HAVE A WEEK TO FISH THE EASTERN SIERRA? TRY THIS ITINERARY
By Mike Stevens
With a quarter-century career of Eastern Sierra fishing in my rear-
Trout as beautiful as their surroundings can be found in the Eastern Sierras; this brookie came from Skelton Lake, a hike-in water. (MIKE STEVENS)
view mirror, I feel I can maximize the efficiency with which I chase trout up there by following a finely tuned, day-by-day game plan for trips of various lengths. For nearly three decades, I have discovered new spots, eliminated some others, and have taken a wide variety of factors into consideration when deciding on which day of the trip I will make each outing.
Obviously, this attack plan is geared toward the type of fishing I do, the areas I do it in, and where I’m based. So I don’t expect anyone to do exactly what I do, but maybe if you see where I’m coming from and how I get there, you can come up with a similar playbook of your own.
Since my standard trip length is a week – give or take a day – and it’s based out of Mammoth Lakes, that is what I have outlined here. It admittedly reeks of OCD, but at the same time, it eliminates a ton of wasted time that could otherwise be used spanking some trout.
This is my travel day. I call it Day Zero because fishing opportunities are limited after a six-hour drive, and if I don’t catch anything, that would otherwise mean a Day 1 skunk, and that’s just not the way I want to get a trip started. However, Day Zero fish are bonus fish that I do count in the tally for the trip. Any Day Zero fishing is going to be done somewhere low maintenance, such as a drive-up spot that I won’t need to unbury any special gear to get to. In recent years, I have readied a rod to fish so that if I decide to check a spot out before I reach my lodging and unload, I can get in the game easily.
My Day Zero spots have included Convict Lake, the Mammoth Lakes Basin, Convict, Mammoth and McGee Creeks, and even spots hours south on Highway 395, like the streams coming out of the mountains between Lone Pine and Bishop. I have also done pretty well just turning off wherever I see one of those fishing road signs and go where it takes me.
If any fish are caught on Day Zero, I consider it a victory.
On my first full day of the trip, I stick to the easy-access game plan, but it works a little differently when I am working with an entire day instead of just a few hours. I still go to driveup spots, mainly because I am still acclimating to the altitude (the town of Mammoth Lakes sits nearly a mile and a half above sea level) and I’m not going to charge into the backcountry yet. But I am willing to walk a fair amount on flat ground.
I want to go to places that I know will have good numbers of fish on the board, even if they are just hatchery rainbows this time out. I want to get a strong start, work the kinks out, and hit the ground running toward my 100-trout (for the week) goal.
I hit the Upper Owens for at least part of Day 1. I can drive along the river, and while I do a fair amount of walking, it’s painless because it’s flat and open. Getting skunked is very rare; the action is wide open and produces gaudy numbers, plus you have a shot at big fish that snuck out of Lake Crowley.
Mammoth Lakes and Convict are still on the radar at this point, but
After a nice dinner in town, summer in the high country allows you to head to a secluded spot like Lake Mamie and cast for trout. (MIKE STEVENS)
Rock Creek Lake has also joined the fray because it’s a bit too far out of town for Day Zero, but there’s plenty of time to head down on Day 1. The lake is also easy to get around and is very much a drive-up impoundment. A boater? Perfect day for this one.
Now things are starting to get serious. Day 2 is always a Sunday for me, which means much of the weekend crowd or people whose own week long vacations are over and are now heading out of town, so any spot that typically receives heavy pressure will now be easier to fish. I also want to fish any spot on my list of favorites because if it kicks butt, I may want to return there later in the week. By now I’ve gotten used to the altitude, so at this point I can comfortably do a moderate hike. Saddlebag Lake up Tioga Pass is my favorite drive-up lake on the Eastern Sierras, and it’s almost a lock for a Day 2 spot. It takes about an hour to get there from Mammoth, and then I will take the water taxi to the far side of the lake and ?sh the shoreline right there where I’m dropped off.
Anyone else on the boat typically heads right up the trail into the 20 Lakes Basin and I’ll have most of my area to myself. I have caught big fish here, piled up numbers, and landed them on the fly rod and any other tactic you can think of. Fishing is usually so good here I will start swapping lures out that are working just to see what else I can catch them on.
