MAMMOTH LAKES — Snowmobiles whine across their roof, and gasoline-powered ice augers drill eight-inch holes that let in the light, but Len and Louie and Freddy Mo'Ready are oblivious to the commotion above.
It will only last two or three more weeks, anyway, and then life on Lake Mary will return to normal for the little lake's biggest fish. There is only a small window of opportunity for ice fishing by snowmobile in the Mammoth Lakes basin, between the opening of trout season on the last Saturday in April and the spring thaw at 9,000 feet.
In some years ice fishing has lasted well into June, but this year the ice is expected to be gone by the end of May. It is only five to six feet thick because of the blanket of the lake's second-heaviest snowfall in history--plenty thick to hold a snowmobile, but not enough to long withstand sunny days in the 50s and 60s, the way it was last weekend.
The road from town should be plowed about the time the lakes thaw, and by the Fourth of July, even the skiers will have to abandon the manicured slopes on the other side of Mammoth Mountain. Until then, the snowplows on Old Mammoth Road stop where the cabins end, so the choices for proceeding farther are to hike, ski cross-country--uphill--or use a snowmobile. In these parts you don't wait for the next season. You enjoy the one you have.
Snowmobiles are as easy to run as a vacuum cleaner. Bob Hudson of Center Street Rentals, one of three rental companies in town, gives an orientation that takes about five seconds: start switch, pull-cord, throttle, brake.
Mammoth Lakes and the U.S. Forest Service have produced a winter recreation map showing 250 miles of snowmobile trails, including many on the east side of U.S. 395, reached through a tunnel under the highway. The lakes basin is closed to snowmobiles until after Easter, and designated wilderness is closed to mechanized transportation all the time. But snowmobiles sometimes go as far as Bodie, the ghost town well off the main road southeast of Bridgeport.
The downside of a snowmobile is the noise. You won't sneak up on any wildlife. It also offers fair warning to cross-country skiers, who offer wary glances and seem more than willing to surrender the right-of-way. The idea is to stay between the trees, which go past at an alarming rate, even on a stretch of road where a road sign half-buried in snow says, "SPEED LIMIT 30."
If you just want to fish, it's an easy 3 1/2-mile ride to Lake Mary, where you drive onto the lake and pull to a stop alongside a hole: drive-up fishing.
Mammoth's five basin lakes--Mary, Mamie, George and the Twins--aren't planted until the ice clears, but then they receive weekly supplies of trout from the state and Tim Alpers' private hatchery nearby. The town spends $20,000 a year for 3,000 of Alpers' fish that weigh from two to eight pounds. Most of those that aren't caught during the summer are still there in the spring.
The smarter anglers drill their holes where they would fish if the lake weren't frozen: near the creeks that feed or drain the lake, even in winter. Ice fishing is only slightly more complicated than driving a snowmobile. Rick Young, a guide at Barrett's Landing on the lake, explains his techniques.
"The sinker's on the bottom, a little different from (using) a sliding sinker on top," he says. "The weight will hit the weeds at the bottom before the hook will, so you can tell where the bottom is without getting your hook caught in the weeds."
Young ties on separate leaders above the weight.
"We have a worm hook and then a treble hook for cheese bait or salmon eggs," he says. "When you're using a bait rig, you don't jig up and down. You find the bottom and bring it up two or three feet."
Young rigs a small crappie-type jig on another rod.
"We'll jig this up and down--slowly sometimes, sometimes quicker--and we'll put a worm on the end, which will simulate a little guts coming out to attract (the fish) a little better. Get your feel where the bottom is and just bounce.
"If you're using a jig they'll get right on it. If you're using bait, let them nibble a little before you set the hook. You're going to feel them bite pretty good. Just give it a good, firm set--but not too hard."
Don and Betty Joy Barrett own the Barrett's Landing tackle and grocery store. His mother, Louise, owns the Pokonobe Lodge at the other end of the lake. They are the third family to own property around the lake from a deed of about 500 acres issued by President Ulysses S. Grant in the 19th Century--one of the first "Grant" deeds, Barrett points out.
Barrett tried to research the titles but was told that the original deed was lost in a stagecoach robbery between Bridgeport and Virginia City. So all he's sure of is the fishing.
"When you catch your larger fish, you'll catch them almost always four or five feet off the bottom," he said. "Freddy Mo'Ready always stays about five feet off the bottom."
Freddy is a German brown trout and part of the lore of Lake Mary.