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Mike Stevens – KNEE DEEP

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Saturday, February 11, 2017
An atmospheric river ran through us
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Well, that was weird

Early Sierra Paranoia
There is no doubt that the miracle winter California experienced is pretty much a positive thing across the board when it comes to Eastern Sierra watersheds, but the question marks – many of them unanswerable – that remain are enough to keep Highway 395 trout guy up at night. Everyone knows that conditions in the region are predictably unpredictable for the most part; week to week if not day to day or even hour to hour, but all that glorious snowpack adds unique variables to the situation.

While those factors are out of the control of any human being, it’s wise to think about the possibilities this year and how to “improvise, adapt and overcome” when conditional elements up there change the way a Sierra fishing trip will be executed. Heading up there with a “business as usual” attitude is not the way to go in 2017. I know I’m going up with not only a “Plan B” but also C, D, E and heaven forbid, F.

Last year, my July trip landed in the middle of an obnoxious heat wave that had daytime temps in Mammoth Lakes getting into the mid 80s without a cloud in the sky. Preferring at least some cloud cover so fishing through the middle of the day is a lot more comfy, I made the call to head up Tioga Pass as higher elevation usually means lower temps.

That audible not only saved the trip, as we hammered trout up and down the pass at Ellery Lake, Lee Vining Creek, Saddlebag Lake and Tioga Lake, but it immediately moved way up in the annual rotation as far as I was concerned. It became an area worth spending a least one entire day at even if lower environs weren’t a dust bowl, but will we even have access to it by late June?

One year, my favorite drive-to lake in the Eastern Sierra – Saddlebag Lake on Tioga Pass – opened in the middle of the week I was there, IN JULY. I got lucky that time and was able to fish it, albeit not yet stocked. In the Mammoth Lakes Basin at lower altitude, a ton of snow still bordered most of the lakes. Twin wasn’t so bad, Mary was fishable but you’d see a Volkswagen-sized chunk break off and fall in the lake about every 20 minutes, and George was ice free but you had to hike to it from Mary.

If inclement weather moves through, fleeing downhill is always an option. The June Lake Loop and Mammoth Lakes being lower than Tioga Pass, Crowley and Convict Lakes sitting lower than Mammoth, and so on. But this year, the chance of a storm moving through isn’t the main concern, at least, no more so than in any other year. The factor now is snowpack: how high it is when you go and where you fish, and when the major runoff periods happen (it’s a steady process that’s always ongoing, but all it takes is a decent heat wave to crank it up 1000 or so percent), how does an angler react to it?

Just to illustrate how much snow is up there that will soon be “down here,” there is already a “state of emergency” declaration has already been made for the entire Owens Valley in anticipation of huge runoff. Here is a snippet of the official announcement:

Mayor Eric Garcetti has declared a local State of Emergency to protect the lands and communities near the Los Angeles Aqueduct from flooding, as this year’s historic Eastern Sierra snowpack begins to melt into the Owens Valley. This year’s snowpack in the Eastern Sierras is 241 percent above normal, and once spring sets in, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) expects the snowmelt to send up to 1 million acre-feet of runoff into the Owens Valley. This runoff — nearly twice the amount of water Angelenos use in a year — will likely threaten local communities, hydroelectric power plants, and dust mitigation infrastructure in Owens Lake with destructive flooding. … ”

While much of that area is pretty far “down the hill” from where Eastern Sierra anglers like to fish, that’s a good look at the amount of snow and runoff we will be dealing with.

My advice as far as “calling audibles” if conditions go to hell in your favorite spots are as follows:

• If runoff blows out your creeks or rivers, move to lakes where the fishing isn’t as adversely affected by new water.

• If you just have to fish moving water, take a “meat and potatoes” approach with attractor-type lures and flies that are visible in off color water. Target side-channels, eddies, undercut banks and deep pools that trout will use to stay out of the fast current, and fish slow. Plastics – especially scented – are ideal for this.

•  If trails are clear of snow and passable, hike into the easier backcountry spots to get “on top of” much of the runoff. Trails like the Mosquito Flats Trail (out of Rock Creek Lake) or the Duck Pass Trail (Lake Mary) come to mind. This will not likely be an option early in the season as snow will be covering trails well into early summer.

• Keep in mind that new water in the form of runoff was snow not very long ago, so it’s near freezing. It will affect lake temperatures, so slow, scaled-down and possibly scented tactics are advisable in lakes, too. A cold trout is a sluggish (more than usual anyway) trout.

• The good news is, the lake-cooling factor brought on by runoff will be in play much later in the summer, so this year, August will fish more like a typical July or June. Over the last few drought years, if you got up there in August, you were dealing with water pushing 70 degrees in which most trout are caught trolling leadcore or fishing bait deep.

Those are just a few things to think about. Other than that, be open-minded to other areas you might not be familiar with like when I headed up Tioga Pass to beat the heat, and it instantly became a a favorite area for a guy who has been fishing the East Side for a quarter century. Thankfully, snowplowing is already underway up Tioga Pass, but it takes 1 to 2 months, I’ll be praying some random May snowstorm doesn’t set it back.

Get out a map, use weather apps on your phone, go with your gut feelings, brainstorm or just guess on some new areas. It feels pretty cool when desperate times call for such measures and it pans out.

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