Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fall Favorites

This article was originally published in the October 2004 edition of California Fly Fisher Magazine.
Fall Favorites
By Andrew Harris

            Something special happens to California’s trout and steelhead fisheries during the fall.  Water temperatures drop, bringing stillwater fish out of the depths and back into the shallow areas where they are easily caught.  River fish move out of the heads of the pools and spread out through other water types.  Insects large and small begin hatching profusely, providing for awesome dry fly fishing.  Salmon rush into the riffles of our valley rivers and begin to spawn, creating a feeding frenzy for the trout, steelhead, and other species.  As if the fall fishing wasn’t good enough, the trees sport their fall colors to provide an amazingly beautiful backdrop for our favorite pastime.
            Here are some of my favorite fall fishing adventures:

Steelhead on the Swing
October and early November are the best time to hook a Trinity River steelhead on the swing.  Water temperatures are still warm, which means bugs and fish are still very active.  The steelhead are also more fresh this time of year, which means they aren’t as picky about what they eat and they’re a little more aggressive.  Water levels are also lower than they are later in the fall and winter, making the river very accessible to wading anglers.
            Although many water types are conducive to swinging flies for steelhead, the areas that get me excited on the Trinity River are the transition zones.  A transition zone is an area where the water changes depth.  Usually I’m looking for a relatively shallow (2-4 feet deep) riffle that suddenly drops into a deeper area.  Steelhead like to hang out on the deep side of the transition zone, waiting for insects to tumble over the edge or perhaps waiting to charge up to the next pool.  Whether the transition zone is perpendicular to the current or at an angle, you want to position yourself so that you can do a slow swing right across the lip of the drop off.
            You don’t need a sinking line for fishing the upper reaches of the Trinity River above Junction City.  A floating line with a nine foot leader tapered to 2X or 3X will do just fine.  A nine foot rod in a six or seven weight model is perfect.  One of my favorite flies is Whitlock’s Rubber Leg Squirrel Nymph, in a size 8.  It’s basically a red squirrel with a beadhead and rubberlegs.  It possibly imitates an October Caddis pupae or a golden stone nymph, and it has a lot of movement and action because of the rubber legs. 
            To get your fly near the bottom, place 2 or more BB-size split shot about a foot above the fly.  It doesn’t take deep water to hold a steelhead.  The fish that makes your whole season may be holding in 3 feet of water just downstream from a 2 foot deep riffle.  Land your fly six to ten feet above the area where you think the fish is holding.  Start with a couple upstream mends to take the tension off of your fly and allow it to sink.  After your second mend, start your swing.  Although most of the grabs will be hard, sometimes the line will just stop, especially at the beginning of the swing.  Lift up and set the hook!

Fish the Upper Sac during the Winter
Let there be no doubt that California has excellent winter fly fishing for trout.  My friend and regular California Fly Fisher contributor Mark Tompkins and I are currently writing a book on the subject.  However, many of our great winter fisheries are not good summer fisheries, and vice versa.  Most of our great winter fisheries are in the valley and most of the best summer fisheries are at higher elevations.  I believe that the Upper Sacramento River will be one of the exceptions to this rule.
            Starting November 16th, Californians will be able to enjoy a winter pastime that anglers in Montana and some other states have enjoyed for years: catch-and-release winter fly fishing on a favorite mountain stream.  Arguing that it would help relieve economic hardship, Dunsmuir-area residents successfully lobbied the California Fish and Game Commission for an emergency regulation change on the Upper Sac.  The river will now be open year-round, with barbless, zero-limit regulations in effect from November 16th to the Friday preceding the last Saturday in April.
            So what will the fishing be like?  I think it will be great when water conditions are good.  Prior to the first big storm of the year, the river will fish much like it does during the fall.  At a certain point, the river will enter a cycle of rising and dropping with winter storms.  When the water is low and clear, expect good midge and baetis hatches mid-day, especially on warmer days.  Nymphing should be very productive.  Like winter trout fishing elsewhere, you can expect the best fishing to be mid-day.
            Keep your eyes on the stream gage at Delta (  At around 1000cfs, some water near Dunsmuir will be fishable, but the lower river will be blown.  For good wading access, the lower the flows the better.

Dry fly fishing on Fall River and Hat Creek
Fall brings some of the season’s best dry fly fishing on Fall River and Hat Creek.  After languishing in the heat for several months, these spring-fed rivers breathe a sigh of relief in the form of copious hatches of mayflies come October.  On Hat Creek, the hour-long trico spinner fall of August is transformed into a complex of spinner falls and mayfly hatches that starts around 10am and lasts through mid-day.  On Fall River, the durable mid-day PMD hatch is joined by a slew of other mayfly species.
            For either river, come prepared with plenty of mayfly dun, cripple, and spinner patterns in sizes 14-20.  Some of my favorite mayfly dun patterns are the Comparadun and the parachute mayfly.  Small (size 18-20) traditionally-tied patterns such as the Light Cahills and Adams can also work well.  For mayfly cripple patterns, I would recommend the Mathew’s Sparkle Dun and the Quigley Cripple.  You would be wise to carry olive and rusty spinners in sizes 16-20.
            Good dry fly fishing on Hat Creek starts around 9:30am or 10am.  The Powerhouse Riffle and the lower riffles below Highway 299 fish well, but this is also a great time of year to find good fish rising in the flatwater in between.  The first rises are likely to be subtle spinner sips, punctuated by occasional caddis splashes.  The trico spinner fall blurs into a rusty spinner fall around 11am or noon.  About this time you should also notice some small (size 18-20) mayfly duns beginning to hatch.  It’s a great progression of hatches.  If at first you don’t see the rises, take your time and watch the water.  The spinner rises are incredibly subtle, and the bigger fish make the smallest rises.
            The hatch on Fall River begins about the same time, 9 or 10am.  Baetis size 18-22 are a common background hatch, and frequently they hatch profusely.  I have also encountered very small white mayflies (size 20-24) that hatch profusely in the morning hours.  Come mid-day, PMDs and mahogany duns size 14-16 begin to hatch, especially if the weather is mild.  Come prepared with a multitude of mayfly dries!  You’ll also want some nine foot leaders tapered to 6X.  I typically add 3’ of 6X or 7X tippet to the leader.

West Slope Sierra streams
My favorite time to fish the west-slope Sierra streams is in the fall.  The trout in these streams suffer from high water temperatures during the summer months, particularly at the lower elevations.  The fish hunker down, hang out in the heads of the pools, or move up into cooler tributaries.  By late September the trout are happy to be back in the river as water temperatures drop in to the 50s and low 60s.  These rivers are typically uncrowded this time of year, with most of the summertime traffic having moved on.  And best of all, the fish are hungry!
            From the Feather to the Kern, our west-slope streams host good hatches and excellent fishing from late September through the end of the season.  The rivers are usually low and clear this time of year, and sight-fishing is frequently possible.  Although fish will be in the pocket water, look for them in the slow pools, deeper runs, and tail-outs.  They can frequently be sighted rising to small mayflies and midges.  Some of my best fish caught on dries from these rivers were caught on griffith’s gnats in the slow pools.
            In lieu of a hatch or any sight-fishing opportunities, I typically start with a big dry like a grasshopper, humpy, or royal wulff in a size 8-12.  I’ll cast it through the deeper water and see if any fish come up.  If they take a look but stop short, I’ll tie on a dropper nymph with a beadhead.  If the dry fly action isn’t happening, I’ll nymph the deeper runs with an indicator and nymph the pocket water without an indicator.  Streamers also fish well this time of year.  Later in the day is usually the best time, since the fish are more active due to higher water temps.
            Some of my favorite rivers to fish this time of year are the Middle Fork Feather River, the Tuolumne River, the Kings River, and the Kern.  These are rivers that typically fish well in the summer, but mainly in the upper elevations.  Try fishing the lower reaches of these rivers - that’s where the biggest trout live.

