California's Hot Creek

California's Hot Creek

Fly-fishing America's only 'dryfly only' stream

  • By: Paul Guernsey
Will Trefry and I are creeping on our hands and knees along spring-fed Hot Creek, just outside the skiing town of Mammoth Lakes in California's eastern Sierra. Snow-shawled mountains overlook the high desert that surrounds us, the water is flowing low, clear and cold-and Will has to keep reminding me to keep my hands out of the stinging nettles, which grow in abundance at the edge of the stream. Of course, I end up learning the hard way about these small, deceptively harmless-looking plants, and it isn't long before my hands are itching and burning enough to almost distract me from the fishing.Although there is no visible hatch occurring, our rods are nonetheless rigged with barbless dry flies, and that's the way they'll remain for the duration of our stay at Hot Creek Ranch. The two private miles of Hot Creek that flow through Ranch property have been dry-fly-only water since the early 1950's. On some traditional dryfly streams-the English chalkstreams, for instance, which are some of the most exclusive rivers in the world-anglers are often allowed to use nymphs during certain times of the year. Not so on Hot Creek, however; when the management say "dryfly only," they mean no exceptions, ever, for anybody. Any time you're fishing a spring creek, it's good to have someone along who knows the place intimately. But this is especially true when both custom and rule severely restrict your choice of flies. Fortunately for me, Will has been fishing Hot Creek for 30 years, and earlier, when he suggested that I start out by tying on a small caddis emerger I'd recently purchased from the Hot Creek Ranch's fly shop, I gratefully complied. Now, when we find a stretch of stream where we see an occasional, sporadic rise, we're as ready as we can be to play this challenging, patience-demanding Hot Creek game. Crawling carefully and quietly along the stream, avoiding the nettles-or failing to avoid them-we cover each rise we see, and when the rising fish does not return, we cover every inch of water in the immediate vicinity, then follow up with somewhat less hopeful casts to neighboring zip codes. With no obvious hatch and not much rising, this is stealthy, cold-blooded, law-of-averages fishing, fishing made up almost entirely of waiting patiently for the moment when luck and a good cast converge, and it does pay off. Before our first evening ends, Will catches a couple of small but colorful rainbows, and I land a brown of about 12 inches that seems to have been eating very well. Will and I and our two companions on this trip, Ralph Little and my friend, Jeff Pill, also eat well that evening. Back at the Ranch, in the kitchen of our roomy and comfortable cabin, Will prepares a fine roast with potatoes. I help out by throwing together a salad, and then, as we wait for supper to cook, we open numerous bottles of California wine. I'm more of a beer drinker myself-but we are on a dryfly-only spring creek, and I am willing to concede that the beverage should match the setting. In addition, my three companions, all southern Californians, are well versed in their vintages, and it would be a shame not to learn at least a little bit of wine lore from them, especially since Ralph has brought a generous supply of samples with him. Below Hot Creek Ranch, just before you reach the hot springs that give the creek its name, there is a stretch of public water that is the most heavily fished mile of stream in the State of California. There is also a shorter public stretch upstream of the ranch, just below a state-operated hatchery. The dryfly rule is in effect only on the private stretch; if you feel like doing some nymphing, you've only got do take a short drive up- or downstream. Both the Ranch and the public sections are beloved by the fly fishermen of California, especially the fly fishermen of southern California, including Los Angeles and its surroundings. While trout anglers in the northern part of the state enjoy a broad array of choices whenever they want to go fishing, Angelinos have about two: fly somewhere to fish, or drive the five or six hours that will take them to the Eastern Sierra and Hot Creek, or one of the other Sierra streams such as the upper Owens River. Surprising numbers of them are more than willing to make that long commute. And for decades, Hot Creek has rewarded the investment of anglers' time and affection with abundant hatches of Tricos, Baetis, Pale Morning Duns and caddis, as well as plenty of challenging fish. As recently as the mid 1990's, there were as many as 10,000 trout per mile in the stream, most of them rainbows. Since then, unfortunately, the health of the stream has declined measurably. Fish counts are down to around 4,000 fish per mile-which still sounds fantastic until you remember what the stream produced only a few years ago. Water temperatures have been climbing, brown trout have been replacing the more temperature-sensitive rainbows, the average size of fish caught in Hot Creek has gone down, and one important insect-the PMD-has all but disappeared from the stream. According to Will Trefry, vice-chairman of the conservation group California Trout, and Hot Creek Ranch manager Bill Nichols, the cause of the this decline has not been hard to