California Fly Fishing
March 10, 2014
In the last decade we've watched a change overcome California fly fishing. At first there were isolated instances of longer rods, bigger reels, and newfangled "roll casts." As the months and years rolled along it became commonplace, and now half the wading fly fishers you see today on Northern California tailwaters are using two-handed rods and Spey casts. The purchases of these rods now account for as much as 25 percent of the fly-rod sales in many California fly shops.
The first two-handed rods with widespread regional appeal were 14-foot rods best suited to large Pacific Coast rivers, and for steelhead and salmon fishing. But the more recent trend has been toward shorter, 10½- to 11½-foot rods you can use for either single-hand overhead casting, or for two-handed Spey casting.
These "switch" rods allow you dead-drift nymphs using short-line nymphing techniques, or quickly switch to dry flies. The longer casts allow you to cast farther, but more importantly allow you to lift more line off the water for complicated or far-reaching presentations, and because they do not require a backcast, you can use them more effectively in waterways squeezed into canyons or choked by brushy banks, as California tailwaters often are.
If you haven't tried using a two-handed rod for trout, shad, or Central Valley steelhead, do yourself a favor. Here are some of our favorite California switch waters, where you'll get the most out of your two-handed tackle.
If there was ever a river that is the perfect size for two-handed rods, it's the lower American River which flows 23 miles from the Sierra foothills through the Sacramento metropolitan area. The American hosts four anadromous runs—steelhead, salmon, American shad, and striped bass. Almost every season finds one of these species making a journey up the river.
In the early fall, half-pounder steelhead arrive. They are sexually immature fish ranging between 16 and 22 inches that for some undiscovered reason show up about the same time each year. It's obviously not a spawning run, but they may be following the vanguard of the salmon that have been trickling in during the summer. They tend to spread out in the river and you don't usually find them podded up, except after the increased flows following a good rainstorm.
These fish respond to patterns that represent the river's aquatic life, which is somewhat limited. The largest bug available in big numbers on the American are caddis, so size 12 to 14 pupa patterns work well. Soft--hackle patterns are also a local favorite as they react naturally to the currents while they swim through the water.
In January, the winter-run steelhead arrive, and these are mature, spawning-size fish ranging in size from 8 to 20 pounds. This is the southernmost reliable trophy steelhead run in California, and a 7- or 8-weight, 121/2-foot rod is perfect for making big casts and landing fish of this heft. Swinging a two-fly combination of a leech and an egg pattern—with 12 or 15 inches of monofilament between them—is always a good way to start the day.
Perhaps the most popular anadromous run on the American is the spring run of American shad that we jokingly call the "poor man's tarpon." About the time that the cottonwood pollen starts to fall, shad begin their trek up the Sacramento River and into the American. Toward the end of May they are throughout the river.
Shad move in and pause together in schools, and in many cases they sit in the broad flats and tailouts of pools, often well beyond where a single-handed rod cast can reach. They hang around well into July, and it's not uncommon to see hundreds of shad fishermen, most of them using two-handed rods, spending a warm summer evening wet wading along the shoreline.
Fly fishers, whether two-handed or single-handed, almost exclusively use swinging techniques for shad. The arc of the swing is larger if using a two-handed rig, and the casting is more efficient and effortless. Everyone has a favorite shad fly, but they are usually similar to a steelhead Comet or small bucktail jig, tied in bright fluorescent colors. The hot fly the last several years has been Jeff Ching's Bloody Maria.
One of the reasons we love the American is the easy access to the best holding water. There are many parking areas along the 23 miles of river, and each happens to be near a steelhead riffle/pool known for good fishing. I wonder sometimes if someone in the county planning department was a steelhead fisherman?
For $5 (or $50 annually) you get a day pass for unlimited parking at any of the access points. While at a parking area or driving along one of the access roads, be sure to follow all traffic laws, as the park rangers here are almost predatory in how they enforce them.
The lower American River runs through California's capital, so there are many lodging and food opportunities close by. Three fly shops are in the Sacramento area: Kiene's Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop, American River Fly Fishing, and Fly Fishing Specialties.
The Feather River flows out of the Sierra into the central valley at the town of Oroville, a little over an hour north of Sacramento. Oroville Dam controls the flow, and provides cool water even in the 100-degree days of summer.
At the town of Oroville the river splits, and most of the flow is diverted into Thermolito Afterbay, a reservoir that provides water for thousands of acres of rice fields in the valley. The remaining flow continues through the original river channel. This section is called the "low-flow" section, and it's always wadable. You can access it from a well-maintained levy road that runs alongside it, or float it in a drift boat or other watercraft.
Because the low-flow section consists of long sections of frog water punctuated by riffles, finding the steelhead isn't rocket science—though it can require that you move from riffle to riffle before you find them. Even if you float the river, you will probably stop and get out to wade the most productive sections.
The Feather hosts several runs of steelhead. October and November are the best months, and the run this time of year consists of a Klamath River strain of steelhead that were introduced in the 1960s. The fish average 4 to 6 pounds, and they are shaped like footballs with tails and mouths at opposite ends. In the spring there is another (smaller) run of indigenous steelhead, but you can find steelhead throughout the entire winter.
What makes the Feather perfect for two-handed rods is that the riparian strip along the banks is dense and close to the water. There are gravel bars, of course, that you can stand on and backcast with a single-handed rod, but there are also many runs that you can reach only by making a long double Spey or snap-T cast. The water is relatively shallow but can range up to 10 feet deep in places, so there is a need for a good selection of tips with different sink rates.
In the fall, the steelhead follow the salmon up the river, so wherever the salmon are you'll find steelhead podded up just downstream, slurping up any eggs that don't get buried.
