Oct, 17 2004 Owens River Gorge
Time: 10:00pm - 1:30pm
Last weekend I finally did something that I should have done and been trying to do for years- fish the Owens River Gorge. I’ve had several opportunities in the past to fish the Gorge but none have panned out. The first was the last of the annual Owens River trips that Mike and I used to make. Mike had just gotten into rock climbing and had some friends who were planning to climb within the Gorge. He went to meet his friends, Marlo tagged along to fish while I opted for Hot Creek.
My last opportunity to fish the Gorge came when Vita and I decided to scout the dirt roads south east of Lake Crowley. This took us to the very top of the Gorge and when we drove down into the canyon as far as we could go, I was summarily unimpressed with what I saw. The stream was very small and choked with brush. Little did I know that from that point you have to walk two miles down stream to find the fishing water.
This trip, I was determined to find the right access and the right water. Vita and I had made the trip to the east side for the annual Great Western Rod Makers Gathering. On Saturday I would attend the Gathering and Queen (the Sheltie/Jack Russell terror) and Vita would do, whatever it is they do in Mammoth. Sunday I made plans with Darrell K., an internet acquaintance, to fish the Gorge.
Neither one of us had fished the Gorge before so I took it upon myself to learn as much as possible before hand. Thursday night I combed the internet and my magazine collection for information. I found several internet trip reports and several magazine articles. Each dutifully recounted how the gorge had in years past become bone dry due to the practices of LA Water and Power and how a little water fuelled an amazing comeback in the past 10 years. All were vague about where to specifically enter the gorge and specific about the potential hazards of fishing it. A nettle and snake infested sauna is how most described it.
The information I had gathered left me in a state of bewilderment. To most, this was fly-fishing in the extreme- to be tackled once in a life time and recount the harrowing experience. Each article and trip report I read left me increasingly unsure of how I should prepare for the trip. Should I wear wading boots and waders into the Gorge, or will the climb be too tough and require hiking boots? Should I carry my fishing bag or approach this like a high country trip, requiring the use of my day pack. These decisions had to be made and I didn’t want get it wrong.
I began to wonder about the folks writing the articles, were they “outdoorsmen” or park and fish anglers. Had they climbed a 500 ft rock fall in the high sierras to reach hidden high country lakes, like Gino and I had once done or did they consider walking down to Hot Creek tough. These things weren’t clear.
Saturday night I walked into a store in Mammoth Lakes looking for some obscure fishing tackle. To my surprise, they had what I was looking for and also had a book on rock climbing the Owens River Gorge. The first 20 pages of the book were dedicated to history, preparation and, fortunately, access. This book had names (rock climbers name everything) for each access point and parking lot and graded them by rock climbing class- Class 1 (no worries) to Class 5 (bring a rope). There was a Class 1, several Class 2s, a few Class 3s and a Class 5. The name of the Class 5 had “Rapel” in it. We wouldn’t be taking that one.
I borrowed a piece of paper from the store clerk and drew the map from the book, making notes of where the Class 1 and Class 2 access points were. Both of us would be carrying bamboo rods and I figured that Class 1 and 2 would be easy enough to negotiate with rod in hand. The store clerk had fished the Gorge earlier in the week so I explained my conundrum.
I had already decided to wear my waders. They would provide me amour against the nettles and allow me to wade up stream, thus avoiding the shoreline rattle snakes. The question was, did I wear or pack them into the gorge. The clerk again told me stories of extreme fly fishing and suggested I pack them in.
That night, I transferred all my gear from my fishing bag to my day pack. This meant leaving my fly box in the hotel, which was fine as the Gorge was supposed to be a pretty straight forward dry fly fishery. I felt confident that the dozen or so high country patterns that I carry in my day pack would be enough. I packed my waders but decided I’d make a final determination on whether to wear them the following day.
