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Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek

Forget matching the hatch: You must match specific phases and defeat complex microcurrents.

Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek

Like the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, Hot Creek’s geothermal flow keeps its water warm enough in the winter that it never freezes—even though it is located in one of the coldest areas of California. (R. Valentine Atkinson photo)

This article was originally titled "Proving Grounds" in the April-May 2011 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. 


I’ll never forget the circumstances that introduced me to Hot Creek near Mammoth Lakes, California, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra. During a 1966 spring break ski trip at Mammoth Mountain, we learned from some locals of the unique après-ski festivities at nearby Hot Creek, which included Ripple Pagan Pink wine and skinny-dipping. When my pals and I arrived, we peered into the canyon and witnessed cauldrons of scalding turquoise water and steam billowing into the frigid air.

At the bottom of the trail we came upon a wide spot in the creek where bubbles gurgled up to the surface and steam rose from the opposite side of the creek.

In the twilight we could make out silhouettes of nude females. The fact that we would have to swim across a river of 38-degree water to get to the warmwater party on the other side didn’t even enter our minds. We stripped and went for it.


I suppose that today there are still some 18-year-olds who might duplicate our experience, but I’m now drawn to Hot Creek only for its beautiful and challenging fishing. Like the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, Hot Creek’s geothermal flow keeps its water warm enough in the winter that it never freezes—even though it is located in one of the coldest areas of California. The aquatic insect life thrives in this year-round environment, and it shows in summertime hatches.


Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek
Challenging browns and rainbows inhabit Hot Creek. (Kenny Clarke photo)

For those (like me) who are enamored by the ambience of high desert scenery, the gorge has everything to satisfy your senses. The fragrance of sagebrush combined with a beautiful trout stream winding its way through the desert, and the occasional mule deer crossing the creek, can make you forget the reason you’re there in the first place.

The geographic position of the gorge is even situated so that it is perfectly framed by Mt. Morrison to the west. The mountain was named after Robert Morrison, who was killed at Convict Lake in 1871 while part of a posse pursuing escaped convicts. Nearby Mono Jim Peak is named for the posse’s Paiute guide who died in the same shootout.

Mammoth Creek

Hot Creek begins as Mammoth Creek, which drains the alpine lakes that give the town of Mammoth Lakes its name. It flows out of the east side of the Sierra, runs through town, and after a couple of miles reaches Long Valley, a flat expanse of scenic sagebrush flats and low hills. It’s just the kind of scenery where you would expect a young Clint Eastwood or John Wayne to film a movie. In fact, several Westerns have been filmed in this area.

Once the creek transitions from a plunging freestone to a more placid demeanor over the level ground of the valley, it enters the geothermal section where the cold freestone water is tempered by the infusion of springs heated by the volcanic caldera that sits only about five thousand feet below ground. Long Valley is one of the most volcanically active areas in the Lower 48 today.




Below the hot springs, the creek passes the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery operated by the California Department of Fish & Game in partnership with the Hot Creek Hatchery Foundation.

Just past the hatchery, the creek slowly meanders through a meadow section known as the Kiosk because of the visitors’ kiosk located in the adjacent parking lot. This 100-yard section is home to some of Hot Creek’s largest fish. Special regulations allow only single barbless hooks on artificial lures and flies, and all fish must be released.

The downstream boundary of this public section is where the famous Hot Creek Ranch property begins and continues for about a quarter of a mile. Fishing is for guests of the ranch only, and is restricted to dry flies only.

Recommended


The view of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the ranch is amazing, as the peaks to the west rise abruptly from the valley to elevations over 12,000 feet. The downstream boundary of Hot Creek Ranch is where the public water resumes, and is also where the creek descends into a gorge. There are several parking areas along the rim of the gorge with well-maintained trails leading to the creek below.

The creek maintains its relatively slow, spring creek-like current through the gorge, though it now moves a little faster than it does upstream. There are also a couple of short riffles. The last parking lot—close to the geothermal cauldrons—has bathrooms. From here to where it converges with the Owens River, the water is too hot for trout to survive.

Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek
Hot Creek Ranch (hotcreekranch.com) is a private, fee-based, catch-and-release fishery that allows dry-fly fishing only. Guide services and housekeeping cottages are also available. (Greg Vinci photo)

Split Personality

Hot Creek is mostly known as dry-fly water but fortunately, attempting to figure out its hatches doesn’t require a PhD in entomology. They’re either going to be midges or Blue-winged Olives (in the spring) and during the summer, PMDs, Micro Caddis, or Tricos. It’s a short list that’s easy to remember.

What makes it tough is that the fish can change their preferences from moment to moment—but if you are prepared you can have the right fly most of the time.

