California's Truckee River
July 26, 2011
A metaphor for moving waters and all things trout
Several years back, while I was still a fly-fishing newbie, I found myself in Ralph and Lisa Cutter's living room in Truckee, California. Ralph was feeding his aquarium-bound pet rainbow trout various life stages of caddisflies.
First he dropped in a larva, and we watched it float unmolested to the gravel below. The larva wiggled and crawled about the bottom, before being noticed and quickly dispatched by the trout.
Next, Ralph dropped in a pupa. It sank to the bottom and then began wiggling up toward the surface. The trout—now in eating mode—darted at the pupa and gobbled it. Finally, Ralph took an adult caddis, which was a little mangled from being handled between his thumb and forefinger, and dropped it on the water's surface. Now that we had its attention, the trout was ready and in position, and within a nanosecond, it inhaled the caddis. Ralph had created a hatch right before our eyes.
Later that day I learned about bugs, flies, holding lies, line handling, and how to use equipment. The Truckee River was nearby, the on-the-water lessons were taught on its banks, and it became the metaphor for all moving waters that we were to fish in the future. It was the beginning of a love affair with the Truckee that has lasted almost 16 years.
When the Donner Party spent the ill-fated winter of 1846-1847 along the Truckee, the only indigenous salmonids were Lahontan cutthroat trout. Later in the century, commercial fisheries in Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake (the Truckee's terminus) began harvesting the trout to supply stores and restaurants in Reno and Virginia City.
The combination of market fishing, and the construction of the Derby Dam in 1903, brought most of the river's Lahontans to the brink of extinction. Today, nonindigenous rainbows and browns predominate, alongside a few cutthroat, whitefish, and the occasional Kokanee salmon.
In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has stocked Lahontans into the Truckee, but the fish have gained little traction competing against the river's introduced species. As a matter of fact, heavy plantings of Lahontan cutthroat have provided an additional, ample protein source for some of the Truckee's famously big browns.
Good cutthroat populations do exist in the headwaters upstream of Lake Tahoe, where rainbows and browns were eliminated prior to the cutthroat reintroduction. USFWS has expressed interest in ridding the lower river, between Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, of nonindigenous fish and then replacing them with Lahontans, but economics and demanding logistics make this unlikely.
For most of its length the Truckee is a wild trout river. Hatchery fish are limited to the upper 10 miles, from the outlet at Lake Tahoe to its confluence with Trout Creek. The special regulations (wild trout) water begins below Trout Creek, at the lower end of the town of Truckee. This 20-mile stretch extends to the Nevada state line.
The private San Francisco Fly Casting Club water, located in the middle of the special regulations section, stocks hatchery fish by special permit. The fishing just upstream or downstream of the club boundaries is excellent.
Access points are easy and numerous along the Truckee. Though there is private water, there is also ample public property. The upper section begins at Fanny Bridge near the Lake Tahoe outlet. Its name is derived from the view of hunched-over tourists at the bridge railing, gawking at the huge trout holding below. This upper section is beautiful, but also a popular summer rafting run, and should be avoided at midday. California 89 follows the river all the way to town, and you can park at almost any pullout and easily access the river.
From where the wild trout section starts just below town to where it ends at the California/Nevada state line, access is good, with some sections requiring short walks.
Art's Run parallels Glenshire Drive and was named after Art Lew, a colorful longtime guide. There are several unimproved parking areas along the railroad tracks, and the river is only about 100 yards to the south. The water here consists of short, fast sections between and over boulders separated by long, sometimes shallow, flat runs.
Glenshire access is a couple of miles down Glenshire Drive at a bridge with adjacent parking. This section is heavily trafficked, but it also benefits from the San Francisco Fly Casting Club's stocking efforts just downstream.
I've found the concentration of wild fish can sometimes be higher at Glenshire access soon after the club dumps its alien fish. Snorkel studies in several California waters show that wild fish leave an area once stockers are introduced, and then concentrate on the fringes of their former territories for a time before spreading out. The Glenshire section is on the fringes, so when you time it right the fishing is awesome.
Continuing down Glenshire Drive, the next access point is at Hirshdale—Truckee's version of suburbia. There are places to park on both sides of the river. The cold Little Truckee River enters the main stream after traveling only a few hundred yards from under the dam at Boca Lake. Water stays cool in this section, and the fish like it.
Downstream from Hirshdale, access gets more difficult as the Truckee rushes through a steep gorge with limited parking. A dirt trail parallels the river, but reaching the water requires dangerous slip-and-sliding down steep embankments. The canyon stretch has pocketwater and deep pools, and holds some of the Truckee's largest browns.
The Truckee is reputed to be a tough river. But if you don't catch fish, it's generally due to one of two reasons. The first is location. Truckee fish are notoriously on the move, seeking out different sections with comfortable water temperatures. So pay attention to relative water temperatures where you are fishing. Wise Truckee fly fishers know, for example, exceedingly cold water temperatures (below 45 degrees F.) cause fish to gather around slightly warmer spring seeps. Conversely, as the river warms later in the year, the spring sections tend to have cooler water.
Late in the summer, target areas below cool tailwater tributaries such as Prosser Creek and the Little Truckee. Most important, remember that when the water is cold, fish it late in the day; when it warms, start early.
