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CALIFORNIA'S ONLY SPORTSMAN'S NEWS SINCE 1953

Mike Stevens – KNEE DEEP

Knee Deep

Stevens knew he wanted to be a Western Outdoor News staffer when he was 17-years-old, and it happened 20 years later. He worked in tackle shops before a stint at the Hubbs Sea-World Research Institute (white seabass hatchery) and later became the social media manager for several major outdoor brands while contributing to WON as a freelance writer. A member of the Outdoor Writers Association in California, Mike’s area of expertise is the Eastern Sierra, but he also feels right at home fishing his local inshore and offshore waters. He lives in San Marcos with his wife, two daughters and son.


Falling up
I have long acknowledged that fall is the best time to be in the Eastern Sierra, but I have only done it a few times. It’s just harder to get up there post-Labor Day when you’ve got three kids between 2 and 8, and your wife’s a teacher, but it didn’t take more than that first visit to recognize the draw of the season in those few opportunities.

It starts with the same “before school gets out or after Labor Day” rule-of-thumb that applies to so many things “outdoor destination” and means less people. With a quarter-century of Eastern Sierra fishing in my rear-view mirror, I’m used to seeing, working around or completely avoiding packed shorelines, stuffed trailheads, gaunt­lets of rods through campground creeks and a longer wait at Mammoth Brewing.


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THIS LAKE MARY rainbow ate a Thomas Buoyant on a fall evening in 2018. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

The 180-degree reversal of those factors that occurs as early as the first week of September is so obvious, it’s a shock to a trout angler’s system if not downright eerie. All those perfect holes, pools, runs and undercuts that get salmon egged to death all summer are now yours for the casting now that the campground’s a ghost town due to frigid nighttime temps or to them (the dates vary) being formally closed.


I remember exploring the likes of Bishop Creek, Convict Creek and Rock Creek in October and noticing I wasn’t necessarily running across stocker rainbows fresh out of the truck lined up like cordwood, but the fish I was catching were now trending toward the German brown variety. Also in the mix were semi-seasoned rainbows savvy enough to evade the aforementioned gauntlet: full finned and wary but now chock full of aggression brought on by signs that winter is indeed coming.


Brown trout and rainbows that will now punch way above their weight class. I’m all in.


Historically, Department of Fish and Wildlife stocking programs call it a year sometime in September even though the general season runs through Nov. 15. So, previously, you were only looking for hungry browns and holdover rainbows, but now, local-tourism management


types in trout-dependent areas throughout the Highway 395 corridor have banded together with resorts and marinas to throw down their own cash for not only additional trout stocking, but planting upgraded top-shelf rainbows in the 2-pound to trophy-sized range to keep the party going well into fall. This is going on in the waters of Bishop Creek Canyon, Mammoth Lakes, “21 bodies of water” further up the road all the way to Bridgeport. Convict Lake also buys its own supplemental trout, and other programs like the Bridgeport Fish Enhancement Foundation are also in the self-funded trout stocking game.


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ONE OF 20 OR SO South Lake rainbows that fell victim to a Sierra Slammers jig thrown by Brian Stevens on the new Daiwa Kage trout rod. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

The DFW isn’t exactly sitting it out either. While stocking might come to an end well before the fishing is over, the department has also resumed stocking diploid (as in, trout with the ability to make more trout) from Bishop all the way to Conway Summit.


Basically, while the fall is rightfully regarded as a time to target big brown trout, there is now — more than ever — plenty of fish to catch for anglers of all levels of experience.


Even after the end of the general season was extended from Oct. 31 to Nov. 15, a substantial amount of operations including marinas, cabin resorts and campgrounds do shut down well ahead of the closer. It’s something to think about before planning a trip in terms of getting your lodging ducks in a row, but with the dramatic decrease in foot traffic, there’s always places available to hang your hat.


Also, folks love to beat the “you never know!” drum to death when it comes to weather in the region even in summer, but it’s even more a concern (personally, I look forward to the unknown nature of, well, Mother Nature) in the fall where inclement weather means more than an afternoon thunderstorm or out-of-nowhere snow in June.


