By Tayler Wells
Heading up the Valley you see a massive change in your surroundings. You will notice a change from flat, lush farmland, to smooth golden rolling hills dotted with ancient oak trees that seem to usher you into the foothills of the great Western Sierra Nevada Mountains. I grew up in these mountains, making the creeks, lakes and mountains my playground and backyard, the home of my recent youth is merely a few miles as the crow flies from the South Fork of the American River, which is one of the main stretches of river I now spend my time on. This area is a fisherman’s paradise, especially for one who is not afraid of some true adventure, maybe including a 4wheel drive trail, blackberries, poison oak and the occasional Banjo notes slowly rolling off the sheer walls of the canyons.
What gives this area its name is the almost pristine wilderness in between highway 50 and 80, and this is created by the rugged canyons formed by the upper forks of the American, namely the South Fork, Middle Fork and North Fork. Each of these rivers have their own special quirks and more tributaries than one could thoroughly fish in a lifetime. Yet, for one who is not afraid of giving yourself a challenge physically, there are some really amazing sights to be seen.
Now, to the important stuff, the fishing. As someone who has spent my life trying to figure out where these creeks are, and more importantly how to get in and more importantly out of them, I hold these places pretty close to my heart. In that You will not see any names of water, as the adventure is half the fun. One thing I can share is that if one is interested in seeing some of this water, Google Earth is a god send. I use it almost daily, usually while my wife is reading in bed or something of that sort I cruise the mountains from above, it really provides for a massive amount of Inspiration. It never fails to amaze me how much fishable water that there is in this area, and that it is so under appreciated.
Being that many of these creeks and rivers are tail waters from SMUD’s Upper American River Project (UARP) reservoirs, there is generally water flowing when it is scarce other places, and seasonally the flows can be scary to say the least. Back in the 60’s the coffer dam blew on Hell Hole reservoir, which the Rubicon River flows out of. Stories tell that an 80’ tall wall of water came raging down the canyon, and the twisted metal you see from old bridges and mining camps can hardly do anything but confirm those suspicions. Accordingly all three of the forks contain world class white water runs.
There are two main species present, being that of Browns and Rainbows. There are also some Squawfish, Sculpins and in some areas extremely aggressive and acrobatic Small Mouth Bass cruise the rocks. The majority of the water is not what you would consider “big fish water,” yet produces large numbers of fish from 6-14" and occasionally to 16 or 20". With that, there are systems that produce browns that will make your knees shake if you see them. Fish that you mistake for logs. I haven’t landed a log sized fish as of yet, but we have hooked them and landed other quality fish. Most of the time these fish come on streamers, but nymphing can prove very effective at times as well.
It would take a full book to really explain the fishing and the fish in full depth, as each river presents different options. My favorite way to fish as is that of many fly anglers, is that of the up-stream dry fly. These fish not only rise actively, but seek to demolish your flies. This could be in part due to the cornucopia of bugs that are in these rivers. There are many species of mays, caddis and stoneflies including the massive golden stoneflies and salmonflies in a few spots. Bugs that you need to have to fish here are probably what you already have in your box, things like parachute adams from sz 14-16, Stimis sz 14-16, Ants sz 12-16, most Elk Hair Caddis from sz 12-18 and many more. These fish are biters.
This time of year you will find me on small water with a rod generally no heavier than a 3wt, and no longer than 8'9". The current rods of choice are the 3wt Sage Circa, and 1wt TXL-F, both matched with DT floating lines. I prefer short rods because there are very few situations you will ever need to cast past 50’, and a lone dry will usually not over power a light rod of this sort. Along with that, there are spots that will have you in a tight squeeze with not much swing room, so being able to load up a quick roll cast can be key.
The dry dropper can be a ton of fun to fish at times, especially when using a larger hopper or foam stone and using it as a pseudo indicator. This rig is generally what produces the highest number days for me. Generally my bugs of choice are something like the Chubby Chernobyl, followed by a tungsten bead head flashback PT, and maybe even a heavy caddis as well as long as its tan. Any number of heavy nymphs will do the trick, these fish don’t see that many flies and are not fly shy.
As any angler is well aware of we are currently in a drought in our state, but up here in the hills the water is cold, clear and full of fish. The waters of gold country are calling and I would love nothing more than to help you experience them!
About the Author
Tayler Wells has spent his life all over the Western Sierras in the pursuit of new places and fish stories. His last 4 summers were spent guiding at some of the most premier lodges in Western Alaska, and he calls the State of Jefferson his home in the fall months in the pursuit of Summer Steelhead on the Klamath River. Along with his piscatorial pursuits he is about to finish a degree in Environmental Science at CSU Sacramento, and currently works for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife within the Heritage and Wild Trout Program. He is also an avid fly tyer, being a signature fly designer for solitude fly company.