It’s sunrise in Yosemite. The rising sun slowly casts light up the 3,000-foot mass of El Capitan directly across the Valley. Chad Shepard, John Lloyd and I begin climbing up The Gunsight, a steep and technical 600-foot route between Lower and Middle Cathedral Rocks. John and I have a rope, rack and climbing shoes. Thirty-seven-year-old Chad, a park local, is in tight-fitting sticky approach shoes. Around his waist is merely a chalk bag, tied on with a thin piece of cord. On his back, he wears a small pack with his fishing equipment.
I follow him up the rock. Thirty feet up the route, we step out of a crack system and traverse left. The move requires trusting a single foothold on the smooth granite face but otherwise there are no grips for the hands. It’s a trust move. Chad, ropeless, passes through the sequence with ease. Near the top of the route, John and I take special care to overcome a polished body-width ramp, an exposed section of rock void of positive grips. Chad moves over it with unbound confidence and fluidity of movement. I’m curious if he fishes the same way he climbs, because beyond free soling, Chad is passionate about fly fishing, especially in places that are best reached by climbing.
At the end of the climb, we are in a hanging valley formed by Bridalveil Creek in close proximity to the precipice of Bridalveil Falls, one of Yosemite’s biggest attractions. A cool, light breeze fans off the water, lightly trickling below my perch. Soon we descend through thick, sharp manzanita bushes and down steep rolling granite slabs to the water.
Chad, standing silently in the creek beside me, threads a fishing line through his fly rod. While we take off our harnesses and climbing shoes, Chad rubs his shoulder and mutters something about years of abuse from climbing and skateboarding.
I’d never thought to climb The Gunsight, and before Chad started fishing neither had he. But once he ventured up there to fish, he felt the same level of excitement as when he first moved to the Valley a decade earlier. It reminded him of the time when he still had a lifetime of rock to explore within the park boundaries.
Now casting, he finds his rhythm, reeling in trout on nearly every other cast. Water steadily flows as we make conversation. I ask him about some of the trickier moves.
“I feel like I know the friction and the angles, I’ve climbed slabs steeper than this barefoot,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m thinking of as I’m climbing. I feel very present, in the moment, comfortable and focused on the task at hand.”
“Wow,” he says suddenly as his line bends over hard with another fish on.
At 4 p.m. the next day, Chad is fishing again, barefoot and standing in a pile of smooth talus at the base of Cascade Falls delicately threading a line through his fly rod. The spraying waterfall bounces down the white, polished granite wall in front and above us. A cool, light breeze fans off the water lightly trickling below my perch.
Chad steps in the water between boulders and talks about the bugs. “Up to 30 different bugs hatch throughout the day,” he says. His bare feet are spread apart between two boulders in the water. The cool water “ices my body,” he continues.
His accurate cast sends the fly to a precise point where the waterfall hits the rocks behind a set of boulders. Immediately the pole arcs sharply.
“Fish ninja,” I say as Chad reels in the line.
Chad started fishing in late 2010. He started out by himself and learned from books and videos. Pat Warren, whom he worked with on Yosemite Search and Rescue, taught him a roll cast. Tall and lean with a light facial scruff, Chad lives on 20 acres on the border of Mariposa County and Yosemite Valley in Foresta California. He rents the upstairs loft, and commutes to his work for Rope Access Technicians sometimes as few as five days per month.
His mentors include Granite Stanley, a fly fishing guide out of Mammoth Lakes, California. Granite helped him pick out a new rod and the right equipment. “He’s like a 5.14 fisherman,” Chad says, comparing his angling skills to that of the highest caliber rock climber. “I quickly got up to a few thousand hours that first year,” Chad adds.
He says plenty of people fish in Yosemite, but mainly only on a two-mile stretch of road. Chad prefers to fish in areas that have no “fishing pressure,” places where no one else fishes. So he’ll often free solo to remote rivers throughout the park to access rarely, if ever, fished waters.
Chad releases the rainbow trout before I get a chance to see it. Then he catches another one, this time a brown. “There’s a whole pool of them there,” he says. “Another bit as I put the line back in. If they’re smart they’ll tie the line up in the rocks.”
I ask him about his precision with the line.
“I practice laying it down softly and aim. It comes softly with time. It’s like climbing or playing an instrument. There is no substitute for practice. I put in 200 days my first year, putting in like four to five hours a day.”
Chad grew up in Lebanon, Oregon. “When I was a kid I we went skateboarding all day. 10 hours a day, 300 days a year,” he says.
He attended the University of Oregon in Eugene where he earned a degree in fine arts, “there’s that whole thing that I spent most of my life doing,” he says. “It’s been painting, skateboarding and then climbing. “I just stopped skating a few years ago.”
“I don’t have formal training with fishing or climbing but I made a conscious choice to learn. You can learn something on your own. You discover an equation or lean on the progress of the past and learn from that very quickly. Not all of us can afford private lessons—but there’s all sorts of other ways: taking lessons, talking to people, reading books, watching videos.”
“It’s a big one,” he says as he reels again, asks for the net, and scoops up the red and green trout.
I’m a total novice when it comes to fishing, but Chad is more than happy to explain his secrets. “I caught all these fish on one fly [which he tied himself]. It’s like a cheeseburger, hamburger, steak for fish,” he says. I do understand climbing, but I want to understand how Chad can be so good at both, to know how two such different disciplines can intersect in one person.
“Why soloing?” I ask him.
“Dude, that’s a hard question,” he replies with a smile, then adds: “It’s what I enjoy the most. It’s nothing to do with adrenaline. It’s quite the opposite. It’s relaxing and encompassing. You’re very present and in the moment. When you’re on top rope you can think about other shit. But when soloing, it feels easy and super chill on the body. Like going out for a jog. You can go whenever you want— on a whim. I can climb a 1,400-foot route right now [Fairview Dome] after driving an hour to Tuolumne and be back home before dinner. That and chilling on the beach and jumping in Tenaya Lake are my favorite things to do.”
“When I use a fly I tied myself, then seeing a fish, dropping the fly right in the strike zone, and watching the fish rise up and take it—seeing it all come together is a truly great feeling. Add a fun solo to that, and I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.”
“I think soloing is like the queen on the chessboard. I would relate it to going on a very leisurely run along the white line along the road but if you step off it you’re going to die.”
It’s early, just past 8 a.m., but it feels like we’ve experienced a full day’s worth of adventure. As we pack up and prepare to reverse the approach route, I take one last look back over the river valley, taking in its subtle beauty. Ahead the beaten path awaits, with traffic, tour busses and paved trails. As I rappel down the first slab, I look over at Chad walking beside me, as though he’s strolling down a sidewalk. He smiles at me and in that moment, I can see that this truly is his backyard. He’s at home on granite, like a trout is at home in the creek.
Chris Van Leuven is a contributing editor and blogger at Elevation Outdoors and MountainGazette.com and a contributor at Alpinist magazine.