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California's Fall River

Fly fishing America's biggest spring creek.

California's Fall River

In the magic hour on the Fall River, giant Hexagenia mayflies flutter their wings to escape the pull of the water—and the jaws of rising trout. (John G. Sherman photo)

The Fall River is part of a vast complex of springs around California’s Fall River Valley. They are the fortunate result of volcanic geologic formations that absorb rain and snowmelt, and store the water in giant underground aquifers. The cold spring water that gushes from the ground to form the Fall River is actually a combination of snowmelt and rain, but in many instances, it’s been stored and filtered through underground fissures for as long as 25 years before it comes back to the surface clean, cold, and ready to sustain life.

Some of the best trout rivers in California owe their productivity to these geologic miracles. Hat Creek, the McCloud River, Burney Creek, and the upper Sacramento River are all spring-fed, but among these great angling destinations, one giant reigns supreme. The 23-mile-long Fall River is, by volume, the largest spring creek in California, and one of the biggest in the Western United States. The Fall River complex includes Spring Creek, Crystal Springs, Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park, Big Lake, Eastman Lake, and the Tule River, all of which are primarily spring-fed. The only tributary that is primarily fed by precipitation is Bear Creek, which flows into the upper Fall River.

California Fall River
Fall River rainbows are powerful, hard-fighting fish. There are two distinct subpopulations in the Fall River—rainbows that spawn in the rainfall-affected Bear Creek in the spring, and those that spawn in the spring-fed tributaries most months of the year. (Val Atkinson photo)

Due to its cold, consistent, and bountiful flows, the Fall River boasts one of the largest populations of wild trout of any California waterway. It is a Designated Wild and Heritage Trout Water by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and is world famous for its powerful native rainbow trout.

The cold, slightly alkaline flow of the Fall River supports a vast network of aquatic vegetation, which in turn produces huge numbers of aquatic insects.

Fall River hatches are legendary among fly fishers and provide incredible dry-fly fishing. But the Fall River’s water isn’t important just for fly fishing.

This water is used for agriculture in the Fall River Valley and generates power through several hydroelectric stations downstream along the Pit River before it finally flows into Shasta Reservoir. It then contributes to the tailwater flows of the lower Sacramento. Some of that water feeds the Sacramento River Delta, and some of it potentially makes it way all the way to Southern California through the California State Water Project.

As the largest spring-fed river system on the West Coast, the Fall River is one of California’s most valuable water resources, and deserves special management and protection.

Fall River Access Issues

I grew up hearing of prolific, legendary hatches and consistent dry-fly fishing on the Fall River. I read about the clear, cold, meandering water, and I was told of the epic Hexagenia hatch in the early summer, when massive rainbows slurped at the surface. But I also got the impression that Fall River fly fishers flew into private airstrips and fished only with guides from private estates along the river.

Those early perceptions turned out to be only partially true. While the Fall River is indeed surrounded mostly by private property, there are also public access points and fishing opportunities for do-it-yourself anglers.

Because foot access is difficult and the river is so deep, the best way to fish the river is by boat. Most private landowners have their own boat launches, docks, or moorings, but several years ago California Trout bought a small piece of land just off Island Road, and maintains it as a public launch point.

You don’t have to be a CalTrout member to use the launch. It’s free. The only hitch is that the river here is restricted to electric motors only. Only human- or electric-powered craft can launch from the CalTrout property, and you cannot launch from a trailer. You have to be able to drag or carry your craft to the water from the nearby parking area.

California Fall River
Because the water is deep, almost all the fishing in the Fall River is done from a boat. CalTrout owns and maintains a public access just off Island Road, where you can launch electric- or hand-powered craft. Gas-powered motors are allowed, but they launch from private docks or boat ramps. (Val Atkinson photo)

Traditionally, small prams and johnboats have been popular choices for the Fall River, but new lightweight, frameless inflatables and fishing kayaks have made practical boat ownership a reality for people who don’t have tons of cash to spend. Luckily you won’t have to row or paddle very far—there is great fishing in close proximity to the CalTrout property.


An easy alternative is hiring a guide. Your guide will have a boat already parked somewhere with private access. The last few times I’ve fished the Fall River it’s been with the guides from Clearwater Lodge. This is an awesome old building with property along the Pit River, just ten minutes from Fall River.

You can also rent a boat from Circle 7 Ranch for $100 per day. There are some nuances to navigating the river, so do your homework, come prepared with navigation software on your phone or tablet, and don’t stray too far from Circle 7 Ranch, at least on your first few tries.

