Postponing the Eastern Sierra trout opener comes with advantages

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MAMMOTH LAKES – The Eastern Sierra trout opener as we all know it didn’t happen, and we don’t know (for sure) when our next chance to fish up there will be. What we do know, is we will be fishing again eventually, and when it happens, it will be unlike any other Fishmas ever, and many of the differences will be positive.

I’ve been fishing the Sierra for almost 30 years, but I’ve only been to half-a-dozen openers. Those were the last six and in the line of duty as part of the editorial team covering it for Western Outdoor News. I love the hype, the tradition and the excuse to get a quick taste of it all and get the juices flowing before my trips later in the season, but if I only had one Sierra trip per year to work with, I wouldn’t burn it on the traditional April opener.

Look, I get it, and like I said, I love being a part of it. I’ve run across groups that have been coming up on that day for decades, some have four generations of family members on hand, and they are proud of how long they’ve been doing it, or how they’ve never missed one and how they are going to be out there blizzard or shine. I’ve picked up on some pretty funny trends to, such as the fact that these every-opener regulars not only go to the same lake every year, but they occupy the same stretches of shoreline like they own the place! Here’s an example. The cove behind the marina at Crowley Lake, every year 90 percent of everyone in it on Fishmas morning are the same family (and friends of the family) from Whittier. You can set your watch to it.

CONVICT LAKE is a lot more accommodating in June. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

As I make my opening day rounds, I always ask each group if they come up again later in the season, and in my first couple years, I was shocked at the amount of people fishing the opener ONLY fish the opener.

“Wait. What?” was my usual response. “So, you come up now, and you’ve always come up this weekend, and you don’t come up when exponentially more waters are open to fish?”

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Then I go into hard-sell mode as if I get some kind of commission for whoever heads up Highway 395 and says, “Stevens sent me!” A few are cool with their opener-only playbook, but there are also a lot who have never thought about it, but I can see that light go off above their heads.

This year, when the idea of a delayed opener became a reality and my soul began to panic, I started thinking, what if the season opened in June, July or even later? The opener crowd would still come up and get exposed to my selling points by force! Then, after dealing with a shortened general season, the residual effects that would have on future trout seasons could be invaluable for the region in more ways than even I could come up with. The fishing ones, I get, but the impact will be a lot deeper than that.

TIOGA PASS rarely opens before June, but when it does, anglers can hit Lee Vining Creek, Ellery Lake, Saddlebag Lake and the 20 Lakes Basin and Tioga Lake (shown here) which is at the top of the pass just before the rear entrance to Yosemite. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

Trout get a longer vacation:

Most anglers are familiar how outstanding fishing can be when the fish don’t see a bait or lure for even a relatively short amount of time. Eastern Sierra trout – especially the better fish – are affected the same way, and tacking on a couple month to the existing, official off season (or limited season, in some year-round waters) is only going to magnify that effect.

The one that sticks out for me is, if the DFW is still planting fish, there should be more fish in the waters here to catch when it does finally open, said guide Jim Elias of FishMammoth.com. “There’s also been less fishing pressure on a lot of our rivers that are open year round which will also contribute to more eager fish at least for a brief period after things open back up.”

 Elias was not the only guide to touch on the effect of zero fishing pressure for a longer period either.

One would think that a few months where the fish never see a lure bait, or fly wouldn’t change things that much, but it really does equate to some wide-open fishing,” said Doug Rodricks of Sierra Drifters Guide Service. “I’ve experienced this first hand when Hot Creek first opened for the year-round season. I was first on the scene, after the fish hadn’t seen a fly since November 15. My first casts were taken immediately by trout, so quickly I almost didn’t have time to react. This went on for the next 2.5 hours, and that included some huge trout breaking me off. It was definitely the best trout fishing I had ever experienced to this day, and I predict similar fishing conditions once the opening season is announced for this year.”

THE WILD TROUT SECTION of the lower Owens River produced some nicer brown trout for Jim Elias of FishMammoth.com.

