Fly Fishing California
January 03, 2016
Two hours east of San Francisco, the Stanislaus River offers wild rainbow trout—as well as striped bass, salmon, steelhead, and smallmouth and largemouth bass—all in the scenic setting of the lower Sierra Nevada foothills.
The lower Stanislaus, or "lower Stan" as locals sometimes call it, consists of a 4-mile tailwater stretch below Goodwin Dam extending downstream through Goodwin Canyon to the small hamlet of Knights Ferry. This section provides the river's best fly-fishing opportunities for rainbow trout, which feed on mayfly and caddis hatches through spring and summer, and gorge on eggs during seasonal returns of salmon. Below Knights Ferry, the water warms and the river widens, and largemouth and smallmouth bass, stripers, and shad—all of which take flies—join the mix.
Prior to extensive damming starting in the 1950s and ending in the late 1970s, a large population of spring-run Chinook salmon returned annually to the Stanislaus. When Goodwin Dam was completed in 1979, it blocked anadromous fish from their upstream spawning habitat, extirpating the upriver run.
However, within a decade, fisheries biologists discovered modest Chinook returns below the dam.
Stream awareness increased when anglers and biologists discovered steelhead in 1996, prompting new flow regulations and consistent water temperatures, which increased insect activity. The abundance of aquatic life and good habitat has led to a thriving wild rainbow trout fishery. Today, river flows continue to be closely managed by the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).
The scene at Goodwin Dam is unlike anything else in California. Frigid water bellows from the spillway into a deep-blue pool. Several stories above, water from the reservoir creates a massive man-made waterfall. Heavy mist covers you, and the roaring and crashing water is deafening. This is the beginning of the tailwater fishery on the lower Stan.
On a recent outing I landed a male rainbow trout with dark green shoulders, a crimson band, and a massive hooked jaw—it was built like a miniature Chinook salmon and measured 21 inches. Although fish this size are a rarity on the lower Stan, the river produces many trout averaging 12 to 16 inches and the occasional beast up to 24 inches. This stretch holds roughly 1,500 trout per mile, and the best fly fishing is often between May and August.
Goodwin Dam is an irrigation diversion dam with releases spilling from the top of the dam, and seems unlikely as a water source for a tailwater fishery. But Goodwin Dam is just the last in a series of impoundments on the Stanislaus. Tulloch Reservoir is fed by cold bottom releases from New Melones Reservoir directly upstream, and the fertile water below Goodwin Dam stays cool and oxygenated even through the summer months.
The area below Goodwin Dam—known as Stanislaus River Parks—is administered by the Army Corps of Engineers and includes Goodwin Dam Recreation Area, Two Mile Bar Recreation Area, Knights Ferry, several other public access areas, two public boat ramps, trails, and several picnic areas.
The season on the lower Stan starts January 1, at which time the rainbows feed on salmon fry and eggs. This is often when the biggest 'bows are caught. Fishing behind the spawning salmon is productive with egg imitations such as Boles Bazookas, Gorman Eggs, and Otter's Soft Milky Eggs (all #10-14). Pegged beads rigged Alaska-style and San Juan Worms also work well through January.
Chinook salmon begin showing up in October and tend to spawn in the sections between Knights Ferry and Two Mile Bar up until mid-January. Steelhead arrive in February and may be in the river as late as May, but they are few in number and their eggs are a far less important food source than those of Chinook salmon, which can number in the thousands and produce millions of eggs.
Lower Stan rainbows begin spawning in May. The best fly fishing coincides with the end of their spawning cycle, when the fish are hungry and aggressive. The stretch from Goodwin Dam downstream to the Highway 120 Bridge in Oakdale is artificial lures and barbless hooks only. For more information on licenses and regulations, click here.
The lower Stan consists primarily of two types of water deep fast riffles and long slow runs. The deeper runs fish best with fast-sinking lines and brown or black Woolly Buggers and Muddler Minnows (#4-8). Strip the fly fast and erratically and you'll hook some large trout.
Normally, big Stanislaus trout bury themselves into snags. Use heavy tippets (0X to 2X) and put the backbone of the rod to work when playing them. Set the hook, and as soon as the fish starts shaking its head, use sideways rod pressure to turn it in your direction, away from the snags.
Proper positioning is crucial on the lower Stan. Take your time scrambling among the moss-covered boulders and negotiating the fast water. A long drag-free drift through the riffle is a necessity, and since the river's edge is guarded by overhanging trees and the water depth often drops from 1 to 6 feet just a step from the bank, there is little room to backcast. Roll casting is required for the majority of the fishing. Around Two Mile Bar, the riverbank opens up, making it possible for more overhand casting from shore, but in other areas the river is so tightly constricted it is difficult—even dangerous—to wade or fish.
