Friday, March 4, 2011

A Tale of Two Trout Streams

Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2000 issue of Northwest Fly Fishing Magazine.

The Middle Fork and North Fork Feather River, CA
A Tale of Two Trout Streams
by Andrew Harris & Mark Tompkins

Like twin sisters separated at birth and raised on opposite ends of the country, the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Feather River exist in vastly different worlds.  Despite their geologic similarities and shared lifeblood, the two rivers could easily be mistaken as unrelated.  Ever since humans of European descent arrived in California to take a run at the “good life,” the two rivers have traveled very different paths.  The North Fork has been shackled by dams, while the Middle Fork runs free.  The North Fork has an all-weather highway and railroad twisting alongside its curves, while the Middle Fork is, for the most part, accessible only by foot.  Still, like twins, these two forks of the Feather River strive for the same goal: to grow robust populations of wild trout.  The Middle Fork is a phenomenal success in this pursuit.  The North Fork is struggling, but holds its own given the abuse it has absorbed over the years.

A River Under Siege
The North Fork of the Feather River was once an exceptional trout stream.  Beginning in the snowmelt and springs on the southeast slopes of Mount Lassen, the North Fork flowed clear and cold for over 70 miles before converging with the West Branch and the Middle and South Forks of the Feather River near Oroville.  The river supported a prolific population of native rainbow trout.  With no natural impediments to their migration, Chinook salmon and steelhead also ran right up to the base of Mt. Lassen.  The fishing was phenomenal back then, but as every California trout fisherman knows, not everyone looks at rivers as places to fish.

The completion of the Western Pacific Railroad through the canyon of the North Fork in 1909 signaled the beginning of the river’s demise.  The railroad suddenly made the river accessible, not only to the public, but also to the power companies.  The first hydropower project on the North Fork had already been completed in 1908 at Big Bend, on the lower part of the river.  With the completion of the railroad, the Great Western Power Company embarked on a plan to turn the entire river into a series of hydropower projects.  Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) later bought the Great Western Power Company and picked up where they left off.

Like most hydropower projects in the Sierra Nevada, the projects on the North Fork of the Feather River are bypass reach projects.  A diversion dam is built to divert water into a tunnel which feeds a powerhouse some miles downstream.  The river in between the dam and powerhouse is left with a very meager flow, since most of the water in the river is going through the tunnels to generate power.  To avoid losing any potential energy, another diversion dam is constructed immediately below the powerhouse and the cycle is repeated.  While the various hydropower projects were under construction from the twenties through the sixties, there were still gaps in between projects where the river contained its full natural flow, and frequently larger flows due to runoff that had been stored in reservoirs upstream.  Fishing remained excellent in these areas.  The fishing was so good in the twenties and thirties that the Western Pacific Railroad ran a “Fisherman’s Special” on their route between Oakland and Salt Lake City.  By the late sixties, however, the river had been entirely tamed by hydropower projects, leaving the sections of the river below Lake Almanor with little more than a trickle.  Suffice it to say, the “Fisherman’s Special” became a thing of the past.

There are now more than ten hydropower dams in the watershed, six of which are on the main stem of the North Fork.  Flows in the bypass reaches between dams range from 30 to 140 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer, less in winter.

Reason for Hope

The North Fork of the Feather River is a textbook case in how to spoil a trout fishery.  Water temperatures are artificially elevated by shallow upstream reservoirs.  Instream habitat is reduced due to extremely low flows.  Siltation is heavy due to poor road building practices in the headwaters of the East Branch of the North Fork.  Spawning gravels are trapped behind dams and washed out of the reaches between dams during high flows.  Access to spawning tributaries is blocked by dams.

Despite all these problems, self-sustaining populations of wild rainbow trout can be found from the headwaters down to the river’s confluence with Lake Oroville.  What’s really promising is that one of the many problems facing the river is about to be partially alleviated.  The Rock Creek and Cresta hydro projects on the North Fork are currently going through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process.  PG&E has stalled the process for years by seeking interim one-year licenses, but the company is now in a hurry to complete the process because they want to sell the projects.  There will be higher flows in the North Fork, but the figures have not yet been set.  Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether whitewater rafting interests will secure higher weekend flows during the summer.  In any case, the base flows will be higher, and the trout fishery should improve.

