Dick Dahlgren, Eastern Sierra fly-fishing crusader, has died
By JIM MATTHEWS
Dick Dahlgren, the man who battled the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to restore permanent flows into Rush Creek and Mono Lake, died July 9 in Boise, Idaho, not far from his log cabin home on the banks of the Big Lost River. Before moving to Idaho, Dahlgren was the founder of the Mammoth Fly Rodders, the father of year-around catch-and-release fishing in the Eastern Sierra, and one of the pioneers in fly-fishing the region.
You will be able to read a lot of regular obituaries about Dahlgren in different sources over the coming weeks, but there are two stories that need to be told about my 80-year-old friend, and perhaps some battles that need to be rejoined.
Rush Creek: I have been telling people this week that Dick Dahlgren was the only person I know to have caught trout from a dry Eastern Sierra stream. He then went to court to sue the LADWP – and win – to restore water flows to that stream.
That dry stream was Rush Creek. Since 1941, the City of Los Angeles has been siphoning almost all the water draining from the Eastern Sierra and sending it south to taps and swimming pools. Rush Creek was one of the many casualties of that effort, its water completely diverted by the LADWP at the Grant Lake dam, funneled by flume and tunnel to the upper Owens River, and eventually into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But the El Niño winters of the early 1980s sent more snowmelt down the river canyons than the LADWP could transport south. Watersheds that hadn’t seen flows in decades (below where they had been diverted by the LADWP) had flows again. Trout washed downstream from above the diversions into those formerly dry washes – and flourished.
Dahlgren, who lived and fished throughout the Mammoth Lake region at that time, happened to be poking around in the Mono Lake Basin one day in October, 1984. Only a mile or so above Mono Lake, Rush Creek was an inviting looking trout stream and Dahlgren stopped to look. He probably saw a trout take something off the surface and dug out his fly rod. He spent the rest of the afternoon catching over 100 small trout to eight- or nine-inches, browns and rainbows, and even a few brook trout.
Dahlgren starting researching Rush Creek and found Eldon Vestal, a long retired Department of Fish and Game fishery biologist, who showed him his photographs and journals on Rush Creek before it was dewatered and when it held a DFG hatchery that was used to plant trout throughout the region. The brown trout were two to three pounds in those days. Dahlgren got excited about what he might discover in the future on the river, but then he received some disconcerting news.
Dahlgren was told by a game warden that the LADWP intended to again divert all the flows from Rush Creek at the dam as soon as fishing season closed, drying up seven miles of the trout stream Dahlgren had been fishing. He was catching trout from a dry stream. It was dry before, it would be dry again.
Well, hold on now. Did it have to be this way? What happened in a flurry over the next few days, turned into a years-long legal battle. A court issued a temporary injunction to protect the trout in the revived river, and Rush Creek has had permanent flows ever since. The LADWP was forced to rebuild the first two miles of Rush Creek from Grant Lake Dam to Highway 395. [You can hear this story in Dahlgren’s own words in this wonderful video: http://www.moldychum.com/the-trout-that-saved-mono-lake/.]
Sadly, the lower five miles of Rush Creek have still not been restored to their former glory, and it broke Dahlgren’s heart that the LADWP might have lost in court, but it had won the long game.
CROWLEY LAKE AND THE UPPER OWENS RIVER: Dick Dahlgren was instrumental in getting two significant changes made in the upper Owens River and Crowley Lake drainage during his time in Mammoth Lakes.
The first was the extended trophy trout, catch-and-release season on Crowley Lake. Once upon a time Crowley closed to all fishing on July 31, while the general trout season extended until Oct. 31. Spawning brown trout started massing at the mouth of the Owens River on Crowley in mid-September, and the rainbows joined them because of the cooler water flows entering the lake. The in-the-know anglers would mob the Owens vying for that last piece of river bank at the mouth of the lake to cast streamers out into the current and have it swing down into the lake. The big browns and rainbows would whack the flies just as they approached the edge of the flooded river channel, rocketing up out of the channel to eat the perch minnow imitations.
That last legal spot to stand became the honey hole, but it was just one spot. Many anglers simply waded out into the lake in ankle to knee deep water to the edge of the river bank in the lake and started casting. It was technically illegal, but since no one was keeping fish, the game wardens had a hard time writing citations.
“I wasn’t fishing, officer. I just waded down the bank looking at the water. I’d been fishing up river and was just carrying my rod.”
Dahlgren was brazen when the spot became popular. He simply walked 100 yards out into the lake and waded over to the channel and started fishing, chuckling that it should be legal. Eventually it would be, and Crowley Lake was opened for trophy fishing through the end of the regular season.