The second key to success is presentation. Truckee trout see many flies, so your presentation must be fundamentally sound. It's not especially critical in the pocketwater—where fish make quick decisions—but in slower runs, flats, and tailouts, you must eliminate drag and make exacting deliveries to fool trout.
Seasons and Bugs
During the winter, the primary hatches are chironomids (midges) and Baetis (BWOs). Use size 18 and 20 midge patterns such as WD-40s, Rojo Midges, Brassies, and Crack Back Midges. Red, black, olive, and brown flies work well at different timesâ€”take seine samples to determine which colors are dominating at the moment.
Baetis are still around in early winter, and then again from early spring to June. Nymphs such as Mercer's Micro Mayfly, Sloan's Mighty Mite Baetis, Vinci's Crack Back Baetis, and Flashback Pheasant Tails (#18-20) are good choices. Keep in mind the larval forms of these insects are present year-round.
When surface feeding occurs, use midge or tiny mayfly cripples. Generic go-to patterns include Quigley Cripples and Griffith's Gnats (#18-20). Big, ugly, sculpin-style streamers fished to the undercuts and in deep pools also produce fish throughout the winter.
Springtime means runoff, which typically starts in April and continues into June. When the river is roaring, fish find refuge along the edges, and dragging streamers in the slower bankside water produces some of the largest fish of the year. Use dark streamers (#2-6) such as Bunny Leeches, Woolly Buggers, and Cutter's Goblins fished on sinking-tip lines. For nymphing, make heavy flies such as the Riffle Dragon Stone and Depth Charge Bird's Nest part of your double-nymph rig.
The spring-to-summer transition marks the beginning of the Truckee's best hatches. The Green Drake hatch often coincides with high water—making it tough to fish—but flows typically drop to fishable levels in early to mid-June, in time for the tail end of the activity. March Browns and Baetis hatch through this period as well. Swing a March Brown soft-hackle through pods of feeding fish for deadly results.
Flows drop to consistent levels during the summer, and all the bugs we know and love show up. Caddis, Golden Stones, Little Yellow Stones, and Pale Morning Duns are the most common. For drys, use Elk-hair Caddis, Cutter's EC Caddis (developed on the Truckee), and Stimulators in appropriate sizes to match the naturals. Parachute Adams, and light yellow and cream parachute patterns (#12-18) cover most mayflies. The classic Yellow Humpy, which many anglers attribute to California fly tier Jack Horner, is still a popular and effective attractor fly on the Truckee.
Use Sparkle Duns and Quigley Cripples to represent mayflies (and caddis, too) struggling in the surface film. For nymphs, try Riffle Dragon Stones and Mercer's Poxyback Golden Stones to match the Truckee's abundant Golden Stoneflies. The Gas Caddis and Rick Fox's Radical Caddis also work well. You can cover most mayflies with various sizes of Pheasant Tails and Sloan's Mighty May in different colors.
Also worth noting are terrestrials such as hoppers and, importantly, the huge carpenter ants that blow upstream from the valleys below. Last but not least, crayfish are a popular cuisine with the river's larger trout. One of the best techniques during the warm, dog days of August is dead-drifting a crayfish imitation under an indicator.
Fall on the Truckee means less traffic—particularly on weekdays—and cooler water temperatures. Fishing remains good all day as trout feeding habits change from selective to opportunistic as the fish bulk up for winter. Around this time, Baetis begin to show again, and October Caddis leave their pine needle homes to pupate into huge, mothlike creatures. Trout become aggressive when these bugs are active. Because the water is low, stealth tactics are important: tread carefully on the banks so as not to spook trout holding in shallow water waiting for a hopper to drop in.
Rigging and Gear
Where the river is relatively wide, a combination of short-line techniques such as high-sticking or Czech nymphing, and long-line nymphing, are most productive. A good nymph rig starts with about a 9- or 10-foot leader tapered to 4X. Add a 6- to 10-inch tippet (in pocketwater, use a shorter section; when fishing deeper slots, go longer) of 4X fluorocarbon, and a heavily weighted pattern such as a stonefly nymph, Depth Charge Bird's Nest, or a big Green Drake nymph in the spring.
Attach another 18 inches of fluorocarbon tippet to the hook bend of the first nymph, with the diameter determined by the size of the fly. I like to tie on a small (#16-20) mayfly or midge pattern here, so the hook eye helps determine how large the leader diameter can be. Remember that movement is a key trigger, and a finer diameter tippet allows your small nymph to move more naturally. Attach two or three BB-size split-shots above the tippet knot.
Don't be afraid to use weight. On the Truckee, more is better because trout frequently hold between the big boulders on the river bottom. The more weight you use, the larger the strike indicator you'll need to support it. For long-line nymphing, I prefer hinge-style indicators such as Pop-Top Indicators, Micro-Ball Indicators, and balloon indicators, which come in various sizes to support a heavy rig.
The hinge allows the leader to bend at a 90-degree angle and eliminates leader "bowing," which can hinder your drift and negatively affect your ability to detect subtle strikes.
Five- or 6-weight rods cover all your Truckee River fishing needs. In summer, breathable waders are ideal, as temperatures can reach as high as 90 degrees in the afternoon. For winter, use breathables with fleece and wicking layers underneath. Other essentials include polarized sunglasses, a wading staff, a stream thermometer, and sunscreen.
Greg Vinci is the owner of Sierra Pacific Products and a contract fly tier for Umpqua Feather Merchants. He lives in Carmichael, California.