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.

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.

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 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.

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 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 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.


— 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 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 cookie-cutter Fred Hall Show excuse
It was tired in the ’90s, and it’s tired now.

Somewhere along the line, the rules for not attending the Fred Hall Show became the exact opposite of the rules of Fight Club.

For those of you who have not seen Fight Club, there are three rules, and rules one and three are the same: you do not talk about Fight Club.


When it comes to not attending Fred Hall, it seems like many non-attendees feel the need to go out of their way to tell anyone who will listen why they don’t go, and even cast shade on those who do.

Not sure what that accomplishes.

You know how you know when I don’t care about something? I DON’T TALK ABOUT IT. Somehow, it’s possible for me to not attend a dog show without telling everyone why I don’t attend dog shows.

The primary go-to when Show Season arrives is as classic as it is tired: “there are no deals at Fred Hall.”

While there are many angles of attack for taking on that one, I’ll focus on a couple.

For one, it’s simply inaccurate. Anyone taking the time to thumb through our Fred Hall Preview before the show arrives, and later, the Show program can get a good overview of the event, see some of what’s out there, and formulate a basic game plan based on potential “deals” and otherwise.

If there are “no deals,” who were all those people I saw LEAVING the Show when I arrived an hour after doors opened on Day 1 with their arms wrapped around 10 rod blanks or a quiver of combos? Highly likely they had a hit list based on some rudimentary research, checked their boxes, are stashing the haul in their trucks and heading back in for the “freelance” portion of their day. And that’s to say nothing about the forest of flagged rods we in the hands of smiling attendees we see when walking the Show ourselves or manning the WON booth.

And that’s just using rods as an example.

ONE OF THE SHOW’s longest-running “deals.”

I would say I had reached the ripe old age of 17 when I realized I could cover parking and admission to multiple Shows in what I saved in buying line to cover all my fishing for the next year. Think that’s how it WAS back in the good ‘ol days (I’m about to turn 42) and that’s no longer the case? It’s only been magnified several times over here in the fluorocarbon and braid age. I was only buying mono back then, and I have a list of friends I sold the value of the Shows on via that factor alone. In fact, the first thing one of them said to me after his first lap through the Main Hall in Long Beach was, “have you seen the deals on braid and fluoro?”

If you think you should be able to saunter into the Fred Hall Show and get 50 percent off a reel that was unveiled six months ago, that’s just not how anything works. Play your cards right and you may be able to score something extra with the purchase of such an item, but the Fred Hall Show is not a yard sale.

I could go blue in the fingers hammering away at endless specific examples of Fred Hall deals, but I’m not yet given the Pat McDonnell-allotment of column inches. More importantly, it would take away from the treasure-hunt nature of the Show: work the aisles methodically. Leave no stone unturned.

I saw a social media post just prior to a Long Beach Show in which the poster said something along the lines of “Everyone’s fired up about Fred Hall. I’m not going because there are no deals there, and it’s just become a social event.”

Aside from the hilarious irony in the fact that this was a social media post griping about the Show being a social event, I thought about it, and it absolutely is a social event. A GREAT ONE.

Let’s see here, it’s a huge gathering of like-minded folks where local to international exhibitors are cuttin’ it up with outdoorsmen (and women) of all levels in the heart of one of the most important states in the nation when it comes to the sports represented there. This all going down, year after year, at the same point on the calendar, which allows it to stand as the unofficial kick off of all things fishing in the western fishing.

I can think of some other social events in this vein: the ride from the bait receiver to the fishing grounds, the night before the Eastern Sierra trout opener and any time you find yourself in a tackle shop with an elbow on the reel case. Then there’s the straight-shot home after a multi-dayer, every night at deer camp, on the deck of the resort in Baja with sunburns and sore arms and that backyard fish fry you throw because you’d rather your neighbors all eat fish that was swimming yesterday than freeze any.

Social events.

Some of the best things taken from the Fred Hall Shows don’t go home in a yellow plastic bag. Regardless of your outdoor interest, there is someone there that will give you a better understanding of it, make you better at it, cut-down the learning curve associated with it, or get you to try it for the first time. If you think there are no new tricks an old salty-dog like you can learn, you’re kidding yourself.

But by all means, continue skipping it because you can’t get a brand new reel below cost and the beer’s expensive.


THESE GUYS DEFINITELY get the value of the Fred Hall Show as a “social event.”

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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website 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.

Tough Love: trout edition
I wrote a good hunk of practical and next-level tactical intel for the special trout fishing section in the Jan. 25 edition of Western Outdoor News, and I may have just scratched the surface on some borderline-extreme, myth-busting, possibly untrue and definitely opinionated takes of mine that might fly in the face of plenty of stuff that’s generally accepted as common knowledge among trout anglers.

However, when you have a column with your mug shot on top, you can say pretty much whatever you want! So, as I do so often, here are some polarizing takes in quick-hitter form:

You give way too much credit to the intelligence of hatchery trout. When it comes down to it, they are hatched and raised in or around concrete and fed pelleted superfood before riding to your lake in a truck. I’m pretty sure if a glimmer of your gold treble hook is showing through your ball of power cheese, these fish are going to notice. You might check out the book, “ An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World .” I don’t agree with it all, but there were a lot of good points made.