Accessing the North Fork

The river can be divided into four distinct sections from an angler’s perspective: the headwaters, the Almanor Reach, the Belden Reach, and the Feather River Canyon.
The headwaters section is the river above Lake Almanor.  This area is a delightful playground of streams that come together to form the North Fork of the Feather River.  By the time it reaches Chester, where it flows into Lake Almanor, the river has a flow of approximately 150 cfs in the summer.  To protect spawning rainbows coming up from Lake Almanor, the river opens the Saturday before Memorial Day, about a month later than other rivers in the area.  The river stays nice and cold throughout the season, rarely rising above 60 degrees.  Fish are eager to take attractor dry flies such as humpies and royal wulffs, although nymphs work well and will frequently hook larger fish.  Most fish are 6-10 inches in length, but there is always the chance at a larger fish.  The tributary streams are all productive and worthy of attention.  The streams in this area are usually fishable by mid-June.  The area is well served by a variety of paved and dirt logging roads, and there are several campgrounds along the river.

The Almanor Reach is the section starting at Lake Almanor dam and terminating downstream at Belden Forebay.  The standard release from Lake Almanor is 30 cfs, a real pittance of water.  By the time it reaches Belden Forebay, there is about 50-75 cfs due to springs and small tributaries along the way.  The Almanor Reach is a beautiful yet moody little stream.  I have witnessed this stream fluctuate between excellent and “Are you sure there’s fish here?” within a matter of days.  Evening fishing is often excellent, with many 6-12” fish rising to dries.  Bright sunny days call for nymphs, which can be fished indicatorless on a short line in most situations.  This reach is usually fishable from the beginning of trout season to end.  However, after a really big winter, the river may be blown out until June.

The Almanor Reach can be accessed from Lake Almanor dam, Belden Forebay, or via dirt road to Seneca, a small outpost in the middle of this reach.  There is a good angler’s trail beginning at Belden Forebay.  To get to the beginning of this trail, you have to walk around the two massive powerhouses which dominate the upstream end of Belden Forebay.  Caribou #1, the oldest and most imposing powerhouse, was completed in 1921.  To get around this powerhouse and hike upstream, one must traverse a metal grate walkway attached to the exterior of the powerhouse.  This walkway is situated several feet above the massive outlet pipes, which can spill forth up to 2500 cfs on the command of their PG&E masters.  It’s quite an experience walking above these pipes when they’re open full-blast.  The trail allows access to about two miles of stream.

The Belden Reach is the section between Belden Forebay and the confluence of the North Fork with the East Branch of the North Fork at Highway 70.  This reach is accessed by
Caribou Road
, a paved road that goes alongside the river from Highway 70 to Belden Forebay.  There are three campgrounds in the downstream half of this reach.  Hatchery trout are planted in the vicinity of these campgrounds, so it would be wise to fish upstream from them.  Flows below Belden Forebay are in the 50-75cfs range.  This is a popular opening day spot since the early spring runoff is usually stored by the dams upstream.  The water is also warmer in this reach than upstream, frequently reaching the high 60s in the summer months.  Despite the higher temperatures, the fishery holds up pretty well throughout the season.  The banks of the river are lined with poison oak and blackberry bushes in this area, so it’s a good idea to hop in the river and fish straight upstream from the water.  Wet wading is the way to go in the summer months.  Just be sure to use felt-soled boots and a wading staff because the rocks are very slippery.
Although the trout are very numerous in the Belden Reach, the typical fish in this section is a 7-10” rainbow.  Brown trout are rare, as are larger rainbows.  Why aren’t there larger fish?  The flows are adequate, there seems to be plenty of food, and the fish have access to a spawning tributary.  The only reason I can come up with is excessive harvest of good-size fish.  There are no special regulations on the North Fork.  This part of the river gets a lot of attention from bait and lure fishermen, and it’s highly likely that most of the big fish are cropped off.

In these upper reaches of the North Fork, Bird’s Nests, Hare’s Ears, Princes, and Pheasant Tails in sizes 12-18 will produce fish reliably.  Black rubberleg stoneflies and golden stone patterns work very well in the spring months.  Dry fly selections can be equally basic.  Parachute mayfly patterns in various sizes will fool fish feeding on mayflies.  It’s a good idea to have large stonefly imitations on hand during the spring months and October Caddis imitations during the fall.  Attractor patterns such as humpies, elk hair caddis, stimulators, and royal wulffs will bring up fish occasionally.  When prospecting with dries, don’t be afraid to go big.  These fish are very fond of large dry flies, and don’t particularly care whether they’re floating or submerged.

