Column: Snow greets Sierra trout opener crowd, but fishing is good

Weather is always a crapshoot for the Eastern Sierra trout season opener.  The last Saturday of April is always the day, and there is a dedicated crowd that goes regardless of the weather forecast. Snow is always about a 50-50 option. The wind will blow all along the valleys on the east side of the Sierra crest. And bluebird openers are about as rare as honest politicians.

Anglers at the 2016 opener were met with snow flurries at all the higher elevation fishing spots during the morning, and it remained overcast or partly cloudy with some spits the rest of the day. It didn’t seem to matter to the fishermen or affect the fishing. Thanks to hefty plants of rainbow trout by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and private hatcheries, holdover hatchery fish from the previous season, and naturally spawned fish in many waters, the action was fair to good most places.

Crowley Lake, which always attracts the biggest crowds of anglers because of its size and an enlightened stocking program, was cold and breezy first thing opener morning, but it turned into a pretty nice day and most fishermen shedding the heavy outer layers of clothes. The fishing wasn’t as good as some years, but the quality of the fish was excellent.

John Kukta of La Verne landed three rainbows opening morning at Crowley and reported they were all over two pounds. He said most of the stringers he saw had fish topping that two pound mark. The winner of the Crowley Lake Fish Camp big fish contest for opening day was Wayne Nagata of Rosemead who had a 5.5-pound rainbow. 

R.G. Fann of Rancho Cucamonga fly-fished the Owens River above Crowley and said the river was packed with spawning cutthroat trout out of the lake. “Every gravel bar had at least one pair on a [spawning] bed.” His best fish was a personal best 24-inch cutthroat he quickly photographed and released.

Quality over quantity was the rule of the day many places. The biggest fish from opening weekend in the region came from Lower Twin Lake near Bridgeport.  It was a 10-pound, 10-ounce brown trout caught by Rick Johnson of Valley Center. Unfortunately for Johnson, he hadn’t entered the big fish derby sponsored by Western Outdoor News, so it was Allan Cole of Henderson, Nev., who won the event — the top prize was a new boat and motor — with a 9-pound, 9.5-ounce brown trout, also caught from Lower Twin.

Cole, who lived in Lancaster most of his life, is a famous fellow in the Eastern Sierra.  The 74-year-old has landed 10 browns over the 10-pound mark from Lower Twin Lake over the years, including a 20-pound fish that was the largest trout ever caught on opening day in California for many years. Cole founded an elite club called the Brownbaggers. You could only be a member if you caught two or more brown trout topping 10 pounds, and then you were automatically a member. He also designed the now-infamous A.C. Plug, a huge, jointed wobbling lure with a rubber tail and painted to look like a hatchery rainbow trout. The eight- to 10-inch lure was one of the first big plugs designed to actually imitate a rainbow trout, the favorite food of big browns and big bass (both striped and largemouth) that lived where trout were planted. The imitation is so good that many anglers who watched Cole fishing with the lure before it was a household name thought he was using live trout. The A.C. Plug spawned a whole hatchery full of copycat lures that accurately imitated trout and other baitfish. While Cole still hand-makes A.C. Plugs and sells them via the Internet, the boat and motor won this past weekend was certainly his biggest single pay-day with the lure.

“I’ve been coming to Twin Lakes for 60 years,” said Cole. “It’s been 28 years since I caught a 10-pounder, and – well – this one didn’t quite make 10 pounds.  That’s crazy. It’s crazy isn’t it? This old man caught that fish. I can just hear what people will say. They all thought he was gone. But I’m still catching the big ones. . . .”

Cole talks in a stream of consciousness sort of way, going on non-stop, focused but rambling, excited when he’s talking about fishing. He said that the trip to Lower Twin was also a family reunion with his youngest son Eric Cole, who now lives in Bend, Oregon, and is also a Brownbagger member, and five other members of the Brownbagger’s family. 

“We were in Eric’s boat. He came down from Oregon, and he has a canopy. My boat is smaller and open. So his is warmer.” But Cole never said it was cold, but you can tell that by the pictures and how everyone is dressed. It was cold.

“[The trout] grabbed my lure – bam. I don’t get a lot of bites, but he grabbed my lure and jumped right in front of all these boats. Oh, it was crazy. I was worried he’d get off, but we got him. It’s insane,” said Cole.

