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TROUT TIME : At Busy Crowley and on Quiet Lakes, the Season Begins

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The pre-dawn darkness finds four fishermen climbing a forest trail by the light of a fluorescent lantern, stopping to gasp for oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere about every 100 yards.

Trout season is about to start, so they have followed Interstate 395 north from Los Angeles, pausing at the stand in front of the high school in Independence where the students sell night crawlers.

They have driven 35 miles beyond the bustling center of activity at Crowley Lake and 3 1/2 miles more over a dusty, washboard road to the trail head.

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Now the only sounds are from their labored breathing and the tramping of their boots on the gravel. Even the birds are not yet awake. Ahead a mile or so, at Walker Lake, they hope to catch the fish still asleep.

“All this (pause for breath) for a lousy (pause) 12-inch fish,” one says.

Here, near the wilderness backside of Yosemite National Park, they’ll be lucky to catch any that large. But each will be a man’s own fish, his personal prey, and one of nature’s creatures, spawned and matured in a natural environment instead of under clinical control, and all of that appeals to some people.

In a few minutes they will stand on a crest, panting. It will be a steep and tricky descent into the stillness of the valley of the lake about 1,000 feet below, but the sky to the east of Mono Lake is turning from ebony to blue.

To the south, Crowley is staging its annual re-enactment of the chaos of Dunkirk. Every boat within a hundred miles seems to be on the lake, its outboard buzzing and loaded with bait, beer and bravado, while thousands of other fishermen crowd the beach.

There is a flurry of activity, with excitement and anticipation high.

A flare, signaling the start of the season, is fired at 5:20 a.m., a half-hour before daybreak, and, with the flick of 14,000 wrists, 14,000 lines hit the water almost simultaneously.

At dawn, Crowley is revealed as something less than a pristine setting--hard against I-395, treeless, featureless and man-made by a thirsty Los Angeles.

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Even most of its fish are artificially produced but, large and plentiful, they have made Crowley famous. It is those fish that have made Crowley the center of the area’s rite of spring: Opening day.

“It’s a tradition,” says Phil Pister, a State Department of Fish and Game biologist who has some misgivings about the Crowley crush.

“It gets people into the habit of equating a good time with a lot of fish,” Pister said, standing by the DFG scale adjacent to the cleaning tables. “But it does support the (local) economy, and the people are happy about that.”

Pister’s views on environmental subjects are nationally respected. He lectures at about 50 college campuses each year.

“In the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a dramatic change in the philosophy people bring with them,” Pister said.

There are two fishing philosophies at work in the Eastern Sierra. It’s no secret why thousands flock to Crowley. Just watch them return from the water with strings or wire baskets full of fat rainbow trout.

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It’s also easy to understand why others avoid Crowley, especially on opening day.

Mike Minchella of San Pedro, one of perhaps two dozen anglers at Walker Lake, said: “We came here just to get away from Crowley. The fewer people, the better.”

His friend, Bob Hlad of Northridge, was fishing about 20 yards away, sitting on a rock, leaning against a tree and not working terribly hard at it.

“We don’t want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder,” Hlad said. “We’re around cars and people all the time. Even if we don’t catch anything, we’re just as happy.

“If you’re fishing for the refrigerator, that’s one thing,” Hlad said. “There’s a ritualistic thing to go to Crowley on opening day.”

Two new fishermen arrive, one bearing a large pack on his back.

“Mind if we pump up our boat?” asks Joe Arechiga. “It makes a lot of noise.”

Noise is relative, and Arechiga is concerned that his foot pump will disturb the tranquility. At Crowley, it couldn’t even be heard above the buzz of activity.

Arechiga and his friend, John Pedersen, are from nearby Mammoth Lakes, only a few miles from Crowley.

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“I’ve gone there twice on opening day and sworn I’d never go again,” he said. “A lot of our buddies are at Crowley.”

And, no doubt, catching more and bigger fish.

“There’s nothing like this,” Arechiga said. “I don’t care if we don’t even catch fish.”

Their buddies, it is suggested, must think Arechiga and Pedersen are fools, going to all that trouble with no promise of fish.

They smile and look around, slide their boat into the water and paddle out, silently.

The snowy slopes of 12,296-foot Mt. Lewis across the lake are aglow with first light. A bird can be heard flapping its wings across the lake.

Thad Taylor is an anomaly--a Dean Witter stockbroker based in Bishop. At a pre-opening barbecue for the press, he is the only one present in a suit and tie.

But Taylor also is a leader of the conservationist Cal Trout organization, and he is appalled at what he regards as excesses such as the prizes awarded each year for biggest and most fish taken--the “meat” count.

“People fish for their own reasons,” Taylor said. “Some people will travel a lot farther to catch something smaller--and then put it back.”

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Taylor is not an evangelist, but he does have a mission.

“As they live here, (people) slowly come to a realization of why they came here,” he said. “God will provide us beyond our wildest dreams, if we just don’t get in His way.”

Lee Roeser is an Eastern Sierra cowboy. He runs the Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit.

“The people on our trips aren’t the ones that go to Crowley,” he says. “The back-country fisherman is looking for a more natural stream or lake in a more pristine environment.

“The Crowley fishermen like the amenities of staying in a lodge or a motor home--plus, the back-country fisherman isn’t geared toward a great big fish,” Roeser adds, spreading his hands apart.

“I love the back country. I grew up there. It’s the one thing in this world that doesn’t change.”

And yet others of Roeser’s breed don’t resent what happens at Crowley. As Pister said, it’s good for the economy--and, besides, it’s exciting.

Harriette Allison of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce, said: “A lot of local people will go just for the spirit of the opening. They’ll go up and camp out the night before, even though they’re 45 minutes from home.”

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The meat and angler counts were down at Crowley this year. Some 17,500 were expected but only about 14,000 arrived.

Dave Griffith, Crowley’s red-bearded manager, doesn’t see that as a signal of a fishing recession.

“We’re really not interested in big, madding crowds,” Griffith said. “We’re comfortable with it. If we can stay at that, it’s more comfortable for the fishermen. The people that were here enjoyed the lack of a big crowd. It can be upsetting with all the long lines.”

One fisherman, Bert Ashland of Garden Grove, said: “We always arrive at the same time, about 1 o’clock Friday (before the Saturday opening). Usually there’s an hour’s wait getting through (boat) inspection and another hour getting our boat in the water. This time we drove right through.”

The downside, Ashland added, was that “it was a slow day. Three of us each caught three in four hours.”

Dale DeMott of Hidden Hills said he and his friends have been coming to Crowley for “10 or 12 years . . . (but) we didn’t get our limits. We usually have our limits by 10 o’clock.”

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Some fisherman have speculated that the perch that started showing up in the lake in the 60s are eating the trouts’ food supply, as well as the immature trout.

“I would agree,” Griffith said. “But the perch carry us through August. There’s really good perch fishing here late in the summer.”

And the trout are still there. Griffith knows because he saw the DFG put them there--about 300,000 in all since last fall.

“That means we’ll have more fish in the lake later in the season,” he said. “I’d almost be willing to make a trade-off from the big fish early in the season to good perch fishing late in the season.”

And for anyone who would still prefer the back country, the trails are open.

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