January 23, 2023

Northern CA Fly Fishing

From Pristine Rivers to Urban Trout Fisheries, California has Something for Everyone.

Fly fishing in Northern California

A Golden Opportunity When it Comes to Fly Fishing for Wild Trout.

As a kid growing up in the Golden State I took full advantage of California's geographical diversity. From my house in Southern California, just to prove how cool California was, I would surf in the morning (yes I know it's cliche dude....) and fly fish for high mountain trout in the afternoon. It was about 2.5- 3 hours from the surf break at Newport Beach to the banks of my favorite trout stream, Bear Creek. Those were epic days.

Back then I was also a decent high school QB, so I was recruited to play college football at Cal and moved to Northern California. That's when I learned about the incredible fly fishing opportunities that Nor Cal has to offer.

Don't get me wrong, you don't get the depth or breadth of Montana, Idaho, or Colorado when It comes to trout, but your fly fishing opportunities range from clear, cold streams in the Sierra Nevadas to winding coastal rivers that support annual runs of Steelhead, Salmon, and Striper.

From gold miners of the past to trout streams of today.

The tale of trout and steelhead in California is really a tale of redemption. Many of her rivers were pillaged by gold miners in the mid to late 1800's. In spite of that, Northern California still offers some of the most diverse and productive fly fishing opportunities in the US.

I'm gonna focus on trout in this article and no drift boat required! Though you'll want a john boat for the Fall.

The fishing opportunities are too great to detail in one sitting so I'm going to break the state down into sections. For the purposes of this article we're gonna fish "Trout Highway", Highway 89 to Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra, which would be a fantastic road trip for an adventurous fly fisherman or woman to undertake .

The trout highway

Upper Sacramento River

An incredible reclamation project.

The Upper Sac is one of the best fly fishing rivers in the State and part of the wild trout program.

The Upper Sacramento River is a treasure hidden in plain sight! Nestled along I-5, this river is home to a decent number of trophy rainbow and brown trout.

While the river boasts good numbers of resident trout in the 12-20" class, in the spring gorgeous lake run rainbows add to the bounty as they make their way upriver from Lake Shasta looking for love.

If you're a fan of wild trout, you'll find some of the best water on the river via several off-ramps on I- 5 between Lake Shasta and Dunsmuir.

Most of the river access comes either off of, or very near the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. Be aware for rattlesnakes. These guys love to bask in the sun on the warm gravel and railroad ties. Stepping on a sunbathing serpent could make for a very bad day.

As for the fishing, the Upper Sacramento is mostly catch and release, with the exception of the stretch between Soda Creek and the Scarlett Way Bridge. The wading conditions run from excellent to exceptionally difficult depending on the section of river you're fishing.

Dunsmuir Ave in Dunsmuir, CA. Check out Ted Fay Fly Shop there too!

Stock Your Fly Box

As far as bugs go, in the spring, you can expect to see some great BWO (Blue-winged Olive) hatches. As the weather warms up, the Caddis, PMD (Pale Morning Dun), Salmonfly, and Golden Stone hatches will start to pick up. This time of year can produce phenomenal dry fly fishing. In the fall, BWOs and midges are still going strong, with the added bonus of some sporadic October Caddis hatches thrown in.

Stock the box!

As with most trout fisheries, the most effective technique for fly anglers is nymphing the runs, riffles and tailouts. The Upper Sac also has some great pocket water that produces extremely well. Don't forget to hit the deep slots at the tops of long runs or pools. Trout will gather on the drop-offs.

If you want to experience some of the best fly fishing California has to offer, you can't go wrong with the Upper Sacramento River.

McCloud River

The McCloud is an incredibly scenic river and an exceptional trout fishery. It's one of many fly fishing options along the "Trout Highway".

Clear with a glacial green tint, the McCloud River is fly fishing gem. Any fly angler visiting Northern California should fish the McCloud River at least once in their lifetime. For those who love to chase after rainbow and brown trout with a fly rod it's a true paradise, and the scenery is just as breathtaking as the fishing.

The McCloud can be divided into two stretches: the Upper McCloud and the Lower McCloud. The upper river is located above McCloud Dam. It holds it's share of trout, but they don't grow quite as big as those downstream of the reservoir.

