Old-School Fly-Fishing at Hot Creek Ranch
I’m always describing the Eastern Sierras as out-of-this-world and magical, and I have good reason. The whole Owens River system is special. Imagine a river system fed partially from natural hot springs boiling up from deep in the earth’s molten core, joined by another part that’s fed by frigid glacial runoff. Add to this intrigue some old school fly-fishing, and you have yourself Hot Creek Ranch.
Being somewhere like Hot Creek Ranch definitely pulls you back in time, in the best way. You can stand on the shores of the creek and look around you, feeling like the world maybe hasn’t changed all that much. Maybe we haven’t ruined it all that much.
But then, of course, maybe as you admire the steam rising up from the rocky landscape of the lower section that contains the actual hot springs, you see a sign that reads: “Danger! Scalding water, unstable ground. KEEP OUT.” And you’re reminded that some people got hurt badly, maybe even killed, swimming to deep into the hot springs, drunk at the time, and it’s a sad little reminder.
Hot Creek Ranch sits just above the actual hot springs. It’s known for fly fishing and has been around for ages, owned by the same family for many years.
The ranch itself has an old homestead vibe, a sprawling expanse of grassland rippling away from the dark blue creek waters, right up to the horizon where the mountains range thrust up into a cloudless sky. Sparse trees pepper the landscape, and the eight or so wooden cabins spreading out from the main house look almost like toys lined up from a distance.
More importantly, the ranch has private waters that are just in this unreal natural environment.You’re on a flat area with sage brush on the other side of the creek, flowing down into a gorge where the hot springs are, marked by the haze of rising mist. It’s a pure, primeval feel, and it’s never clearer than when you begin to fish.
Dry-fly, the Way Grandpa Learned
I had the blessing and honor of going there with my family a couple of springs ago. I was excited, but I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into. I’m not an old-school kind of guy. I’m constantly looking to innovate, improvise, and adapt to the conditions. Whatever I think will work best, that’s what I want to use.
So it was with mixed emotion I learned that Hot Creek Ranch only allows dry-fly fishing.
It’s a purist fishery, they want nothing but dry-fly. They swear by it, they expect it of everyone; that’s the way it is. It’s like your granddad teaching you how it was “back in the day,” refusing new tools or technologies that could make things easier.
When we arrived at the ranch though, we had mixed weather. The first day was nice, but we woke up to snow on the ground and frozen mountains all around us, like a dome had been put over the Sierras and made into a little snow globe. The kids played in the grassy area, trying to roll snowballs and heap together what they could for a makeshift snowman with the dusting. For the anglers, because it was so cold, they allowed us to break with tradition and fish with midges and patterns underwater.
We caught fish after fish — browns mostly, all 8-16″ long, and it was truly awesome sitting there with my two daughters. I always feel so blessed to have a wife and kids who enjoy and share some of my passion. Evelyn in particular sat with me on the creek side, just catching fish after fish, and her having a ball watching me.
Back to the Old Ways
After the first day with its rare leniency, the following five days went back to dry-fly only. As I said, I’m not old school, so I expected to get frustrated with the whole experience.
But it was truly the opposite.
I fell in love a little with the old way. The originality and simplicity of it actually appealed to me. Plus, it comes down to the challenge — having your hand forced to fish a certain way can push you out of a rhythm or comfort zone. Maybe it’s a question of character, but I know I never would have experienced it without that push.
For those of you slightly less familiar with the jargon, dry-fly fishing is just as the name implies: your artificial lure floats on the surface of the water and doesn’t get wet. It requires insane control to manipulate the lure, and an uncanny understanding of fish, and how they behave in their environments.
Luckily, I felt up to that challenge.
There was one day in particular, as I was still getting the hang of the dry-fly, that the wind was roughing it up for everybody. Blustery gusts kept blowing flies right off the water. You can imagine the frustration.
But they say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. So I made a change. I split from the main part of the creek and trekked down into the gorge, hoping to avoid the wind as much as possible with the protection of the rocky walls.
With the gusts reduced to a minimum, I tied on a dry-fly and began to test my luck. And I actually started catching fish. Then a few more. Fish after fish, I started getting the hang of it, but it would be a lie to say it wasn’t insanely tough. The challenge of dry-fly fishing is that the flies are very small, and they run on the surface, which is usually very smooth. So even with eagle eyes, you often lose sight of the fly, and fish will come eat them very subtly.
But as with any challenge, if you work at it and begin to get a taste of success, you get hooked. I got hooked, and began to love it.
A Special Place to Connect
As I bonded with the old-timey tradition, I also stopped to appreciate the beauty around me, from the sprawling ranch to the natural wonder of the Hot Creek springs. They gorge itself with rocky outcrops of gray stone, the wild brush and sparse growth. And somehow, I found a random little bench there, where I sat down to take it all in.
The bench had a little placard, in memory of a guy who had passed away. It marked his favorite spot on the creek, right on one of the bends where the water sort of curves gracefully, carving through the land. Sitting there, and fishing down in the gorge, it became my favorite spot, too. Through time, the spot and the tradition brought the two of us together, and I felt that connection to the history, and to that individual.
By the end of the trip, I looked back and could honestly say I had many good days fishing there. More importantly, I felt deeply connected to an older way of doing things, old-school in every regard. It was a place built on community and camaraderie, easy and outgoing. The main guy running it while we were there, Kevin, was second to none, the kind of guy who still believes in good old communal barbecues for guests — exactly my kind of guy.
And there’s an element of trust in the decency of people. For example, the ranch is run efficiently but without the need for modern technology in every single place. In the fly shop, you’d just write down whatever you took on a piece of paper. Day after day, you just add to it. At the end of your stay, you settle up the whole tab.
Hot Creek Ranch is an amazing gem there in the Sierras, one I can’t recommend enough. Whether you are a purist and love the dry-fly, or someone like me who wants to experience something new and challenging, it is a place of beauty, excitement, and peace. In short, everything you could ask for, and more.