We’re counting down the days this week to Saturday’s statewide trout opener with a different story that’s running in our April issue. Today: After a 2020 season delayed and affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eastern Sierra hoping for normalcy as “Fishmas” starts on time:
By Chris Cocoles
Game on. Or maybe “Fish on!” is a more accurate battle cry for the trout-crazed Eastern Sierra.
A year after the region’s “Fishmas” celebration of late April’s traditional statewide trout opener was delayed for more than a month due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the event is back on for April 24. Perhaps there will be less fanfare – most of the usual opening-weekend derbies are not likely to be publicized or held – but there will be no lack of enthusiasm from those trout anglers who have been waiting to hit the reopening of resort-style fisheries such as Crowley Lake, Convict Lake and Bridgeport Reservoir.
“It’s a little uncertain in terms of how many people we’re going to see.
With the delayed opener last year, it was a little off. I don’t think everyone was comfortable with traveling,” says Jeff Simpson from Mono County Economic Development and Tourism. “I think that sentiment and the safety factor has changed. So I anticipate probably a normal opener as we’ve seen in past years. But things can change in a hurry. We just want to maintain the protocols that are coming down from the state. We’re just hoping we can have a traditional Fishmas season.”
Last year’s various shutdowns obviously took a toll – mental, financial and otherwise – on residents of the Eastern Sierra. Visitors had to adhere to various guidelines throughout what’s usually a bustling spring and summer season.
“I think it really depends on your perspective and also the business that you’re in,” Simpson says of the impact the restrictions had on locals. “If you owned an RV park, you had a really great season. A lot of the marine operators did well. But if you’re a mom and pop restaurant with sit-down seating, you had a tough season.”
Simpson’s Mono County has been one of the state’s more successful in dealing with the pandemic, and it ranks as California’s best when it comes to administering vaccines (as of March 24, 33 percent of the county was fully vaccinated). So things are definitely looking up for local businesses.
“I know that fishing sales are up and people want to get outdoors,” Simpson says. “I think we’re positioned well for recovery.”
Simpson added that the usual derbies scheduled for opening weekend are in limbo. One of the few annual events during the season, the Bridgeport Fish Enhancement Foundation’s trout tournament, is on for the end of the June.
“I think it’s just what’s allowable and permissible for state and local health guidelines,” he says. “There are rules around gatherings right now and it depends if our health officials will allow (these derbies). We just can’t confirm anything. Everybody would like to do an event that can do one.”
GUIDE BUSINESS BOOMING
The financial fallout of various levels of pandemic-related lockdowns have affected so many walks of life and businesses. But as indoor activity was all but shut down, the ability to go fishing and maintain a level of safety outdoors provided guide services with willing clients.
Doug Rodricks, owner of Mammoth Lakes-based Sierra Drifters Guide Service (760-935-4250; sierradrifters.com), had to close for business from mid-March – when it became clear that the virus was becoming a threat – through April and May.
“And after that we were open, and we had our busiest season since Sierra
Drifters started (in 1997),” Rodrick says. “And this summer, I’m already predicting it’s going to be twice as busy, considering we’re getting calls already. In the winter they were already asking about summer trips.”
Last year, Sierra Drifters’ trips included the use of facemasks and as much social distancing as possible while fishing on a boat. The vaccination process is expected to eventually return life to normal sometime this year. But for now, Rodricks, like the rest of the Eastern Sierra, is grateful that the trout fishing season will be starting on time after 2020’s hardships.
Still, a positive from the extended lockdowns meant fishing became a viable option for so many.
“Last year we were excited to get out there ourselves. There was a lot of new exposure to families and people who probably never had an interest or thought about fly fishing before, but just came here,” says Rodricks, who has high hopes for 2021’s trout season.
“The lack of pressure last year I think helps. People think it’s just one month (of last year’s delay) and that it’s not that much to lose a month’s pressure. But it really is. Because in that first month (usually) a lot of fish get pulled up.”
Rodricks’ guide service offers fly fishing trips to popular locations such as Hot Creek, the Lower and Upper Owens Rivers and the East Walker River. But they’re also regulars at Crowley Lake and Bridgeport Reservoir, among other fisheries, some
that will be more in play as summer approaches. Rodricks also likes the San Joaquin River as a destination later in the season after the runoff period.
“A lot of times the lakes fish better, just because there is runoff around that time and creeks and rivers can get blown out,” he says. “So we’ll focus more on still waters at that time.”
MILD WINTER’S EFFECT
As of late March, the Eastern Sierra had not endured a very snowy winter – Simpson says the region is between 60 and 70 percent of normal snowpack – which while a long-term concern, should make for pretty solid early-season opportunities for anglers.
“We had a mild winter, so there’s not going to be a lot of ice left on lakes. So it will be a little warmer probably and things will start melting a lot sooner,” Rodricks says. “I think the runoff will take place around mid-
May or early June, and all the creeks should be pretty fishable at that time.” That said, a less-than-hoped-for snowpack after a promising January isn’t ideal anywhere in the high Sierra. Drought is again a concern for coming seasons. “All through December it was dry.
It looked like it was going to be pretty dry. But at the end of January we got a pretty good amount of snow, and it even snowed in Bishop, where we got 6 to 8 inches on the ground here,” says James Erdman, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I was kind of thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll get a good snowpack this winter,’ but it’s not looking like a good snowpack.”
Simpson also reminds that April can feature plenty of snow. Indeed, there have been snowy opening days, just as there have been warm, sunny ones.
But after what everyone has gone through over the last year, the region will take what it can get in the form of at least a closer-to-routine trout fishing season that will get going on April 24.
With the new state regulations that opened up select waters to year-round fishing (California Sportsman, March 2021), Simpson expects a few anglers to head up the week leading into the opener to get in some great fishing ops on various local streams that were previously closed.
“I think that excitement when you have a ton of boats on the water again and everyone’s just pumped for opening day,” Simpson says. “That’s what we missed last year. And that’s what I’m looking forward to this year.” CS
Editor’s note: For more on Mono County Tourism information, go to monocounty.org or call (800) 845-7922.
SIDEBAR: FISHING STOCKING PROGRAMS ON IN MONO COUNTY DESPITE HATCHERY CRISIS
LOTS OF FISH
Last summer, three Southern California state hatcheries were dealing with a bacterial outbreak and euthanizations among their fish stocks that put the annual trout plantings around the state in jeopardy.
“The best option we have available that will get us back to planting fish from these hatcheries in the shortest timeline is to clear the raceways, thoroughly disinfect the facilities, and start over,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries environmental program manager Jay Rowan said at the time.
Just how that will affect the overall fishing around the Eastern Sierra this year is unknown, but anglers are being urged to be “sustainability minded.”
“I respect anyone who wants to catch and eat. But if you’re not one of those individuals, try to release all the fish that you can so we can keep all of our population numbers up while CDFW has its disruption in stocking,” says Jeff Simpson of Mono County Economic Development and Tourism.
Mono County’s own usual planting of trout in various fisheries throughout the 2021 season will continue.
“We’re still going to be stocking the same amounts that we always have, which is $100,000 (worth of fish) in 18 different bodies of water throughout Mono County,” Simpson says. “Another $100,000 is stocked through the town of Mammoth Lakes that goes directly to the Mammoth Lakes Basin. You’ve got 24 bodies of water and $200,000 worth of fish.” CC