The Lower McCloud is where you'll find the famous McCloud River Rainbow trout. The legend goes that the wild trout genetics in the McCloud river hatchery were so pure that this strain of rainbow was used to stock streams all around the world, from New Zealand to Chile.

Tough and aggressive, these trout will happily eat a well presented fly.

With all the hatches that happen on the McCloud throughout the year, there's an ample selection of bugs on the menu.

Bugs to Bring

The famous rainbow trout of the McCloud have a wide assortment of bugs to choose from.

For spring hatches, you can expect March browns and Blue-Winged Olives, and from May through mid-summer, you'll have a choice of Caddis, PMD, Salmonfly, Golden Stone, and Green Drakes.

In the fall, it's all about the BWO's again along with October Caddis. The fall is also when you can get a shot at big brown trout. As the spawning run starts big browns station throughout the river.

The McCloud is one of many Golden State rivers you can access from the Pacific Crest Trail.

It's not just the trout that make the McCloud a special place. The river canyon cleaves a heavily forested section of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The water is crystal clear with a hint of glacial green. The stream bed is studded with massive boulders.

At times you'll feel like you're fishing in Jurassic Park.

The McCloud screams out for a fly rod and a good pair of waders. You won't find many places prettier than the McCloud River.

Redband rainbow trout from the McCloud have been distributed throughout the world.

The Fall River

Located near Fall River Mills, the Fall River is one of those Northern California streams you have to fish to fully appreciate.

The Fall is a massive spring creek. Located in majestic Shasta County. This spring-fed stream consistently produces quality fishing for rainbows and browns. In fact, it's so prolific it was one of the first streams in the state to receive the Wild Trout designation.

I'll tell you upfront, it's not everybody's cup of tea. For around 22 miles, this tributary of the Pit River (more on that in a minute) meanders through a classic grassy meadow so it lacks the riffle, run, pool structure of a freestone river. The fish in the fall station off weed beds, points, turns, and other mid-river current breaks. Finding them is pretty easy in the Fall's crystal clear waters. Getting them to eat is another story.

If you are into tranquil, the Fall is stunning. Sitting in the shadows of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen, you're just as likely to see deer, ducks, geese, eagles and osprey. Which explains the trout's spooky nature.

Slow and silent, the Fall can be a tough place to catch fish so bring your A-game.

The fishing on Fall River can be exceptional when you catch it right due to the abundance of insects that call this stream home.

Bugs in the Box

From mid-April through mid-October, You can always throw PMD imitations in both flavors, dry and nymph. The Pale Morning Dun is the biggest hatch of the year. Spinner falls can be particularly epic.

Blue-winged Olives start popping in June through mid-November, and make a good second offering.

Caddis, callibaetis, Green Drakes, and Tricos round out the menu of summer and fall hatches. As always, midges are a year-round food source.

Holy Hex Batman!

Anglers always love signature hatches. The Fall has the hex hatch, where mayflies (hexegenia) up to 2 inches long pop. The trout go nuts, but it's tough to time the hatch and these bugs tend to come off right at and just after dark so the last few minutes of light are the golden hour.

Since the Fall is a meadow stream and hoppers are prevalent in most Northern California meadows, hopper season (mid July to September) can also be productive.

Access to the Fall is tough unless you know a private landowner. Because this river is deep and the banks are steep, wading isn't feasible. The best spot to put in a boat is CalTrout's property that they purchased to allow angler access off Island Road. You have to be able to launch by hand and there are no gas motors allowed. As a result, most fly fishing on this section of the Fall is out of shallow draft john boats with electric motors.

The scenic beauty and tranquility alone are a great reason to visit the Fall River. But, if you catch the hatches right the fishing can be superb. Fishing season runs from the last Saturday in April through November 15.

The Fall is a meadow stream and hoppers are prevalent

Pit River

A challenge, The Pit River can be a very rewarding fishery

The Pit River is challenging but can be a rewarding destination for fly fishing. Located in Modoc County and flowing 207 miles through the Modoc National Forest, the river is infamous for difficult wading conditions. Many anglers have come home from the Pit with bruised shins and a bruised ego due to the swift, deep water and slippery rocks.

The fly fishing, however, can make it worth the effort for the chance to catch hot rainbow trout, that range from 12 to 20 inches in length.

