Voices from the river

Fishing in the abyss

California’s Owens River offers prettier sections. There are certainly reaches of this stream where an angler can find larger trout. There are many places on this river where you will not hear and feel electric diodes buzzing like murder wasps in the background.

In fact, fishing the deep, dark-walled gorge this river carved over millennia through the high desert between Lake Crowley and the town of Bishop feels somewhat akin to wetting a line on the River Styx.

Go anyway. The fine, sporty brown trout found here, slivers of perfect form, with hues like sunsets and spots like anagrams, are worth the descent. The fact that you will likely have several miles of this stream to yourself smack dab in the middle of eastern Sierra fishing congestion is just a bonus.

I collected this bonus over the Thanksgiving holiday, after a day of getting spanked by my progeny climbing the cliffs of volcanic rock that loom like beetling brows over the lower Owens. On Day Two, the younger, fitter set sought a more challenging but quicker way into the gorge, while I, thinking only of the welfare of my border collie, again ambled down the paved utility road built, maintained and used by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Beginning the descent into the abyss.
Photo: Tom Heinbockel.

A 20-minute stroll down this sinuous road puts one next to the river. Mid-morning, at this time of year, the sun lingers just long enough on this reach that you might feel your fingertips while rigging up. You peek over the edge of the road into agreeably green water, swirling around boulders and sliding under the occasional grassy bank.

Then, should you have foregone waders, as I did, in favor of lighter apparel and socially distancing your body parts from the gelid stream, you notice the stinging nettles now affixed to your legs like tiny tasers, and the catclaw shrubs stationed wherever you might clamber down to the water.

From the point where the access road converges with the river and follows it upstream, much of the fishing is around remnants of old LADWP structures. Downstream, you’ll find less concrete—and more difficult scrambling and wading.

I sensibly stuck to the road. The nettles stuck to me.

The hardworking Owens River provides the greater Los Angeles metro are with one-third of its water supply (watch the fictional account of how this came to be in the Oscar-winning film, Chinatown). But for four decades, before the water got anywhere close to LA, LADWP—which owns the rights to almost all of the water in the Owens Valley—diverted all of the river just upstream of the gorge to generate hydropower, killing the trophy trout stream there.

A leak in LADWP’s plumbing rewetted the gorge in 1991, prompting local officials and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to renew a longstanding petition for permanent flows through this section.

View downstream from the access road, Owens River Gorge.
Photo: Tom Heinbockel.

In 1994 the warring parties struck an agreement, and water flowed, albeit inconsistently, through the gorge again. Brown trout were restocked here, and quickly took up residence. So did a number of bird species. Withered cottonwoods revived. Grass grew where the rough volcanic rock relented into soil.

I suspect the nettles and catclaw never left.

The gorge is not the only section of the Owens River that folks have tried to protect or restore. For many years conservationists sought to prevent new mining and other development in its headwaters. In 2006, Trout Unlimited began organizing sportsmen and women to support this effort by advocating for Wild and Scenic River designation for deserving reaches.

In 2009, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act delivered just such protections. This legislation also permanently protected the headwaters of the West Walker River and portions of other Eastern Sierra trout waters. These happy conservation outcomes are highlighted in Trout Unlimited’s new report, Legacy of Protection. You can learn more about TU’s habitat and water source protection work along the Eastern Sierra here.

Today, there is always flow in the Owens River Gorge. Rarely and begrudgingly, LADWP even releases flushing flows. Signs warn you of this possibility. But mostly you will find fishing-friendly conditions.

Two days after Thanksgiving, I trudged along the utility road, trying to stay in the sun and eyeing riffles and deeper lies. Trout rose and sank in slots. I skirted the edge of a concrete slab and flipped several types of dry flies to finning shadows.

An Owens River Gorge brown trout.
Photo courtesy Fred Rowe/Sierra Bright Dot Guide Service.

They treated my offerings with contempt.

I switched to a small mayfly nymph with a zebra midge trailer and began tightlining. These offerings were treated far more amicably.

If you want to connect with some of the Owens River’s renowned trophy browns, I’d skip the gorge. There may be a few lurking in there. But you’ll probably coax only their 6 to 10-inch brethren to take a fly.

Go anyway. You’ll emerge from the Stygian depths at the end of the day literally breathless, as much from the immodest markings of the gorge’s trout as from the uphill slog back to your car.

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