I grew up in the Sacramento area, and first started fishing the American River with my dad when I was about eight years old. The steelhead, shad, and trout in the lower river helped set the agenda for the rest of my life, and no matter where my fly-fishing travels take me—from iconic North Coast steelhead rivers like the Eel, to the taimen rivers of Mongolia, it’s satisfying to know that my home waters—the iconic forks of the American River—are among the best our country has to offer. Raft into the Middle Fork, and hook one of its big browns: Your mind will be blown.
The American River system drains more than 1,900 square miles of the Sierra Nevada West Slope between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. It has three main forks flowing west from the crest of the Sierra Nevada, meeting in the foothills, and eventually joining with the Sacramento River right in California’s capital at the headwaters of the San Joaquin Delta.
The diverse reaches of the American River were a historic stronghold for native salmonids, and its abundant salmon runs supported hundreds of native villages for many centuries. As settlers began to pour into California in the 1800s, the American River was one of the first settled watersheds due to its proximity to the Mormon wagon trail.
In 1848, gold was discovered by James Marshall in the South Fork of the American River at Sutter’s Mill, near the current town of Coloma. The ensuing California Gold Rush permanently changed the landscape, the ecosystem, and the fate of the river.
The modern American is a river of many uses. It is a complicated resource managed for hydroelectric power generation, municipal water, flood control, commercial rafting; yet this hardy river still boasts a diverse and prolific trout fishery.
The South Fork of the American begins at the small marshy Adrian Lake, just off Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe. From there, the river flows west following Highway 50 toward Pollock Pines.
There is a decent population of small wild fish in these upper reaches, and there are lots of pull-offs along the highway where you can jump out and probe some good-looking water. Wait for the water levels to drop around early to midsummer, and then look for fish in the deeper pools.
Four miles up the canyon from the Pollock Pines turnout, the river leaves the road and drops down into a remote and inaccessible canyon. Just below the town of Pollock Pines is the first major impoundment, called Slab Creek Reservoir, and 12 miles below that another called Chili Bar.
There are a couple roads that access the river through this section, including Mosquito Creek Road and Slab Creek Reservoir Road. During the summer the river remains fairly low through this stretch, and there can be some great dry-fly fishing or dry-dropper action in the granite- bordered pools. Every little pool holds fish, but getting too far up or downriver is a bit challenging. If you are skilled in the art of boulder hopping, this may be your section of river but it’s not for the faint of foot.
The South Fork below Chili Bar Reservoir is one of the most famous whitewater rafting runs in the West. This 21-mile adventure begins at the put-in called Chili Bar just off Highway 193, and ends in Folsom Reservoir.
This stretch of river has a highly controlled hydrograph to benefit rafters. Each night the water drops down to as low as 140 cfs, and each day can bump up to as much as 2,000 cfs. This huge diurnal fluctuation can make angling tough, but despite the strange flows, this section of river has a decent population of wild trout.
Fly fishers catch about 80 percent rainbows and 20 percent browns, but it’s those big 20-inch-plus browns everyone wants to catch.
This section of river also experiences some lake-run effects from Folsom Reservoir. In spring, rainbows that have wintered in the lake head upriver to spawn. In fall, the landlocked Chinook head upriver to spawn, and large brown trout often follow them to feed on eggs and eventually spawn themselves.
There are two theories to effectively fly fish the lower South Fork. You can either catch it at times of low water and wade specific areas fishing drys or nymphs, or you float it at high water and cast large streamers from the boat.
Streamers help you cover as much water as possible, and help you fish the entire day. The best wade fishing is early in the mornings, or late in the evenings, and all day on Wednesdays during summer.
These fish don’t see a lot of fishing pressure, and all the traditional patterns like Parachute Adams, Elk-hair Caddis, Hare’s Ears, San Juan Worms, and Pheasant-tail Nymphs work well. Possibly due to the fluctuating flows, terrestrials are dynamite, and you should come armed with hoppers, beetles, and ants.
It’s important to note that the water comes up quickly—don’t let yourself get caught in a bad situation if you’re wading. If you plan on fishing midday, the best strategy is to stay in the raft. Using sinking-tip lines, cast big, ugly Conehead Woolly Buggers and lead-eye sculpin patterns toward the banks and strip them through the many eddies and side channels.
There are a couple of Class III rapids with names like Meat Grinder and Trouble Maker, so this isn’t your typical fly-fishing outing. The South Fork is a rollicking adventure where trout are only part of the fun. Your oarsman should have whitewater experience—helmets and life vests are required.
The Middle Fork of the American River originates on the backside of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts just west of North Lake Tahoe, and quickly loses itself in Hell Hole Reservoir.
Just below the dam is the first decent place to access the Middle Fork for fishing without doing a multi-day backpacking trip into the headwaters. There is dependable fishing there at lower summer flows using drys and dry-dropper setups. From Hell Hole, the river plummets into a deep and remote canyon for several miles with no foot access.
The next place to get to the river downstream is at Oxbow Reservoir off Mosquito Ridge Road, outside of Forest Hill. As with the lower South Fork, the Middle Fork is also a popular whitewater rafting destination, with managed flows that are geared toward power generation and recreational boating.
This stretch is one of my favorite fisheries in California. The Oxbow to Drivers Flat run is roughly 15 miles, and has some of the best fishing of any fork of the American.
