Fly Fishing California
Where to go Fly Fishing in California
California provides endless opportunities for local fly fisherman as well as visitors to the state. The majority of the state's trout streams are found in the Northern half of the state. Historically salmon runs occurred as far south as Malibu, but wild trout populations are currently only found in Deep Creek just outside of San Bernardino in the southern part of the state. Deeper reservoirs are seasonally stocked in Southern California but provide little in terms of a viable fishery for fly anglers. The more prolific trout fisheries begin around the southernmost peaks of the Sierras just east of Bakersfield and along the coast in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara. Northward, these fisheries continue to improve as water quality and habit improves. Large rivers with anadromous salmon and steelhead, small freestones streams with native Golden Trout, high alpine lakes tucked in to the highest peaks of the Sierras, and productive tailwater trout fisheries can all be found in Northern California. These are incredible opportunities for a well-rounded fly angler to learn and perfect their craft.
Trout and Salmon Species in California
When deciding where to make your next fly fishing trip in California, determining your target species is a great first step in the process. California has populations of Chinook (King) Salmon, Sockeye Salmon (Kokanee), Coho (Silver) Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, Brown Trout, Lake Trout, and Cutthroat Trout. If you are hitting the Sierras, use the backcountry guide on trout fishing the Sierras. This is an invaluable resource while exploring the many creeks and lakes hidden in the mountains and will put you directly on your target species.
California Salmon Fishing
The salmon species occupy the small coastal streams and larger rivers in Northern California. Klamath Steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) can be found in these same streams. Population numbers have declined significantly in recent decades leaving many restrictions and limitations on these fisheries as subpopulations have been listed as threatened or endangered, so be sure to check the California State Fishing Regulations before targeting these species on any given stream. Coho Salmon south of Punta Gorda have been listed as endangered while populations to the north are listed as threatened. Rivers such as the Klamath River, Sacramento River, Smith River, Trinity River, and American River hold some of the largest salmon runs in the state. Understanding the timing and best public access for the California salmon runs is crucial for the best success. Kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon) can be found in a several reserviors across the state, as well as in Lake Tahoe. The population in Tahoe is best known for their Kokanee salmon which make an annual fall run up Taylor Creek and the Little Truckee River giving fly anglers the best opportunity to target this species on the fly. Stampede Reservoir, Lake Berryessa, and Whiskeytown Lake also see runs when water conditions are suitable.
California Brown Trout Fishing
Brown trout are commonly stocked in the medium-sized high elevation lakes across the northern part of the state but can also be found in the streams and outlet rivers above and below these lakes. These browns can reach trophy sizes when feeding on a steady diet of stocked rainbow trout and other forage fish in these lakes.
California Brook Trout Fishing
Brook trout can be found in the smaller alpine lakes and their tributaries high in the the Sierra Mountains. Stocked by planes in these scenic alpine lakes, these brookies are known to be wildly aggressive as they see little angling pressure.
California Lake Trout Fishing
Lake Trout are only found in a handful of smaller reserviors in Northern California. Lake Tahoe likely has the largest population of lakers but are rarely available to fly anglers in the lake. Caples Lake, Donner Lake, Silver Lake, and Lower Bear Reservoir provide better opportunities for fly anglers targeting Mackinaw in the weeks before and after ice on and ice off.
California Cutthroat Trout Fishing
California possesses four significant subspecies of cutthroat trout, each found in distinct portions of the state. The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Coastal Cutthroat Trout, and Paiute Cutthroat Trout are found in their distinct drainages across the northern part of the state. Paiute Cutthroats can only be found in Silver King Creek, a headwater tributary of the Carson River, around Llewellyn Falls south of Tahoe. Coastal Cutthroat Trout can be found in the small streams tributaries in the very northwest corner of the state. The Humboldt Bay area carries the healthiest populations of this subspecies. Eel River, Mad River, and the small tributaries of the lower Klamath River are local hotspots to target on the fly. Lahontan Cutthroat and their stream dwelling cousins, the Humboldt Cutthroat Trout occupy the drainage basin around the ancient Lake Lahontan and its tributaries in the Northeastern Sierras. Known for reaching very large sizes in notorious lakes such as Pyramid Lake, north of Reno, Nevada, Lahontan Cutthroat have been reintroduced to many alpine lakes within their native range in the Sierras.
