Conejo Valley Fly Fishers

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Hot Creek Ranch – Fly Fishing the Old Fashioned Way

by Bill Becher

If you go to Hot Creek Ranch, a private fly fishing ranch in Mammoth, California, leave the Powerbait behind.  Only catch-and-release traditional dry fly fishing is allowed.  Hot Creek Ranch’s “river keeper” and guide Bill Nichols says he doesn’t have much problem with guests cheating and fishing a streamer or a nymph, or, gasp, worms. “I just shoot them, and leave the bodies as a warning to other guests.” 

When club member Jimmy Toy and I spent a few days at the close of the season fishing the Ranch we didn’t have to step over any corpses, and we did experience some terrific fishing. Despite, or probably because of, the unique gear restrictions at Hot Creek Ranch, next year’s season is already ninety percent booked. According to Manager Diane Nichols most are repeat customers, “Some families have been coming to the Ranch for forty years, they’ve practically raised their kids here.”

This was my second trip to the Ranch. Earlier in my fly fishing career I’d fished with Bob Brooks, the previous river keeper who introduced me to trout stalking. The fish at Hot Creek Ranch are spookier than the fish at the public sections of the creek, where they are used to hordes of anglers walking by. To catch fish at the Ranch it helps to sneak up on them, walking quietly and keeping low to the ground, Brooks explained.

He also showed me the different types of bugs the trout eat at the Hot Creek. Grabbing a caddis fly, he said that the fish preferred them to the mayflies, because they tasted better. “You try it, you’ll see,” he said handing me the wriggling insect.  Being a greenhorn I ate the bug. It was pretty tasteless to me, kind of dry and gritty, with only a slight nutty flavor.   “Hey, I was just kidding,” Brooks said. I suspect he gets a lot of mileage now when he shoots the bull with other guides, telling the story about the time he got a client to eat a bug.

It’s hard to define what makes Hot Creek Ranch special.  Not just the challenge of fishing with tiny dry flies and long, thin leaders to fool the fish.  Perhaps it is fishing for potential trophy-size rainbow and brown trout, while the steam rises from the geothermal vents on a frosty early morning.  Or, when checking your back cast in the evening, you are startled by a herd of deer behind you drinking from the creek and munching on duckweed.  At the Ranch you can compare fishing techniques with a blue heron, which stalks his prey, spears them with his beak, then swallows them whole and still wriggling. Talk about fresh sushi!  The views of 11,546-foot Mammoth Mountain, lightly dusted with an early snowfall provide a perfect backdrop to a day’s fishing.

There are large fish in Hot Creek; six to ten pound brown trout have been spotted. But the primary catch is wild rainbows and browns from ten to twenty inches.  The trout feed selectively. While we were fishing a hatch of Baetis mayflies appeared at about ten am.  At other times the trout feed on Caddis, Tricos, and Pale Morning Duns.  The first full day of fishing, Jimmy Toy landed twenty-five fish up to about sixteen inches.  The second day he landed fewer, but even better fish to about eighteen inches, including some browns that were lurking along the undercut riverbanks.  They were beautiful, healthy fish in brilliant fall colors.

A trip to Hot Creek Ranch is advertised as being like a “traditional English dry fly chalk stream fishing.”. Millions of gallons of clear, cold, water spew from a fissures in the  lava rock created millions of years ago. The creek meanders through a meadow and gorge before flowing into the Owens River and then into Crowley Lake.  Eventually some of the water finds its way to Los Angeles faucets via the aqueduct system. A combination of eleven different springs feed the creek that flows through the Hot Creek Ranch. Geothermal activity heats the water, and the result is ideal in terms of mineral content and temperature for growing large, healthy trout.

The Ranch has a lot of history. In the early days, the land was a favorite summer home to the Paiute Indians who wandered the banks of the spring creek collecting seeds and herbs for their medicines and teas. The Paiutes wove tall wild grasses into baskets and collected obsidian rocks from the nearby mountains to shape into arrowheads.

A family that included direct descendants from these Paiute Indians homesteaded the valley in the middle to late 1800’s.  A small log cabin in the center of the ranch compound is still referred to as the Tom Poole cabin. When the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power was buying up most of the land in the area for its water exportation projects, Poole said, "No way," and the ranch stayed in private hands.  In the 1950’s Phil Pister, a young Department of Fish and Game biologist, suggested that the Hot Creek Ranch might try an experiment and restrict fishing to dry fly only. This rule was adopted and has applied ever since. Subsequent owner Ray Bateman built the nine house-keeping cabins that are rented to fishermen and their friends and family.  Cattle grazing on the ranch was stopped when it was found that the cattle were breaking down the river banks and spoiling the spawning areas.

Today the emphasis on pure dry fly fishing and conservation remains. You still need the patience to wait for rising fish and a good imitation of the right bug.  The ability to make a good cast and get a drag-free drift, with a quick hook-set are vital to dry fly fishing success at Hot Creek Ranch.  If you accomplish all this you will be rewarded with lots of old-fashioned fun.  And you don’t have to eat the bugs.


The Hot Creek Ranch is located in the Eastern Sierras just east of the of Mammoth Lakes, and north of the Mammoth Lakes airport, immediately downstream from the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery, about 35 miles north of the city of Bishop, and 8 miles east of the town of Mammoth Lakes at an altitude of 7,050 feet. Highway 395 is the main route north from Los Angeles. The Ranch is located east of Highway 395 on Hot Creek Hatchery Road (the same road that goes to the airport and the public access fishing).

Mailing address is Hot Creek Ranch Route 1 Box 206 Mammoth Lakes, California 93546 Phone: (888) 695-0774 or 760-924-5637. The  website has fishing reports and information about cabin availability. Some local guides, including Gary Hooper of Rick’s Sports Center 760-934-3416 and Tom April or Eastside Guide Service (760) 934-2517 guide clients who are staying at the Ranch. Rates for 2001 are: Monday through Thursday - $150.00/ Per Night, two people, with a minimum 2-night stay. Weekend rate is $480.00 two people for the minimum Friday to Monday stay.

A four-weight fly rod equipped with floating line and a long (12 to 16 foot) leader tapering to a 6X or 7X three-foot tippet is the weapon of choice.  Full waders are not needed as wading the river is not allowed, but a pair of wading boots and hippers will keep you dry crossing some of the marshy spots. There is a small tackle shop at the Ranch were you can stock up on some of the tiny dry flies developed over the years to fool the discerning Hot Creek trout.

The Hot Creek fishery is a barbless fly only catch and release fishery with a zero limit. The Hot Creek Ranch private waters are the same with a dry-fly-only restriction. The Ranch and other waters are open during the last Saturday in April to- October 31st. A California fishing license is required to fish  the Ranch.




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