Waters I Guide On

Owens River

The Owens River headwaters are at Big Springs and the river ends at the Owens Dry Lake. It starts off with a quick descent into Long Valley where the river meanders its way to Crowley Lake. Most of the Owens River out flow from Crowley Lake is diverted for power generation by DWP. The river, about 15 cfs, flows through the gorge and rejoins the diverted river before flowing into Pleasant Valley Reservoir. The outflow from Pleasant Valley Reservoir is controlled by DWP. From here the Owens River meanders its way through the Owens Valley. Most of the river’s water is diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct by the time it reaches the Owens Dry Lake.

A typical trophy brown trout guide Fred Rowe caught while plying the waters of the upper Owens River with a three fly Czech nymph rig in the springtime.

A typical trophy brown trout guide Fred Rowe caught while plying the waters of the upper Owens River with a three fly Czech nymph rig in the springtime.

Upper Owens River

The upper Owens River meanders through alpine meadows, making it a great spot for beginner fly fishers and experts alike.


The upper Owens River meanders through alpine meadows, making it a great spot for beginner fly fishers and experts alike.

I guide the waters of the upper Owens River from the bottom property line of Arcularius on the River to Crowley Lake. The river meanders through grassy meadows before entering Crowley Lake, the mouth of the Owens. Deep pools, undercut banks and runs typify the upper Owens River. Streamers, nymphs and dry flies all work well in the upper Owens at the right times of the year.

This area is perfect for the beginner fly fisher as there are lots of juvenile trout present year-round and no obstructions to hamper your cast. From June to September there are good hatches of mayflies and caddis flies. August and September find hoppers in abundance in the grass bordering the river. On windy afternoons hoppers get blown onto the river and provide a big opportunistic meal for the trout.

Trophy cutthroat migrate out of Crowley Lake to spawn in the upper Owens River are the targets of May fly fishers.

Trophy cutthroat migrate out of Crowley Lake to spawn in the upper Owens River are the targets of May fly fishers.

The upper Owens River offers great trophy trout opportunities when rainbows, browns and cutthroat from Crowley Lake move through the river system on their way upstream to the spawning grounds. Brown trout typically enter the river system in the fall and complete their spawning by winter. Rainbow trout are in the system from September to March. The cutthroat trout is normally in and out of the system in May.

September to May is the best time to catch a trophy trout from the upper Owens River. Glow bugs and San Juan worms are the standard method to catch these trophy trout. I prefer nymphing under an indicator or fishing a Czech nymph rig.

Snowshoeing into the upper Owens River in the winter time was worth the effort for Dan McElroy, who landed a migrating rainbow trout.

Snowshoeing into the upper Owens River in the winter time was worth the effort for Dan McElroy, who landed a migrating rainbow trout.

During the winter this area can be hard to access. When the upper Owens River is blanketed with snow fly fishers park at Benton Crossing Bridge and snowshoe or snowmobile into the productive pools and runs that are two to four miles upstream. In mild winters brought on by drought, anglers access the dirt roads of the upper Owens River all winter long. In heavy snow winters, the roads are accessible from April to December.

There are special regulations and closed zones in the upper Owens River system. Check the California Department of Fish and Wildlife fishing regulations if you are in doubt of where to fish and what restrictions are in effect. (need link to this, section 134 A to C)

Owens River Gorge

Anglers and rock climbers are the few people who visit and play in the Owens River Gorge.

Anglers and rock climbers are the few people who visit and play in the Owens River Gorge.

The Owens River Gorge is about 19 miles of steep-sided canyon with the river running at the bottom. The gorge runs from Crowley Lake Dam to Pleasant Valley Reservoir. There are three main access points to the gorge at the bottom, middle power plant and upper power plant. This section of the river started receiving water in 1991 after a court order required DWP reverse the dewatering it started in the gorge in 1953. Wild brown trout have populated this boulder-strewn stream.

This is a tailwater fishery that fishes like an opportunistic free stone stream. Pools, runs and riffles characterize the river within the gorge. Boulders that break away from the steep canyon walls and rockslides obstruct the rivers flow through the canyon in several sections. Thick riparian vegetation, stinging nettles, and rattlesnakes makes this an environment not friendly to fly fishers.

