The East Walker river, or at least the famous part, flows from Bridgeport Reservoir near the town of Bridgeport, California until its confluence with the West Fork near Yerington, Nevada. It has long been a popular trout fishery and was considered by some to be one of the best trout streams in the West. Unfortunately, during the drought of the late eighties Bridgeport Reservoir was drained for irrigation water, sending massive amounts of silt down the river. The few trout spared by the silted water were left high and dry in the river channel once the reservoir was empty. As if that weren’t enough, spawning gravel was buried under all the slit and the food chain was destroyed.
Since, the East Walker has pretty much recovered. With subsequent wet years much of the silt was washed from the river. Flushing flows were released from Bridgeport Reservoir to help expose the spawning gravel and restore the river. Additionally, regulations were put in place to prevent that kind of draw down again. Today, the river is producing well, offering both good numbers of fish and larger fish.
The river was also contaminated by an oil spill on December 30th, 2000, however this had minimal impact on the fishery. While clean up was difficult in the severe cold of the winter months, it was accomplished and the river recovered fairly quickly. In May of 2013, a tractor trailer crashed…you guessed it…at the US 395 bridge over the East Walker in Bridgeport. The driver was killed and the bridge damaged but the river was not harmed.
The East Walker is a tailwater fishery, meaning relatively steady flows and temperatures. The river leaves Bridgeport Reservoir and empties into the Big Hole, as it is known, just below the dam. From here the river travels through fairly flat meadow terrain, known as the Miracle Mile, before entering the canyon it shares with Highway 182. Some sections in the canyon are steep and wild, others flat and tame. This section from the dam to the Nevada state line are special regulation waters (see below). This first section, the California section, has it all, riffles, runs, pools, even a marshy still-water like section known as Murphy’s Pond.
The upper Nevada section flows through two ranches, first the Sceirine Ranch and then the Rosaschi Ranch. At one time both ranches were private water, the Sceirine allowed public access at no charge, the Rosaschi charged for access. Curiously, the Rosaschi land was obtained by the US Forest Service and is now public, special regulation water, but the Sceirine family now charges a fee for access. Gain one section, lose another, but in the deal we got public water on the Rosaschi section and that’s not likely to go away anytime soon.
Since being taken over by the US Forest Service local organizations, along with the USFS have made improvements such as toilets, fencing, etc. This upper section is flatter than the bulk of the California section and for the most part quieter water. It still has deep pools and under-cut banks, as well as flatter runs and riffles. The Rosaschi ends as it enters a deep canyon. When the East Fork exits that canyon you’re at the area known as The Elbow.
The lower Nevada section consists of The Elbow and the river to its confluence with the West Fork. The Elbow is generally shallow riffles and runs, with the occasional deeper pool. The quality of fishing begins to degrade somewhat below The Elbow, but good fishing can still be had. This section has no special regulations (see below), and lacks the numbers of large fish found in the other sections, but the fishing can still be great! Below the Elbow, access is tougher and you will be far from paved roads and civilization. Be careful.
Equipment, Techniques, and When to Fish
The East Walker river is as diverse a river as you can find. If you’re a year round fisherman you’ll use everything from a 3 weight rod and size 24 midges to 7 weight rods and size 2 wooly buggers and everything in between. Expect to go from chuck and duck nymphing one month to technical dry fly fishing the next. The river does have its better seasons but is fishable all year long generally. In the coldest months the river may freeze over and in the summer during drought years the river should not be fished due to high temperatures and low oxygen.
Spring – The water is generally low until the alfalfa season hits in late spring. March and April are prime months with good nymph fishing, especially with golden stoneflies doing their thing. Fish the nymphs on the bottom and expect to take some larger fish feeding on the size 8 to 12 golden stones. Dry fly fishing is sporadic but be prepared with blue wing olive and midge imitations, size 18 to 22, along with a good selection of standard attractor dries such as humpies, Wulffs and parachute Adams as well as elk hair caddis and midges. For nymphs try hare’s ears, prince nymphs, Bird’s nest’s, and pheasant tails, standard stuff, and never be without streamers. For rods use 5 or 6 weights with matching lines as most of your fishing will be with weighted nymphs and wind is not only likely, but expected. Use heavier tippets in 3x to 5x but carry 6x or 7x for the occasional hatch.
