California Super Hatches
June 21, 2012
A hatch-master's favorite hatches and his cutting-edge patters to solve them
I STILL distinctly remember my dad flipping out live grasshoppers from the edge of the stream and watching trout dash out from undercut banks to inhale them. This piqued my interest and nurtured an early preference for visually stimulating fishing.
Dry-fly fishing is at its finest during a heavy hatch — when the trout are feeding greedily — and I focus much of my energy on finding just those circumstances. Doug Swisher and Carl Richards gave a name to this experience, calling it in their book Selective Trout a "super hatch."
My criterion for a super hatch is an emergence of aquatic insects prolific enough to bring the majority of a stream's trout population to the surface. A sporadic hatch brings a few fish to the top. Many hatches get most of the smaller fish rising on top, and they often seem like special events. But a super hatch gets the attention of almost all the trout — even the largest ones cannot refuse a feeding opportunity like a super hatch, and they relinquish the security of their lairs to take advantage of the protein in the top inch of the river. What could be better than dry-fly fishing, unless it's dry-fly fishing to the biggest trout in the river?
I now live in Ashland, Oregon, just a few miles north of the California border, but most of my theories and patterns were tested and formed on California's hatch-rich waters, and I constantly return to the Golden State to test my skills on rivers with super hatches.
Hot Creek (Baetis)
I cringed as we turned off the pavement onto the gravel road leading to the hatchery and Hot Creek. Road debris thrashed out from the underbody of our '62 Ford Galaxy, and the billowing dust reminded me of the thunderstorms that had flushed me out of the high-country lakes the day before. They seemed to be following us to Hot Creek.
Our family had been traveling Highway 395 for a few days of trout fishing in the eastern Sierras. I proposed the idea of fishing Hot Creek to my dad after reading an article in Outdoor Life written by Joe Mears.
The piece outlined the dry-fly fishing for large rainbows and browns, and also talked about a legendary brown in McDonald's Pool that allegedly consumed live baby blackbirds.
I considered the approaching thunderclouds a threat, but they actually proved to be a blessing that day, when the storm stalled and a light sprinkling rain spread across the valley.
First there were just a few mayflies, and no signs of rising trout. But within minutes, the hatch thickened like rush-hour traffic.
The Blue-winged Olive hatch on the public waters of Hot Creek is one of the most dependable opportunities to find these well-educated trout feeding on the surface. The hatch begins most mornings between 10 A.M. and noon, depending on the time of the year and the weather.
The best months are late March through May, and again in late September to mid-November. The peak months are April and October, and the best fishing days are cloudy and overcast, with little wind and light rain or snow.
Rain seems to encourage the hatch, but more importantly it hinders the mayflies by prolonging the time they must sit on the water to dry their wings. To us, it appears as though more mayflies are hatching. In reality, they are merely there for longer, making them even more irresistible to large trout.
Hot Creek has two constants besides fantastic fishing — other anglers and weedbeds. The aquatic weed growth is a hassle, but it provides fantastic habitat for the aquatic insects, and it also provides cover and feeding lanes for trout.
In this clear spring creek, you can observe trout poised in weedy feeding lanes, or darting out from the cover of the weeds to intercept hatching duns.
Your casts must be accurate and your drifts drag-free, with slack in the tippet to allow a fly-first natural presentation in the narrow channels. All this should be combined with a slow, cautious approach, low silhouette, and a 12-foot knotless leader with 30 inches of tippet tapered down to 6X or smaller. Hey, I said it was a super hatch, not super easy.
During my first experience at Hot Creek, I found that traditional #18 and smaller Blue Duns, Hatch Matchers, and Gray Hackle Olives worked only adequately.
Although these classic patterns still produce, I find parachute or Hackle Stacker Split Flag Duns work much better. These styles allow the body of the fly to rest flush on the surface, portraying the natural outline of the adults. They spread the hackle to the side like mayfly legs and allow a perfect landing when presented. The upward wing position simulates the natural profile of the dun's wing,'¨deceiving hatch feeders, and the bicolor wing is easy to spot and follow on the water. Other effective patterns include hanging half nymph/half dun patterns like Quigley's Cripple or a BWO Para Nymph.
