On the Friday before the last Saturday of any given April, the northbound freeways out of southern California are choked with SUVs and pickup trucks towing boat trailers and loaded to the gills with work-weary fishermen headed for the same general destination – the streams, reservoirs and lakes of California’s Eastern Sierra mountains.
If you aren’t an avid angler or married to one, you may not know that the last Saturday of every April is the annual opening day of the Eastern Sierra Trout Season – often shortened to just “the Opener” – as in, “Are you doing the Opener this year, or waiting for warmer weather?” Also affectionately known as “Fishmas,” the annual Opener sends Southern California anglers by the tens of thousands up Highway 395 and into Inyo and Mono counties to try their lucky lures against the wild and planted fish stock that have had the long, bitter winter to grow bigger and hungrier.
On Opener weekend, fishermen head out by the carload, bleary eyed and caffeine-fueled, visions of rainbow trout dancing in their heads. This legion of lake loiterers becomes progressively more alert as they drive through the Owens Valley towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop. Signs and banners in shop windows and hung across the highway greet the wader-wearing warriors as they pass with graphic shouts of “Merry Fishmas!,” “Welcome, Fishermen!” or “Land a lunker!”
As part of the Opener ritual, most if not all of this convoy of casting characters will make a stop at one or more of the many bait and tackle shops along the way – many of which stay open all night on “Fishmas Eve” (and yes, they really call it Fishmas Eve). After all, it doesn’t matter how much fishing equipment you’ve brought, there’s always a new flavor of bait or type of hook that simply must be purchased in order to ensure a successful weekend.
Having a son who’s been a certifiable fishing addict since the age of 5, I know of no other hobby – some would say affliction – that requires the near constant addition of new gear and accessories. (Although golf may come close.) To be a true fisherman, one needs to invest a sum worthy of Goldman-Sachs bailout on new and improved ways to catch fish.
I’m not saying that fishermen are gullible (“gill”able?), but I would bet that you could take a simple size 12 single salmon egg hook, repackage the exact same hooks with a new label marketing them as revolutionary left-handed technology designed exclusively for use in water flowing right-to-left instead of left-to-right – and a million fishermen would spend perfectly good cash to add these special “new” hooks to the arsenal in their tackle boxes. You never know when you’ll run into reverse flowing water, after all. Or ambidextrous trout.
As we have for many years, my above-mentioned son and I took part in this year’s Trout Opener weekend – getting up before dawn last Saturday morning to put our small aluminum boat into the frigid waters and await the first rays of sunlight, and with it, the official start of the 2010 fishing season.
How’d we do? Well, if you measure the “success” of a fishing trip by the number of rainbows brought home in the cooler, we failed spectacularly. With 70% of the lake still covered by ice, the water was just too cold for the fish to bite. But as far as I’m concerned, the chance to sit in a boat with my college-age son for most of the day, in the high altitude splendor of the snow-covered Sierras, sharing a cheese and cracker lunch with a side of priceless conversation – well, it’s pretty hard to classify that as anything but successful.
Besides, I hear there’s a brand new sun-dried Tuscan garlic flavor of bait that I’m going to pick up before our next fishing trip. Yeah, that should have ‘em jumping into our boat.
I’ll see you ‘round town.