How long is the hold?
I was surprised in September to see a lack of a response to Terrance Godar's comment about the "California Let Down" 5 mile hold in lieu of a procedure turn. Mr. Godar took you to task for implying that "the depicted 5-mile legs could be disregarded."
Your implication was correct. According to the FAA Chief Counsel's 2011 Young letter, "it is permissible, without specific ATC clearance, to shorten published outbound DME legs in a holding pattern as long as the issued holding pattern leg length is not exceeded." On the other hand, "If ATC verbalizes leg lengths for either a charted or uncharted holding pattern, the pilot does have to obtain ATC clearance to shorten outbound legs to less than that which has been cleared."
So, the depicted leg length on a distance hold is a maximum, just like the "remain within 10 nm" limitation appearing in most barbed procedure turns. Operationally though, it's always a good idea to make sure you and ATC have similar expectations. So it's probably the better practice to at least advise ATC that you plan to shorten the legs and see if that's a problem.
Mark Kolber, CFI
Raleigh, North Carolina
CFII Godar's point was that both the Instrument Flying Handbook and the AIM state that the HILPT should be flown to the leg lengths specified.
We've read the letter you reference and it does not explicitly apply--or not apply--to holds in lieu of a procedure turn, but it sounds as if it might be referring to assigned holds or those depicted en route or on arrivals and/or departures, not approaches. Lacking explicit guidance to the contrary, we're going to accept reader Godar's pointer to Handbook and AIM guidance.
That said, your point about clarifying any time you're not completely certain is the best advice overall. When in doubt, ask what the controller wants or will accept.