On The Alpers Trail
September 29, 2010
Nearly 30 California rivers and lakes hold this colorful, hard-fighting strain of rainbow trout. But in the Eastern High Sierras, a handful stand out. (July 2008)
Alpers trout grow in natural runs in flowing water and look like a rainbow should. Jared Smith of Parcher's Resort caught this Alpers in South Lake.
Photo by Ernie Cowan.
Big, aggressive, colorful and good tasting, Alpers trout are legendary to serious trout fishermen in California's Eastern High Sierra. From Bishop to Bridgeport, these trophy rainbows are the beacon that attracts fishermen.
These fish are raised in a natural environment and hand-fed. Arriving in Sierra waters, they are full of fight.
In the 1970s, Tim Alpers took over the Owens River ranch from his father with a vision of expanding the hatchery and the range of Alpers trout up and down the 200-mile Eastern Sierra front.
Earlier this year, news that Alpers Ranch was being sold struck fear in the hearts of Sierra anglers. But Tim Alpers is not going to end his stocking program. As he said in a recent interview, "I've dedicated my life to creating a strain of trout that will provide High Sierra visitors with a quality fishing experience."
Having now sold the ranch -- to be maintained as an open space and fishing preserve -- he's established a new hatchery operation north of Mono Lake. In addition to his trophy rainbows, the new hatchery will begin to produce brown trout.
Initially, Mono County contracted with Alpers to stock his fish, averaging 2 to 3 pounds each, in a few popular local lakes. Alpers now has contracts with both Inyo and Mono counties to stock fish. He's also supplying many private lakes.
Today, nearly 30 lakes and streams find his monster rainbows waiting for lucky anglers to offer the right bait at the right time.
Everyone seems to have a preferred hole for Alpers trout. But a few Sierra guides and fishing experts produced a short list of favorite places.
Load your gear and let's hit the road -- starting at South Lake in the Bishop Creek Basin west of Bishop.
South Lake is one of the higher elevation lakes, sitting at 9,800 feet between towering granite ridges.
Often open only to ice-fishing when trout season begins in late April, it has become known as a prime Alpers lake.
Jared Smith owns the nearby Parcher's Resort and operates the lake concession and boat landing. There are four spots on the lake he considers "Alpers honeyholes."
"We do get a few Alpers on the troll," Smith said, "but the real action spots are from shore."
The lake's south end offers some of the most concentrated action at inlets.
The Long Lake inlet at the southeast corner, the Treasure inlet at the south end and the Gilbert Glacier inlet to the southwest are great spots, as is the Rock Slide on the rugged western shore.
Smith said that the Alpers also seem to turn on after Labor Day. But you can expect to nail a nice Alpers trout almost anytime.
"Fall is a great time because the plants continue and the weather is typically pleasant," he said. "But the fishing pressure in our canyon decreases significantly."
Cabin rentals are available at Parcher's Resort and Bishop Creek Lodge. Several campgrounds along the creek also provide accommodations for anglers wishing to stay awhile and fish the many other lakes in the area.
Our next stop will be Convict Lake, just two miles west of Highway 395 and only a few miles south of the town of Mammoth Lakes.
If you follow the weekly fishing reports that come out from Convict, you'll soon understand why this is such a popular place for anglers hunting the big daddy 'bows.
Convict Lake is a small but mighty pond, measuring only a mile in length and about one-third of a mile wide. It sits at an elevation of 7,600 feet, nearly surrounded by massive, colorful granite peaks that tower more than 4,000 feet above. In early fall, the shoreline and canyons around the lake are ablaze with the brilliant colors of autumn aspens.
Gary Gunsolley, owner of Brocks Fly Fishing in Bishop, knows the lake well and offers some advice about catching Alpers at Convict.
"Convict is one of those lake where you can expect to catch a nice Alpers just about anytime during the season," he said.
Gunsolley's favorite spots are at the far west end, where a glacier-fed creek enters the lake, the outlet at the east end and a deep dropoff about three quarters of the way back along the north shore trail.
The dropoff is a glacial gouge that falls to a depth of more than 140 feet.
"It's very visible," Gunsolley said, "because the water is very clear. The fish are not particular. I'd just toss what you like, let it drop into the hole and then slowly work it back."
If you are done fishing here, don't miss eating at The Restaurant At Convict Lake. There are two good reasons: the country French menu and the chef, who is one of best fishermen on the lake.
"There are some awesome fish in Convict Lake," said Executive Chef Matt Eoff. "They are raised in running water and associate that with food -- so that's where they go."
The biggest Alpers that Eoff has taken from Convict was an 8.4-pound beauty caught on a slow-trolled Rapala. It now hangs over the restaurant's bar. Other favorites include forest-green Trout Teaser lures, Thomas Buoyant lures, and Woolly Bugger, Scud and Hornberg flies.
TWIN LAKES, SOTCHER LAKE
Just a few miles up the road is the town of Mammoth Lakes, home to a number of excellent fishing holes.
While almost any of the Mammoth Basin lakes will produce a good Alpers trout, local guide Alex Kady has his favorites.
Kady, a guide at the popular Trout Fitter/Trout Fly Shop in Mammoth, lists his top lakes there as Twin Lakes and Sotcher Lake to the west of Mammoth in Red's Meadow.
What makes these two lakes hotspots for Alpers? Their size.
"I feel the smaller the lake, the better the chances of catching a big Alpers," Kady said.
Twin Lakes is located just west of downtown Mammoth at an elevation of about 8,600 feet. This is a great lake for tubers, small boats and shore-fishing, but it does become weedy in late summer. There are rental cabins along the south shore of the lake and several campgrounds within walking distance. It's a very popular summer destination.
