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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Free to fish at Convict Lake ... or not

When his companion recoils from angling, the writer finds no shortage of activities around the peaceful spot of blue in the Eastern Sierra.

June 27, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

Convict Lake, Calif. — There are some things a man never forgets. His first car. His first schoolboy crush. And th+e place where he caught his first fish.

For me, that place is Convict Lake, one of the hidden jewels of the Eastern Sierra. With a beauty that belies its incongruous name -- derived from an 1871 shootout involving six Nevada State Prison escapees -- Convict has exerted a mysterious pull on me since the day I pulled my first wriggling, glinting trout from its waters.

So it was only natural that when my girlfriend, Cherilyn, and I decided to take a four-day weekend getaway, I brought her to Convict, where I planned to teach her about the joy, hope and humility of fishing.

Convict is off U.S. 395, just south enough of Mammoth to avoid the recreating hordes. Usually the 300-mile drive from Los Angeles would have been a predawn race to get my line into the water. But because we started later and didn't rush, we could take in sights along the way.

The first was the new interpretive exhibit at the former Manzanar War Relocation Center, where the government imprisoned 10,000 people of Japanese heritage during World War II. The $5.1-million center, which features a poignant documentary and a replica of the barracks, opened in April. The drive around the ghostly grounds provided food for thought when we left for Bishop.

There we went to Galen and Barbara Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery for a tour of the late nature photographers' luminous landscape images. Then we moved up Main Street for Erick Schat's Bakkery, an irresistible tourist draw. We walked among the racks of exotic breads -- ham chili cheese, anyone? -- before adding a loaf of Sheepherder and a gooey apple-cranberry pull-away to our weekend food supply.

Forty minutes to the north, a small sign pointed across the highway median to the Convict Lake turnoff. The road soon delivered us to a vista of the lake and its rippled reflection of surrounding peaks. The area is so ethereal, so beautiful, that it's a popular backdrop for weddings -- and served as a spaceship launching pad in the 1998 movie "Star Trek: Insurrection."

The cost of staying here isn't out of this world if you stick to one of the 88 campsites near the lake. For $15 a night, you get a spot by a trout-stocked stream. Deer sometimes come down to eyeball you during dinner.

For this outing, however, we rented one of the 29 cabins and houses along the entrance road or grouped around a 1929 general store, all run by the Convict Lake Resort.

Our cabin ($119 plus tax for each of the first two nights, $99 for the third) was a dark older model with a decent kitchen but a spartan bathroom. With an ancient rollaway folded against the wall and the queen bed taking up two-thirds of the space, the drab living area had the cramped feel of an "I Love Lucy"-era motel.

Nine of the newer cabins are roomier, much brighter and have more amenities, such as a laundry room, fireplace, 50-inch television and Jacuzzi tub. One sleeps as many as 34 people. But brace yourself for sticker shock. They cost from $290 to $960 a night on summer weekends.

The next day, armed with fishing poles and tackle box, we settled down to the task at hand. We rented a motorboat at the marina, chugged out into the lake and trolled for trout.

Then the worst happened. Cherilyn felt something tug at the end of her line.

"Oh, no, I hope it's not a fish!" she said as I coached her how to reel it in.

Sad but true, she had a bite. It was a small fish that bled profusely when, at her request, I pulled it into the boat and clumsily tried to remove the hook and throw the creature back into the lake -- but it was too late. Instead of joy, hope and humility, we had landed a low-grade existential crisis. Clearly, we were not going to make the cover of American Angler.

Not to worry. Convict has much more to offer than walking around in a funny hat while rubbing Power Bait on your jeans and inventing stories about the one that got away. Even those devoted to fishing know that the area can get windy at times, especially in the afternoons, so it's always good to have an alternative activity in mind.

Like dining. For years, I had ignored the resort's low-slung restaurant, just 20 paces from the general store, because I was too busy catching my own dinner. Or pouring it out of a can.

Cherilyn and I put our one small fish on ice, dressed up and walked into the restaurant to find rustic elegance and gourmet cuisine worthy of L.A.'s Westside. Our fare was beef Wellington and, of course, an exotic fish: fresh pan-seared Tasmanian salmon with saffron, green peppercorns, pumpkin seed oil and aged sherry vinaigrette. Dessert was bananas Foster. The bill, with appetizer and wine, was about $110.

We worked off this feast the next day with a long hike. A veteran trekker, Cherilyn led us down a trail that hugged Convict Lake's north shore and veered to the south, where an inlet of melted snowpack emptied from the mountains.

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