The water quality of the ecosystem is important of course, but the number one reason it fishes so well is because it is so hard to access—it’s a 15-mile stretch of wild, beautiful river that hardly gets fished. It is guarded at the top by a Class IV+ rapid called Tunnel Chute, and at the bottom by a Class V, 14-foot waterfall called Ruck-A-Chucky falls.
Most of the land through the canyon is private with no access at all. There is one private access down the river at Horseshoe Bar.
For the past several years Tom Bartos has been running a private fly-fishing club on the property called Horseshoe Bar Preserve (horseshoe barpreserve.com). It’s a membership-based club with an annual fee. They have access to a few miles of river including a few runs above Tunnel Chute, and a couple miles below. Other than that, the only way to experience this section is by floating it.
If you have your own whitewater raft and the experience you need to tackle this river, you can do it on your own. Otherwise, contact Rise Up River Trips (riseuprivertrips.com) about a two- or three-day float-fishing excursions. The experienced whitewater guides will help set up camp at night and provide excellent food. Multi-day trips help you maximize your fishing time while getting to experience a majestic canyon few fly fishers get to see. You don’t need to go to Montana to experience true wilderness fishing, it’s right here in California.
This section of the Middle Fork holds mostly rainbows in the 10- to 20-inch range, and the occasional brown up to 28 inches. To get after these big browns, I throw large streamers on a sinking-tip line from the raft.
You have to get your weighted flies down quickly, and strip the bugs fast for the most grabs. The water is usually clear during summer, and the fish can see your offering from a good distance.
The faster you strip, the less time they have to make a snap decision. The results can be amazing. Watching a large trout attack your fly in the clear water is unbeatable.
Of course, nymphing and dry-fly fishing are also great methods at times—either from the boat or while wading. There are a lot of bugs in this section, with decent hatches of midges, mayflies, caddisflies, and Golden Stones.
Below Drivers Flat there is another Class III rafting run that ends at Mammoth Bar, 5 miles downstream. It fishes similarly and is appropriate for a single-day float trip.
The North Fork of the American originates from the springs, seeps, and snowmelt from Donner Summit area just west of North Lake Tahoe and at the top end, it parallels Highway 80 in a deep canyon. The upper section of river is known as Royal Gorge. This steep, cascading section carves through a canyon of mostly granite and metamorphic rock.
The canyon has a very rugged and steep character shaping the river into deep pools and narrow channels then dramatically opening into wooded benches full of willows, alders, black oaks, and a mix of pines, firs, and cedars. There are waterfalls through this section, some up to 70 feet high. You won’t see rafters here, and in high runoff years, it can be too much for even hardened whitewater kayakers.
Very few people venture into this canyon, but there are lots of wild rainbows for fly fishers willing to hike and rock hop to find solitude and plenty of wild trout. The North Fork from Palisade Creek downstream to Iowa Hill Bridge is the only portion of the American River that is designated Wild Trout Water by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s also a federally listed Wild and Scenic River. The only way to really see and fish most of this section is the old-fashioned way, by foot on a network of steep and sometimes rugged trails.
Farther down the canyon, there are some access points that provide anglers much easier foot access to the river. The most notable are Iowa Hill Bridge Road, Yankee Jims Road, and Ponderosa Way. These are all on Google Maps or your handy DeLorme California Atlas and Gazetteer.
The lower sections are sometimes full of gold-panners in the summer months, and wading fly fishers will encounter fair numbers of rafters but unlike the runs on the Middle Fork and South Fork, there is no reservoir controlling the flows for recreational floaters. This section is freestone and completely subject to seasonal runoff, so the rafting is normally just in the spring and early summer.
A few miles below Ponderosa Way, the river flows into Lake Clementine. From there it’s just another few miles to the confluence with the Middle Fork. This lower section is accessible near the confluence just off Highway 49. There can be decent trout fishing here in the spring, but water temperatures in the summer warm up to the point where smallmouth bass from Folsom Reservoir move up into the river.
With so many options and seasons, the forks of the American are truly an “American Dream” or at least the dream of every fly fisher looking for adventure, solitude, and giant brown trout that are truly world-class. And it’s a secret I don’t mind sharing since there is so much water; and the many rapids, canyons, and foot trails present obstacles only a select few are willing to overcome. Have fun out there, and be safe!
Michael Wier is a Patagonia ambassador, filmmaker (burlproductions.com), and longtime Fly Fisherman contributor.
Silver Fork Campgound
The Silver Fork of the American is one of the high-mountain streams where I first learned to fly fish. It is the main tributary of the South Fork and flows from Silver Lake along Highway 88 to its junction with the South Fork at the town of Kyburz.
The Silver Fork cascades through a mainly granite landscape, plunging from pool to pool up high, but eventually it levels out a bit in a thickly forested valley for several miles. The cold, clear waters support a healthy population of wild rainbows, browns, and the occasional brook trout. There are plenty of stocked rainbows near the campground where the river flows out of Silver Lake, and also at Silver Fork Campground near the confluence—great starting points for kids and a family camping trip.
Seasoned fly fishers can walk up or down from these access points where there are miles and miles of remote canyon waters with excellent dry-fly fishing for wild and holdover fish when the flows are 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) or lower. Hike-in campsites are available along this stretch of beautiful cascading High Sierra stream.