Riffles and slow runs on the lower Stan are suited for both nymph and dry-fly fishing. Many people believe the rainbows are difficult to catch between May and August, the peak of the fly-fishing season, but they can be caught regularly with the right techniques. Try lengthening your leader from 9 feet to 12 feet, and downsize tippets from 4X to 6X to catch these cagey fish in summer flows.
The fish often hold close to the bank and only push off when they get spooked. Once the fish are alerted to your presence, they become much more selective. When this occurs, rest the area for about an hour and come back. The fish will be back along the bank and eager to take the fly again.
When nymph-fishing with an indicator, I use a 4-foot butt section of monofilament attached to the fly line with a nail knot. Tie a perfection loop at the end of the butt section. Attach a 12-foot piece of tippet, normally 4X to 6X, directly to the loop. Tie your first nymph onto the tippet and attach a trailing nymph off the bend of your lead fly.
I use 4X tippet when fishing near the dam, and find 6X produces better near Two Mile Bar and Knights Ferry. Adjust your indicator according to water depth. As a general rule, place it at 21/2 times the river depth to get the fly at or near the bottom.
Adjusting the leader length and split-shot position also helps you get your flies to the fish.
Anglers often place their split-shot about a foot above the top fly in a two-fly presentation but this can leave lighter flies riding above the split-shot. Instead, put BB-size split-shot between the two flies or below the bottom fly. To do this, tie a 6-inch piece of tippet to the hook bend of the bottom fly and attach your split-shot. To keep the split-shot from slipping off, tie a stopper knot (like a double overhand) below it.
On the lower Stan I prefer to cast my indicator rig directly upstream for the best drag-free drifts. Trout in the slower water, about a half mile below the dam and just below Two Mile Bar, are picky and dart away from dragging flies, so a dead-drift presentation is critical.
Carefully choose your point of entry to get directly downstream of where you want to fish. Change your casting angle if it helps you avoid tree snags on your backcast and get a better drift. You can also stand on the huge boulders just below the dam and feed line downstream into the riffles to facilitate a dead drift; however, hooking fish from this angle is difficult. Use a downstream roll cast hook-set in these instances.
In lower flows, the splash of an indicator hitting the water can put fish off. When nymphing without indicators, polarized sunglasses and stealthy presentations are mandatory. Cast upstream of feeding trout, and pay close attention to where the flies enter the water. On this river, trout often hit the flies just as they begin to sink toward the bottom. As the flies sink, watch to see if any trout move toward them. Sometimes trout inhale the fly close to the surface and take off. Other times, I wait to see the white of the fish's mouth as it opens, and then I set the hook.
Occasionally, you'll find 30 or 40 trout holding in one pool, and they won't move to a fly. Vary the amount of split-shot to get the flies in the strike zone. If trout move to the fly but don't eat it, a lighter tippet and a smaller fly usually prompt a strike.
The most productive nymphs on the lower Stan are Hare's Ears, San Juan Worms, Copper Johns, Zebra Midges (black and red), and Fox's Poopah (tan or olive, #16-18). Early in the season, January to May, use smaller (#20-22) midge and mayfly imitations, or egg patterns.
Lower Stan Hatches
Fishing drys directly below the dam means negotiating swirling wind and mist created by the cascading water coming over Goodwin Dam. Focus on presenting drys in the slower water and along the slicks or riffle edges.
From May through August, work the fast water and edges with hoppers or yellow Stimulators (#6). In the heat of midday, use smaller (#18-20) terrestrials such as beetles, ants, or ladybugs. Caddis and an assortment of mayflies hatch on the river. There are also midges in great numbers. The adult flies tend to hatch sporadically, making midge larva and pupa patterns more productive than adult dry-fly imitations.
Use olive or tan Cutter's E/C Caddis Emergers (#16-18) for the strong late afternoon and early evening caddis hatches that occur from May through early July.
Blue-winged Olives (#18-20) also hatch during the first few weeks of May through the second week of July. Sporadic mayfly hatches, which include some BWOs and small Pale Morning Duns (#18), normally begin around dusk in the first few weeks of May and continue to the beginning of August. On cool, overcast days the mayflies sometimes come off in the middle of the day, when water temperature and air temperature are highest, but the trout are often reluctant to feed at midday.
In the evening, when some of the summer heat wears off, the same hatches bring droves of fish to the surface in the first 4 miles of the river. The hatches typically last for about an hour, and most bugs come off in the slower water just below the riffles. When the hatch is strong, the trout go bonkers. Sometimes I catch myself just watching as several trout at once go completely airborne to eat a caddis taking flight.
You can also fish attractor dry flies when nothing is hatching. Fishing the slicks and riffle edges is productive with high-vis drys like a #16 Parachute Adams tied with a tan or olive body. A #16 yellow Humpy—or a #16 olive Stimulator—is easier to see among the flotsam, and can more easily suspend a weighted dropper.
