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Fly-Fishing the Upper Owens

Fly-Fishing the Upper Owens

Anglers from all across California test the trout-rich waters of the Eastern Sierra's Upper Owens River. And why not? Its trout are worthy of pursuit!

By Jim Niemiec

Fly-fishing the Owens River can be awesome. And as brilliant rainbows, brown trout, cutthroat and Kamloops make their way out of Lake Crowley and up the enriched waters of this pristine free-flowing river, California trout anglers - mostly flyfishers - can be seen all along this flow's course.

The headwaters of the Owens River begin at Big Springs and then this wild trout river meanders down through Long Valley some 26 miles before spilling into Crowley Lake. With most of this river's southerly flow just a couple of miles east of Highway 395, the Long Valley stretch is one of the finest trout fisheries along the Eastern Sierra.

It is easy to reach good walk-in fishing spots along the river, and the Owens is only a 20-minute drive from the resort community of Mammoth Lakes, where anglers find fine fly-fishing shops, restaurants and an abundance of lodging opportunities.

Two miles of the Owens River flow through broad meadows of the picturesque Alpers' Owens River Ranch in the upper end of Long Valley. Deep undercut banks, riffles, deep runs and a variety of protective vegetation offer sanctuaries for the wild trout in this stretch of river.

Tim and Pam Alpers manage the ranch and river to provide the finest in fly-fishing and family recreation. Tim inherited a rainbow trout hatchery, situated on the upper end of the ranch, from his father. Today Alpers' rainbow trout are highly touted as one of the finest strains in California. Tim's trout are perfect in dimensions, with full fins and brilliant color. Alpers' trout can weigh well into the double-digit class.

Author Jim Niemiec shows off a 22-inch cuttbow taken on a Spirit River Hare's Ear Nymph at a big pool on Alpers' Owens River Ranch. Photo courtesy of Jim Niemiec

The Alpers family works hard at protecting their fishery and the watershed around the ranch, adding to the purity and flow of the Owens River. The ranch's rustic cabins - some of them front prime sections of the river - offer full amenities to angling families and groups. The ranch section is restricted to barbless dry- and wet fly-fishing. A no-kill regulation is strictly enforced.


Two miles of man-made stream, known as Alpers Creek, were designed to flow slowly through the eastern side of the ranch. This creek is stocked regularly with 1- to 3-pound Alpers' rainbows and is primarily used by children and anglers who would like to catch a trout for an evening meal. Bait is allowed on Alpers Creek and the limit is two fish per person per day. The addition of the small creek has taken some of the fishing pressure off the wild portion of the river.

The upper Owens River offers outstanding fly-fishing. Caddis can come off twice a day and the mayfly hatch really gets the bigger 'bows and browns looking up for chunky meals. Drifting bead head nymphs through deeper runs will most always get the interest of a feeding trout, while early in the morning and just before dark are the perfect times to work big streamers and Woolly Bugger patterns along undercut banks and across the heads of big riffles.

The Owens River can produce good to excellent fly-fishing from opening day until the end of the season in early November. There is a healthy population of native trout in this river, and proper conservation management and angling restrictions have allowed this fishery to thrive despite heavy fishing pressure.

About the only time of the season when fishing gets tough for flyfishermen on the Owens is during the spring thaw. Snowmelt off the surrounding mountains increases the flow of the river, which makes it more difficult to drift a dry fly through a run, keep a nymph on the bottom or put a big bug into waters were brown trout hide.

Much of the middle section of the Owens River is not open to the general public and that's not all bad for flyfishermen and the upper Owens River wild trout fishery. John Gottwald, a Virginian, recently purchased the Arcularius Ranch, which at one time rented cabins to fly-fishing enthusiasts. Gottwald, however, closed 5 1/2 miles of the river to public access. Fishing is limited to guests of the owner; its private waters are well patrolled.

The fish have benefited under this new stewardship by taking angling pressure off the river, thus allowing it to become an ideal hatchery for wild trout making the long spawning run up from Lake Crowley through the unspoiled waters of the ranch. On the down side of the privatization of this ranch is the added pressure put on Alpers' Owens River Ranch and the public waters of the lower section of the river owned by the Department of Water and Power.

In addition to the huge Arcularius Ranch not allowing public access to its prime trout waters, there are two other private sections of the river in this tranquil valley. The Inaha stretch is owned by a number of devoted flyfishermen from the Bay Area who limit access to family members and guests for catch-and-release fishing, and the smaller Frank Arcularius family ranch that borders public land. All three of these properties are fenced and posted with no trespassing signs.