My best new pattern for this hatch is the BWO Film Critic. This emerger's entire body and thorax hangs below the surface film, while the stacked hackle and forward-tilted wing simulates the dun's ready-for-flight profile. It is a two-in-one trigger of both an entrapped and escaping fly, and unlike most emergers, it's easy to see.
Take the Hot Creek Hatchery Road off of Interstate 395. There you'll find 200 yards of prime Blue-winged Olive hatch water on the public area below the hatchery.
Downstream of this public section is Hot Creek Ranch, a two-mile private fishing preserve restricted to catch-and-release dry-fly fishing. The ranch has guest cabins, and if you have the funds, you'll find far less fishing pressure and the same hatches as on the public water.
Three-quarters of a mile past the turnoff to the ranch, there is a parking lot for access to the somewhat steep trail to the lower public water — about a mile of fishable river.
(E. dorothea infrequens)
The lower Yuba emerges as a tailwater fishery below Harry L. Englebright Dam. From Englebright Dam to Daguerra Point Dam, the Yuba has multiple super hatches, with excellent dry-fly fishing for trout and an occasional steelhead.
Fishing this stretch of river is logistically divided into two sections: Englebright Dam to the California 20 bridge, and from California 20 bridge to the Sycamore RV Park, just above Daguerra Point Dam.
There are no launch facilities at Englebright Dam, and the river flows through a steep canyon of mostly private ranch land and patrolled fishing clubs. Most anglers access the river at the California 20 bridge, where there is a primitive launch site and wading access. Steep terrain and private lands make wading upstream practical only during low flows. California law allows anglers to walk the river up to the high-water mark.
The Yuba is not stocked, and is maintained through catch-and-release regulations. You must hold a valid California fishing license, a Bay-Delta Sport Fishing Enhancement Stamp, and a steelhead card.
Downstream of the bridge there is a potholed gravel road paralleling the river on the south side. It's a tough, long walk from the road over the placer mining deposits left from the California gold rush, but it's doable. This area is known as the Gold Fields.
Some anglers walk the gentler side of the river from Hammon Grove Park (a county park) or Sycamore Ranch RV Park. Both are fee areas.
The habitat on the lower Yuba'¨varies from riffle water to willow-lined runs, deep pools, and spring creek-like flats. It's pleasant water to float, with plenty of stop-and-wade opportunities. There are no motors allowed; most fly fishers use pontoon boats or drift boats to float from the bridge to one of the private take-outs.
The river is best for wading at 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) or less. At these flows it is still swift and filled with bowling-ball to softball-sized rocks, and unstable, shifting gravel. Cleats are a must. Above 1,000 cfs, it's much better to float and even at off-color flows of 2,000 cfs, trout still feed on the surface. When flows reach 3,000 cfs, fishing is marginal.
The Yuba has several excellent hatches. My favorite, and the most consistent, is the Pale Morning Dun (PMD) hatch in May and June. [PMDs in the West were formerly identified as Ephemeralla inermis and E. infrequens. Recent reclassification now identifies PMDS as E. excrucians and E. dorothea infrequens respectively. The Editor.]
PMDs on the Yuba emerge from the late morning to the early afternoon, depending on the temperature. You won't find trout rising all over the river. You'll have to scout to locate groups of surface feeders intercepting the hatching emergers and duns. Deeper slots next to willow banks, current breaks, midriver seams and glides, and slow flats are all common feeding stations.
It's important to take the time to learn this river because varying flows dictate different feeding areas. If you are new to the river, start with careful observation.
In the slower flats and even currents, use an upstream reach cast, a parachute cast, or drop-and-drag the fly into the trout's feeding lane.'¨Always try for a fly-first, drag-free presentation.
If your drifts are drag-free and you get repeated refusals, it is either a pattern or tippet problem. If you observe trout moving toward the fly and abruptly turning away before a closer inspection, try a lighter tippet. If you get no reaction at all to the pattern, or see a bulging rise that pushes or drowns the fly, it's time for a fly change.
My first fly choice during this hatch is a #16 parachute or Split Flag Dun. Both patterns have dun-wing profiles and land perfectly. If the trout are extremely picky, I go to a #16 PMD Film Critic. The Film Critic is like having an ace up my sleeve. I don't play that card until I really need it.