Access to the Goodwin Dam area lies a few miles east of Knights Ferry on Highway 120/108. Turn left off Highway 120/108 onto Tulloch Dam Road and follow the signs for about 3 miles until you see an outhouse on your left just past the steel cattle guard in the road. Park here and use the wooden footbridge to cross the irrigation canal and walk upstream three-quarters of a mile to the dam.
Use extreme caution when wading below Goodwin Dam. When flows rise above 1,000 cfs, typically between March and April, the dam area is not safe to fish. [See "Flows" sidebar for more information on seasonal schedules. The Editor.]
You'll find classic riffles and slower water—more indicative of a tailwater fishery—starting about a half mile below the dam and continuing downstream to Two Mile Bar. To gain access to this water, walk downstream on the path leading from the wooden footbridge, or use the road access to Two Mile Bar, which is the unnamed and poorly signed road less than a mile south of Tulloch Dam Road off Highway 120/108. There is also an outhouse at this parking area and a footbridge over the irrigation canal.
At the 21/2-mile mark, the canyon is too narrow and the water too fast to fish effectively with a fly. This whitewater continues for about a quarter mile, and then begins to flatten out again as you work your way to Knights Ferry.
The water immediately above Knights Ferry in the area of the covered bridge is best suited for wade fishing, with a couple of class IV and V boat-eating rapids you should avoid. Knights Ferry Launch to Orange Blossom Road is the most popular drift, but the river turns from a trout fishery to a largemouth, smallmouth, and striped bass fishery. There are several public boat ramps here—including two near the Horseshoe Road Recreation Area.
Loving the Lower Stan
The lower Stanislaus is one of my favorite wild-trout destinations in California. The river is fishable from opening day to closing day, with the best fishing from May to the beginning of August and again during the fall salmon spawn in October.
Although the fishing is frequently constricted and the trout sometimes difficult, the reward of a large, red-striped wild trout is well worth the effort.
Chris Swinney is a fly-casting instructor and former guide. He is a law enforcement officer in the San Francisco Bay area.
Flows from Goodwin Dam range from 100 to 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs), depending on the season. More water is released in the spring months than in summer and winter. The river fishes and wades the best when the flows are around 500 cfs, which provides good cover and holding water for trout.
From January to February, the flows from the dam are minimal and water temperatures are cool, from 46 to 50 degrees F. Smaller tributaries, rainfall, and sporadic dam release spikes can quickly raise the cumulative levels by 400 to 600 cfs.
From March to May, flows consistently hover around 1,500 cfs. Water temperatures range from 48 to 54 degrees. In June and July, flows drop to about 500 cfs, with water temperatures in the low 50s at the dam and rising to about 60 degrees at Knights Ferry. This is a good time to be on the river, before summer rafting and kayaking season is in full bloom.
In August, flows drop to 350 cfs from the dam spillway and, depending on snowpack and water divergence issues, the lake can be too low to release water over the top of the dam. By late summer, warm air can raise water temperatures from the low to high 60s near Knights Ferry. Water temperatures remain cooler near the dam—about 50 to 55 degrees.
Stanislaus stream flow data is taken at the Orange Blossom Bridge, about 11 miles downstream of Goodwin Dam. For more information, click here.
The Stanislaus consists of North, Middle, and South forks. The North Fork begins near Sour Grass Ravine and is primarily a whitewater rafting river. The steep canyon walls and extremely fast-moving water make the North Fork impossible to fish until it reaches Calaveras Big Tree State Park.
The Middle Fork Stanislaus begins below Beardsley Lake and provides excellent fly fishing. It requires a hike of approximately 1,500 feet to get down below the dam, which discourages many would-be anglers and reduces fishing pressure in the area. Nymphing for big brown trout is often good once you get down to the fish. This area is also used by kayakers and canoeists looking for beginner to intermediate rafting runs.
The South Fork Stanislaus begins below Pinecrest Lake. Located just north of Highway 108, the water is accessible to fly fishers and holds decent numbers of smaller wild trout ranging from 10 to 14 inches. In June and July, a caddis hatch comes off in the early morning, and the trout eagerly rise to drys.
Sierra Anglers Fly Shop Modesto
Mother Lode Fly Shop
*Knights Ferry Resort, located near the historic community of Knights Ferry, is worth exploring. A 140-year-old, 330-foot-long covered bridge—one of the few covered bridges remaining in California—restored mill, and a local swap meet are within easy walking distance of the put-in.
The town of Oakdale has amenities including motels and restaurants. Lake Tulloch RV Campground and Marina, in Jamestown, is close to the lower Stan and Middle Fork. Tent and RV sites are available.