Fishing California's Lower Owens River

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Map of the Owens River in CaliforniaA trout rod gathering dust is a sad sight. For many of California's High Sierra fishermen, that's exactly what happens after the close of the regular trout season in November. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Flowing through the great valley that divides California's Sierra Nevada range and the more arid White Mountains to the east, there is a meandering river that offers an exciting variety of winter trout fishing.

The mountains that surround the Owens Valley are locked in winter snow. But during February on the Owens River, you can often find mild weather and great fishing for every taste. From the avid flyfisherman and lure-tosser to the bait dunker or river drifter, you can find your sport.

The Owens is stocked with a plentiful supply of pan-sized rainbows. But it also can yield some monster 'bows up to 8 pounds and wild browns worthy of the trophy wall.

It All Starts Here

View of the Owens River near Bishop, CaliforniaThe Owens River is born in the mountains northeast of Mammoth Lakes at a place known as Big Springs. From there it flows south, generally parallel to U.S. 395 through Long Valley and into Crowley Lake. Emptying from Crowley, the river enters the spectacular Owens River Gorge. It flows into the smaller Pleasant Valley Reservoir before continuing its serpentine flow and passing to the east of Bishop. The elevation of the river here is about 4,000 feet, well below the winter zone of ice and snow that locks anglers out of the high country.

Many upper sections of the Owens offer exciting trout hunting and even challenging wild-trout action during the regular April to November season. But it is the lower Owens that attracts the winter angler who is not about to let his favorite trout rod gather dust.

From 5 Bridges Road north of Bishop to Collins Road south of Bishop, the river offers the winter visitor a perfect combination of spectacular scenery, exciting rainbow trout fishing and challenging brown trout hunting. This section of the Owens covers a straight-line distance of about a dozen miles from north to south, but more than 35 winding river miles. There are great drift sections for fishermen in boats, kayaks and pontoons who work the river while drifting with its gentle flow.

Owens River troutThis is also a popular area offering good road access for the fisherman who likes to be near the car, along with more isolated sections for the flyfisherman who enjoys getting away from the competition.

There are no special regulations on this part of the Owens River. It is open to fishing all year, with a limit of five trout in possession. From the first Saturday in March through Oct. 31, five fish may be taken daily and you may have 10 in possession.

Base Camp Bishop

Bishop is the largest community in the area. You'll find a variety of lodging, good restaurants, markets and tackle stores. Campgrounds in the Owens Valley are plentiful and are not crowded during winter months. There are also several tackle shops in Bishop offering up-to-date reports on hotspots, tips on what baits or lures are working best and current river conditions.

Drift-fishing is a popular way to work the Owens River in the winter months.

Gary Gunsolley is a veteran river guide and easy to spot with his distinctive pure white beard as he drifts by in a flat-bottom dory. He has seen fishermen trying to float the river in tubes, but he does not recommend it.

"There are just too many things to tear your tube or hang you up," said the owner of Brock's Fly Shop. "If you are going to float the Owens, for safety I would suggest at least a kayak, pontoon or small boat."

Drifting the Owens is a relaxing and peaceful way to fish for trout. The lower flow rate of winter water carries you gently along through an ever-changing landscape with the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains creating a spectacular backdrop.

It's not unusual to be fishing in shirtsleeves on the Owens while enjoying an animated show as winter clouds boil over the Sierra, dumping blankets of windblown snow.

View of the Owens River in central CaliforniaA good starting point for drift-fishermen is where 5 Bridges Road crosses the river. To get there, leave U.S. 395 at the north end of Bishop and go about 1 1/2 miles north on Highway 6. Make the left turn onto 5 Bridges Road and continue another mile or so to where it crosses the river.

Many stretches of the Owens are choked with reeds, willows and thick brush. Floating is the only access to some of the best pools. A drift boat will also give you access to many areas that have limited or no shore access. As result, there is very little fishing pressure.

As many as 7,000 trout per mile can be found in this great trout stream, according to estimates.

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