February 2020 – Learning to Fly Fish the Upper Owens in search of Rainbow Trout in the Sierra.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir
There is a distinct, impossible to describe pull to both the mountains and the seas. It’s kind of odd because oceans and mountains are literal opposites, but despite that, they have equal influence on me. Yin and yang if you will. Both provide the ability to completely disconnect from the mundane of day to day grind and fully immerse into nature. The outdoors. At times, complete bliss and serenity. Other times, a battle against conditions and test of one’s inner fortitude. No matter the scenario, the fire to go, to connect with something greater – is the ultimate prize and my way to recharge.
Ok – so now that you’ve put up with my attempt to be this generation’s next John Muir or Robert Frost, let’s jump into the dope AF story bruh! If you don’t get the sarcastic Millennial slang reference look it up – OK Boomer? Alright, enough of that for real.
Fly-fishing. I have such an affinity for this method of angling. There is an undeniable beauty in the style of this craft. Casting alone is an art form and one that doesn’t come without time and practice. And as I progress, continuing to build confidence in my conventional saltwater skill set and knowledge, fly fishing resets me back to beginner status. I find a lot of it – the rigging, fly selection, nuisances of casting and fly presentation, to be largely overwhelming at times. But nevertheless, I’m determined to continue to dive in to learn the craft. If anything, the somewhat daunting challenge to master it only further ignites the burning desire to progress as a fly fisherman and overall angler.
The destination for February’s Student of Slay takes us to a place that practically serves as our second home – the Sierra mountains. Specifically, Mammoth Lakes which sits in the vast, craggy Eastern Sierra range, between the continental highest peak of Mount Whitney and the famous Yosemite National Park. The usual attraction for making the 6-hour (by car) journey is chasing winter storms and fresh powder. And although the snowboards were loaded, the primary focus was to spend time learning the rivers and chasing the wintertime Rainbow Trout.
So, on a misty morning where the low ceiling hung the clouds halfway down the peaks of the Glass Mountain ridge, we met up with our guide Tom Lippen (@rippen_lips_flyfishing). As we geared up and threw on a couple extra layers under our waders, we chatted about our game plan for the day.
“Sometimes these lowlight, grey days are some of my best out here on the river! It’s been a little slow but I know they’re still here so feeling good about our chances.” Tom hyped us up with.
A quick run down the two-track trail, and we arrived at a large turnout area barricaded by metal cattle fences.
“We have a to hop a couple fences here but I like this spot because it’s a little harder to access the river from, so less fishing pressure. Plus, no one else seems to be out today so that’s a good sign!”
We grabbed our gear and hiked into the locally famous Upper Owens river. There were steady winds with noticeable gusts sprinkled in which wouldn’t make a rookie caster’s life any easier. But Tom was very tactful about how we were going to fish the river and I would soon come to find out that positioning was everything here. Wind or no wind – positioning and setting up accordingly makes or breaks a day on the “Upper O”, sometimes despite your skills as an angler.
“Even some of the best fly fishermen struggle on the Owens. Knowing how to fish and having the precise rigging to fish here is crucial. Takes time and help for sure.” Tom, mentioned at the end of the trip.
After a brief breakdown of the final game plan and quick nymphing tutorial session, we begin searching for deep pockets of water that the winter Rainbows settle into. Tom, positioned my sister Kaila, a first-time fly angler, in one of the bends in the river. Showing her how to roll cast, mend, high stick, properly drift and follow the indicator looking for that sometimes-subtle strike. She caught on quickly and we were well on our way to working the river.
Which turned out, we were going to work a lot of the river and work for any fish we catch this particularly wintery February day. Like many fishing ventures, persistence and putting our heads down was going to be the key to success. Sometimes purely grinding through is the best way and we knew that this time of year, this trip, was a quality over quantity pursuit.
“Set up down in that marshy patch there and make drift from that point across the bend down 20 or so yards. Keep trying different lanes but there’s a nice deep hole towards the other bank” Tom pointed out as he walked down to help coach Kaila.
I definitely was logging my fair share of nymphing practice for the day as I started to get better placement on each cast and subsequent drift. “Try different lanes” I reminded myself. On about the 5th or 6th cast of this particular bend of Upper O, the indicator bounced along with the flow before abruptly getting sucked under. I swung downstream and immediately felt my rod load up. A quick flash in the water confirmed – I was on.
I stepped back onto the bank and begin following the fish, leading downstream with Tom coaching along the way.
