahead of me most of the way down, which is fine, because there are bears. We only made one stop on the descent, at the small creek crossing, where we shared the Fritos and the Red Bull in oxygen-starved silence. We knew it was going to be painful on the way down, and we knew it was going to be a very long drive home. My heel was really starting to pinch as we hit the steepest part of the trail.

                  A last view of Cottonwood Lake #2

The foot continued to rub the wrong way, and the last few miles, even though they were relatively flat, were pretty much a new experience in discomfort. I could feel blood oozing around in my shoe and sock, and every time I landed more on the right of my foot, there was a blinding stab of pain. By mile 5, I could see blood seeping up the outside of my sock, reminding me of Curt Schilling in the 2004 ALCS, although he at least had pain medicine and I’ll bet you he’s never caught a golden trout.

Spellman wasn’t walking very well either, loping along in a fruitless effort to keep the soles of his feet from touching the ground. We trudged in silence, with me tossing out the occasional bad word when I put any weight on my right heel. I passed Mark only once, when he stopped for a bathroom break, and I couldn’t help but notice he was still smiling the same way he had been up on the meadow. And, inexplicably, so was I. We arrived in the parking lot at 6:55PM. Tossing the gear into the car, we pulled out some water and got on the road. I didn’t even bother looking at my foot, because whatever was left in there wasn’t going to be very pleasant.

The 7 hour drive home flew by like 420 minutes. We stopped once, in Lone Pine, to pick up cold Red Bull and more UMF, but then the remaining six and a half hours we did without stopping. This speaks to how dehydrated we had become, because we both drank a couple of quarts of liquids on the way home and still didn’t need a pit stop. (Or maybe Spellman wet himself.) There was no risk of falling asleep – the searing throb in my heel shot up through to my teeth every time I moved, and I was getting worried what I was going to find when I finally got the shoe off. The conversation was sparse, but we kept going back to what would be next – Southern California for a white seabass, Alaska for a chum salmon – it all seemed a lot easier than what we had just done. We finished the Bob and Tom CDs somewhere near Mariposa. (Luckily, I am going to Indianapolis in November and can buy all the latest ones! Marta must be thrilled.) And as we sped through the late night, by the dashboard lights, I could see Spellman was grinning ear to ear most of the drive, as was I. We had done it – caught the golden trout  – against the many obstacles of time, distance, nature, and most of all, our own stupidity. Now and then, on less curvy parts of the road, we would give a quiet fist-bump.

We pulled into my house just after 2:30am. Basking in a perverse sense of accomplishment, we shifted Mark’s gear into his car, then shared a quiet handshake and a man-hug. Mark drove off, still grinning ear to ear, and I turned around to begin the long and terrible walk up the stairs. Reaching the bathroom, I optimistically pulled out a tube of bactine and a bandaid, but I had a feeling I was going to need morphine and a hacksaw, or I was going to add to my frequent flyer points at the San Ramon Valley ER.  Removing the shoe was a challenge, as whatever had happened had sort of hardened on the sock. Gritting my teeth, I took one tiny pull at the sock and squealed, not just like a pig, but like a pig undergoing some sort of particularly unsavory veterinary procedure in the early morning hours before anyone’s hands are warm.  This shriek likely alarmed my neighbors, but hey, they both snore. So I snipped the sock off around the wounded area as best I could, then filled the bath with warm water and tried to gently soak off the remaining fabric. A little blood goes a long way, but the tub was starting to look like Hannibal Lechter and Jason the hockey mask guy had gone 2 falls out of 3 in it.

The net/net: I had unintentionally exfoliated the outside of my right heel. Because I had kept going on it, the friction had cut deeply into the skin, and there was blood everywhere. Even hydrogen peroxide left me screaming like a Republican at a Florida vote recount, and all I could do was clean it, wrap it in gauze, take a handful of Advil, and hope it was still usable when I woke up in the morning.

By dawn on Sunday, it had stiffened up considerably, and the heel was so bruised and inflamed I could hardly walk. I hobbled downstairs and downloaded the photos, staring for long minutes at the 8 inch fish that had been at the heart of so much suffering. So was it worth it?

Oh, yeah.





  1. Congratulations.
    This one made me laugh out loud.

  2. […] “Spellman stood there, stunned and covered in …” (For more on Spellman, see […]

  3. […] But Connor is much more than a thrower of dairy products, he is also our excuse to go fishing. Connor is Mark Spellman’s 7 year-old son, and Mark, as you know, has been one of my great fishing buddies over the last 20 years. We have frozen together, been skunked together, triumphed together, and have gruesomely exfoliated our feet together. ( See […]

  4. […] for driving 750 miles to catch an 8-inch fish clearly missed the Golden Trout episode last year. ( […]

  5. […] For those of you unfamiliar with my fishing-challenged friend Mark, please see […]

  6. […] This is actually a Rainbow Trout, not a Golden. For the painful tale of catching a Golden, see […]

  7. […] I thought back over all the states and guides who had helped me get this grab bag of species – it was a quest that had taken me from California to New Jersey to Texas to New Hampshire and finally to Georgia. It was my second slam – I also got the trout award in 2010, and that one cost me the worst blister ever. (See […]

  8. […] up twice over the last weekend of March. The first go-round, which also involved Spellman (see was a rocky shoreline trip which featured creatures great and small. I got a beastly opaleye […]

  9. […] trout. Fair enough, I figured. We could re-enact the Cottonwood Death March – (sordid details HERE) – but bring adequate shoes and provisions. So we made the seven-hour drive to Lone Pine, […]

  10. […] Cottonwood Death March – which ranks as the worst example of advance planning EVER. (Details HERE – warning: If a lack of common sense offends you, please do not click on this […]

  11. […] A spectacularly small black drummer. How about the cool Akubra hat? (You might recognize it from The Cottonwood Death March.) […]

  12. […] also have the trout slam, with Spellman in 2010, and the bass slam, with Martini on a memorable day in 2012.) John helpfully […]

  13. […] immediately. We fished for exactly 14 minutes, then it was back into the car, much like the fabled Cottonwood Death March,  but with fewer […]

  14. […] couldn’t mention friends without giving a nod to Mark Spellman, who has let me take the first bite for some 30 years. Our first fishing trip together was in 1993, […]

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