Sierra Reservoirs
There are dozens of medium and large reservoirs scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada that don’t particularly lend themselves to fly fishing.  During the spring, when trout are near the surface, bank fishing is very difficult because the reservoirs are full and there is little room to stand on the bank, let alone make a cast.  If you have a boat or float tube you may be able to do well, but wading and fishing from the bank is not easy.  By the time the reservoirs drop enough to make fishing from the bank possible, high surface water temperatures have typically sent the trout down to the depths.  Fly fishers intent on enjoying some success on foot must wait until the fall.
            Most Sierra reservoirs are drawn down considerably in the autumn.  Syphoned away for hydroelectric, recreation, or municipal purposes, much of the water in these reservoirs is gone by October, and won’t return until the next spring’s snowmelt.  Fishy features that were once hidden by dozens of feet of water are now exposed.  Stumps, points, drop-offs and stream channels appear where only water skiers and jet-skis could be seen two months earlier.  Anglers can now walk and/or wade into prime fishing areas.
            Some reservoirs that fit this description include Bucks Lake, Little Grass Valley Reservoir, Jackson Meadows Reservoir, and countless others.  Not known as great fly fishing destinations, they become very productive in the fall.  Most of these reservoirs are open year-round; some close on November 15.  What they all have in common is hungry, non-selective trout cruising the shorelines looking for food.  I like to cast a sly (clear, intermediate) line with a single nymph tied to a 9’ 5X leader.  Fly selection isn’t overly important, but large pheasant tails (size 10-12), small woolly buggers (size 8-10), and Prince nymphs size 10-12 work very well.
            Look for stream inlets, flat areas with stumps, and sudden drop-offs.  Sometimes you can sight-fish to cruisers, especially if you can find a nice stump to stand on.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Review: California National Forest Atlases

This book review was originally published in the October 2008 edition of California Fly Fisher Magazine.

Book Review: California National Forest Atlases
Publisher: USDA Forest Service
Review by Andrew Harris

One of the great joys of fly fishing is collecting and studying maps.  Whether I’m looking for a place to fish within an hour of my house or planning an overseas fly fishing odyssey, I love consulting maps of all sorts.  My home office is filled with maps from many states and countries.
One problem with many of my maps is that they’re great for studying on the living room floor, but they don’t travel well.  Much of my fishing is done in National Forests.  Anyone who is familiar with National Forest “Visitor Maps” that although they provide excellent detail, unfolding one in the car is a nightmare due to their huge size.  One alternative is USGS 7.5 minute topographical maps, but they are also large, and show a relatively small area.
            Fortunately, the Forest Service has provided a great solution for many of the National Forests in California: the National Forest Atlas.  These are book-sized (8.5” x 11”) wire-bound compilations of all the 7.5 minute topo maps in each forest.  They range in price between $12 and $38 depending on the number of topo maps in each forest.  They are currently available for the Angeles, Cleveland, Inyo, Lassen, Los Padres, Modoc, Plumas, San Bernadino, and Six Rivers National Forests, plus the Lake Tahoe Basin.
            Each atlas has a topographical map key on the inside front cover and a topo map index on the first page.  The index is repeated on the inside back cover for easy reference.  Every page in between is filled with a different 7.5 minute topo map with a scale of 1 inch to the mile.  These maps are surprisingly readable at this scale, and the print quality is superb.  The atlases lay totally flat when folded over.  The back cover shows a comprehensive list of contact information for National Forest Ranger Districts, other state and federal agencies, local visitor’s bureaus, ambulances, hospitals, public utilities, even local tow trucks!
            These maps make navigating through your favorite National Forest much easier.  If only these had been available when I was researching my Plumas National Forest Trout Fishing Guide!  The oldest atlas is the Lake Tahoe Basin Atlas, published in 1998.  Half of the Atlases were published within the last three years.  Curiously, it seems like these atlases are only available for a National Forests in California. 
To purchase one of these atlases, go to the National Forest Store online at and click the “California Atlases” link.

Year-Round Wild Trout on the Pit River

This article was originally printed in the January/February 2009 issue of California Fly Fisher magazine.

Year-Round Wild Trout On the Pit River
by Andrew Harris

            Due to a recent change in fishing regulations, we can now pursue the Pit River’s wild rainbows all year long below Lake Britton dam. Most anglers who have fished the Pit River will agree that it’s one of the most difficult rivers to wade in our beloved Golden State. The bottom is made up of large slippery boulders and is very uneven. The water is not very clear, making visibility a challenge. The banks are a mixture of boulders, blackberry bushes, poison oak, and grassy tussocks. The river has broken hundreds of rods and devoured countless nets, wading staffs, and fly boxes. It’s literally a bruiser, leaving its mark on your knees, shins and ankles. Some Pit River regulars (you know who you are) have even gone so far as too wear soccer shin guards underneath their waders. The Pit has humbled many proud men who thought they didn’t need a wading staff.
A nice stretch of pocket water on Pit 3.
Andrew Harris photo.
              While the Pit River rightly deserves its reputation for being hard to wade, I will argue that it’s an easy river to fish. That’s right: easy to fish. That’s the reason the Pit River is a bread and butter guide destination for me and for other guides in the intermountain region. Once you get to the spot you want to fish, it’s just about the easiest place to catch a quality wild trout in California. As long as I have clients who are moderately physically fit, I know I can get them into lots of great wild rainbows on the Pit River.

The Pit By The Numbers
For those not familiar with the Pit River, the river is divided into numbered sections corresponding to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) hydroelectric projects. Starting at Lake Britton dam near Burney is Pit 3, which extends downstream to the Pit 3 Powerhouse. Immediately below that is the Pit 4 dam, and Pit 4 is the stretch of river between Pit 4 dam and Pit 4 Powerhouse. Then comes Pit 5, which flows through the small settlement of Big Bend. Pit 3, 4, and 5 used to be open only during the traditional trout season, but no longer. As of this year, the fish in these stretches are fair game any day of the year, though new winter regulations require barbless hooks and there’s a zero-fish limit.
Crayfish are abundant on
the Pit.  Andrew Harris
Fishing techniques – winter or summer - are simple on the Pit. Trout hold in obvious pockets in the fast-moving stretches of the river. With the turbulent nature of the river and the green tinge to the water, it’s easy to get within a rod’s length of a fish without spooking it. Anglers who are successful on the Pit fish a very short line and do not try to fish more than one pocket at a time. They use their wading staffs to get close to each pocket before fishing it, and rarely cast more than fifteen feet of line, including their leader. You have to fish the Pit River on its own terms. Anglers who try to make long casts, long drifts, and lots of mends are routinely frustrated by the multitude of currents and boulders.
Since you can get close to the fish, all short-line techniques work well here, including indicator nymphing, high-sticking, Czech nymphing, and short-line dry fly fishing. With an indicator rig, you position yourself straight across from a good looking pocket and about 7-10 feet away. Cast (actually lob) a nymph and a couple of BB shot underneath an indicator above the spot and let it drift through. Set the hook downstream and low if your indicator goes under, sideways, or does anything strange. Fish on! You can even high-stick a crayfish pattern or woolly bugger through the pockets. I have watched countless fishing clients who have never fly fished before catch a wild trout on their first cast this way on the Pit.

