Owens River Fishing

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a river in the United States more beautiful than the Owens.

Surrounded by golden fields and with the Sierras as a majestic backdrop, the Owens is a river to behold. A gorgeous setting isn’t the only thing the Owens River offers, though – the river holds some of the biggest trout in California.

Whether you’re ready to launch the drift boat on the lower river or stalk hungry trout in the meadows above Lake Crowley, opportunities abound on the Owens.

The Owens is well-known as one of California’s best fly fishing rivers, but fishing it definitely can be tough if you don’t know your way around.

Without further ado, let’s get into some of the most important things to know about fishing the Owens River.

Trout Fishing on the Owens River 

Both rainbow and brown trout call the Owens River home.

Regulations here vary greatly by section, but expect to fish with barbless flies and artificial lures only. Seasons and harvest limits also change with the sections, including some catch-and-release rules.

The Owens is best known as a fly fishing river, so this article focuses largely on fly fishing in terms of techniques and the best patterns for each area.

However, conventional anglers also can employ lures such as spinners and spoons (following barbless hook and other requirements) to catch trout in the areas we’ll discuss.

The best way to break the Owens down is by dividing it into sections: the upper, middle and lower Owens.

The Lower Owens (the first few miles below Pleasant Valley Reservoir) is productive, but isn’t quite as good as the other two stretches we’ll mention first.

Overall, the Owens River has earned its place among more than a dozen of the best brown trout fishing spots in California.

Upper Owens River 

The Upper Owens is the most picturesque portion of the river, running through serene meadows with stunning mountain scenery.

This stretch of the river is the most popular walk-and-wade stretch, as it’s small and there is plenty of access.

The Upper Owens benefits from large rainbows and brown trout in Lake Crowley, which migrate into the river in spring (rainbows) and fall (browns) to spawn.

Because of this, fishing is at its peak during the spring and fall on the Upper Owens, and a number of techniques will work well to catch these big trout.

Traditional nymphing is a good standby, but using a New Zealand-style indicator or another low-profile option is a must – the Upper Owens fish are wary, and stealth is key.

Caddis hatches are plentiful during the warmer months, and fishing hoppers and terrestrial patterns along the undercut banks in the heat of summer is a fun way to catch both rainbows and browns.

When dry flies aren’t working, though, streamers are typically a good bet.

Fish streamers stealthily along the undercut banks. Streamers often catch some of the biggest fish out of the upper Owens.

All of the techniques described above will work on the middle sections of the Owens as well, but there are some slight differences in the way these two stretches are approached.

Middle Owens River

The Middle Owens River is the stretch of water between Lake Crowley and Pleasant Valley Reservoir.

The river is wider and swifter here than in its upper reaches, and the most common way to fish the Middle Owens is from a drift boat.

Drift boats also make many parts of this stretch much easier to access.

Blue winged olives and caddis make up the bulk of the dry fly fishing, but most fish on the Middle Owens are caught beneath the surface on nymphs and streamers.

Much of this stretch is ideal streamer water, and a variety of sculpin and leech patterns work well.

If you’re nymphing, try fishing midge patterns – a tailwater staple – in addition to pheasant tails and other attractor-style nymphs.

There are plenty of large trout on the Middle Owens, and most of the biggest fish in the river come from this stretch.

Lower Owens River

Not always considered to be one of the “major” stretches of the river, the best fly fishing on the lower Owens River is in the first couple of miles of water below Pleasant Valley Reservoir.

The trout in this lower section are not quite as numerous or large as the fish in the middle and upper river, so it doesn’t get quite as much attention.

However, if you’re looking to escape the crowds that sometimes accumulate on the more popular pieces of water, the Lower Owens can be a good bet.

Heading downriver, after the main tailwater section below the dam, the Owens also offers some warmwater opportunities, including fishing for bass, bluegill and carp.

When to Fish the Owens River 

The different stretches of the Owens are governed by an extensive list of regulations, and we’d recommend checking out the official CDFW regulations to make sure the stretch of river that you want to fish is open before you head out.

When it comes to fly fishing, though, the most productive times of year are typically the fall and the spring.

In the upper river, this is when some of the larger trout from Lake Crowley migrate upstream. In the middle section of the river, spring and fall offer plenty of exciting hatches and hungry trout.

Summer is a great time of year to fish the Owens as well, but expect plenty of fishing company.

Terrestrial fishing can be productive, and a hopper-dropper setup can sometimes be a good choice (particularly on the upper river).

Not all parts of the Owens are open year-round, but part of the upper river is.

And, if you’re looking to find solitude and fish during the off-season, winter is a great time to fish the upper Owens where allowed.

Nymphing techniques are the name of the game during winter, but the occasional dry fly hatch can provide a spark in the action.

Location and Access

The Sierras provide a stunning backdrop for anglers in the Owens River
Photo courtesy of Sierra Drifters Guide Service

The Owens River is located in the Mammoth Lakes area, and it’s surrounded by plenty of other great fly fishing (and non-fly fishing) opportunities.

If you’re looking to fish the Upper Owens River, a popular access point is near Benton Crossing, which is a couple of miles above Lake Crowley.

There are also gravel roads that parallel much of the upper river, providing plenty of access and spots to pull off and fish. Do a little exploring (or check Google Maps!) and you’ll find plenty of areas to access the upper river.

If you’re looking to fish the Middle Owens, know that much of this stretch is best accessed by drift boat.

For much of its length, there is no road that closely parallels the river with easy access, and a drift boat is typically your best bet.

If you do some exploring, though, you will be able to find a few spots to access the middle Owens from the bank.

Conclusion

The Owens River has some of the biggest trout in the United States, and it’s worth fishing for every fly fisherman.

If you’re in the Mammoth Lakes area, be sure to check it out!

There are plenty of local fly shops that will be able to provide you with advice, and most offer guided trips on the river as well – a great way to get familiar with the water.

Carter Reschke is a freelance writer based in Bend, Oregon. Passionate about the outdoors, Carter is a fly fishing aficionado and spends his days on the river when he’s not writing.