pinpoint. In 1996, the Town of Mammoth Lakes increased the amount of water it draws from Mammoth Creek, Hot Creek's main tributary. In short order, the reduced flows resulted in siltation that smothered gravel beds needed for fish and insect reproduction-the probable cause of the PMD's demise-as well as warmer water temperatures that endangered fish and encouraged the growth of aquatic weeds that previously had not been a problem. But that's not the end of the story. Mammoth Lakes, in conjunction with Intrawest Corporation, a Canadian ski-area developer, has further ambitious plans for the town and its surrounding area that will demand even more water from Mammoth Creek. In addition, large-scale well-drilling planned for the area is expected to seriously affect the upper Owens River, another favorite destination for California anglers. In short, Hot Creek is a cherished angling resource imperiled by the future water needs of of an Aspen-like ski-resort development. Will Trefry told me, "Hot Creek is in danger of ceasing to exist as a prime blue ribbon trout stream." In fact, one of the main reasons he invited me to fish with him here was so that I could see this wonderful fishery, and understand what a tragedy its loss would be to all the fly fishers of California. As a sign of Cal Trout's concern about "the Mammoth water grab," and other threats to fragile Sierra fly-fishing resources, the organization opened open a new satellite office in Mammoth Lakes last June. Bill Nichols, who is 65 years old and who first fished Hot Creek as a child, said that the ultimate goal of eastern Sierra anglers and conservationists is to roll back Mammoth Creek water withdrawals to pre-1996 levels. Nichols says simply, "I love this stream and I want it to survive." The wind is not our friend. The wind blows for the following two days, suppressing insect hatches, making the flag at Hot Creek Ranch stand out stiff, and making casters feel foolish. We seek places along the stream that provide at least a small amount of shelter, and then we make a major project of each fish we spot. With educated fish such as the ones in Hot Creek, it is crucial that they see the fly before they see the leader, so we end up doing a lot of downstream bounce-casting-casting directly down at the fish from an upstream position, but stopping short on the forward cast so that the line recoils and falls to the water with plenty of slack a few feet above the trout. Sometimes it works. Finally, in the mid-afternoon, a caddis hatch starts to come off, and in a few sets of riffles along the creek, the fish become positively reckless. I'm able to stand up to cast to them, and actually catch a few of them. My biggest fish for these three days of difficult angling is a rainbow of about 14 inches; Will gets a couple of around 15 inches-a nice size even though the fish in Hot Creek do grow larger-and I'm lucky enough to be around when he lands one of them. Will releases the fish following a brief photo session, and then he surprises me by just quitting for a while. He sits on the bank, looks around at the surrounding desert and mountains, and talks about his decades of fishing in the Eastern Sierra streams he loves so much. For a minute or two, I'm nothing but anxious to get back to my own fishing, to my own quest for a 15-inch spring creek trout. But then I think, Will's right; there should be a pause after a good fish is caught. The fish, and the place, deserve at least that much. I'm able to relax and talk, at least for a time. Finally, though, I must get up and go crawl the bank in search of a fish. This dryfly-only thing has gotten under my skin in a big way. It's a challenge that I've very much enjoyed during my three days there, and one that I won't experience again unless I either come back to Hot Creek, or impose it upon myself somewhere else-an unlikely proposition, given my general lack of willpower. Some anglers have told me they consider it snobbery to maintain a dryfly-only rule on this stretch of California creek. Maybe it is-but I would say it's no more so than a fly-fishing-only rule on any other stretch of stream. In both cases, they are artificial limitations that have been imposed in order to heighten and complicate the challenge faced by anglers. Not only did I adjust to it quickly, but I learned to enjoy it. In addition, Hot Creeks' dryfly only fans argue convincingly that the rule helps keep the fish healthy by giving them a break from the intense angling pressure. Toward the end of our final day, Will and I climb one of the bluffs above the creek to search for arrow points among thousands of shards of obsidian-black volcanic glass-left by the generations of Paiute Indians who camped here. These people apparently had patience to put even the most stealthy and deliberate of spring creek anglers to shame. They carried the prized rock from a nearby deposit, then sat on this high ground, making tools while at the same time looking out over the stream to watch for game animals, and also for danger. For information on fishing at Hot Creek Ranch, contact Bill Nichols at 888-695-0774; inquiry@hotcreekranch.com or view the Ranch Web site at www.hotcreekranch.com. For information on California Trout and its campaign to protect trout streams in the Eastern Sierra, contact the organization at 415-392-8887; www.caltrout.org.