Originally called Poinsett Creek — after Joel R. Poinsett, secretary of war under President Martin Van Buren — the creek was renamed after a surveyor lost his hat in a gust of wind, causing him to flounder desperately in the water before finally latching onto it.
The unplanned swim made such a humorous impression on his fellow surveyors that they renamed it Hat Creek.
Hat Creek begins as snowmelt on the slopes of Mount Lassen and it remains a small stream until it merges with the Rising River at Cassel, where it quadruples in size. It moves placidly through Cassel down into Baum Lake and exits at Powerhouse #2. The Powerhouse #2 Riffle marks the start of the lower 3.2 miles of wild-trout water on Hat Creek.
The creek can be divided into two types of fly water: riffles and slow-moving meadow sections. The famous Powerhouse #2 Riffle is less than a quarter mile long but there is another 1-mile riffle below Hat Creek Park on California 299. There is more than a mile of classic meadow water between these two magnificent riffles.
Hat Creek is about an hour east of Redding, which has the closest airport and car rentals. The closest town is Burney, which although small, has adequate motels and restaurants. It's also an hour from Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Without a doubt, Hat Creek has the most multifarious hatch situations I have ever witnessed. It has all of the major hatches: Salmonflies, Golden Stones, Little Yellow Stones, PMDs, BWOs, Callibaetis, and many caddis species.
The combination of a tribe of highly educated trout, and simultaneously occurring hatches makes it a challenge for any angler.
Fishing Hat Creek has fostered memorable days of matching the hatch, and also days I would rather forget. Hat is famous for its many small-size, complex meadow hatches, but also has simultaneous super hatches of large stoneflies that begin about May 1 and last through June. Luckily in a multi-hatch situation, trout frequently prefer the largest insects, and the presence of big stoneflies can sometimes make you feel as though you've "solved" Hat Creek's problematic hatches.
Golden Stones and Salmonflies migrate to the shallows in March and April and hatch mostly during the month of May. The nymphs crawl onto the streamside rocks and vegetation, where they emerge from their shucks and then find refuge. They mate in the streamside vegetation that often overhangs the river and, later, the females return to the water and drag their abdomens on the surface to release their eggs.
Trout key on stoneflies through this entire process. They are clumsy fliers and frequently crash into the water. They are also apparently poor clingers and crawlers, because any gust of wind sends them airborne or knocks them directly to the water, where they crawl along the surface and helplessly flail their wings.
Stones prefer fast, oxygenated water, and the most intense hatches on Hat Creek are in the two major riffle areas, but all the trout in the creek are aware of their presence, and stonefly imitations also catch trout in the meadows.
During stonefly season, I usually get to the river in late morning and cruise the high banks and bluffs so I can scan a large portion of the creek to locate active feeders. When I spot rising trout, I work my way down into a strategic position to present my fly. There are frequently multiple hatches going on, so the fish generally show themselves even if there aren't stoneflies on the water at that moment.
Many times I take up to 20 minutes planning, sneaking, and strategically probing the most secure feeding lies for big trout. These close encounters usually end in explosive tugs-of-war and I'm reminded of the adage: "It's better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all."
There are no set rules for this game. The position of the fish and many other factors dictate your cast, but I usually try to drop the fly about a foot above the trout with an upstream reach cast for a dead-drift presentation.
If there is no response, try twitching the fly to give the illusion of life. If there is still no interest after several more casts, change flies.
Stonefly egg-laying flights take place mostly at dark, and the hour after sunset in the lower riffles can be wild. Hat Creek is known for finicky trout, long leaders, and tiny flies, but when the sun drops and stones are skittering on the water, you can cut your leader back to 4X and watch trout recklessly crash your #4-6 patterns.
To be successful, you must fish your fly like a living insect, and tie patterns that appear alive to the trout. Even though adult stoneflies appear to lie flat with their wings at rest, egg-laying females or unfortunate adults struggling toward shore always flutter their wings. This movement is an important trigger.
As a result, I tie patterns with foam; stiff saddle hackle; and hollow deer, elk, and moose hair so they ride high and can be skittered without drowning. I use plenty of rubber legs to emulate the movement of the insect.