Try waking up in October to heavy snow blowing in sideways. The thing about that situation is, there’s always a backup plan: retreating downhill as far as you need to go to get out of it. When it happened to me, I just made a day of it and left Mammoth and shot up Bishop Creek Canyon. The weather was in the mid-40s but it was not snowing or blowing, so I just fished through the endless ghost-town campgrounds and had a grand ol’ time.


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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


Looking beyond kids for angler recruitment
Getting kids fishing as early as possible is a no-brainer as far as what we can all do to maintain sustainability, but we really should take advantage of all the possible new blood out there.

It feels like we’re doing a pretty good job getting kids in the game. In many respects, fishing has become “cool,” which makes it easier for teens to recruit their own, and social media has a lot to do with that. Say what you want about social, it’s definitely resulting in more young anglers.


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CALICO BASS MIGHT be the ultimate “gateway fish” to usher a freshwater angler over to the saltwater side. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS


It’s even to the point kids who were fishing all along are feeling this influx of “kooks” and some are cool with it, some are not. I recently saw a young angler wearing a red hat that said “make fishing lame again.” It took me a second, but I soon realized exactly what that meant.


That’s actually a good way to look at the current state of angler recruitment in a “big picture” format. Think about your reaction when you find someone on your spot at the lake, a couple trucks already at the trailhead, 70 heads on an open-party boat or a dozen private boaters on “your” bluefin spot 40 miles offshore.


Fishing author John Gierach might have put it perfectly when he wrote, “There are only two types of anglers: those in your party and the a—holes.”


It’s the perfect way to describe the slippery slope that exists between our responsibility as sportsmen to fill the ranks with new anglers and our disdain for running into humans who beat us to our honey holes.


I’d never suggest we back off on the “take a kid fishing” mantra, but it’s adults who are the untapped resource that can make a more significant impact in a shorter amount of time.


Money has a lot to do with it.


Along with being the stuff that buys fishing licenses, money buys gear. That of course supports the mom-and-pop shops, but those purchases reverberate well beyond that. Thanks to the Dingell-Johnson Act — also known as the Sport Fish Restoration Act — funds derived from a 10 percent excise tax on fishing tackle as well as 3 percent on electronics and trolling motors and even a portion of boat fuel taxes go back to each state as Federal aid for “management and restoration of fish having material value in connection with sport or recreation in the marine and/or fresh waters of the United States. In addition, amendments to the Act provide funds to the states for aquatic education, wetlands restoration, boat safety and clean vessel sanitation devices (pumpouts) and a non-trailerable boat program.”


Many column inches have been churned out on all that almost 70-year-old piece of legislation brings to table, but for these purposes, it doesn’t take much to make the connection between more anglers and better fishing, fish habitat and wildlife conservation.


Who is going to put more of a charge into that equation — the eager 12-year-old kid, or your buddy well into full-time employment? The kid’s an interest-bearing investment in the future, but the adult is a low-risk, all-reward windfall for the present.


When it comes to showing the light to non-fishing adults, varying degrees of interest might already be there. “Giving fishing a try” is the type of idea that might rest in the back of someone’s head for decades without budging. If that is the case, pitching something local, low-maintenance and non-intimidating is all it takes to get that snowball of interest rolling downhill and evolving into an avalanche of obsession.


Speaking of untapped resources, increasing participation and injecting more cash into the hopper, we don’t even have to look beyond existing circles of enthusiasts. As the owner of the marketing agency I used to work for used to say, “sell the sold.”


Last fall, I attended an event put on by Strike King and Lew’s on Kentucky Lake, and I spent about an hour on the water with each of the pro staffers in attendance. We’re talking elite-level, household-name bass guys, and you know what they ALL wanted to talk about with the lone writer from California? Calico bass fishing.


I think that’s due to a number of factors topped off by the fact that they not only look and act like largemouth, but they can be targeted using similar rods and reels they already use, and a calico will eat just about anything a largemouth will. These guys just want to check it out in a massive marine environment they have little or no familiarity with.


There are dozens of possible scenarios in which an experienced angler may very well be already well equipped to hit the water running on another type of fishing he or she may have never considered.