Coping With Winter On The Pit
Best times to fish the Pit during the winter months are November and December and again in March and April. These months see more bug activity and warmer water temperatures.  Look for October Caddis in November and December and early stoneflies in March and April.  Small baetis (blue wing olive) mayflies hatch throughout the winter, also.  Trout get less active as the water temperatures decrease, so the coldest days of January and February probably won’t be the best days to fish the Pit River.  As for time of day, fishing is better once the air and water temperatures warm up, so afternoon is often the best time to be on the water with a fly rod. You might also try to fish some slower water that normally wouldn’t be productive during the summer. When the weather is warm, fish move out of the slower water and seek highly oxygenated water in the pockets. They won’t need to do that in the winter, so you can expect to find some fish in the slower runs and glides.
This big bow ate a large stimulator
dry during the spring stonefly hatch.
Andrew Harris photo.
            Another major adjustment to make when fishing the Pit River in the winter is to work with higher flows. Tributary streams will be swollen after big storms and once the snow begins to melt. There is only one big tributary stream in Pit 3, but Pit 4 and Pit 5 have several. They can bolster the flow enough where fishing the main river downstream of them will be difficult at times. The main river may even spill over the spillways at the dams after a really large storm, making the river totally unfishable.  Assuming the dams are not spilling, the best chance for finding fishable water will be between each dam and the first tributary stream. (Please keep in mind that all tributary streams are closed during the winter, and some are closed year round.)

The river can be accessed from two directions. You can drive north on Highway 89 from Burney and take
Clark Creek Road
, which leads to the Pit 3 (Lake Britton) dam. If you cross the dam and stay left at the next intersection, you can drive all the way down to the Pit 5 dam and fish countless spots along the way. The other access is from Highway 299 between Redding and Burney. Take
Big Bend Road
, a windy 17 mile road that ends at Big Bend. From there you can take the Pit 5 Road to the bottom end of Pit 5, or fish near Big Bend, or go right on Hagen Flat Road to go to the upper end of Pit 5.  The most heavily fished parts of the Pit River are the areas right below Lake Britton Dam and the areas around Brush Bar on Pit 5. The middle reaches of Pit 5 and the lower half of Pit 4 are very lightly fished.

            There are some unwritten rules of Pit River etiquette that you need to understand and accept when fishing the Pit. The best places to fish on the Pit are long stretches of pocket water. From Lake Britton Dam down to Pit 5 there are dozens of these great spots, and there is a pull-out on the side of the road next to every one of them. Here is the rule: one car per pull-out. With so many great spots to fish, there is no reason to be fishing within sight of another group of anglers on the Pit River. I’ve done hundreds of guided trips on the Pit River and I’ve only been out a handful of times when every pull-out in Pit 3 had a vehicle in it. If this happens to you, no big deal – move down to Pit 4. If you can’t find a place on Pit 4 where there aren’t any people, you’re not looking hard enough. The same applies to Pit 5.  If all else fails, go find some other anglers. Talk to them and determine which direction they’re fishing. Most folks work their way upstream on the Pit, but not always. Ask if it’s okay for you to fish the water they’ve already been through.

            Pit River fish are not very picky when it comes to nymphs. Larger stonefly nymphs work well, and sometimes the fish like very small nymphs. Most beadhead nymphs size 12-16 will work. One of the best flies for the Pit is the Birds Nest, invented by the late Cal Bird and tied to perfection by Tom Peppas, longtime fishing guide and current manager of Clearwater Lodge on the Pit River. I like the Birds Nest in a size 14 in black or brown with a gold bead. In the winter months keep an eye out for hatches of baetis mayflies in the afternoons. A parachute Adams size 18-20 should do the trick.

Wading and Safety
            To stay safe and upright on the Pit River, you will need a wading staff.  The Simms wading staff costs $99 and is worth every penny.  It is the only collapsible staff I’ve seen that is easy to use, doesn’t jam, and sturdy enough for a large person to use.  Other good options include commercially available or home-made wooden staffs and old ski poles with the baskets removed.  Your staff should attached to you with a non-stretch lanyard just long enough for you to fully extend your arm with the staff in your hand.  The most critical element to using a wading staff is to actually use it.  Use it every time you move and plant it firmly to create a third point of contact.  Do not try to walk and fish at the same time, and always make sure your footing is secure before making your first cast in each spot.    

FERC Relicensing Update: Challenges and Opportunities
            The change in fishing regulations isn’t the only big change happening on the Pit River these days. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted PG&E a new 36 year license to operate the Pit 3-4-5 project on July 2nd, 2007. The new license dictates big changes in the way the project is managed, including changes in water releases. These changes were the result of years of input and studies mandated by various state and federal agencies. Curtis Knight, Mt. Shasta area Program Chair for California Trout, helped me unravel some of the details of the new license.  The new FERC license can be viewed on the website.  Go to “E-Library”, then search for docket # “P-233” to get all documents related to this project.  Search for “P-233-081” to view the license.
Pit 3
            There will be many changes to the flow regime, but the biggest is new minimum streamflows. When the new flow regime is implemented, the lowest streamflow at any time of year will be 280cfs, almost double the current release of 150cfs. The Pit River will be very different at these flows. Small cascades that currently contain good pocket water may become too fast to fish. Conversely, many of the marginal spots that are currently too shallow and/or slow will turn into good spots to fish. Some of your favorite spots are going to be lost, but hopefully just as many new good spots will be created.
            Summer minimum streamflows for Pit 3, 4, and 5 will be 300, 375, and 400cfs respectively. Fall minimum streamflows will be 280 in Pit 3 and 350 in Pit 4 and 5. Flows during the winter depend on whether a spill occurs over the dams. Winter minimum streamflow ranges for Pit 3, 4, and 5 will be 300-450, 375-600, and 400-550cfs respectively. The new FERC license defines summer as April 21st through August 31st. Fall is defined as September 1st through November 30th, or anytime in November when a spill occurs over one of the dams.
            There are also provisions for spring “freshet” releases. These will occur every other year in March in the event that no spilling has occurred in the past two years.  These freshet flows will involve a ramped 21-day elevated flow release with at least two consecutive days of 1500cfs average flows. These freshet releases are intended to mimic the natural hydrograph, albeit to a limited extent.  Without interference from the dams, the Pit River would naturally rise during the winter and spring.  These higher flows help to distribute woody debris, wash out silt, and distribute gravel deposited at the mouths of tributary streams.  When the new FERC license comes into effect, the Pit River will experience elevated flows at least once every two years.
            There are also provisions for recreational whitewater flow releases. Starting in 2013, PG&E will be required to release 1200-1500cfs during one weekend in August and one weekend in September in Pit 5 only. These recreational releases will be monitored extensively and compared with baseline data collected between 2010 and 2013. The recreational flows will be re-evaluated after three seasons and it’s possible that changes will be prescribed in 2016.
            These new streamflow releases require extensive modification to the outlet structures on the Pit 3, 4, and 5 dams. FERC requires that the new minimum flows be implemented by July 2nd, 2010. I spoke with Jason Vann, PG&E’s License Coordinator for the Pit 3-4-5 project, who said PG&E is working very hard to meet that deadline. If you’re fishing the Pit in 2009 or the first half of 2010, you will probably notice construction in progress at these dams.

