There is no “Off” season on California’s Yuba River
After a long winter of frozen digits and fading visual acuity from peering at #24 midges, skwala stoneflies are a blessing. When March rolls around, cabin fever has reduced most fly fishers to mental mush. On rivers like Washington’s Yakima and the Bitterroot in western Montana, Skwala stones are heaven sent. On the lower Yuba River however, in the heart of California gold country, winter barely scratches the Sierra Nevada foothills. Skwalas go off in January and roll into February. BWOs mingle with the stones. March browns actually pop in March . . . where else does that happen? PMDs fly soon after and that action gives way to a summer bounty of caddis and hoppers that carries well into fall. Winter is not time to restock flies, and summer doldrums are on notice. Bust out the gold pan, load up on foam and CDC, it’s always time to hit the Yuba.
I studied history in college, and while my current career path as a guide and fly tier is questionable at best, my education left me with a thirst to learn about our past. What first drew me to the Yuba is the deep history of the watershed and the role it played in shaping our country. The California Gold Rush exploded in 1848 along the forks of the Upper Yuba. Thousands of 49ers stampeded to the watershed in search of fortune. Rough and tumble towns sprang up overnight. A few struck it rich, most struck out.
These events considerably altered the course of U.S. history, and the life of the river.
From top to bottom, the river suffered massive flow disruptions, poisoning, and rerouting during decades of mining. Prior to 1883, miners used high-pressure water to erode the hillsides and expose gold. All the extra dirt and rocks washed downstream, and raised the riverbed up to 100 feet in some spots.
Mercury and arsenic leached into the river, killing aquatic life. Near the turn of the 20th century, dredging operations channeled the flow again and created the Yuba Goldfields, rock mountains that still tower over the river today. The first time I fished the Lower Yuba all I could see were rocks the size of golf balls, softballs, and footballs, heaped up along the banks and scattered across the valley floor. Just hiking through the mountains of stones, and along the enormous gravel bars made me wonder if I was in Paul Bunyan’s personal quarry.
Walking through that moonscape and thinking of the river’s history, it’s still a wonder to me that anything swims there today. It’s so far removed from the Missouri or Green, you would never think it’s a tailwater, but the cool, clear flows come from the bottom of Englebright Dam, and the water supports a robust population of wild rainbows.
Yuba rainbows are Indy car fast and linebacker tough, ripping line off the reel regularly. Most fly fishers rank them among the hardest-pulling trout anywhere. They bulk up on a rich diet of insects, and they watch plenty of fakes go by too, so it’s not the kind of place you rope a 20-incher by chance. The bug variety is an entomologist’s dream, so most of the time you have to play close attention if you want to find some of those big Yuba rainbows.
Stonefly nymphs are present year round but the Skwala hatch is on every fly fisher’s calendar. “It’s a rare opportunity to cast a size 8 foam stonefly in January,” says Jordan Romney of Fly Fishing Specialties in nearby Sacramento. “The Yuba is the best winter dry-fly fishery in California, and it’s one of the few places anywhere you can feel confident fishing drys any day of the year.”
There is no off season, and March Browns, Gray Drakes, Epeorus, BWOs, and PMDs all keep the fish looking skyward through the year. Golden Stones make sporadic appearances and Mother’s Day Caddis pop in April—well before you forget to call your mom.
The jumbles of rocks on the stream bottom offer plenty of hideouts for crayfish and sculpins. Chinook salmon spawn in the fall, and you can find some Alaska-style fishing during the egg drop, a rare opportunity in the Lower 48.
While the fish look up daily, nymphing is still the king. The Yuba is fast, full of riffles, and often deep, so if you’re not getting your bugs down and achieving good drifts, you might as well just be practicing.
Even then, don’t expect to force feed them, be prepared to swap patterns often, and experiment with weight to get the fly near the fish without constantly snagging the bottom. [See George Daniel’s story “A Propensity for Density” on page 48 for detailed strategies on weighting your nymph fishing rig. The Editor.]
I found out my first day on the water what kind of discriminating trout own the Yuba’s current seams. Standing thigh-deep in a cobbled run in mid-March, flanked by hulking oak trees, I caught nothing. I changed my fly multiple times. Rubber-leg Stoneflies, CDC emergers, foamy drys, Micro Mays, 6X fluorocarbon, I tried everything. Finally, I strapped on a #12 March Brown soft-hackle, my indicator disappeared, and it was game on.
Yuba trout tend to get locked in to something specific at the feeding trough—you’ll have to figure out what it is. The late Bob Quigley—a frequent Fly Fisherman contributor and widely considered to be “the professor” of the Yuba—tested and developed some of his now ubiquitous patterns here. His often imitated Quigley Cripple continues to dupe many Yuba rainbows and has proven effective from Alaska to New Zealand. Quigley’s Half Dun and Split Flag patterns are deadly when the BWOs or PMDs are going off and the fish are proving stubborn.
I believe as Quigley did, that if a pattern works on the Yuba, it will probably work everywhere there are fussy trout. The list of possible patterns to tie on might make you dizzy, palms sweating while poring through overstuffed Wheatleys, but with a bit of patience and observation the river will give up its secrets.
“The dry-fly fishing is often very technical. Long leaders and downstream presentations are key to getting eats on flat water during the mayfly hatches,” says Romney.
But it’s not always Ph.D. fishing. When the fish are eating stones, beetles, and caddis, they are less discerning, and novice anglers can achieve success too, particularly with smaller rainbows.
