July 21, 2011
By George Bisharat
While fishing the East Walker River at dusk several seasons ago, I dropped my streamer in a spot notorious for big trout. My line tightened and began to swing across the current.
I stripped once. My fly stopped dead.
I lifted, suspecting a snag. But river bottoms don't shake their heads—big trout do. The trout bulled downstream, shot into the fading light, and came off.
Momentarily stunned, I stood there, my streamer riding up in the current below me. Gathering my wits, I made the same cast, just three feet longer, with almost identical results.
This time the fish didn't come off. It bolted downstream, and I followed. Unable to see the bottom in the turbid water, I tripped over a submerged boulder, and floated my hat.
I eventually landed the fish several minutes later and a quarter mile downstream, but not before dodging sweepers, ducking under another fisherman's line, breaking my rod, and hand-lining my prize in the last 20 feet. It was a broad-shouldered female of perhaps 6 pounds, the largest brown trout I've landed in California.
Not every East Walker hookup is so eventful, but the potential for heart-stopping trout brings me back year after year to this special fishery. No other walk-and-wade river in California or Nevada yields trout over 20 inches as consistently as the East Walker, where any cast could bring the fish of a lifetime.
Yet the East Walker is not an all-or-nothing river. Skilled anglers often tangle with 10 to 20 fish per day, many in the 14- to 16-inch range.
The East Walker is remarkably accessible. Most of the best fishing water is within steps of either paved or well-maintained dirt roads. Accommodations, restaurants, and a well-stocked fly shop are also nearby.
Another attraction is that the East Walker is open to fishing year-round. While winter can be bitterly cold, early March often has shirtsleeve weather, and trout junkies who can't wait for the general California season opener at the end of April can get an early fix of good fishing.
The East Walker River flows about 75 miles from its headwaters in California's Sierra Nevada range to its terminus at Walker Lake, Nevada, meeting its sister tributary, the West Walker River, along the way.
The section that is of greatest interest to fly fishers is the 16 miles below Bridgeport Reservoir. A little less than half of this water is in California, and the rest is in Nevada. The prime water ends at a 90-
degree turn in the river called The Elbow, about 8.5 river miles into Nevada. Thanks to a combination of natural geography and human influence, this modest-size river consistently produces large trout.
The East Walker starts from snowmelt. As water drains off the granite slopes of the Sierras down to Bridgeport Valley, its purity is "equal to that of distilled water," says California Department of Fish and Game fish biologist Steve Parmenter.
Running northeast, the river traverses a broad meadow, picking up natural and agricultural effluents, and gaining fertility. U.S. Highway 395 crosses the East Walker at the south end of Bridgeport, California (population 836). Three miles to the north, the river fills Bridgeport Reservoir—a renowned stillwater fishery in its own right, popular with boaters and float tubers.
Bridgeport Reservoir's main significance to stream fishers is its effect on the lower river. The dam on the East Walker spares the river the scouring spates suffered by freestone rivers during heavy precipitation years. But unlike some other impounded waters that create coldwater fisheries downstream, Bridgeport Reservoir is relatively shallow, making for significant solar gain. In summer, water entering the reservoir at 50 degrees F. can flow from the bottom of the shallow reservoir 20 degrees warmer.
Why is this beneficial to the river below? Parmenter suggests that the warm water, coupled with often windy conditions, create a "giant soup pot that's constantly being stirred," in which aquatic life, from algae to invertebrates to forage fish, proliferates.
This biomass spills down the river, providing food for trout and fertilizing the river's rich aquatic insect life, which includes midges, stoneflies, caddis, and mayflies.
Andrew Sears, who has guided on the East Walker River for more than 14 years, cites the abundance of forage fish as the real key to the phenomenal growth rates of the river's trout. These include such native species as tui chub, Lahontan redside, and speckled dace. Nonnative species such as perch and carp also flush from the lake into the river, providing additional trout fodder.
Fly fishers accustomed to the cold, clear waters of classic trout streams can find the East Walker disconcerting. Algae die-off from the lake stains the river a yellowish-brown during warm summers, making it look like tepid tea. And, with the exception of one section in Nevada, its trout are not naturally reproducing, as the river's gradient mostly prevents the gravel retention necessary for proper spawning habitat.
Seasons, Tactics, and Flies
While East Walker brown trout are legendary, about 40 percent of the river's trout are rainbows, some of them rivaling the browns in size. The East Walker also has mountain whitefish. While these native fish are not prized like their trout cousins, they eat small nymphs drifted close to the bottom, and a few extra hookups on whitefish add spice to a day.
Depending on the season, weather and water conditions, and the section of the river, you can use an array of techniques successfully on the East Walker, including several nymphing styles, dry-fly and emerger fishing, and streamer fishing.