Hard-core bass guy probably has all he needs to take on inshore saltwater stuff. Drop-shot rods are perfect for fishing harbors, bays, lagoons and for throwing a Carolina-rig for surf perch or corbina. That 9-foot noodle of a Pacific Northwest salmon stick has jerkbaits-for-surf-halibut written all over it.


I have found that the fresh-to-salt conversion is pretty easy: everything (fish and otherwise) is bigger and pulls harder pound-for-pound, rigs are simple, entry-level gear is reasonable and every cast can connect to a fish of a lifetime. It’s a simple matter of experiencing it first hand.


As for getting a non-angler into the mix, the presentation of a custom-built starter kit followed by a backyard-swimming-pool seminar and a few beers can stand as the ultimate launch ramp toward recruitment.


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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


The Eastern Sierra sans trout
I remember the first time I thought to myself, “You know, if I didn’t fish, I would still come up here and check out all the non-fishing things to do, and I’d have a damn good time.” That was no less than 15 years ago when I first heard the rhythmic thump of a well-tuned bass from a headlining act taking the stage at Mammoth’s Bluesapalooza. I was in a Seasons 4 condo crashing out after and prior to a long day of stalking Sierra trout.

In this issue of WON, the Eastern Sierra Travel Guide rattles off all manner of Eastern Sierra activities that are available, and even that is just scratching the surface. But what happens when you start testing those waters is, you come up with your own list, unique from all others.


Now, heading up Highway 395 without fishing is as out of the question for me as it is you, but I have since etched out time in each visit to take part in non-angling activities, and I’ve figured out ways to make it happen without interfering with prime fishing time. Between 11 a.m and 2 p.m. on cloudless, hot days, the night before “getaway day” with no risk of sleeping in past the morning bite, or maybe just the day following harder-than-usual backcountry mileage.


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WHITNEY PORTAL HOSTEL and hotel in Lone Pine serves as an ideal basecamp for any Owens Valley activity. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

I just turned 42. Mid-trip recovery days after serious trail work are now very much part of the program.


For me, it starts on the way up. In previous columns, I’ve touched on my “Day Zero” element in which I spend 24 hours in one of those highway towns to kick off each trip — Lone Pine, Big Pine, Independence, Bishop — up and eat, drink, wander, people watch, buy wacky stuff. A trout here and there is just gravy.


I ultimately settled on Lone Pine (specifically, Whitney Portal Motel and Hostel) for Day Zero lodging, but the low-maintenance exploration can go on anywhere through that lower end of the corridor: day jaunts to get up and out of the heat to destinations like Whitney Portal or Onion Valley, scouring every creek rushing east out of the Sierra, breakfast at the store at the Portal (manhole cover pancakes), Jack’s in Bishop, Country Kitchen in Big Pine, or a quick breakfast burrito and a cup of Black Rifle Coffee at veteran-owned Brewed Awakening, also in Big Pine. The lunch rotation includes Copper Top BBQ in Independence or the deli in Lee’s Frontier in Lone Pine.


At night, it’s a couple-few beers at Jake’s in Lone Pine or Rusty’s in Bishop, both Clamper-friendly (if you know, you know) establishments and people-watching gold mines. After that, nighttime activities have ranged from wandering into the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop to just hanging out and talking to whoever happens by the motel.


During the main body of the trip — which for me is based out of Mammoth Lakes — it’s gotten to the point where several days are finished at Mammoth Brewing either for a quick growler fill to a tasting to full on dinner. I buy a book at Booky Joint every visit as a rule, and hit Roberto’s (upstairs, first-come first-served seating. More fun up there), Base Camp Cafe, Looney Bean coffee, Rick’s Sport Center and various spots throughout The Village.


Outside of Mammoth it’s the Whoa Nelli Deli near Lee Vining after a day fishing Tioga Pass or any number of pit stops throughout the June Lake Loop. South of town, the bar menu at Convict Lake Resort is going to be lunch at least once.


That’s just my starting rotation, and while it reads like a list of shameless plugs (that’s precisely what it is), the point is, once you decide to put the rod down even for a small amount of time per trip, you’ll definitely wind up with a personally curated collection of gap-filling spots of your own.


