A MAMMOTH UNDERTAKING : Declaring Area a State Trout Park Would Provide It With a Summer Attraction to Match Skiing, Says One Resident

Times Staff Writer

By way of explaining how Mammoth Lakes may be designated a "state trout park," Dick Dahlgren was reviewing the last five years in Mammoth Lakes. It was a bad review.

"The first bad thing that happened up here was all the talk in the early 1980s about volcanoes," said Dahlgren, a Mammoth Lakes real estate salesman. "That knocked real estate prices down about 50%.

"For a while, it seemed like every other week Caltech graduate students were calling press conferences up here, talking about earthquakes and volcanoes. That killed us. Real estate prices haven't been the same since.

"The economy here has also been hurt badly by lingering uncertainty over how the new tax law affects second-home owners, and the slump in the savings and loan industry.

"Then the president of our Mammoth Lakes Resort Assn. went south with about $105,000 of the association's money.

His reference was to Ron Stevens, recently sentenced in Mono County Superior Court to three years in state prison for embezzling.

Then, as if the town needed another bad break, the recent ski season was one of the poorest on record. Winter snow came late and left early. So did skiers. Some condominium buildings reported ski-season revenues 50% below normal.

Slow ski seasons do a double number on Mammoth Lakes, since the town is virtually dead in summertime. Dahlgren, however, has been maintaining for years that this state of affairs can be changed.

What does any of this have to do with trout?

Dahlgren is a fly fisherman. For years, he has been advocating that Mammoth Lakes in summertime should be some sort of Yellowstone West, a fly fishing destination to rival the hallowed waters of the Yellowstone region.

A longtime critic of Department of Fish and Game fisheries management in the Eastern Sierra, Dahlgren would like to see more recycling of trout--that's called wild-trout management--in the region's waters and less trout-hatchery truck traffic.

With some simple changes in fisheries management, Dahlgren maintains, Mammoth Lakes could crack the oft-cited ranking of fly fishermen, that America's top 10 fly fishing streams are all within 100 miles of Yellowstone National Park.

"There's nothing magic about the water quality in Yellowstone's rivers and streams," he says. "They're simply managed as trophy fishing waters. . . . That's why you can catch 16- to 18-inch trout all day long in rivers like the Madison, Firehole, Yellowstone and Henry's Fork (of the Yellowstone River).

"Except for maybe Hot Creek, Mammoth has nothing now to challenge Yellowstone streams with. But that could easily be turned around. Simply put, you just start releasing the fish unharmed, instead of killing them, and letting them grow."

Growing trout, Dahlgren hopes, would mean growing real estate prices.

Dahlgren has been preaching that sermon for so long that he may finally have gotten through. Plans are in the works to submit a proposal to the state Fish and Game Commission that could put Mammoth Lakes on the fly fisherman's map and keep it there.

In a nutshell, this is what Dahlgren, the Mammoth Lakes Resort Assn., the Mammoth Lakes City Council and the organization known as California Trout are asking the DFG to recommend to the Fish and Game Commission:

--That 39 lakes and 40 miles of streams in the Mammoth Lakes area, including the Upper Owens River and the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, be studied as possible candidates for wild-trout mangement, meaning that limits would range from zero to two, minimum size limits would be imposed and gear restricted to barbless hooks at qualifying waters.

--That one lake, to be named later, be managed as a "Huck Finn pond." It would be stocked with hatchery trout and fishing would be managed on a 10-fish or no-limit basis.

--That a permit be granted for construction of a privately funded "living" wild-trout museum, aquarium and trout information center on Mammoth Creek. There, visitors could observe through underground streamside windows the biological dynamics of a wild-trout stream environment.

"I've lived in Mammoth Lakes since 1969," Dahlgren said. "Every year, I see the same pattern. Business booms in the winter, when the skiers are here, then drops off substantially when they leave. In the summer, we have a little backpacker-hiker traffic and some bait fishermen, but nothing to compare to the money skiers spend here in the winter--or what's spent by fly fishermen in the Yellowstone area.