The public has easy access to the lower Owens River via a dirt road off lightly graveled Owens River Road. There is a small public parking area provided just above a big meadow. Flyfishermen can walk up or down the river from this point, with miles of meandering river, deep holes, brush jams, moss-covered pools and undercut banks that will challenge even the best flyfisherman.

There are a couple of peak times a fly angler will want to be on the water. Opening weekend can find tough fishing conditions, as wind typically blows quite steadily and hard. However, if an angler can time a trip to the high country for early May, there is a good chance that the lower river will still be holding some late-returning spawners heading back down to Crowley Lake. May is also the perfect time to expect midday hatches with dimpling 'bows and browns holding in the tail ends of slower-moving water. As is the case with the upper Owens, these bigger waters become more difficult to fish during spring run-off.

Many anglers will fish other waters during late May and early June and wait for the Owens to settle down and become fishable. Trips in the High Sierra can produce very good dry-fly fishing in June and July, slowing a little in August, that is, until the grasshoppers come to the river when any cast can produce a strike from an aggressive feeding trophy rainbow or brown trout.

The lower Owens doesn't get a lot of angling pressure during the week, but finding a productive hole o

r riffle can be difficult on fair-weather weekends. Flyfishermen making multiple trips to this river are most likely to hit it right a couple of times, while other outings might be less productive.

Fewer bugs are on the water during the late summer but caddis can return by early fall, when Pale Morning Duns are productive, and there are most likely more than a couple of trophy-class trout that will still be looking up for a big grasshopper or size 12 Spirit River Stimulator pattern.

The last couple of weeks of the season are perfect times to be on the Owens River for action on the fall run of brown trout. During a trip this past October, I saw temperatures drop into the mid-20s and ice-cold winds blowing in 25-mph gusts. The river was down, the water was gin clear and the trout were hungry. Big browns in full spawning colors were aggressive on big bugs and Woolly Buggers, while rainbows were hanging close to the bottom feeding on nymphs. Despite the terrible weather, fishing was as good as it is any wild trout river in the West.

All public stretches of the river can produce quality dry- and wet-fly fishing on any given day. The upper reaches of the river might offer up good dry-fly fishing during the morning, while a walk along the banks of the lower part of the river might produce a trophy trout on an olive darthead Woolly Bugger as the sun sets over Mammoth Mountain.

Long leaders are a must for most of the season, especially on the Alpers' Owens River Ranch section, while the lower river can be effectively fished with a 9-foot leader due to an abundance of deeper fish holding in pools, long runs and the river flowing at a much higher volume. The leader of choice for Alpers wild trout waters would be a 12-footer for dry-fly fishing or nymphing with a strike indicator. A leader can be shortened to less than 9 feet when working streamer flies along fish-holding banks, under overhanging limbs and stacked up debris. Even though anglers who cast nymphs and big streamers prefer fluorocarbon leader, it is not the choice of most dry flyfishermen. Water clarity and conditions demand the angler to drop their tippet size to 7X to entice a feeding rainbow with a No. 18 yellow Elk Hair Caddis or an even smaller terrestrial.

Some flyfishermen prefer to stalk trout on the Owens with 3-weight fly rods, while others prefer the action of 5- or 6-weight tackle to battle the winds that come up often in Long Valley. Carry a release net with you when fishing any section of the river, avoid getting into the river and stay back from the water in order to protect the fragile banks and keep from spooking a trout that has moved out into a feeding lane.

The fisheries management plan for the upper Owens River falls under the direction of the California Department of Fish and Game. The upper stretch, from the Benton Bridge road crossing upstream to Highway 395 is open from the last weekend of April through Nov. 15. The maximum size limit for trout taken from the river is 16 inches, and only artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks may be used.


Upper Owens River insect hatches are dependent upon water flow and temperature, says Kevin Peterson, owner of Trout Fitters in Mammoth Lakes. Here's a guide to the bugs you'll find there.


Midges hatch all during trout season, and trout aggressively feed on them.


Opening week usually produces big trout on egg patterns, San Juan Worms, Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails, as holdover spawning rainbows are still in the river system.


The mid-May to early June period finds pale morning duns (mayflies) and little yellow stoneflies on the water. It's a good time to drift small flies on a long leader with light tippet.


