WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT NEXT MONTH FOR THE SIERRA TROUT OPENER? FIRST THINGS FIRST, CHECK THE WEATHER FORECAST, THEN GET SOME BAIT
By Mike Stevens
The best Eastern Sierra trout anglers are not always certain of what the conditions will be like on opening day of the general trout season (April 30), but they are always aware of that uncertainty.
Last year it snowed and “blowed” on opening day. Two years ago, 8 inches of snow was predicted on the day prior, and 36 inches came crashing down. Three years ago it was so warm it may have well been the Fourth of July.
If that pattern – completely different weather in three consecutive openers – continues, I suppose all that’s left is pouring rain. While it’s impossible to predict even a week prior to that last Saturday in April, a wet “Fishmas” certainly is more possible this year than ever, thanks that that El Niño kid.
Of course, there is no science to suggest that would be the case, and it’s always a roll of the dice. But it would be funny if trouters were hit by something altogether different four years in a row.
The most successful opening-day trout anglers are ready for all of the above, and they adjust the game plan based on whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
PREPARE FOR THE WORST
If it is actually snowing on opening day, like last year, being prepared for a long day of exposure should be priority number one. Once you are layered up from head to toe with plenty of chemical handwarmers (inexpensive lifesavers), a lot of how the day turns out is determined on what area of the Eastern Sierra you are targeting. For most attendees at the opener, this is known way ahead of time, so that really isn’t something that is going to change unless the conditions are insane, for most people anyway.
For those who fish creeks, they are usually productive regardless of the conditions. The water will be frigid, so bait presentations like split-shotted nightcrawlers, crickets or salmon eggs that can be accurately cast to fishy locations and then fished slowly are a great way to go. Plastics like minijigs, trout worms and plastic eggs, with or without scent added, can be fished the same way, and quite effectively. If you think of it as the ultralight, moving-water version of “flippin” for bass, you’re in the ballpark. This technique will actually work in all fishable creeks in late April.
The most popular moving-water location to fish on opening day is the confluence of the South and Middle Forks of Bishop Creek, and one semi-secret factoid about that spot -and actually the entire Bishop Creek Canyon, for that matter – is it lies in Inyo County, where opening day starts at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday (and yes, there are people who bundle up, throw a headlamp on and fish that early in the morning). Convict Creek below Convict Lake and Rush Creek between Silver and Grant Lakes in the June Lake Loop are also popular opening-day creeks for anglers.
The miles of wide-open shoreline at Crowley Lake – which is likely statistically the most popular watershed for the trout opener – mean plenty of shoreline for bank robbers to choose from, but it also means there is nary a tree shielding them from the elements. There is some shelter to be had in the coves around the Fish Camp at South Landing, especially in the easily accessed Whiskey Bay, where the bank is a good 20 feet lower than the parking area behind
it and down and out of the wind. There will be a lot of anglers down there, but there is always elbow room on the east side of the cove. If you need more space, make your way to the other coves toward the east end of the lake.
Boaters at Crowley tend to fish from larger craft than your average 15-foot rental boat, so flat-line or leadcore trolling with Tasmanian Devils, Owner Cultivas, Rapalas or Needlefish should never be pushed aside due to the elements. Just make sure your boat, and the amount of people in it, are capable of handling some weather.
Crowley Lake, as much as any of the bigger lakes on the east side, can take the full blast of hard Eastern Sierra winds, and legitimate wind waves can form in bigger lakes.
WEATHER CONDITIONS DICTATE OPTIONS
The thing about snow in the Sierra is it’s not always snow on the day you are fishing, or even the day or two before. The weather in the entire week or two leading up to opening day can factor in to what options are available.
The Mammoth Lakes Basin is a perfect example of this. Two Aprils ago, when 3 feet of snow fell in some places on Fishmas Eve, Lake Mary Road leading up to the Basin was covered in white stuff, and there was no way to get anywhere near the lakes. In all fairness, they were probably at least partially covered in ice anyway, but that took away as many as four (depending on how far up the road you can get even if the lower lakes are open) angling options.
