Brief high flows in Owens River gorge can’t and won’t restore trout fishery
By JIM MATTHEWS
All good fairy tales begin once upon a time….
Once upon a time, the Owens River Gorge was considered one of the finest brown trout fisheries in the entire country. This was a long time ago, mind you. It was before the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) purchased most of the land in the Owens River drainage. It was before Crowley Lake and before the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built, siphoning the flow of nearly every drop of stream water flowing out of the east side of the Sierra Nevada into Los Angeles taps.
From the turn of the 20th Century through the 1930s, the Owens River became a near-mythical place where anglers could catch giant trout. In 1952, there was a 22-pound brown trout documented out of the gorge, and a lot of fish topping 10 pounds. The place was a trophy brown trout fish factory.
In the 1970s, I spoke with the late Chick Reed of Pomona who had floated through the gorge in the 1930s in old military surplus rafts and wooden boats. They used crickets and nightcrawlers for bait most of the time, but switched over to live mice when they wanted big fish. His stories were also the first time I heard of using old wood shingles to float bait into the backs of big pools and then slide the bait off the shingle into the water.
"The average fish was from 1 1/2 to 2 pounds," said Reed. "There was an awful lot of feed in there. But you put a mouse on your line, and you'd be into a trout that'd weigh 12 or 14 pounds. They'd be real tackle busters.
"We'd put the mouse on a shingle and let it drift downstream and then jerk it off -- if there was a big fish around he'd have it. You'd know there was going to be a heck of a lot of splashing and thrashing around when they took it.
"It's really all true. Those were good fish in there then," said Reed.
By 1941, when the Crowley Lake Dam was completed the death knell started ringing, and the lower part of the gorge was completely dry from 1953 through 1991. Reed emphasized the stories were true because he knew the river – as he knew it – had been long dead.
My old friend John Higley, a well-known writer from the Redding area, grew up fishing the gorge in the early to mid-1950s, working at Tom’s Place. While the lower gorge was dry by 1953, the upper portion of the river was maintained by springs right below the relatively new Crowley Lake dam. A lot of the big browns were still living in the big, pools, even though the flows had diminished to nearly nothing. One of Higley’s fishing mentors in Tom’s Place was Jim Kirkwood who caught a 30-inch brown trout in 1954. That fish was so skinny by then that it only weighed 7 1/4-pounds. When cleaned, that brown had 11 field mice in its stomach. Kirkwood had caught the trout on his fly rod and a huge mouse imitation. Higley wrote about his experiences on the gorge in the May-June, 2018, issue of Outdoor California, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s magazine.
This is the true part of fairy tale. The Owens Gorge fishery was a dream lived and breathed by a generation of anglers in the Eastern Sierra. And that dream became a nightmare when LADWP diversions dried up the gorge.
In 1991, the LADWP was forced by law to restore flows to the dried up portion of the gorge, and the entire gorge now receives a small flow of 36 to 55 cubic feet per second flow of water – a pittance of the Owens River flows before Crowley Lake Dam was built. Most of the water was and is still diverted through pipes and penstocks through power plants in route to Los Angeles. However, since the rewatering, the Owens River through the gorge became a spot where an occasional adventurous angler would hike in to fish the small stream. Not really out of any hope of catching a giant trout like those that lived there in the 1930s, but it was a nice small stream that was remote, little fished, difficult to access, and held a lot of small brown trout.
Now the Department of Fish and Wildlife is telling anglers the next step in the gorge’s restoration process is underway. Since Monday, Sept. 9, through today (Sunday), the LADWP has been sending a burst of water known as a “Channel Maintenance Flow” down the 10-mile stretch of river between the Upper Gorge Power Plant and Pleasant Valley Reservoir to benefit fish habitat.
During the past week, the flows have jumped from the normal 35 to 55 cfs flow to a peak of 680 cfs before gradually ramping back down. The gorge has been closed by LADWP during this seven-day “pulse flow” event for public safety.
The DFW says the “high flows are expected to breathe new life into the Owens River Gorge ecosystem and its once-storied brown trout fishery.” The court settlements that mandated minimum flows also stipulated that pulse flows continue almost annually for the next 20 years.
“The flows are intended to replicate seasonal scouring that occurred naturally in the Gorge long before dams, power plants and water diversions were constructed in the last century. In fact, these alterations dried up the Owens River Gorge from 1953 to 1991 until years of litigation restored some minimal flows and attempts to restart a once-fabled brown trout fishery,” says the DFW.
The DFW suggests that these pulse flows will somehow restore the Owens Gorge fishery to pre-1941 levels.
This is the fairy tale’s happy ending, according to the DFW. But the real ending to the story is not a happy or uplifting.
The pulse flows won’t and can’t restore the brown trout fishery to what it was when my old friend Chick Reed fished the river.
It is a simple problem. There will simply not enough year-around water in the gorge to restore the fishery. Day to day flows will not go above 55 cfs.
There is no water in the West with flows in that range that produces trout bigger than about 12 or 14 inches, and most streams that size produce smaller fish. Realistically, the pulse flow will help the fishery produce trout bigger than its current top size of about eight inches. But not much.
Without higher, year-around flows, there will simply not be enough bigger and deeper pools and the bigger food supply that comes with that higher volume of water. The trophy fishery will never return.
The LADWP and DFW know this. This is public relations pandering. The public will accept this new lower standard instead of holding the DFW and LADWP to the 1930 standard. All the old data, all the old black and white photos, all the journals and stories of how good the fishing was in the Owens will be discounted as mythology. “The trout were never really bigger than 12 inches, and we have that again.” That is what they will tell us, trying to suggest this is a happy ending.
That is mythology. The LADWP and DFW are attempting to rewrite the fairy tale. The DFW and LADWP have done this with Rush Creek – effectively saying the historical scientific data and photos were somehow wrong and that this stream wasn’t as good as reported for decades. Now, they are doing the same thing with the Owens River gorge.
The only way to really restore the Owens River Gorge fishery is for the LADWP to forgo all of the power generation income from the Owens River below Crowley Lake that passes through pipes and turbines instead of the flowing in the gorge. If they put ALL the Owens River water back into the gorge, the gorge fishery could be restored.
It would take all of the flow of the Upper Owens River, along with the flows from the tributary streams that join the Owens via Crowley Lake in that basin to make this a real fairy tale with a real happy ending.
Undiverted, the Owens River flow into the gorge would be about 300 cfs right now at the end of summer. It would have been twice that much through the early summer and spring. Peak flows probably would have pushed well over 1,000 cfs during this big runoff year. Yet, we are expected to believe a week-long event of up to 680 cfs is going to restore the fishery. This is just bad story telling.
One upon a time….
END Photo courtesy of John Higley. The image is of Jim Kirkwood taken in 1954 with an Owens Gorge brown trout the year after the water as turned off by the LADWP. There was only a tiny flow in the upper stretch of the gorge, and this brown trout was skinny from not finding enough to eat to support it's 30-inch length.
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.