The creek actually has two personalities, which coincide with the time of the year and the whims of Mother Nature. From the time the snow clears to about the 4th of July, generic fly patterns such as Parachute Adams and Elk-hair Caddis work well, provided they are about the right size to match the insects on the water. (The road to the gorge section is open usually during the middle of April. Though the road is not plowed, you can usually access the upper Interpretive Center near the hatchery when the snow melts in mid-April. )

In some stretches, the short drifts caused by the weeds (which become more prevalent as the season progresses) and other obstructions, result in a likewise short window of time for a fish to see the insect and then react to it, so exact imitations are not always necessary. Also, in the spring the fish have had a long time to relax from the pressures of catch-and-release fishing, and maybe their metabolism encourages them to feed more enthusiastically.

In July, their attitude changes. By this time, they’ve seen it all and can get incredibly tough to catch. Use 12-foot and longer leaders, and match the specific phase of the hatch the fish are feeding on.

Longtime guide Otis Hien of The Troutfitter in Mammoth Lakes often has his clients go to patterns that mimic intermediate hatch stages, which generally are overlooked by most fly fishers. For example, he uses a drowned spinner pattern during and after a Trico spinner fall, instead of the standard flush-riding spinner patterns used by most anglers.

He uses flush-sitting versions of adult mayfly and caddis patterns as opposed to those that sit on top of the surface film. Rather than fishing a parachute as you would in the spring, try a pattern that represents a pre-adult or crippled stage, like a Sparkle Dun or Quigley Cripple. Likewise for caddis, try a cripple such as Cutter’s EC Caddis or a low-riding East Slope Micro-Cad.

Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek
The hot springs in lower Hot Creek act as a thermal barrier and prevent trout from moving to and from the Owens River. (Greg Vinci photo)

Angling pressure causes these fish to feed on the less obvious, but sometimes most accessible phases of the hatch, and knowing the right insect is only a fraction of the equation.

The local shops have a whole slew of patterns that have been developed over the years just for Hot Creek—among them the famous Bob Brooks (a local guide) series that are essential to have in your fly box.

If you are a first-time visitor to Hot Creek, it’s unlikely your regular selection of flies will suffice. Local flies are an important part of the equation, particularly in the summer.

Insects are generally tiny here and hatch in different sizes at different times of the season. For example, early season Pale Morning Duns are usually about size 16—they drop to size 20 and smaller by August.

Caddis can vary from size 18 through 22. Tricos and midges of course are always tiny—#20-22 for Tricos, and down to #24 for midges. Be prepared with several different sizes of each pattern. Rick’s Sport Center and The Troutfitter in Mammoth Lakes, or Brocks Flyfishing Specialists and Sierra Trout Magnet in Bishop are best bests for local flies.

Hot Creek Tactics & Techniques

Hot Creek is an enigma. There are times when you catch fish after fish, and come away with a big ego and the mistaken impression that you’ve got it all figured out. Then there are times when it seems that nothing works.

Of course, having the right fly is important, but the key to success is most of all presentation and line control. You must you present the fly—in tricky currents—in a way that seems natural to the fish. If you can’t master this, you are out of luck, regardless of how well you match the hatch.

Use stack casts, puddle casts, and aerial mends to introduce slack to your line and leader to combat drag from Hot Creek’s famous compound micro-currents. Instead of changing your fly, there are situations where changing your position, the angle of your cast, or putting more slack into your leader and tippet are much more productive.

Observation is also critical for Hot Creek fly fishers. Pay attention to the changing and evolving hatches. Be creative. If the fish stop sipping spinners, try a drowned spinner pattern. If the fish are slashing on the surface but won’t take your surface patterns, switch to a soft-hackle or caddis pupa pattern. Be inventive and give them something they haven’t seen before.

Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek
(David Deis graphic)

Long tapered leaders of 10 to 12 feet with 7X tippets are best for the wide, flat water of the upper section. In the early season when the water is higher, the viewing window of the trout is larger, so longer leaders are an advantage.

As the weeds grow and the water drops, use shorter leaders. In the gorge, Hien rigs his clients with shorter leaders, as the weeds tend to obscure the line from the fish’s view. He uses a 5-foot, 5X tapered leader with 24 inches of 5X or 6X tippet. Since you use a downstream presentation much of the time, the shorter leader gives you more control of the fly. If the trout are not cooperating, drop to 7X.

Keep in mind that the fewer knots there are in the leader, the better. Many perfect drifts have been ruined by a leader knot catching on a piece of flotsam or weeds floating on the surface.

The main characteristic of Hot Creek that separates the experts from the tourists are the conflicting currents caused by the abundant aquatic weeds. Keeping a dry fly dead-drifting requires the ultimate in line handling skills.

Hot Creek isn’t large and its width is within the casting range of competent fly fishers. It’s not casting ability that is important here, but line handling ability. The biggest challenge is trying to get a dead-drift when several water currents moving at different speeds are pulling on the line between the rod tip and the fly.

You can high-stick or use Czech short-line techniques when targeting fish close to you, but casting to fish rising along the opposite bank is tricky—especially since wading is not permitted.