Anglers in search of larger trout might do well to investigate the part of the North Fork known as the Feather River Canyon.  The Feather River Canyon is the part of the North Fork along Highway 70.  Highway 70 follows the North Fork for nearly thirty miles, providing excellent fishing access.  As you travel from Oroville to Quincy, the highway first comes down close to the river near the town of Pulga, which is right below Poe Dam.  The highway stays near the river all the way to Gansner Bar, which is the confluence of the North Fork Feather River and East Branch of the North Fork.  From that point, the highway follows the East Branch towards Quincy.  This part of the river is split up into three reaches by three power dams: Rock Creek, Cresta, and Poe.  The remains of a fourth dam, Big Bend dam, are at the very end of this section, where the river flows into Lake Oroville.  Lake Oroville, completed in 1967, drowned the Big Bend powerhouse, but the defunct dam has never been removed.  Of the three river reaches in the canyon, the lowest reach, below Poe Dam, is the least accessible and holds some of the biggest North Fork trout.  The best places to access the Poe reach are at Poe Powerhouse, Bardees Bar, and Pulga. 
Detlow Road
Big Bend Road
, which branch off Highway 70 about 7 miles west of the Pulga bridge, provide access to Poe Powerhouse and Bardees Bar.  4WD is required for the road to Bardees Bar.  There is a lot of frogwater near Pulga, but you will encounter better water by hiking up or downstream.  Access is much easier upstream in the Cresta and Rock Creek reaches.

The river is dominated by rainbow trout, which average nearly a foot in length.  A few brown trout are recruited from tributary streams each year, but they are few and far between.  As with most other west-slope Sierra rivers, the following rule of thumb applies to the North Fork:  as stream elevation decreases, the number of trout decreases, but the average size of the trout increases.  Squawfish, Hardheads and Sacramento Suckers are found throughout the system, but their numbers increase as you approach Lake Oroville.  If you’re going for larger trout in the lower reaches of the river, be prepared to hook into some of these alternative species. 

Fly selection is not usually a problem in this part of the river.  Dry flies usually work even in the middle of the hottest summer days.  Attractor patterns in sizes 10-14 work best.  When the fish won’t come up to a dry, Hare’s Ear, Bird’s Nest, Pheasant Tail, and Prince nymphs work very well in sizes 10-16.  There is a decent hatch of isonychia mayflies in September and October.  These are large (size 10), black, swimming mayflies that crawl out of the water to hatch.  They can be imitated with a large A.P. nymph.  Grasshopper patterns also work well in the late summer and fall.  On the North Fork, if you’re not catching fish, the problem usually has more to do with location than fly selection.  The North Fork suffers from high temperatures in the summer, so the fish bunch up near the heads of pools where there is more dissolved oxygen.  Unless you’re a squawfish aficionado, don’t waste time fishing the slow water.  Since the river also suffers from low flows, the whitewater sections are often separated by a short drive in the car.  On this river, constant movement usually equals success.

The North Fork of the Feather River fishes best in the spring and fall when water temperatures are in the 50s and low 60s.  The majority of the hatches also occur during the spring and fall.  Concentrate on the Headwaters and Almanor Reaches during the summer months.  Water temperatures stay lower in these parts of the river.  Water temps are frequently in the high 60s and low 70s in the Belden Reach and in the Feather River Canyon from July through September.  These temps are outside the favorable range for trout, so the fishing slows down quite a bit.  Look for whitewater and places where tributaries enter the stream to find higher concentrations of trout.
A River Untouched
Fortunately, when the North Fork slows down in the mid-summer months, excellent fishing can be found in the lower reaches of the Middle Fork of the Feather River.  The Middle Fork originates in the Sierra Valley Channels east of Portola.  It flows westward roughly following Highway 70 until the town of Sloat.  From Sloat down to the river’s confluence with Nelson Creek south of Quincy, the river is fairly easy to access on a variety of dirt and paved roads.  Nelson Creek serves as a useful but unofficial boundary between the upper and lower parts of the Middle Fork of the Feather River.

Fly fishing becomes productive in the lower Middle Fork around mid-June as the runoff begins to recede.  Once the runoff period is over, the fishing in this section is consistently good until the end of the season mid-November.  Fifteen to twenty fish days are average, and most fish fall in the eight to fourteen inch range.  Below Milsap Bar the average fish is about fourteen inches, but the numbers of fish aren’t as high.  Smaller fish will rise to dry flies, while most of the larger fish are taken on nymphs or streamers.  Hopper patterns will also bring up good fish, especially between July and October.  Hopper-dropper rigs are also very productive if you are getting refusals on the hopper.  Tie a dropper leader to the bend of the hook of the hopper and attach a small beadhead nymph 1-3’ below the hopper.  The nymph will often get the fish that refuse the hopper.

