MAMMOTH LAKES — The knees are gone from Bob Brooks' jeans, a condition attributed to the fishing technique he advocates at Hot Creek Ranch. Especially at 6-feet-4, he has to crawl to sneak up on the trout.
"If we had walked up to the edge, we'd have never seen any of this," he says, peeking through the grass to watch browns and rainbows rising to pluck tiny insects off the surface. "Even by crawling in, we spooked one fish."
The trick now is to duplicate the insects with a dry fly and drop it onto the water at the center of the circle of ripples, as gently as a dying mayfly. If your cast is skillful and you're lucky enough to have your ersatz bug selected from among the real, and quick enough to respond, you may land a trout of about 12 inches, maybe 20 or 24 inches, but don't count on it. And even if you do, this is a game the fish can't lose. If they're caught, they get to go back and play some more until they die of natural causes.
Hot Creek Ranch, where the fish have a fighting chance, has the toughest fishing rules anywhere: completely catch and release, and dry flies only--nothing sub-surface. And yet, with no advertising--not even a sign on U.S. 395--anglers come from France, Japan, Britain, Australia and New Zealand to fish here for about $100 a day.
Bob Townsend, 78, of Pacific Palisades, has been coming since 1958.
"The fishing experience is delightful," Townsend says. "All the fish are well educated."
Brooks, the ranch manager, says, "We're the only dry fly-only section of water in the United States. The true purists appreciate that. It forces you to play the game, the way the art of fly fishing was meant to be played.
"You have to be able to do three things: read the water, match the (insect) hatch and make a good approach (to streamside) and presentation (of the fly to the fish)."
Brooks does everything but frisk guests for Power Bait at the gate. Only the most dedicated fly-fisher would put up with what some bait anglers regard as elitist nonsense, but the ranch, with nine cabins, has been 95% booked this summer, and the fishing peaks in the next few weeks of autumn.
Brooks says there are more than 10,000 fish--about three-fourths of them wild German browns--in the 2 1/4 miles of the stream that meander through the meadows of what he calls the ranch's 248 acres of heaven.
"When you come here, you can be guaranteed there are going to be a lot of fish," he says.
Money back guaranteed ?
"Guaranteed seeing fish," Brooks says. "There's no guarantee on catching."
Hot Creek is really three streams. The first is where 80% of its water gushes forth from warm springs at the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery to spawn, ironically, the "dumb hatchery fish" scorned by fly-fishers. It then flows one-third of a mile through the Chance Ranch to the fence marking the northern boundary of the Hot Creek Ranch, where it is joined by the lesser flow of Mammoth Creek. The water temperature never gets below 48 degrees nor above 63, year-round.
"We have hatches all year long, even in January in a snowstorm," Brooks says.
Leaving the meadows of Hot Creek Ranch, the creek winds through a gorge of steaming vents for about a mile where public fishing is permitted, also with a zero limit but with wet or dry flies.
Hot Creek is revered by fly anglers, not only for the quality of its fishing but for its setting, with the Eastern Sierra as a backdrop. Dick Thies of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Southwest Council, says, "It's one of the best spring creeks in the world . . . a gem."
But Jim Edmondson, regional manager for California Trout, says the downside is that the public section of "Hot Creek is being loved to death."
He cites extreme fishing pressure--as many as 15,000 angler days per season.
Part of the appeal of Hot Creek Ranch is that the rules allow only three anglers per cabin, which means that no more than 27 can be working the 2 1/4 miles on any day, which never happens.
"A crowded day would be 16 people," Brooks says.
But for those who can't afford $100 a day, there is the bright prospect of the upper one-third mile between the ranch and the hatchery that was virtually unfishable because of cattle grazing until 1988. That's when Edmondson climaxed a project to restore the stretch through negotiations with the Miller and Wood Cattle Co. that operates the Chance Ranch to arrange alternative water sources for the cows and fence them off from the stream.
That's all it took for natural riparian growth to restore the banks long trampled by hoofs and, for the most part, to return the stream to its original state. Nobody used a bulldozer; nobody turned a shovel.
Brooks, the local stream keeper for CalTrout, said, "Mother Nature does the best job."
The operators of Hot Creek Ranch understood that wisdom when they got rid of their cattle in 1973. At the same time they banned wading, figuring that humans could be almost as destructive as cows.