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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

On Obscure Ranch, Large Trout Abound

May 07, 1999|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIG PINE, Calif. — With a long, looping fly rod and determined spirit, Sandy Shervington played the fish like a pro.

She gave her quarry no slack, and when it ran for the safety of the brush, she applied just enough pressure to turn it back toward open water.

The big trout, obviously determined but ultimately overmatched, dashed about, again making its way to the sheltered bank but failing, again, to duck in and break free of this powerful force threatening to pull it from its world.

Shervington, with a little coaching from guide Beryl Rea, outlasted her prey and soon had at her feet a 10-pound brown trout, a beautiful prize usually found only in the dreams of most Eastern Sierra anglers.

Shervington and Rea gave it only a brief inspection, then put it back in the water and watched it swim away.

Trophy-sized trout in Big Pine?

Most anglers visiting the Eastern Sierra don't give this small town south of Bishop much thought when it comes to big fish.

To them, Big Pine is nothing more than a place to stretch their legs or fill the gas tank.

The town, after all, was named after a tree! It was the last of a large stand of yellow pines used to build the first settlement here in the late 1800s.

Eventually, that tree was also cut down to make room for, you guessed it, a gas station.

"You can still find squirrel stew in Big Pine, if you can believe that," says Kate Howe, a Big Pine resident and veteran fly-fishing guide.

And, yes, you can also find some very large trout--and you can believe that. They're thriving in a system of large ponds about a mile west of U.S. 395.

The ponds exist on a little-known patch of paradise called the Reid Watson Ranch. Watson, who makes bathroom fixtures, moved his factory from Pasadena to Big Pine several years ago because he had grown tired of the hectic Southland pace.

He bought 14 acres of mostly rock and scrub growth, obtained an agricultural water diversion permit from the state, dug out 14 large ponds fed by Big Pine Creek, planted grass and more than 300 willows, cottonwoods and pines, and started raising brown and rainbow trout.

Also on the property are strawberry patches, almond trees, plum trees and apple trees.

Watson had hoped to sell his fish for planting in the creek and perhaps throughout the region, much as Tim Alpers does from his family ranch on the upper Owens River.

But the bureaucracy proved too big an obstacle and instead, Watson's spread has evolved into a splendid little diversion for fly fishermen passing through to other locales.

"I had a motor home and we [he and his wife] would come up, and eventually we decided that we wanted our own place," Watson says. "We bought this place, made a little stream. Then we said, 'It'd be nice to have a pond.' Then we did this and that and soon we had all these ponds. We removed millions of cubic feet of rock to get all this.

"Well, the fish started getting bigger and bigger, and people would come along and hear about it, and want to fish it. We didn't want to give up the fish, so to speak, because a lot of money goes into raising these big guys.

"So we decided not to become a put-and-take type of thing and just offer catch-and-release fishing. Fly fishermen started coming in, and we really evolved from that. It just happened that way."

The ponds, which vary in size and depth, are terraced and gravity fed by the creek meandering down from the mountains. Natural spawning takes place mostly in the small creeks between the ponds, although Watson maintains that spawning also takes place in the ponds themselves.

The fish have become somewhat wary of artificial offerings, so success is not guaranteed. And angling here, like anywhere, requires skill and patience.

"These fish do learn by trial and error," says Howe, a renowned fly-tier and licensed guide--one of only three allowed to bring clients onto the ranch. "They're not aware of it, but they do. You catch one enough times on a big purple something and, eventually, he just doesn't eat big purple somethings anymore."

Fishing the ponds isn't cheap: Standard guide rates are $250 per angler for a full day, including a picnic lunch, or $350 for two anglers. Half-day rates are $175 for one and $250 for two.

But since only four anglers are allowed on the ranch at a given time, and only a few ponds are fished by those anglers, there are no crowds and very little pressure placed on the fishery--and because of this the fish all appear healthy and strong.

"Our intention here is not to fool anybody by saying this is a totally natural system, because it isn't," Howe says. "Our intention is to provide an exceptionally private fishing experience for someone who wants to learn or brush up, and doesn't want to do it in a crowded environment."

The experience, with snowy Sierra peaks as a backdrop, invariably includes getting your hooks into rainbow and brown trout ranging from one to about 17 pounds.

Howe, who lives near the ranch, offered to lead a brief tour the day before the trout-season opener late last month.

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