I’ll never forget the circumstances that introduced me to Hot Creek near Mammoth Lakes on the eastern slope of the Sierra. During a 1966 spring-break ski trip at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, we learned from some locals that the gravel road that led from Highway 395 to Hot Creek was free of snow, and that its unique après-ski festivities which included Pagan Pink wine and skinny dipping would be the entertainment. When we arrived, we peered into the canyon and witnessed cauldrons of scalding turquoise water and billows of steam rising into the frigid desert 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 water on the side opposite from where we stood. In the dimming light, we could make out silhouettes of a couple of dozen individuals sitting in the water, some with exposed bodies, through the steam. The fact that we would have to swim through about 20 feet of 38-degree water to get to the party on the other side didn’t even enter our minds. We stripped off our clothes and went for it. I suppose there are still 18-year-olds who duplicate our experience every spring, but I’m now drawn to Hot Creek for other things: its beauty and challenging fishing. I suppose that if I’m in the area some early spring and the road is open, I might be tempted to sneak down there like a dirty old man; but its fishing and beauty are my main draws.
For the first couple of hundred yards downstream from the fish hatchery, Hot Creek flows as a typical spring creek.
I don’t think there is anything like Hot Creek anywhere in the U.S.A., with the exception of some of the waters in Yellowstone National Park. The geothermal characteristics of Hot Creek keep its water temperature warm enough in the winter so it never freezes, even though it is located in one of the coldest sections of California, and its aquatic life takes full advantage of it. For those who are enamored by the ambience of the high-desert scenery (like me), the gorge has everything to satisfy one’s senses. The geographic position of the gorge is even situated so that it perfectly frames the Sierra Nevada’s Mount Morrison to the west. Back in those college days that I referred to at the beginning of this story, there was one instance where I sat on a rock on the warm side of the creek and cast a little “zero” Mepps spinner out into the cold current and caught a couple little rainbows. Catch and release was out of the question, as those little rainbows were cooked by the time they were landed. True story.
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 Sierras through town and after a couple of miles, reaches Long Valley, a flat expanse of scenic sagebrush-covered flats and low hills. It’s just the kind of scenery where one would expect to see Clint Eastwood or John Wayne filming a movie; and as a matter of fact, many western movies have been shot in this area. Once the creek descends from freestone to a more placid spring creek demeanor (after passing under Highway 395) in the level ground of the valley, it enters the geothermal section where the cold freestone water is tempered by the infusion of warm springs heated by the volcanic caldera (Long Valley is considered the most volcanically active area in the Lower 48 today) that sits only about 5,000 feet below. The creek then passes by the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery operated by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (in partnership with the Hot Creek Hatchery Foundation). Just past the hatchery property, the creek slowly meanders through a meadow section that is known as the Interpretive Center or just the Kiosk (local name) named for the kiosk in the adjacent parking lot where information about Hot Creek is provided for visitors. This 150-yard section is where some of Hot Creek’s largest fish are located. Special regulations are in effect that 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 fishing with dry flies. The view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from here 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 begins to descend into a gorge. There are several parking areas along the rim of the gorge with trails that will take you to the creek below. The creek maintains its relatively slow spring-creek-like current, though it now moves a little faster than it does in the upstream section. There are also a couple of very short freestone sections. The last parking lot, which is close to the geothermal cauldrons mentioned earlier in this article, has bathrooms. From here to where it converges with the Owens River, the water is just too hot for trout to survive.
Hot Creek is most known as dry-fly water and attempting to figure out its hatches doesn’t require a Ph.D. in entomology. There are usually going to be PMDs, micro caddis, tricos, or midges. Hoppers are an important food source for Hot Creek’s trout, too. What makes it tough is that the fish can change their food preference from moment to moment but, if you are prepared, you can have the right fly on the water most of the time. The creek actually has several personalities, which coincide with the time of the year and the whims of Mother Nature. The water near the interpretive center is usually open during the winter, between storms. When access becomes available to the gorge (opens usually during the middle of April) and the beginning of June, generic fly patterns such as Parachute Adams and Elk Hair Caddis can work well. As you get into July, the fish have seen it all and can often get real tough to catch, which means the more hatch-specific patterns are going to be what it takes to stick fish. Long time guide Otis (aka; Eric) Hein of “the Trout Fly” in Mammoth Lakes often has his clients go to patterns that mimic intermediate stages of the hatch that generally are overlooked by most flyfishers. For example, he might recommend a drowned spinner pattern under the surface film after a trico spinner fall, or go to a flush-sitting version of an adult mayfly or caddis as opposed to the more common versions that sit squarely on the surface. Rather than fishing a Parachute representation of an adult mayfly, try a pattern that represents a pre-adult stage, like a Sparkle Dun. Likewise, for caddis try a cripple such as an EC Caddis or an ES Micro-Cad. The local shops have a slew of patterns that have been developed over the years just for Hot Creek. Among them the famous Bob Brooks series that are good to have in your fly box.
