Crowley Lake: The Right Stuff for Trophy Trout

Jul 14, 2021

A Peak at the Biology Beneath Crowley Lake

In the watery world of Eastern Sierra angling, Crowley Lake has long been considered the “Granddaddy of them all.”

The reason for this nickname is simple, as Tom Loe, the owner of Sierra Drifters Guide Service, explained, “Some years, Crowley Lake is the best fishery in California and if you were looking for the perfect trophy trout template, Crowley has all the right stuff.” What makes Crowley Lake such an ideal trout template is that it has the Holy Trinity for fisheries: 

  • plentiful food sources, 
  • a near perfect environment to call home, 
  • and a well-balanced fish management program.

To start with, Crowley Lake is, actually, a bit miss-named (and even sometimes even misspelled, since locals often say they’re headed down to “Craw-lee.”). Technically speaking, it isn’t a lake. It’s a reservoir, originally built by the LADWP when they damned the Upper Owens River in 1941 to create the famous aqueduct’s largest watershed. It is, fittingly so, named after the late Catholic Priest J.J. Crowley. Fitting because the general fishing season opener at Crowley (held the last Saturday in April) is nothing shy of a religious experience for many. It’s estimated that around 9,000 anglers cast at Crowley Lake during opening weekend each spring. So there’s no doubt that the place is popular.

Keys to success on Crowley Lake

The first keys to Crowley’s success and booming popularity is the fact that, just like those of us who love trying to rip their lips off, trout need to eat in order to survive. Each spring, summer and fall Crowley Lake offers up a veritable buffet of bugs and other food sources.

Crowley is considered a eutrophic, or nutrient rich lake, as each summer’s massive algae bloom shows. The algae, however, allows the lake to have a healthy aquatic insect population.

Crowley Lake is an especially great home for the popular fish food, Chironomids; miniscule bugs high in protein and better know in the fly-fishing world as midges. The nutrient rich lake is also home to one of the state’s largest populations of Sacramento Perch (who’s fry are like fresh buttered popcorn for bigger fish like Crowley’s world-famous German browns) and a perfect dwelling for Daphnias (a fresh water flea that, just like many a fisherman, has proven to be susceptible to alcohol intoxication).

“Crowley is just an ideal lake for aquatic insects, so the growth rate for fish there is phenomenal. Trout can grow 6 to 9-inches a year. It’s just off the charts,” Loe said.

Even though the high nutrient base makes Crowley a low oxygen lake, it’s usually large enough and consistently well-fed from tributaries to keep the trout breathing happily. Free-stone creeks like McGee, Hilton, Convict and Crooked bring oxygen rich water into the lake, while spring creeks, like Hot Creek and the Upper Owens, help pack the place full of nutrients.

With an annual average of 45-miles of shoreline, more than 5,000 surface acres and a depth of over 100-feet in some spots, Crowley Lake is large enough to allow large populations of trout plenty of room to grow or hide out during the High Sierra’s warm summer days or cold winter nights.

Usually, twice a year, once in the spring as air temperatures rise and again in the fall as they fall, the water in the lake turns over. Meaning that the Lake’s layered colder and warmer waters will swap places. In the spring, the cold-water sinks to the bottom as the warmer water rises up to meet the sun’s surface heat. Each autumn, the cold-water rises back up again to match the dropping surface temperatures. Not only does this process assure the trout will have plenty of options to either cool off or stay as warm as needed, this also causes the algae to bloom, die off and then carpet the bottom of the lake in bug friendly nutrients.

“It’s a really a double-edged sword. When the algae is blooming it can make fishing terrible, but it’s really what makes Crowley Crowley,” Loe said.

The other thing that really makes Crowley special is the lake’s fish management program. From the trout general season opener in late April until the last day in July, Crowley is like most other lakes on the Eastside—just about any type of fishing is allowed with a 5 fish per day limit. But once August hits, the regulations change and Crowley essentially becomes a fly-fishing only lake where you must use artificial lures and barbless hooks and you’re only allowed to keep two trophy trout of 18+ inches.

This break from angler pressure is what allows Crowley to be considered a “Put and Grow” fishery and not (like most other popular local spots) just a “Put and Then Hook `em and Cook `em” fishery. “The break from heavy fishing pressure allows the fish time to adapt, to grow and then to start reproducing,” Loe explained. “Crowley’s real allure to the fly fisherman is that it is a wild fishery.”

The other big allure about Crowley is the shear variety of trout that call the lake home. The lake is stocked with several types of rainbows including Eagle Lake (considered the hardest fighters), Kamloops, Colemans and, of course, the region’s world-famous monstrous Alpers trout. Crowley is also home to Lahontan cutthroats and two types of browns; a Scottish version called Lock Lavens and “God’s Fish”—the legendary beastly browns from Germany called Von Behrs.

“Nothing beats catching a big brown at Crowley,” said Sierra Drifters guide Doug Rodricks.

As many lucky Eastern Sierra anglers know well, it’s awfully tough to beat a day spent angling away at Crowley Lake. The “Granddaddy of them all” on the Eastside.

Upcoming Event: Stillwater Classic:

On August 2nd,  the Crowley Lake Fish Camp will hold its annual “catch and release” tournament. Now in its 8th year, the daylong party and fly fishing derby is open to individuals, teams or both. Proceeds from the event are used to help enhance the fishery and to assure that Crowley Lake will be a world-class stillwater fishery for generations to come.

Stillwater link:

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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