I’ve yet to get on a horse, rent a mountain bike, hit golf balls, dive into a lake off a big rock, or float the lower Owens, but the good news is, without some major volcanic activity, the Eastern Sierra isn’t going anywhere.


Funny thing, after all this, I’ve still never been up for Blues­apalooza. Live music and craft beer vendors from all over? I have a feeling when it does happen, I might realize it’s the top of the off-the-water food chain.


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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


Big Fish Challenge trends and facts
I’m no tourney director, but I sit close enough to WON Tournament Director Billy Egan to be able to play one here in my on version of “Director’s Notes. I also only played a small role in the creation of the WON Big Fish Challenge four years ago, but I am the guy that follows it closest over the course of the 10-week event because I write the weekly updates, the wrap-ups and the previews for the next installment.

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CATALINA ISLAND IS well within the WON Big Fish Challenge boundaries, and it could produce the top fish in any of the event’s six species categories. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS


The 2019 BFC is the fourth annual (with no end in sight) and in just three years, I’ve already been able to pick up on some trends, keys to making the most out of your participation and hard facts.


For one, if you fish saltwater, it is an absolute no brainer. At $40 (all in, and it’s even less if you only want to target three or fewer species in the Challenge), you’re off and running and chasing one of six grand prize packages that routinely exceed $5,000 in value. Come to think of it, you could actually be chasing MORE than one of six, because in the first year of the Big Fish Challenge, we had a guy win TWO grand prize packages. When he came to pick up his prizes, he was lucky to have brought a truck. You fish whenever you want within a 10-week window in peak saltwater season. If you fish between San Diego and Santa Barbara, that whole coast is peppered with official weigh stations, making it very convenient. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.


While you can sign up at any point, it pays to be in the game from the get-go. Every year so far, we’ve had multiple participants tell us they caught a fish that would have won it all, but they had not yet entered. A couple entered after the fact and ended up getting a bigger one anyway, but you hear the former more than the latter.


Keep tabs on WONBigFish.com for updates and current leaders. This especially comes into play for the weekly prizes (each top fish of each species wins a respectable prize for that as well). What happens is, a guy will catch a 10-pound yellowtail, for example, and not weigh in and submit the fish because he knows a 25 pounder is the overall leader. But, if no one else submits a yellowtail that week, the weekly prize goes unclaimed! (or it gets beat by a 5-pound rat). We probably see that scenario more than anything. Short version: weigh in and register your catch — no matter what.


Oh, another in the “no brainer” vein. In the second year, no one weighed in a dorado until the final week of the Big Fish Challenge. That fish was not that impressive, but it was good enough for a grand prize package. What made it frustrating here in the office was we were constantly getting photos of 15- and 20-pound dorado caught within 10 miles of the WON office and printing them in the paper for weeks, but they were all caught by guys who were not signed up. In their defense, it was early, and word was still getting around about the event in only its sophomore year.


It’s a level playing field. Sure, a guy who fishes more than you has better odds, but that’s on you. But we’ve had multiple kayak winners — including the guy who won two grand prizes in one year. Another year trended toward private boaters, and the other to sportboat guys. So, if there is anything that is not predictable from one year to the next, it’s what TYPE of angler takes more of the grand prize packages because in just three years going on four, we’ve already seen it all.


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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


Sierra bullets: Opener and beyond
This time of year, with the Eastern Sierra trout opener looming, there are plenty of topics bouncing around in my head that are worth mentioning heading. While a full article could be written on most of them, here are the essential guts on a few that should come in handy.

crowleyscenic
CROWLEY LAKE

— At the Fred Hall Show in Long Beach, Mono County Economic Development Man­ager Jeff Simpson said, “I expect everything along the Highway 395 corridor to be ice-free in time for the Opener.” At that point in March, the snowpack was at 158 percent of normal for that point on the calendar. Two years ago (“Miracle Winter”) the snowpack ranged from 180- to 200-percent of normal depending on where it was measured.