Spring Creek Fishing Strategies

Almost all the fishing on Fall River is out of an anchored boat. Fishing while the boat is drifting is poor etiquette, and you’ll end up interfering with other fly fishers who are anchored. The usual strategy is to find a section of water you want to fish, and anchor the boat above it. This way, you can make a downstream presentation to rising trout so they see the fly first, and not the line or leader. If you’re not catching fish, it’s not because there’s a lack of fish in that spot, but because you need to change your flies and/or techniques. There are fish all over this river.

California Fall River
Spring Creek, Crystal Springs, Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park, Big Lake, Eastman Lake, and the Tule River are all parts of the Fall River complex and contribute to its clean, cold, consistent flows. (Sean Kerrick Sullivan photo)

Because the water is so consistently cold, many hatches come off at midday or early in the afternoon, rather than in the late evening as on many other fisheries in the summer. The main hatches on Fall River are mostly Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) and Baetis. There can also be a decent Trico hatch on the upper river in the late summer and early fall. Most classic mayfly imitations will work, but the fish definitely prefer slim, realistic, and low-riding dry flies here.

On the Fall River, You won’t need your big, bushy attractor flies.

My favorite pattern, of course, is the Bob Quigley Hackle Stacker, which was designed specifically for the Fall River and first described by the late, great Bob Quigley here in the pages of Fly Fisherman. A good old Parachute Adams sometime works too, in sizes 16 and 18 for PMDs and sizes 18 and 20 for Baetis hatches.

When there’s a hatch going, you will definitely see rising trout. The game is to pick a specific target, land your fly 10 feet above it, and bump mend, feeding out slack line and drifting the fly down the fish’s feeding lane.

Fall River ’bows are hard-fighting fish. The cold water makes them supercharged, and every single trout is healthy and fat. Landing them is challenging because you must use light tippets—5X and 6X are the norm here—and the fish frequently wrap themselves up in the weeds.

The Fall River is famous for its hatches and for its spectacular dry-fly fishing, but those midday hatches typically last only an hour or so. If you’re keen to catch fish all day, nymphing is the name of the game.

The typical Fall River nymph rig consists of a couple of small flies—typically small mayfly or midge imitations, a small split-shot, and a clear or neutral-colored strike indicator. You present the nymphs the same way, casting down and across, and then you bump mend to feed out slack line as the indicator drifts away from you.

Sometimes you cast the rig only 10 feet from the boat, then spend most of your time mending to make a clean drift as far downstream as you think you can set the hook. It’s kind of a fun game to see how far you can get a drift to go—but setting the hook at this angle, and with all that line out, is difficult. Mercer’s Micro Mayfly (#16-18) and Jiggy PMD (#14-16), developed by Mike Mercer at The Fly Shop in nearby Redding, California, are as good as any nymphs on the Fall River. Other good choices include the Root Beer Baetis, Two-bit Hooker, and Zebra Midge.

Another Fall River subsurface technique is swinging soft-hackles, emergers, or small leech patterns on a clear intermediate line. Most people use a 9-foot, 4X tapered leader, and add 2 or 3 feet of 5X tippet. With this technique you cast directly across the river and let the fly swing slowly and sink in the soft currents until it’s hanging directly downriver from the boat. Twitch and retrieve the fly slowly when it’s hanging directly below you. Craven’s Soft Hackle Emerger (yellow, #16), the Improved Pheasant Tail (#16), and Mayer’s Mini Leech Jig (#14) are all solid starting points.

The Fall River's Hex Hatch

The world-famous Hexagenia hatch is what the Fall River is probably most known for. If you’ve never experienced this, it’s a phenomenon you need to see to believe. The Hexagenia mayfly is the largest species of mayfly in the world. They are remnants of a different age, when some mayflies had wingspans of 2 feet. The modern Hexagenia is typically 1.5 inches long, and can have a wingspan of more than 2 inches. To me, they resemble flying bananas—hearty meals for eager trout. Hexagenia mayflies typically hatch from the muddy bottoms of the lower Fall River, and unlike other mayflies on this river, they emerge at dusk.

California Fall River
The longest, most consistent hatches on the Fall River are Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) and Baetis. The fish here prefer slim, realistic, and low-riding dry flies. Classic parachutes will catch some fish, but the late great Bob Quigley developed his Hackle Stacker patterns while fishing the Fall River, and they are still top producers today. Use sizes 16 and 18 for PMDs and size 18 and 20 for Baetis hatches. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

In some years, the Hex hatch can last from June all the way to August. But it’s most often just three or four weeks in June into July.

