Dry winter, early spring set up fishing season for success
This year’s Fishing Opening Weekend looks to be one of the best in many years, after a dry winter and warm and early spring have allowed access to more lakes and streams than usual, experts said this past week.
The warm, dry conditions on Saturday, April 27, and Sunday, April 28, will benefit anglers in other ways, too, according to Jim Erdman, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish biologist and environmental scientist.
“We have been stocking fish in some places for a month now due to the access,” he said. “That has allowed the fish to feed and grow so that by Opening Weekend, they will be fat and ready to be caught.”
Erdman works closely with the three hatchery managers for the Eastern Sierra region’s fish stocking program—the state-sponsored rainbow (and some brown) trout-stocking program that dumps thousands of pounds of “catchable” and young fish into local waters every year.
This year, due to the unusually dry winter in much of the Eastern Sierra—only the Mammoth Lakes area is above 50 percent of normal precipitation at about 75 percent—the state was able to stock many lakes normally snowbound.
According to data, fishing brings in many people to the Eastern Sierra; as many as 38 percent of the people who come to the region to visit come here primarily to fish. Only hiking, at about 47 percent, ranks higher, according to a recent study done for the Mono County Tourism Commission. This translates to millions of dollars pumped into the local economy every fishing season.
The state is also this year stocking bodies of water at close to historic levels; a relief to businesses and tourism officials as well as anglers, given the agency’s more recent history when the stocking program got hit by a series of budget cuts and other problems.
“We are finally moving to no more (state-mandated) furlough days as of this July,” said Erdman. That translates to more time on the ground at the Eastern Sierra’s three hatcheries—Blackrock, Hot Creek, and Fish Springs—and more time to get more fish into local waters.
On top of that, the rainbow trout that form the backbone of the state hatchery program will likely be bigger and fatter, overall, than in previous years due to the state stocking a subtly different rainbow this year—a trout that is sterile (triploid), instead of a sexually fertile trout (diploid).
The move was triggered by a lawsuit several years ago against the state’s hatchery program.
The result is the state had to prepare an Environmental Impact Report, called the “Hatchery EIR,” and to consider the impacts of stocking hatchery-raised fish on endangered and threatened species, on native species and on native trout populations, prior to stocking.
The new focus on these “native trout”—Lahontan Cutthroat, Paiute Cutthroat, and Golden trout in this case—has required the state to find a way to keep the rainbows it stocks from breeding with the native trout. Trout are not native in general to the Mono Basin and Owens River drainages and were introduced entirely by humans as much as a century ago, according to Erdman.
The department’s creative solution has been to make the rainbow trout—every single one—sexually sterile, in much the way the offspring of a donkey and horse—a mule—is sexually sterile.
“These triploid trout don’t need to use their energy to achieve sexual maturity, or to spawn,” Erdman sad. “So they tend to put on weight faster and grow bigger in a shorter period of time.”
That, however, is the only difference between the rainbows that have traditionally been stocked, he said.
“Triploiding is not genetic manipulation, like some people think,” he said. “The genes are unchanged, but the offspring are sterile, like a mule is sterile. The trout look the same, taste the same, fight the same.”
Tim Alpers, the Eastern Sierra’s homegrown developer of the famous Alpers Trout brand fish, agreed.
“They still have the instinct to hide, so the fish are similar in that way, but another advantage to the angler is these fish are hungry more often,” he said. Sexually mature fish spawn and breed and during that time, often for months, they don’t eat. These sterile fish are hungry all the time.”
Alpers said, for the reasons above, and more, he also thinks this Opening Weekend is going to be above average.
He has recently come from the Fred Hall exposition in Southern California and said that attendance there was 15 percent higher than last year.
“I saw something I have never seen: people lining up to buy gear, poles, waders, reels, you name it,” he said.
But there could be some downsides to this season.
The warm, dry winter and spring will, at some point, have an impact on some waters, especially low elevation creeks in the Southern Sierra. Creeks like Symmes Creek, Shepard Creek and others south of Bishop are already running too low to stock and Erdman is not sure there will be true spring runoff due to the lack of snow in the high country.
The area’s major lakes, however, should be safe, and so will most high country streams, he said.
Alpers, despite positive conditions this season, still thinks more needs to be done to bring the Eastern Sierra back to where it used to be in the decades when he raised his big monster trout at the Alpers Ranch in northern Mono County.
“We need to get more catch and keep trout in the waters and we need to get bigger Alpers trout out there, too,” he said. “We are moving in the right direction, getting the Conway Ranch hatchery project moving again (Alpers trout will be raised on this ranch), and with the uptick in Fish and Wildlife’s contribution again, but we still need to focus more on increasing the number of people that come here to fish, overall.
“About 40 percent of the county’s economy came from fishing in my day, and that number has dropped, even though we are still the premier fishing destination for Southern California,” he said. “We need to work on bringing more anglers, old and young, to the area.”