Dry fly fishing is great throughout the season on the Middle Fork.  There are usually several hatches going on at any given time, so the fish rarely feed selectively.  Yellow Humpies, Elk Hair Caddis, and other attractor patterns work well.  When the hatches slow down in the summer, the fish are usually very receptive to hopper patterns.  It is also common to see trout cruising the slower pools looking for terrestrials during the summer.  A well-placed ant or beetle on 6X tippet will usually bring these fish up.

When the fish won’t come up to the surface on the Middle Fork they can usually be easily taken with nymphs.  The river is well-suited to indicator nymphing, and there are some pocket water areas where indicatorless nymphing is effective.  Since the water is very clear on the Middle Fork, it is often practical to sight nymph.

A map of the Plumas National Forest is a necessity when fishing the Middle Fork, and it helps to have topographic maps for some of the hike-in fishing.  Be wary of poison oak and rattlesnakes in the Middle Fork canyon.  Carry plenty of water and bring a water filter, since the trails cover some very dry terrain.  Some of the popular trails include Nelson Point, Minerva Bar, Oddie Bar, No Ear Bar, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Hartman Bar Trail, Hanson Bar, and the Dome Trail.  These are all foot trails of one to two miles in length.  Most require four wheel drive to access the trailhead.  There are also three rough jeep trails: Cleghorn Bar, Little California, and Stag Point.  There is a bridge at Milsap Bar providing two wheel drive access to the river, although it is a little rough.  Since this area is easier to access, it gets a lot more fishing pressure and the quality of the fishing suffers accordingly.

The Upper Middle Fork is also much easier to access, and consequently much less pristine.  Parts of it run near Highway 70 between Quincy and Portola and are easily accessed by a variety of dirt and paved roads.  This part of the river fishes very well in the spring.  Depending on the amount of runoff, the upper Middle Fork can be fishable as early as Opening Day and as late the end of May.  The river fishes very well near Clio, Greaegle, Two Rivers, Cromberg, Sloat, and the Quincy-La Porte Road Bridge.  Look for moving water and structure.  As the water warms in June and July focus your attention on the Middle Fork below Nelson Creek.  It requires more physical exertion, but it’s well worth the effort.

A nine foot five weight rod is the best choice for fishing on the Middle Fork.  Attractor dry flies and nymphs will suffice most of the time.  A good dry fly selection would include yellow humpies, elk hair caddis, grasshoppers, stimulators in large sizes to imitate golden stones and salmonflies, parachute adams in various sizes, and some ants and beetles.  A good nymph box should include pheasant tails, black A.P.s, bird’s nests, hare’s ears, sparkle pupas, and some giant rubberleg stoneflies.  Streamers such as woolly buggers and sculpin patterns can also be productive when fished on sink-tip lines.  Waders are only necessary on the Middle Fork during the early spring and late fall.  From mid-June to September water temperatures are typically in the low 60s to low 70s, so wet wading is significantly more comfortable.


An outing to just the North Fork or just the Middle Fork of the Feather River will likely yield some fine rainbow trout and at least one good story.  But the full flavor of fishing the Feather River country comes from sampling both forks.  On the North Fork one finds an illustration of nature coming to terms with the presence of man.  Here, the decisions of humans in the form of dams and flow releases plainly influence the trout that not too long ago swarmed these waters.  And on the Middle Fork one finds not concrete and hydropower, but bears and wily old gold mixed in with the trout and their wild and scenic home.  Here, it is easy to forget the relentless tide of development that threatens rivers every day.  So spend a little time to get to know the trout of both forks of the Feather.  Like with twins, one gains a better appreciation for each by experiencing the other.   

Fly Recipes:

Beadhead Brown Bird’s Nest
Hook: TMC 3761, size 12
Thread: Black 6/0
Tail and Legs: Teal or wood duck feathers
Rib: Copper Wire
Dubbing: 50/50 mix of Hareline Dubbin chocolate brown size 24 and natural Australian opposum fur

Schroeder’s Parachute Hopper, Olive

Hook: TMC 5212, size 8
Thread: Olive 6/0
Parachute Post: White Calf Body
Rib: Dark Brown Floss
Abdomen: Medium olive Antron
Tentwing: Mottled oak turkey quill, tent style
Legs: Pheasant tail fibers, knotted
Hackle: Grizzly
Thorax: Medium olive Sparkle Blend

Yellow Humpy

Hook: TMC 100, size 12
Thread: Yellow 6/0
Wing: Elk
Tail: Elk
Back: Elk
Body: Yellow Thread
Hackle: Brown and Grizzly mixed

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Andrew. I would suggest that anyone heading up that way buy your book. I found it to be an invaluable resource. Thanks!