Hex fishing on the Fall River is an after-dinner activity. The good fishing lasts for only about the last hour of daylight. Typically, you spend more time getting the boats on the water and getting into position than actually fishing the evening hatch. Position the boat where you are at a reasonable casting distance from the shore, and where you won’t be looking directly into the evening glare. After a few nights on the river, you’ll be able to gauge the best direction to spot your fly, even in low-light conditions. Sometimes seeing your fly doesn’t even matter. If it gets too dark, you just listen for a slurp and lift the rod.

The Hex hatch is best on calm evenings, when the water is glassy and still. Everything around the river comes alive at that time of night. Birds start chirping, hawks swoop across the horizon, and coyotes start barking. Then a trout breaks the mirrored surface of the river. Then another. Soon, you see the big adult mayflies on the water. They are hard to miss. When there are just a few Hexagenia flies on the water, and the trout are keying on the first few adults, that’s your best opportunity for catching fish. Later, the hatch can become so heavy that it’s hard to pick out your fly on the water, and the fish have so many targets that it’s hard for them to find your fly.

Large flies like Hex Paradrakes or Hex Adults are so big that they land with a hard plop on the water. That’s the easiest way to locate your fly.

Since it’s a little darker and the fish are feeding with reckless abandon, you can get away with shorter leaders and heavier tippets. Typically you need to lead a rising fish by only 5 or 10 feet. In broad daylight, Fall River trout are picky eaters, wary, and spooky, and it seems as if they count the tails on your fly.

During the Hex hatch, they are at their most vulnerable. Most fish come on a dead drift, but you can also induce strikes by skating and or bouncing the fly around a bit. The takes are always explosive. Sometimes the trout “Jaws” it from below. At other times, they launch themselves all the way out of the water and eat the fly on their way down. It’s about as much fun as you can have with a 9-foot 5-weight in your hand.

Science and Advocacy

The Fall River complex is ground zero for a comprehensive rainbow trout population dynamics and genetics study conducted by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Science, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, California Trout, and The Fall River Conservancy.

Since 2013, there have been annual fish-tagging events in which trout are gently equipped with small passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, which help scientists track their movements throughout the spring creek system. Nearly 4,000 fish have been captured and equipped with the PIT tags.

California Fall River
(John G. Sherman photo)

Throughout the river are PIT tracking arrays, which collect trout movement data and send that information to a database. Several guides on the river carry wands that can read the PIT tags—they scan every fish their clients catch. This information tracks trout movements throughout the entire system and throughout all seasons. In addition, each tagged trout is given a very small fin clip to provide tissue samples for genetic analysis. So far, the study has yielded impressive results, which are already influencing management decisions. Genetic analysis has shown two distinct subpopulations of rainbows within the Fall River system. The smaller population is adapted to spawning in the only rainfall-affected tributary, Bear Creek. Those fish observe traditional rainbow spawning times at the height of spring runoff in April or early May.

The other, larger subpopulation of rainbow trout is uniquely adapted to spawning in the spring creek tributaries. These fish spawn throughout eight months of the year. During much of the year, the two populations intermingle and feed side by side.

But when it comes to spawning, the distinct rainbow populations have historically remained distinct from one another. It is impossible to tell the two strains apart by visual inspection. Differentiation is possible only through the genetic analysis of the tissue samples.

This scientific information is important in making management decisions for the Fall River. The science has already come into play in the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s overhaul of the state’s trout-fishing regulations.

Historically, the Fall River and its tributaries were regulated under the traditional trout season, and open to angling from the last Saturday in April through November 15. Under the new regulations, the Fall River is open to angling all year. From the Saturday before Memorial Day through September 30, there is a two-fish bag limit, artificial lures only. The rest of the year, it’s catch-and-release only.

California Trout and the The Fall River Conservancy are disappointed that barbless treble hooks are allowed in catch-and-release waters. Single barbless hooks are not required on any California waters.

The Fall River Conservancy and California Trout are currently petitioning the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to designate the entire Fall River as catch-and-release only, and to close Bear Creek to angling in the spring to protect the distinct, spring-spawning population of fish.

Michael Wier grew up in the Sierra foothills, where he split his time between snowboarding and fly fishing. He spent 15 seasons fishing and guiding the waters of the Truckee, Carson, and Walker rivers. He also started BURL Productions, producing outdoor films such as Trout Bum Diaries 1, Soulfish, and Cali Rush. He is a Patagonia ambassador and outreach coordinator for California Trout.

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