Upper Owens River: where there’s never a trout shortage

WE GOT THIS – On the Upper Owens River, WON Staff Editor Mike Stevens handed his wife, Katie, a rod rigged with a Berkley Pinched Crawler on a mosquito hook and a split shot and said, “hang on to this, I’ll be right back” before rigging some other kids up. Katie went ahead and made a cast, and seconds later she was laughing with Dillon as he wound in his prize.

WON On-the-Spot

MAMMOTH LAKES – With friends already posted up in the Eastern Sierra, I shot up 395 to pile on for the final few days of a three-family RV-camping caravan. Despite having three decades of Sierra trout fishing in my rear-view, I found myself in unfamiliar waters on this particular trip, which is, in retrospect, a perfect fit for a year all about unprecedented times.

A lifetime condo camper, I found myself with my wife and three kids tent camping at Brown’s Owens River Campground on the bank of the Upper Owens River just downstream of Benton Crossing. It was mid summer, Mammoth was packed, fishing in terms of numbers has been down (but not in terms of quality, with the bigger privately-funded Oregon fish still being stocked) and with only a couple fishing days at my disposal, I decided the game plan would be to just hammer the Owens. I ran with that rather than my typical run-and-gun style that takes me everywhere from Bishop to Bridgeport in finding the hot spots for each particular trip. I wanted to spend more time on the water rather than behind the wheel.

The Owens River (this stretch anyway) is not really affected by the state hatchery situation (If you’ve been living under a rock, three hatcheries that supply the Eastern Sierra and SoCal with trout had to euthanize their entire fish inventories due to a virus) because Hot Creek Hatchery, which supplies the Upper O, was not affected. Even without the stockers, the Owens boasts one of the highest concentrations of fish per mile in the Eastern Sierra due in part to a natural population of browns and rainbows, cutthroat and more browns that move up into the river out of Crowley Lake. Short version: it always has fish.


I also made the call to put everyone before me in terms of getting fish. There were a lot of kids there including my own which are between 3 and 9 years old. My buddies are self-sufficient but I wanted to try and hook them up with moving-water tips out of my playbook as well, and the older kids were good to go on their own. So, in the interest getting everyone’s rods bent, I had a wide range of Berkley products in tow.

The fishing was a success on all levels, with my buddies finding their own honey holes and putting up limit-style numbers (most were released) on smaller rainbows by split-shotting Mice Tails and Gulp! Pinched Crawlers under deeper undercut banks and “potholes” in the weeds which the Owens has no shortage of. The bigger kids did well off on their own on Rooster Tails, and those stood as the only “reaction bite” fish with the bulk of the trout caught on the trip falling for lazier presentations in water that was very comfortable to flip-flop wade in.

On highlight was when I wanted to get my 3-year-old, Dillon, a fish while I was helping out some of the other kids. I pinned a Pinched Crawler on a mosquito hook with a split shot, handed it to my wife and basically said, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get these other kids in the game.” I didn’t take give steps before I heard my wife laughing and screaming because she fired it out there for him and they hooked up. So, he was taken care of, but from that point on it was “daddy I want five fish.”

I used Berkley Power Eggs on the same basic rig in making sure everyone pulled on something, and targeting shade, deeper spots and undercuts was the winning recipe. This was all within 100 yards of our campsite at Brown’s, with the biggest fish coming from just below and downstream from Benton Crossing: call it a 16-inch rainbow caught by my buddy, Bob, on PowerBait.

I was also able to create some time for myself, primarily of the “sneak out” variety, and I did pretty well, too. I started with the fly rod about 50 feet from my tent and stuck a couple hopper fish early and when those stopped working, I tied on an Elk Hair Caddis and did even better. I probably missed seven fish for every one I hooked, so it was fun throughout, and I remember being puzzled at how these trout were so sluggish when it came to picking up the Berkley stuff or jigs, but so aggressive to the point they were flying out of the water after my surface bugs.

I will say, the trout were smaller on average than most my group pulls out of the Upper Owens. Most of these stocker rainbows were around 10 inches in length, give or take, but for warm water in mid-July, the numbers were absolutely there especially when compared to other nearby waters packing in more people.