A Wintry Doubleheader: Skiing and Fly Fishing near Mammoth Lakes

Jul 14, 2021


There are other mountain towns where you can ski and fly fish on the same day. But there aren’t many—if any—that can match both the powder of Mammoth Mountain and the variety of winter fishing options.

Sure, Mammoth does have the advantage of having one of the longest ski seasons in the country, usually running from the first days of November to the last days of June. Still, it’s during the short and blustery days of winter when the region really separates itself, at least for those of us who love to ski (or snowboard) and fish on the same day.

Chris Leonard is a fan of such wintry doubleheaders. Having called Mammoth Lakes home for over a decade now, he has enjoyed many such days. “It’s the most perfect day in the world for the Eastern Sierra,” he said.

Chris grew up La Cañada Flintridge fishing and snowboarding in the San Gabriel Mountains.  After college in Chico, including semesters abroad in Switzerland and Italy, Chris spent a couple years teaching for the Peace Corps in Romania. The experience changed him, as it does for so many.

So Chris, who speaks more than a handful of languages, decided that instead of trying to chase big bucks for a multinational company, he’d become a teacher. “I followed my heart,” he said, and his heart led him back to the mountains.

Chris moved to Mammoth to become a high school World History and Economics teacher, and in short time was asked to coach the high school ski team as well. Chris accepted the challenge, even though he wasn’t a skier. While Chris had been snowboarding for 15 years, including countless laps on Mount Waterman during his teenaged years, he hadn’t really skied.

“I learned to ski in Mammoth,” Chris said about his early days on two planks. “I got thrown into the fire immediately.”

Chris would spend the next eight years getting in 150 ski days each season, between coaching the high school and mighty mites programs. It was towards the end of his first ski season, though, that he got turned onto his next passion.

When the spring came around, Chris asked, “What’s next?” Fishing was the answer from many a local. Having fished the San Gabriels a lot as a kid, Chris enjoyed learning how to fish again. So much so that he practically lived on trout that summer.

The reignited passion for angling led Chris to start up a Fly Fishing Club for Mammoth High. The only problem was that Chris didn’t know how to fly fish. So he reached out to the local fly fishing community, and as is always the case in Mammoth, they stepped in to help out. The program was born and so were a bunch of new fly fishers, including Chris.

“I got the immediate, head-first dive into fly fishing,” he said about getting to spend time on the water with so many guides.

His affinity for the sport soon led to a summer job at a local fly shop, which eventually led the teacher and ski coach into guiding, something he’s been doing for Kittredge Sports for the better part of a decade now.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Chris went on to attend the prestigious Guide School at Clearwater Lodge, something he said, “really cleaned up my act.”

Chris now spends the summers guiding, the school year teaching, and winters coaching skiing.  He also does some writing for The Sheet as well. And while he loves them all, there isn’t much he enjoys more than a wintry doubleheader of skiing and fly fishing all in one day.

“It’s the perfect balance. You can hammer the powder in the morning and then you can hit the river and catch fish in the afternoon,” he said.

While Mammoth is certainly blessed with great snow, averaging 400 inches per year, it also offers great access to a variety of winter catch and release fishing options.

The legendary Blue Ribbon waters of Hot Creek are a mere 15-minute ride from town. Another 10 minutes longer and anglers can access the Upper Owens River. The East Walker is a couple hours away, but does give the angler the option to ski or board on June Mountain first.

Chris, however, is hooked on heading down towards Bishop and fishing the Lower Owens River after a morning on the mountain. The Wild Trout section is only about 45 minutes away from Mammoth, although it takes a bit longer than that to drive back up Sherwin Grade.

“I like getting out of the cold every once in a while,” he said. “It’s pretty nice to be standing in the water in the warm sunshine after a morning in the snow.”

A lot of things make the Eastern Sierra such a special and unique place. But what really separates the region is how large and expansive it is and how much it has to offer for mountain sports fans. The ability to easily to go from skiing at 11,000-feet to fishing as low as 4,000-feet on the same day is nothing shy of remarkable.

“I’ve been to 43 countries and have been to mountain ranges all over the world. The Eastern Sierra beats them all, hands down,” Chris said. “Skiing powder in the morning and catching wild trout in the afternoon. It’s crazy. There’s nothing better. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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