This article was originally published in the October 2004 edition of California Fly Fisher Magazine.
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 (http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ca/nwis/uv?site_no=11342000). 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.
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.