After several years of visiting, fishing, and eavesdropping on local conversations, I figured out that there was a hatch of large mayflies on the lower Fall River around twilight. Local fly fishers called it a Green Drake mayfly, and this errant identification became part of local folklore.
When I first fished the hatch 35 years ago, I bought locally tied Fall River Green Drakes at a nearby sporting goods store. Armed with flies that looked like yellow-ribbed #8 Parachute Adams, I headed to Glenburn with a few friends for an evening event that had taken on mystical dimensions.
The hatch came off after sunset, and the local flies caught a few fish, but the huge mayflies were not Green Drakes. They are Hexagenia limbata, and they cause spectacular feeding frenzies by 16- to 22-inch trout.
The Fall River rises from springs and small tributaries near Dana, California. It flows for about a mile before it becomes a navigable float river, though it has private banks and limited access. Below Spring Creek Bridge it is referred to as the Middle River. There, the river slows, widens, and flows through oxbows for close to 4 miles before passing under Island Road Bridge at the CalTrout Access, which provides the only public boat-launching facility.
This is the top end of the Hex habitat. Four-plus miles below Island Road Bridge, the river merges with the Tule River. This slow, deep, and mysteriously weedy section meanders another six miles to the Fall River Reservoir.
The Hex hatch starts just above the reservoir in the first week of June. As temperatures rise, the hatch works its way upstream to the confluence of the Tule River by mid-June, and upstream to the Islands Road section from late June to July 4.
Hexagenia limbata is the largest North American mayfly, with nymphs more than an inch long at maturity. They live in U-shaped burrows in the silty bottoms, mud banks, and back-eddies of slow, meandering streams.
When they reach maturity, the nymphs abandon their burrows at twilight and swim to the top with a undulating quickness.
Emerging Hexes are slow to hatch. They labor to split and unfold out of their shucks, which they ride as they flutter their wings to dry them until they are ready for flight.
The slow pockets along the grass banks of the Fall River trap the shucks, holding the evidence that a recent hatch has taken place.
I slowly patrol the banks, searching for these telltale shucks. When I locate a promising stretch, I anchor or slowly float parallel to the shore, keeping a minimum distance of 30 feet while I cast blindly along the banks. When the hatch starts, I anchor up on an obvious and consistent pod of gulpers.
Position your boat to look toward the western horizon for the best light. It helps to silhouette the fly on the water surface. I set up multiple rods in the boat so that when tangles or breakoffs occur, it's easy to pick up another rod and cast.
This hatch is short but furiously active, and it doesn't pay to tie knots in the fading light.
The hatch varies in intensity from evening to evening. I've caught some of my best trout on evenings following a massive hatch, when the bugs were sparser, and it's easier for the trout to pick out your fly.
Always skitter your flies to mimic the cumbersome antics of the naturals. The big mayflies launch off the surface quickly when there is a breeze; their wings dry fast and receive a lift from each gust. The trout respond by briskly grabbing them before they can escape, and in these cases a skittering fly works best.
If, instead, you experience splashy rises and no hookups with a skittering dry fly, strip a cripple imitation just below the surface. Lower the rod tip to the water, use a quick strip to jerk the cripple subsurface, then strip quickly with three fast pulls — about 6 inches each. Stop the fly, then repeat. It's often deadly.
If a submerged cripple fails, try an emerger or nymph on a floating line and retrieve it using a series of six rapid 2-inch strips. Keep the rod tip low to the water, and try and set the hook with the line hand and a slight lift with the butt of the rod.
Hex-x-cripples, Flutter Glow Cripples, and Lime Light Hexagenias (#6-8) are my best struggling-adult patterns for this hatch. Hex flies should have highly visible wings of white, yellow, or chartreuse to show up well at dark. Swim a #6-8 Hex Emerger when the fish refuse dry flies and seem to be bulging just under the surface.
I'm commonly asked about the apparently two different sizes of adults during this hatch.
These are not two different species, but males and females of the same species. This size difference exists in most mayfly species, but it becomes radically apparent when the mayflies are this large.
This may explain why it helps to carry two sizes. There have been nights when a #6 seems to do better than a #8. This is particularly true when the fishing pressure is increased or there are lots of insects to choose from.