MAMMOTH LAKES — Beginning in the nearby Eastern Sierra, California's Trout Highway (U.S. 395 and California 89) passes through some of the most scenic and trout-bountiful country in America, winding 475 miles north to its terminus in the western foothills of Mt. Shasta.
Strategically set a day's fishing apart, small communities are scattered along this magnificent highway from its starting point. Angling ranges from casting delicate dry flies into tiny creeks for jewel-like brook trout, to Lake Tahoe, using steel line and seven-inch lures for the bigger trout.
Lakes Teem With Fish
The Mammoth Lakes region, best known for its skiing, is under study by the California Department of Fish and Game as a "trout park." The same geological forces that formed Mammoth Mountain and from time to time allow Mammoth to rock and roll, created some of the most productive trout waters in the world. Ripe with carbonates and other minerals, rich waters literally boil from the ground and produce an abundance of creeks, rivers and lakes teeming with trout.
Crowley Lake, just outside Mammoth Lakes, impounds the Owens River and is the scene of the most intensive opening-day fishing pressure in the world. Tens of thousands of anglers jam its waters on the last Saturday in April to vie for an equally crowded population of trout. Even though anglers can literally walk from boat to boat, nearly everyone goes home with a string of rainbows.
After the opening-day circus, fishing takes on more normal proportions, and following the last day in July, the lake is open only to fly and lure anglers hoping to tie into trophy-size trout. Dick Dahlgren, resident expert and author of the excellent "Crowley Lake Map and Fishing Guide," recommends elk hair caddis and olive matuka streamers for the best luck on Crowley.
A few miles outside of Mammoth, Hot Creek attracts anglers from around the globe. With bubbling springs and long silent glides, Hot Creek sports a population of large, wily rainbows and browns. In this "wild trout" water, the fish in Hot Creek can only be pursued with barbless flies and lures, then must be released unharmed so that they may spawn and maintain the fishery in a natural, self-sustaining state.
On U.S. 395 about 60 miles north of Mammoth is arguably the most scenic of the Trout Highway communities. With a backdrop of sweeping alpine meadows and the jagged skyline of Sawtooth Ridge, Bridgeport reigns supreme as the "big brown" capital of California.
Every few years the largest brown trout in the state is taken from the icy waters of Twin Lakes or its tributary waters. Bridgeport Reservoir, an impoundment on the East Walker River, also gives up its share of large trout to anglers trolling Hornbergs, Twin Lake specials and T-50 Flatfish. Bank fishing with bait and spinning gear is often very productive.
A Boy, a Marshmallow
While the east fork of the Walker is famous among experts for its "trophy trout" managed waters, a boy with a marshmallow recently coaxed a 20-pound brown trout from one of the smaller streams.
North of Bridgeport about 40 miles the Trout Highway leaves 395 and continues on California 89, which begins a serious climb north and west as it moves beside sagebrush and aspen groves.
After peaking at Monitor Pass (few can resist the impulse to stop and photograph the spectacular view of Antelope Valley and the Sweetwater Mountains), California 89 drops precipitously past Heenan Lake.
Heenan has long been a brood stock lake for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout. Managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, the lake literally teems with trout from 14- to 26-inches long. When fishing season is open (Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Labor Day through October), swarms of cutthroat are hooked with the approved barbless flies or lures.
Still, because of the threatened nature of the trout and Heenan's role as a hatchery, all fish must be released. (Fish and Game bought the land around Heenan ostensibly to secure the future of the Lahontan cutthroat, but failed to buy the water rights. And a Reno-based land developer who recently bought the water soon will drain the lake, leaving a troughless puddle of mud.)
California 89 roller coasters beyond Heenan and follows the course of the trout-filled East Carson River to Markleeville where any angler worth his salt soaks in Markleeville's hot springs and downs a cold one in the historic Cutthroat Saloon.
Upon leaving Markleeville the Trout Highway grinds up the eastern flank of the Sierra following the canyon carved by the West Fork of the Carson River.
Big Brown Trout Lurk
The West Carson originates from the snow melt of the Sierra crest and weaves through the Faith, Hope and Charity valleys. As the river heaves through the soft valley floors, it mines deep undercuts and fills dark beaver pools before roaring over the edge of the Sierra in a series of waterfalls.
Brook Trout Thrive