"After listening to all the summertime moaning and groaning, I began to wonder why Mammoth Lakes couldn't be a major summertime fly fishing destination. I mean, my God, look at our resources here--all these gorgeous lakes and streams, the beautiful back country. It's not like we'd have to build anything. It's here! It doesn't even cost anything. Really, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out."

No, just a smart real estate guy.

Actually, for the residents, Mammoth isn't all that bad a place to fish now, even under the DFG's decades-old hook-'em-and-eat-'em management.

"A lot of people think of Twin Lakes here in Mammoth as a put-and-take lake," Dahlgren said. "It is, basically, but there are also a lot of holdover trout in the lake.

"There are also five spawning creeks running into Twin Lakes. One of them is about a yard wide and 50 feet long. It doesn't even have a name. If you're there on the right two days in the fall, that little stream is loaded with spawning brook trout, to four pounds.

"I hit it right last fall early one morning. When I got there I found a little black bear, running up and down the stream, knocking brookies out of the water.

"Really, Twin Lakes not only has some big fish but the rainbows in there are gorgeous, the most beautiful in the Sierra. They look like they were hand-painted by a Disney artist

"With flies, I've caught several browns in the seven-pound class at Upper Twin, one about nine pounds, and I've seen one in the 19- to 20-pound class.

"George Creek, between Lakes Mary and George, is jammed with spawning brookies in the fall."

According to Dahlgren, Mammoth area fly fishermen agree with him that Twin Lakes is one of three area lakes with the potential to grow large trout.

"Twin, Sotcher and Olaine lakes all have the potential to grow trophy-class trout," he said. "Olaine is a lily pad lake not far from Red's Meadow, near the base of the Shadow Creek falls."

Dahlgren's enthusiasm is not universally shared, however. Phil Pister, longtime Eastern Sierra fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, says the number of waters in the Mammoth Lakes area that would be productive as wild-trout waters is small.

Pister: "Trying to grow big trout in some of the waters Dahlgren is talking about is like trying to grow alfalfa on a tennis court. The biology just isn't there. Some of those high lakes are almost sterile. A basic premise to wild-trout management is that a body of water must be capable of sufficient food production to support trout.

"If the biology isn't there, then you can't do it. You just don't circle a bunch of lakes and streams on a map and say: 'Let's make these all wild-trout waters.' It doesn't work that way.

"This is a case of some zealots who have some good ideas and concepts but who have jumped on something that hasn't been well thought out."

"Now, some of those Mammoth waters might be good wild-trout candidates. They already have one. Hot Creek is one of the finest wild-trout streams in America. Mammoth Creek below Highway 395 is a possibility. So is Upper Twin Lake. But a lot of those lakes, you're lucky to catch a few skinny brook trout."

Still, the idea has other advocates. Gordon Alper, a commercial glass contractor in Mammoth Lakes, is a fly fisherman and one of seven directors of the Mammoth Lakes Resort Assn.

"We have 350 members in the association and I haven't spoken to one of them who isn't in favor of the city being managed as a state wild-trout park," he said.

"We all recognize now, particularly after this recent poor ski season, that Mammoth Lakes needs a summertime identity. And we feel that this potentially phenomenal trout fishery here is the answer."

Jim Edmondson of Temple City, an Eastern Sierra wild-trout activist, hopes a DFG study will show "six, seven or eight" waters capable of supporting wild trout.

"Where unproductive, sterile waters are found, that's where hatchery trout should be planted, not in waters that can support wild trout," he said. "We want the DFG to take a close look at Laurel Lake, in the Sherwin Bowl, a lake we think could be managed as a wild-golden trout lake. Mammoth Creek, Glass Creek, Deadman Creek, Sotcher Lake, Olaine Lake and Twin Lakes are all waters we think should be managed as wild-trout waters.

"We're looking at a broad-brush concept of trout management, something for everyone--ranging from heavily stocked lakes to wild-trout lakes."

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