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Weekend Escape

Casting a Vote for Sierra City's Fishing

Gold Country town harbors exhilarating waters, quiet hikes and a secret garden

July 14, 2002|CAROLYN MILLER

SIERRA CITY, Calif. — I stood in waterproof waders, hip-deep in the surging Yuba River, wielding a fly rod. Swallowtail butterflies and dragonflies swept over the water, and sunlight glinted off distant mountains, a dusting of snow still evident in June. Everything was perfect. Except I still hadn't caught a fish.

No matter. It was hard to be upset about elusive trout when so much natural beauty surrounded us. My husband, Terry, and I came to this dot of a place in the Sierra last month to rendezvous with my cousin John and his wife, Val, both big fans of this hamlet of 225 and our willing guides for the weekend.

Sierra City is about 130 miles northeast of Sacramento, past Auburn and Grass Valley on California Highway 49. The route through town isn't so much a highway as it is an old-fashioned main street, lined with well-preserved buildings from the Gold Rush. The North Yuba River runs through town, and the jagged pinnacles of the Sierra Buttes, 8,600 feet high, rise on the horizon.

The region is often called the Lakes Basin because dozens of natural lakes lie within a 10-mile radius. My cousin, an avid fly fisherman who lives in the Bay Area, was initially drawn here by the wild river and its trout, while Val, a landscape designer, was hooked by the wildflowers and hiking trails. It wasn't long before we were hooked too.

Our Friday-morning flight to Sacramento was about one hour and the drive to Sierra City about three, though it would have been shorter had we taken a faster, less scenic route. We stopped in Auburn for a lunch of Greek salad and good quiche at a cute place called Awful Annie's. An hour later, we paused in Nevada City for a stroll through its Gold Rush-era downtown and a quick tasting at the Nevada City Winery, where we picked up a bottle of its Sonata white blend.

Even with the detours, we arrived in Sierra City and the High Country Inn by cocktail hour. The inn sits at 5,400 feet near an old stage stop and general store called Bassett's Station. We immediately could see why John and Val had suggested the High Country Inn. With only five guest rooms, the place is serene and quiet. The Yuba River runs right through the property, which has its own trout pond and a deck overlooking the Buttes. From our room, the Aspen, Terry and I could hear the river rushing by and see a mama duck on the pond tending to her babies.

No sooner had we stepped onto the deck and uncorked the wine than John and Val arrived--just in time to toast the weekend. We sketched out options for the coming days: hike, fish, visit historic sights such as the 1850s Kentucky Mine or the charming community of Downieville, its ambience little changed since the Gold Rush.

For dinner that night, the four of us chose a different bit of history, the Old Sierra City Hotel in town. Built in 1880, the dining room contains antique furniture and cabinetry from the hotel's earliest days, but as at most restaurants in the region, the menu is anything but fancy. The nightly special, which two of us ordered and enjoyed, was meatloaf with mushroom gravy.

The next morning began with more good food, a generous breakfast at the inn. Guests awake to a tray of coffee and tea at their door, followed by a spread in the dining room that includes hot dishes such as French toast and quiche, as well as fresh fruit and home-baked muffins and breads.

Our day's activities then started--and ended--with fishing. John revealed to me some of the mysteries of dry fly-fishing, in which a nearly weightless, carefully crafted "fly" never dips below the water's surface. (Terry watched with interest but, because of a bad knee, was going to skip a trip into the river; Val opted to lounge around the inn.)

After I had grasped the rudiments of casting, I suited up. For the first time in my life I donned waders, fishing vest, boots and "gravel guards," gaiters that keep sand and rock out of boots. Attached to my vest, safely tucked in a waterproof tube, was my fishing license, purchased in L.A. (available at sporting goods stores).

I slid and skittered down a steep, stony riverbank and cautiously followed John into the water. I was a little unnerved by the slippery footing and the novelty of being almost waist-deep in a relatively swift current.

But toward the end of the day, after more practice and a move to a different part of the river, I finally was learning to spot pools where trout gathered, and my casts were becoming more accurate. I even got a few bites, though I hadn't yet reeled one in. Being half-immersed in the wild Yuba became exhilarating in a deeply elemental way.

These sessions in the river Saturday were broken up with an excursion on land: a quick lunch of chili dogs and soup at Bassett's Station cafe, followed by a short drive down the highway to Big Springs Gardens.

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