Harry Blackburn – Gold in the Eastern Sierra

fishrap - Gold in the Eastern Sierra


Featured Snippet from “California Fly Fisher” Magazine (pg. 49) on “the Mcgee Bay Phenomonom”

“In the late 1990s, local Guides Harry Blackburn and Mike Peters “stumbled into the McGee Bay phenomenom.” Blackburn said. They’d walk down the mouth of the creek in McGee Bay, where hundreds of trout were stacking up, actively feeding they could see the whites of their mouths while they fed. At first, they simply drifted nymphs down to the fish in the creek water still moving out into the lake, but as the fish spooked out to deeper water, the pair started fishing deeper and farther out. The first time they started using an indicator and a midge pattern, they were getting a strike within 10 seconds of the cast. Of course, they thought it might have been a fluke. But it wasn’t. The bite lasted the whole season. “It was just stupid, ridiculous. We were asking ourselves, ‘Is this illegal?’ How many fish can you catch in a day?” said Blackburn.

They started on the bank and graduated to tubes and canoes, then to john boats with motors. the stable craft allowed them to stand up about the water and see deep into the channels, where they could watch the hundreds of fish below.

(pg. 49 snippet – February 2012 edition)


MAMMOTH LAKES – It appeared to be another serene, lazy morning at Crowley Lake. It was warm, cloudless, windless and bug-free. The famous trout-fishing lake on the Eastern Sierra was devoid of anglers, too. But Harry Blackburn knew better.

“When the midges hatch, the bite will turn on,” the veteran Eastern Sierra guide said.

And then Blackburn looked to the south.

“Thunderstorms are building,” he said, even though all that could be seen was one small puff of a cloud, probably somewhere over Bishop. “The wind’s going to come up, it’s going to get choppy.”

Three hours later, Blackburn was proven correct. The midges hatched and the trout were chasing his artificial lures. Cumulonimbus clouds, precursors to thunderstorms, were building to the south. Eventually, Blackburn hightailed it out of McGee Bay as the winds came up and the water began to get choppy.

A prophet? Hardly. As a guide for the newest fly-tackle store in Mammoth Lakes, Wilderness Outfitters Guide Service, Blackburn has had one day off from fishing this summer: the Fourth of July.

“Matching the hatch is the essence of fly-fishing,” he said. “I’m on the water all the time.”

Blackburn, reared in San Diego and on the East Coast, settled in the Eastern Sierra 15 years ago.

“I love fishing and hunting, and in this place, it’s all there in front of you. You have this huge outdoors area all in your back yard. This is the place to live. That’s why this place is so great.”

He hooked up with Mike Peters and they spent most of their free time float-tube fishing in McGee Bay. One day, they took a canoe to the area and began fly-fishing.

“I immediately said that I was going to get a boat and start guiding,” he recalls. “People thought I was crazy.”

Soon, all the other Eastern Sierra guides had boats, too. Blackburn, Peters, Lenny Yee and Tommy April formed the Eastside Guide Service and quickly found themselves busy nearly every day during the April-to-October trout season.

Last October, Mammoth Mountain, which has expanded its summer programs, decided it wanted to enter the fly-fishing business, too. The resort, which already offers an extensive mountain-biking program, hiking trails and rock climbing, enticed the fly-fishing company, Orvis, to open a shop.

“We’re diversifying our business,” Mammoth spokeswoman Joani Saari said. “We saw this as an opportunity to expand and Orvis was interested. There is a lot of fishing in this town.”

Blackburn, who coaches on the Mammoth Mountain junior ski program in the winter, jumped on board and so did his fellow Eastside Guide friends.

With Crowley into its annual artificial lures-only mode, Blackburn says the lake will start turning on with a tremendous bite. On a recent morning, he hit the Crowley grand slam, catching the Kamloops and Eagle Lake strain of rainbow trout and cutthroat and brown trout. With the wind too strong, he then helped an inexperienced fly angler catch half a dozen trout in the Wild Trout section of Hot Creek.

But Blackburn will fish more than just those two waters. He regularly takes anglers to the East Walker River, Twin Lakes Bridgeport, the June Lakes Loop, around the Mammoth lakes and the lower Owens River, too.

Los Angeles Daily News - Your Eastern Sierra Guide

MAMMOTH LAKES – Mammoth Mountain Resort communications director Joani Saari admits that the ski resort targets Southern Californians.

