Crowley Trout Opener
The last weekend in April marked the opening of trout season in California’s Eastern Sierra Mountains. This annual spectacle rivals the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or spring break in Palm Beach.
Highway 395 out of the Los Angeles basin was jammed with a steady stream of cars, trucks, motor homes, and trailers, all the way to Bridgeport. Every motel in Lone Pine, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining, and Bridgeport was booked and every campsite was full. What Christmas is to department stores, trout opener was to businesses in the Eastern Sierras. Fish and Game wardens from all over Southern California were commandeered to leave their own manageable districts and spend three days in virtual chaos.
Late one April in the mid-seventies, Warden Dave Szody and I were chosen to participate in this annual spectacle. It was an experience we’ll never forget.
“Who’s that on the radio?” I asked.
“It sounds like Bob Perry from up in Ventura,” Szody said, turning on his left blinker and preparing to pass one of a thousand slow-moving vehicles on its way to the Eastern Sierras.
“He seems to be doing some kind of travel log on the car-to-car setting of his radio.”
“Bob likes to talk. There’s probably some rookie warden following him.”
“Not to change the subject, but how do you like this new patrol rig?”
“I can finally go off the pavement without getting stuck,” replied Szody, as he again turned on his left blinker and prepared to pass a motor home. “I’m not going to miss the Matador.”
“That’s Mount Whitney Hatchery on the left,” boomed Warden Perry over the radio. “It was built in 1916 and was the first state trout hatchery in California. You should go in there on your way back. The old buildings are beautiful.”
“Unbelievable!” I said, laughing out loud. “What a character!”
Warden Szody and I continued north through Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and eventually into Bishop. We reached Bishop Friday afternoon, the day before trout opener. As we rolled into town, we heard the Inyo County Sheriff ’s dispatcher come over the radio asking for any Fish and Game unit in the area of Lake Sabrina—located about fifteen miles southwest of Bishop. . . .
Warden Szody and I arrived back in Bishop just in time for the orientation meeting. Ken Brown, the Bishop patrol captain, advised us that we would be assigned to the north end of Crowley Lake for the weekend. I had worked that area the previous year and was familiar with it. “Let’s check into the motel, get something to eat, and run up to Crowley this evening,” I suggested, as we walked out of the Bishop Fish and Game Office. “We have to be up at the crack of dawn, so we don’t want to be out too late.”
It was just after dark when Szody and I approached Crowley Lake. Driving up Highway 395, we crossed over Crooked Creek, one of the lake’s many tributaries. This small stream flowed through a large culvert, allowing the water to pass under the highway and eventually into the lake. “Why is that car parked there?” I asked, pointing toward the north side of the highway. Szody eased the patrol truck off the highway and onto a wide spot near the suspicious vehicle.
Gently closing my door, I walked over to a small, dark-colored sedan. “The hood is still warm,” I whispered, as Szody approached. I shined my flashlight into the car, which appeared to be empty, except for two pairs of shoes on the front floorboard. I pointed out that the occupants of the car had apparently changed their shoes, but my voice was barely audible over the roar of cars and trucks passing by.
“Did you hear that?” asked Szody, pointing toward the culvert. “Somebody’s in there.” We walked to the north end of the culvert, where the stream flowed outward in the direction of the lake. A peek inside revealed a flickering light at the other end.
“There’s one—get it,” said an excited voice, followed by the sound of two or more people splashing through the water. “Throw me the net!”
Based on what we had just heard, there was little doubt as to what the people on the other end of the culvert were up to. Szody and I clambered over the north shoulder of the highway and headed down the steep bank on the other side. We could see the silhouettes of what appeared to be two male adults climbing up the hill in our direction. Szody and I hunkered down and waited for the figures to approach. The man in the lead was within a few yards of us when Szody shined a flashlight in his face and said, “Trick or treat.”
The startled fish poacher immediately dropped the dip net he was carrying, fell backwards, and tumbled ass over teakettle all the way to the bottom. His surprised partner, halfway up the hill at the time, watched him roll by. Lying on the ground were three large German brown trout that had freed themselves from the dip net and begun flopping their way back toward the stream.
We climbed down the steep embankment and instructed the two violators to sit tight while I tended to the three trout. The man at the bottom was shaken but unhurt. One of the eighteen-inch trout had apparently just been captured. I held it upright in the water for a few seconds before it slithered out of my hand and darted upstream. The other two fish were too far gone and never recovered. We retained them as evidence, along with the dip net that had been used to capture them.
We walked the two men back to their car, where they were rewarded for their efforts with a pair of citations. Both were charged with unlawfully taking three trout in closed waters and illegal method of take—using a dip net.
When the sun began to rise on opening morning of trout season, Dave Szody and I were perched on a bluff overlooking Crowley Lake. “You have to see this,” I said, handing Szody a pair of binoculars. . . .
This is an excerpt from my book Badges, Bears, and Eagles—The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden. I’ll be signing copies of Badges, Bears, and Eagles and my new book, The Game Warden’s Son, at the Redding Costco on Saturday, February 4 and at the Chico Costco on Saturday, February 11.