BY MIKE STEVENS
BISHOP – Western Outdoor News readers as well as even the lesser anglers of the great state of California are well aware of the fishing gold mine that is the Eastern Sierra. The trout fishing in the region is world class, but warm-water species may be its best-kept secret. Trout purists most familiar with the Highway 395 corridor are likely aware of the fact that bass do hold a presence in the waters of the Owens Valley, but few know the extent of just how legit that fishery is.
The Owens Valley is generally made up of Pleasant Valley Reservoir outside of Bishop on the north end to the mostly-dry Owens Lake bed near Olancha to the south. That’s also the area of focus mapped out by Eastern Sierra Outdoors (EasternSierraOutdoors.com), home of the Owens Valley Bass Tournament. Western Outdoor News got in touch with its founder, Nick Lara, and chatted about both the mission of Eastern Sierra Outdoors as well as the format and goals for the tournament.
Originally from Southern California, Lara became a Bishop resident after visiting on a whim and decided that’s where he wanted to live. He came up as an avid bass angler, so naturally he sought out what the area had to offer in that realm, and he’d soon find out it was both largemouth and even smallmouth to a smaller degree.
Eastern Sierra Bass Fishing was launched in 2020 to advance Lara’s mission, which is clearly spelled out as the brand’s vision on the Eastern Sierra Outdoors website: Eastern Sierra Bass Fishing is for advocating for the development of the sport, the quality of the environment, the engagement of the community and the health of the largemouth bass in the Lower Owens River Valley. Eastern Sierra Outdoors is for advancing the local market to better serve the Eastern Sierra by providing services that promote the activities that we love whether that be a catching a trout out of the Owens River, horseback riding in the Sierra, a hike to base camp for Mt. Whitney, skiing in Mammoth, or arranging a campsite for friends to enjoy the plethora of activities that bestow this magical place we call the Eastern Sierra. What we are is not certain and where we will go is not determined but our vision is clear and we intend to fulfill it. Under the brand’s umbrella lies those varied travel-related services, but it was the Owens Valley Bass Tournament (OVBT) that grabbed the attention of WON. It’s a catch-measure-photograph-release format with anglers fishing from 6 to 6 on one day. Participants can fish any drop of water in the valley as long as it’s public, and catches are registered on the FishDonkey app. The total length of an angler’s best-five bass is what’s in play, but Lara told WON he’s looking into making it a weight-based event in the future. The entry fee (2020 numbers) is $50 with first place winning $800, second picks up $400, and it pays on down to fifth place. That’s based on a 40-angler field, and according to Lara – who also happens to be a licensed guide – he’s shooting for 50 competitors for this year’s events, hopefully in a 2021 that will see the beginning of the end of Covid craziness.
The OVBT has also picked up steam in terms of local support from businesses like the fishing-friendly Country Kitchen in Big Pine, Whiskey Creek in Bishop and Owens Valley Distilling, also located in Bishop. There are also a lot more in progress along with a verbal agreement with one of the most well-known manufacturers in the fishing industry that could really bring things to the next level.
As for the fishery itself, bass inhabit almost every drop of water from Bishop to Olancha. While most of them are caught in the Owens River south of Bishop, they’re also in the canals, Buckley Ponds and various other ponds throughout the zone and the lakes around Lone Pine.
It’s almost all largemouth, but smallmouth bass do show up, and in many cases they’re legitimate footballs. Based on reports sent to WON over the years, it seems like most of the bronzebacks show up on the southern reaches of the valley, call it the stretch of the Owens between Owens Lake and Lone Pine. While the Lower Owens is open to fishing year-round, that doesn’t apply to all its tributaries or even the canals, so checking the regs to see what’s going on when you’re up there is a must.
Tactics specific to Owens Valley Bass are unique in that it’s overwhelmingly finesse stuff, but the entire Lower Owens is choked with subsurface snags and cover. That’s great habitat for bass, but working Ned rigs, stickbaits, drop-shots, tube jigs, etc. on heavier gear than one might in a SoCal lake isn’t the worst idea in the world. Like trout, bass in a river are in ambush mode without much time to decide whether or not to bite when something drifts by. That paired with the fact the Lower O rarely runs gin clear means an angler can getaway with light baits on heavier line. While finesse stuff does the job, Lara says swimbaits claim their share of quality bass up there, but it might not be what you’re thinking of. He told WON, your basic boot- or knob-tail swimbait sold in bulk all over California and usually associated with saltwater bass fishing (MC Swimbaits, Big Hammers, etc.) on a leadhead works great. High-dollar swimmers would probably work fine, there are just too many ways to lose them in the river, and it can get expensive.