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River Rockets : New Strain of Fighting Rainbow Trout Should Boost the Upper Owens

Times Staff Writer

Jim Edmondson was talking about rockets. River rockets. Rockets with scales and fins.

“In about two years, there are going to be rockets racing up and down the Upper Owens,” he said, “some real tackle-busting river rockets.”

What’s a tackle-busting river rocket? It’s a strain of rainbow trout called a McConaughy Nebraska rainbow, a fast-growing, hard-fighting trout introduced to the Upper Owens River system last August.

For the last several years, biologists have been trying to solve one of Crowley Lake’s mysteries--why the famed trout lake has declined as a trophy trout fishery.

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Says Phil Pister, longtime fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Game: “Crowley Lake trout are not surviving their third winter in the lake, and we don’t know why.”

Several years ago, Pister and his colleagues looked at the possibility of introducing other strains of rainbow trout to the lake. Out of dozens available in Western and Midwestern states, they settled on McConaughy rainbows, a species indigenous to the North Platte River system.

“They got their name because they were first stocked in McConaughy Reservoir (in west-central Nebraska) about 50 years ago,” said Wes Sheets, a Nebraska state fisheries biologist.

“It’s a river-running rainbow that migrates 150 miles up the North Platte River from the reservoir, and then into a number of small tributaries to spawn. It behaves almost like a Pacific steelhead. But its most impressive characteristic is that it’s extremely fast-growing. It’s a fish-eater, and if it has good forage, it’ll go from 6 or 8 inches to 10 or 12 pounds in two summers.

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“It’s also very temperature tolerant. It’ll tolerate high water temperatures more easily than almost any other rainbow strain.”

And, Sheets added, Nebraska fishermen give the McConaughy high combat marks.

“Our trout fishermen rate them very high as fighters,” he said. “When they’re caught with a trolling rig in the reservoir, a seven-pound McConaughy will take 100 to 150 yards of line and make a lot of jumps. It’s a surface fighter.”

Already, little McConaughys are darting about in Crowley and its tributaries.

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“We introduced 40,000 fingerling-size (two to four inches) McConaughy rainbows into several Crowley tributaries including the Upper Owens last August,” said Darrell Wong, DFG biologist. “They’re all fin-clipped for identification, so we hope to see the first ones being caught in the Upper Owens system by 1988.”

River rockets? Clearly, these are changing times on the Upper Owens.

In 1963, Field & Stream magazine published an article headlined: “The Owens: Never-Fail Trout River.” The theme of the piece was that for both fly and bait fishermen, the Upper Owens was as reliable a stream for trophy size trout--3 to 5 pounds--as could be found anywhere in the West.

Such is no longer the case, most Upper Owens fishermen would agree. There are many reasons for the decline of the Upper Owens, not the least of which is that in 1963 there were 1.3 million licensed fishermen in California, compared to 2.3 million today.

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However, sweeping new regulations the DFG hopes will substantially improve fishing on the Upper Owens are in effect and will, many believe, contribute to a bright future for not only the Upper Owens but also for downstream Crowley Lake and its tributaries.

In recent years, fishermen working the Upper Owens could catch and kill 10 trout, of any size. But since the Eastern Sierra trout season opened April 25, the bag limit for the Upper Owens and several other Crowley tributaries is now two fish, and one of them must be 18 inches or longer. Further, fishing gear is restricted to single, barbless-hooked lures and flies.

To put it another way, there’s nothing wrong with the Upper Owens that a few thousand spawning river rockets won’t cure.

The Upper Owens begins near Big Springs campground, a few miles south of Mono Lake, 7,300 feet high in the crater lands of the Eastern Sierra.

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Water bubbles out of the ground at Big Springs and is quickly joined by water from Deadman and Glass creeks. Near its source, it’s more creek than river. An athlete could jump across it in many places.

It hasn’t even flowed for a mile by the time it reaches the Owens River Ranch property. There, Tim Alpers, 38, continues a ranching legacy on 225 acres his family bought in 1903.

