The End of the Innocence

There was a time when fly fishing was a small, niche activity

By Rob Breeding

There was a time when fly fishing was a small, niche activity. Few did it, and fewer still outside the fishing circles were aware it existed.

This was a time before the current epoch, back in the days before “A River Runs Through It,” the movie. This was before the world, inspired by a hunky, shadow-casting Brad Pitt, decided fly fishing was cool.

My head had already been turned by the book. I moved to Montana just before the movie was released, taking a job at the Hamilton daily and sneaking off to the river whenever deadlines allowed. Before the movie, other than the occasional Avon hatch at the height of the tourist season, I had the run of the place.

I taught myself to fly fish on waters in California’s Eastern Sierra, primarily Crowely Lake and the Owens River. In addition to my fly fishing education, the Owens is where I was initiated to some of the western water issues that had eluded me in my youth.

I grew up in Southern California, where water was a thing that came from the tap. My ignorance was rarely shaken, other than one epic monsoon season when the dry arroyo behind our home unleashed a torrent that flooded our swimming pool, or in drought years when lawn watering was limited. The sprinklers at odd-numbered street addresses ran one day, evens the next.

The Owens, a six-hour drive, was the place of my fly fishing dreams. Before that, in a battle that drags on still, it was the site of one of the West’s great water wars. In the early part of the 20th century, Los Angeles, having tapped its namesake river for all it was worth, went looking for more water to lubricate the growth city fathers and land speculators envisioned. The Owens was their target.

Enter William Mulholland, head of the city’s infamous Department of Water and Power. Mulholland first engineered a secretive, dead-of-night land grab in the Owens Valley. Then he drew up plans for the aqueduct that delivered the fruits of his ill-gotten gains to Los Angeles.

Without water the Owens Valley withered. As for Los Angeles, well, we know how that turned out.

There was another battle, one recent enough served as a recruit. In the late 1980s, someone noticed a loophole in the fishing regulations. The trout season didn’t open until the last Saturday in April, but this wise guy realized the season never closed for rough fish such as chubs and suckers. Much to the chagrin of local game wardens, anglers started hitting the upper Owens in March, when the river was thick with rainbow trout headed up from Crowley Lake to spawn.

The wardens were out in force but all they could do was check for licenses. It was open season for chubs and suckers after all, and we anglers couldn’t help that those species had little interest in our dry flies. We just kept catching and releasing those annoying, out-of-season trout, while joking that we’d eventually find a fly chubs couldn’t resist.

Folks in the Eastern Sierra eventually caught on. The catch-and-release season was codified and late-winter fishing became a minor tourism boon during an otherwise slow period. Soon after, some hot shot writer for one of the glossy, national outdoor magazines wrote a piece about the Owens in which he quoted a Montana fly fishing guide saying the Eastern Sierra was the best place in the nation to catch trophy browns in the fall, better even than Montana. It didn’t take long for a shortage of elbow room to develop, as it would a few years later in the Treasure State.

Today, my dream is someone will make a hit movie about how much fly fishing sucks.

Rob Breeding is the editor of, which covers outdoor news in Montana.

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