Thermal activity that gives the creek its name is most active near the last parking lot. It’s not unusual to get a whiff of sulphur from cracks in the rocks all along the creek.
As I said above, Hot Creek is basically a PMD, micro caddis, trico, or midge environment, but during the pre-runoff season (usually the end of May through early June), the bugs consist of blue-winged olives, midges and, in some years, caddis. The period after runoff marks the beginning of the prolific hatches for which Hot Creek is known. Pale morning duns and caddis begin to hatch and some blue-winged olives and midges are still hanging around. As June progresses, the PMDs, little yellow stones, and caddis become more prevalent and will continue through the summer. As the water warms near the beginning of July, the tricos begin to hatch and can be a significant bug until fall. Bugs are generally tiny here and will hatch in different sizes at different times of the season. For example, the early-season pale morning duns are usually about #16, but later hatches can be in the #20 to #24 range. Caddis likewise can vary from #18 through #22. Tricos and midges are, of course, naturally tiny in the #20 to #22 range. The lesson here is to be prepared with patterns in several different sizes. If you are not a fly tier, stop at a local shop so you have the right size fly.
Hot Creek is a bit of an enigma. There will be times when, if you have the right bug tied on, you will be catching fish after fish literally right at your feet, and you come away with a big ego and the mistaken impression that you’ve got it all figured out. Conversely, there will be times when it will seem that nothing works. The first key to success is to be a proficient line handler, as that is what will allow you to present the fly in tricky currents in a way that seems natural. If you can’t master this, you will be completely out of luck, regardless of how well you match the hatch. Second, be observant as to what the bug activity is at a particular time. Be creative. If the fish stop sipping spinners, then try a drowned spinner pattern. If the fish are slashing at adults sitting in the surface film but won’t take your adult patterns, switch to a cripple or a pattern that sits in or below the surface film. Or why not give a soft hackle a try? Why not get ahead of the game and fish a caddis pupa pattern or a floating mayfly nymph below the surface film prior to their respective hatches? These fish feed on many different stages of the hatch, so even though you may see splashy rises, it doesn’t mean that they are not also feeding on emergers or nymphs at the same time. Be creative and give them something they haven’t seen yet.
A fisherman gets help from his pal landing a Hot Creek brown.
Long tapered leader/tippet combos in 10- to 12-foot lengths with 7X tippets are usually recommended for fishing the wider, flatter water of the upper section because, early in the season when the water is higher, the window that the fish can view through the surface increases. The lighter the tippets the tougher it is going to be landing one of the larger fish that you might encounter in the upper section of the creek. As the weeds increase and the water drops, you will want to go to shorter leaders. In the gorge section, Otis likes to rig his clients with shorter leaders, as the weeds tend to obscure the fly line from the fish’s view. His basic formula for a leader that will work for both dry-fly fishing and nymphing is a five-foot 5X tapered leader with one to two feet of 5X or 6X tippet. Since you will be using a downstream presentation much of the time, the shorter leader will give you more control of the fly. If the trout are not cooperating, I’ll go to 7X. Keep in mind that the fewer knots there are in the leader the better, because many a perfect drift has been ruined by a leader knot catching on a piece of flotsam or weed floating on the surface.
The one characteristic of the creek that separates the men from the boys is the conflicting currents caused by the abundant weed growth, and trying to keep a dry fly in a dead drift requires the ultimate in line-handling skills, which we will discuss later. Hot Creek isn’t all that large and its width is within the casting range of competent flyfishers. It’s not casting ability that is important here but line-handling ability. The biggest challenge that flyfishermen encounter is getting a dead drift when several water currents moving at different speeds are pulling on the line. 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 particularly tricky because wading is strongly discouraged. The primary fish lies are in the channels between the weeds or along the undercut banks, and the most successful technique is a downstream approach. Cast to a point about 25 degrees either side of the channel where you think the fish is and let the fly swing to the channel, then lift the rod to bring the fly upstream, and then lower it slowly at about the speed of the current. Sometimes you need to wiggle the rod tip and feed a little extra line out so you can maintain the drift. Keeping a relatively tight line, the fly will find its way over the channel and hopefully you will get a strike. These fish see lots of flies, lots of tippet, and lots of fly line so a downstream presentation is imperative. If the fish stop rising, try a hopper-dropper with something buoyant like a Stimulator or a foam hopper pattern, and something like a Mercer’s Micro Mayfly, beadhead flashback Pheasant Tail, or a midge larva or pupa such as a Zebra Midge, as the dropper. Use the same downstream presentation with this rig as you used for the dry fly.
Hot Creek originates as Mammoth Creek that has its beginnings on the slopes of Mammoth Mountain shown in the background.