“That’s a nice one! Just keep the tip up and line tight while staying ahead of the fish. Start putting some pressure on him and swing him towards me…..” Tom instructed as he stretched out his net and scoped my first Rainbow Trout in the Sierra.
I’m still struggling to find the right words to accurately describe the emotion at that moment but one thing is for sure, it was different than many of my more typical saltwater, pelagic pursuits. There was a tremendous amount of joy, satisfaction, pride, respect for the fish – many of the standard feelings. But there was a heightened sense of conservation and raw admiration for the natural surroundings. To me, this is the drug that will keep me coming back to fly fishing. The intangible connection to mountains, rivers, and nature that pulls me to the Sierra range over and over.
With a nice fish successfully released, I was already satisfied with just the one quality Rainbow and had begun writing this story in my head (titled All for One). But like any good guide, Tom kept us pushing and the focus on Kaila getting a fish. As they continued to search and fish deep water holes, I re-rigged the trusty worm that produced the first bite and fell victim to a bent hook from the powerful winter bow. I was beyond stoked at how smoothly my new 5 weight setup handled the first fish. Which, my setup is far nicer than one of my ability deserves but hey, fake until you make? Amirite (damn Millennial slang again)?
Quick sidebar on the topic of gear – a couple weeks before the trip, I had the opportunity to visit and meet with the Hatch Outdoors (@hatchoutdoors) team. Which, to my initial surprise, was based in my backyard of nearby Vista California. It was incredibly rad to meet the team of local passionate anglers and craftsmen who no doubt are manufacturing some of the finest quality, high-end fly reels, line, and other products sure to turn me into a brand nut. I wanted to give a mention (albeit, perhaps a tad shamelessly) because that brief experience, their enthusiasm for the sport and brand, and pride of work was extremely refreshing!
Now back to the Upper Owens, where our day was quickly closing on us. The wind was picking up and we decided to make a big move stretching way back up the river so we could fish back to the truck (or nearest access point to). Kaila continued to put together excellent drifts but as we all know, sometimes it’s just not our day and the fish refused to cooperate.
“Keep doing everything exactly the same. That should catch fish all day long, they’re just being extremely uncooperative today.” Tom reassured Kaila, who never wavered in her effort to catch a wintertime trout.
I stepped down onto another marshy patch and setup casting in a large bend pool. I roll cast upstream to the opposing bank and drifted my rig through the fast-moving, foamy water before it would settle into the slower flowing middle section of the deep pool. On one of the first casts, the indicator bounced unnaturally but I hesitated in my swing on what looked really fishy. We were confident that there was a fish in there, so once again persistence pays. And paid it did, with another, even better-quality Rainbow. This one proved to be grumpier than the prior and a stout fighter as I ran up the bank to keep tight with its charge downstream.
2 for 2 was a hell of a start to what I hope is the first of many Sierra fly fishing trips. No doubt the fly rods are getting packed in the truck each and every trip up the 395.
So, what did I learn in the first Student of Slay trip of 2020? Well, the honest answers are ones I’ve included time and time again – local knowledge is crucial, persistence pays, there is no substitute for time on the water. More specifically, each body of water has its own nuisances and tricks with Upper Owens not an exception but arguably the prime example. So, to drill into that a little more:
- Propper Rigging is Key – in the tricky (at least for newcomers like myself) Upper O wintertime fishery, if you miss by an inch you might as well miss by a mile. Fly or attractor selection, leader and tippet choice, having the right weight added, indicator depth – all equally vital to making your day out there.
- Positioning and Setting Up on the River – another Upper O critical variable that I think will also transition well into other fly trips and even broader, into fishing in general. Knowing the right spots to stand, where to cast to, and what lanes to drift through was the difference maker for us this day.
- Conservation and Preserving the Rivers – Tom is an excellent steward of this both in protecting and performing best catch and release practices as well as respecting the waterways and land around it. It would be a shame not to make this a top priority as an angler and admirer of the beautiful countryside within the Eastern Sierra. Again, I hope that these two fish are the first of many for me up there and I will proudly fight to protect them.
My sincerest thanks to Tom Lippen (@rippen_lips_flyfishing) for an excellent guide service that does an amazing job of balancing patiently coaching novice fly fishermen (us) while still pushing to catch fish, even on the slow days. Looking forward to our trade – a day fishing Lake Crowley on Tom’s boat for a day chasing Yellowtail on mine!
BONUS: All of this talk the Sierra mountains leads me to introduce our newest family member, Sierra. The namesake of one of our favorite places in the world and is already proving to be an incredibly sweet (although our older dude Miles may disagree at times) pup.