Perspective: Eastern Sierra trout stocking issues reaching boiling point

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LUIS RODRIGUEZ of Los Angeles with a limit of quality rainbows that ate minijigs in Little Virginia Lake.
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BY MIKE STEVENS

LEE VINING – Early last month, kayak angler Luis Rodriguez of Los Angeles made several trips up to Virginia Lakes to take advantage of trout fishing that had been outperforming many area lakes that were dragging through late summer doldrums. Part of the reason for the better fishing at Virginia Lakes was the private stocking of the premium rainbows from Desert Springs Trout Farm in Oregon. It was those fish that Rodriguez was fishing for, and they are also at the root of an interaction he had with Virginia Lakes Resort management in the visits that followed.

“I caught five small trout, and I came back the next day and caught three big ones, two with tags (from the Bridgeport Fisheries Enhancement Foundation (BFEF), one of the local non-profit organizations that raises money to stock the Oregon fish) and one with no tag,” Rodriguez told Western Outdoor News. “I came back a week later and caught one trout, and the next day I caught five and gave them to friends. The next day, they saw me catch five trout, and they got mad because there was a lot of people fly fishing that were not catching many. They were only catching one or two big ones per day, and I was catching my limit, not more than my limit.”

After catching one of those limits, Rodriguez was approached by John Webb, half of the husband-and-wife ownership team of Virginia Lakes Resort.

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According to Rodriguez, Webb said he had been receiving complaints from fly fishermen in float tubes and other anglers because Rodriguez was doing so well catching the bigger trout. Rodriguez said Webb said he wasn’t a fisherman but rather a “hunter,” because he is only targeting the bigger fish, and that Webb acknowledged the fact Rodriguez was obviously good as what he does (catching big trout on minijigs), but by doing it regularly, he is depleting the resource and keeping those fish from being caught by other anglers. Rodriguez went on to tell WON that Webb brought up the fact that only 50 of those trout were stocked, and they cost a lot of money.

On a subsequent visit, Rodriguez said he was told by management that he should only catch three trout, and he “respected that” and only kept three fish that day. He also said even though he makes his own minijigs, he told other anglers who asked how he was doing so well to buy jigs from the store at Virginia Lakes Resort.

“I felt bad that other people were not catching fish,” Rodriguez told WON. “I didn’t tell them that I make jigs and to buy them from me, I told them to go buy them in the store.”
In a conversation with Western Outdoor News, John Webb again acknowledged what Rodriguez did was completely legal, and explained how his intention was to encourage only taking one or two of the bigger fish rather than a five-fish limit in order to share the resource with more anglers.

“If you catch five per day, that’s a moral issue, not a legal issue,” said Webb. “It happened again yesterday. Someone caught five, and I told him ‘if you do that tomorrow, there will be nothing next week.’ If everyone took five, there wouldn’t be any fish and if you came up, you wouldn’t get anything until the DFW showed up, and the last time they stocked here was before Fourth of July.”

Regarding that last state plant, it was clear Webb is as frustrated with the lack of DFW stocking as most Eastern Sierra stakeholders and anglers alike, and he said that pre July 4 load consisted of 600 pounds of fish and “at least 100 pounds died.” He also confirmed that all the money he collects in float tube and kayak launching fees goes directly into buying fish, but at $5 to 7 per pound, it’s not nearly enough to cover it. He does get some assistance from the BFEF to help pay for those premium Oregon fish.

“I’m trying to keep fishing alive in the Sierra which the DFW is falling asleep on,” added Webb. “We want it to be the way it used to be in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and $100,000 (Mono County’s budget for buying the Desert Springs trout to stock in the region) doesn’t cut it when Fish and Wildlife isn’t doing its job.”

Any trout fisherman in California knows Rodriguez’s actions were completely legal as far as the DFW regulations, and that was not contested at any point. It is also understandable how stocking 50 quality fish only to see ten of them taken out within a couple days would be frustrating to someone whose business is dependent on anglers having a good time fishing. This is also paired with the fact that state trout stocking — which had been steadily on the decline for years anyway — was almost nonexistent in 2020 after three hatcheries were shut down and all their trout inventory euthanized due to a virus.

Those hatcheries are back online, but it takes a while to get trout up to stockable size, and they’re starting from scratch. That being said, DFW trout plants remained very limited in 2021, but some of that was mitigated with the importation of these Oregon fish which were paid for by county and city (Mono County, Mammoth Lakes and Bishop) as well as those non-profits, and in some cases, the resorts and marinas themselves.

It would also be beneficial (for obvious reasons) for a resort if its guests, or a catch-and-release angler, were catching the fish so those paying for the stocking get more of their money’s worth if those trout are being caught multiple times by different fishermen.

Private citizens can run a resort, cabins, a marina and boat rentals, but they don’t own the lake or what swims in it, regardless of how much of a hand they had in the stocking. And while everyone has opinions on catch-and-release in the Eastern Sierra, a legitimate argument shouldn’t start with “Personally, I always…” because that doesn’t matter. What’s legal matters, so if that is not in line with your personal stance on the matter, your beef is with the law.

As for anglers only looking to catch the big fish. Well…yeah.

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