Fishing The New Flows
            Needless to say, with higher average flows, wading will become even more dangerous than it is now. There will be fewer places to cross the river. There will be more areas where you are forced to fish from the bank and will have to deal with overhanging vegetation blocking your cast. Slips and falls that would merely get you wet and embarrassed at 150cfs could threaten your life at 300cfs. The bottom line is to be careful! Fish with a buddy, carry and use a wading staff, and use common sense. When the new flows are implemented PG&E will begin posting live streamflow data on a website. It will be worthwhile checking flows when planning a trip, especially in the winter and spring when flows may be elevated.
How will the river fish at the new flows?  Several years ago I participated in a fishability study conducted by PG&E.  I got to fish Pit 3 at 400cfs, and Pit 4 at 300, 400, and 800cfs. Pit 3 was a nightmare at 400cfs. There was much less fishable water and it was quite honestly a terrifying river to fish at those flows. Hopefully 300cfs will be much better. Pit 4 fished great at 300cfs and there seemed to be much more fishable water. At 400cfs it still seemed better than at the current flows, but perhaps not quite as good as at 300cfs. At 800cfs it was a boating proposition. I floated the river in a pontoon boat and caught a few fish, but bank angling was nearly impossible and the amount of fishable water was severely diminished.
In my opinion, it would be a shame and a waste if the increased flows result in less fishable water on the Pit River. Dozens of anglers can currently enjoy the river all day long without even seeing one another. It would be unfortunate if the new flows result in fewer places to fish and therefore reduce the number of fishermen the river could accommodate. Keep in mind that without the dams the Pit River would never drop below 1800cfs and fishing as we know it would be out of the question.  The new flows could very well result in more and larger fish. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best!

Fishing the Bucks Lake Area

This article was originally printed in the May/June 2003 issue of California Fly Fisher Magazine.

Fishing the Bucks Lake Area
by Andrew Harris

Intro & History
One of the joys of fly fishing is revisiting your home waters after a long absence.  My natal fishing grounds are Bucks Lake and nearby lakes and streams in the Plumas National Forest.  I am fortunate in that my family has a cabin on Bucks Lake and I’ve spent a significant part of my summers there almost every year since I was born.  For four years during high school and college I spent entire summers at the lake working for Bucks Lake Lodge.  Over the past few years my guiding obligations on waters farther to the north have kept me away from Bucks Lake.  However, last summer I made a point to take some time off and revisit this beautiful area.  It was great to apply some new skills to the waters that taught me some of my very first lessons in fly fishing.
            Bucks Lake was created in 1928 when the Great Western Power Company completed a dam on Bucks Creek, a tributary to the North Fork Feather River.  This area is at about 5100 feet elevation at the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada.  The Bucks Creek and nearby Grizzly Creek watersheds receive a great deal of snowpack, and the hydroelectric project was very well designed to capture the resulting runoff.  Water enters Bucks Lake, the main storage reservoir, from several small tributaries.  Water is then released into Lower Bucks Lake, which can be found immediately downstream from Bucks Lake dam.  Water from the diminutive Three Lakes is also diverted into Lower Bucks Lake.  From there, the water is sent to a powerhouse at the upstream end of Grizzly Forebay, a small reservoir on Grizzly Creek.  Finally, the water makes a final plunge down lengthy penstocks to Bucks Creek Powerhouse, which can be seen from Highway 70 between Oroville and Quincy.  The Bucks Creek hydroelectric project is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the renewal date for the license is December 31, 2018.
When I was researching my Plumas National Forest Trout Fishing Guide (published in 1999 by Frank Amato Publications), I was surprised to learn that Bucks Creek was historically devoid of trout.  Impassable waterfalls on the lower end of the creek prevented native coastal rainbow trout from inhabiting the upper reaches of the watershed.  Early settlers were quick to rectify this situation, bringing rainbow trout over from nearby tributaries of the Middle Fork Feather River.  Brown trout and brook trout were introduced to the Feather River country around 1905.  These three species now share Bucks Lake with kokanee (landlocked Sockeye salmon) and lake trout, or mackinaw.  These five salmonids cohabitate the lake in an interesting fashion.  Kokanee are extremely numerous, having taken advantage of ample spawning grounds in Bucks Creek.  They run from 10-14 inches and are mainly pursued by trollers.  Mackinaw dominate the depths of the lake.  They feed on kokanee, but have also taken a liking to the hatchery trout that are dumped in the lake throughout the summer months.  The rainbows, browns, and occasional brook trout are the easiest targets for fly fishers.  Most of the rainbows and brook trout caught in Bucks Lake are hatchery fish.  Lower Bucks Lake and Grizzly Forebay are predominantly populated by wild rainbows and browns.

Accessing the Lakes
            The Bucks Lake area can be reached via the
Oroville-Quincy Highway
from Oroville or Quincy.  The area typically becomes accessible in late May or early June and remains open until sometime in November or December.  The road is fully paved, although there are some very narrow and windy sections.  Bucks Lake is 17 miles from Quincy and about 45 miles from Oroville.  The Oro-Quincy highway skirts the southern shoreline of the lake from Bucks Creek to Haskins Bay, two of the most popular areas to fish.  To reach the dam and the campgrounds on the northwest end of the lake, turn off on
Bucklin Road
.  Lower Bucks Lake is just down
Bucklin Road
from the dam.  There is a dirt road that goes down the north shoreline of the lake.  Grizzly Forebay is most easily reached from the
Oro-Quincy Highway
.  The turnoff is about 2 miles west of the
Bucklin Road
turnoff.  The road is paved most of the way.
            Visitors can find accommodations at Bucks Lake Lodge or Bucks Lakeshore Resort.  Both lodges offer restaurants and housekeeping cabins, and Bucks Lake Lodge also offers a motel and a bed & breakfast.  There are also numerous campgrounds in the area.  Mill Creek, Sundew, and Haskins campgrounds are right on Bucks Lake, and the nearby Whitehorse, Grizzly Creek, and Lower Bucks campgrounds are also popular.  The three campgrounds on the lake fill up on many weekends during the summer.  They’re occupied on a first come, first serve basis, so plan your vacations accordingly.  Those same campgrounds are usually less than half full during the week.  Boats can be launched at the resorts and at most of the campgrounds.  There is a good, although unofficial, area to launch boats at the east end of Lower Bucks Lake.  There isn’t an actual boat ramp at Grizzly Forebay, but it is possible (if somewhat difficult) to launch an aluminum boat at the end of the road.