“We like the Yuba because it’s a good fishery for both first-time fly fishers and experts. There are challenging, technical aspects like throwing small drys to spooky sippers, and less technical aspects such as indicator nymphing. It really offers something for everyone at any skill level,” says Carrie Copithorne, owner of Off the Hook Fly Fishing Outfitters.
The Yuba is a hatch factory with big wild rainbows, but proximity may be the river’s biggest asset. It’s a short drive from Sacramento, and less than three hours for trout-starved anglers in the Bay Area.
Public access is straightforward, courtesy of California 20. About 20 minutes east of Marysville, California, the same highway crosses the river a couple miles downstream of the dam, providing access on both sides. The lower river only really has 5 or 6 miles of good trout water, but within that stretch is enough fishing to keep you busy for years.
Upstream of the bridge, you can walk and wade the north side of the river. There is no public put-in above the highway, so that water is dedicated to wading. Broad flats, riffles, and a few deeper holes appear as you walk upriver. Numerous buckets and scallops provide excellent feeding lanes, cover, and great opportunities for headhunting during a hatch.
It’s wide and intimidating water, but breaking down the seams and finding the edges produces very manageable pieces. In normal to high flows, a cliff and private property terminate the fishing about a mile upstream. During the last four years of low water, however, wading has been much easier. Flows around 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) or less at the Marysville gauge make the river crossable at several tailouts, opening much more wadable water. Providing you stay within the high water mark, you should avoid private property and poison oak too.
A bumpy four-wheel-drive road on the south side of the bridge opens wading opportunities downstream, while a plethora of riffles and runs creates beautiful hatch water for dry-fly fishing. The bridge provides floating access as well. From there down about 4 miles to Sycamore Ranch Park is the most common drift.
Headwater Dry Flies
The Lower Yuba and its year-round trout fishing bask in the limelight, but there are more chapters in the tale. Well upstream of Englebright in the Sierra Nevada gold country, the river splits into three forks.
The Middle and South forks are stocked with rainbows. Private property creates limited public access, but both forks are worth exploring on a summer family camping trip while enjoying the gold rush era towns of Downieville and Nevada City.
However, languishing in a tourist trap is not my idea of fun. I’ll take a day on the North Yuba every time. Starting out as a trickle and gaining volume from numerous tributaries, the North Yuba rips down out of the mountains at terminal velocity, full of smooth granite boulders making for excellent pools and pocketwater fishing.
The flow slows enough in spots to create glassy pools and tailouts with fish ready to slurp bushy drys.
If the lower Yuba gives you the stink eye, head upstream and bring Stimulators and Royal Wulffs. North Yuba fish are on that program. Foam patterns like Solitude’s Bee Meanie or the Chubby Chernobyl will draw fish to the surface as well.
Highway 49 delivers miles of easy access and pool after pool of wild rainbows, and the possibility of a bruiser brown to keep your heart rate up. Hatchery ’bows are stocked near a handful of campgrounds and are rightfully terrorized in the deeper pools.
High-stick nymphing is very effective in the pocketwater where common attractors suffice. A size 12 to 16 CDC Pheasant Tail or Sparkle Pupa with a couple of BB split-shot is a good rig to start prospecting. Like most mountain freestones, cover plenty of water and you’ll find willing fish. Normally a summer and fall fishery, the recent lack of snow and runoff cause the season to begin and end early so prepare to adjust your timing.
Mixing it Up
If you’re a trout purist, the lower Yuba and North Yuba won’t disappoint, but maybe the most intriguing piece of the river is the bottom end—downstream of the “lower” Yuba, where Daguerre Diversion Dam marks a shift in the fishery. There, buried in the mountains of mine tailings, you’ll find a variety pack of species.
Guide Dave Barbieri is one of the few people who float the lower end: “My favorite thing about fishing below Daguerre is the multiple species. We fish trout year-round—from May through August, you can catch trout, shad, and stripers in the same day, sometimes even on the same flies.”
Even smallmouth make occasional appearances. When the shad and stripers are thick, swinging or stripping a Clouser Minnow or Bernie’s Banger puts the hurt on multiple species. During the height of the shad run, hooking 50 or more of these mini tarpon is common. Throw in some stripers—including a shot at a fish over 20 pounds—a handful of rainbows and you never know what you’ve hooked until you get it to the boat.
The variety show continues from Daguerre ten miles downstream to where the Yuba dumps into the Feather River near its confluence with the Sacramento River. Steelhead return in the fall to the Yuba as well, and though the numbers are severely depressed, they occasionally give unsuspecting trout fishers a ride. Yuba steelhead are unicorns, and if you’re lucky enough to find one handle it carefully and release immediately.
I found myself wading far upstream of the Highway 20 bridge last February, enjoying cold water and T-shirt weather while the rest of the country fired up snow blowers. I’d picked up a couple of decent ’bows in the morning, dredging under a bobber, but remained less than satisfied with my efforts.
As sun warmed the riffles I grinned as a couple of Skwala stones fluttered against the blue sky. A splashy rise refocused my attention to the flow. Immediately I hacked off my nymph rig and exchanged it for my own foam Skwala imitation. The next 10 minutes brought three muscle-bound, scarlet rainbows to hand.
Despite sporting a piece of steel in its face, I thought of how fortunate the last fish was—all the Yuba trout in fact. While their cousins in the Rockies and back East battle ice flows and struggle to eat a microscopic midge an inch from their noses in the dead of winter, Yuba trout smile, eating foamy drys knowing it’s just another hatch in the endless season.
Brett Wedeking is a Berkeley, California guide and writer, and a commercial fly tier for the Dirty Water Fly Company in Montana.