The “best colors” aren’t necessarily so. If I asked 100 of you at the Fred Hall Show what the best color of Thomas Buoyant and Panther Martin are, I’d bet my favorite discontinued Kastmaster that 80 of you would blurt out, “red and gold!” and “black and yellow!” You know, they might be, but consider this. I love throwing Buoyants, and for a few years, I forced myself to throw ANYTHING BUT gold/red just to see, and I was convinced very early in the experiment that at least three of them out-produced the one that gets all the love: watermelon, both frog colors and brown trout. These days, I use those, and more, including red/gold, and those colors might not get you the same results. My point here is, take off your blinders. Often times, the “best colors” are just the result of them popping up in reports that land in the right places early in the game, and it just snowballs from there. Apply this consideration to everything.

Two-pound-test is not much different than four. Well, it is when you’re throwing minijigs because jigs weigh next to nothing, and if you need a long cast, 2-pound is going to get the job done. Let’s just take Trilene XL as a baseline example. The diameter of 2-pound is .005; the diameter of 4-pound is .008. Taking jigs out of the equation, if you’re going to try and tell me that a stocker rainbow is going to pass on that Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow or Rooster Tail you’re dragging on 4-pound, only to bite for the guy next to you because he’s flinging in on 2-pound because a trout is going to detect that THREE THOUSANDTHS of an inch difference, I have some oceanfront property in Lee’s Summit, Missouri to sell you.

I PROMISE, fishing for trout can still be fun if you aren’t a “made guy” in a trout-fishing “crew” with an edgy name (with Z’s in the place of S’s) that wears matching shirts and says “slay” a lot. Just trust me on this one.

I KNOW FOR MANY IT’S SACRILEGE, adding terminal tackle like a swivel to your lures, but, go ahead and add a small (but not so small it restricts motion) snap to all your Thomas Buoyants. I always found tying directly to drilled-out hole to be sketchy; light line against a tiny edge, so I bit the bullet and added a Duo-Lock Snap. Later, I read somewhere that the top brass at Thomas Lures also recommended it, so there’s that. It’s fine on Rapalas, too. I’ve noticed no drop-off in bites, and most of all, I’m not finding something to be sketchy.

POWERBAIT WORKS. Does it ever. But, if you find yourself in a cove lined with bait dunkers all deploying some variation of the stuff, try something different and/or new to set yourself apart from the gauntlet. BaitPro is an up-and-comer (but coming on strong) doing some exciting stuff in the doughbait space. Give them a Google for a good place to start. You can also add a Lil’ Corky Bait Floater to your rig to give it a different visual profile. That’s right, replace that bait ball with a bait snowman and hang on!

THAT $500 ROD AND REEL COMBO isn’t doing you as much good as you think. Yeah, it’s nice, fun to fish, and you can probably feel a trout exhale on your jig with all the space-aged materials and what not. But if I’m fishing nearby with my Daiwa Presso/Fuego combo (or one of several set-ups I own with an even lower street value) and you limit sooner than me, it’s not because of your $500 set-up. You’re just better.

THROW AWAY YOUR SWIVELS, unless you use them for trolling. The classic floating bait rig has always been a main line through an egg sinker, then tied to a swivel, then a leader tied to the other side of that swivel, then to a hook. Instead, swap the swivel out for a Carolina Keeper and eliminate two of the three knots (which are the weak points of any rig). So it’s just your 2- or 4-pound line coming off your reel running through the whole deal, and you can also change the “leader” length in seconds.

SINCE I’M ON THE SUBJECT, I never understood the whole 4-pound main line to 2-pound leader thing. If it’s going to break at 2 pounds, what purpose is the 4 serving? It all comes down to more knots to tie.

FOR AN ELEMENT OF COMPETITION resulting in glorious, tangible winnings, check out @STOCK_TRUCK_CHASERS_TOURNEY on Instagram. It’s new and growing, and each month of trout season is a new “online tournament” in which you can fish when and where (in SoCal) you want. At the very least you’ll get to keep tabs on the aforementioned trout slaying crews slugging it out.

HEY! GUYS ARE STARTING TO THROW JIGS ON FLY RODS! Norman MacLean and Rusty Kreh are watching from long-rodder’s Heaven. They would like you to stop.

THEN AGAIN, ERNEST HEMINGWAY threw garden worms on a fly rod, so, there’s your argument. He’s also your WMD if anyone suggests you’re not a man because you own a cat.

STILLWATER NYMPHING is starting to become more pre­valent in SoCal lakes on a semi-underground level. Norm and Rusty do approve of that.

THERE’S NO SHAME IN BAIT DUNKING. Not in trout truck country, anyway. I used to look down upon dunkers over 14 years of age, but now I’ll even mix it in if I just want to get bit when it’s high noon and slow. But you’ve got to wear it as dorkily as possible. I like to see how many consecutive times I can cast, hook and land a trout while lying flat on my back (my record is five), or if I’m upright, every hook-up is punctuated with a flawless Michael Jackson kick. “Serious-bait-angler-face-guys” need not apply.

I RAN ACROSS A DISCUSSION on the internet the other day where SoCal trout anglers were discussing which was a better fish — the Calaveras rainbow or Nebraska Tailwalker. One guy (who I do know and would agree with most of this list) apparently made a groundbreaking point with the group when he said “Calaveras fish bite right out of the truck.”

’Twas a line that will live in infamy.

I SUPPOSE I should have mentioned this at the beginning, but each of these points are best absorbed when read individually, then rereading the first one before moving on.

A BIG PART of the magic and joy in fishing for stocked trout comes as a result of the fact that… well… they’re dumb. PHOTO COURTESY CHRIS NORBY

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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website 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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