A lot of glacial input from the Fall and McCloud rivers gives the Pit River a high pH level, supporting a thriving aquatic insect population, including mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis hatches in different seasons.

The best access on the Pit River is below Lake Britton. This stretch flows down to the Pit 3 Powerhouse. This is good fly fishing water. The areas above Pit 4 and 5 powerhouses, have similar water in spots. My best day on the Pit came just above Powerhouse 5.

Be wary of difficult access near Pit 6 and 7.

Bugs In The Box

Like the rivers that feed the Pit, bugs are plentiful. Spring and summer are my favorite time on the Pit.

April through May, expect to use some form of Blue-winged Olive, as they are the most common mayflies. In May the Stones get rolling. Salmonflies, Goldens and then Sallies all make great trout food.

Summer brings Caddis from June through September. Sporadic hatches of PMD's will also be available.

As the weather cools in the fall, October Caddis start popping. If you catch the right day, the big boys can get dialed into the big bugs.

Finally, midges are always present and available for trout food.

A word of Caution

In order to reach some of the more remote spots on the river, you might have to hike along the stream or navigate around brush-covered banks. Don't be brave. Bring a wading staff to navigate the slippery streamside boulders and swift currents.

A little bit of effort can lead to some great fishing on the Pit and there's a chance to catch fish in the 20" class.

The Truckee River

A good "urban" river near beautiful Lake Tahoe.

Being and accessible water way the Truckee can be busy in the summer

The Truckee River is not one of my favorites but people swear by it because it's easy to get to and near major population centers. I have only fished the Truckee a handful of times and all of them were either just after or during a drought. So my opinion may not be fair. That's why I include the Truckee here.

The Truckee is a major tributary off of Lake Tahoe. It is known for wary rainbows and the occasional brown trout. The Truckee is a classic freestone river with riffle, run, pool progression in a gorgeous setting.

It is a medium-sized river with a moderate gradient on the upper reaches and a steeper gradient as the river turns toward Reno.

With abundant access it's suitable for anglers of all skill levels.

Truckee River anglers can expect to see hatches of Mayflies, Caddis, and Stoneflies during the season. The river is also home to a variety of terrestrial insects. If you want some adventure, think about tossing hoppers and ants to target bank-huggers.

The Truckee is easily accessible from Sacramento, Tahoe and the San Francisco Bay Area. There are quite a few fly fishing guides and outfitters that offer guided trips on the Truckee. As with most rivers, a guided trip on the Truckee is a great way to learn some new techniques and improve your skills.

As I mentioned, the Truckee River near Lake Tahoe is heavily affected by drought conditions. Flows are more consistent below Boca Reservoir. In dry years fishing below Boca is the pro move.

Water levels can be an issue certain times of year on the Truckee.

Carson River

For fly anglers that want to catch cutthroat trout the Carson River is one of the only places to fly fish where you can catch Lahontan and Paiute Cutthroat.

The East Fork Carson River has both Lahontan and Paiute Cutthroat Trout. It's the only river, that I know of, where you can catch both flavors of cutthroat, brown and rainbow trout in the same day.

As with many high mountain fly fishing rivers, access can be limited. The East Carson starts near Sonora Peak and flows north and east through wilderness. If you're willing to put in some work, there are some fun opportunities.

Be aware, heavy snowfall can make it difficult to get to the water and high river flows can make the wading treacherous during spring and summer.

Coming off Highway 89, you can access the lower wild trout area near Markleeville. The easiest access is the section between Silver Creek and Wolf Creek, which also makes it the most popular spot to fly fish.

The upper stretch of the East Carson is wilderness trout fishing.

Bugs, Bugs, Bugs...

You can fish the East Carson year-round, but the summer months offer the most consistent fishing. Hatches include Caddis, Stoneflies, and Mayflies.

Blue-winged Olives kick things off in March, followed by March Browns. The summer months bring summer bugs. PMD's, Salmonflies, Green Drakes, Golden Stones, and Little Yellow Sallies all make an appearance on the river in that order. Caddis are the most consistent hatch from May to October.

If you like fly fishing terrestrials they're a good choice between Mid July to October. Overall, the East Carson River offers a diverse range of hatches and fly fishing opportunities for anglers of all skill levels.

Fishing in California is as diverse as the states terrain.

