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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

It's That Time Again as Sierra Braces for Trout Opener

April 16, 1999|PETE THOMAS

A week from today, the annual pilgrimage begins and skiers speeding north on U.S. 395 will have to contend with fishermen in clunkers and motor homes in addition to truckers.

It's the day before the Eastern Sierra general trout opener, the beginning of a shindig this stretch of beautiful country--from Big Pine to Bridgeport--experiences only once a year.

Motels and campgrounds will fill up, barbecues will be stoked, burgers grilled and beer and soda swilled by thousands of people, old and young, keeping alive a tradition that began more than 60 years ago.

The late John Crowley started such madness, and for his troubles a lake was named after him. Crowley was the Owens Valley's first resident priest, who preached not only the gospel but the economic importance of recreation in the region, notably that generated by transplanted trout.

After the Mt. Whitney hatchery was built near Independence in 1917, Crowley hired a publicist and held promotional events popularizing the sport of fishing.

By the late 1930s, nearly a million tourists were wetting their lines annually in Eastern Sierra waters, many of them enjoying the opening-day experience.

Spirits are already running high for this year's opener. Trout fishermen have grown tired of Irvine Lake. Santa Ana River Lakes, despite its humongous trout, has no aesthetic value, being surrounded by concrete and flanked by a noisy freeway.

In fact, none of the local fisheries have what serious trout fisherman desire: Crisp, clean air and cool-running streams . . . pine trees . . . pristine mountain lakes that mirror snow-covered peaks. . . .

It has been six months since they had all this, and another opener means it'll be available for another six months--all a mere 300 or so miles away.

OK, so it's not freeway close. For opening day, no one seems to mind the drive. But before you hit the highway, here are a some things you might want to know or consider:

* A fishing license is required for those 16 or older and the bag limit in most areas is five trout per day and 10 in possession after two days of fishing. There are special regulations in place in some waters. Regulation booklets are available at sporting good stores.

* This will be the busiest weekend of the year for Department of Fish and Game wardens, who will issue citations for various offenses that carry fines similar to those you might incur by driving solo in the carpool lane.

Catching more than your limit, for example, will cost you $270 plus $54 for each fish over the limit; fishing without a license: $675; unlawful possession of trout (such as those pulled from catch-and-release-only waters): $540; fishing out of season (such as the Friday before opening day): $270.

* The Eastern Sierra has become one of the state's most productive trout-fishing regions, and the quality of fish seems to improve every year. Tim Alpers raises beautiful, plump rainbows on his family's ranch at the headwaters of the Owens River and sells them to concessionaires throughout the region. He is contracted to stock about 50,000 pounds of fish, some topping 10 pounds, this season.

Several concessionaires raise their own trout to trophy size, releasing them periodically, and even the DFG has been mixing more lunkers with their 10- to 12-inchers. The DFG's contribution this year will be about 734,000 pounds of trout in 81 bodies of water.

* It was 80 degrees in Bishop on Wednesday and Thursday and between 52 and 65 at Mammoth Lakes, June Lake and Bridgeport. This is the first warm spell in more than two weeks and just what is needed to bring the trout from their dormant stage.

* The biggest trout caught last year on opening day was a 13-pound rainbow landed in bone-chilling conditions at Twin Lakes in Bridgeport.

* The biggest trout caught last season was a 17-pound 1-ounce brown landed July 2 by Brandon Nelson of Bishop at South Lake high above town. The fish struck a rainbow trout-pattern Rapala, which was a good choice because the fish had obviously grown so large dining on DFG planters.

* South Lake and nearby Sabrina and North lakes, at 10,000 feet, remain iced over and will probably have few, if any, open spots on opening day. These lakes are home to some big fish, however, and should not be overlooked.

* Below South and Sabrina, Bishop Creek is flowing beautifully and both the creek and Intake II are well-stocked. "There's snow alongside the creek beginning at about 9,000 feet, and two feet of snow surrounding South Lake," said Gary Olson of Bishop Creek Lodge. "But below that we have really good access."

* In Bishop at the Tri-County Fairgrounds, the 1999 Opening Day Trout Fair and Rainbow Days Trout Display, hosted by Western Outdoor News and the Bishop Lions Club, is free to the public. The fair features exhibitor booths, seminars, contests and a raffle, the grand prize being a boat and motor. The Rainbow Days contest and display offers prizes in several categories. Details: (760) 873-3588.

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