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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.


Design the next WON-exclusive Rooster Tail
For the last few years, I have been granted the super-cool honor of designing a custom Western Outdoor News Rooster Tail that cannot be bought in stores, online or otherwise. Custom, exclusive, limited run. I imagine there may be some street value to them, but they’d have to command an absurd percent markup were you to buy them on the black market out of the trunk of a shady dude’s car parked in some sketchy alley.

As an Eastern Sierra Jedi Trout Master, it’s safe to say my designs were incredible: dual-colored blade? Check. Red hook? Why not? Tail and body colors the good folks at Yakima had to retool for because they’d never been conceived by anyone else? Done!


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THIS CUSTOM ROOSTER TAIL was only available (they could not be bought) for those subscribing to WON (or renewing) at the Fred Hall Shows. The 2020 version will be designed by a WON reader who submits his or her specs and is selected by WON staffers as the winning design. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS


These one-and-done wonders don’t just go to anyone, either. These collector’s items go to those subscribing or renewing to WON at the Fred Hall Shows until they’re gone. Sure, some recipients put them on a shelf prior to undoubtedly passing them down from generation to generation, but as I have come to find out, some do actually hit the water. I know this because at the WON booth, I’m constantly approached by WON readers telling me how great they worked, from the Sierra to the stocked lakes in San Diego and everywhere in between. I even autographed a few, although no one seems to care about that.


Anyway, I just don’t have the bandwidth to handle it this year. So, against my better judgment (it wasn’t my idea), I’m going to take one for the team and let one of you design it. The idea was to run it through the WON Facebook page and have everyone attempting to match my supreme trout-lure design skills by entering their ideas as a comment under an upcoming Facebook post.


Realizing some of you don’t have Facebook, go ahead and e-mail your submissions to me at mike-s@wonews.com, or even mail it in to 1211 Puerta Del Sol, Suite 270, San Clemente, 92673. Attn: Mike.


This is what you need to include:


1. Blade color/pattern


2. Body colors


3. Tail colors


4. Red hook (yes or no)


Here’s a little advice from the Michelangelo of Rooster Tail masterpieces: take a look at the vast array of options already available at YakimaBait.com for ideas and a baseline. Use what’s already available at your discretion, but absolutely find a way to make it your own, and feel free to come out of left field with something completely original on one or several components.


WON staffers will sift through the submissions and pick the winner. We’ll send the design outline to Yakima, and prior to the next Fred Hall Shows in March, they’ll send us a bunch to give away to subscribers. I suppose we should make sure the winner gets a few, along with the pride, fortune and glory that’s sure to follow.


So, let’s see what you’ve got. Follow the WON Facebook page and stay tuned for the call to action, or jump the gun and shoot it to me right now.


There are also custom WON Thomas Buoyants at the Shows, but I’m not ready to let one of you screw those up yet.


• • • • •

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.



Lessons learned in 2019
With another year in the rear-view-mirror, there were a lot of lessons learned on and off the water. Here’s a little of everything from 2019.

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NOOOOOO! — Dillon Stevens about to get traumatic lesson in catch-and-release from his dad, Mike Stevens of WON, on a creek in Red Lodge, Montana. He was not in favor of letting this fly-caught rainbow go. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

• Black seabass inhaling an entire white seabass within gaff range apparently happens way more often than I ever imagined.


• Two-year-olds don’t really compute “catch and release,” and the first time they witness it, it can be quite traumatizing. My grandma was the same way, “What do you mean you let them all go?”


• Generally speaking, you can almost always get away with heavier line. It may not be as fun, but the fish you’re targeting will still likely bite it. If you’re looking to stack meat on the deck, mix in the bigger stuff.

• I’ve never had the nerve to think I might know more than the Captain and crew, and no matter how much I think I may know, I’m always going to listen to them. This year, aboard the Options, I made a point to do everything the crew suggested to the word, and I ended up hauling up a pair of halibut on back-to-back drops for a combined total north of 60 pounds. My previous personal best flattie was barely legal.


• On the flip side, if you make it very clear you’re going to do your own thing out on the water despite the availability of professional advice, be prepared to be made a target. I witnessed some pretty savage ribbing on the high seas under those circumstances in 2019.


• When it comes to fly fishing, I thought my skill level was getting into the upper levels of “average” now that I have a decent Eastern Sierra playbook. Then I floated 11 miles of river in Montana in a 2-man raft with a guy calling out targets along either bank, and if I missed a target, it quickly became a lost opportunity. Update: I am a beginner fly fisherman.


• The Gucci-swimbait bubble doesn’t appear ready to burst as early as I previously predicted. So now, we wait.


• This SoCal swordfish thing could very well be just scratching the surface on a new frontier. I’m looking forward to seeing how much (targeting them) grows just between this season and next. You can bet on the fact it’s already going on at a much higher level than is being made public. I already have a contact trying to get it done from a kayak, and he’s had multiple hookups on the deep drop.


• Hatchery-truck-chasing trout anglers are still taking themselves way too seriously. Instagram fame is a hell of a thing!


