WHERE ARE THE FISH?
Dave Carranza’s bay boat zips across Crowley Lake. It’s early morning. We’re headed north, toward the bite. Cows graze on shore grasses that flow into water. Sunlight blankets the lake’s mountain ring. The wind fills my eyes and ears and Carranza does, too. “This is freedom, baby!” he shouts, like a kid headed toward the candy shop.
Except he’s an adult, and the candy is trout, and the shop’s stock is thinning.
Carranza is owner and guide of Trucha Fly Fishing. He’s fished Crowley for 27 years. “The excitement of catching fish has diminished,” Carranza says. “I know guys who have sold their boats.”
The way Carranza sees it: people are catching fewer fish. The other local guides and anglers I interviewed – they all agree.
“I started guiding in 2012,” fly fishing guide Ernie Gulley says. He keeps records. “Out of 42 trips that I guided, I had 13 days that I went over 100 fish into the net.” His second year, out of 57 days guiding, Gulley got over 100 fish in the net on six occasions. Third year: 68 days, with one day over 100. The two years after that: 70-72 days a year, with no days over a hundred. “Am I saying that I think I should catch 100 fish every single year, multiple days a year? No.”
But Gulley’s saying that the numbers are down. Way down.
“Do you think my skills are getting worse every single year?” he asks himself. “No. I think they’re getting better. Because I’m forced to adapt even more now. I have to really make super quick changes and figure things out a lot quicker.”
Chris Leonard – a 15-year guide who has about 1,500 hours of Crowley fishing under his belt – says, “the fish numbers aren’t what they used to be.” Leonard used to go out on Crowley and have around 30 fish a day. Now, he’s lucky if he nets 10.
“Five years ago, I’d still get 50 fish a day,” one anonymous angler tells me. Now, this angler sometimes nets as few as five. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m not coming up because there’s no fish.’”
It’s the same story with all the guides I interview: The haul was bigger. The thrill was there. The trout were many.
Carranza drops anchor, casts his line, and eyes the pink, plastic indicator. “We’re looking for when it jerks down,” he says. “When that happens, you pull up.” The bobber’s still. Carranza strips the line.
Earlier, on the dock, Carranza explained to me what makes Crowley so special: the array of food sources. Lakeside cow manure leaks into the water and spawns midges. From egg to larva to pupa, rising up the water column until they break the surface as flies. There’s also damselflies, grass hoppers, and perch flies. Even leeches. He hands me a fly he tied himself. “We’re imitating all the food sources in the lake,” he says.
In 2019, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) stocked Crowley Lake with 457,495 trout.
In 2020: 311,110 trout.
In 2021: 294,705 trout.
“The typical allotment goal for Crowley Lake is around 450,000 trout of various sizes and species” per year, says CDFW. There used to be 6 strains of trout in Crowley: brown trout, Lahontan cutthroat trout, and four strains of rainbow.
An outbreak of whirling disease in the late 2000s forced CDFW to stock fish resistant to the illness. There are now four trout strains in Crowley: brown trout, lahontan cutthroat, and two types of rainbow – Eagle Lake rainbows and Hofer rainbows. In addition to these hatchery fish, there are wild trout in the Owens River area that spawn in streams and then make their way to Crowley.
The department used to stock Crowley with Kamloops trout from Junction Reservoir. These trout were available to shoreline anglers. Due to drought, the CDFW lost Junction Reservoir. They no longer stock these shoreline fish.
Another trout killer are the Lactococcus bacterial infections occurring at hatcheries across Inyo and Mono counties. Two outbreaks in 2021 at Hot Creek Hatchery – the hatchery that stocks Crowley – forced the euthanization of 156,552 fish.
In 2020, an outbreak of Lactococcus in the Mojave River Hatchery, Black Rock Hatchery, and Fish Springs Hatchery – hatcheries that typically stock waterways in CDFW’s South Coast Region and Inland Deserts Region – forced the euthanization of 3.2 million trout.
The data shows what the guides tell me: the fish numbers are falling, and it’s not just in Crowley.
The bacteria is believed to be spread by birds interacting with hatchery fish. The existing bird enclosures at Inyo/Mono counties’ hatcheries prevent most types of birds from accessing the fish, but ravens, green herons, and night crown herons can still slip through the seams. At Hot Creek Hatchery, there are holes and gaps in the netting that surrounds the raceways.
