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.