Other Rivers That I'll Cover in Future Articles:

Klamath River Trinity River

San Joaquin River Kern River

Smith River Eel River

Yuba River Lower Sacramento River

Mokelumne River Stanislaus River

Hat Creek

Now onto the 395 Eastern Sierra streams.

Gateway to the Eastern Sierra fishing route

Hot Creek

Even if the fishing is slow, this is a high mountain gem

As productive as it gets for fly fishing in California.

Hot Creek is one of my favorite places to fly fish in the entire world!

A very small stream, It's known for excellent dry fly fishing for brown and rainbow trout.

Fed by Mammoth Creek and underground springs, the stream always feels intimate. Trout fishing can be fabulous one minute and frustrating as hell the next.

It is an absolute must-go if you plan on trout fishing in California.

Summer stream flows on this high mountain gem are usually between 35 and 60 cubic feet per second. Which is tiny as far as trout streams go. Compare that to the Lower Sacramento River (which I'll cover in another article) which flows between 12,000 and 18,000 cfs for most of the spring and summer.

Now here's the kicker...Hot Creek has 10,000 fish per linear mile according to a California Department of Fish and Game shocking survey. That's the exact same number as the Lower Sac!

Like most spring creeks, Hot Creek has crystal clear water, however, the name comes from the geothermal activity in the Long Valley Caldera area. This river sits at 7000 feet in elevation and it provides ideal habitat for trout.

Paralell to San Jose, Mammoth lakes and her surrounding waters are not in Southern California.

Hot Creek is a blue ribbon wild trout stream. Which means special California fishing regulations.

Over the course of the year there are prolific hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, midges, and hoppers which provide a reliable source of food for the trout.

As a fly fisherman, choosing the right fly can get tricky because of the abundant insect life. here are a few key things to keep in mind.

First and foremost, the fishing will be fine and far off. You'll most likely be throwing small flies in sizes 18-20 so you'll want to use fine tippets. It also means longer leaders, which can be an issue in the afternoon winds coming from the west.

Pay attention to the details, they can make a huge difference in your success on the water.

Bugs for Your Box

Now for the bugs, Hot Creek has a wide range of insect hatches over the course of the season. Starting with Midges which are present year-round. You can also expect to cast Blue Winged Olives on most days in the spring.

Caddis show up as summer arrives from June through September, and PMDs start popping in early June as well.

Tricos are on the menu starting in late summer through November. And there are days where you may get a mix of all of these hatches masking and covering each other during the day.

Don't forget the big bugs!

You can also use a variety of terrestrials like ants and crickets from May on. But my favorite time of year on Hot Creek is Hopper Season. When Hoppers are popping the really big fish get goofy and all bets are off. I once landed over 100 inches of trout in 5 casts on this amazing little Creek.

Stealth is key in order to catch the mysterious browns and wary rainbow trout of Hot Creek.

Remember to stay low and avoid casting shadows with your body, your rod, and your line. Be aware of the sun's angle. Also, making loud noises that can spook fish is no bueno.

Fish the shoulders for more solitude.

A few years back, Fishing season changed in the Eastern Sierras. You can fish Hot Creek any day of the year now, but the golden time is spring and summer. The stream gets crowded during peak season since Highway 395 is almost a direct shot to Southern California.

If you're looking for some solitude check out Hot Creek Ranch or fish the public sections above and below the ranch during the shoulder seasons in early spring and late fall or even winter (bring a coat...brrrr).

Hot Creek Ranch for solitude.

The East Walker River

The East Walker is an epic torut fishery with some of the best fsihing in California.

The East Walker River is another of the Eastern Sierras fantastic fly fishing rivers. It's known for excellent fly fishing for rainbows and browns. The streamer fishing for monster browns is particularly impressive.

The river is divided into two sections, the upper and lower, and each section has its own unique character and fishing opportunities. There is also a West Walker River nearby that is worth a fish but outside of the scope of this article.

The upper East Walker is a small, intimate stream that is suitable for anglers of all skill levels. Hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies are consistent. The river is also a good place to fish terrestrials. Hoppers, beetles, and ants, can all be effective patterns for targeting larger trout.

Bring and assortment of bugs!

The Sweet Spot!

The lower East Walker is where the magic is... If you're looking to land a trophy trout on your next fly fishing trip, the lower East Walker River is the place to do it.