— Looking again (a month later) at snow/water equivalents for April 2019 versus April 2017 in the Southern Sierra (which, for these intents and purposes, includes our Eastern Sierra) was at 160 percent of normal for April 3 and 153 percent at that point in 2019. That’s only about a 7-inch difference. So, it’s pretty safe to say you could flashback to your 2017 trips and look at the advantages you had and challenges you faced, and plan your 2019 trips accordingly.


— For me, I went in mid-June that year (and will again this year along with some later trips), and I had to work pretty hard to find biters. When I did, I piled them up and was releasing double-digit numbers of trout over several spots fished. The key that season for my creek success was finding spots that normally get pounded during normal years but were vacant due to the whitewater visual that made it appear unfishable. I’d explore the adjacent holes hidden from casual view, or flooded spots that are normally dry land, and throw Sierra Slammers jigs or Mini Swims into deeper water behind obstructions and small pockets of calm around the fringe of the whitewater. The fishing in those spots ended up being so good, that we’d return to the same holes several days in a row, and it never slowed down. Also, it was primarily brown trout we were catching. Some of those spots were so tight, that my brother and I would alternate every time one of use would catch one, because there was no room for us both to hit it at the same time.


— I’m no fish biologist, but I went ahead and assumed the way-above-average spike in brown trout numbers was due to the high flows and low water temps. Trout don’t have calendars, so, it must have just “felt” like spring there in mid-June.


— Based on the winter we had, you can pretty much bank on any backcountry lake above 10,000 feet to be inaccessible until late May or early June. This could tilt one way or the other based on how the weather is for the rest of April through May, and even if it’s iced out, all that snowmelt could spell questionable trail conditions and getting there could be an issue.


— Mono County will spend $100,000 on fish stocking in 21 bodies of water. Most of them will be in the 3- to 8-pound range, and they are coming from Desert Springs Hatchery in Oregon. That outfit took over as the supplier of “premium” trout a few years ago when Alpers trout became a thing of the past. Desert Springs used to supply the eggs that ultimately became Alpers trout. The DFW will also pepper the area with their own trout, so there will be no shortage of fish to catch at any time this season.


— Saddlebag Lake has been purchased by the owners of Tioga Pass Resort, and Saddlebag will be open this season on a limited basis. The good news is, one of the services that will be available is the popular water taxi that brings anglers from one end of the lake to the other where they can access the 20 Lakes Basin loop. Tioga Pass Resort, however, will not open in 2019 as they continue to rebuild after the damage they took on from the big winter. Speaking of snow, this winter was no slouch as you probably know, and that means we’re looking at mid-June (safe bet) for Tioga Pass to completely open, along with the partial-dirt road-turnoff to Saddlebag.


— Also according to Jeff Simpson, the DFW is going to start mixing in diploid trout in their fish stocking from Conway Summit to Bishop. These are fish that have the ability to reproduce, so eventually it could result in some natural reproduction to go along with all the stocking. Most stocked trout are triploid, meaning they cannot reproduce. The reason for stocking those is primarily because they don’t want them spawning with wild fish in order to protect genetics, and triploid fish grow to stockable size more quickly.


— Convict Lake management is kicking in $25,000 for fish stocking above and beyond the standard trout plants the lake is already slated to receive from the state. That means, from Opening Day until Nov. 15, there really won’t be a bad time to target Convict.


— This will be my sixth Opener as far as covering it for WON, and I have noticed a couple trends, and this is regardless of weather. Number one, you don’t have to get out there before the crack of dawn to do well. I’ve yet to hear “the bite was great from 6 to 7:30 a.m. and then it shut off!” It’s actually quite the opposite: “We got here at 6 but got most of our bites between 8 and 11.” Yes, I know you’re pumped and you’re going to get out there rockin’ a headlamp anyway, just don’t feel like you have to.


Also — and this might be upsetting to many of you — bait and trolling rules opening weekend. That’s not to say you can’t catch Fishmas trout chucking minijigs or throwing lures, but when the dust settles and I take a look at the full catch logs (list of the bigger fish caught those days and what they ate) as well as my own notes, generally speaking, bait and trolling does the most damage, and it’s usually not even close.


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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


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