Trails To Glory

Trails To Glory

Owens Gorge, Northern California

  • By: Greg Vinci

Owens Gorge

Northern California

by Greg Vinci


Most fishermen traveling on Highway 395 north of Bishop, California, are headed to famous waters in the Mammoth area, such as Hot Creek, Crowley Lake and the upper Owens River. Few take time to explore other nearby opportunities, and I was a part of that lot until I finally chose to not get my ass handed to me at Hot Creek and, instead, hiked into the Owens River Gorge.

I’d passed on that option many times, probably because you have to hike 1,000 feet almost straight down into that arid desert canyon to reach the fish—browns that range between eight and 14 inches—and back out after a day on the water. Doing so brings the risk of cardiac arrest.

The Owens Gorge is the re-watered section of the original Owens River channel, which was diverted after the river was dammed in the early 1940s. It runs at a constant 45 cubic feet per second year-round, and its eight-mile length is loaded with wild trout that rarely see artificial flies.

I was staying with a friend in Bishop the first time we fished the Gorge. We’d driven just north of town, turned east for a mile, turned again down a short, dusty road and parked. I wadered up and walked about 20 yards to the edge of the gorge. Before us was a crevice that looked as if it had been formed by a giant knife carving into pyroclastic deposits. At the bottom snaked a ribbon of fluorescent green that contrasted sharply with the tan and gray prehistoric-looking spires of igneous rock that lord over the Owens. It looked like a scene from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World.

Once we reached the bottom we scrambled over boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles and fought our way through a jungle of nettles as tall as we were. The river was like a spring creek with no riffles, just a series of crystal-clear pools with abundant aquatic weeds waving in the current. Every once in a while we saw a nose poke out of the surface film and then disappear. I tied on an Elkhair Caddis and made a rollcast to the head of a pool. Conflicting currents caused the fly to drift without drag for a few feet, then skitter, then again float exactly the same speed as the current. And then it was eaten. We quickly learned that you only need a foot or two of dead drift here for a fish to take. For the rest of the morning, we climbed and crawled from pool to pool and took turns catching fish in each.

Around noon it was time to hike out before it got too hot, so we began the trek up to the rim. About three quarters of the way up, my legs felt like they were two burning logs; the 7,000-foot altitude was taking its toll. My walking deteriorated to 10 steps, then a rest, then 10 more steps and another rest. When we reached the rim and level ground, I could only walk in short bursts for the final 30 feet to my vehicle.

The Owens Gorge isn’t for everyone, but for those who are in good shape, this overlooked section of the river is one of the most interesting places to fish in California, and its browns are much easier to fool than those found on other area waters. And that makes the trek in and out worth it for me.

p>After The Grind

If the left side of your body hasn’t gone numb by the time you get out of the Gorge, you’ll be ready for a hamburger and a beer, and maybe some eye candy, all of which can be found at Tom’s Place Resort, just off Highway 395. The fly shops in Bishop and Mammoth Lakes provide specific information and maps on how to get into the gorge at four established access points.