The strangest thing happened to Fred Rowe the other day. He got skunked.
The lanky fly fisherman from Mammoth Lakes, despite his considerable reputation as an angler, not to mention guide and teacher, couldn't get so much as a rise out of a trout.
There were a few that swam up to inspect the various flies he put so deftly in front of their little noses. But they showed no more than idle curiosity, taking only brief looks before settling back into the deeper pockets of the swift-flowing stream.
Walking the banks of the lower Owens River for what seemed miles, with the snow-covered mountains of the Eastern Sierra as a backdrop, Rowe tried every fly in his arsenal. They were many and varied. But they were useless.
Rowe eventually encountered a friend, Gary Hooper, another local expert, who was equally frustrated. And then he ran across Dave Wolters, who stood in the middle of the stream, casting, to no avail.
"Credential-wise, I'd put the three of us up against any other three in this area," Rowe said, explaining that only a few days earlier he was able to catch and release as many brown trout as he wanted.
So, he was asked, what's the deal?
It took a while, but he came up with an answer in the next few days, after Hooper had caught a small fish down around Bishop.
Hooper pumped its stomach in search of a clue.
Using a syringe-like device fly-fishermen carry to determine what trout have been eating--without killing the fish--Hooper pumped away and out came thousands of tiny midge larvae.
The fish had been gorging on the gnat-like creatures, presumably at dusk and dawn, lying low in the daylight hours.
"The bottom line is, it's almost impossible to compete against so many naturals," Rowe said. "There is not a fish that isn't feeding on anything but midges and because there are millions, if not billions of midges, there is no way we can compete."
What's a fly-fisherman to do?
Wait and see what tomorrow brings.
Sure enough, another day apparently brought fewer midges and hungrier trout. Rowe and his companions worked several sections of stream between Mammoth and Bishop and fought the wary little trout that have made the lower Owens River famous.
Well, sort of famous.
The only ones apparently aware of what the lower Owens offers are fly fishermen. They know it's about the only Eastern Sierra water in which to wet a line during winter months.
"There is the (general trout) fishing season called the end of April through the end of October, so when the end of October comes it's like, 'Oh, that's it, we can't fish anymore,' " Rowe said. "They have no concept that we have several miles of river that you can go down and fish any time of year."
But most people come here in the winter to ski, not fish.
Nothing against them, Rowe says, but they don't know what they're missing: scenery, solitude and peace of mind.
And sometimes even fish.
The lower Owens, from Pleasant Valley Reservoir--which is open year-round and sometimes offers good fishing for planted rainbow trout--to well beyond Bishop, is full of them. And depending on where one fishes, or the conditions in which one fishes--the weather can range from freezing rain and snow to 80 degrees--the results can be startling.
The 16-mile wild-trout section--where trout are not stocked and allowed to reproduce naturally--immediately below Pleasant Valley Reservoir is the most popular, offering few trophy-sized fish but some of the best fishing for brown trout in California.
This is where Rowe makes a living--aside from his part-time supermarket job--taking customers of his Sierra Bright Dot guide service on treks down the river, showing them the proper way to cast, letting them learn for themselves about the nasty tangles that can occur when an improper cast is made, and generally trying to ensure they enjoy themselves.
When the insect hatch is on, they do.
"Some of the mayfly hatches on the lower Owens have been phenomenal," Rowe said, his line whipping beautifully through the air on every cast. "Sometimes you get into the right hatch and have the right line and all you have to do is put the fly on the water and the fish are going to hit it. I had a couple days like that where you could do no wrong.
"I remember one day in particular where it didn't matter. If the fish rose and we knew where it was then we could cast to him and we took him. And if the fish wasn't rising and you knew how to read the water and knew where you suspected the fish was, you could blind cast and the fly would drift right over where you thought the fish would be. Boom! He'd come right up and take your fly. Everything was perfect."
Steve Parmenter of Bishop, a wild-trout expert for the Department of Fish and Game, laughed when told of Rowe's more recent outing, the one during which he caught no fish.
"There are tough times and good times, like on any river," Parmenter said, adding that there are times when fishermen correctly matching the hatch can catch 30 or 40 fish in a day.
"People very rarely catch fish 18 inches or larger," Parmenter said. "But for fish in the 10- to 14-inch range, there's probably a greater number of brown trout than in any river in California. It's one of state's best (brown trout fisheries)."
And it's one the state hopes to maintain and improve. In 1992, the DFG imposed strict regulations in the wild-trout section: From Pleasant Valley Reservoir to the footbridge, a distance of 2.7 miles, there is a limit of two fish a day, the maximum size being 12 inches. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks can be used.
From the footbridge to the catch-and-release sign, a 4.4-mile stretch, only flies or artificial lures with barbless hooks can be used and all fish must be released. Over the remaining 8.9 miles, there is a five-fish limit with no size limit or special restrictions.
Below that, fish are stocked and general rules--five-fish limit and no special restrictions--apply.
It is this section of river, which runs for about 20 miles south through the Owens Valley, that the Bishop Chamber of Commerce is promoting. The city, which relies on tourism and thrives during general trout season, gets a lot of traffic during ski season, but not much business. Fewer people seem to be stopping in town for gasoline and groceries, instead passing through on their way to Mammoth.
In an attempt to lure anglers, Bishop recently contracted with nearby Alpers Ranch to stock the lower Owens with trophy-sized rainbow trout, many of them pushing five pounds. The hope is to attract not only anglers, but skiers who might want to take a break and go fishing.
In any case, the lower Owens, which also gets DFG plants, has become a better fishery, and with the snowpack at about 20 feet, it should be running fast and high well into the summer. Rowe said the lower reaches of the river can provide excellent fishing--even for fly fishermen, though he admits that most fly-fishermen are too "snobbish" to mix with the bait fishermen.
"The river is huge enough but all the fly fishermen come here to fish only one section, the wild-trout water," Rowe said. "It's not any more productive but they feel it's more productive. They don't want to be down where everyone is bait fishing. If they leave the wild-trout section, there are still miles of great fishing downstream."
And as he said it, after at least 500 casts and not a single fish to his credit, he was asked if they might be catching fish downstream with bait.
"I don't think they're biting on anything today," he said. "You should have been here the other day."