Friday, March 4, 2011

Winter Trouting in the Foothills

Note: This article was originally published in the February 2003 issue of California Fly Fisher Magazine.

Winter Trouting in the Foothills
By Andrew Harris
            Magical days spent on mountain streams in early November often make us wonder what the fishing is like throughout the remainder of the winter. It can’t be that bad, can it? The trout can’t swim south for the winter, after all. If you think about it, the environment in most of California’s prime trout streams doesn’t change much throughout the winter because the water flows are controlled by dams. There must be bugs that are active throughout the winter. And wouldn’t spawning runs of rainbows and browns provide some interesting fishing opportunities?
            For better or worse, we are not allowed to answer these questions because the general trout season closes after November 15 and doesn’t reopen until the last Saturday in April. Although it may be true that poaching is always in season, fishing definitely is not. So are we destined never to learn the winter habits of the freestone trout in California, to sit at home and wait for April, to begrudgingly read tales of 22-inch cuttbows caught on size 20 midge clusters in February in Colorado?
            Fortunately, a loophole of sorts in the Department of Fish and Game regulations gives us a limited window into the wintertime world of the trout. The enlightened few who have read their California Freshwater Sport Fishing Regulations booklet from cover to cover are aware of other winter stream fishing options.  Therefore I bring you a reading from the Book of Regulations, chapter 3, verse 7.00: In the Valley District, “All lakes and reservoirs except those listed by name in the Special Regulations,” “All anadromous waters except those listed by name in the Special Regulations, and ” all streams except anadromous waters and those listed by name in the Special Regulations” are open “all year.” And in verse 6.36, we read that “The Valley District consists of all of Butte . . . and Yuba Counties,” along with “Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, and Tuolumne Counties west of Highway 49.”  There ends the reading.
            The lesson we are to draw from these texts is that unless a stream is listed elsewhere in the booklet as having a special season, you can fish it at any time of year as long as it’s in Butte or Yuba County or downstream (west of) Highway 49 in Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, and Tuolumne Counties. There are other counties that are part of the Valley District, but from a fly-fishing standpoint they are less consequential. Still confused? Check out the handy district map in the regulations booklet.
            The major river systems in the Valley District that have flowing water (as opposed to streambeds that are buried under hundreds of feet of reservoirs water) include the Feather, Yuba, and American. I have spent many a fine day on the various forks of these rivers during the winter months. All the fish I’ve caught have been beautiful wild rainbows. I’ve caught them on dry flies and nymphs. Some have been large. And I’ve always had total solitude.
            There are too many worthwhile destinations to list in one article, but I’ll start by mentioning two user-friendly Valley District rivers. The first is the North Fork of the Feather. It’s open all year below Poe Dam, which is just upstream from the town of Pulga. To get there, drive east on Highway 70 from Oroville. Immediately before the first double bridge (the highway bridge crosses the river at the same location as the railroad bridge), there is a somewhat dangerous left turn onto
Pulga Road
. About a mile down this road you will come to the remains of the town of Pulga, where you will drive over the railroad tracks and park. As on the upper Sacramento, you can walk upstream or downstream on the railroad tracks to find a good place to fish. Look for pocket water and riffles. The trout are not plentiful here, but they average about 12 inches and are hearty wild rainbows. Stream flows are very consistent because of the numerous upstream dams, so this area is often fishable right through the spring runoff. Current fishing conditions for this area are usually listed in the Fish First! fishing report (
            Another productive Valley District river is the Middle Fork of the Feather. Accessing the Middle Fork is more difficult. The main road access is
Milsap Bar Road
, which starts at the town of Brush Creek on the
Oro-Quincy Highway
. The road isn’t paved, but it’s not problematic for most two-wheel-drive vehicles. There is a bridge where the road reaches the river and a campground. In addition to the bridge/campground area, numerous trails go down to the river from obvious pullouts, especially as the road ascends the south side of the river. Most are short, but steep. Be careful, since the granite can get very slippery when wet. Fishing is productive as long as the river is low and clear. The Middle Fork is not controlled by dams, and therefore has a natural flow regime. Don’t go after a storm. Flows are typically low through November and December, then fluctuate wildly as winter storms become more frequent.
            The single most important factor in successfully fishing these waters is being there at the right time. In this regard, winter fly fishing is very similar to winter snow sports. You have to pick your days.
            The first thing to consider is flows. However much we complain about the hydropower dams, they tend to limit the effects of storms and runoff. Winter storms and spring runoff can bury your favorite stretch of pocket water under six feet of turbulent water the color of Starbuck’s mocha. In many years, the hydroelectric dams in the northern Sierra collect all the runoff and don’t spill a single inch of water. The good news is that the rivers remain fishable. The bad news is that the dams disrupt countless natural processes that depend on the springtime ritual of high water. At least there’s the consolation that the rivers with the most dams tend to be fishable more days throughout the winter.