This river teems with baitfish and aquatic insects, making it a prime spot for fly fishing year-round. The section below the Bridgeport Reservoir has been deemed "the Miracle Mile" (I know, not very original). This stretch offers deep pools, long runs, and flats that are home to some monsters.

Access to the river is pretty easy, with several points along Highway 182. There are special regulations from the dam to the California-Nevada border

This trip can be a 2 for 1 if you like still water fishing. You can also try your luck at Bridgeport reservoir. Clear and shallow in spring and early summer this small dish of a lake provides good conditions for fly fishing, and the trout grow to gargantuan sizes.

Bridgeport Resevior

Owens River

Great for anglers of all skill levels

The Upper Owens River is a beautiful meadow stream.

Upper Owens River

The Upper Owens River near Mammoth, California is a cool little meadow stream. Lined with high grasses and reeds, she's nestled in the Long Valley Caldera along with Hot Creek, and Mammoth Creek. The scenery here is right out of an epic high-country western.

With Mammoth Mountain and the John Muir Wilderness to the west and Boundary Peak and White Mountain to the east, fly anglers need to guard against getting lost in the sheer beauty and serenity.

Spring time on the Upper Owens river

As mesmerizing as the scenery can be, the fishing is what brings me back. You will need all the skill that you'd use on Hot Creek with far less of a crowd. Granted, the Upper Owens River doesn't have the same fish count or average size, but you can expect consistent fishing for decent sized high-mountain trout.

You can also find big rainbows in the spring and large browns in the fall on their spawning runs from Crowley Lake.

The average size fish is 10-12" inches long, but if you do it right, you can catch a lot of them. I've also had luck with bigger resident brown trout in the 16-18 inch class. For a river this size that's a trophy.

Here's a pro tip, if you're hunting the big fish, tickle the undercut banks with a mid-size streamer. Let it drop back into the cut, then strip like hell and hold on. This can be a really effective technique to trigger strikes and get the denizens of the deep moving.

There is about 18 miles of water from the private ranch sections down to Crowley Lake. If you ever feel crowded, keep walking and find separation. Some spots in the river are slower fishing than others but stay on the move and you'll find fish.

Bugs For Your Box

Midges are present year-round. You'll see Blue Winged Olives early in the spring. Caddis arrive with the summer, from June through September. PMD's also come off in early June. Tricos are on the menu starting in late summer through November. And there are days where you may get a mix of all of theabove.

Terrestrials, like ants and beetles, are always a good choice starting in May and running through October. But, mid July brings Hoppers and Tricos. When Hoppers hit the water it's hard for trout to resist. During a good day in August one year I cought fish on size 20 Tricos in the morning and Size 10 hoppers in the afternoon. It doesn't get better than that.

The Upper Owens can be technical and windy in the afternoon, but it's also a fantastic little trout stream with something to offer around every bend.

Crowley Lake is a fantastic trout fishery in it's own right. Southern California anglers flock to her shores for trout opener.

I can remember the days of trying to figure it out, and I know what it's like trying to get information about new locations. I hope I helped you get a better picture of the waters I introduced here.

Don't forget to check California fishing regulations if you have any questions.

This article is just the start of my California series. I love sharing my home waters with you. I hope you have a fantastic time fishing them! All I ask is that you show respect to the resource and pass on our great sport to someone else to keep the tradition alive.

Mike's Bio

Mike Pawlawski

Mike Pawlawski is a former pro quarterback and world-class fly fisherman who loves sharing his passion for the great outdoors with others. After an 11 year playing career starting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL and ending with the San Francisco Demons of the XFL, Mike hosted his own fly fishing show, "Familiar Waters," for 15 years. The show took viewers to some of the most iconic fly fishing destinations in the world, including the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, the rugged rivers of the Rocky Mountains, and the expansive beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, Mike shared his knowledge and expertise with viewers, offering tips and tricks for fly fishing success.

For fly fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts looking for guidance and inspiration, Mike Pawlawski is the perfect choice. With his vast experience and expertise, he's a trusted and respected voice in the world of fly fishing, and his passion for the great outdoors is contagious. Whether you're a seasoned pro or a beginner looking to learn the ropes, Mike is the perfect guide to help you experience the beauty and excitement of fly fishing.

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