September 26, 2012
My wife Lisa pulls gently on the oars of the raft and we glide over several dozen Truckee River rainbows and browns, none of which weigh less than three pounds. They are "pet" trout that have grown accustomed to eating marshmallows, popcorn, and white bread tossed from Fanny Bridge by goggle-eyed tourists. The bridge is so named for the rear ends of the spectators bent over the bridge rails watching the trout.
My casting arm reflexively twitches, but I suppress the urge as we drift through the no-fishing zone that extends from Lake Tahoe's blue waters downstream a few hundred yards. As we near that invisible mark where the trout sanctuary ends, the fish numbers dwindle until they seemingly vanish. How do they know?
It is autumn and the summer crowds have long since disappeared on California's Truckee River. Without the daily raft and Powerbait hatch, the river's big fish are emboldened to leave the protected waters, locally known as the DMZ, and anglers have a better chance of tangling with double-digit trout all the way to River Ranch about three miles downstream.
In full summer, the fly fishing can be surprisingly good amid the flotilla of raucous, beer-swilling, barely dressed and otherwise good-timing rafters. In the flat, weedy stretches downstream of Tahoe City, Callibaetis and Siphlonurus mayflies start hatching in late June and create strong rises through most of July.
On this chilly October morning, the summer mayflies are biding their time as nymphs, but Baetis emergers and a few Hydropsyche caddisfly cripples left over from last night's hatch swirl helplessly in the back eddies and foam lines. Trout rise leisurely to the bugs and more often than not, my E/C Caddis pattern meets with their approval.
At River Ranch, where Deer Creek enters the Truckee, the gradient quickens and the rods are shipped while Lisa bends the oars and maneuvers us downstream. In the summer, this stretch of river is heavily planted and heavily fished. Fly fishing can be productive, but the proximity of Highway 89, the large number of planted trout, and the knowledge of better water downstream reduces my urge to ply the river between River Ranch and the town of Truckee. Generally, the farther away from Lake Tahoe you travel, the better the fishing will be.
The magic begins at Donner Creek, which gets its name from the Donner Party, those westward pioneers who became stranded in a snowstorm in the nearby mountains and who ate human flesh to survive. The water becomes abruptly more productive below the creek, and truck-size boulders stand like tombstones in the river all the way into Nevada. No fish are planted from here downstream to the Nevada state line. Only wild trout are allowed. Even in downtown Truckee, the incredible habitat and unlimited food produces over 2,000 fat trout per mile. Some of them are huge.
A few years ago we were driven off the river by a summer thunderstorm that instantly made the water murky. I told our fishing guests that this was the best time to catch the huge browns that lurk in the Truckee and suggested that great fishing could be had in the midst of town, but the rain was too much for them. On the way home, we drove into town and saw a young man with a huge grin on his face and his thumb sticking out. The hitchhiker was armed with a spinning rod and held two massive browns at his side. Neither was less than 30 inches long. We should have kept fishing.
The catch-and-release regulations that are in effect less than a mile downriver would have protected those fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has electroshocked browns up to 34 inches long in the Truckee.
The best pattern for fishing runoff conditions is the Goblin (see http://www.flyline.com/goblin for tying details). It has caught more jumbo Truckee River brown trout than any other pattern I know. It's nothing more than a heavily hackled black Woolly Bugger with a bright orange rabbit strip lashed down over its back. The seductive action and wildly contrasting colors seem irresistible to trout.
If you need to sink the fly deep, add a brass cone head and a few wisps of Flashabou for decoration. Cast the Goblin upstream and work it with the current, rather than the usual down-and-across method most streamer anglers use. Think about it: A crippled or terrified baitfish will always take the path of least resistance — downstream. It is the action a predatory fish expects to see. Indulge him.
Today the river is neither murky nor stained. It is usually at its clearest in late autumn. The sun is high and the Baetis have quit for the time being. Wrinkled, caramel-colored husks rim the river's boulders. The relatively smaller husks are from Isonychia mayfly nymphs, and the larger, long ones with antennae are the pupal husks of the October Caddis (Dicosmoecus).
I take my turn at the oars while Lisa ties on a #10 black Bird's Nest Nymph. Unlike most mayflies, some Isonychia swim to the shallows and crawl onshore to hatch. The large size of these tender morsels draws hungry trout into the shallows to feed. Knowing that the trout expect to see the nymphs swimming shoreward, Lisa casts directly downstream, mends toward the bank and allows the belly in the line to swim her Bird's Nest up into the shallows just like it is supposed to. The fishing is easy.
In the spring the Ameletus and in the summer the Siphlonurus both emerge in exactly the same fashion as their fall-hatching cousin, the Isonychia. A large Bird's Nest swung from deep water into the shallows is a fly and technique for all seasons on the Truckee.
As we drift under the Glenshire Bridge, we enter a 2.5-mile private stretch owned by an elite group, the San Francisco Flycasters. Many local anglers (probably most) resent the fact that the best part of the Truckee is controlled by "flatlanders," and these anglers probably resent even more the fact that trespassers are arrested on the spot by roaming patrols armed with handcuffs, radios, and night-vision goggles.
Lisa and I view the private holding as a good thing. Despite the fact that it is owned by a fly-fishing club, its relatively few members barely touch the fishery, which gives Truckee River trout a huge refuge amid miles of publicly flogged water. I believe this sanctuary is, in some part, responsible for the great fishery the Truckee supports today. It is legal to float and fish through the Flycasters's water, but don't even think about beaching your craft!
The private water ends just upstream of where Prosser Creek dumps into the river. This is one of my favorite early-season spots for fishing the #6 chestnut-colored Skwala stoneflies. The Skwalas never come off in droves, but hatch consistently from March well into May. By Opening Day at the end of April, the trout are well accustomed to seeing and feeding on these bugs. Early-season water temperatures are in the low 40s (F.) and fish won't travel far for a fly. Work every fishy-looking spot with a stonefly pattern, then work it again.
Temperature is hugely important on the Truckee. Fish will actively search for water between 58 and 64 degrees (F.). In the early season, trout bask in the thermal plumes of relatively warm feeder creeks and springs. In the summer, fish search for cooling influences and areas of highly