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An Encore in the Eastern Sierra

A week later, the pilgrimage north on U.S. 395 begins anew, although on a much smaller scale.

This weekend is the so-called “second opener” in the Eastern Sierra, favored by those who don’t like the circus atmosphere associated with the actual opening of the general trout season.

And if the second opener is anything like last Saturday’s opener, fishermen are in for a memorable time.

Some snapshots:

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In the wee hours of Saturday morning, anglers and concessionaires are restless. Wind readings at Mammoth Mountain are peaking at 125 mph, and gale-force gusts are swirling throughout the region.

Motor homes are rocking -- in most cases purely because of the wind. Tents are blowing over. At Crowley Lake, a haven for boaters, officials did not allow the customary launching the night before. And they’re worried the ramp will have to remain closed, spoiling the opener for thousands.

But their fears subside at dawn’s early light. The big wind that has raged for two days has run out of breath.

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Into the water go hundreds of boats. Out go the trolling lures, the night crawlers, the Power Bait and Crave. Soon, the ripples on the lake are caused not by wind but by trout on the hook, dancing atop the surface.

Over the day, anglers catch an average of 1.1 fish an hour, mostly rainbow trout averaging 1.11 pounds and measuring an average of 14 inches. Limits are the rule and Crowley’s chief biologist ranks opening day above average.

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It’s nearly 9 a.m. at nearby Convict Lake, which has not yet been spared the wrath of the wind gods. Convict’s typically placid surface is a frothy white with two-foot whitecaps. Oceans rarely look as rough. No boats are out.

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“How big of a damper is the wind? Try 100%,” says Bob Logan of Highland, Calif., his face reddened by the cold.

He and his father-in-law, Ed Kuswa of Hesperia, have just tried to scramble out onto some boulders to do some shore fishing, but water blown onto the rocks during the night has frozen, rendering them too slippery to walk or sit comfortably on.

Their luck soon changes, however. In another hour the wind becomes a mere breeze, enabling the opening of the ramp and generally brightening the mood of scores of anglers staked out along the shoreline.

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Chris Coston of Placentia has no complaints about the wind at Convict. At 8:30 a.m., in his float tube close to shore near the inlet, he has set his hook into the jaw of a monstrous trout that might even be too large for his net.

What net? Coston has left it behind. Time to get creative: After he reels the lunker in, he grabs it by the gills, wrestles it onto his lap and kicks his way back to the shore. It tips the scale at 11.1 pounds, ultimately becoming the biggest fish reported to any Eastern Sierra landing on opening day -- and giving Convict Lake Resort bragging rights for the second consecutive year.

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Few places are as pretty as the June Lake scenic loop on a sunny day and, at midmorning, few are sparkling quite like the town’s namesake fishing hole, June Lake. The smiles on the faces of little boys and girls speak volumes about their success.

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Emily Jackson, 12, a June Lake resident, has only one prize, but it’s a beauty: a brilliantly colored rainbow weighing nearly four pounds -- a fish she somehow reeled in while wearing mittens.

Nearby is Timothy Sullivan, who caught five fish to his father’s one.

“I do all the work and get all the hooks ready, and then he catches all the fish,” says Patrick Sullivan, 56, a Westchester resident who has been fishing June Lake on opening day since he was a child.

Asked what he likes most about the opener, Timothy pauses shyly before summing up the essence of the day: “I really like just getting up early and going out to try to catch some fish.”

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June’s fish have fattened up nicely throughout the spring thaw; they’re coming in at an average of two-three pounds.

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At nearby Gull Lake, the trout are also unusually plump. Fred Lozano, 77, of Alhambra, has gotten off a boat with his son, Dave. Using night crawlers, the father has caught five fish totaling 17 pounds 4 ounces, but his son has been skunked. Fred’s turns out to be the second-largest stringer on the loop on opening day.

The Lozanos are part of the “Crowley Crew,” which has been fishing Eastern Sierra openers for 35 years. Fred Lozano’s 6-pound 11-ounce rainbow, the gem of his stringer, earns him the Crew trophy, surrendered by last year’s winner, Shawn Arnold, publisher of Fish Taco Chronicles in Huntington Beach.

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It’s an eerie scene at midmorning at Wilson Creek, which flows from Lundy Lake and meanders through scrubby highlands before ultimately spilling into Mono Lake.

This is not a fishing spot, and the only visible people are part of U.S. Forest Service fire crews looking for hot spots. A wind-driven brush fire swept over the area, north of Lee Vining, two days before opening day.

No homes were lost or damaged but the result was devastating for trout in the creek, being raised in open-air pens as part of a Mono County fisheries enhancement program, to supplement waters also stocked regularly by the Department of Fish and Game.

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Ash from the fire has choked much of the oxygen from the creek. In a breathless panic, some of the fish have leaped free of the water and flopped to their death. Many more have perished in the creek and still litter its bottom.

More than 20,000 trout are believed to have died.

“It’s not a huge loss in terms of numbers,” says Steve Marti of the Sierra Trout Foundation, spearheading the enhancement program. “But it will definitely have an impact.”

The nonprofit foundation is seeking donations to get the program up and running again. The address is Sierra Trout Foundation, P.O. Box 308, Bridgeport, Calif., 93517. Phone: (760) 932-7417.

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High atop Bishop Creek Canyon, at nearly 10,000 feet and in frigid midmorning temperatures, hearty anglers are fishing through holes in the ice at South and nearby Sabrina Lakes.

Many more are crowding the banks of Bishop Creek and a ridiculous crowd is on hand at Intake II, a heavily stocked impoundment on the Middle Fork of the creek beneath Sabrina Lake.

Seeking refuge from all the people are Marlon Meade, 44, of Anaheim, and a few companions, who have hiked for 45 minutes through the snow to reach the banks of North Lake, which is still largely covered with ice.

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Using a mini-jig fished under a bobber, Meade hooks into one of the big ones. Eight minutes later, he has the fish at his feet. At 6 pounds 11 ounces, it’s the largest from the creek drainage lakes and the fifth largest in the region.

News and Notes

* Sailing: Brad Van Liew, a former Southern California sailing star now living in Mount Pleasant, S.C., is due into port at Newport. R.I., Saturday and, barring incident, will become the first American to win all five legs of the Around Alone solo-circumnavigation race.

Van Liew is sailing aboard Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America in Class II, involving boats to 50 feet. Bernard Stamm of Switzerland arrived aboard Bobst Group Armor Lux early Thursday as winner of Class I, involving 60-footers. The race began Sept. 15 in New York.

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* Saltwater fishing: AFTCO Manufacturing’s annual “Day at the Lots” tackle show and sale is Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at its Irvine store, 17351 Murphy Ave. The show -- which also features seminars and boat displays -- includes a raffle and garage sale to benefit United Anglers of Southern California.

* Boating: The Newport In-Water Boat Show, with more than 600 boats on display, is in progress through Sunday at Newport Dunes in Newport Beach. Admission is $10 for adults and free for children 12 and under. Details: (949) 757-5959 or www.goboatingamerica.com.


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