California Rainbow Trout Fishing
Rainbow trout are stocked all around the state of California from urbanized reserviors, to small creeks in the southern part of the state and the larger rivers and alpine lakes of the Sierras in Northern California. Steelhead are also responsible for attracting many anglers to the river during the peaks of their run. Two notable subspecies of Rainbow Trout can be found in the state; the McCloud River Redband trout and the California state fish, the California Golden Trout. These subspecies have incredible coloration and standout next to the typical rainbow trout found across the state. We will address where to find these species later in the article.
California's Best Trout Streams
Besides the larger waters that attract many anglers from around the states to Klamath River fly fishing, or fly fishing on the Russian River, California's medium and smaller streams offer excellent opportunities for wading anglers in the healthy populations of trout and salmon that occupy these rivers. Hat Creek, Carson River, Feather River, Putah Creek, Little Kern River, American River, McCloud River, Truckee River, Trinity River, and Pit River are notable pieces of water that each offer fly anglers something unique and a true California fly fishing experience.
Hat Creek Fly Fishing
Hat Creek finds its beginning from the snowmelt on Mt Lassen, inside Lassen National Park, just east of Redding, CA. The creek flows northward, in and out of public lands along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. This upper section of Hat Creek possesses mostly smaller trout that see much less pressure than the lower section of river. The lower section of Hat Creek can attract crowds from its season opening in April, until its close in mid November. This section lies between Powerhouse 2, just north of Cassel, and runs just over 3 miles to Britton lake where Hat Creek meets the Pit River. Managed as the Wild Trout section, brown trout and rainbow trout are the most common catches. Insect hatches are pretty typical for the area as green drakes, salmon flies, along with the occasional PMD comprise the hatches from late spring through to mid summer. From mid to late summer, the low light hatches are best and comprise of caddis and tricos. Fall brings heavy hatches of October Caddis and the fading of the terrestrial bite. Colder, more overcast days toward the end of the season can brings swarms of BWOs to the surface. Be sure to pay attention to the ever changing conditions on this lower section of Hat Creek as the trout are well educated and targeted by many knowledgeable anglers during the season.
Pit River Fly Fishing
Beginning in the very Northeast corner of California, near Alturas, the Pit River runs through hundreds of miles of private and farm land. However, this section of the Pit River is not what attracts many fly anglers year after year. The shorter section of tailwater from Lake Britton to Lake Shasta lays claim to some hefty rainbow trout which inhabit the river. Flowing through the steep and scenic gorge, the fast waters can make wading and fishing difficult for those unfamiliar with the area. Pocket water fishing is nearly a necessity here in order to have the best possible day on the water. The hatches on the Pit are similar to its tributary, Hat Creek. The major difference in the two pieces of water is that the Pit River is open to anglers year round. This means anglers looking to wet a line during the winter months can tackle the river when the weather permits. Access can be found for miles off of Hwy 299 just to the east of Redding.
McCloud River Fishing
The McCloud River is home to the coveted subspecies of the rainbow trout, the McCloud Redband Trout. The Redband trout can be found exclusively in the McCloud River headwaters above the upper falls. The upper section of river, above Lake McCloud, is incredibly scenic and home to healthy populations of trout. Though these trout don't reach the sizes of the trout found on the McCloud tailwater, the unique fish are tough to pass up on. The lower section is the tailwater from Lake McCloud that runs southward to its meeting point with the Pit River in Lake Shasta, just north of Redding. This section of the river contains both rainbow and brown trout which have the potential to reach trophy sizes in the deeper waters.
Feather River Fly Fishing
The best fly fishing water on the Feather River is found on the tailwater of Lake Oroville near the town of Oroville. The river flows south for a few dozen miles where it meets with the American River to form the Sacramento River. Known for its anadromous steelhead and salmon runs, the Feather river gives anglers the opportunity at wild and hatchery raised fish. The early steelhead runs begin before coastal rivers allowing steelhead lovers to start their season early. However, late summer and fall are the best time to be on the river as King Salmon and Steelhead runs will occur beginning in September. Above Lake Oroville anglers can find wild and stocked trout in the North, Middle, and South Fork of the Feather River. The North Fork of the Feather River is easiest to find public access on and also sees the most trout stocking in the area.
