Feature Article: Early Sierra Opener

Early Opener offers Eastern Sierra ‘off season’ opportunities

BY MIKE STEVENS/WON Staff Writer Published: Feb 27, 2018

LONE PINE — The Eastern Sierra general trout opener is the last Saturday in April, but who wants to wait that long? March 3 marked the “early opener” which opens up a batch of creeks that have been closed since Nov. 15, and while it has worked this way for years, it still flies under the radar. Most anglers taking advantage of it are Owens Valley locals, but for those of us not residing in the Highway 395 corridor, the early opener serves as an opportunity for a taste of Eastern Sierra trout fishing many California trouters are waiting until at least late April to take part in.

earlyopenertroutEARLY OPENER TROUT streams are smaller than say, some of the popular creeks in Mono County, and they require stealth and at times, bushwhacking. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

On that first Saturday in March, waters found south of Independence – including Independence Creek – all the way to just south of Lone Pine and west of the highway are officially open and receiving trout plants.

That “west of the highway” part of the equation is key. These are creeks running out of the Sierra and flowing west to east eventually feeding into the Owens River in some way, shape or form. Since the Owens runs north to south and east of 395, the early opener ultimately cross under the highway – or converge with another creek that does – and from that point to the Owens, it’s not available to fishing until the general opener.

Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way a while back. As someone who has been fishing my way up 395 for over 25 years, I am used to pulling off the highway whenever I see one of those “fishing this way” road signs for a quick recon with rod and reel in hand, and these quick hitters have resulted in a handful of “gold mines” worth of checking out every trip. These included multiple creeks and “sand traps” on both sides of the road during the general season, but I was new to the early opener deal. As we worked our way north, we kept turning left for these missions which kept us on the west and legal side of the highway.

It was Shepherd Creek south of Independence, and while I didn’t find any fish, the conditions were excellent, and I was sure I’d find them somewhere on that creek. I got back on the highway, saw a fishing road sign, and turned right and into the closed area as a simple matter of muscle memory from a lifetime of trips up there. I pulled up on a primo-looking sand trap (this area is full of little ponds called “sand traps” that collects sediment washed down these creeks to keep it out of the Owens which is a major drinking water artery) with no one on it, for obvious reasons.

I jumped out, threw a jig and connected with a trout that came unbuttoned. I fired off another and brought a stocked rainbow to hand and released it, and when I stood up, a 4WD DFW vehicle was charging down the dirt road. Even at that point, it still hadn’t occurred to me what was going on.

SAND TRAPS ARE sprinkled throughout the Owens Valley, and they are excellent spots to try for early-opener trout. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

The warden stopped right behind me, and I started walking toward his truck and digging for my fishing license. I handed it to him, and he said, “do you know the rules for fishing this area?”

“Of course, south of independence and…”

As I was spitting that out, I realized that I had strayed west of the highway, and I was screwed.

Long story short, he was cool and realized it was an honest mistake. After he cited me, he even gave me some advice on some other areas to fish, but the humiliation over the fact that a quarter-century Eastern Sierra veteran who writes covers the region editorially just got busted for fishing out of bounds was much worse than writing a $500 check to Inyo County.

Short version: The same creek can be legal on one side of the road and not on the other, so, just make sure you stay west of 395.

Once you are programmed to stay in bounds, you have a good number of options. Heading north, Cottonwood Creek is one of the first watersheds in the early-opener zone. About 10 miles south of Lone Pine, turn west at the Cottonwood Power House Turnoff, and keep to the left as you cross the Aqueduct. The best fishing is usually found from the campground at the Power House intake to the end of the road.

Tuttle Creek is accessed via Whitney Portal Road in the center of Lone Pine. Follow that west for about three miles to Horseshoe Meadow Road and turn left. The creek is planted at access points in the campgrounds. Or, you can stay on Whitney Portal Road and hit Lone Pine Creek at the handful of campgrounds along the creek before it gets too steep where the road starts to climb up to the Portal.

THE LOWER OWENS RIVER is open year-round, and should be included in every ‘early opener’ fishing trip. Valerie Valle “put the hurt on” some rainbows including this bigger model while fly lining nightcrawlers in the Five Bridges Area near Bishop.

George Creek is about seven miles out of Independence and can be reached by taking the dirt road ¼-mile southwest of the of the aqueduct crossing, and the fish are planted at the sand trap. This one can get crowded, so, get out there early or, if you see a bunch of parked cars, move on to the next spot, which is likely Independence Creek. You can find this one by heading west on Market Street out of the city of Independence, and there are a lot of spots between the first campground you come to all the way up to about eight miles out of town. Independence Creek serves as the northern boundary of the early-opener zone.

These are the most-popular areas, but there are more creeks coming out of those mountains that are open and fishable. So, if you see the fishing sign, go with your gut, turn left, and check it out. Also, the Owens River, while on the east side of Highway 395, is also open to fishing year round.

You can fish these creeks like any moving water in the Eastern Sierra, but they are smaller than say, Convict, Mammoth, McGee or Rush creeks up on Mono County. You can jump across most of these creeks, and are often targeting trout that are right at your feet or at the very most, a short cast away. Top tactics include targeting plunge pools with minijigs or spinners, split-shotting trout worms, Gulp! ‘crawlers, crickets or salmon eggs in any deeper holes near shallows, and targeting undercut banks and areas where trout may be hiding under overhanging brush.

The Whitney Portal Hotel and store is a clean, centrally-located place to stay with great bang-for-your buck factor, and its staffers are an excellent source of up-to-date area info. Give them a call at (760) 876-0030, and visit them at MountWhitneyPortal.com.

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