Two hours east of San Francisco, the Stanislaus River offers wild rainbow trout—as well as striped bass, salmon, steelhead, and smallmouth and largemouth bass—all in the scenic setting of the lower Sierra Nevada foothills.
The lower Stanislaus, or “lower Stan” as locals sometimes call it, consists of a 4-mile tailwater stretch below Goodwin Dam extending downstream through Goodwin Canyon to the small hamlet of Knights Ferry. This section provides the river’s best fly-fishing opportunities for rainbow trout, which feed on mayfly and caddis hatches through spring and summer, and gorge on eggs during seasonal returns of salmon. Below Knights Ferry, the water warms and the river widens, and largemouth and smallmouth bass, stripers, and shad—all of which take flies—join the mix.
Prior to extensive damming starting in the 1950s and ending in the late 1970s, a large population of spring-run Chinook salmon returned annually to the Stanislaus. When Goodwin Dam was completed in 1979, it blocked anadromous fish from their upstream spawning habitat, extirpating the upriver run.
However, within a decade, fisheries biologists discovered modest Chinook returns below the dam.
Stream awareness increased when anglers and biologists discovered steelhead in 1996, prompting new flow regulations and consistent water temperatures, which increased insect activity. The abundance of aquatic life and good habitat has led to a thriving wild rainbow trout fishery. Today, river flows continue to be closely managed by the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).
The scene at Goodwin Dam is unlike anything else in California. Frigid water bellows from the spillway into a deep-blue pool. Several stories above, water from the reservoir creates a massive man-made waterfall. Heavy mist covers you, and the roaring and crashing water is deafening. This is the beginning of the tailwater fishery on the lower Stan.
On a recent outing I landed a male rainbow trout with dark green shoulders, a crimson band, and a massive hooked jaw—it was built like a miniature Chinook salmon and measured 21 inches. Although fish this size are a rarity on the lower Stan, the river produces many trout averaging 12 to 16 inches and the occasional beast up to 24 inches. This stretch holds roughly 1,500 trout per mile, and the best fly fishing is often between May and August.
Goodwin Dam is an irrigation diversion dam with releases spilling from the top of the dam, and seems unlikely as a water source for a tailwater fishery. But Goodwin Dam is just the last in a series of impoundments on the Stanislaus. Tulloch Reservoir is fed by cold bottom releases from New Melones Reservoir directly upstream, and the fertile water below Goodwin Dam stays cool and oxygenated even through the summer months.
The area below Goodwin Dam—known as Stanislaus River Parks—is administered by the Army Corps of Engineers and includes Goodwin Dam Recreation Area, Two Mile Bar Recreation Area, Knights Ferry, several other public access areas, two public boat ramps, trails, and several picnic areas.
The season on the lower Stan starts January 1, at which time the rainbows feed on salmon fry and eggs. This is often when the biggest ’bows are caught. Fishing behind the spawning salmon is productive with egg imitations such as Boles Bazookas, Gorman Eggs, and Otter’s Soft Milky Eggs (all #10-14). Pegged beads rigged Alaska-style and San Juan Worms also work well through January.
Chinook salmon begin showing up in October and tend to spawn in the sections between Knights Ferry and Two Mile Bar up until mid-January. Steelhead arrive in February and may be in the river as late as May, but they are few in number and their eggs are a far less important food source than those of Chinook salmon, which can number in the thousands and produce millions of eggs.
Lower Stan rainbows begin spawning in May. The best fly fishing coincides with the end of their spawning cycle, when the fish are hungry and aggressive. The stretch from Goodwin Dam downstream to the Highway 120 Bridge in Oakdale is artificial lures and barbless hooks only. For more information on licenses and regulations, click here.
The lower Stan consists primarily of two types of water deep fast riffles and long slow runs. The deeper runs fish best with fast-sinking lines and brown or black Woolly Buggers and Muddler Minnows (#4-8). Strip the fly fast and erratically and you’ll hook some large trout.
Normally, big Stanislaus trout bury themselves into snags. Use heavy tippets (0X to 2X) and put the backbone of the rod to work when playing them. Set the hook, and as soon as the fish starts shaking its head, use sideways rod pressure to turn it in your direction, away from the snags.
Proper positioning is crucial on the lower Stan. Take your time scrambling among the moss-covered boulders and negotiating the fast water. A long drag-free drift through the riffle is a necessity, and since the river’s edge is guarded by overhanging trees and the water depth often drops from 1 to 6 feet just a step from the bank, there is little room to backcast. Roll casting is required for the majority of the fishing. Around Two Mile Bar, the riverbank opens up, making it possible for more overhand casting from shore, but in other areas the river is so tightly constricted it is difficult—even dangerous—to wade or fish.
Riffles and slow runs on the lower Stan are suited for both nymph and dry-fly fishing. Many people believe the rainbows are difficult to catch between May and August, the peak of the fly-fishing season, but they can be caught regularly with the right techniques. Try lengthening your leader from 9 feet to 12 feet, and downsize tippets from 4X to 6X to catch these cagey fish in summer flows.
The fish often hold close to the bank and only push off when they get spooked. Once the fish are alerted to your presence, they become much more selective. When this occurs, rest the area for about an hour and come back. The fish will be back along the bank and eager to take the fly again.
When nymph-fishing with an indicator, I use a 4-foot butt section of monofilament attached to the fly line with a nail knot. Tie a perfection loop at the end of the butt section. Attach a 12-foot piece of tippet, normally 4X to 6X, directly to the loop. Tie your first nymph onto the tippet and attach a trailing nymph off the bend of your lead fly.
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