The gorge section of the Owens River is home to a healthy population of wild brown trout up to 14 inches.

The gorge section of the Owens River is home to a healthy population of wild brown trout up to 14 inches.

The hike in and out of the gorge is strenuous and not recommended for anglers not up for the physical challenge. The effort is worth the return in the quantity of wild browns that will readily take your flies. A dry and dropper fly rig is the perfect method for fooling the opportunistically feeding wild trout.

While it is easy to feel you are all alone fishing in the gorge, there are numerous climbers enjoying the world class rock climbing.

While it is easy to feel you are all alone fishing in the gorge, there are numerous climbers enjoying the world class rock climbing.

Fishing pressure is extremely light due to the effort required to access the river. This does not mean you will be alone when in the gorge. This world-class climbing area attracts thousands of climbers each year. As you fly fish, a glance up the canyon walls will reveal numerous climbers. 

This fishery is just too hot to fish mid-summer. Best fishing is fall to spring. Waders, water and food are recommended when fishing in the gorge section of the Owens River.

Power Plant Owens River

The power plant section of the lower Owens River is heavily lined with willows restricting access to fly fishers willing to wade in the river bed.


The power plant section of the lower Owens River is heavily lined with willows restricting access to fly fishers willing to wade in the river bed.

This less than a mile section of river where the flows from the gorge reunite with the flows coming from the control gorge power plant and runs into Pleasant Valley Reservoir is referred to as the power plant section of the river or Birchim Canyon section. This section needs to be fished with caution as water levels can change instantly and without notice. When wading in this section of the Owens River fly fishers need to watch for increase in flows. At the slightest increase, fly fishers should immediately make their way to shore.

At low flows this is a great fishery for resident wild brown trout and migrant rainbows from Pleasant Valley Reservoir. From mid-winter to spring nymphs and dry flies will fool both the resident browns and the migratory rainbows. This is a great stretch of the Owens to practice Euro nymphing techniques. When the baetis are hatching, this is an awesome dry fly spot.

Pleasant Valley Reservoir

Rainbows from Pleasant Valley Reservoir migrate up the power plant section of the lower Owens River in winter searching for spawning gravels.

Rainbows from Pleasant Valley Reservoir migrate up the power plant section of the lower Owens River in winter searching for spawning gravels.

A dam at the bottom of the gorge floods the river channel for three miles forming Pleasant Valley Reservoir. The water levels will fluctuate from very low to extremely high throughout the year. When the levels are consistent the reservoir fly fishes just like Crowley Lake. Fishing midges under an indicator just off the substrate from a float tube is the most productive method. Mimic the large crayfish population with brown, orange or olive streamers or nymphs to attract trophy trout.

The reservoir has a big population of Sacramento perch. Float tubers casting streamers to the shallow rocky outcroppings from the boat ramp to the mouth of the Owens will have hours of fish-producing fun. With angling pressure at a minimum, June to August is the best time to fly fish for Sacramento perch. 

Wild Trout Section Special Regulation

This redwood sign on Chalk Bluff Road marks the lower boundary of the catch and release section.

This redwood sign on Chalk Bluff Road marks the lower boundary of the catch and release section.

Pleasant Valley Reservoir dam to the walking bridge at the lower end of Pleasant Valley campground is a two-fish limit with any method of take from January 1 to September 30. October 1 through December 31 only catch and release with artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks to protect fall spawning trout. The walking bridge at the lower end of Pleasant Valley campground to the redwood sport fishing regulation sign 3.3 miles east on Chalk Bluff Road is catch and release with barbless artificial lures and flies year-round. Downstream of the redwood sport fishing regulation sign is a five-fish limit any method of take year-round. This section is not stocked and does not have special regulations because the trout population is large enough to handle the fishing pressure.

For more information, visit the CDFW website.

Wild Trout Section of the lower Owens River

Wild brown trout are great adversaries for fly fishers in the wild trout section of the lower Owens River.

Wild brown trout are great adversaries for fly fishers in the wild trout section of the lower Owens River.

