Casting with Dave McCoy

Dave McCoy may be most famous for creating Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, but what he did with a fishing rod was actually more important.

Times were tough during the 1940s, especially if you were trying to support a growing family in the Eastern Sierra on a hydrographer’s salary. Luckily for Dave McCoy, trout were plentiful in the region. So the young father often turned to catching fish as a way to feed his family.

“When I was first working as a hydrographer in Bishop, I would get out of work, then go up to Convict and hike up to Lake Dorothy and come back with a mess of fish for dinner,” Dave fondly recalls. He would even occasionally catch trout in small mountain creeks by hand. “I caught them to eat them, not for trophies or anything. We lived off the land,” he said.

Born in El Segundo in 1915, Dave first started fishing in the Sierra when he was just 13. During breaks from working at Jim’s Restaurant in Independence, Dave would wander off in search of fish. He soon discovered that he could tie flies as well as the local shops, so he began tying and selling his own, using it as a way to make extra money throughout his high school years. Dave even still wishes he had his first fly rod, a Heddon nine-foot, 3-piece.

Dave’s grandfather originally turned him on to fly fishing and they even created “our own little fish hatchery” at their family home in the Washington. “I had all kinds of fun fishing,” Dave said about his youthful days. “I loved it. Tied my own flies and was a good fly fisherman. All my fishing was with a fly rod.”

Just as it was passed on to him, Dave shared his love of angling with his wife and their six children. “Roma and the kids liked to go fishing, and catch their own,” Dave said from his home just outside Bishop. When asked if family is an important part of fishing, he quickly replied, “Oh yeah, it’s one of the biggest parts of it.”

Dave admits that raising a family and running one of the best and biggest ski areas in America did cut down on his fishing time. “I didn’t get to fish nearly as much as I would have liked,” he said. But the centenarian had no problems recalling his favorite fishing spot in the region, even if it’s long been gone.

“The Long Valley” was his reply, referring to the area now covered by Crowley Lake where numerous creeks once joined the Owens River before tumbling down through the Owens River Gorge. “There were big fish. It was the place where lots of creeks came in and there were lots of different places to fish,” he said.

Once Crowley Lake was completed in 1941, Dave and his family moved into a house by the dam and he turned again to trout to help put food on the table.

Dave became the first fishing guide on Crowley Lake—which is now the most popular fishery on the Eastside for guides. Dave also ran the first boat rental services for a lake that has become one of the best stillwater fly fisheries in the country. “Crowley was more popular then than it is now,” Dave said about those spring days that he would divide between working on the ski hill and guiding on the lake.

“In the spring, there was a lot of skiing and fishing going on at the same time,” he said, referencing the tradition of “Mammoth Double-headers” that are still popular today. “Come up for a week and catch fish and go skiing, you bet. It’s always been popular.”

When asked about the difference between folks who like the two sports, Dave replied with his famous honesty, “Skiers are a little more crazy, more about adrenaline.”

One of Dave’s most exciting angling experiences came during his younger days on Crooked Creek when he hooked and landed a 17-pounder. “That was a big son of a gun,” he happily remembered.

And while Dave will always be remembered for what he did on the slopes, what he did on the water and on the motocross trails are also very important to him and to the region he loved so much and had a such a positive impact on.

“No, they don’t think about what I did fishing or racing motorcycles,” he said. “But it was important, to. I lived it and had a damn lot of fun.”

As for the rest of us who also love to ski and fish in the Eastern Sierra, Dave’s advice is pretty simple: “Keep having fun, that’s the main thing. Life is what you make out of it.”  

Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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