3 Perfect Days of Winter Fishing

Sep 02, 2022

While most of the visitors in the Eastern Sierra are hitting the slopes in the winter, you’ll be casting a line, hooking a trout, and laughing at the lack of crowds the entire time. A few years ago the California Department of Fish and Game changed the area winter fishing regulations, opening the Upper Owens River, East Walker River, and Hot Creek to year-round catch and release fishing with barbless hooks.

Your perfect three days of fishing are full of winter scenery and quiet water, but before you go there are a few things you might need to know about winter fishing. 

Winter Fishing Tips from A Local Expert

“There’s no need to get out there too early,” says Troutfitter fly fishing guide, Jon Carlton. “The warmest hours of the day are the best for fishing.”

The main bugs in winter are small midges and mayflies, and generally, the hatches are mid-morning to mid-afternoon, Carlton says. If the bugs aren’t coming off the water or the fish aren’t feeding, try fishing deeper holes with streamers.

You’ll want to stock your fly box zebra midges size 18-23, blue-winged olive patterns sizes 18-22, black and olive wooly buggers, egg patterns, and a variety of attractor nymphs, like pheasant tails, hares ears, copper johns, and prince nymphs.

Winter fishing can be cold for you and the fish.

“If it’s below freezing you it’s really important to keep the fish in the water,” Carlton says. “If you pull them out their gills will start to freeze.”

A good indicator to know when temps are dangerous for the fish is when your line is freezing. You’ll have to brave the cold water and get your hands in deep to release the fish underwater.

If you are having trouble casting because of a frozen line dip the tip in the water for a quick fix or treat the line with mucilin.

Where to Go Winter Fishing in Mammoth Lakes

Upper Owens River

Since you just arrived in Mammoth Lakes and the fish won’t start feeding until mid-morning, you’ll want a leisurely morning. Swing by the Breakfast Club for a hot and hearty breakfast, and grab a fresh baked muffin to go for a late morning snack. The Troutfitter is conveniently next door, so you pop in and pick up any winter fishing supplies that you might need.

Once you are fueled up and have all the supplies you need, you’ll head out to the Upper Owens River. The river is the main watershed in the Eastern Sierra and is fed by spring creeks and snowmelt. Many tributaries to the river are in the upper elevations of the High Sierra.

Here in Mammoth Lakes, the Owens River is known for its grassy shores, abundance of oxbows, and unparalleled mountain views. You’ll be casting a line with Mammoth Mountain as a backdrop, hooking a brown or rainbow trout while the rest of the region’s visitors are carving turns at the ski area.

It’s a popular spot in the summer, but winter is typically uncrowded and anyone who you see will most likely be enjoying the solitude as much as you are.

From November 16 through the Friday preceding the last Saturday in April, the Owens is open for catch and release fishing upstream from the Benton Bridge. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks are permitted.

Depending on the snow level you may be able to drive to a number of parking areas to access the water. If you see a car parked, keep going to the next turnout because you will likely find a zone all to yourself. When the snow is deep or if you don’t have an off-road vehicle, the first parking area next to the turnoff from the paved road will be a good place to start.

Enjoy the mid-morning and early afternoon hatch and when the bugs stop coming off the water, switch to streamers and try the deeper holes. The sun sets early in the winter and you’ll want to be off the water before dark, so it’s never too early to head back to town and tell some fish stories at your favorite watering hole.

Hot Creek

Since the hatch won’t come off until later in the day, you might as well explore Mammoth Lakes in the morning. Grab a breakfast sandwich at Old New York Deli and Bagel and ride the Village Gondola to Canyon Lodge. If you are a skier or snowboarder you’ll have a couple of hours in the morning to sneak in a few laps on fresh groomers, or just ride the gondola back down for a scenic loop viewing town from above.

Once the day starts to warm up head to Hot Creek to cast a line on one of the most scenic streams in the region. The spring creek is known for having more trout per square foot than any other water in California. Because of the abundance of bug life, the browns and rainbows grow to healthy sizes.

Hot Creek is open to catch and release fishing from the State Hatchery property line to the confluence of the Owens River with artificial flies and barbless hooks. You’ll see bald eagles, blue herring, and hawks soaring above the canyon and deer crossing the creek. The thermal water fills the canyon with steam in the winter offering an unreal and dramatic backdrop for winter fishing.

Depending on the snowpack in the valley, you may be able to drive to the main parking lot, however, the road is not snow plowed in the winter and a deep snowpack can close the road where the pavement turns to dirt near Hot Creek Ranch. The fishing is well worth the hike into the canyon, so don’t let a few miles of walking stop you. Do some research on road conditions before heading to the creek.

Since the canyon walls block much of the sun during winter, the middle hours of the day are best for fishing. If you arrive before the hatch or want to explore once the fishing slows down, Hot Creek Trail is one of the most scenic places to hike in the winter. Take a stroll and enjoy the canyon.

Lower Owens River

The Lower Owens is arguably the best winter fishery in the Eastern Sierra. The lower elevation water is warmer so the fish will be more active and there is more water flowing. Before you get on the Highway to drive to the Lower Owens, fuel up for your adventure at a local breakfast spot.Then drive south on Highway 395 towards Bishop to fish the Lower Owens River. The drive is a little further, but the good news is you’ll most likely be enjoying the warmth and sunshine of the lower elevations while the temperatures are colder in Mammoth Lakes.

The Owens River flows south from the outlet of Crowley Lake through the Owens River Gorge and to the Pleasant Valley Reservoir. The Lower Owens from Pleasant Valley Dam downstream to the footbridge at the lower end of Pleasant Valley Campground is catch and release only with artificial lures and barbless hooks only from October 1 through December 31. From January 1 through September 30 this section has daily bag and possession limit: 2.

From the footbridge, at the lower end of Pleasant Valley Campground east (downstream), 3.3 miles along Chalk Bluffs Road to the redwood sport fishing regulations sign is open year-round. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used.

You’ll find a longer window of fishing because of the warmer temperatures and sun exposure. When the hatch slows down and the fish stop feeding, head to the Burger Barn in Bishop to feed yourself. Locally sourced ingredients make some of the best burgers you’ll ever taste.

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Monica Prelle

Monica Prelle is an outdoors, wine, and travel writer who would rather be running, climbing, or mountain biking. See more of Monica's posts here, read more of her work at monicaprelle.com and connect on twitter @monicaprelle

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