The second was the year-around, catch-and-release season on the upper Owens River (and other premier waters that have year-around fishing now). Dahlgren discovered a loop-hole in the DFG regulations: You could fish for perch year-around in the state, no exceptions for Mono county. Crowley and the upper Owens River had Sacramento perch.
Dahlgren wanted me to write about it and invited me up during a mild March to fish the upper Owens. He’d made a discovery. The big rainbows swarmed up out of Crowley in late winter and early spring in a pre-spawning run movement of fish up the Owens. They stacked up in the pools and runs below where Hot Creek’s warm water entered the Owens, escaping the frigid water of the lake. The fishing was phenomenal. Of course, we were fishing for perch and had to release any trout we caught by accident.
The DFG promptly closed the loophole, but enough anglers discovered the great off-season fishing that lobbying began with the DFG’s biologists and Fish and Game Commission to open a number of waters to year-around fishing. Today, the upper Owens River, Hot Creek, and the East and West Walker rivers are open to year-around, catch-and-release fishing.
These are probably the two most significant actual changes Dahlgren helped accomplish, but these just scratch the surface. He was an ambassador for fly-fishing and the quality waters in the region. He and I fished Heenan Lake the first fall it opened to catch-and-release fishing for the Lahontan cutthroat trout. We hiked into Kirman Lake to catch “air-brushed footballs” as Dick called the lavish, gaudily colored brook trout in their fall spawning colors. And he hammered on the DFG, along with the late Rick Rockel at Ken’s Sporting Good in Bridgeport, to make sure the brookies were planted each year because little or no natural spawning took place in the lake. The DFW hasn’t been planting the brookies in any numbers or at all in recent years.
While everyone else was jostling for a spot at the mouth of the Owens River, Dick and I would walk the two miles across spongy pasture to fish the mouth of Convict-McGee Creek, fishing alone. He took me to the fingers of Hilton Creek in the spring to catch 15 and 16-inch spawning rainbows that ran up out of Crowley into streams you could straddle. He wanted to share the wealth, encouranging me to write about Kirman and Heenan, and the best places and times to fish Crowley and the Owens River. He did an amazing hand-draw map of Crowley Lake with the top fishing spots and how to fish the lake that is still published and sold in the region.
More than sharing, he wanted to make sure the fishery resources were protected for future generations. Besides Rush Creek, he battled with cattle grazers so all the water wasn’t diverted out of the little streams around Crowley (and other waters in Idaho) in an effort to protect the fry that had been naturally produced in those waters. His motto was that you don’t help the fishery when you dump the fry out into pastures every summer instead of letting them get back into the lake.
He fought against more geothermal plants near Hot Creek, fearing it would harm that amazing fishery or ruin the DFG’s Hot Creek Fish Hatchery. He battled against ranchers who sought to block access from public fishing on several Sierra rivers. He was a constant thorn in the DFG’s, U.S. Forest Service’s, and LADWP’s side if they did anything that might threaten one of his fisheries. And he was great at sharing his enthusiasm and getting others involved.
When I met Dahlgren, there was a section on one sporting goods shop in Mammoth devoted to fly-fishing, and there were no guides working the region. Today, there are fly shops in Bishop, Mammoth, and Bridgeport, and there are well over 100 guides who work at least some of the year in this part of the Eastern Sierra. I certainly won’t say he was responsible for all that, but he was on the ground floor that built the foundation for that passion.
At the beginning of this story, I told about how Dick Dahlgren caught trout from a dry river, which is quite a feat for any angler. After that river had water again, I followed Dahlgren down to where it dumped into Mono Lake, a body of water too saline for anything but hardy brine shrimp to survive. He had remembered reading that trout in Rush Creek would dart out into the salty water to eat brine shrimp and then dart back up into the breathable fresh water.
Standing at the mouth of Rush Creek, like we had done many times on the Owens River mouth at Lake Crowley, Dick cast out into Mono Lake and caught a trout from that briny stew, pulling it quickly back up into the river before releasing it. We looked at each other in disbelief. The old story was true.
It was always a scene I wished Dick would have painted; a trout leaping above the waters of Mono Lake with a jubilant angler, cigar clenched in his mouth, his back arched as much as the fly rod, and the Sierra Nevada in the background. It is an image I see when I think of Dick Dahlgren.
We could use a few more Dick Dahlgrens.
Note: There is a wonderful short video where you can see and hear Dick Dahlgren tell the Rush Creek story in his own words. Here is the direct link: http://www.moldychum.com/the-trout-that-saved-mono-lake/
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.