LOST COAST OUTFITTERS PRESENTS
LOST COAST OUTFITTERS PRESENTS
If you are a Bay Area resident or visiting angler, Putah Creek is your most legit trout destination that won’t cost you a whole weekend. But, don’t think that Putah is just a geographically convenient consolation prize however, the creek harbors some of the largest rainbows in the American West. Seriously.
The fishery begins below Monticello Dam, which holds back the waters of Lake Berryessa (an outstanding bass fishery) and meanders a scant 4 miles through dry, oak dotted canyon lands, to Lake Solano and another dam. The water is small, clear, weedy, both calm and roiling in spots. The casting is tough, battling brushy banks and tiny flies on light tippet. The wading is slick and slow, and on the way to the water you might encounter a rattlesnake and dodge plenty of poison oak.
So, why? Big, beautiful, and challenging wild trout. That’s why. Putah fish contain native rainbow DNA, a rarity in today’s trout world. The fish that currently reside in the creek are directly linked to steelhead (ocean-going rainbow trout) that once returned to the watershed. Very few waters in the world can claim that status. Unfortunately, hatchery stockings mixed that DNA for decades, when Putah was a put-n-take, worm slinging goat rodeo. In 2008 however, that all changed when CFDW ceased stocking Putah, followed by catch and release, no bait, barbless hook regulations in 2010. Resilience is a core theme at Putah and since 2010 the creek has climbed a steep mountain toward recovery and the fish continue to respond well. “In just the last five years at Putah, we have seen extreme drought, massive wildfire, and huge flooding. Putah has fished incredibly well through it all,” says Putah guide Rob Russell.
Check the Putah Creek USGS gauging station before you go. https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv/?site_no=11454000&agency_cd=USGS
Putah Creek guide, Jordan Romney, discusses the finer points of fishing putah creek, from fly selection, technique, access, and more..
Putah is a sub-surface fishery, it’s rare to see rising fish out there. Jordan Romney grew up fishing the creek and guides it today. He says, “Your best bet is a two-fly nymph rig under an indicator, with split-shot. It is the most common method of finding fish on the creek. Small bugs on light tippet are key.” Common rigs at Putah are leaders in the 12’ range, with fluorocarbon tapered to 5x-6x. Some anglers even fish 7x, but that should be avoided due to the extreme difficulty of properly playing and landing fish on such light tippet. Indicators should be small and set high up the leader to avoid spooking fish. Tightline or simply no-indicator, dead-drift techniques are quite effective but require some skill to employ. Split-shot is commonly used in the deeper and faster water but should be removed for any flatwater situations. Lead plops will spook fish. Dry fly fishing is sporadic at best. You may occasionally see emerging mayflies or midges but if you see trout feeding on them consider yourself lucky and tie on a tiny dry fly and pray.
Walk slowly when approaching the water. You may even need to crawl into casting position and hide behind bushes when fishing flat water. Fishing riffles allows for less caution but you still need to keep a quiet, low profile. Putah rainbows are educated.
Streamer fishing is effective at Putah and larger trout are predators that require calories. One good technique is to nymph through a run and then go back and strip a streamer though it. Ravenous trout will eat all manner of sculpins, crawdads, chubs and leeches. In many places however, tight brush makes long casts difficult.
Putah is not the easiest place to fish and sometimes it’s just downright mean. But, fishing the creek should be a learning experience, a place to pit your best game against its best game. “Apply your most technical skills here and you’ll be rewarded. Putah Creek is a worthy opponent and rewards you for hard work,” says Romney.
WHAT TO FISH
Putah boasts an abundance of insects, most of which are small and trout vacuum them up by the mouthful. To say that the insect hatches don’t change through the season would be false, but the consistent nature of the flows and nutrients mean that midges and BWO’s are common and important food sources year-round. Crawdads and baitfish, such as sculpins, are always available too. During spring and summer you’ll see several types of caddis and other random mayflies in yellow, olive, black, brown. You won’t find much in the way of stoneflies on Putah. The largest insects you will find along the creek are usually spring caddis in an olive or tan, as large as a #12. However, most of the flies you’ll squint to thread onto your gossamer tippet range from #18-22.
Caddis: early spring-summer
Tungsten Zebra Midges in red, black, olive and brown, #18-22
Beadhead Pheasant Tails in original, black and olive, #16-20
Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail in original, black and olive #16-20
Mike Mercer patterns: Tungsten Psycho May, Trigger Nymph, Micro May all in olive, black, purple, red, PMD, #16-20
King Prince, #12-16
WD40 in red, black, olive, tan, #18-22
Beadhead Humpack PMD, #16-18
RS2 in olive, gray, black, #18-22
Craven’s Juju Baetis #18-20
Tungsten jig-head patterns are very popular these days and should be in your box.
HOW TO FISH
Fish flows between 100-300cfs for best wading and accessible water. Fishable with caution up to 700cfs.
Sight fish flatwater when possible and blind fish the riffle water.
Strip or swing streamers in the larger pools that are tough to nymph.
Wear studded boots, Putah Creek is slick.
Bring Technu, poison oak is prevalent.
Stick to long leaders and light tippets.
Voluntary spawning closure is Dec. 1st—Feb. 28th.
Drift nymphs along the soft current seams in the riffle water.
Fish likely water hard and change flies often if you are not hooking fish.
Pack your patience. Putah is difficult but rewards anglers willing to slow down and learn.
Photo's By Mike Idell
WHERE TO STAY
Most of the creek between Monticello Dam and Lake Solano is publically accessible and lies within the Putah Creek State Wildlife Area. There are five numbered access points along the creek provided by Yolo County. A daily permit ($10) is required to use those areas. You can pay for your permit at the parking areas.
Beginning just below the dam, access is offered on both the north and south sides of Highway 128 by UC Davis at the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.
Just below Cold Canyon, Highway 128 crosses to the north side of the river and remains on that side. Below the bridge is a section of private property at Canyon Creek Resort. If you are staying at the resort you can fish on the property.
The next access is a spot locals call “Deer Sign”, which is literally at a deer crossing sign that faces westbound drivers. Keep an eye out. Take the trail back to the creek and watch out for poison oak.
Yolo County provides five access points below Deer Sign all the way almost to Lake Solano. The signage is adequate and parking is provided at all the numbered sites except #2, which is basically just a locked gate. However, a trail network connects all the access points with the highway and with each other, for the most part. For example, anglers can easily hike and fish between #1-3 and #4-5.
Other access sites are simply pull offs along the highway where you can scramble down the bank or hike through the brush to the creek. The highway is almost always within sight of the creek from the dam to Lake Solano, though the last mile-ish above Solano meanders off through private property and is mostly frogwater. Access #5 is the last practical piece of fishing water.
The Town of Winters
Native Americans lived in the Putah Creek Canyon for millennia and around what is now the town of Winters, established in 1875. Traditionally a farming community, Winters is known as an outdoor recreation and food-rich town now. If you’re in need of delicious meal and a beer after a day on the water, check out these solid options: Putah Creek Café, Buckhorn Steakhouse, Lester Farms Barkery or Chuy’s Taqueria. Berryessa Brewing produces some of the best beer in the state and their taproom is just west of town right on Highway 128.
If you’re going to make it a weekend, you can pitch your tent right on the creek at Canyon Creek Resort. The resort also owns private access to a section of the creek. If you’re looking for a roof, head back into town and check-in to Hotel Winters or Abbey House Inn and then amble on over to Preserve for food and drinks. If public camping is more your speed, head to Lake Solano State Park, where you tent is within spitting distance of the creek.