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Your Eastern Sierra Trout Primer

Your Eastern Sierra Trout Primer

Whether your preference is for dry flies, inflated night crawlers or a gob of doughy bait, these Golden State waters are gushing with trout for the 2003 season.

By Rick Laezman

The wind whirls in through your car's open window as you race up Highway 395. It carries the smell of dust and water from the surface of the nearly dry Owens Lake. A late-season snow has left the peaks on either side of the highway dusted with a new layer of white, and the air bristles with a tinge of cold as winter refuses to bow out gracefully to spring.

It's been six months since you felt the tug of a trout at the end of your line. With every new sensation of the surrounding hills, your heart beats a little faster in anticipation of catching the first trout of the new season.

The Eastern Sierra offers many choices for anglers eager to jump head first into the 2003 trout season. Whether your preference is for dry flies or inflated night crawlers, float tubes or lawn chairs, the mountains in this part of California are gushing with waters where anglers encounter some of the state's best trout fishing.

From Bishop to Bridgeport, fishermen seeking their early-season trout fix can choose from several lakes, rivers and creeks. These include some of the state's premier wild trout waters and even more put-and-take fisheries where the Department of Fish and Game stocks a healthy population of catchable-size trout.

On the wild trout waters, only flies or artificial lures with single barbless hooks are allowed. The catch on most of these waters is also limited, and in some places a zero kill restriction is in place. Spawning also takes place at this time of year, and tributaries to some of the area's lakes have special restrictions to protect the rainbows migrating upstream.

Photo by Brad Jackson

Conventional anglers, or families that want to get their children hooked on fishing, will find the many unrestricted waters in the area more to their liking. Regardless of what kind of fishing you prefer, anglers should always consult the DFG regulations and observe all sign postings to conform to the regulations wherever they decide to fish.


Fishermen who venture to the Eastern Sierra at the opening of trout season will not be alone. Sure, it's five hours away by car, but it is the best and closest destination for millions of southern Californians for quality trout fishing.

On the other hand, the multitude of waters, fish and angling choices provide plenty of space to keep everyone happy. There are even some hike-in lakes that are accessible - and fishable - for the more adventurous types who seek as little contact as possible with others.

Predicting the weather in the Eastern Sierra during opening weekend is an inexact science at best. The snow can fall well into the month of June, and there is no reason to expect late April to be an exception.

Heavy runoff does not normally occur until at least a few weeks after the opener, and the lakes above 8,000 feet are often still under ice. These lakes are just right for ice fishermen. Anyone venturing onto an ice-covered lake is advised to exercise extreme caution. The local sheriff's department will post signs when the ice is too thin to support foot traffic.

Black Hole Of The Eastern Sierra
A few years ago, while helping the conservation organization CalTrout conduct a creel census at the Crowley Lake Marina, I listened to a representative from the group describe the lake to fishermen as the "black hole of the Eastern Sierra" because biologists were at a loss to explain why the fish thrived there.

I also noticed that the anglers, although happy to share information about their catch, didn't seem to care too much about explanations. They were just happy for a chance to limit out on lunkers, which most of them had done.

Perhaps the CalTrout rep should have called it the jewel of the Eastern Sierra. Every year, anglers flock to Crowley at the beginning of the season in pursuit of the lake's monster fish. Their pilgrimage is a testament to the lake's highly efficient put-and-grow fishery.

Every year in August, the California DFG plants about 400,000 trout. They typically weigh about one-tenth of a pound and measure from three to five inches in length.

The hatchlings over-winter in the lake, feeding on the multitude of invertebrates and small baitfish that live in the aquatic weedbeds. By the time opening day arrives, they have grown almost tenfold, weighing as much as a pound.

If they don't get caught sometime that summer, the fish over-winter a second time. They may weigh 1 1/2 to 2 pounds and measure over 15 inches by the time opening day arrives again.

Some hearty and elusive fish even manage to survive through a second season and over-winter a third time. The fisherman who hooks one of these brutes the following summer is in for a tussle with a trophy trout.

According to DFG biologist Curtis Milliron, the hatchery fingerlings stocked in August include brown trout, some cutthroats and three strains of rainbow. All are capable of reproducing in the lake if they survive to maturity. The rainbows include some Eagle Lake-strain trout, which are the ones most likely to over-winter multiple times and grow to trophy size.

