Confessions of a Winter Angler

The seasons have changed and it is winter again. Most of my friends are unpacking their skis and snowboards from storage and praying for snow, myself included. But, I can’t wait for the snow to fall so I can find solitude in fishing.

Two years ago the California Department of Fish and Game opened waters east of Highway 395 to year-round fishing, for a trial period. The debate is ongoing. Fishing is restricted to catch and release (zero limit) with barbless hooks. In MonoCountythese waters include the Upper Owens (above the bridge), the East Walker and Hot Creek.

And, as with any change in legislation, not everyone agrees.

I love Hot Creek. Who doesn’t? But the winter fishing regulations are somewhat controversial and I feel a sort of guilty pleasure fishing the canyon in the winter months.

I love that everyone else has forgotten about fishing, so I can have the water to myself.

I love the steam rising from the geothermal vents sitting in the cold canyon like a heavy cloud.

I love the snow-capped mountains, brilliant against the crisp winter sky. The solitude of a snowed in canyon make Hot Creek idyllic.

Some anglers will tell you the water should be closed during winter months, so the fish have a chance to rest from the summer pressure and they are probably right. I just can’t help myself.

“Hot Creek needs a break, the East Walker is too low and access to the Owens is tough,” fishing guides say. “The Lower Owens is the BEST winter fishery we have!”

But Hot Creek is still my favorite.

The canyon has a certain energy that is mysterious and alluring. I imagine the Paiute Indians homesteaded the area. I picture them weaving baskets from the tall grasses, and whittling arrows from obsidian. The Indians probably soothed their muscles in the creek’s thermal water and slept next to a fire in the caves.

The Sierra Nevada are a magnificent backdrop for fly fishing and the wildlife surrounding Hot Creek is impressive; blue herons, deer, coyotes, mountain lions, great horned owls, bald eagles and hawks have been sighted in the canyon. There is a healthy population of trout; browns and rainbows feed on a nutritious food source.

The spring fed creek creates an abundant food source, making the water some of the most trout populated per mile. Millions of gallons of cold spring water bubble up from rock fissures created in a volcanic eruption millions of years ago. The springs create a constant source of water and it is a consistent temperature, creating a stable fishery; where most area waters rely on snow pack and can fluctuate with seasonal temperatures.

Reaching the fishable areas of the canyon is not easy in winter; I don’t recommend you go.

The hike is over a mile in snow. Don’t even think about fishing the ranch. It is private water and closed for the winter.

Skis or snowshoes are mandatory and the decent into the canyon can be dangerous with loose rock and steep grades. The bush-covered hills make skiing difficult, breaking through every few strides. The snow banks on the creek are often high. It is hard to release a fish, without pulling it out of the water.

My face and ears are always unbearably cold; hands so blue I can hardly tie a line – I hope I choose the right fly. A wet line easily freezes on a frosty day, making a less than graceful presentation on the water.

You need patience and a good drift. The fish are less active and the bugs small.

Many trips are without even a strike, but fishing isn’t always about the fish, right?

The hot water area is closed to swimming and the unstable ground makes hiking potentially dangerous. And beware of duck hunters.

Did I mention the bone-chilling, cold water and fierce and freezing winds?

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the February 2009 issue oThe Eastside Magazine.

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