Mike Stevens – KNEE DEEP

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Friday, April 28, 2017
Early Sierra Paranoia
Friday, October 06, 2017
San Vicente Reservoir: A year later

Well, that was weird
I was up covering the Eastern Sierra general trout opener, and I saw all the snow. I even wrote a column (An Atmospheric River Ran Through Us) about the across-the-board, record-breaking nature of the snowpack and rainfall throughout the state, and was expecting a “more than usual” runoff, but in 25-plus years of fishing the Sierra, I’ve never seen anything like what I saw last week.

WITH THE MAIN CHANNELS of creeks blown out, trout could be found in the slower, sheltered areas to the side, many of which are dry land in a normal year. Here, WON Associate Editor Mike Stevens targets an area like that on Convict Creek. Photo Courtesy of Brian Stevens

The magnitude of “Runoff Watch 2017!” first hit me when I crossed over Mammoth Creek as it flows under Highway 395, just before the Mammoth Lakes exit. I use that spot as a Day 1 gauge of how lake levels and creek flows are going to look in the area. If it’s fishy looking, it means the Twin Lakes waterfall is dumping at decent clip and most of the creeks will be fishable. If it’s low, everything else is low, and so on.

Normally, “low” you can jump across, and “high” and it gets close to the top of the banks. What I saw on the right (north) side of the road was half of the football field-sized meadow the creek flows through completely underwater. On the upstream side of 395, several rogue new creeks emerged from the main channel, and the total volume of water was too much for the pipe that takes it from one side of the road to the other to handle. So, there was also a pond-type situation on that side of the road. Same scene for Lee Vining Creek in the meadow section at the bottom of Tioga Pass, and the Upper Owens River was at least up even with the banks, at most, taking overland shortcuts at the sharpest bends. If you are familiar with the area, the “Fishing Monument” a couple miles upstream of Crowley was in standing water.

Driving around, we’d see water spewing out of random cracks at the base of mountains, and throughout the city of Mammoth, there is just a constant flow of water at your feet… everywhere.

In the Mammoth Lakes Basin, the waterfall was indeed cranking at Twin Lakes, where being as full as possible is a great thing for fishing, as the limited window of open water between the surface and the hellish weeds below is widened so you can actually fish from shore headache free. Other than the water being a little off-color due to all the runoff, lakes Mary, Mamie and George looked normal, there was simply way more water coming in and going out. The most dramatic change in scenery was Horseshoe Lake at the end of the Basin, where water is all the way up to the parking lot again, and the lake has taken on an entirely different shape. Full-size pine trees are standing in water, some coves are gone and others created, and when my brother returned from the back of the lake where a 15-foot high boulder previously marked the inlet, he said “I couldn’t see the big rock, and I’m not even sure if I was looking exactly where it was anyway.”

A LOT OF BROWNS were mixed in with stocker rainbows, and many of them were caught on Sierra Slammers jigs. Photo Courtesy of Brian Stevens

Needless to say, fishing was also affected. It didn’t take long to realize my whole playbook could be thrown out the window in 2017. Early July was like May of any other season. My favorite backcountry lakes still covered in snow (I assume), as if I could get to them up snow-buried trails anyway. Owens River fish hunkering down below undercut banks and not coming out for anything, Tioga Pass opened up, but Tioga (still three-quarters covered with ice) and Ellery Lakes (ice free and near the top of the dam) only kicked out a few holdovers. Saddlebag Lake, our top drive-to destination, was nowhere close to opening, and if I had to guess, it won’t be until August. That’s saying something for a lake that usually shuts down for the season in September.

What we ended up doing is fishing the same 50-yard stretch of Convict Creek for several days. It became a matter of — to take a line from saltwater fishing — not leaving fish to find fish. Once we found fish and figured out to catch them, it was kind of hard to spend too much time anywhere else. And it wasn’t like we got into easy pickin’s on cookie-cutter stockers. It got better each day and there were a lot of brown trout in the mix (a positive for the area fishing like late spring rather than early summer). But, a ton of tackle was donated to rocks, sticks and trees, we were fishing in spots where a misstep could seriously ruin our day, and only the perfect presentation would get them to go.

I plan on getting into the itty bitties of how we caught them in a future issue of WON, but I will say the most damage was done with Sierra Slammers jigs in King Crimson, Perch Fry, Carrot Cake and Big Stick. My brother got some on a Thomas Buoyant, and I also got some Rooster Tail fish.

The main channel of the creek being full-blown whitewater actually gave us an advantage. Anyone casually scouting the creek would get one look at that and move on thinking it was completely unfishable. What we found were side areas normally on dry land now flooded with all the “extra water,” and it was these areas that were sheltered from the torrents. Deeper pools and labyrinths of snarled roots, fallen timber and flooded bushes provided plenty of spots for trout to hide in, behind and under.

Once we found areas like that on the creek, we knew where the fish were and how to get them. A jig tossed upstream into the seam where whitewater met the calm side area was how we did it. Land in the right channel, and the fast water literally delivered our lures right where we wanted them. Again, more on that in an upcoming issue.

So, if I were going back up now, I would not spend more than a day on my old Sierra playbook and instead look for areas like that on any of the creeks. The combination of figuring out where fish relocate in situations like that paired with rushing water scaring the weekend warriors away made for a pretty enjoyable fishing experience.

As someone who prefers to avoid August for fishing reasons alone, I’m predicting this August to be the best ever in the Eastern Sierra. The snowmelt feeding the lakes is just going to continue long enough to keep late-summer air temps from bringing the water temperatures up high enough to send trout down to leadcore depth. By the time the snow is finally gone, fall will have fallen.

As much as it looks like all creek fish could be washed all the way down to Lone Pine, they won’t. They’re just doing what many Eastern Sierra anglers are doing, hunkering down and waiting for a return to normalcy.

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