Sotcher Lake is tucked deep into the San Joaquin River Gorge, reached by a spectacular road that hangs on the side of the mountain as it drops nearly 3,000 feet.
During peak season, the road is open to passenger cars during the day only if you have camping or cabin reservations in the canyon. Otherwise, you must enter early before vehicle control begins, or else take one of the Red's Meadow shuttle buses that make continuous loops through the canyon. For both the fisherman and the sightseer, a visit to the canyon is well worth the trip.
Sotcher is a beaver lake, created by a massive logjam at its south end. Limited shore access makes this better for float tubes or boats, but there are some shoreline hotspots at the rock slide on the west side and at the inlets on the east side.
This is a scenic and beautiful place to fish and rarely crowded.
Woolly Buggers are great flies for Sotcher, but if you like tossing metal, small Panther Martin lures and gold Kastmasters work well. And night crawlers and PowerBait are both dependable.
This is bear country, so hide those big fish. I've seen some nice trout lost to wandering bears looking for a free meal.
Just a few miles up the Highway from Mammoth Lakes is another cluster of great fishing lakes located in the June Lake Loop. Four lakes -- including June, Gull, Silver and Grant -- dot the loop, along with excellent fishing in the connecting streams.
Guide Kady also includes Gull Lake as one of his favorite Alpers waters, because it fits his criterion of being a smaller lake.
The lake's weekly fish reports back this up, along with the lake's reputation of kicking out monster 'bows on most opening weekends.
Despite being less than a half-mile at its widest, the little pond seems to pump out big fish consistently.
Lake operator Gary Cino said that on opening weekend last year, he weighed over 80 rainbows that topped 3 pounds.
Kady said if you are looking for big Alpers at Gull Lake, tie a bubble-and-fly combination, or bait a night crawler and work the tules close to shore. Gull Lake is right in the town of June Lake, with campgrounds, rental cabins and condos, shops, restaurants and services.
Our next stop will be west of Lee Vining in the shadow of Yosemite National Park. Saddlebag Lake is a high-country lake tucked into rugged mountains about two miles north of Highway 120 and 12 miles west of Lee Vining.
This big, deep lake sits at an elevation of 10,000 feet. Boaters, shore-anglers, tubers and those willing to make a trip to the inlet at the north end find plenty of good trout fishing.
Saddlebag Lake is an outpost at the end of a dirt road and at the trailhead into the Hoover Wilderness.
It's a scenic place, challenging and rugged, but a fisherman's paradise.
There are a campground and a store here, but don't miss the homemade pies at the café.
Richard Ernst operates the lake and spends just about every free minute either trolling the deep waters or working his secret spots where bigger fish are usually found. Ernst said to head to the back of the lake early in the season when Greenstone Creek is running strong into Saddlebag.
If the bite is on, it doesn't much matter what you use. But you can have some incredible success tossing right into the tongue at the inlet.
Don't forget that Alpers are raised in natural raceways, so they like flowing water. Make sure you rig with 4- to 6-pound line -- some big fish may well slam you at the Greenstone Inlet. Smaller DFG stockers will also quickly fill your stringers at this hotspot.
Ernst said that another good area is along the northeast shore, which is especially good for trolling, but also produces good action for shore-anglers.
Look for the springs that bring fresh water into the lake at this point.
In the store, you will see a photograph of Ernst holding a 6-pound Alpers that he took with a gold-red Thomas Buoyant lure trolled deep.
"I used to rig with flashers," Ernst said. "But this season, the Thomas Buoyant was really bringing in more Alpers."
Saddlebag fishermen will see action all summer, but expect the big fish to really come alive later in the season. Some of the bigger holdover fish will thrill early-season anglers, but the continuous action for big Alpers begins in late September.
The last lake on our Alpers tour will be the big Bridgeport Reservoir, located right next to the tiny town of Bridgeport in a huge meadow between towering mountains.
This lake is hard to fish until you learn the good spots. Ray Robles loves to help people do just that.
The lake sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet and extends more than 4 1/2 miles in length. While many anglers consider Bridgeport and nearby Twin Lakes as the heart of brown trout fishing, don't overlook the action that the aggressive Alpers can provide.
Robles is a guide on Bridgeport Reservoir. His own personal best, a 5-pound Alpers rainbow, hangs over the fireplace at his Casa Michaela Restaurant south of town.
"There is something very special about Alpers," he said. "They are healthy and aggressive. They fight like wild fish, not like fish raised in concrete tanks."
Because Bridgeport is so large, the action shifts to different areas as the season progresses. Robles said that opening-day and early-season fishing for big Alpers is best off of Rainbow Point and Paradise Shores.
You can get a good lake map at Ken's Sporting Goods in town.
Another good area is known as "the Bathtub" at the north end of the lake near the dam. Trolling seems to work best with gold and red lures. This will surprise some, but Robles also trolls night crawlers on a No. 8 hook for some great success.
"Rapalas also catch fish, but the trolled night crawlers always do better," he
said. During mid-season, Robles warns anglers to stay in water between 22 and 26 feet deep.
The best mid-season places can be just outside the marina, along the underwater East Walker River Channel and at a place called The Blue House on lake maps.
Fall is a little more unpredictable. Water conditions and temperatures affect the fishing.
"But when fishing is hot in the fall," Robles said, "you can expect lots of 3- to 5-pound Alpers."
If you get hooked on hunting Alpers, our journey will provide you with a season of exciting fishing destinations. The lakes listed here are by no means the only good lakes for Alpers, but from experience, they won't let you down.
Find more about California fishing and hunting at CaliforniaGameandFish.com