ALPERS' ALCHEMY FISH FARMER CLOSES IN ON DESIGNING NEAR-PERFECT TROUT THE RESULT OF ALL THIS CARE IS A FISH THAT'S BECOME A LEGEND.
Bert Glennon is fishing from a float tube on Lake Mary at Mammoth Lakes, his first angling experience in the Eastern Sierra, when his rod bends almost in half.
An unseen force tows him across the lake. When the fish finally tires, Glennon, who lives in Simi Valley, scoops it into his net. It's a 5 1/2-pound Alpers rainbow trout. The fish is perfect - beautifully spotted with bright colors and all its fins intact.
Thousands of anglers who fish in Mono and Inyo counties have had the thrill of landing an Alpers trophy trout. Tim Alpers, a third generation fish and cattle rancher, raises the trout at the Owens River Ranch north of Mammoth Lakes.
Alpers, 53, is a friendly guy who once had aspirations of becoming a Division I or NBA basketball coach. He was an assistant coach at the University of Tulsa. But the pull of his home in the mountains was too strong.
Alpers' grandfather bought the 210-acre ranch from the original homesteader's family in 1906. Here a river truly does run through it: the Owens. Alpers' aunt raised fish in the 1920's. Alpers, who has a degree in natural resources and fisheries management, started the current trophy rainbow trout farm operation with his father in 1971.
``It's the water,'' said Alpers, that's the secret to his success.
A spring on the property provides year-round, trout-pleasing 58-degree water to the nursery, where fertilized trout eggs first are hatched. More water from the Owens River supplies the larger ponds where the baby fish mature. Clear and well oxygenated, it's ideal for growing big trout.
Alpers visits the trout pens below the spring every day to feed the baby fish and ``change their diapers'' as he calls it. Alpers cleans the pens, which he and his father designed, and makes sure the fish are healthy. The ponds for the larger fish have a self-feeder that Alpers designed.
Everything is recycled, said Alpers. The fish poop is spread on irrigated pastures where cow and calf pairs graze.
Like any kind of farming, this is a 24/7 operation. In winter Alpers uses a small Snow Cat and snowshoes to get to the trout ponds when 10-foot snow drifts cover the area. He said steam rises off the water in winter and it's quite a sight.
You can find Alpers trout from Lone Pine to the West Walker but not in Southern California. Most go to stocking programs paid for by Mammoth, Bishop, Mono, and Inyo County boards and chambers of commerce, and private marina operators at Convict, June, Silver and other local lakes.
``We grow a destination product,'' Alpers said. ``You have to come to the Eastern Sierra for our trout.''
Alpers also sells his fish to local restaurants, partly for quality-control purposes. He likes to get feedback from restaurant chefs and managers.
``Alpers trout have been on the menu eight or nine years,'' said Matt Eoff, head chef at the acclaimed Restaurant at Convict Lake. ``They're very popular. Tim brings them in fresh, so you can get them a half-hour after they've been swimming.''
Eoff said the trout have pink, very firm flesh because they're raised in spring creek water with a better diet than most farm-raised trout. The restaurant serves Alpers trout sauteed with a scallion-and-sun-dried-tomato white-wine butter sauce, finished with toasted almonds.
If you want to taste Alpers trout in a simpler setting, Giovanni's pizzeria in Mammoth Lakes offers a pizza made with smoked Alpers trout, dill cream cheese, red onion, capers and cucumber. According to Pete Voss, one of the owners, locals get the pizza in a ready-to-heat version for party appetizers. ``People who like them really love them,'' Voss said.
If you're staying at Alpers' guest ranch, you can fish the 2 miles of the Owens that runs through the property. Or you can pay to fish the 5-acre trout pond Alpers had scooped out as a place for fly fishers after really big fish. Recently, a 78 year-old angler caught and measured a 31-inch brown trout at the pond. Alpers said the guest went back to his cabin for a nap after fighting the fish. The largest to date is a 22 1/2-pound fish that now graces a wall at the Union Bank in Mammoth.
It takes about three years to grow Alpers trophy-size trout, which range from 4 to 8 pounds. The key is to grow them slowly, said Alpers. He worries about getting the fish's shape right, as well as its coloration, conformation, fins and tail, taste and fighting ability.
The first two years he is careful not to overfeed the fish so they establish the proper body contours. When the trout are 3 years old, they have a growth spurt and can convert a pound and a half of feed to a pound of fish, said Alpers.
The fish eat a special floating trout food so they learn to feed on the surface. This makes the fish more amenable to anglers' surface flies, Alpers said. The fish live in moving water, a sort of fish exercise treadmill, keeping them fit and feisty.
The Alpers trout is a cross breed built on a basic rainbow trout. Kamloops genetic material is included to put some wild in the fish, along with steelhead genes for thickness and strength. Alpers' goal is to grow as close to a wild trout as possible in a farm-raised environment.
The result of all this care is a fish that's become a legend.
Glennon, who grew up in Australia, would agree as he admired his trophy trout.
``I think I'll keep it for me tea,'' he said.
IF YOU FISH
--Owens River Ranch (760-648-7334) is located 50 miles north of Bishop and four miles east of Highway 395 on Owens River Road. The ranch is 15 miles from both Mammoth Lakes and June Lake. Wet and dry fly-fishing only is allowed on the two miles of the Owens River that meanders through the ranch. The river has native brown and rainbow trout.
Two miles of man-made Alpers' Creek is stocked with 1- to 2-pound rainbows from the ranch hatchery. Bait as well as fly-fishing is allowed on Alpers' Creek with a two-fish- per-person-per-day limit. Only people staying at the ranch can fish on the river or creek.
--Accommodations are housekeeping cabins. Fishing tackle and some groceries are available at the Ranch Lodge. Cabin sizes vary to sleep from two to 10 people.
--Alpers trout pond is open daily from 8:30 a.m. for three sessions to anyone who pays the $40 fee for a three-hour session - you don't need to be staying at the ranch. Float tube catch-and-release fly-rod fishing with wet or dry flies only on the pond. No shore fishing. Reservations highly recommended.
3 photos, box
(1 -- color) A float-tube angler fishes at Owens River Ranch in the Eastern Sierra, where one can find trophy-sized Alpers trout.
(2 -- color) Tim Alpers, a third-generation fish farmer, shows off one of his trophy Alpers rainbow trout. He said the secret to his success is the clear and well-oxygenated water in the region.
(3) As he does every day, Tim Alpers feeds his latest batch of Alpers rainbow trout, which will grow between 4 and 8 pounds in three years.
Bill Becher/Special to the Daily News
IF YOU FISH (see text)
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Sep 26, 2002|
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