It’s a good thing that the shoreline of Crowley Lake isn’t much to look at; indicators go down the moment one looks away.
Nested in the south end of the Long Valley Caldera, Crowley Lake is a reservoir turned model trout fishery. Created by the damming of the Owens River just before the Owens River George, the lake sits at 6,800 feet and cool during the summer but doesn’t fully freeze during the winter. With a pH on the alkaline side and feed by a confluence of snowmelt-fed creeks – the Upper Owens River and McGee, Convict, Hilton, and Crooked creeks – and underwater springs, it offers a near-perfect mix of abundant oxygen and nutrients to sustain a robust population of aquatic insects, dominated by an incredible number of chironomids. The addition of Sacramento perch offers fry to feed big trout.
Whenever on this trip, I put out a call for partners to share the cost of a guide boat. While stillwater nymphing may not be a tactic favored by all, it’s unfair to dismiss it without trying it, at least once. Like guided fly fishing on any boat I’ve been, it’s like stepping onto a cruise ship. Just bring yourself, your license and sunscreen.
Gerry was the first to respond to my query and we set up a trip with Joe Contaldi. The owner of Performance Anglers Guide Service, he’s well-known on the fly fishing club speaking circuit and possesses the qualities that make for a great guide: enthusiasm, knowledge, and skill.
We arrive at the marine just before its 7 a.m. opening. We watch in disgust as an angler, two trucks ahead of us, strips all of the monofilament off his spinning road and leaves it lying on the road. The gate opens and we pull up, stopping long enough for Gerry to open the passenger door and grab the line.
It’s busy around the boat ramp as we walk toward the docks. After quick hello to Doug Rodricks, who I’ve fished with before on Crowley and Eagle lakes, we find Joe and his boat. Joe’s got that lake guide look, weatherworn, clear eyes, and a natural penchant for enthusiastic encouragement. He welcomes us aboard, offers massive and unexpected muffins for breakfast, then readies the boat for a short run north to McGee Bay.
It’s calm this morning on the lake; it’s a liquid mirror reflecting the mountains and sky. Beautiful, but not my favorite conditions. My best days fishing Crowley were helped by a little ripple on the water, just enough wave action to keep the fly moving and enticing hits a dozen feet under the surface. Gerry and I are instructed to occasionally raise our rod tips to give the flies action, a tactic with which we’re both familiar.
We anchor, rig up, and Joe points out the lane we should target. It’s a drop off twenty to twenty-five feet from the boat. I settle in, reacquainting myself with the lake, like meeting up with a friend after a long absence. It’s not long before there’s confirmation of fish in the area, on other boats. The still morning air is broken now and again by shouts of “fish on,” sometimes followed by the noises of anguish when a fish doesn’t make to the net.
Stillwater nymphing on Crowley Lake requires patience, focus, knowledge, and hope. I could on a guide for the knowledge, then hope I’m fast enough to set the hook. It’s the focus on the indicator, quickly followed by a quick and smooth hookset that’ll factor into success. Sometimes it takes a few misses to reacquire that skillset. Less than an hour after anchoring, that skillset was reacquired.
It’d be nice to say that I hit that first strike and landed a fish, but I can’t exactly remember. Regardless, that first fish was more than nice sized, about eighteen-plus inches. Joe asks if I wanted a photo with it, but I opt to wait for a bigger trout.
There can be days on Crowley Lake when the fishing is fast and furious, or consistent, or tough. This would be a day of consistency, both in terms of frequency and size. There was a chance nearly every half hour to hook a fish. A chance that required we consistently perform good hooksets. Sadly but honestly I must say my hooksets were less consistent than the bite.
The fish we did bring to net were consistently impressive. About midmorning , Gerry and I had a double. We both landed fish nearly every hour until about 11 a.m. When the bite slowed, I dug into lunch, a ritual that often elicits strikes. It didn’t.
This is the time of day when guides decide whether to hold out for better fishing or to explore other options. Friend and outing companion Wayne and his guest, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing participant Mike, were on the move, their guide on the hunt for a better spot. Joe asked us if we wanted to pull up anchor, suggesting we might try the Crooked Creek arm. Despite uninspiring reports from other guides, I said I was willing to give it a try.
(Crooked Creek was where I first learned stillwater nymphing. During April 2007, son Christopher and I attended the DVFF’s Novice Fly Fishing Seminar and, inspired by the class, sought a real-world experience reinforce what we had learned and expand out skillset with the help of a guide. I booked a trip on the hitherto mysterious Crowley Lake. When I was a kid, my family and I would pass the lake on the way to Tuolumne Meadows or June Lake Loop. The local newspapers we’d pick up to read and use in starting campfires were peppered with photos of unbelievably large trouts.)
Joe spent extra time positioning the boat mid channel and the first 10 minutes didn’t inspire confidence that this had been the right move. With my attention span waning, I missed the first solid takedown. But consistent opportunities that afternoon allowed Gerry and me to hook, fight, and land some of the most exciting fish of the day.
That evening, without embellishment, we dutifully made a report to our club colleagues. Perhaps our only complaint were sore cheeks from the constant grinning.
The next morning coffee was on early and a coordinated effort ensured the cabins were quickly cleaned. After a final group photo, some would make one last stop to wet a line. I chose to take my time through Yosemite, lingering to enjoy time well spent in beautiful places.