Egg patterns catch the most fish in the fall, but during the spring, steelhead feed mostly on aquatic insects, so impressionistic bugs such as a Depth Charge Bird's Nest, or more realistic patterns like Lance's Awakening Caddis and the Fox's Poopah in olive and tan are better choices.
Three fly shops—Chico Fly Shop, Fish First, and Sierra Stream & Mountain—are in the town of Chico about 30 minutes away.
An hour north of Sacramento, the lower Yuba River flows out of California's historic Mother Lode Country. Hydraulic gold mining activity throughout the drainage in the latter half of the 19th century was so intense that the silt from mining caused considerable environmental damage downstream, and devastated large tracts of agricultural land with poisoned water. The consequence was litigation that resulted in some of California's earliest environmental laws. Among the steps taken to mitigate the migration of silt downstream was the construction of Englebright Dam to trap the silt.
The Lower Yuba begins downstream of this dam and it courses through the foothills to its eventual confluence with the Feather near downtown Marysville.
The Yuba is characterized by long sections of shallow, clear water with frequent riffles and side channels. Where on the American and the Feather, the riparian strip is a hazard for standard backcasts, there are long gravel stretches on the Yuba with little vegetation. However, while the fish on the American and Feather are concentrated in the riffles and avoid slack water, the fish on the Yuba are just the opposite. They love the flat, wide pools due to the fact that the Yuba's water is always cold, and even in the flat water the current moves along at a fairly fast clip. This wide water is just begging for the kinds of long casts and big swings perfect for a switch or Spey rod.
Yuba rainbows are in the 12- to 20-inch range, and have a reputation of being the hottest trout in Northern California—probably because the water is so cold and oxygenated. Obviously such fish greatly enhance the two-handed experience as most of us who swing with two-handed rods "live for the grab." When a Yuba rainbow grabs ahold of your fly and starts running, it's a jolt of adrenaline you won't soon forget.
There is a well-maintained road paralleling the river on the south side for about 5 miles downstream of the Highway 20 bridge. Also, the stretch upstream can be accessed by parking at the bridge on the north side and walking upriver. Respect the no trespassing signs on adjacent land as it is owned by a gold-dredging company, and they have little patience with trespassers.
Yuba rainbows respond to articulated leeches and Muddlers, but more bug-specific patterns are usually the best choice. The first hatch of the year is the Skwala stoneflies that emerge around the beginning of February and stay around through March. A dark size 8 Bird's Nest looks close enough to a Skwala nymph that it gets grabs on the swing. In the spring, March Browns are an important hatch and swinging a dark size 12 soft-hackle through rising fish is deadly. From spring through summer the Bird's Nest or Fox's Poopah, in sizes 12 and 14, work well at imitating the rivers abundant caddis pupa. Good colors are rust and olive.
Lodging, food, and fly tackle are available about 20 minutes in either direction on Highway 20, either in Grass Valley to the east at Reel Angler's Fly Shop, or to the west at Johnson Bait & Tackle in Marysville.
The lower Sacramento River flows from the base of Shasta Dam into Keswick Reservoir, and then drops south through Redding, Red Bluff, and then 200 miles to the Sacramento Delta where it meets several other northern California rivers and eventually dumps into San Francisco Bay. The Sac is known as a great trout fishery, particularly the section between Redding and Red Bluff, but it also has steelhead.
The steelhead runs start in late September and last into February. This run starts early for one specific reason—the egg drop of spawning salmon. Every time you have salmon coming into the system, you usually find steelhead holding just downstream.
Both the steelhead and the trout are eager to eat and become reckless in their feeding habits simply due to the fact the fish seem to be frantic to eat as many eggs as possible. The Sac is a big river, making two-handed casts not only appropriate but extremely effective. One of the best stretches for wading is the Battle Creek access area—it has two great riffles, and they are usually loaded with spawning salmon.
Lawrence Riffle south of the access area is easy to get to by parking on Jelly's Ferry Road, just south of the entrance to the old Battle Creek mouth. You can see the riffle from the road.
The other riffle is located adjacent to the access area itself. It is a huge gravel bar that is also used to launch boats for the short trip upstream to the Barge Hole. This riffle has it all—runs, seams, salmon redds, and a long flat run leading downstream for several hundred yards. It's accessible from the Jelly's Ferry exit off of I-5. Drive east, and cross a single-lane bridge over the river. The road turns north and heads toward Coleman Fish Hatchery. The access area is on the right side. It's a dirt road that wanders through a heavily wooded area with several wet spots. This area is seemingly made for Spey casting as it consists of long runs, and classic steelhead riffles.
For fall and winter steelhead, depend on nymphs, egg patterns, and weighted articulated leeches. Lincoln's TS Bugger, Willie Nelson, GG's Red Headed Leech, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns, and Glo Bugs in a variety of colors are standard.
For spring-run fish, small Mercer's Micro Mays in olive and brown, caddis patterns in olive and green, Lance's X-May in olive, Vinci's Depth Charge Bird's Nest, and a variety of soft-hackles can be used on the swing or dead-drifted below an indicator.
The Lower Sac is an urban fishery so there is lots of lodging and good food nearby. Redding is home to one of the biggest full-service fly shops on the West Coast, and you can get everything and anything you need at The Fly Shop (flyshop.com).
California's Central Valley rivers offer year-round fishing opportunities that can't be found in most other areas of the country. Every season brings runs of one species of fish or another. When one river is between runs, there is often great rainbow trout fishing. Being that no two rivers are more than a couple of hours from each other, it's always easy to find some great fishing within a relatively short drive.
Lance Gray and his wife Kirsten own the company Lance Gray & Company (lancegrayandcompany.com). Greg Vinci owns and operates the website california-flyfishing.com, a good source of information on the fly patterns and rivers covered in this article.