CDFW is inoculating their fish against the bacteria with two types of vaccines. To date, all vaccinated fish have remained uninfected.
Carranza’s indicator jerks down. He yanks his pole up and hooks the fish. “Here we go!” he says. The shaft bends toward the water. Carranza lets out some line. He waits. The fish tires. He pulls it in. A trout, 22 inches. Ten minutes later, a second one. 21 inches.
“I know I’ve gotten a lot of positive reports from anglers as well,” says CDFW biologist Nick Buckmaster. “I know, personally, I’ve gone out and done decent. But a lot of classic techniques that people have developed on Crowley for the strains of fish we used to put in there aren’t working because we’re not putting those same fish in.”
“Different strains behave differently,” Buckmaster explains.
Another CDFW biologist, Jim Erdman, tells me that it can take 5 to 10 years to determine the trends and catch rates of newly introduced fish. Erdman has been surveying Crowley every year since 2005. He’s seen great variation in catch rates due to environmental factors. Drought, early winters, late winters – they can all affect how many fish an angler nets.
Then, there’s the money. The number of fish CDFW can stock is based on the annual budget it gets allotted. “The cost of living for fish has gone up,” Erdman says. Inflation has made it more expensive to raise fish. Which means fewer fish in the waterways.
CDFW Inland Deserts Fisheries Supervisor Russell Black did not know how funds from fishing license purchases were divided among the agency.
Abbie Thomason, owner and operator of Crowley Lake Fish Camp, is aware of the fish problem. “I don’t have any concrete evidence of anything,” she says. “I don’t know how many fish are taken from the lake. I don’t know how many fish are being stocked.”
What she does know: “A lot of folks have said that they’re not seeing fish in the numbers that they have in the years past… I tend to think that there is truth to it.”
The Crowley Lake Fish Camp has always participated in private stocking. It hosts the Stillwater Classic Tournament every year. The proceeds go toward stocking the lake. “There’s also a few other private tournaments that do contribute to our trout fund,” Thomason says.
When fish are transported to the lake by CDFW, they are drugged. It takes a while for the effects of the drug to fade, so small, recently stocked fish are vulnerable to hungry birds. “You can observe it if you were to come down and see the stocking truck come in … all the pelicans and the seagulls and the aquatic wildlife come on over, and they just start feasting,” says Thomason. “There’s enough fish to go around, but the smaller the fish is, the more likely they are to be subject to other predators.” The Fish Camp has been focused on stocking larger fish because it’s harder for birds to eat them right away.
Members of the fishing community recognize that Crowley brings business to towns like Mammoth, where tourists fishing Crowley sleep, eat, and spend their money. Fewer fish means fewer tourists and dollars for everyone involved. When the Sheet asked Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi whether or not he thinks Mammoth Lakes should consider contributing funds to help privately stock Crowley, he said, “Our dollars are meant for the town.”
Jeff Simpson, Mono County’s Economic Development Manager, told the Sheet that the county has been getting fewer fish from CDFW. In addition, the county has just received $100,000 to stock local waterways, including Crowley.
Simpson also made note that Crowley’s tourism is influenced by more than just the number of fish in the lake – it’s the weather, it’s the bite, it’s the cost to travel.
Carranza and I take the boat back to the docks. The action was good – two 20+ inch trout over 15 minutes of fishing. But it’s not the same. The guides can see it. The data shows it. There are fewer fish.
So, what can be done?
The guides have several suggestions.
More regulations when it comes to fishing spawning fish throughout the year. Close the fisheries for the winter to give fish a rest. Lower how many fish an angler can keep. Put stricter regulations in place during bait season. More policing of the current regulations. Coordinate with local towns, like Mammoth, to fund the stocking of the bodies of water that generate tourism dollars. Stock the fish at night, or in protective cages, so that birds can’t pick fish off when they are drugged and helpless. Further reinforce the hatchery enclosures that prevent birds from pooping on and interacting with the fish. Require barbless hooks after August 1st to promote the growth of smaller fish. Require the purchase of a separate trout tag in order to fish the trout in the area, the funds of which would go strictly toward county fisheries.
One thing is clear: change is made when people are willing to listen. The guides, anglers, CDFW biologists, fishery owners, game wardens, tourism officials, hatchery directors – every person that helps to make Crowley Lake and the surrounding waters special – must work together to keep it that way.