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WON On-The-Spot: South Lake at the buzzer

BY MIKE STEVENS/WON Staff Writer Published: Jul 16, 2019

Last-minute call to run ‘down the hill’ salvages slow Sierra fishing during blasting runoff

BISHOP — June is an outstanding month to hit the Eastern Sierra, but when we get monster winters like the one we just had and 2017’s bomber, there is some risk of getting up there during peak runoff. That’s what happened to me, and it took a “hail Mary” run to South Lake to save the trip, at least as far as the fishing is concerned.


My party has fished all over Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, the June Lake Loop, Tioga Pass and Bridgeport, but never all in the same trip. That level of gas burning is a testament to how tough it was within close range of our base camp in Mammoth with snowmelt gushing everywhere resulting in frigid, off-color water and high, bank-busting flows on creeks.


southlakeisSOUTH LAKE IS in great shape, and it is still filling up. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

Each day we prospected further out toward the fringes of the Highway 395 corridor with limited success, convinced we would eventually run across the brand of bite we have grown accustomed to… at least a spot where we could put up double-digit numbers.


On Day 7 — our final fishing day — my brother, Brian Stevens, came out of left field and said “let’s go to South Lake.”


Now, many of the locations in our current playbook were the result of my jerking the wheel violently off course on a whim, gut feeling, hairs on the back of my neck, little devils or angels sitting on my shoulder and so on, and landing on great spots with hot fishing. Keeping that in mind, we take “random” calls out of nowhere very seriously.


South Lake in the Bishop Creek drainage isn’t exactly Pluto when you’re coming from Mammoth, but in the last quarter century of jaunts up 395 North, Bishop is typically something we hit on the way up. Other than during an October trip marred by blizzard, we have never driven “down the hill” just to drive back up another one. But semi-desperate times call for quasi-desperate measures.


I texted Jared Smith at Parchers Resort near South Lake for last-minute intel, and he said “fishing has been pretty good from shore if you’re throwing iron, otherwise, it’s pretty mediocre.”


thomasbuoyant
A THOMAS BUOYANT fooled this South Lake stocker for Brian Stevens. Minijigs, and Tasmanian Devils thrown from shore also helped pile up a count of over 20 trout caught and released.

After the week we had, even that was far from a downer, so off we went. Even though it was late in the morning, there weren’t many anglers out there. Lake conditions were awesome at a lake that was hit hard by the drought and was in horrendous shape until the winter of 2017 finally got things going in the right direction. On this day, the water level was well up the dam, still rising with the runoff and plenty of room to take in what last winter will deliver.


South Lake is a pretty special spot all around. It’s about 30 percent larger than Lake Mary in Mammoth, but gets a fraction of the traffic. At 9,768 feet, it’s among the highest roadside lakes in California. As for scenery, I absolutely put South Lake up there with Convict and Saddlebag as the top lookers for drive-up lakes.


My brother and I scrambled down and fished off the big rocks between the dam and boat dock. Over about an hour-and-a-half, we made a million casts and popped a few each, his on Thomas Buoyants, mine on Sierra Slammers jigs and a Tasmanian Devil.


Groups of anglers exhibiting varying degrees of fishing etiquette starting showing up and crowding us on the rocks, so we made a move up to the last parking area and headed down to Boiler Cove which had a substantial seasonal inlet. I started casting jigs from the inlet while my bro picked a spot 25 yards away to huck metal.


He hooked up first on a Buoyant, so I switched to a Tasmanian Devil and hooked up on a long cast. We got a couple each before it slowed down, so I went back to the Sierra Slammers.


Long story short, I’d eventually crack the jig code and start getting bit on almost every cast.


Muted colors like Rusty Craw, Cricket and Carrot Cake worked best, and they wanted it crawled up the rocks along the bottom up a steep drop off. They were stacked up along the bottom, facing the inlet in the dirtier water that extended about 10 feet from shore before giving way to the gin-clear water that made up the rest of the lake.


After my first few fish, I quit making long casts and started making underhand pitches 15 to 20 feet in front of me, letting it sink, hopping it in, and getting a ton of bites when the jig made contact with the rocks.


But that’s what most of the action was. Bites.


thisbrowntrout
THIS BROWN TROUT was a welcome bonus when it ate a jig at one of South Lake’s snowmelt inlets. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

While the trout were definitely there and willing to bite, the grabs were very subtle, surely the result of the frigid, greenish snowmelt they were holed up in. I probably landed a trout for every 10 grabs.


My brother was doing well enough to stick to his metal, but eventually he noticed that I was getting a better bite rate, so he tied a jig on and got closer to the inlet.


We’d spend the rest of the afternoon hollering at every swing-and-miss and keeping that 1-for-every-10 ratio alive. I did stick a brown, but the rest of them were 10- to 12-inch stocker rainbows that had a surprising bit of “multiple jumps” in them considering they bit like a snail attempting to ingest a raisin. We headed back up to the truck with a count of about 30 catch-and-release trout between us, which was a huge upgrade after a week of single-digit entire DAYS between there and Bridgeport.


After that day, I sent a quick recap to Jared Smith about the luck we had so he could pass the info on to his guests at Parchers Resort. I mentioned seeing boats being trailered down and tied to the dock that day, and he said boat rentals became available the following day. The 8- and 15-hp motorboats, kayaks and pontoons can be reserved by calling (760) 873-4177. South Lake is stocked weekly by the DFW and gets supplemental “trophy trout” from Wright’s Rainbows in Idaho or Desert Springs Trout Farm in Oregon periodically through the summer and fall. The lake record for brown trout is 17 pounds, 1-ounce.


Parchers is a resort ideally located for launching assaults on trout all over Bishop Creek Canyon including both forks of Bishop Creek, Lake Sabrina and North Lake, and as I found out, it’s well within reach of all the key spots throughout Mono County once you make the call and go for it.


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