Countdown To The Trout Opener: Sierra Memories

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We’re counting down the days to Saturday’s statewide trout opener. Today: A trout angler’s memorable trips to the high country:

By Tim E. Hovey

I was going through some old photos last year, and to my amazement, I found a photograph I took of the very first trout I ever caught when I was 11.

Using a nightcrawler and my grandfather’s fishing rod, I convinced the stocker trout to bite and pulled him from a camp creek in Central California. I can remember being amazed at the vibrant rainbow colors. Comparing the trout to other freshwater species I had caught at the time, I thought it was the prettiest fish I had ever seen.

With some help from my grandmother, I prepped the trout, wrapped it in tinfoil and cooked it over our campfire for dinner.

Since that first catch, I’ve added brook, brown, resident steelhead and a few hybrids to my trout fishing species list. I’ve tossed lures in coastal streams, backcountry creeks and reservoirs both large and small. With every trout landed, I still marvel at the colors and patterns of each fish.

In California, anglers are lucky enough to find trout in several different types of habitat, each offering their own set of challenges. Whether you target stocked trout or wild trout, use spinning tackle or fly fishing gear, bait or artificials, trout have something to offer every level of angler.

I picked up the old Polaroid photo and looked at it closely. My lime-green tennis shoes were visible below the bench the fish was resting on. At the time, my angling career had spanned an impressive five years; even at that age I knew a fisherman’s success was measured by the size of the fish he caught. This was likely the reason I placed a match stick next to the trout to demonstrate scale.

While I do love all types of fishing, there’s just something about the wilderness component that adds so much more to the experience. Holding the photo some 40 years later, I started to think about all the places I’ve fished for trout since then.

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LAST YEAR, I HIKED a high mountain creek that was home to a wild trout population. In California, wild trout are designated as a population of trout that are offspring of stocked fish and usually self-sustaining. This means that the trout population in the creek is sustained through natural reproduction and stocking is no longer provided.

I hiked over a mile up the creek, passing several good pools holding fish, then slowly worked my way back downstream to the trailhead. Using artificial bait imitations and a spinning rod, I concentrated on deeper pools. Using no weight, I’d toss the bait into the dark water and let it sink. Watching the line, I’d set the hook at the slightest twitch. I caught some absolutely beautiful wild trout in two hours of fishing.

After a few photos, I carefully released everything I caught. Content to just check out the fish, I stopped fishing and walked the last few pools to watch the trout.

Sometimes, great fishing all depends on where you park. When I was in college, my good friend Rich Rosen and I took a summer camping trip to the Mammoth area. After a few days of fishing the high-mountain lakes, we headed back home. On the way back we stopped off at popular Crowley Lake.

We didn’t have a lot of time to fish, so we pulled into one of the parking areas and walked to the closest inlet. We hit the shore and started testing the waters with silver Kastmasters. Four casts in I felt something strike the lure hard. I set the hook and played the fish for several minutes before I started seeing flashes of silver in the dark green water.

Seeing the struggle, Rich came down to assist. After another minute, nursing the 4-pound-test line, Rich netted a beautiful 22-inch silver Eagle Lake rainbow trout. Back then, we were meat fishing and I put the fish on the stringer to be filleted later. Even now, looking at a photo of the beautiful fish, I wish I had released it. The trout looked like a bar of silver in the lake shallows.

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HIGH-ELEVATION LAKES STOCKED with trout are perfect places to teach kids the basics of fishing. When my daughters were old enough, we’d head out for weekend camping trips. Waking early, we’d stake out a section of the lake and try to catch dinner. My daughters learned techniques like casting, setting the hook and fighting trout at the shores of the Sierra lakes.

A few years ago we took a fishing trip to Rock Creek Lake. Using floating salmon eggs on a Carolina rig, we’d cast into the deep end of the lake and wait. With a regular stocking schedule, we didn’t have to sit long. Both Jessica and Alyssa caught their first trout in the cold waters of the lake. Watching their excitement as they played their first rainbow trout brought me back to when I was their age catching fish.

For the most part, we practice catch-and-release fishing, but when we go to stocked lakes we like to save a few fish for a big dinner. In fact, during this trip all my daughters could talk about was catching trout to eat. After spending the morning casting the deeper section of Rock Creek Lake, we each strung up a few nicer fish and enjoyed an amazing campfire meal back at camp.

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LIKE MOST, I VALUE my free time. It doesn’t matter what activity I have planned, I always make sure I load up gear for any occasion. A two-piece fishing rod and tackle are always packed in the back of the truck.

During a combo hunting and fishing trip to the Sierras a few years ago, I spent an afternoon with my good friend, Rito Escamilla, on a tributary that dumped into a high-elevation lake. We stumbled on the creek while looking for places to hunt. The stream was rushing and filled with large trout migrating up from the lake.

We stored the hunting gear and broke out the fishing rods. Staying low and stalking within range, we tossed white jigs laced with imitation worms near the staging trout. Bouncing the lures close usually resulted in a strike, and after a short fight in the narrow stream, we’d land the trout, take a few photos and release them.

Down closer to the lake, I spotted a large female in a shallow pool at the side of the creek. Staying in the shadows of a pine tree near the shore, I tossed the white jig upstream of the trout and let the current carry it down. The lure stopped a foot in front of the fish. I jigged it once, the trout glided up and inhaled it.

After a short fight, I landed the trout. Its brilliant colors and patterns were amazing, and after a few snapshots the fish was gently released back into the stream. I sat there and watched the fish slide back into the same exact position in the creek. After that, I put my fishing rod away and just hiked the stream and watched the trout.

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IN OVER A DECADE of traveling the Owens Valley, I’ve discovered quite a few quick spots near the river where I like to stop off and make a few casts. I usually stop at these locations while I’m just passing through. I really enjoy the convenience of these areas. If I’m even remotely close to any of them, I’ll definitely make time to check them out. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a handful of spots I consider my favorites.

Last month, Rito visited a couple of these spots to try his luck. Using small spinners and trout flies, he spent a few days fishing the Owens. He caught several respectable trout and sent me photos of his success. Nothing beats the smile of a successful angler, especially a friend.

During my job as a fisheries biologist, I see a lot of fish. Most of the native species are small and cryptically colored. The other species I encounter are routinely the same greenish color. While most of them are nicely patterned and beautiful in their own right, to me nothing will ever compare to the amazing patterns and colors I’ve seen on the trout I’ve caught.

While I will always consider trout some of the most beautiful fish an angler can catch, there are times when I get more pleasure just watching them. In fact, on just about every trip I’ll stop fishing and just observe.

It really doesn’t matter your angling experience level, catching trout can appeal to all anglers. Whether you’re looking to hike high mountain creeks, cast lures at a reservoir or soak bait at a stocked lake, some of the most beautiful fish are out there waiting
for you. CS