Although a few diehards tromp through snowdrifts and crash through the ice to reach the river in the dead of winter, fishing on the East Walker effectively begins around March 1. Flows can be low—as little as 20 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is the minimum required flow.
At this time of year, the water is often unusually clear, as reservoir algae blooms have not yet begun. Thus, early-season fish are frequently spooky: A stealthy approach, long fine leaders, and small flies are a must. At these low flows, it's often wise to stay out of the water entirely.
During the winter and early spring, midges are the most important food source, and standard midge pupa patterns such as WD-40s, Zebra Midges, Disco Midges, Rojo Midges, and Brassies are good choices. Bridgeport Reservoir hosts a heavy midge population, and red midge larva imitations—or bloodworms—up to size 12 often outperform other colors, especially in the upper river. Red San Juan Worms and red Serendipities are also good fly choices.
Around April, flows edge upward from 70 to 100 cfs, and with more water the fish become less reticent. A variety of stoneflies, including Golden Stones, Little Yellow Sallies, and Little Black Stoneflies begin to move. Kaufmann Mini Stones, Morrish's W.M.D., and Mercer's Poxyback Stone patterns (#6-12) dead-drifted under a yarn indicator are good bets. Big fish also rise to large stonefly drys such as Madam Xs or Stimulators.
As the spring season progresses, don't give up on midges. Tie a midge dropper 10 to 12 inches below your lead nymph, or 18 inches to 3 feet below a dry, depending on the water depth.
In the summer, demands for irrigation water cause East Walker flows to reach their peak, typically around 400 cfs, although in high-water years flows can be 800 or even 1,000 cfs for brief periods. Mayflies such as Blue-winged Olives, PMDs, and Tricos appear (in that order), as well as regular afternoon and evening caddis hatches.
Summer is a good time to move away from the stoneflies and midges of the early season and use mayfly and caddis nymphs, while looking for fish rising in the slow bankside water and glassy slicks.
A selection of Pheasant Tails, Hare's Ears, and Hogan's Red-headed Stepchilds (#10-16) covers the mayfly nymphs. Use (#10-18) Parachute Adams, or local favorites such as the Tailwater Humpy to match mayfly adults.
To match East Walker caddis, use Elk-hair Caddis, Fox's Poopah, Z-Wing Caddis, Riverborn Caddis Emerger, and Cutter's EC Caddis patterns. Skate caddis drys such as Cutter's EC Caddis by casting across and downstream, and waking them across the water. This often induces slashing rises. Make sure your tippet is at least 4X, as a big fish hitting on a tight line can easily pop a fine tippet.
In July and August, terrestrials, especially hoppers on windy days, pull big fish up from along grassy undercut banks. Sometimes it pays to maximize your odds by dropping a small nymph off your hopper. At other times, the trout are extremely tight to shoreline structure and you may need to clip off the trailing nymph to poke the dry right up against a cutbank or under overhanging willows where the biggest trout hide. Foam beetles and ants are also good choices for summer drys.
Summer fishing on the East Walker can be outstanding but challenging. At high flows—with much of the river lined with vegetation on both banks—wading is a necessity. The streambed is filled with algae-coated boulders that are often invisible in the turbid water of summer. Wear felt- or rubber-soled wading boots with metal studs, use a staff, make sure your wader belt is buckled, and move carefully.
Streamside vegetation on the East Walker often obstructs a useful backcast, so be prepared to roll cast, water-load your backcast, or use steeple casts.
From late August into September, nighttime temperatures drop precipitously, and the river flows slowly recede. Dead-drifted crayfish patterns can be deadly at this time of year.
By October, flows fall below 100 cfs, and the fishing can be fantastic—or tough. Many fly fishers migrate to the East Walker in October, believing that big fish move upriver to spawn. Whether this is accurate or not, the combination of low flows, cold water, and heavy fishing pressure can make the trout skittish. Late fall typically produces the toughest days on the water. By late November, conditions get nasty, and good fishing shuts down until March.
Streamer fishing can yield a trophy at any time of year. Work them close to streamside cover during the high flows of summer, especially in the low light of early morning or evening, when the big predators come out to hunt. In the fall, big browns become especially aggressive when stream flows are adequate. In clear, skinny water, use smaller streamers and swim your fly to the fish instead of bringing it down right on top of them.
During the summer, I fish streamers on a Teeny 200 line with a 2-foot, 12-pound-test Maxima leader. This rig loads the rod well, allowing me to roll cast heavy flies in tight quarters.
