A Sierra Sojourn

A Sierra Sojourn

A guide to fishing--and saving--California's San Joaquin and Owens rivers

  • By: Michael Ekwall
  • and Lara Ekwall
Editor's Note: Lara and Michael Ekwall are a thirty-something couple who, in addition to being passionate fly fishers, own and operate a Palo Alto, California, restaurant and bar. They consider their home waters to be just about any stream that runs through the beautiful eastern Sierra-a region that has come under intense environmental pressure during the past 10 years or so. Early last year, the Ekwalls decided that it was no longer enough simply to enjoy fishing in the Sierra; they wanted to help preserve these beleaguered mountain rivers and the trout that inhabit them.To that end they began holding fundraising events, and also conducting some brazen acts of panhandling-efforts that netted $7,000 for conservation group California Trout's vital work in the Sierra. FR&R donated $1,000 of that $7,000 and, by way of thanks, the couple wrote this brief angling guide to two of their favorite Sierra streams-the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin and the Owens River-exclusively for FR&R readers. Of course, the Ekwalls have also spent a great deal of time fishing Hot Creek, the most famous of the Sierra trout streams. For further information on Hot Creek, including the environmental challenges currently facing it, see the feature article in FR&R's July/October 2004 issue. -Ed. The eastern Sierra Nevada in California has been our favorite destination since we began fishing it in the 1990's. We consider the rivers within this region of dramatic peaks and high desert to be our home waters. Unfortunately, this area of high desert is under tremendous pressure. Finding a balance between development and conservation is in everyone's interest. The issues have become so serious that late in 2003, California Trout decided to open an office in Mammoth Lakes and become more involved in defending the area's water resources. It was our decision to help them if possible; we just did not know where or how to start. It was obvious that we could contribute money as necessary, but we felt also we could do more. It's ironic that our involvement has led us to promote a place we are trying to protect. However, the more people come to appreciate the beauty of the Sierra and its streams, the more allies we and other conservationists will have. So please do visit the Sierra; we're sure you'll agree it's a very special fly-fishing environment. And when you come here, please be smart and properly sanitize your boots and gear to protect against spreading the New Zealand mud snail (see sidebar). Remember also to practice water conservation wherever you go. Don't assume you are the exception to the rule; everyone's presence has an impact on such a fragile place as this. Middle Fork of the San Joaquin The best time to fish the middle fork of the San Joaquin is shortly after spring runoff. In most years, the road into the valley opens during the middle of June. As we make the trek into the Devil's Postpile National Monument, just outside of Mammoth, we cross our fingers that at least one campsite will be available. General access into the park is limited to campers only. Day-use visitors to the Postpile must either take the shuttle from the Mammoth Ski Resort or arrive before 7:30 am. The effects of limited automobile access on the fishing are amazing and also impose a great sense of calmness on the park's environment. Fortunately, our favorite of the nine campgrounds, Agnew Meadows, is rumored to be infested with mosquitoes for the majority of the summer, and most campers use it only as a last resort. Agnew Meadows is the closest campground to the River Trail, which follows the San Joaquin for miles and takes us far from the concentrations of people who hang downriver. Following the trail into the Ansel Adams Wilderness for an hour or so takes you into real wild trout territory. The hike in is always easier than the hike out, so don't forget to bring lots of water or a good filter. We prefer using 3-weight rods, and the fish, while small, will hit almost any dry fly with reckless abandon. It is not uncommon to land a rainbow, brown, brookie and golden-rainbow hybrid in a single day-although it's not likely that any of them will be more than seven or eight inches long. Such unspoiled areas make you take note of the trampled stream banks, the empty beer cans and the foam bait containers found in the stocked sections around the campgrounds downstream and on other unregulated waters. The San Joaquin reminds us of how beautiful protected waters can be. The river is conducive to wet wading and lots of casting. On most sections we can fish side by side without too many line tangles, and it is not uncommon to catch fish on successive casts. This river is a great place for a beginner fly fisher. Matching the hatch is not as important here as on the other streams and spring creeks in the area. For the most part, an attractor fly drifted without too much drag will produce fine results and plenty of fish. A fish of 12 inches is a monster, but a 20-fish day is not uncommon. The Owens River The Upper Owens begins at Big Springs Campground, about 10 miles north of Mammoth. It is produced by the amalgam of Deadman's Creek and Big Springs. The underground source at Big Springs produces about 16,000 gallons of water per minute, significantly contributing to the volume of the river. There is a short public section with some great