Bucks Lake
            Although the lakes are open to fishing year round, they’re not always accessible or free of ice.  Fishermen can typically access the area by May or June, sometimes sooner if they are launching a boat at one of the resorts.  Fishing is very good at this time for two reasons: the fish haven’t received any attention all winter and they’re up near the surface where you can reach them easily with fly gear.  Trout and kokanee can be caught all over Bucks Lake by retrieving streamers on floating and intermediate lines.  Focus on sharp drop-offs, points, and the inlet streams.  Bank fishing can be problematic this time of year because the lake is often full.  The water backs up against trees and steep slopes, making casting difficult.  It’s very advantageous to have a boat or float tube.
            Spring hatches include Carpenter Ants and callibaetis mayflies.  The Carpenter Ants usually assault the area in early June.  They appear on Grizzly Forebay first and then proceed upwards in elevation to Lower Bucks and Bucks Lake.  These bugs are easily imitated with large (size 10-12) flying ant patterns and they are welcomed voraciously by the fish.  By the end of the hatch the water is littered with ants and the trout are stuffed.  Callibaetis mayflies are already hatching at this time of year and they persist throughout the summer months.  They hatch in the shallow areas of the lake and can be imitated with a traditional Adams (size 14-16).  The water level fluctuates drastically from spring to late fall, so Bucks Lake is not able to establish large weedbeds.  Accordingly, Bucks Lake doesn’t have large hatches of damselflies, dragonflies, and many of the other aquatic insects we typically associate with good Stillwater fly fishing.  The trout are more focused on terrestrial insects, small midges, and forage fish.
            Summers are warm at Bucks Lake, and water surface temperatures can get up to 70 degrees.  It’s a great time to go swimming, but the trout are not typically near the surface during the months of July, August & September.  The exception is at the mouths of tributary streams when they’re flowing.  Bucks Creek, Haskins Creek, and the various forks of Mill Creek can flow strong throughout the summer months after a heavy winter.  These inlets are frequently the only place where trout can be found near the surface in the summer.  When the streams aren’t flowing much, the inlets can still be good.  Just back away from the stream mouth and fish the submerged stream channel.  Keep moving into deeper and deeper water until you find the fish.    A full-sink line is very useful this time of year.  For flies, try woolly buggers, damsel nymphs, princes and zug bugs.  A good rule of thumb is to fish at the depth where the water is 60 degrees F.  Use a thermometer to check the surface temperature and then make an educated guess as to what that depth would be.  You can even put your thermometer on a string and lower it down to different depths.
Trout return to the surface of Bucks Lake in late September.  By then the lake is low and it’s easy to walk or wade the shoreline and cast at will.  The inlet streams are still productive, but trout will be found cruising the entire shoreline of the lake.  I like to fish a large pheasant tail on a floating line with a long leader at this time of year.  This is how I caught my first wild trout out of Bucks Lake.  It was a crisp November day and I was fishing near the Mill Creek inlet.  Nearby, my sister Karen was sitting in her folding chair, slaying planted rainbows and brookies with a worm under a red and white bobber.  I persevered with my fly rod, eventually hooking and landing a 14” rainbow.  There was not a single mark on this fish, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had never caught a wild trout out of the lake until then.  I had just started fishing streams, catching beautiful little wild trout on yellow palmers and California mosquitoes.  Not knowing anything about hatchery fish, I just assumed that stream fish were beautiful and lake fish were ugly.  But when I held this new, immaculate trout in my hand, I realized that it was different from all the other rainbows I had caught out of the lake.  It was wild.  And I could only assume that there were more like it!

Lower Bucks Lake
            Most fly fishers will find Lower Bucks Lake much more to their liking than it’s larger brother upstream.  It’s smaller and a more intimate setting.  The roar of ski boats and jet skis is rarely heard.  The lake is dominated by wild brown and rainbow trout.  Best of all, the fish stay near the surface here throughout the season due to cooler water temperatures.  Due to its location in the middle of the Bucks Creek hydroelectric project, a lot of water moves through this reservoir.  Cold water comes in from the bottom of Bucks Lake.  During the summer months, surface temperatures at Lower Bucks are typically 10 degrees F cooler than surface temperatures at Bucks Lake.
            My favorite way to fish Lower Bucks is from the bank.  The countless rotting stumps protruding from the sandy shorelines make excellent casting and fish-spotting platforms.  The fish like to hang around these stumps.  In some areas there are even small aquatic weed patches.  Nothing like you’d see at Crowley or Lake Davis, but the fish routinely investigate them for nymphs.  A floating line with a weighted nymph usually works well in the shallow areas.  Cast to weed patches, stumps, and drop-offs, all the while looking for cruising fish.  One of the best spots for sight-fishing is near the make-shift boat ramp at the east end of the lake.  Another worthwhile tactic is to cast a crayfish pattern or rusty-colored woolly bugger into the depths of the lake on a sinking line.  There are a fair number of crayfish in Lower Bucks and the browns are quite fond of them.
            The water level at Lower Bucks Lake fluctuates daily according to the demand for hydroelectric power.  When the lake is high and the water goes up against the steep, heavily wooded banks, a float tube makes fly fishing much easier.  Paddle out into the lake and cast in towards the shoreline.  A float tube can also help in the evenings when the trout feed on midges in the middle of the lake.  Griffith’s Gnats and midge pupa patterns in very small sizes often work well.
            Another good place to fish is the pipe at the west end of the lake where water from Three Lakes empties into Lower Bucks.  The pipe discharges heavily through June and sometimes into July and August.  Fish congregate here to feed on the insects that come through the pipe.  Almost any technique will work here, including dry flies drifted on the current, nymphs fished on the swing or under indicators, and streamers stripped across the current.  Big fish can be found here.

Grizzly Forebay
            Grizzly Forebay has good surface action throughout the year.  There is a powerhouse at the upper end of the Forebay that dumps in cold water from the bottom of Lower Bucks Lake.  Grizzly Forebay is very similar to Lower Bucks Lake, and can be fished in the same manner.  The main difference is that Grizzly Forebay is about five to ten degrees cooler than Lower Bucks.  The cold water (50-55 degrees) comes in at the powerhouse, and I have frequently observed that the fish primarily feed away from the powerhouse, in the warmer part of the lake near the dam.
            The road to Grizzly Forebay ends near the dam on the north side of the reservoir.  From there you can walk a shoreline trail upstream (east) towards the powerhouse.  Grizzly Forebay is usually full, and shore fishing can be problematic.  I really enjoy fishing from a float tube here.  Fish rise to midges throughout the day, usually in the middle of the lake.  Fish also cruise the shorelines looking for terrestrials and nymphs.  Fly selections for Grizzly Forebay should include woolly buggers, griffith’s gnats and other small midge patterns, and parachute mayflies in the smaller sizes.  The Carpenter Ants hatch in force here in late May and early June.  Come prepared with large flying ant patterns.