Guide Andrew Sears uses olive or brown conehead patterns fished either on a floating line with a 9-foot tapered leader, or on a fast-sinking tip with a short level leader. Hornbergs, Muddler Minnows, and other sculpin patterns are also popular with East Walker regulars. Sears fishes two streamers, one tied off the bend of the other, often varying size, pattern, and color between the flies. He even dead-drifts streamers under an indicator. This tactic is especially effective just below the dam, where baitfish can be stunned by the short, violent trip from the lake to the river.
Longtime East Walker guide Tom Loe has developed a streamer technique he calls the "dip and strip" for the narrow and deep stream channel of the East Walker and other eastern Sierra streams. He positions himself well upstream of a prime lie, and casts a sinking-tip line into the soft side of a current seam to achieve maximum sink. Then he plunges the tip of the rod under the surface. The streamer swings into the seam, and Loe retrieves it directly upstream. He says that minimizing the swing, and thus the moving shadow of the line, avoids spooking the largest and wariest fish.
The River in Four Sections
The East Walker can be divided into four sections: the Miracle Mile directly below Bridgeport Reservoir; the Canyon Section (California); the Sceirine Ranch (Nevada); and the Rosaschi Ranch (Nevada).
The Miracle Mile lies between the dam and the Highway 182 bridge. Many fly fishers believe it holds the greatest number of big fish, and it probably receives 90 percent of the fishing pressure on the river. The Big Hole, right below the dam, is a maelstrom of conflicting currents with huge trout, but it's hard to fish effectively. Try breaking it down into segments, and focus on getting short drifts with heavily weighted nymphs fished either under an indicator or Czech style with a tight line and lots of lead—or simply fish streamers, which don't require a dead-drift.
Below the Big Hole, the river drops into a quarter-mile chute. In high flows this willow-lined stretch is challenging to fish because you must wade, and the river is deep and swift near the bank. It is prime feeding water, and demands your attention.
This is where I took my long wet ride I mentioned earlier, so take special care wading.
At the end of the chute, the river flattens into a meadow section. This is lovely water, with runs, deep pools, and great undercut banks for streamers or hoppers. During hatches, this is also some of the river's best dry-fly water.
The Canyon Section begins where Highway 182 passes over the river. Here the river has a steeper gradient characterized by short runs and pocketwater, and requires some rock-hopping. While you can still fish nymphs with indicators and even fish drys, high-stick and Czech-style nymphing are especially effective.
Larger, flashier patterns such as Burk's Psycho Rycho work well in the canyon, as trout can't scrutinize flies in the rushing current and there is less fishing pressure. Sears maintains that the canyon stretch harbors as many fish over 20 inches as the Miracle Mile.
The river between Bridgeport Reservoir and the Sceirine Ranch is public, partly thanks to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which in 1994 purchased more than 1,300 acres, including 7.5 miles of the East Walker below Bridgeport Reservoir. TPL turned management of this land over to the DFG, ensuring public access throughout this stretch for future generations.
The Sceirine Ranch water begins just across the Nevada side of the border, and is about 2 miles long. It is similar to the canyon section on the California side, and can produce just as many large fish, generally via the same tactics. The Sceirine Ranch—a fourth-generation working cattle ranch—is managed as a pay-to-play fishery, limited to four rods per day. It offers a commodity hard to find elsewhere on the river—solitude. Ken's Sporting Goods is the booking agent for this water.
The Rosaschi Ranch section starts where the Sceirine Ranch ends. Here the river turns east from the paved road and runs 6½ miles to The Elbow. The gradient flattens, promoting greater gravel retention and thus natural trout reproduction. A gravel road parallels the river, with numerous spurs running toward the water.
The Rosaschi Ranch was deeded to the U.S. Forest Service, is managed by the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDW), and is open to the public. Although NDW stocks rainbows downstream from The Elbow, for those who prefer wild brown trout, this is the section of the river to target.
A longer drive from Bridgeport, the Rosaschi Ranch is less pressured than the Miracle Mile. It also produces trout sizes and numbers much like the rest of the river, especially in a ravine section toward the end of the ranch. The Rosaschi Ranch terrain is more dry and desertlike, with stunning rock formations and brilliant soil colors.
Respect the Resource
The East Walker may not appeal to all, particularly those who demand classic trout stream esthetics. But it has repeatedly proven to be a resilient fishery, affording countless fly fishers indelible memories. The silver lining to these recent misfortunes is that the river is now managed attentively by both California and Nevada.
Even still, those who love the river and those who depend on it for their livelihoods, like Jim Reid and Andrew Sears, counsel against fishing it when water temperatures approach 70 degrees, to prevent fish mortality. That restraint is appropriate, and ensures the East Walker River will continue to astound and delight future generations of fly-fishing enthusiasts.
George Bisharat is a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.