April 17, 2020
By Lance Gray
This story originally appeared in the April-May 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
The Hexagenia or Hex hatch occurs in late evening and lasts until dark. These large mayflies swim from the mud floor of the lake, rise to the surface, hatch from their exoskeletons, beat their wings, and try to fly away before being eaten. It’s a little bit like a day at the beach when Jaws shows up. Suddenly nobody wants to be in the water.
At Lake Almanor, the Hex hatch creates a feeding frenzy among rainbow and brown trout that are measured in pounds, not inches, but that doesn’t mean the fishing is easy. One night after fishing the Hex hatch on Lake Almanor, one of my guests handed me a good tip while saying, “Thanks for all your help, and thanks for not laughing at me.” It was a crazy night on the water he will not soon forget.
We started the evening by fishing sinking lines with Hexagenia nymph imitations. We normally either troll them slowly from a float tube, or cast the flies and use the countdown method. In this case, Steve was trolling from a float tube and I was close by, coaching him through each step. The hatch was just getting underway when he shouted “Fish on!” This trout took his fly and immediately went airborne. It re-entered the water and gave a series of head shakes, before diving deep. I could tell this fish was big and smart—probably a brown trout.
The fish dove, swam under his tube, and jumped out of the water behind him. I yelled, “Spin the tube and keep him in front of you.” Just as Steve spun around, the fish dove under the float tube again, doubled back, and jumped out of the water. Just as Steve righted his boat, the fish whirled and dove under him again. I watched as Steve lost his hat, then a swimming fin, but he stayed in the fight and with a quick swoop, the 8-pound brown was in the net. Steve looked like he’d been through the grinder. He was disheveled, with sweat pouring down his brow and his gear floating on the water, but he had a huge smile. That is what Lake Almanor is all about—big smiles, big fish, and bigger experiences.
Plumas County Trout
Lake Almanor is located just south of the small community of Chester, California at the foot of famed Mount Lassen. It sits in a small saddle that marks the end of the Cascades and the start of the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. It is bordered by State Highway 36, State Highway 89, and State Highway 147.
Almanor is a strong fishery with abundant numbers of rainbows, browns, and smallmouth bass. The rainbows are almost all infertile triploid trout that were introduced to the lake at competitive sizes, and they grow quickly in the fertile lake. The brown trout are both stocked and wild, and can push into the double-digit range. It is a public, large-fish paradise that can be accessed by boat, float tube, or personal pontoon, with big fish being landed by fly fishers nearly every day in the spring, summer, and fall.
The Lake Almanor area has a rich history. It was founded on the site of what the California Maidu natives called “Nakam-Koyo” or Big Meadows. The Maidu summered in Big Meadows for centuries. In the 1840s, settlers and then gold miners traveling west on the Emigrant Trail also settled in the meadow, competing for land and resources. Stories of gold in this valley caused the population to explode.
In 1901, Julius Howells visited Big Meadows. Mr. Howells envisioned a reservoir in the meadow that would generate electrical power for the growing Sacramento Valley. Upon his return to San Francisco, he formed the Western Power Company along with brothers Edwin and Guy C. Earl. In 1914, Canyon Dam became the first dam completed at the southern portion of the valley. The reservoir was named by Guy C. Earl. He combined the names of his three daughters Alice, Martha and Elinor, to give us “Lake Al-ma-nor.”
Western Power Company grew into Great Western Power Company, which was eventually acquired by Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which operates the lake to this day. The original dam was replaced in 1927.
Lake Almanor is 13 miles long and 6 miles wide, with roughly 52 square miles of fishable water. When the lake is low, you can see the steeple from the old Prattville church, one of many buildings abandoned when the second dam was completed. Many of the other buildings were relocated to higher ground on the west shoreline, which is today’s Prattville.
The lake fills two areas. The larger is the former meadow that lies northwest of the dam. The second is a deep underwater side canyon that lies to the northeast. The geography of the lake can best be explained as two kidneys placed next to each other. The north side of the lake is fed by three year-round streams: the North Fork of the Feather River, Benner Creek, and Last Chance Creek. The west side of the lake from Goose Bay down to Prattville is the former “big meadow.” This water is a large mud-bottom flat with a shoal that extends approximately 150 yards to a deeper section reaching between 25 and 30 feet deep.
The west side from Prattville to Canyon Dam is filled with coves showing remnants of the old canyon area. To the south, the lake’s rocky shoreline is very steep and deep. Unless you are in one of the small coves that line the south side, there isn’t much of a shoal.
The east side and the peninsula area are a series of rocky shores similar to the south side, with limited shoals. The east side is also home to the Hamilton Branch, a midsize stream that comes into the lake through the small community of the same name.
The trout work the geography of the lake like a fine-tuned watch, but they run on water temperature and food sources. In March and early April, the trout are in the northern part of the lake where the water is shallow, and cold. The trout concentrate in this area to gorge themselves with blood midges, pond smelt, and newly spawned bass fingerlings.
In May and June, the water warms and the trout scatter throughout the lake. As temperatures rise, food sources also expand. Midges, pond smelt, Black Caddis, and Blue-winged Olives also find themselves on the menu.