Last year, when it snowed during the first day of fishing, the road was wide open all the way past Lake Mary to just beyond Lake Mamie. That, my trouthead friends, is a game changer. The thing is, the majority of people in the area on opening weekend are in Bishop Creek Canyon, Crowley or Convict Lake, or the June Lake Loop, with a handful more setting up in the Bridgeport area. When the Mammoth Lakes Basin is accessible, it is fully stocked, and it is an absolute ghost town.
I was covering the goings on at Convict and Crowley in particular, and when moving from one to the other I checked my phone and saw a text message from my brother that said “wide open at Mamie.” I had about an hour before the weigh-in for a kid’s derby at Crowley that I needed to get photos of, and it would take me 20 minutes to get to the basin, and another 20 to get back.
So of course, I jerked the wheel to the left when I hit 395 and charged up the mountain, saw my dad’s truck and literally followed footsteps in the snow to where he and my brother were absolutely teeing off on 2- to-5-pound rainbows.
They had caught and released 20 each by the time I got there, and I figured I had about a 15-minute window to chuck my Thomas Buoyant before flying back down to Crowley. I fired away and managed to land six trout of my own in that size range before I had to take off.
There was no one else around, and my dad and brother said they saw maybe two groups at Mary and one down at Twin when they did a lap on the way out. Given the crowds at the more popular opener spots, the Mammoth Lakes Basin being open is a big deal and it is something that you should monitor as the last weekend in April approaches.
The following quick-hitters will help you get the most out of your trip.
Sleep in: I’m not talking about rolling out of the rack at 10 a.m., but you certainly don’t have to be out there at the crack of dawn. Using Crowley as an example, there will be cars lined up for hours before the gate opens, then it’s a mad dash to park, launch or find a spot on the bank with a mob of other people. The best bite over the last three years has been between 8 and 11 a.m. for shore guys, and the troll bite lasts all day long. Colleagues covering all the other spots have also indicated that this is the case in their area of coverage. If anything, stay out later. Most people call it a day in the very early afternoon, so you have a lot of room to operate if you fish until dark.
Go a day or two early: While the general trout season opens on the last Saturday in April, trout lakes and streams between Bishop and Lone Pine have been open for a while already, and they are largely untouched as well. Starting from the bottom up, the way we do it on Thursday and Friday before the opener is we simply head west into the mountains wherever we see those “fishing that way” road signs and check it out. The creeks west of Lone Pine, Big Pine and Independence are all stocked, and the campgrounds – the areas that typically have the best fish-holding holes – are barely occupied, if not vacant. Heading east from those same towns will put you on the Lower Owens River, where you can catch anything from stocked trout and big browns to panfish and bass.
Slow it down: Unfortunately, moving around throwing and grinding metal isn’t going to work in the chilly April water like it does in the summer. Bait guys really do the best, as far as numbers, and trolling almost always sticks the biggest fish caught that weekend. If you have sworn off bait, reach for plastics like trout worms, minijigs, grubs or even little trout swimbaits. Fish them slowly on a leadhead; drop-shotting them is also deadly. Jigs 5 feet under a bobber when there is some chop on the water are also money. Fishing a fly-and-bubble is also a great way to get after it, and a streamer like Woolly Buggers or Matukas on a slow retrieve is the best technique this time of year. I am assuming that that wide-open bite on Buoyants at Mamie was the exception, not the rule. But clearly it happens, so if you can’t help but chuck some metal just to see, keep them as slow as you can stand.
For the love of God, mix it up, people!: A few things that I have discovered while covering the Eastern Sierra trout opener will never cease boggling the mind: There are families who have been fishing the opener for decades, and sometimes I will run into families with three or more generations represented right there on the bank. That is quite cool, and I think it’s funny that I see the same families in the same spots every year. This plays out at Crowley, Convict, throughout the June Lake Loop, and beyond. I mean, I dig the whole tradition aspect of it, but if it’s not happening at your family’s signature lake, load up the wagons and try somewhere else this opening day.
Lakes still here in May, June …: The last thing is, most people I talk to come for the opener, and that’s it – see you next year! They come when the weather is the most unpredictable, the crowds are as heavy as they get, the entire backcountry is frozen, Tioga Pass is closed, trout are sluggish and even some drive-up lakes are inaccessible – and that’s just dumb. I find myself begging them to come up in a month or three, and I sell it hard But at least they are getting up there.
The one thing that opening weekend is every year, and you can count on it, is that it’s always a spectacle.