Milliron adds that there is a population of completely wild brown trout in Crowley Lake, which spawns in the fall. The wild rainbows usually spawn in the spring, but there is also a strain that spawns in the fall with the browns.

Anglers who desire one of these evasive spawners can cast to them as they migrate upstream on one of the lake's many tributaries, which include the Upper Owens River, Convict, McGee and Hilton creeks. However, special regulations are in place on all the tributaries during the spawning season. Although these fish are fair game, a decent sense of sportsmanship will tell any angler not to cast to a fish that is on a redd.

Although Crowley can be fished from shore, the fish are best approached by water, either in a float tube or in a boat. Chironomids are plentiful, and flyfishermen do well with midge imitations dead-drifted with indicators and split shot that allow the fly to dangle about three feet off the bottom. Small baitfish imitations at the end of a sinking or sink-tip line will also entice a strike.

Likewise, conventional tackle anglers may want to try trolling with a Flatfish, Needlefish, Rapala or similar lure. Bait fishermen prefer inflated baby night crawlers also rigged to float jus

t up from the bottom.

Crowley anglers that aren't content to fish from shore are advised to mind the wind. Many a float tuber and boat fisherman has found himself blown far off course. Small anchors (1 to 2 pounds) in 10 to 11 feet of water will keep you where you need to be to catch fish.

The Spring Creek That Keeps On Giving
From its origin at Big Springs north of Mammoth to its lower reaches 50 miles south near the town of Bishop, anglers will find some of California's best trout fishing in the Owens River. The river flows through different kinds of topography along the way, and each stretch offers a different experience.

The Owens is a spring creek, which originates at a place called Big Springs. The entire stretch of the river from Big Springs to the inlet of Crowley Lake is commonly referred to as the Upper Owens River.

Anglers can fish pools and pocket water at Big Springs, and from there, several miles of meandering meadow stream before it enters Crowley. The meadow stretch of the river flows through awesome scenery, as marsh hawks swoop over the low rises, with the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierra as a backdrop.

The fishing is equally dramatic. The resident fish are wary and difficult to catch, and the spawners - both brown and rainbows - in the spring and fall add another element. Like fishing to steelhead on a small creek, these monster fish seem hugely out of place in the shallows of the Upper Owens.

Because of the fragility of the spawning population, only a small stretch of the Upper Owens, at a place known as Benton Crossing, is open to conventional tackle. And this is allowed only during a few months of the summer. For the remainder of the season and on other parts of the river, size restrictions and bag limits are in place. In conjunction with these limitations, only artificial lures or flies with single barbless hooks are allowed. A section of the river above Benton Crossing is also closed to fishing because of an invasion of non-native snails.

Below Crowley Lake, the Owens River Gorge is the perfect destination for adventurous anglers and those seeking solitude. Because of the limited access here, the river is devoid of the crowds that throng some of the other popular destinations in the area. The river flows through a breathtaking canyon that can only be reached from a few small paved service roads running down to the water.

Anglers can't drive on these roads. They can park at one of several parking areas above the canyon and walk down the road to the river. Along some stretches, the roads parallel the stream, providing good access along the banks. Other sections of the Gorge are only accessible by scrambling over boulders and debris along steep banks.

Since the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power rewatered the Gorge a few years ago, a healthy population of brown trout has taken up residence. They range in size from 7 to 17 inches and put up a spectacular fight in tight quarters. There are no gear or catch restrictions in place here, but flyfishermen with lightweight tackle and a good supply of small attractor flies are the best equipped under the circumstances.

Beyond the Gorge, the Owens Rivers flows into the Pleasant Valley Reservoir, a small body of water that has good fishing for large rainbows and browns.

After the reservoir, the Owens flows through perhaps its most famous stretch. After the Pleasant Valley campground, which is downstream from the outflow of the reservoir, it flows through several miles of prime wild trout water. This is catch-and-release water that is a mecca for many flyfishermen.

It is open all year, and many anglers fish it in the winter when most of the surrounding waters are closed. Opening weekend is also an excellent time to fish here. The Lower Owens is a classic dry-fly fishery, as the river meanders slowly through a grassy meadow. Depending on the weather, anglers may encounter hatches of Baetis, caddis and pale morning duns. The fish rise readily to these flies, and the smooth surfaces make for excellent, although sometimes challenging, dry-fly presentations.

