MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — Southern California's Super Bowl and World Series for trout fishermen, the Eastern Sierra-Crowley Lake fishing season opener, looks as if it might attract another record crowd.
When officials fire a dawn flare at Crowley Saturday, signaling that the season is under way, they will expect more than 15,000 fishermen to fire up their outboard motors or stampede to Crowley's shores. Last year, a record 16,650 showed up. Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department officials called it the biggest Crowley mob since the 3-by-6-mile reservoir opened to fishing in the early 1940s.
Warren Bahm, a retired Recreation and Parks official who has been to 31 Crowley openers, said that only an unfavorable turn in the weather would dampen expectations for another big turnout. Bahm is assisting Crowley manager Dave Griffith for Saturday's opener.
"I don't see any reason why we shouldn't have a blockbuster turnout," he said. "We've got lots of water, the weather's been good and the fishing was so good on opening day last year--maybe the best we've ever had--that I'd expect a lot of people who've dropped out of the Crowley scene in recent years might be back this time."
At mid-week, the only possible weather problem appeared to be wind. Crowley was raked with hard, cold winds Thursday, raising whitecaps all over the big Department of Water and Power reservoir. Crowley, at an elevation of 6,781 feet, is located adjacent to Highway 395 in the Long Valley Caldera, about 30 miles north of Bishop.
The trout fishing at last year's opener was probably the best opening day of all the 40-odd years that Southern California anglers have been making the last-Saturday-in-April pilgrimage up the Owens Valley to Crowley.
Said biologist Phil Pister of the Department of Fish and Game, who has been weighing and measuring Crowley trout for 32 years: "The average size of the opening-day fish last year was the biggest I've ever seen at Crowley."
Pister and his crew checked 3,000 rainbow trout last opening day and their average weight was 18.2 ounces. At the 1983 opener, the figure was 11.5 ounces.
Biologists say that Crowley's water, piscatorially speaking, is the richest in America. Trout growth rates in the lake are unequaled anywhere, they say. Fish of six inches planted in August gain five to seven ounces by the end of April.
Two factors helped create last year's fat opening-day trout. Winter ice left Crowley Feb. 4, giving the fish an unusually long feeding period before opening day. Also, the half-million sub-catchables planted for last season were a new strain of fast growing rainbow-Coleman trout, developed at nearby Hot Creek Hatchery.
This year, ice left Crowley March 23. The DFG stocked another half-million rainbow-Colemans last August.
Campgrounds near Crowley started filling up at midweek. Warren Zuniga of Hollywood and his three fishing pals were setting up camp at Rock Creek Campground Thursday morning, primed for more of what they encountered a year ago.
"This is my 14th straight Crowley opener," Zuniga said. "I'd caught a limit at every opener, but until last year I'd never caught a trout over three pounds. Last year, I had a limit by 8 a.m. and three of them were between three and five pounds."
Although about 15,000 fishermen are expected at Crowley Saturday, up to 30,000 more anglers will be scattered at about 75 lakes and streams between Lone Pine and Bridgeport. A warm spring has provided fishermen with iceless conditions at all but the highest lakes, where at least a few die-hard ice fishermen will be making holes in ice with ice augers and axes.
Most of the fly fishing action will be at two of California's blue-ribbon wild trout streams, Hot Creek near the Mammoth Lakes airport, and at the East Walker River near Bridgeport.
The limit at Crowley is seven fish. It is 10 at all other Eastern Sierra waters, except at designated wild trout waters, where special restrictions and limits apply.
For the trout fisherman looking for that sleeper stream far from the madding crowds of Crowley, Rick Rockel at Ken's Sporting Goods in Bridgeport suggests Robinson Creek, a stream that flows out of Lower Twin Lake near Bridgeport and meanders across a wide meadow.
"In the last week of the season last year, Robinson was the hot stream," he said. "Jerry Thoresen of Bishop came up here three times in the last week and caught seven brown trout between 5 and 15 pounds."
Robinson jumped into the news last September when, on successive days, Sept. 4 and 5, browns weighing 21 pounds 12 ounces and 18 pounds 12 ounces were caught near where the creek flows by Doc & Al's Resort.
Said Rockel: "In all of last season, something between 100 and 150 browns were caught in Robinson between three and six pounds."
Crowley fishermen will observe a funny-looking craft bobbing near the center of the lake Saturday. It's a floating convenience station, which, if all goes well, means that boat anglers will no longer have to leave hot fishing action to head for rest rooms on shore.
It's a small barge with rest rooms on each end. It cost $100,000 and was paid for with a grant by the state Department of Boating and Waterways.
Commented one impressed DFG official, Ralph Young: "This lifts fishing at Crowley into a new era."
The City of Los Angeles maintains 89 rental boats at Crowley. For this weekend, the boats have been long since rented out. Rentals are also sold out for the first two May weekends, and reservations for May's last two weekends are going fast, according to Warren Bahm.
"For rental boats, the first 10 days of the season are strictly a wait-list situation now," he said.