Other nearby waters
In addition to Bucks Lake, Lower Bucks Lake, and Grizzly Forebay, there are many enjoyable smaller streams and lakes in the immediate area.  Three Lakes is a group of small lakes down a long 4WD dirt road from Lower Bucks Lake.  They are higher in elevation and usually can’t be accessed before late June.  Although they are home to rainbows and brookies, I have never found the drive to Three Lakes to be worthwhile for the fishing.  To the east, closer to Quincy, Silver and Gold Lake offer better fishing and easier access.  These roads can be reached from the tiny town of Meadow Valley in between Quincy and Bucks Lake.  The road is dirt and not very good, but should be passable to 2WD vehicles with good ground clearance.  Silver Lake is right at the end of the road, and Gold Lake is an enjoyable one-hour hike away.  Gold Lake has brook trout up to 12” and Silver Lake has rainbows and brookies.  Float tubes are very advantageous in both lakes.
            The southern shoreline of Bucks Lake is dotted with cabins, most of them on lots leased by the Forest Service and Pacific Gas & Electric.  The north shoreline of Bucks Lake is the southern boundary of the Bucks Lake Wilderness, and is not developed.  If you enjoy fishing small streams (and I mean small), this is a fun area to explore.  The various forks of Mill Creek flow through this Wilderness Area.  They all have fish, and I’ve spent many enjoyable days trying to find the elusive 10” trout in that prime pool.  Most of these creeks are home to rainbows, browns and brookies.  Be aware that tributaries of Bucks Lake are only open from the Saturday preceding Memorial Day through September 30th.
            The Pacific Crest Trail bisects the Bucks Lake Wilderness, traveling the ridge between Bucks Lake and the canyon of the North Fork Feather River.  This is a beautiful section of the Pacific Crest Trail.  You can get on the trail at a marked trailhead on the
Oro-Quincy Highway
just east of Bucks Lake.  In the northern edge of the wilderness, Lost Lake has no trail, some decent sized brook trout and a lot of solitude.  If you’re interested in hiking in to some of the lakes and streams in the area you should definitely pick up a map of the Bucks Lake Wilderness.  It’s a brand-new topo map put out by the Forest Service, and it’s much easier than packing along several smaller 7.5 minute quadrangles.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Fall River: California's Big Sky Country

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of California Fly Fisher magazine.

The Fall River: California’s Big Sky Country
By Andrew Harris

The Fall River Valley does not look like it belongs in California. Steep mountains surround a verdant valley. Thunderheads tower over majestic, snow-capped peaks. Sandhill cranes and ring-necked pheasants share pastures with grazing cattle. Best of all, a giant spring creek full of wild rainbow trout winds through the middle of the valley. The first time I drove into the valley, I felt as if I was in Montana — Big Sky Country. I’ve been guiding on the Fall River for 10 years now, and I still get the same sensation every day I’m out there.
The Fall River is one of the largest spring creeks in North America. It has all the ingredients common to the great spring creeks throughout the West: thick hatches, consistent water quantity and quality, and big, picky trout. The thing that makes the Fall River unique is that we fish it exclusively from boats. This is due to two main factors: privately owned banks and a really mucky bottom. Fishing from boats is a necessity, but it’s also a huge advantage on a spring creek with smart fish. It allows anglers to cover a lot of water and to use deadly downstream techniques.

Geography and Public Access
            The Fall River bubbles out of the ground on private property near Dana, about 10 miles northwest of Fall River Mills. The river winds through Fall River Valley in 21 miles of S turns and oxbows, gradually reaching the town of Fall River Mills. The river terminates at Fall River Lake, an impoundment built by PG&E to divert water to the Pit One Powerhouse on the Pit River. Before the river was diverted in the 1920s, it flowed through the town of Fall River Mills and into the Pit River.

Guide Andrew Harris and client with
a fish on the line.  Chip O'Brien photo.

             There are many landmarks along the river. Near the top end is the navigation barrier, the upper limit of boat travel on the river. About a mile downstream from there is Spinner Fall Lodge, a motel and restaurant right on the river. Travel downstream another three and a half miles and you reach Spring Creek Bridge. Spring Creek, a large, privately owned, spring-fed tributary, enters the Fall River here. If you can squeeze your boat below the bridge, you can travel downstream three more miles to Island Road Bridge, site of the California Trout public access. Just downstream, you will reach Circle 7, a group of four rental cottages on the river that come with boat rentals. The next landmark is the Red Barns, one of the best photo subjects in Northern California.
About four miles below Island Road Bridge, you will come to the confluence of the Fall River and the Tule River. The Tule River is much wider, but has less water and is much warmer than the Fall River. The character of the Fall River changes dramatically below the confluence with the Tule. The river becomes much wider, much slower, and significantly warmer, especially in the summer months. There are nine miles of river below the confluence with the Tule. Much of the river looks broad and featureless in this lower area, but the fishing is still good there.
This colorful rainbow ate a size 18
PMD Spinner on the surface.
Andrew Harris photo
            In its 21-mile length, there is only one public access on the Fall River: the parcel at Island Road Bridge that California Trout owns. The access point is generally referred to just as “CalTrout.” This property has been improved in the last few years, and it’s actually possible to launch a trailered boat there. There is one major restriction when using this property: it is prohibited to launch boats with gas motors here. People typically launch small prams outfitted with electric motors. There is also a PG&E public access on the Tule River, accessible from McArthur. You can launch a boat with a gas motor there, as long as you don’t mind hauling it down a very dusty dirt road for several miles.  From this access, the confluence with the Fall River is just over a mile by boat.

Where to Fish
            The most popular area to fish is from Spring Creek Bridge downstream to the Red Barns, about a four-mile stretch. It’s popular for two reasons: There are plenty of fish in this stretch, and the river is relatively easy to read. There is enough current that it’s relatively easy to figure out where to find the fish. Below the Red Barns, there are still plenty of fish, but the river is wider and slower, and the clarity isn’t quite as good. There is great fishing, but the river just isn’t as self-disclosing down there.
            Fish on the Fall River really move around throughout the season. It pays to stand up while you’re driving the boat and watch for large concentrations of fish. From week to week, different runs will hold different numbers of fish. Sometimes thousands of fish will move into a particular run and stay there for several weeks. It’s not uncommon to find pods of large fish favoring certain areas. But then you may come back to the same spot two weeks later and find they’ve moved on. The bottom line is that it pays to move around to locate concentrations of fish. Anglers who always fish the same technique in the same spot will enjoy inconsistent results.
Guide Jay Cockrum helps a client
land a fish.  Andrew Harris photo.
            In general, wherever you find weeds, you will find fish. The weed beds are the food factories of the river. They are filled with swimming mayfly nymphs such as Pale Morning Duns and Baetis and countless other types of insects. The weeds grow cyclically, becoming increasingly thick and then dying and breaking off. The largest concentrations of fish are typically found in runs with good weed growth.
Above Spring Creek Bridge, the river has been affected by siltation, and the numbers of fish are dramatically lower. The siltation has occurred during the last 20 years or so. As you boat through this area, it’s easy to see large “slugs” of sediment in the river. The local consensus is that this sediment has choked out the weed beds, which used to be thick in this part of the upper river. Most folks agree that the whole river would benefit if this upper section of river were restored. A successful restoration effort would result in several more miles of high-quality trout habitat, complete with lush weed beds, thick hatches, and many more large trout.
The Fall River Conservancy is a local group focused on improving the wild-trout fishery in the Fall River. The conservancy is exploring the possibility of conducting a pilot dredging project to remove some of these sediment slugs. However, the Fall River is home of the rough sculpin, a species protected by the State of California. Until it can be established that the rough sculpin is abundant and doesn’t need special protection or that the pilot dredging project will not kill any rough sculpins, the project is on hold. The local Fall River Resource Conservation District is also involved in these restoration efforts.

