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.

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