MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — Trout in unprecedented numbers have been liberated from Eastern Sierra hatcheries and the rainbow-colored fish are teeming in practically every creek, river and lake from Big Pine to Bridgeport.
All of this will translate, many say, into perhaps the greatest trout opener.
"This will be the greatest year in history," predicts Don Barrett, 46, of Barrett's Landing, which overlooks the scenic, trout-rich Lake Mary, nestled in the mountains above town at 9,000 feet.
But down U.S. 395, at Crowley Lake, always the most popular lake on opening day, John Frederickson is keeping his fingers crossed.
Frederickson, president of Crowley Lake Fish Camp, Inc., only last week put his boats in the water. And as soon as he did, the wind began howling.
"It's happening again?" he wondered aloud.
It doesn't take much wind to remind Frederickson of the gale that raged over the Crowley grounds for hours on May 3, 1993, only a little more than a week after the opener.
It blew out all the windows at the tackle store, tore the docks from their anchorage and blew Frederickson's boats across the lake like so many paper plates.
Most of the private boaters had gotten their craft safely ashore.
But a south to southwesterly wind that began at 2:30 picked up steadily until gusts up to 140 m.p.h. were blasting down from the steep mountain canyons, blowing clouds of dust and rocks across the largely barren ground at Crowley.
Frederickson's boats might have been OK, had not the docks given way.
"When it came loose, everything came loose," Frederickson said.
Every window was blown out of the tackle store and the canvas roof was ripped off and carried away.
"By 6:30 we had had it," Frederickson said. "We lost 27 boats in the storm. Fifteen will never go back in water. The others we were able to repair."
They're back in the water now, ready for the fishermen. As for the docks, they don't figure to be going anywhere soon.
"There are 17 anchor points, and each weighs 12,900 pounds, held together by three-quarter-inch steel cable," Frederickson said.
Whether they will withstand a 140-m.p.h. wind is anyone's guess. Frederickson hopes he will never have to find out.
"I still wake up with a cold chill, thinking about that wind," he said. "But it's fun time now. Time to replenish the bank account."
Frederickson's sentiments are shared by businesses throughout the Eastern Sierra, as up to 100,000 fishermen are expected this weekend.
The estimate might be higher than usual, but then this will be an unusual opener.
Access at most of the popular lakes, despite the recent storm, is the best in years. Last year, for instance, heavy snow restricted access to all but the lower lakes and streams, or those on busy roads that are plowed regularly.
But the main reason for optimism is that the Department of Fish and Game, which says it can no longer afford to feed and maintain so many hatchery trout, has turned hundreds of thousands of them loose.
"We've stocked three times as many trout as normal," said Chris Boone at the Hot Creek Hatchery in Mammoth.
Crowley Lake, between Bishop and Mammoth, received its usual allotment of 350,000 rainbow trout late last summer, and an additional 1,300 trout weighing between three and seven pounds from a private hatchery.
Last year's opening-day anglers complained not only about slow fishing, but about the lack of fight in the fish that did bite.
"They were frozen," said Curtis Milliron, a DFG fisheries biologist based in Bishop.
This time around, fishing should be much better. The lake has been ice-free since late February, the water temperature, 39 degrees for last year's opener, is holding at 52.
Milliron said all the fish he caught last week for studies were full of midge larvae, which in his words means, "They're chowing big time."
Good news for fishermen, bad news for Crowley trout when the horn sounds at dawn Saturday.
A brief rundown on the four major Eastern Sierra trout-fishing regions:
Leave the augers at home. For the first time in three years, there will be no ice fishing in the Bishop area.
Lake Sabrina is ice-free and the ice on South Lake began breaking up Monday. North Lake still is iced over, but the Bishop Chamber of Commerce is discouraging fishermen from venturing out onto the ice.
"It's been an unusually warm spring," said Sharon Lundstrom, spokeswoman for the city. "When that ice turns to slush in the day and then refreezes at night it becomes weak."
North Lake and South Lake are reachable only by foot because of snow, requiring walks of about a mile. Below the higher-elevation lakes is a Bishop Creek basin loaded with fish. "It may be a crazy opener," said Gary Gunsolley, owner of Brock's Sporting Goods in Bishop.
Last year there was so much snow on opening day that fishermen had to walk, ski or snowmobile to their favorite fishing holes.
Now things are somewhat back to normal, whatever that may be.