The 1/2-ounce part of the weight is the important part of story. Why? Another entrant in the Western Outdoor News tournament had landed a 9-pound, 9-ounce trout and Cole’s catch was originally declared a tie. John Montgomery of Bishop caught his big rainbow from Convict Lake and it weighed 9-pounds, 10-ounced at the Convict Lake Resort, but when he took it to Mammoth Lakes to get it officially weighed for the tournament, it was 9-9. Cole’s fish weighed 9-10 on the scale at Lower Twin, but when he weighed it on an “official scale” in Bridgeport, it also was 9-9. A tie.

So Eric Cole decided that they should drive to Mammoth Lakes and have his dad’s fish weighed on the same scale as the Convict fish. So they did, and it nudged out the other fish by that half-ounce. So you don’t feel too badly for Montgomery, know that he won a top-end inflatable boat package and a pile of fishing tackle.

The best fishing opening day was probably in the June Lake Loop where most anglers had good stringers of fish – and some big ones.

“We weighed in six trout over eight pounds, with one at 9-2. There were a lot of big fish,” said Jeremy Irons at Ernie’s Tackle in June Lake. “It was a lot slower on Sunday. Fishing has just been off since opening day.”

The 9-pound, 2-ounce fish was caught by Tim Whitehouse of Oxnard out of Gull Lake. At Silver Lake, Debbie Denler of Ontario landed an 8-13 rainbow, while Lisa Boaz of Adelanto had a 7-2.

Irons said it would take DFW trout plants to fire up the fishing again, and he wasn’t holding his breath.

“Last year we didn’t have stocks until Memorial Day weekend,” said Irons about the state’s planting cutbacks. “When the state cuts the plants, they say it’s temporary, but it never is.”

The DFW, however, has said that plants in the Eastern Sierra will actually be 20 percent over last year. If you like numbers, Jim Erdman with the DFW’s hatchery program in Bishop, said the state would be planting 586,000 pounds of trout this season.

Even though some big browns came from Twin Lakes, Jim Reid of Ken’s Sporting Goods in Bridgeport lamented that browns hadn’t been planted in the region for several years, concerned the numbers of trophy browns would dwindle over time. But there was good news on that trout plant front, too.

After being nixed by the DFW for several years, the Bridgeport Fish Enhancement Foundation and Mono County received the OK to raise or purchase brown trout for plants in many nearby waters again. Reid said the county and the enhancement foundation have already teamed up and contracted with the Desert Springs Hatchery to rear browns for planting over the next several years. Most will be planted as six to nine-inch fish in hopes they will survive and grow into trophy size.

Reid said he was giving up trying to figure out how the opener would go.

“At all three of our main lakes [Upper and Lower Twin Lakes and Bridgeport Reservoir], the boat guys did the best, trolling or with bait. The shore guys didn’t do very well, especially at Bridgeport. Last year it was just the opposite. The shore guys slammed ‘em but the boat guys trolled up and down the lake for nothing,” said Reid.

Reid also reported on two other spots in the region – the Virginia Lakes, a popular spot for ice fishing, and the East Walker River, a world-renowned fly-fishing river known for big trout:

Both Big and Little Virginia Lakes were good though the ice with a lot of nice holdover trout caught, including a number of limits, with fish to three pounds pretty common. But the weather has been so variable that he called the ice on Little Virginia “sketchy,” while Big Virginia was still pretty solid.

The East Walker River flows have bumped up to 90 cubic feet per second below Bridgeport Reservoir, this highest flows all winter and early spring, a good fishable flow. Since the East Walker is a catch-and-release water no fish were weighed in, but Reid said he saw cell phone photos of brown trout “up to 28 inches, maybe even bigger” caught by customers. 

“The biggest fish had to be at least 28 inches and it had to weigh every bit of nine pounds. In the photo you could see it was a foot deep back to belly,” said Reid. The fish was hooked right below the dam in what is called “The Bubble Hole,” and it took the angler 40 minutes to land the fish, running him well downstream of the pool where it was hooked.

Reid summed up the trout opener and fishing in general for the region succinctly:

“The numbers [of trout] aren’t what they were five, six, seven years ago, but the quality is pretty amazing.”

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