In June and July, the Hexagenia hatch occurs over the muddy bottom of the west side. The trout gorge themselves on these enormous mayflies. As the weather warms in late July and August, the trout go deep, hang around the many coldwater springs in the lake, or swim up the Hamilton Branch to cool off. The rainbows are generally more susceptible to high water temperatures and consistently seek out cooler water.
In late September and October, the water starts to cool and the pond smelt spawn. Tens of thousands of 2-inch pond smelt populate the coves of the west shoreline. These coves have nice muddy bottoms with water depth between 10 and 12 feet. In November, the fish scatter and the browns go up the creeks to spawn. December through early March brings harsh weather with cold temperatures and snowy mountain conditions. Theoretically, you could catch fish, but not many people try.
When fishing Lake Almanor, a number of food sources can be available to the fish at any one time, so be flexible. In 2019 while guiding during the Hexagenia hatch, I observed a large flock of Western grebes heading toward us. As the birds started diving, we quickly switched from Hexagenia nymphs to pond smelt imitations. First cast, fish on. If you were eating a steak (Hexagenia) and a plate of jumbo shrimp (pond smelt) came by you in a bowl, wouldn’t you grab some? Make sure you have all the patterns that the fish are eating throughout the year in your box, just in case. A quick switch may result in more action. Be aware that Hexagenia nymphs are available all year long, and Hex imitations should always be staples in your box.
The trout tactics on Almanor are common throughout Northern California. They range from midges under indicators to stripping Hexagenia nymphs over mud flats. My basic indicator rig is a simple 12-foot leader with an indicator that can adjust to the water depth or to the depth the fish are suspended in deeper water. Stripping techniques work for pond smelt, leeches, and Hexagenia imitations fished on intermediate to full-sinking lines (depending on water depth). Use short leaders on these sinking lines—5 to 7 feet is all you need.
Dry-fly rigging is similarly easy. For the larger flies like Hexagenias use a 7.5-foot tapered 3X leader with a foot or two of 3X tippet. For smaller dry flies like blood midge adults or Blue-winged Olives, use a tapered 9-foot 5X leader with 24 inches of 5X tippet. These leaders rarely need to be lengthened for spooky fish. The key is to watch the feeding pattern of the trout, and anticipate its direction of travel and the rhythm of its feeding and to have your fly in the right place at the right time. For midges, Blue-winged Olives, and wind-blown terrestrials like ants and beetles, a patient dead drift is required. But when the Hex hatch is on, and fish are feeding on top, a small twitch here and there to imitate the movement of a fluttering mayfly can be effective.
I fish from a float tube or small pontoon boat, so most of my presentations are fairly horizontal. If you have a large boat, you can use the straight-line method, which has been used on the lake for decades. Find water that is 25 to 30 feet deep near the end of a mud shoal, anchor your boat, and cast a full-sinking line. Wait for the line to sink, and once the line is vertical, lift the rod and jig the fly to give it some life. If the wind is blowing, the boat will rock up and down to provide the same jigging presentation.
Seasons of the Bass
For smallmouth bass, water temperature plays a role in where and what the fish are eating. Pre-spawn is a great time for big bass. The fish gather off of points near spawning areas and are highly aggressive. Smallmouths spawn in cool water, usually around 57 degrees. When the water temperature reaches that magic number, the fish move toward the shallow water of the northern section of the lake, the coves along the west side, and the shallow water of the east side. They start making their spawning beds and they furiously protect them. Any fly that lands in the area of the bed is quickly attacked.
Once the bass finish spawning, they fall into recovery mode, and for a couple of weeks, they become very hard to catch. After their recovery period, the bass return to shallow water and populate the west side and the steep, rocky shorelines to the south and east sides of the lake. They eat everything from pond smelt to Hexagenia nymphs and crayfish.
During the pre-spawn and the spawn, use sinking lines or sinking-tip streamer lines and white-and-gray Clouser Minnows, pond smelt, or even crayfish imitations. Fish the points in the coves or the rocky shoreline, bouncing the fly down through the rocks or down over the deep drop-offs. After the spawn recovery, the bass start to eat again—and they eat everything. Topwater flies are great choices during this period. Fish longer 9-foot 2X leaders with a floating pond smelt, small Crease Flies in white and gray, or small Lance’s Crystal Poppers,
Float-n-fly tactics are also becoming more popular for both trout and bass. Using a drop leader, suspend either a lead-head jig pattern or Rowley’s Balanced Leech below a large indicator. The drop leader is usually a section of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon 8 to 10 feet long. I use Scientific Anglers Micro Swivels at both ends of the drop leader. The swivels make it easy to add the leader to your floating line, and also make it easy to add 3X or 4X tippet material to the terminal end of the drop leader. The indicator is located on the drop leader, with bobber stoppers on each side of the indicator for easier depth adjustments. The float-n-fly rig also works from a personal watercraft or a large fishing boat.
While Lake Almanor might not have the postcard aesthetics of a Northern California trout stream like the McCloud, or a coastal steelhead river like the Klamath, it’s a dependable producer of truly large trout, and it’s a public resource that should be used and appreciated by more catch-and-release fly fishers. And at times, when big browns are gulping Hexagenias and rods are bent against the evening light, there’s no place I’d rather be.
*Lance Gray is a guide who owns and operates Lance Gray & Company near Chico, California.