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Catch His Drift

If You Want the Lowdown on Fishing the Lower Owens, Then Let Tom Loe Be Your Guide

March 03, 2000|PETE THOMAS

BISHOP, Calif. — The lonely old man on the bank of the river, fishing pole in hand, welcomed the sight of other fishermen drifting by in a boat. He had someone to heckle--and he was darn good at it.

"You guys catch any of them big Alpers rainbows?" he shouted from his perch.

"We put a few on the hook," one of them answered, "but we let 'em all go."

"Hell, they ain't no good on the hook!" the old man shot back, grinning slyly, his neck craning so he could follow the boat as it went past. "You got to get them on the stringer! I got two good-sized rainbows on mine that're gonna be great for dinner--along with my brown!"

This rankled Tom Loe, the guide on the boat who releases everything he catches, especially the wild brown trout in the river. Loe didn't give the old man the satisfaction of a response, choosing instead to mutter beneath his breath, "Yeah, well I hope you choke on the bones, you old . . . ."

And on down the river went Loe and his client, a Los Angeles motion picture executive named Paul Young, Loe manning the oars and Young casting downstream, amused by a scene he said reminded him of the movie, "Deliverance."

"All in all, this has been pretty cool," he said as the trip drew to an end, with about 15 trout to his credit.

And it was getting cooler. The sun had slipped behind the towering slopes of the Eastern Sierra, casting a shadow over the vast Owens Valley and its namesake river, sending the fishermen scurrying for cover and leaving them big Alpers rainbows and wild little browns at peace for the night.

*

Loe, owner of Sierra Drifters guide service, has tapped into something special on the Lower Owens. A former commercial fisherman who hunted swordfish for 20 years in the North Atlantic, he now has as his hunting grounds a 12-mile stretch of meandering river that has benefited nicely from an aggressive new stocking program intended to boost local business during the winter.

Bishop can use the help. A roadside community of about 3,600, its restaurants, shops and motels do well during the spring and summer months, thanks largely to campers and fishermen who flock to the Eastern Sierra during the general trout season, which runs from the end of April through October.

But during the winter, the town is basically a rest and refueling stop for travelers on U.S. 395, mostly skiers headed to and from Mammoth Lakes. The good motels are at about 50% occupancy. People often hold two or three part-time jobs, if they can find them, to make ends meet.

"But they live here in Bishop and wouldn't trade it for the world," says Dave Patterson, executive director of the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

Only two waters are open for fishing year-round: Pleasant Valley Reservoir and all of the Owens River below Crowley Lake above Pleasant Valley Reservoir. A community-sponsored program called Adopt-A-Creek has been putting 100 pounds of trophy-sized Alpers Ranch-raised rainbow trout into both bodies of water weekly for two years, but the angling public has been slow to bite.

This year, Inyo County provided substantial assistance with a grant the town is using to purchase Alpers rainbows, hoping to further try to lure trout fishermen from the freeway-side ponds in Southern California.

"Instead of using it for promotions, we all said that if you put the fins in the river, people will come," Loe says.

Tim Alpers has been planting about 500 pounds of his famous fish in the reservoir and river every week since early January, and people apparently are responding. Motel owners report only a slight increase, but Loe's winter business is up 150% compared to last year. Other guides also have been busier.

"The fact that in January we were getting 80-fish days might have something to do with that," Loe says, giving credit to the unseasonably mild weather back then. "We've had 60-fish days and 40-fish days, but our average is about 30."

*

Loe, 41, who lives with his wife, Michele, along McGee Creek overlooking Crowley Lake, is the only guide who uses a boat on the Lower Owens and thus is the only one who has access to all 12 miles between Five Bridges Road above town and Collins Road below it.

Most of this stretch is thickly lined with willows, cottonwoods and wild rose, and bank access is limited to a few dirt roads and footpaths.

"To tell you the truth, I have no clue why other [guides] aren't doing this," Loe says with a smile. "But I'm not complaining."

He uses a 16-foot aluminum flat-bottom drift boat, powered by oars. His customers, usually two to a boat, have bucket seats but stand to cast downstream and use a raised inner bow as a casting tray for stripping line. Mostly, they cast sink-tip lines and pull streamer-pattern flies Loe ties to imitate the sculpin that inhabit the river.

Loe puts his clients in position using an anchor attached to a pulley and points out the "sweet spots," and if they listen and execute, they usually get plenty of action, because few know the river as well as Loe.

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