If things should slow down at Saddlebag, I’ll hike up the trail and beat up brookies with the fly rod at lakes as close as a 15-minute scramble up the hill. On the way down from here, I will pull off and fish Ellery Lake by the dam where I have had some incredible days on stocked rainbows. Admittedly, I’ve had some skunkers too, but it’s right there; I have to do it. After lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining, I’ll regroup at base camp
in Mammoth and head out to an easy spot like the ones listed for Day 1 or 2.
If you drove to Saddlebag Lake around Lee Vining, it’s a short hike from there to this spectacular fishing hole, Greenstone Lake. (MIKE STEVENS)
Vive la backcountry! Saddlebag Lake is a long day, but it’s pretty relaxing since the water taxi does most of the work, so I’m fully acclimated to altitude with fresh legs on Day 3. It’s time to put on some miles, and for me that usually means my favorite backcountry vein, the Duck Pass Trail.
With a trailhead near the back of Lake Mary, this trail brings me to Lakes Arrowhead, Skelton and Barney, in that order. Arrowhead gets passed up by most trail anglers, but it’s full of brook trout and a few Kamloop rainbows to make things exciting.
Skelton is a big lake as hike-in waters go, and sometimes fishing is so good there I don’t go any further. Barney, about 3½ miles in, always produces brookies. If I come back having caught any less than 25 fish up there, I’m a little bummed.
The base camp regroup usually happens around 3 p.m after this one, and it usually involves a stop at Mammoth Brewing and a nap, but again, a close and easy outing is still on the table that evening.
This is either a hard backcountry day, or my newest addition, a day spent working the San Joaquin River. I explored this area in pretty good detail last year, and I actually feel kind of lame for the fact that it took this long to do so.
I pick up the shuttle up near the ski resort that takes visitors to attractions like Devils Postpile, Reds Meadow, Rainbow Falls, and a couple of small lakes and cool campgrounds. Tying all this together is the San Joaquin River, which offers a legit shot at a Sierra grand slam – four species in one day – and good fishing on lures or flies.
I jump off the shuttle at the furthest upstream access point to the river, and work my way down. Walking along the river is easy through campgrounds and along roads, but it gets to where you need to scramble up a hill to get over an obstacle. There is some bushwacking to get to fishy-looking places, some wet wading, sliding down rocks and so on. So even though it’s all downhill once you get to the bottom, you can jump on the shuttle for a ride back up; it can beat you up. It’s a full day down there, and at the end your legs are tired and scraped up, but it’s a great area to fish and well worth it.
Ah, the lazy day. After trekking uphill on the Duck Pass trail and getting beat up by rocks, sticks and exposure along the San Joaquin, sleeping in one day doesn’t seem like the worst idea in the world.
Granted, I’m not talking about the Vegas bachelor party sense of sleeping in, but I think I deserve the right to stay in the rack until 7 or so, have breakfast, and get back in the game by 8, or, dare I say, 9 a.m.
At that point, where I fish is wide open. It might be the Owens again or a short roadie to the June Lake Loop to fish Rush Creek or a lake; or it could be a longer jaunt to Virginia Lakes. I might be a whim to check an area I’m unfamiliar with, but the one activity I am not doing is hiking.
It could be a up a new trail, or back up one I went up earlier in the week like Duck Pass if it was awesome, or really, any spot that stood out as damn close to a sure thing when it comes to fishing success. Wherever I go, it will be knowing that the end of the trip is near, and I am going to fish hard all day, no matter what. Good fishing can really throw a curveball into the game plan at any time, but that’s a good thing.
A few years ago, I fished Convict Lake four different days because it was so stupid-good. The following year, I fished for an hour and that
was it. As structured and OCD as my attack plan is, it does allow for calling audibles to go where fishing’s good.
The easiest decision of all is where to go on the last full fishing day of the trip – the spot where I killed it. Day 7 has been Saddlebag Lake for me so often that it’s the main reason why I know I’m going to hit it early in the week, because I want to make sure going there twice is a possibility.
In rare cases, it’s been another day hike – for instance, if I caught 50 at Skelton or something. In years where I have had about the same success rate wherever I went, I might end up at the Owens one more time because of the numbers and quality factor. But at this point, I’m not only fishing and hoping that I’m about to eclipse the 100-fish mark, I’m reflecting on the whole trip and trying to determine what adjustments can be made to this seven-day madness next time. CS