In the gorge, nine-foot, four- or five-weight rods are about perfect. Anything smaller is going to make it tough to land a fish that’s buried in the weeds and when the wind comes up in the afternoon, a rod with a little more backbone will help casting. There is no need to wear waders on Hot Creek as anglers should not enter the water due to the risk of transporting invasives. Do, however, wear long pants as nettles along the bank can cause much misery. Speaking of wading, if you do have to step into the water to land a fish, keep in mind that New Zealand mud snails were found in Hot Creek and several other local waters in 2001. Since the spores will cling to boots and clothing, make sure that you sterilize your boots and any clothing that gets wet before fishing in some other location (for more information on NZMS sterilization log on to http://www.flyline.com/environmental/nzms/). Those with sensitive skin should wear sun screen, as the high elevation plus the reflectivity of the gorge walls will keep you bathed in UV rays for most of the day. If you are going to combine a fishing trip with Mammoth Mountain’s world class skiing, then be aware that fall, winter, and spring can be extremely cold and the trails down into the gorge can be very icy. Bring plenty of water in both winter and summer as you can easily get dehydrated under those intense rays and in the dry high-desert air.
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, it is maybe the most easily accessed trophy trout water in California. A large variety of lodging and dining choices are close by in Mammoth Lakes or in Bishop, which is about a half an hour away. Mammoth Lakes is where you can find everything from campgrounds to four-star condos for rent. The same range of dining choices is available in Bishop, too. If on a budget, Bishop is going to have the less expensive lodging. If you log on to www.visitmammoth.com you can get all of the information you will need for a stay in the area. Information about fishing Hot Creek and the many other great waters in the area can be found at the local fly shops or at www.california-flyfishing.com/hotcreek.htm.
Hot Creek from the state hatchery property line to the confluence with the Owens River: Only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used. Zero fish may be kept.
Special Equipment Recommendations
Four- and five-weight rods are adequate. Some anglers go smaller. Waders are not necessary as wading is frowned upon; plus you can reach most of the creek by casting from shore. Do, however, wear long pants to protect your legs from the abundant stinging nettles that line the shore. Please carry and use a net, as these fish get caught over and over and don’t need the additional stress of being dragged up onto the shore.
Interpretive Area Section: Meandering spring creek winding through meadow.
Gorge Section: Varies from meandering spring creek with a few short freestone runs. Lots of conflicting currents caused by submerged weeds. As the summer progresses, weeds float on the surface of the creek, making presentations difficult.
Spring (runoff): 200 - 300 cfs.
Summer/fall: 30 - 50 cfs.
Winter: 20 - 30 cfs.
Rock Creek: Rock Creek is a fertile little creek that flows for about over ten miles from the end of Rock Creek Road near the Sierra crest to where it crosses under Highway 395 at the community of Tom’s Place. You can get to Rock Creek from Mammoth Lakes by traveling south on Highway 395 to its intersection with Highway 203 for about 14 miles to Tom’s Place. Turn west on Rock Creek Road which parallels the creek for about ten miles. In addition to the creek, there are a couple of lakes that have good fishing.
McGee Creek: From Highway 208 and Highway395 (Mammoth Lakes turnoff) travel south for about eight miles to the McGee Creek off-ramp. McGee Creek Road follows the creek a couple of miles to a trailhead. There are a few access points along the way, but the creek is choked with willows much of the way. East of Highway 395, McGee Creek flows about two miles to where it enters Crowley Lake. There is parking on the east side of Highway 395 where the creek flows under the highway.
Crowley Lake: From Highway 208 and Highway395 (Mammoth Lakes turnoff) travel south for about 11 miles to South Landing Road then turn east to the Crowley Lakes Fish Camp (marina).
Mammoth Lakes: From the town of Mammoth Lakes you can easily reach its namesake lakes (Twin Lakes, Lake Mary, Lake Mamie, and Lake George) by taking a short two- to four-mile drive up Lake Mary Road. The lakes have boat rentals and are stocked regularly.
Middle Fork of San Joaquin River: Though the San Joaquin River drains the west side of the Sierras, its headwaters flow from the area around the west slope of Mammoth Mountain, which can be reached by driving about seven miles up Minaret Road from the town of Mammoth Lakes to the parking lot at the upper Mammoth Mountain ski lodge. Continue through the parking lot to a kiosk and gate that is located at the crest of the Sierra. Traffic is only allowed to pass on to the river and Devil’s Postpile National Monument before 7:30am or after 5:00pm. Vehicles that are transporting float tubes or personal watercraft (must have one for each of the vehicle’s occupants) may pass through at any time.
Upper Owens River: From Highway 208 and Highway395 (Mammoth Lakes turnoff) travel south for about nine miles to Benton Crossing Road (look for small church on the corner). Make a left and travel east for another seven miles to the river.
Delorme California Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 77
Words and photos © 2016 Greg Vinci
Hot Creek map, hatch chart and web design © 2016 Wilderness Adventures Press