From Pleasant Valley Reservoir Dam to Five Bridges Road, 15 miles of river, is the wild trout section of the lower Owens River. In California, wild trout waters are managed through regulations to provide excellent fishing opportunities for wild trout. The wild trout section of the lower Owens River is managed as three sections with different regulations to offer the most fishing opportunities for anglers.

There is great fly fishing throughout the wild trout section with gates 1 and 2 in the catch and release section getting the most pressure. From Pleasant Valley Dam to Pleasant Valley Road, the river is primarily fished by locals and guides. Gates 3 to 10 in the catch and release section only get fishing pressure as overflow when gates 1 and 2 are crowded. Five Bridges to the redwood sport fishing regulation sign has the least fly-fishing pressure and offers solitary fly fishing opportunities.

Gates 1 and 2 are the two most popular fly-fishing gates on the lower Owens River.

Gates 1 and 2 are the two most popular fly-fishing gates on the lower Owens River.

The further downstream you fish from Pleasant Valley Reservoir Dam you will find less wild brown trout and more stocked rainbows. From Five Bridges to Highway 6 Bridge you will find good opportunities for wild brown trout with very little fly-fishing pressure. Below Highway 6 Bridge, brown trout are concentrated in small areas. CDFW stocks brooders in the Owens River around the bridges in mid-winter. 

Mid-January the fishing begins to pick up as mayflies, particularly BWOs, and midges hatch. These hatches are sporadic and nymphing is the successful way to fish the river. Mid-February sees an increase in insect activity and the trout start to feed on the surface with more consistency. By March caddis join the hatching activity. This insect activity continues into May with more caddis activity and less midges hatching. June is the peek month for aquatic insect’s hatches. Caddis and mayflies provide most of the summer insect activity, but there is a hatch of little yellow stoneflies that the wild trout feast on. 

A size 16 brown elk hair caddis on a drag free drift fooled this 12-inch wild brown trout.

A size 16 brown elk hair caddis on a drag free drift fooled this 12-inch wild brown trout.

The heat of summer, mid-June through mid-September, finds most anglers fishing the high country to avoid the heat. Late evenings in the summer on the lower Owens is prime time for caddis hatches. Once the sun slides behind the peaks of the Sierra, it’s time to be on the water with a caddis emerger or an adult caddis pattern. 

September to November is spawning brown trout time and the last of the mayfly and caddis fly hatches. December to mid-January is the slowest time of the year for the lower Owens River. While trout can be caught on nymphs, fly fishing is inconsistent, and fly fishers need to cover the water thoroughly with their fly patterns.

I live in Bishop and the lower Owens River from Five Bridges to the power plant is my home water. I’m on the lower Owens three to five days a week from September to May. Summers find me fishing the last hours of daylight chasing the caddis hatch.

Joe Pecsi holds a trophy cutthroat trout he caught while midge fishing in McGee Bay on Crowley Lake..

Joe Pecsi holds a trophy cutthroat trout he caught while midge fishing in McGee Bay on Crowley Lake..

Crowley Lake

Fly fishers looking for a trophy-sized trout will find it in the waters of Crowley Lake. Crowley Lake is home to rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout and Sacramento perch. Perch are great to eat and make awesome fish tacos. 

Trout will readily take midges emerging out of the muddy substrate of Crowley Lake. Indicator midge fishing is the standard method of fly fishing for the entire season, with June and July the best months. The fish are concentrated around cool water areas like springs, inlets and flooded river channels. Successful fly fishers are constantly changing their nymph patterns and the depth at which they suspend their midge pattern in the water column.

Fly fishing on Crowley Lake produce trophy brown trout like this one that fell for a tiger midge.

Fly fishing on Crowley Lake produce trophy brown trout like this one that fell for a tiger midge.

I guide Crowley Lake from float tubes. This is a very intimate method of fishing the lake. Fishing streamers and nymphs on sink tips and full sink lines is a great way to ply the waters of Crowley Lake during late summer and fall. Sacramento perch fry are concentrated in schools in and around the weed beds. A streamer pattern that imitates the perch fry trolled around the weed beds or cast to the holes in the weed beds is a productive method of fishing for these trophy trout. 

August 1 trophy trout regulations go into effect with barbless lures or flies, two trout 18 inches or bigger. This correlates with the lake getting stocked with sub catchable trout. August and September find the lake full of small to trophy trout willing to take a fly fishers offering. This is a great time to fish the lake if you’re looking for a lot of action with a chance to catch a trophy trout.

