Two Sides of Convict Lake

Written By: Kathie Morgan, October 19, 2012

My imagination painted Convict Lake as a very dark place. The violent deaths of escaped prisoners had given the lake its name. And a mysterious breed of hard-core anglers known as Brown Baggers spent hours plumbing Convict’s dark waters in hopes of catching the legendary trophy trout thought to be lurking in its depths. 

Something spoke to the dark side within me. Some day I would tip-toe there, my back against a wall, ready to run, screaming, back into the light.

Eventually I found my way to Convict. “Are we there yet?” crossed my mind. This beautiful blue-eyed sunny lake bore no relation to the sinister tarn I had imagined. And how hard could it be to catch a fish there when trout broke the surface in all directions? I soon found out what a challenge those fish were, when I ended scoreless after my first two visits.

Then last month David and I accepted an invitation from Tom Stienstra to fish with him at Crowley or Convict. We wouldn’t decide the final destination until we learned the water levels, very low in most of the Eastern Sierra’s lakes this fall. Yes, our host would be Mr. California Outdoors himself, author of California Fishing, California Hiking, and California Camping, to name just a few of his best-selling books. 

We were stoked when Tom turned off Highway 395 just south of Mammoth Lakes. Convict, here we come! Sunlight poured down the slopes as we launched, and a trout beneath us nonchalantly finned its way toward deeper water. I watched it head to where other fish were turning somersaults on the surface.

In fact, fish were feeding on the surface everywhere we looked. This continued – there, and there and there – until the sun chased the shadow from the south side of the lake. We saw a lot of anglers, both in boats and on the shore. A solitary fisherman told us he was catching fish at 85 feet, but we gave surface fishing a fair shot. 

I had never trolled at Convict, so this was a learning experience. Our first fish came aboard at 8:30, a rainbow that fell for a black-gold Rapala running at 12 feet. Ninety minutes later, David caught Fish Number 2.

Tom inducted me and then David into the Dusty Baker Memorial Knighthood in a secret ceremony for everyone who catches a fish on Tom’s boat for the first time. Then we switched to trolling deep. At those depths, we’d be catching random fish, Tom told us.

We had a wonderful day. I ran the boat most of the time. Apparently I found the lake’s only hangup, which Tom described as feeling “like a fence.” He and David both hooked it when a gust of wind pushed us into extremely shallow water (30 feet, with downriggers set at 45 feet). We broke one of the rods on it.

The bite turned on at 2 o’clock, when David switched to live nightcrawlers. The scent may have attracted fish to Tom’s Rapala as well as to David’s worm, since the fish began coming aboard every 10 minutes or so. Or it might have been a time-of-day factor.

Aspens on the hillsides were a bright chartreuse, anticipating full fall colors in another week or so. One of a pair of bald eagles landed on the water near us but rose without a fish in its talons. Better luck next time, I thought.

But perhaps that eagle is the lucky one. It’s still there, still flying through a sunlit sky over those blue waters. I will look for it next time I visit Convict Lake.

When I do, I’ll be looking for you on the banks.

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