Summer – High water and fluctuating levels are the rules for summer on the East Walker. Fishing is slower and restricted to heavily weight nymphs or the edges in all but the flattest water. Patterns don’t change much from the spring and Czech style nymphing can be very effective. Caddis flies become more prevalent in the summer and don’t forget to bring streamers. Terrestrial patterns should consist of small black and red ants, sizes 16 to 20, hoppers and assorted beetles. Rods should be 4 to 6 weights and chest waders are a must in the high fast water unless you like wet wading. Warning – the water levels can fluctuate tremendously in summer so use great care when wading! Additionally, revive your catch well, before releasing. The warm water temperatures reduce the oxygen levels in the water.
Autumn – Starting in September (depending on snow pack the previous year and calls for water from downstream ranchers) the water levels begin to drop with October and November being prime months to fish the East Fork. Streamers come into their own during the fall with the fish bulking up for winter and the Browns spawning. Midges also make a comeback in late fall. Again standard dry and nymph patterns take fish and terrestrials are still effective in early fall. Streamers should be lively, big and heavy with favorites being wooly buggers, muddlers, and leach patterns. For rods, again a 5 or 6 weight are good all around choices, but for streamer fishing go heavy to help fight those big flies and bigger fish, try a 7 or even 8 weight with short stout 3x or bigger leaders. For midging try a 3 or 4 weight and long 6x or smaller tippets.
Winter – See Fall, well almost. Fishing slows as the water levels and temperatures drop but it still beats anything else north of Bishop. Midges and streamers are popular as well as nymphs and the occasional BWO hatch when conditions are cloudy. Expect low, clear water and spooky fish. Warmer days are better than colder, and ice can be a problem. Careful when releasing fish. The cold air temperatures can be harmful to the fish.
Nevada – Season is open year around, any hour of the day or night. Limit is 5 trout, 10 mountain whitefish and 15 warmwater game fish of which not more than 5 may be black bass except in that portion of the East Walker River which is from ¼ mile above the confluence of the East Walker River and Sweetwater Creek downstream to ½ mile below the confluence of the East Walker River and Red Wash Creek, which is catch and release fishing only. Only artificial lures with single barbless hooks may be used.
California – Last Saturday in Apr. through Nov. 15. Minimum size limit: 18 inches total length. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used. Limit: 1
Nov. 16 through the Friday preceding the last Saturday in Apr. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used. Limit: Zero
Note: Bow and arrow fishing for carp only is permitted during trout season.
Remember: Always check the appropriate state regulations before fishing and respect private property.
How to Get There
From Wellington, Nevada – Take the Wellington Cutoff To Highway 338. Head south on Highway 338 for about 25 miles until you see a dirt road signed “Hawthorne”. Follow the dirt road to the Nevada sections (you will find parking near the bridge crossing the river) or continue on the highway to the California section. Hint: to get to “The Elbow” follow the dirt road past the bridge and just keep going, it may seem your traveling away form the river but you will run into it again and get a spectacular view. I promise!
From Bridgeport, California – Take Highway 182 east past Bridgeport Reservoir. The river pretty much parallels the highway until you reach Nevada. To get to the Nevada sections continue along the highway into Nevada for several miles until you see the dirt road described above.
Camping may be found in and around Bridgeport and dispersed camping is allowed along the river here and there and north along SR 338 in the Sweetwater range and surrounding foothills. There are many campgrounds up around Twin Lakes near Bridgeport and two RV resorts at Bridgeport Reservoir. There are also two RV parks in Smith Valley, notably the Walker River Resort on the West Walker River. Motels are available in Bridgeport, and further away, in Yerington and Minden/Gardnerville, Nevada. Smith Valley has limited “Bed and Breakfast” accommodations and the RV parks.