Saari says that skiers from Northern California have too many Sierra resorts to consider before thinking about Mammoth. But that’s not the case with fishing. The Eastern Sierra is considered among the top fishing grounds in the U.S.

So when the ski resort decided it was time to expand its summer fare to fishing, Saari says The Orvis Company, founded in 1856 and one of the nation’s premier fly-fishing manufacturers, was an easy fit.

The Mammoth shop, Wilderness Outfitters , opened on June 30 of this year.

“It was a fire drill,” said Harry Blackburn, a guide for Wilderness Outfitters who helped set up the store. “Usually, you need to have all your orders in like a year in advance, but we had only from October.”

Mammoth is one of only nine Orvis locations, the first in California, to offer Orvis-only product, a 2 1/2-day fly-fishing school and Orvis-sponsored guides.

“It’s been a good combination,” Eric Rangel of Wilderness says of pairing up the ski resort and the fly company. “We’re still getting things in.”

Classes at Mammoth are taught on casting pools and in classrooms. Anglers will learn casting techniques knots, gear and tackle, entomology, fly selection, how to read water and how to play, land, and safely release a fish. Orvis gear is available for use before and after classes.

The shop, on the west side of town, is a renovated cabin that is a historical landmark. When the resort finishes the completion of a shopping area across from the cabin, it will move to its permanent headquarters.


It is not as if Harry Blackburn hasn’t seen this kind of thing before.

In two decades watching the up-and-down world of Eastern Sierra fishing, the personable Blackburn has seen it all and caught them all. He has plied these waters in snowstorms, ice storms, blistering hot days and cool, lovely el-perfectos.

Blackburn, the operator of Mammoth Flyfishing Adventures, is the angler’s angler, which is why it matters when he says this year has been one of the best-ever seasons on record.

“The fishing’s been good, despite a horrible snowpack and a lack of precipitation,” he said for his late-season assessment.

“Well,” he demurred, “let me say it’s been not so good for the fish, but good for the fishermen.”

For Blackburn, a longtime fly fishing guide who in 20 years has made a living by fishing local waters in the season and by teaching and coaching the Mammoth Mountain Junior Ski Team in the snow months, nothing is apt to send him to the top of the enthusiasm meter.

But this season, he said, the Eastside has experienced an odd confluence of weather, lack of runoff, and abundance of fish. The fishing is coming off three straight seasons of ho-um (for here) fishing, and it might face another one next season.

But for now, Blackburn said it’s a regular festival out there.

“The frenzy is on,” he said.

“Everybody’s hooting and hollering right now. The anglers are all enjoying it, and this is the last week or so before the kids go back to school and visitors get back to their offices for work.”

As for the odd confluence of circumstances that made for this season’s fishing frenzy, the first one has to do with runoff from the mountains.

There wasn’t one.

In the two years past, with prodigious amounts of snow in the high country, the rivers and lakes bulged with fast-moving water well into the summer and never really let up. That’s not an ideal condition, although veteran anglers dealt with it just fine. As for visitors going by themselves, without a guide, it wasn’t so good.

This year, the small runoff happened very early and then stopped—a victim of one of the worst snow years in memory. Streams and rivers are thus at relatively low levels, meaning most of the fish find hideouts that are easily identifiable by anglers.

“Ninety percent of the fish are in 50 percent of the water,” Blackburn reasoned.

Second, construction by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has limited the amount of water taken by LA. from the Owens River Valley—another odd factor in the season.

Finally, there is just enough water in the streams and rivers that an outsider really wouldn’t notice that August fishing is a lot like the usual September, and that there is a drought happening right in front of his or her eyes.

It’s a little bit like Bluesapalooza weekend in town, when visitors said, in various intonations, “It sure doesn’t look like a bankrupt town to me!”

Finally, Blackburn said he has observed some anglers are staying home rather than traveling to more exotic locations, such as Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

“A lot of them are staying longer, and they’re a little more local,” he said. “I think they’re doing it here.”

Even so, Blackburn and other fishing guides have their “worry” antennae turned up high.

“The drawback,” he said, “is that we don’t want to repeat this. There will be a price to pay. If you have back-to-back dry seasons, it will take about three years in a row to recover from that.”

In the meantime, the frenzy is on in the Eastern Sierra.