Trophy brown trout from Crowley Lake enter the upper Owens River in mid-September and continue to be available to fly fishers through November.

Trophy brown trout from Crowley Lake enter the upper Owens River in mid-September and continue to be available to fly fishers through November.

Crowley Lake Tributaries

Even though the Owens River is the main tributary to Crowley Lake, McGee Creek, Convict Creek, Hilton Creek, Whiskey Creek, and Crooked Creek are minor tributaries to Crowley Lake. These tributaries have spawning runs of trout from Crowley Lake. Convict Creek and McGee Creek get the most attention from fly fishers. The best times to pursue trophy trout in the tributaries is spring and fall. June to September is a great time to fish dry flies or a dry and a dropper rig. During the dog days of summer, the tributaries offer good fishing with hopper and stimulator dry flies for juvenile rainbows and browns. Wet wading can be a great way to cool off on a hot summer day. There are special regulations on the Crowley Lake tributaries and anglers should check the fishing regulations.

For more information, visit the CDFW website.

Rush Creek

This overlooked fishery offers wild brown trout to fly fishers plying the waters from Grant Lake to Mono Lake. Once home to trophy trout, this is a pan-sized wild brown trout fishery with some unpredictability. It can yield fish on every cast or you can work all day for just a few small browns.

Bishop Canals

New fly fisher Chelsea Kaplan holds a brown trout she took out of a canal in Bishop.

New fly fisher Chelsea Kaplan holds a brown trout she took out of a canal in Bishop.

There are a couple of canals that divert water from the Owens River to irrigate fields in the Owens Valley. These canals have bass, carp, Owens River suckers, wild brown trout and stocked rainbow trout in them. I use these waters for first-time fly fishers when other waters, particularly the lower Owens River, are blown out to fly fishing. With a lack of streamside vegetation easy access, and good populations of aquatic insects, this is a great spot for both beginners and experienced fly fishers. Evening caddis hatches, mid-day BWO hatches, and late summer hopper hatches make the canals a great learning water.

Warm Water Fly Fishing Opportunities

Bluegill are a great fly rod fish for beginners and experts alike, especially on three or four weight fly rod outfits.

Bluegill are a great fly rod fish for beginners and experts alike, especially on three or four weight fly rod outfits.

Although the Eastern Sierra is known for its pristine waters teaming with trout, there are several warm water fish that can be pursued on the fly as well. 

Alaska fly fishing guide Tyler Smith with a nice bass caught with a fly rod from the shores of Buckley Ponds.

Alaska fly fishing guide Tyler Smith with a nice bass caught with a fly rod from the shores of Buckley Ponds.

Sacramento perch are found in Crowley Lake, Pleasant Valley Reservoir and Bridgeport Reservoir. Sacramento perch like to take slowly fished streamers like wooly buggers right on the bottom of the lake. On light fly rods, these fish put up a great fight. This is one of the few fish species that I regularly keep for their table fare. They are a mild white meat fish that is good beer battered and makes for a great fish taco.

Mill Pond, Buckley Ponds, the canals, Tinemaha Reservoir, Billy Pond, and the lower Owens River project (LORP) are managed for warm water fish. Bass, blue gill and carp are the fish targeted by fly fishers. There are few if any fly fishers that solely pursue these species in the Eastern Sierra. 

Working top water bugs for bass is one of the best things I do with a fly rod each year. Chasing carp in shallow water is sight fishing at its finest. Known as the poor-man’s bonefish, carp are ghosts until you nearly step on them. It takes great eyes, careful stocking and a perfect cast to fool one of these ghosts of warm water fishing. Hook one of these fish and you will realize what successful carp fly fishers know. They are a handful and a great adversary on the fly rod. Known as the kid’s fish, bluegill offer nonstop action on dries and nymphs. Whether a big kid like me or not these are a fun fish to catch with a fly rod.

To fool a carp on a fly rod requires stealthy wading, accurate fly presentation and a little bit of luck.

To fool a carp on a fly rod requires stealthy wading, accurate fly presentation and a little bit of luck.