I met Darrell the following morning. He’d carried with him a 6ft something Mike Clark rod. I took a cursory look at the rod, noticing that Clark used spiral node spacing on the rod. We found an access point that didn’t look too tough to two experienced high country fly fishers and headed in. I opted to wear my waders and wading boots.
We put in at the area that I believe is called the Horseshoe. We could see another fly fisher working his way up the gorge and decided to put in above him. The other fellow seemed to be working pretty fast and I worried that we hadn’t put in far enough ahead of him. This feeling subsided as we reached the stream and got a feel for how tough the fishing would actually be.
The stream ran through the very apex of the V it formed. Brush, mostly stinging nettles, crowded the stream and fishing would require one to drop down below the nettles to fish one hole, climb back over the nettles and move up stream, simply to drop down on the next hole. The shore line was rattlesnake heaven and characterized by unstable rocks which had once been part of the Gorge walls. My waders gave me some advantage over Darrell, who wet waded, but not much. The stream was such that I often found myself getting tangled in tree branches and nettles. More than once I found myself between a rock and a hard place. Not being able to climb out of the stream but not being able to move forward either. I found myself climbing over and balancing myself on rotting dams of fallen tree logs and branches, walking blindly though tulle and doing some pretty sketch things. As the Brits would say, it was “dodgy”.
Ironically, I didn’t fair any better than Darrell and we both seemed to be moving upstream at the same rate. At one point, fed up with battle in the brush, I worked my way to shore and hiked up stream. I found Darrel fishing a very nice, emerald run. He’d switched from a dry fly to a bugger by this point. We had fished dries with little success and probably hadn’t landed more than 4 fish between us in the first hour and a half.
Above Darrell was some nice pocket water and after a couple casts with a dry fly, I too decided to switch. My high country fly box doesn’t carry much in the way of subsurface flies- a few wet flies, some small Gold Ribbed Hares Ears and bead head Pheasant Tail Nymphs and several Stillwater nymphs for lake fishing. Fortunately, I had fished Mystery Creek in mid September and had a large bead head nymph stuck to my hat. I was in my element now and used the same fly combination and tactics that I use at Mystery Creek.
A bead head Prince or Dark Lord with a small GRHE dropper have become my defacto small stream nymphing flies of choice and they didn’t let me down. A tuck cast to drive the nymph into the water and fish on!
Darrell caught up to me as I was carefully attempting to wade up a narrow, fast moving, brush lined run. As I clumsily made my way through the fast water I saw a fish flash above me. I made a few casts and the fish slammed my fly. It was a nice 10 inch Brown. Figuring this was the largest fish in the run, I moved up stream. This is when things really started to turn on.
From where I stood the run was fairly open. The rocks in the run were such that they created a large cushion of holding water in the middle and directly in front of me. As I cast, I could see fish come out from their hidden lairs to intercept what they thought was an easy meal. The action was fast and furious and I started whopping it up and laughing. At one point, I had a double. Two fish on two separate flies at the same time. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I could feel a heavy fish but only see two smaller fish where my line was. Then I noticed that the two of them were swimming around each other and figured out what was going on. It was quite a sight. Fish even jumped out of the water as I swung my flies low to inspect them for weeds.
After about the 5th fish, Darrell stuck his head through the trees and peered down steam at me. It was a funny sight, Darrell leaning out from the brush, head cocked slightly peering down at me. He said something to the effect of “Sounds like you’re having a good time down here”. We climbed along the falling rocks, passing by several great looking runs. I’d hate to be doing this in the summer as Rattlesnakes would surely be an ever present companion.
Up to this point Darrell and I had done a pretty good job of hop-scotching up stream with out getting in each other’s way and this continued until the time I had to return to Mammoth. I left Darrell fishing a run that looked much like Hot Creek, clear and weedy. The hike out was uneventful, half off trail, half on. As I reached the rim of the Gorge, I could see Darrell’s hat hidden among the trees, trying to sneak up on unsuspecting Mr. Brownie.