Another trend I picked up on while covering the opener is most fish are either caught on bait or on the troll. That’s not just based on who I talk to or what I see, either, but also when I scan the catch logs (which can be pages long) lake managers keep. Sure, there are some outliers and anglers will find themselves in the right spot at the right time and will get the job done casting lures, but they are the overwhelming minority on opening weekend. My theory is, stocked rainbows are sluggish in the frigid early-season water and unwilling to chase down a spinner, spoon or even a minijig unless it hits them right in the face. Trollers benefit from covering a ton of water, so it’s the law of averages in their case, and they also get a lot of wild fish (think browns and cutts on Crowley) and holdover stockees that are well-seasoned and have adapted to the cold.

That won’t be the case if it’s a summer opener. Closer-to-ideal water temps and that extended lack of pressure will make stocked trout easier targets for the masses, and more fun to pick off on artificials.

HARD TO IMAGINE BROOK TROUT on opening weekend, but with Fishmas postponed until at least June 1, backcountry lakes will be accessible and brookies will be easy targets. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

More available water

Other than the lakes of the Bishop Creek Drainage (South Lake, North Lake and Lake Sabrina) which can be early-spring accessibility question marks based on that winter’s snow, the same bodies of water are fishable on opening weekend. It’s that level of dependability that’s allowed those families to hit the same spots for generations. Crowley and Convict Lake, the lakes of the June Lake Loop and the big waters in Bridgeport…period.

It works, since most of the available stillwater on Fishmas are at least larger lakes that have a lot of fishable shoreline as well as plenty of room to accommodate boaters, but they don’t reflect the diversity of fishing opportunities the Eastern Sierra has to offer.

Mammoth Lakes Basin, Bishop Creek Canyon, Virginia Lakes, Tioga Passand the Rock Creek Drainage all have lakes or streams that are typically inaccessible or have limited access for the opener,” said Jared Smith, general manager of Parchers Resort on Bishop Creek. “Lots of backcountry water will likely be in play as well (with a later opener), especially with the mild winter we had. Frozen lakes and unplowed roads will also not be a problem for anglers or stocking trucks.”

Wouldn’t you know it, I have something to say about this, too. Occasionally, the Mammoth Lakes Basin is available for the opener. It’s rare but it happens, and in my years of covering it for WON, it was only open one time, and I’m convinced few people were even aware that it was.

That year, I was bouncing back and forth betweeen Crowley and Convict (my standard coverage zone on opening day) and when I drove down out of the cellular black hole that is Convict Lake, my phone blew up with text messages.

“Mamie is wide open, and all the fish are big,” the text from my brother said. The other messages were photos of him or my dad standing in thick snow with 3- to 5-pound rainbows. I had about 45 minutes before I had to be back to Crowley for photos of Bart Hall presenting prizes to for the top biggest opening day fish caught down there, so when I hit 395 I jerked the wheel left and charged back to Mammoth. As I snaked through the lakes basin, I didn’t see another angler anywhere. I saw my dad’s parked truck and followed the bootprints in the snow to where they were fishing, and when I arrived they were still fired up and still releasing 2 to 4 pounders on every cast, mainly on Thomas Buoyants.

I figured I had about 15 minutes of fishing time before I had to leave to make it to Crowley on tie, so I tied on a Buoyant, stuck six and hit the road. After a normal winter (this was a light one), the Mammoth Lakes Basin usually opens up in May, so if we can fish in June, that’s going to an option along with those other areas. And, keeping in mind those every-year-opener groups are still going to hit their traditional last-Saturday-in-April spots, these “new” holes could emerge as the top bizarro opener producers.

EVEN WITH A SHORTER SEASON trout in hatcheries tabbed for delivery to the Sierra this season should all still get stocked in the same numbers. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

Diluting Opening Day Crowds

If we could stretch a big turnstile across 395 down at say, Olancha, it will likely reflect a record-breaking number of opener attendees by the end of the weekend, and there are a few reasons I’m planning on that being the case. The opening-day faithful will not only keep the streak alive and hit the road, but they’ll likely come packing bigger numbers with extended trips (most actually do head home on Sunday) into the next week an easier sell with since kids won’t be missing school.

Adding to that monstrous group will be the early-spring or summer crowd that not only consists of anglers but hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, paddlers and enthusiasts of all other brands of non-fishing outdoor nonsense (I joke) that get to come up when they would have anyway. And you want to talk about a segment of the tourist population showing up with more heads than usual? Think about the cabin fever you’re already feeling and imagine how it’s it’s going to be in a month or two. Americans, especially Californians, are going to erupt from them homes when the all clear horn blows and what (other than the Pacific freakin’ Ocean, I’ll give you that) in this state is going to be more attractive after three months of house arrest than the Eastern Sierra?