            The Fall River is a typical spring creek in that it has regular, dependable hatches throughout the season. The mainstay from opening day through early October is the Pale Morning Dun (PMD) hatch. These bugs typically hatch around lunchtime. On a cold day, they may wait until early afternoon. On a blazing-hot summer day, they may hatch only from about 10:00 a.m. to noon. There are very few days when fish do not rise to this hatch. The nymph is easily imitated with a Pheasant Tail Nymph, Burk’s Hunchback Infrequens (HBI), or Mercer’s Micro Mayfly Nymph in size 16 or 18. The adult is a size 14 or 16 and can be any color from olive to blonde. It’s good to come prepared with many different PMD dries. Parachute patterns, Quigley Cripples, traditionally hackled dries, and emerger patterns all work well at times. A good rule of thumb on spring creeks is to dress your flies sparsely. Many of the commercial patterns are tied too fat or with too much hackle for spring-creek fishing.
            The PMD spinner fall can be incredible on calm mornings. The PMDs that hatch the day before metamorphose into an olive spinner, typically size 16 or 18. Trout of all sizes will come up for these. The fish just barely dimple the surface when they eat spinners, so watch carefully. This spinner fall frequently overlaps with a Trico spinner fall. The Tricos can be size 18 to 24.
Fishing with Mt. Shasta as your
backdrop.  Andrew Harris photo.
            The Callibaetis mayfly is probably my favorite mayfly hatch on the Fall River. The Callibaetis hatch runs from 10:00 a.m. through early afternoon during the summer months. They are usually a size 14. There frequently are Callibaetis spinners on the water at the same time as the duns. This hatch is thickest below Island Road Bridge, but occurs upstream, as well. A great pastime on calm summer mornings is headhunting for big rainbows sipping Callibaetis spinners in the eddies. This is a tough game to play, but very rewarding.
            Baetis mayflies, size 16 to 20, are common throughout the season, but especially in the spring and fall. Come prepared with parachute patterns and small beadhead nymphs. I particularly like the Blue Ribbon Cripple Baetis, size 18, and the Idylwilde Loopwing Dun Baetis, size 18 or 20. For Baetis nymphs, Idylwilde Beadhead Baetis and Pheasant Tail Nymphs, size 18 to 20, work very well.
            The Fall River has great caddis hatches, especially on summer evenings. The best bet on many nights is to swing and twitch a soft hackle through the rising fish. Soft-hackle Pheasant Tails are very popular in a size 14 or 16. Mercer’s Swing Caddis is also very good. To imitate the adult caddisflies, try a size 18 olive Cutter’s E/C Caddis or a Henryville Special, also size 18.
            My favorite hatch of all is the Water Boatman. Just when you think the heat of summer has zapped all the life out of the river, along come these aquatic insects. This is a great bug, because it hatches during the hottest weather and during the hottest time of day. The Water Boatmen usually get active during the late-morning PMD hatch and stay active through the early afternoon. Water Boatmen are busy little bugs. They swim in a rapid, twitching rhythm. They like to relocate on a regular basis, so they swim up to the surface, twitch a few times, and then fly off. When they’re on the surface, they look bright white. The fish really key on the twitching motion and rush over to eat the bug before it flies away. I tie a foam floating Water Boatman pattern to imitate this insect. For a sinking Water Boatman, it’s hard to beat the Umpqua Plastic Bead Water Boatman fished on a clear intermediate line.

The Fall River is a typical spring creek in that the most effective techniques are downstream presentations. Most anglers anchor and try to catch fish below the boat. When we’re doing dead-drift techniques, the downstream presentation allows us to present the fly to the fish before the tippet, leader, and fly line go over it. It’s common to feed out 50-plus feet of line when doing downstream presentations with dry flies and nymphs.
When fishing dries, the ideal cast would land the fly in the fish’s lane about one to three feet above the rise form with a little bit of slack in the leader. Not a lot of anglers can pull this off, so fortunately, there is an easy alternative called “the skate and drop.” You cast beyond the fish’s lane, land your fly about six feet upstream from the fish, and raise your rod tip to drag the fly until it’s exactly in the fish’s lane. Immediately drop your rod tip to the water, which results in a small pile of slack line on the water.  This slack comes in handy if you need to extend the drift by feeding out line.
Fish rising in the middle of the river, where the current is strongest, typically hold and rise over and over in the same place. These fish are relatively easy to target with dries. Often, though, the largest fish can be found cruising the shallow margins of the river. These fish cruise lazily upstream and downstream along the banks, eating nymphs and adult mayflies as they cruise. They cruise a beat over and over. It might be a loop or racetrack pattern just 20 feet long or sometimes longer than 50 feet. Look for an obstruction such as a weed bed or protrusion from the bank that forms the upper end of one of these beats and park your boat just upstream of it. Be patient, watch for a big fish working its way upstream, and cast your fly in its path. When the fish reaches the top of the beat or sees the boat, he’ll cruise back downstream and start the beat all over again. The fish usually forgets about the boat and resumes feeding rather quickly.
            One huge pointer in playing the dry-fly game with large fish is to rest the fish. If you make presentations one after the other without a break, the fish will stop rising and will probably leave the area. With particularly large fish (you can catch fish up to 20 inches on small dries on the Fall River), I rest the fish after each cast. Don’t cast again until you’ve seen the fish rise once or twice.
            Indicator nymphing techniques are similar to the downstream dry-fly techniques. The main difference is that you start your drift close to the boat and get a long drift. If you cast way downstream, your drift will be too short. You can start your drift right under the boat or out to the side. An advantage of starting the drift out to the side is that you will get a nice swing at the end of the drift. Some days, the fish love to eat nymphs as they swing up and across the current. Other days, the fish want to eat only nymphs fished on a dead drift. Make sure you feed your line out fast enough so that you don’t twitch your indicator. I prefer half-inch Corkie indicators. I like to rig the indicator three to five feet from the split shot, with the first fly eight inches beyond the weight. You can add a one-foot dropper leader with a second nymph, if you like. I usually rig with 6X tippet underneath the bobber and switch to 7X when the grab gets tough.
            Another way to fish nymphs is on the retrieve. This can be particularly effective when you see big fish cruising the shallows. Rig up a 9-foot 6X leader and add about three more feet of 6X tippet with a Pheasant Tail Nymph or Zug Bug on the end. When fishing really shallow water, I like to apply floatant to the leader all the way to the nymph. In deeper water, that’s not necessary. Cast down and across the lanes where the fish are holding. You may need to feed out some slack and let the fly drift down to where the fish are. When you feel as if your fly is close to the fish, start a slow, twitching retrieve. The great thing about this technique is that you’ll definitely feel the grab. Sometimes this is the best technique when the big fish are really fussy with dry flies.
            Last of all, we have sinking lines. Fishing sinking lines is possibly the most popular technique on the river. It certainly is the most low-maintenance technique. Rig a short (less than 5-foot) leader tapered to 4X or 5X on a clear intermediate sinking line. For really deep holes, a fast-sinking line is good. Cast out and strip your fly in. Try feeding line out and/or doing a countdown prior to the retrieve to get your fly deeper. Flies that work well include Woolly Buggers, crayfish imitations, Bunny Leeches, and small nymphs. Experiment with different retrieves until you find a winner. Another big consideration is to try to get your fly moving across the current, not just straight upriver. A downstream mend can facilitate this sort of retrieve.