June through July see good dry-fly fishing, with hatches coming off middays and evenings. Pale Morning Duns and Spirit River Elk Hair Caddis (with a yellow or olive body) top the list of flies. Harrop's Surface Emergers and Flash Back Pheasant Tail Nymphs are effective once the water clears.


July into September is grasshopper time. Most any 'hopper pattern or Stimulator could entice a big rainbow or brown trout to rise to the surface. Ants are also a proven pattern for late summer and early fall.


The best caddis hatches begin in late July and continue well into September. Look for big caddis hatches early in the morning and at sunset. When trout start looking up for caddis, the entire upper river can be good.


Fall brings Baetis hatches that can last well into early winter. The best imitation would be a Blue-Winged Olive.


By the season's final weekend, flyfishermen usually return to an early spring pattern -- big bugs, nymphs and egg patterns -- as brown trout and fall-spawning rainbows move upriver out of Crowley Lake. -- Jim Niemiec


To protect spawning trout, the section of this river from the Benton Bridge road crossing downstream to the Upper Owens River fishing monument doesn't open until the Saturday preceding Memorial Day and runs through Sept. 30. There is a bag limit of five fish per day with no minimum size for this portion of river.

The stretch from the monument (about 1/4-mile upstream from maximum lake level) to Crowley Lake does not open until Aug. 1 and remains open until Nov. 15. The minimum size limit is 18 inches in length, and only barbless flies and lures can be fished. The daily limit is two fish.

The upper Owens attracts anglers all season long, but there are times weather interferes with their pursuits in Long Valley. That's when flyfishermen should target the region's smaller creeks.

Hilton Creek winds down out of the mountains behind the resort town of Crowley Lake and flattens out as it hits the valley. Downstream from Crowley Lake Drive, Hilton Creek is fishable from opening day through the Friday preceding Memorial Day and then reopens on Oct. 1, closing Nov. 15. There is a size limit on Hilton of 18 inches below Highway 395; standard statewide regs, including a five-fish limit, apply to the upper creek area above Crowley Lake Drive.

McGee Creek flows through a big grass meadow r

unning into Convict Creek just above Crowley Lake and has regulations similar to Hilton Creek; barbless hooks are mandatory. When fly-fishing McGee Creek be cautious of mud holes and swampy ground in the area known as The Pasture.

Convict Creek is one of the most fun creeks to fish along Highway 395, but it's often passed over by anglers Eastern Sierra anglers. Except for the short portion in the posted University of California study area, this small creek is very fishable as it meanders through meadows of sagebrush on its way to meeting up with McGee Creek. The same fishing restrictions as on McGee and Hilton. Convict is also open to public fishing above the UC study area but offers only limited fly-fishing as it drops down into the valley over large boulders after leaving Convict Lake.

Hot Creek is a feeder creek to the upper Owens River. It begins just below the state fish hatchery, a short distance north of Mammoth Airport. The upper section of Hot Creek is under the ownership of Hot Creek Ranch, which limits access to this fly-fishing creek to guests staying at the ranch. A pretty good section of Hot Creek flows gently through lava rock just above the hot springs that can produce decent rainbow trout fishing for those who have the talent of fishing a beadhead nymph through little runs between weed patches.

There are some huge trout in Hot Creek, including some trophy-class brown trout, but the average fish in this creek falls in the 12- to 18-inch class. Fishing is limited to no-kill fly-fishing with barbless hooks. High water temperatures leave the lower section of Hot Creek fairly well unfishable.

The lower section of the upper Owens River is about 35 miles north of Bishop. Take Highway 395 north and then head east on the paved road at Benton Crossing, just after crossing over Convict Creek.

Access to the upper section of river is about 15 miles north of the Mammoth Lakes turnoff. Head east on the paved Owens River Road until it passes the Arcularius Ranch.

Camping - There's a public campground at Big Springs, the headwaters of the Owens River. Camping is also available at Pleasant Valley Reservoir, and pay-per-day camping in and around Mammoth Lakes and Crowley Lake.

Lodging - Alpers' Owens River Ranch, 760-648-7334; Hot Creek Ranch, 760-924-5637; Mammoth Accommodations Center, 760-934-6262.

Numbers to know - Trout Fly, 760-934-2517; Trout Fitter, 760-934-2517; Rick's Sports Center, 760-934-3416; Kittredge Sports, 760-934-7566; Wilderness Outfitters, 760-924-7335; and Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau, 800-367-6572.

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