Alpers raises about 200 head of cattle each summer on his ranch . . . and about 70,000 rainbow trout.

He and his father started a trout hatchery business in 1971, buying trout eggs and raising the fish to plantable size, then selling them to chambers of commerce, county fairs and private ponds throughout the eastern and northern parts of California.

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One recent day, Alpers wrestled in the mud with a shovel, repairing a pasture drainage pipe that had filled with mud in the winter. He leaned a foot on his shovel blade and pointed to the river flowing quietly by.

“Look at the gravel in the bottom of that river,” he said. “When the Good Lord decided to make this part of the river a spawning area for trout, he did a perfect job. Look at the size of the gravel stones--they’re perfect.”

Alpers remembers better days on the Upper Owens, which twists and turns for 1.5 miles across his property. Alpers has 10 cabins on his property, where fishermen are lodged. By day, they fish in a quiet mountain meadow environment.

“In the 1950s, two former Ram players, Tom Fears and Bob Waterfield, came up to fish with my dad,” Alpers said. “In one day, they caught cutthroat and brown trout that weighed 11, 9, 6 and 4 pounds. We used to sit on that bank over there and watch 5- to 10-pound cutthroats go by, during the runs. Now, it isn’t anything like that.”

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What happened?

“It’s a combination of things,” said Alpers, who is a Mono County supervisor.

“For one thing, the DFG fell into a pattern of raising and planting millions of hatchery trout instead of letting Mother Nature run a fisheries program. Also, there’s been tremendous fishing pressure on Crowley in recent years and the regulations have been too loose there.

“This 2-fish, 18-inch regulation is a step in the right direction. We can get the Owens back to what it was.”

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He pointed to a quiet, clear pool, near where a bridge his grandfather built was destroyed in the record winter of 1969.

“Right over there, I counted 47 spawners the other day,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be a couple of hundred in a few years.”

The Upper Owens flows past the Alpers spread and onto another small cattle ranch, the Arcularius Ranch. There, too, fishermen rent cabins and fish for trout going to and from Crowley Lake.

The little river moves quietly along, not far from a two-lane country road. In some places, it splits off into two and three channels, then becomes a lone river again. All the way, it twists and turns, framed to the east by 11,100-foot Glass Mountain and, to the west, the spiny Sierra Nevada.

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It rolls under the Benton Crossing bridge and wiggles across one more meadow before finally emptying into 3-by-5-mile Crowley Lake.

Ross Merigold is a fly fishing guide. He spends his summers in the major leagues of fly fishing, the streams of the Yellowstone National Park area. It’s an oft-told tale of fly fishermen, that America’s top 10 fly fishing streams are all within 100 miles of Yellowstone. Not long ago, Merigold was in the Eastern Sierra, checking out the Upper Owens with his old fishing pal, Edmondson.

“I rate the Madison River (near Yellowstone) the country’s best fly fishing stream, but I’m prejudiced,” Merigold said. “That’s where I do most of my fishing. But anyone who’s fished all the best streams in America would certainly put the Madison in their top three or four.

“I think these new regulations could put the Upper Owens in a class with the Madison, or any other stream. Years ago, the Madison was in the same shape as the Upper Owens . . . it was 28 miles of potentially great trout water, but it was managed on an ‘anything goes’ basis, and so the fishing wasn’t much.

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“After they turned it into a catch-and-release river, the turnaround was incredible. Now, it’s world famous. I’ve guided people there from Japan, West Germany and even Egypt. The economic turnaround in the area has been amazing. I’ve told people in Mammoth Lakes that economically, the Upper Owens is the key here. ‘Put your arms around that river, care for it, protect it, and make it work,’ I tell them. Everything else will fall in place.

“Even now, the Upper Owens isn’t bad. The biggest rainbow I caught on the Madison last summer was 23 inches. Last October, I caught a 26-incher on the Upper Owens and several others over 20 inches. And the new regs (regulations) haven’t even had much of an effect yet. So the potential is there, to be a world-class fishing stream.”


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