Like I said, record numbers. You’re going to feel it in restaurants, lodging, the brewery and Vons, but as far as the fishing goes, there will be so much open water between Lone Pine and Bridgeport, if you want to get away from people, you’ll be able to.

“That’s a big one, less concentrated angling pressure, the more bodies of water available, the more spread out people will be,” added Smith. “Images of hopping from boat to boat across Crowley or the shoreline of Intake II being shoulder-to-shoulder would be unlikely.”

If anything, whether you camp in a tent or RV, rent a cabin, stay in a hotel or condo-camp like me, you’re going to want to make your reservation further ahead of time than you might be used to. There may be more access to fishable water to thin the herd, but now everyone will be dealing with a smaller travel window.

“Mammoth Lakes lodging properties are currently allowed to take reservations for any stays starting June 1 and beyond,” said John Urdi, Executive Director of Mammoth Lakes Tourism. “We are hopeful we will be back inviting anglers as soon as possible but want to be completely safe for both our visitors and locals. We budget to stock more than 10 tons of fish in the Mammoth Lakes Basin and will get those stocked and ready for the day we are welcoming visitors again”

Greater stocking density

Per Jared Smith, who along with running the Parchers Resort authored a pair of books (Fishing Trails 1 and 2) detailing backcountry fishing spots within day-hike range, for areas like the Eastern Sierra that rely on DFW stocking, the hatcheries need to have the trout ready to go for a full length season. With no reason to take on the cost and space considerations of holding them over for the next season, all of those fish earmarked for 2020 are going to go in to area waters regardless of how short the season is. Smith has some unnamed connections in the DFW hatchery system, and he always has the pulse of the stocking situation when it comes to the Eastside.

In addition to the state supplied fish, the premium rainbow trout that get stocked in key waters throughout the region will still get delivered once the floodgates open on the trout season. These are are the fish imported from Oregon that average 3 to 6 pounds with bigger trophy models mixed in. Sierra veterans will remember the Alpers trout that used to be a big attraction in the area until that program shut down, these Oregon fish are the very suitable replacement.

Better weather and available services, amenities

There are a lot of eye-roller cliches about the weather and the Sierra, but the variable nature of what you might be dealing with is really a factor early and late in the season. In my six openers, I’ve seen 30-plus inches of snow fall on Fishmas Eve, wind and snow on opening Saturday, frigid stillness and T-shirts by 10 a.m, pretty much everything but rain which would probably be worse than all of them. By the time May is in the rear-view mirror, you’re biggest environmental threats are a lot more manageable: wind, the hail dump, afternoon thunderstorms (which are awesome) and the only real headache, smoke when there’s a wildfire miles away and you’re downwind.

“Although the ultra hard-core guys who’ve been braving freezing temperatures enjoy iced up guides on their fishing rods and snow-covered or wind-battered tents might miss that aspect of Fishmas, the vast majority of people won’t.” Smith added. “The later the opener, the more likely we’ll see good welcoming weather.”

Then there are the non-fishing attractions that are a part of many never-miss lists of summer visitors like Mono Cone, the BBQ at Rock Creek Lake Resort, pie at Lake Sabrina and, a couple personal additions from the Owens Valley out of Lone Pine, pancakes (biggest and best on earth) from the store up at Whitney Portal, and Frosty Chalet on the main drag in town. All those hot spots and a lot more aren’t open until summer.

Local business considerations

There’s a ton to unpack here so it’s best to just generalize as the effect of the delay – the good and the bad – varies quite a bit based on what kind of business it is, or even where it is located. Many are following mandates to keep non-essential staff at home and as a result aren’t adequately prepared to pull the chain on the “open” sign on April 28. Depending on far long the opener is pushed back, some might still open when they were planning on opening anyway.

It’s also hard to say how the economic impact, especially, lost jobs, time spent living off savings and so on. The desire for those considering the Sierra their second backyard will be there, and the hope is, most of them will be able to make it happen financially.

Everyone that spoke to WON, and there were a lot of them, agrees on one thing as much as they’re in agreement that the smart move is the restrict tourism to the area until we’re all on the other side of this, and that is, a late opener is better than no opener.

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