It's funny how some fisherman can ignore good fishing waters so close to home, myself included. We drive past good waters in the quest to get to waters we've read or heard about in the local paper, fly fishing magazine, or the internet, forget about the abundance in our own backyard. Consider Millerton Lake. Myself included, whenever lineside fever struck, I'd make the hour and a half drive from Fresno to the fabled waters of the San Luis or the O'Neill Forebay where a number of world records have been set, never taking Millerton Lake seriously. That would change.
Early one morning a few years ago , desperate to cast my new Sage Eight wt and try out a new fly, I drove the twenty miles from Fresno to Friant Dam. I parked in the parking lot below the old courthouse at Mariner's Point, which is located on the south side of lake right by the dam; it's the first of many coves the lake has to offer. I tied on a size 8 beadhead white wooly bugger with a peacock herl for a back (it didn't have a name at the time) and hiked the hill to the lake. The lake itself rose up from the San Joaquin River 57 years ago, when Friant Dam was built across the river canyon wall. So beneath the waters of the reservoir is a canyon that stretches from Friant Dam to the Squaw Leap area where the lakes headwaters begin, some fifteen miles away. Some of the hills around the lake are steeper than others . You walk down some of them and roll down the others, if you don¹t watch your step. I had check the water below from the parking lot for any surface action. There was definitely something going on, so I hiked down the hill. My observations were rewarded. To my right there was a commotion going on about ten feet out on the water, a school of bass was having breakfast, most likely thread fin shad-- the dominant forage fish at Millerton.
It was most definitely an exciting situation, splashing water, fish in the air, bass and breakfast! I could not have picked a better position if I had planned it. Watching my back cast, I cast my line to the edge of the feeding free for all.A split second after the fly hit the water it was part of the menu.
The strike sent a jolt to my rod, on impulse I jerked back on the line, setting the hook. It was a short fight, and the loser was a twelve inch stripe bass, my first striper on a fly! After many hour an a half drives to the San Luis Reservoir and the O'Neill Forebay without any success, with the exception of a few tugs and break offs, I'd taken my first fly--caught striper twenty minutes from my door step. That twelve inch striper didn't know how big he was, nether did I, till I'd lipped him and was holding him up out of the water-not a bad fight for a little guy.
I put that foot long linesides back in the water. and once again cast my line alongside the feeding school. Another strike ,another twelve incher! Within an hour I lost track of how many pint sized stripers I'd caught, nor do I recollect making a cast without catching one. Although they were small in size, they were gigantic in fun, and for me that will always be what fly fishing is about.
When I hook my first striper on the fly and myself on the pursuit of them with florid in hand, that morning was about six years ago. Since then I've had several run-ins with big stripers two feet and up; these guys usually come calling when I'm fishing for something else.
About two months ago, late August to be exact , I broke the tip of that favorite Sage Eight Wt. about a foot and a half below the tip. Fishing for spotted bass from my kayak, I had hooked a twelve incher. After unhooking the bass, I put him back in the water to revive him and placed my rod in its holder. He stayed where I placed him for a moment after I took my hands away. I then noticed my fly was floating just a few inches behind the spotty. Reaching for the fly I got the scare of a lifetime-- about three feet of Mr. Linesides Striped Bass doing it's imitation of a locomotive shot past just inches from my kayak, inhaling the spotty and my fly in one enormous gulp.
By the time I'd recovered and my heart had starting beating again, the striper had taken a whole of lot of line putting a definite bend in the rod. However, that rod was stilI in the holder and I fumbled to get it out, not an easy feat with several pounds of striper on the other end. Rod in hand I stripset the hook--Mr. linesides and I were connected, though not for long. I heard the crack, and glanced down in horror at my two piece rod that was now a three piece and a limp line empty of the striper that broke it.
Millerton Lake's present day striper population is going strong, Striped Bass were planted in Millerton Lake by the California Stripe Bass Association in1958. During the last several years they have planted 2500 fingerlings at different times. The striper population is strong and so is it's future. There are lots of double digit stripers that swim in these waters . The lake record is held by Roger George who hooked a 50-- pounder in May of 1998, topping the record his father-- Warren George had made previously at 48 pounds. Roger is the Millerton Lake expert and local ESPN radio fishing show host, and he has put his time in on the water. So far Roger is only using conventional gear but I'm working on that.