fishing before it traverses three private ranches in Long Valley on its way to Crowley Lake. After Crowley, the Upper Owens becomes a tailwater that runs through the Owens River Gorge into Pleasant Valley Lake. Below Pleasant Valley, it becomes the Lower Owens River. A recent addition to our regular Upper Owens haunts is the Alpers' Owens River Ranch, located just below the public section of Big Springs. It is a private operation that has been in the Alpers family since the early 1900's. Two miles of the Upper Owens River flows through the ranch. In addition to the main river, they maintain Alpers' Creek, a man-made stream intended for those who want to catch and keep a few trout for a sunset barbeque. Alpers rainbow trout are renowned throughout the region for color, size, fight and flavor. Many of these vegetarian-raised hatchery trout are distributed by the ranch's owner, Tim Alpers, throughout the eastern Sierra for stocking in public fishing areas. Angling on the Upper Owens is awesome. The upper portion of the ranch-the "alpine section" of the river-is crystal clear and swift moving. The trout often are not particular; at times, a buoyant attractor fly is all that is needed to tempt the trout to the surface. Alternatively, a dry with a Copper John or similar dropper in size 18 can prove successful. There is ample riparian vegetation which can sometimes make casting a challenge. On the bright side, it also provides excellent cover and habitat for the river's resident browns and rainbows. The water remains extremely clear as it enters the lower meadow section with its numerous oxbows. The river widens a bit and the streamside vegetation is not as abundant. Casting becomes less of a challenge and fishing the cut banks with streamers and terrestrials can produce several fish in the "trophy" category. The hatches on the Upper Owens are similar to those of Hot Creek: PMD's, Baetis and caddisflies are prolific throughout the year. Late morning can provide excellent hatches and surface action, but often emergers are the pattern of the day. During the warm summer months, beetles or hoppers falling from the grass often elicit aggressive strikes from large trout along the banks. High desert winds almost always kick up around lunchtime, so a 5-weight is probably the best option unless you are casting to some of the monster trout on Alpers' float-tube-only lake. If that's the case, you may need a 2x4, as landing fish over 10 pounds is not uncommon. For several miles below the Alpers ranch the Upper Owens is in private hands. Public access begins again on Los Angeles Water and Power property below the ranches and continuing to Crowley Lake. Decades ago, the surrounding property and water rights were purchased to provide a steady source of water for the Los Angeles. An interesting account of California's water-use issues is written by Marc Reisner, in his book Cadillac Desert: The American West and It's Disappearing Water. The public water here is accessible, and again in a meandering, wind-swept meadow. Fishing can be great, but the water clarity is nowhere near as good as in the upper reaches of the river. Both rainbows and browns are present throughout. There are two key challenges facing the Owens. One is the New Zealand mud snail. The other is the water diversion and well drilling in the region. Currently, a bill is pending in the United States Senate: THE CALIFORNIA WILD HERITAGE ACT OF 2003 (S.1555) originally proposed by Senator Barbara Boxer in 2002. Regardless of your political camp, with this one the senator is right on. Unfortunately, the bill is going nowhere and is in need of modification to gain wider acceptance. The bill proposes to set aside the threatened areas of the Upper Owens watershed and incorporate it into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. If the bill were to be enacted, this precious stream would be protected forever. Controlling Mud Snails Preliminary results from a study conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game, in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, indicate that a 50-percent solution of the all-purpose household cleaner, Formula 409, will kill mud snails on fishing gear within five minutes. This is good news, particularly to anglers in the West, where mud snails have been found in almost every state since they were first detected in Idaho in 1987. Although barely larger than a grain of sand, mud snails rapidly reproduce and can reach densities of up to 500,000 per square yard. In such high numbers the mud snails are a huge drain on a river's ecosystem and out-compete aquatic insects (which are the main food source for trout) for nutrients. When the native bugs starve and die off, trout are not far behind, and the fish population plummets. Anglers who fish in mud-snail-contaminated rivers should disinfect their gear before traveling to another body of water in order to halt the spread of this invasive species. The recent lab tests suggest anglers completely submerge their gear for at least five minutes, then rinse it with fresh water. This treatment will kill 100 percent of the mud snails present and appears to cause no damage to the gear. The results of the study are currently undergoing scientific and legal review, so expect to hear more about this in the coming months. In all likelihood, bottles of Formula 409 will be a common item in the backseats of anglers' cars throughout the West before too long. For more information about Alpers' Owens River Ranch, call 760-648-7334.