Once you have a good idea of the current stream flows, you still need to pick a good day to go fishing. Let the air temperature be your guide. The bright, sunny day is to winter trout fishing what the powder day is to skiing. Cloudy and even rainy days can also be good as long as the air temperature is still relatively high. The reason air temperature is so important is two-fold. These waters are mostly above 1,000 feet in elevation. You will be much more comfortable fishing them on the warmest winter days. Likewise, the aquatic insects will be more active on the warmest days, and the fish will follow suit. The time of year doesn’t seem to be very important, although late fall and early spring seem to have more warm days than January and February.
            As for the time of day, there is a good rule of thumb that’s been well known for generations: The fishing will be best when it’s most comfortable for you to be outside wearing a T-shirt. In the heat of the summer, this old standby tells us to fish in the morning and evening. In the winter, your best chances are midafternoon, when the water and air temperatures are at their warmest. More good news for the lazy fly fisher: If the bugs are going to sleep in, you should, too.
            A regulations booklet, county map, National Forest map, and Northern California gazetteer are essential tools for tackling these winter waters. As for fishing gear, a 5-weight 9-foot rod is ideal.
            Winter hatches on these freestone streams are limited in variety, but can be quite good. Baetis mayflies are the mainstay, usually appearing during the warmest part of the day. They are typically small and are easily imitated with a Parachute Adams or Blue-Winged Olive, size 16 to 20. To imitate the Baetis nymphs, try an olive Beadhead Micromayfly, size 18, or a size 16 Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph tied on a scud hook. Midges hatch more steadily throughout the day, but the trout generally don’t pay as much attention to them. When the trout do start eating them, a size 20 or 22 Griffith’s Gnat usually works well. I have seen few caddisflies during the winter months, but on those few occasions, an Elk Hair Caddis has worked well. The only other aquatic insect that I’ve seen in significant numbers has been the giant stonefly Pteronarcys californica (some folks call them Salmon Flies). They hatch in the spring, starting as early as March in some years. The Salmon Fly hatch moves upstream, so the lower elevation areas that are open in the winter see the first Salmon Flies. Although the hatch is usually sparse at these lower elevations, I’d highly recommend tying on a big, bushy Stimulator if you see even a single one of these beasts flying around. The fish don’t need to eat many of these flying hot dogs to get excited about them. If the fish won’t rise, a size 6 black Rubberlegs works well to imitate the nymphs
            In the absence of any hatch, you’d be wise to fish nymphs. The Bird’s Nest, Pheasant Tail, Prince, Hare’s Ear, and other favorites will serve you well in sizes 10 to 16. These fish also feed on trout eggs. Most of these rivers host runs of spawning trout coming upstream from large reservoirs. While they may not be large runs, they’re big enough to get the trout interested in eating egg imitations. I’ve done well on Glo Bugs throughout the winter on these streams.
            Many California fly fishers are already familiar with the upper regions of the Feather, Yuba, and American Rivers. That familiarity will help anyone who wants to fish the lower regions, but be mindful of some key differences. The first involves access. Road access to the lower regions of the river is often good. The rivers under consideration have many dams and powerhouses, both of which usually require well-maintained access roads. Much of the land is public, but private property sometimes can make access difficult, especially in the American River drainage. Despite the relatively good road access, getting around in the riverbed can be difficult. As the rivers lose elevation, the canyons get steeper, and the boulders get bigger. Box canyons and sheer granite walls often limit movement upstream or downstream. Don’t do anything stupid. A couple hours of good fishing isn’t worth a fall in a remote area.
            The makeup of the fishery is also different in the lower elevations of these Sierra streams. The rule of thumb for west-slope Sierra Nevada streams is that as elevation decreases, the size of trout increases, and the number of trout decreases. For example, in a good day on the upper reaches of the Middle Fork of the Feather River, an angler may catch 20 trout in the 8-to-12-inch size range. In a good day on the lower part of the river, the area that’s open during the winter, the same angler may catch 5 trout in the 10-to-16-inch range. Not only does the number of trout decrease in the lower elevations, but the number of other species increases. Squawfish and suckers are very numerous in the lower reaches of the Sierra streams. Bass are often present, also.
            Since trout may not be the dominant species in the river you’re trying to fish, you want to be sure to maximize your time. Take a look at the reach of river in front of you and ask yourself, “If there’s one trout in this whole river, where would it be?” Go to that place and fish it carefully and thoroughly. The water can be very clear in these streams, so be stealthy. Try different flies until you find one that works. Move on to other prime areas, if necessary. When you find the magic combination of presentation and pattern, start fishing the rest of the water. If you are unable to find fish, consider driving to another location or river. Fishing can be pretty marginal on these rivers, and success is definitely not a sure thing. However, if you’re persistent and try a few different destinations, you may find a productive stretch of water that keeps you coming back time and time again.
            One last thing: If you’re going to fish the Valley District streams during the winter, you must be ready to take on the role of educator. People will look at you funny and say things like, “Wasn’t trout season over three months ago?” and “If you’re going to fish out of season, you might want to take that CalTIP hotline bumper sticker off your truck, you poaching bastard!” Calmly hand them your book of regulations and tell them to read about the Valley District. It’s not a bad idea to have extra booklets with you for these encounters.        

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