• I’d have two major platforms if I ever ran for president: a growler fill should never cost more than a six-pack, and you’re not allowed to claim “Photoshop!” on a fishing photo if your only experience with the program is knowing it exists.


• With each passing year, I grow more convinced there are lures designed to catch fish, and there are lures designed to win Best of Show at ICAST. That’s all I’m going to say about that.


• South Lake (Bishop) is 20 percent larger than Lake Mary and gets a small fraction of the human traffic. In 25-plus years of fishing the Eastern Sierra, I had actually never laid eyes on South Lake. Then we took a flyer on it on the last day of my week-long trip in June, and while the fishing that day was a legitimate “trip saver,” I also left there putting South Lake up there with Convict and Saddlebag as the most scenic of the region’s drive-up lakes.


• In most bass tournaments in which limits are overwhelmingly 2- to 3-pound largemouth, every fish hooked but lost by a competitor that day was absolutely, positively, without a doubt…”a 6 pounder.”


• There really is no reason for anyone who fishes SoCal salt to not participate in the WON Big Fish Challenge (BFC), which runs for 10 weeks every summer. The registration fee ($10 per target species or $40 “all in”) is negligible when compared to the absurd grand prize hauls you’re fishing for, and the “you’re fishing anyway” factor makes it a real no brainer. The BFC is up there with the San Diego Offshore Jackpot and Lake Havasu Striper Derby in terms of two events on the WON Events schedule I really wish I could take part in as an angler.


• There really is no reason for the chemical spill called “wasabi.”


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SOUTH LAKE IS no secret to most Eastern Sierra trout anglers, but it in 2019, it saved a trip for WON Editor Mike Stevens who drove down there from Mammoth on the last day of his vacation. Shown here is his brother, Brian, after releasing one of many trout caught that day. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

• • • • •

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 Weekly Fishing Form
If you are into horse racing, you are well aware of the contents of the Daily Racing Form, the hard data and editorial content it provides and how that info is put into use by those betting on the ponies.

For the rest of you, “the form” is a print publication founded in 1894 that for over a century has stood as the ultimate tool for formulating a betting plan of attack.


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DISTANT COUSINS — Western Outdoor News and the Daily Racing Form. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS


The meat of the publication is a list of all the active tracks that day, which horses are running in each race, and Russian-launch-code-looking stats on how each horse did in its most-recent races, which could go back months if not over a year. Along with how each horse fared in those races, it says the length of each race, the conditions of the track, which details are “key indicators” for what’s going on now and a ton of other dirt that a non-racing enthusiast would go batty trying to decode.


The deal was, we would have to buy him the form the day before. He would stay up late analyzing it, and he would show up the next morning with it now covered in more scribbles, circles, arrows, Xs and Os than Bill Belichick’s locker-room whiteboard after a substandard first half.


Short version: the Daily Racing Form is the boiled-down results of the exhaustive curating of relevant information by its staffers, info the reader can use in conjunction with gut feelings, wild hairs or just his or her own thoughts based on personal experience, to formulate a game plan for making some money the next day and have fun doing it.


If only such a publication existed for fishing.


The nature of fish being ALIVE and WILD, teaches an early lesson that sticks with an angler until he (or she) makes his final cast: there is no guarantee they are going to be in the same place today as they were yesterday. Sure, if the conditions are the same, there is a good chance they will be, and what worked is a worthy starting point when you’re back at it. If it doesn’t work, it’s on the angler to decide what’s next, and guess what that’s based on.


How about, info the reader can use in conjunction with gut feelings, wild hairs or just his or her own thoughts based on personal experience, to formulate a game plan for catching some fish the next day and have fun doing it.


When a stable of WON staffers compiles info from top sources all over the state and puts in into the paper each week, the least relevant info is filtered out, and what’s left is a boiled-down fishing and conditions report along with details from the source themselves on how they made adjustments based on the cards they were dealt. When that is passed down to the readership on a weekly, year-round basis, the reader gets a feel on what to expect — whether that’s what depth bass will be at in a lake, what temperature break the tuna might be found on, or how the Captain of their ¾-day boat is going to get after it — based on what the experts said worked best the last time a set of conditions presented themselves on a given body of water.


It’s a simple matter of, here’s a bunch of relevant intel, now come up with your own game plan and tell us how you do!


Ernest Hemingway didn’t go into a lot of detail on everything he wrote about because he gave his readers some credit for knowing a bit about the subject. He knew if you were reading his book, you know how bullfights work, how a trout darts to the surface for a hopper and how it feels to get socked in the face.


It’s that same brand of credit that is given to WON readers. You know what you’re doing out there, but, this nugget we got from the Captain on how he adjusts to certain situations will help you hit the water running when you’re out there.


Without coming off as insulting — actually, anyone this would insult isn’t reading this anyway. Kind of my whole point here — if you’re not just getting out there whenever you can fit it into a busy schedule, or you need someone’s coordinates or hot spot or only fish the lake on stock day, or you need any other related form of hand holding, how much of a real fisherman are you?


•   •   •   •   •

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.


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.


* * *

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.


* * *

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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