The primary fish lies are in the channels between the weeds, or along the undercut banks, and the most successful technique is a downstream presentation: Cast to a point beyond and upstream of the fish, and let the fly swing into the current above the fish. Lift the rod to bring the fly upstream and then lower it slowly at about the speed of the current to drift the fly directly to the trout.

Sometimes you need to wiggle the rod tip and feed out extra line so you can maintain the drift. When the fly passes the trout, drop the rod to the side and allow the line to swing well to the side of the trout before you pick up and cast again.

These fish see lots of flies, tippet, and fly lines, so a downstream presentation is imperative. It’s critical that they see the fly first and not the line or leader—and a downstream presentation is often the only way to combat the myriad crosscurrents of the creek.

If the fish stops rising, try a hopper-dropper with something buoyant like a Stimulator or BC Hopper, coupled with a Mercer’s Micro Mayfly, beadhead flashback Pheasant Tail, or Zebra Midge as the dropper. Use the same downstream presentation with this rig as for the dry fly.

Tackle for Hot Creek

In the gorge, 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight rods are perfect. Anything smaller makes it tough to land a fish buried in the weeds, and when the wind comes up in the afternoon you’ll appreciate a rod with a little backbone. There is no need for waders on Hot Creek—wading is frowned upon.

Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek
Hot Creek’s rainbow and brown trout are easier to catch in early spring. By July, weeds create difficult channels and currents, and the fish become extremely prejudiced. (Kenny Clarke photo)

Wear long pants, as stinging nettles along the bank can cause you temporary misery. If you do step into the water to land a fish, remember that New Zealand mud snails were found in Hot Creek and several other local waters in 2001. The spoors cling to boots and clothing and may hitch a ride back home with you to your local waterway. Make sure to sterilize your footwear before fishing again. (For more information on sterilization see flyline.com/environmental/nzms/).

Also be prepared with adequate sunscreen and long-sleeve shirts, hats, and good sunglasses. The high elevation, thin air, and reflectivity of the water and the gorge walls can give you a surprising amount of UV exposure. Bring plenty of water as you can get dehydrated under those intense rays, and in the dry high desert air.

If you are going to combine a fishing trip with Mammoth Mountain’s world-class skiing, be aware that winter and spring can be extremely cold, and the trails down into the gorge can be icy, so be prepared.

With its amazing scenery and challenging fishing, Hot Creek is one of the most unique fishing experiences west of the Rockies. With its four parking lots and maintained pathways, it may be the most easily accessed trophy trout water in California.

A large variety of lodging and dining choices are close by in Mammoth Lakes or Bishop, which is about a half hour away.

Mammoth Lakes has everything from campgrounds to four-star rental condos. If on a budget, Bishop has less expensive lodging and dining. 

Precious Resource

Mammoth Creek is as important to Hot Creek as it is to the community of Mammoth Lakes. The creek passes through town before it reaches the geothermal area where its name changes to Hot Creek. A diversion from Mammoth Creek provides water for the many condominiums, houses, and even a golf course that comprise one of the major mountain resorts in the West. Mammoth Creek is also the source of the cold water that mitigates the warm influence of the hot springs, and allows trout to flourish. It’s the source of snowmelt and high runoff flows that purge the system of sediment, and provides a source of clean gravel which is needed by spawning trout.

As Mammoth Lakes has developed, its water needs have increased, and in the early 1990s the Mammoth Water District asked for and was granted temporary permits to divert additional water for use during dry years. Again in 1996 a Superior Court decision granted a temporary permit to draw even more water from the creek while awaiting completion of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Today, the Mammoth Water District still operates under the 1996 revised minimum instream flow schedule, as the EIR still has not been ­completed.

In 1997 and again in 2000 draft EIRs were presented but were met with some serious objections from the various stakeholders such as CalTrout, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, and California Department of Fish & Game, to name a few. After going back to the drawing board it appears everyone agrees that the issue needs to be resolved, as the community needs a secure source of water, yet it can’t afford to adversely affect the fish population of Hot Creek, which brings many tourists to the area each year.

It is expected that the EIR will receive final approval by the Mammoth Community Water District Board of Directors sometime within the first six months of 2011. Once it is approved, it goes to the California Water Resources Control Board, which uses it to set minimum stream flows. They say in the West, “Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’ over.” In Mammoth Lakes, whiskey is still for drinkin’ and the community seems to have discovered that working together is better than fightin’.

East Slope Micro-Cad Fly Recipe

Fly Fishing the Proving Grounds of California's Hot Creek

HOOK: #18-20 Tiemco 100 or Daiichi 1180.
THREAD: Olive 8/0.
BODY: Light olive Umpqua Sparkle Blend dubbing.
HACKLE: Grizzly saddle hackle died “poor man’s Cree” (grizzly hackle colored with a gold Sharpie permanent marker).
POST: Antron yarn.
LEGS: Wood duck flank barbules.
WING: MFC mottled Web Wing.


Greg Vinci is a signature fly tier for Umpqua Feather Merchants.

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