California Fly Fishing 4 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Upper Owens River in California

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

July 6, 2020

Upper Owens River in California

The Upper Owens River may not be the perfect trout fishery, but it comes pretty darn close. Its waters are teeming with large rainbow and brown trout that are very well fed, thanks to the River’s thriving aquatic insect population.

Of course, this means that the trout can afford to be extremely selective about what they eat, so you will need to match the hatches closely to have success fishing this River.

As parts of the Upper Owens River flows through private land, you will want to be careful about which sections of the River you tackle.

Check out our guide so you can ensure you have a safe and successful angling experience.

About Upper Owens River

Fly Fishing the Upper Owens River

The Owens River is a 183 mile long river in Eastern California that drains into Owens Valley. In the early 20th century, the Owens River was a key part of the California Water Wars. The dispute between the city of Los Angeles and the residents of Owens Valley was over the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The valley residents ultimately lost the battle and since 1913, the River has been diverted to Los Angeles. This led to the ruin of the local Owens Valley economy, and the drying up of Owens Lake.

A long time goal of the California environmentalist community has been to restore Owens Lake to its former glory, and small strides have been made in this direction. In 2006, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began releasing water in the lower Owens River, which has since become an excellent fishery in its own right. 

The Upper Owens River refers to the section between Big Springs and Crowley Lake. Several tributaries feed this upper section, including Hilton Creek and one of the Sierra’s most famous waters, Hot Creek.

The Upper Owens River holds wild rainbow and brown trout, as well as native Cutthroat trout, and Kamloops trout.  The water in the River is clear, and there is considerable tree coverage. 

The River has plenty of aquatic and terrestrial insects for the trout to feast on, as well as crustaceans. The trout here typically measure about 12 inches, and can be very picky eaters.

Upper Owens River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access sites on the Upper Owens River in California

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Upper Owens River

The Upper Owens contains two sections with different characteristics. The the headwaters section is more of freestone stream and is easily accessible from Big Springs Campground.

You can fish from Big Springs for a mile downstream where the river tumbles through a small canyon.

Below the canyon, the Owens flattens out and meanders through Long Valley where it resembles a classic meandering Spring Creek.

You can access the River from Highway 395. Several local roads parallel the river and provide access at bridge crossings (see map). Several sections of the river run through private property but there’s still plenty of public access.

Best Time to Fish the Upper Owens River

You can technically fish the Upper Owens River year round, but there are different restrictions depending on when you visit. The best time to visit is in the summer, but you can also have success angling in the fall, as that is when the large brown trout spawn. It’s possible to catch trout in the winter on warmer days. In the spring, you can also yield good results as that is when the rainbow trout move upstream from Crowley Lake to spawn.

As for hatches, the Blue-winged Olives, begin in late February and run through May. You will see Little Black Caddisflies in March, which hatch until the middle of May when Green Sedges and Golden Stoneflies start to appear. Pale Morning Duns hatch from June to July.

From May to October, you’ll see Spotted Sedges, and you’ll start to see October Caddisflies in, obviously, October. You can have luck using terrestrials during the summer, as well as scuds and damselflies.

Fly Box – What You’ll Need

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for Upper Owens River:

  • Blue Winged Olive (#18 – 20)
  • Caddis (various) (#12 – 20)
  • Pale Morning Dun (#16 – 20)
  • Scud (#6 – 14)
  • Streamers (various) (#6 – 14)
  • Golden Stonefly (#6 – 10)
  • Little Yellow Stonefly (#10 – 12)
  • Olive Stonefly (#10 – 16)
  • Midges (#20 – 22)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on Upper Owens River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

The Upper Owens River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide an Upper Owens River fly fishing report are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of California requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available. You can purchase a one-year, 10-day, two-day, or one-day license. Some areas also require a permit. You can purchase the license and learn about the most current regulations through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Trip Planning Tips

The closest airport to Mammoth Lakes, California is Mammoth Yosemite Airport. You can also travel to Reno Tahoe International Airport, which is about 166 miles from Mammoth Lakes. You are guaranteed a scenic car journey no matter which airport you choose.

Twin Lakes Campground is an excellent choice if you are looking for accommodations in the area. The campground offers breathtaking scenery, as well as close proximity to the town of Mammoth Lakes’ amenities. Lake Mary Campground is another nearby option, and provides a great base camp for outdoor enthusiasts under beautiful towering pines. 

The trout in the Upper Owens River are no pushovers, but you can have success on this stream if you use the right imitations and technique.

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing California

Feature image by Eekster