Boats and Boating Etiquette
            As I noted, the Fall River is strictly a boat fishery. Three main factors limit the types of boats used there. First and foremost is a five-mile-per-hour speed limit, which applies to the most heavily fished stretch of river, the area above the confluence with the Tule River. The second factor is the presence of low bridges, which make passage difficult for anything other than low-profile boats. The combination of these two factors dictates the use of low-profile boats with electric trolling motors and small gas engines. Add the third factor, the restriction that boats with gas motors are not allowed to be launched from the CalTrout public access at Island Road Bridge, and you’ve pretty much defined the kind of boat needed here.
            Flat-bottomed johnboats (also referred to as “prams”) are the most common type of boat seen on the Fall River. Solo anglers often use specially built one-person prams. Canoes are somewhat popular, since the flat surface of the Fall River allows easy upstream travel. I have seen a few people in pontoon boats with electric motors. Pontoon boats without electric motors aren’t well suited to the river. Ideally, you should be in a watercraft that allows you to anchor so that you can sit facing downriver. In a two-person or three-person boat, this means anchoring the boat perpendicular to the current. That way, you’re not trying to do your downstream drift over the motor in the stern.
            When you find an area to fish, anchor above it and fish down to it. Frequently, you will see large numbers of fish concentrated in a single area. Go up above them, anchor, and gradually work down toward the fish by pulling up your anchor every 10 or 15 minutes. If there is no wind, sometimes it’s possible to drift and fish at the same time, as long as you’re not interfering with other boats that are anchored.
            When you encounter another boat, always ask on which side you should go around, regardless of whether you’re traveling upstream or downstream. Don’t assume that they want you to go a particular side based on where they’re anchored. When you get within a couple of hundred feet, start to slow down. When you’re within 100 feet, you should be traveling at idle speed with no wake at all as you pass. It’s always best to cut your gas engine and use your trolling motor, if possible. However, the new four-stroke gas engines are amazingly quiet, and you won’t disturb the fish any more at idle speed than you would with an electric motor. Also, if your battery is run down and you’re passing a boat while traveling upstream, it’s better to use your gas engine at idle than to take 10 minutes to pass with your electric motor.
            How close can you get to other boats? Try not to anchor within 100 yards downstream of another boat. Most folks work their way through a run, so that distance provides plenty of room. On an extremely crowded day, it might be necessary to anchor within 200 feet of another boat, but this circumstance is very rare. Keep in mind, if you anchor in a spot close to other boats, it makes it difficult for boats on the move to pass. People have the right to travel up and down the river, and if you anchor in a place that forces passing boats to zigzag between you and another boat, that’s your fault, not the fault of the anglers in the boat on the move.

The Hex Hatch
The most famous hatch on the Fall River is the hatch of Hexagenia limbata mayflies — the Hex hatch. The Hex is a yellow/olive mayfly about an inch and a half tall. It’s most commonly imitated with a size 6 dry fly. Some of the best Hex patterns include the Hex Paradrake, Quigley Cripple, Watter’s Foam Hex, and Nealley’s Rubberleg Hex Cripple. The Hex hatch typically starts the second week in June and goes into July. In some extraordinary years, the hatch lasts well into August. The vast majority of the bugs hatch in the late evening, but it’s common to see a few stragglers hatch at midday even into September. The hatch starts on the lower river below the confluence with the Tule in June and gradually spreads upstream. By late July, the bugs are hatching all the way up to Spring Creek Bridge, but they will still be hatching down in the lower reaches, too.
Most anglers head out around 7:00 p.m. for the Hex hatch and stake out a spot. Some of the best spots are in areas where you have good visibility. A good strategy is to anchor the boat so that the area where you will be fishing is to the west, where the sky is the brightest. The sunset provides a little bit of glare, which will help you see the silhouette of your fly on the water. A side benefit of this strategy is that you’ll also be looking at the sun setting over majestic Mount Shasta.
There are a couple of strategies for enjoying the Hex hatch. One is to stake out your spot, anchor, and wait. I’m a big fan of this technique. Rig your rods. Chill out. Drink a beverage. Take bets on when you’ll see the first adult Hex floating down the river. Wait until you see a few big rises within casting distance and then start casting. I like this approach because it minimizes the disturbance to the water prior to the hatch. The more you disturb the water with your casts and by rocking the boat, the less likely you are to have big, happy fish within casting range when the Hexes start to come off.
The other strategy is to fish incessantly from the time you drop anchor. You can start by fishing a Hex nymph or leech pattern on an intermediate sinking line. On many evenings, there are mayfly spinners on the water and fish working the surface prior to the Hex emergence. Swinging a caddis pupa just under the surface is always a good bet.
            It’s always a good idea to bring a couple of rigged rods per person, each rigged with a different pattern. The fish are pretty easily fooled early in the year. By July, they get kind of picky, and it’s good to have a couple patterns ready to go. I like to have my headlamp, Hex box, floatant, and Dry Shake laid out before the hatch starts. Twilight fly changes are tough, no matter what the circumstances are, so make them as easy as possible.
Make sure to wrap up your fishing adventure an hour after sunset, regardless of what the fish are doing. It’s kind of arbitrary, but it is the law in Shasta County. It is an absolute necessity to have lights on your boat if you’re on the water at night. You need to have the combination red and green light on the bow and a white light on the stern. There is no speed limit on the Fall River below the confluence with the Tule. People can and do drive their boats on plane at full speed at night after the hatch is over. You’re really taking your life into your hands if you go out without lights. A headlamp does not cut it. If you will be renting a boat for the Hex hatch, make sure that it has lights or bring your own.

The Fall River can be a punishing fishery. It wouldn’t be a spring creek if it wasn’t challenging. The fish frequently demand a perfect drift with a small fly on 6X or 7X tippet. My fly-drying patch frequently has dozens of rejected flies on it by the end of the day. Sometimes the fish won’t let you get closer than 50 feet. Other days, they’ll hold right under the boat, and you can almost see them laughing at you.
On the flip side, the fishing is frequently downright easy. Sometimes all you need to do is toss out a Woolly Bugger on a sinking line, and the fish eat it all day long. Sometimes the nymph grab is automatic. Large rainbows rarely get more reckless than when eating the giant Hexagenia mayflies on summer evenings. With a lot of persistence and a few good techniques under your belt, the gratifying moments usually outnumber the humbling moments. Whether you hire a guide or try to solve the puzzle on your own, I think you’ll agree that one of the West’s best fly-fishing experiences is hooking a big wild rainbow in California’s Big Sky Country.