Big Trout Hiding In The Weeds
Hot Creek rises from an underground spring just east of the town of Mammoth and flows through a narrow canyon bubbling with hot springs before it merges with the Upper Owens River. The nutrient-rich environment produces a thriving aquatic ecosystem. Stoneflies, mayflies and caddis thrive in the plant life that lines the creek bottom from one bank to the other. The resident trout line up in the feeding lanes that form in the weeds and grow large gorging themselves on the plentiful hatches that occur throughout the year.

Because of these unique, naturally occurring conditions, Hot Creek provides an ideal living environment for a thriving population of wild, mostly brown trout. A few rainbows also reside there. To protect these gorgeous fish, it has a zero limit; only fly-fishing with single barbless hooks is allowed.

Hot Creek is a popular fishery, and because it is only a very short stretch of water in a very narrow canyon, it can get crowded, especially on weekends. However, anglers tend to stay on one side of the stream - the south side, which is adjacent to the road, parking lots and small footpaths that traverse into the canyon.

On the other hand, the knee-deep creek is easily crossed in all but the deepest holes. The lone fisherman who dares to blaze his own trail may find the opposing shore all to himself.

As one might expect, the fish on Hot Creek are not easy to catch. They see a lot of fisherman and their flies, and will not fall for any imitation. Hatches must be matched closely, which usually means using size 20 flies or smaller. They must be well placed with a natural, downstream drift. With insects so plentiful, the trout rarely venture out of their feeding lanes, even for the juiciest looking flies, and the slightest bit of drag will quickly turn away the hungriest fish. To make these delicate presentations, anglers must use lightweight tackle and light tippets, a challenge that is often compounded by strong afternoon winds.

The good news is that fishermen who find the right combination will be rewarded with a thrilling catch. Healthy and strong, the fish on Hot Creek will put up a sporting fight on a 3- or 4-weight rod with a 6X tippet.

Eastern Sierra Hotspots Worth More Than A Casual Look
While many anglers consider Crowley Lake, the Owens River and Hot Creek to be the crown jewels of the Eastern Sierra, there are many other excellent fishing waters in the area. Conventional tackle anglers, as well as those who don't want to be constrained by size or catch restrictions, will be pleased to know that many - although not all - of these waters are put-and-take. This means that the DFG plants plenty of catchable size trout, anglers can keep up to five fish on any given day, and there are no prohibitions against using bait or barbed treble hooks.

Just west of Highway 395, up in the hills above Crowley Lake, are some of the area's most popular lakes. There are no special regulations on Convict Lake, the Mammoth Lakes, or Rock Creek Lake.

All of these lakes are easily accessible by car; however, the Mammoth Lakes, which includes Mary and George lakes, Rock Creek Lake and its tributary, Rock Creek, may still be closed due to ice conditions.

Traveling north along Highway 395, anglers can visit the popular June Lake Loop, which includes Grant, Silver and June lakes. Rush Creek, which flows from Grant Lake into Mono Lake, is another popular destination for flyfishermen. This is a catch-and-release only stream, with only artificial and barbless hooks allowed.

Continuing on toward the town of Lee Vining are the Twin Lakes, which are known for producing big browns, and Bridgeport Reservoir. Tributaries, such as Buckeye, Robinson and Green creeks, offer good angling for smaller fish, although anglers should be mindful of special regulations to protect spawners.

Anglers who want to escape the crowds can fish for trophy brookies at Kirman Lake, if they are willing to make the short 45-minute hike in. To protect these beautiful fish, the lake is restricted to artificial only, with a two-fish limit and a minimum size limit of 16 inches.

Finally, perhaps the most popular destination in this area is the East Walker River. It originates out of Bridgeport Reservoir and flows for nearly 11 miles before reaching the Nevada state line. The entire stretch is home to some gigantic brown trout, and at this time of year, fly-anglers may be able to fish the tail end of the stonefly hatch. The Walker has a minimum-length limit of 18 inches, with a one-fish limit; only artificials may be used.

It is one of the most productive and besieged rivers in the area. Water diversions for agricultural use have created inconsistent flows and problems with siltation from the reservoir. Unfortunately, the quality of the fishing is dependent on the level of flows being released into the river during the current and previous seasons.

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