American River Fly Fishing
The American River is home to both brown trout and rainbow trout as well as seasonal runs of salmon. Rainbow trout will be the most common catch throughout the river system. The North Fork of the American River has been designated nationally as a Wild and Scenic River and designated by the state as a Wild Trout Stream. These designations have helped the river thrive with additional protections. King Salmon move up the Sacramento and into the American River on their way to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. These fish will hit the river in late summer and the run will peak by mid to late fall. Learn more about the American River and Feather River fisheries in our article on Fly Fishing the Sacramento River.
Carson River Fly Fishing
The headwaters of the Carson River begin high in the Sierras, just south of Tahoe. The small freestone stream holds populations of wild rainbow and brown trout, with the occasional stocked cutthroat and brook trout. Access to the river is not hard to find on the Carson Pass Highway (Hwy 88) which parallels the West Fork of the Carson River for several miles. Finding your way off the beaten path is a great way to find, not just more trout, but larger trout as well. The East Fork of the Carson runs north then to the east from Markleeville. Standard fly patterns will produce plenty of action on each fork of the Carson River. Gluttonous wild trout won't hesitate to shy away from bigger terrestrial patterns during the warmer months. Dry dropper set-ups with a flashy squirmy worm are tough offerings for wild and stocked trout to pass up.
Truckee River Fly Fishing
The Truckee River Drainage can be split into three separate fisheries from Lake Tahoe to Carson City. The Truckee River, Little Truckee River, and Upper Truckee River all provide different types of fishing to visiting anglers but have one thing in common, the presence of big trout. While the presence of big trout on the Little Truckee is seasonal, the river does boast a native population of Lahanton Cutthroat in its headwaters as well as the potential for fly anglers to catch rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, and sockeye (Kokanee) salmon. The best fishing on the Little Truckee can be found in the tailwaters between Stampede and Boca Reserviors where brown trout can reach trophy sizes in a short amount of time. The main stem of the Truckee flowing from Tahoe City through the town of Truckee, sees trout of similar proportions and draws local anglers from California and Nevada to chase these hefty trout. For a deeper dive into the Truckee River Fisheries, check out our article on Truckee River Trout Fishing.
Trinity River Fly Fishing
The Trinity River is one of, if not the most unique fisheries in California. The best place for fly anglers to explore the river begins below the Lewiston dam and runs to its convergence with the Klamath River. Wild Rainbow and brown trout can be found in the river year round and reach trophy sizes while feeding on the seasonal visitors to the river. King Salmon, Coho Salmon, and Steelhead all make their way up the Trinity River each year. King Salmon have both Spring and Fall runs but the heavy action occurs each Autumn. The largest runs of Kings will congregate in substantial numbers on their way to the hatchery below the Lewiston Dam by October. Coho (silver salmon) will follow this migration up and last from mid October through December. Finally the steelhead will arrive last and be active in the river from December through February giving anglers the opportunity at a productive fishery during the slow winter months. Stay up to date on the seasonal regulations and timing by monitoring the California Inland Fishing Regulations.
Putah Creek Fly Fishing
Putah Creek is well known as being California's best trophy rainbow trout stream. Designated as a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream, many trout over 20" inhabit it's waters. Fly fishing is not the easiest in the state however. Due to the availability of trout in the trophy size ranges, the creek sees plenty of experienced anglers versed with the most modern techniques of the sport. Euronymphing is nearly essential for visitors to produce the best results. With its close proximity to the Bay Area, don't expect to have the creek to yourself on most days.
Little Kern River Fly Fishing
The Little Kern is home to the California Golden Trout, the state fish of California, and like the McCloud Redband is subspecies of rainbow trout. The Little Kern is a small freestone stream beginning in the Sequoia National Forest. The Golden trout don't reach large sizes, typically less the 12", but are an excellent achievement for any angler willing to put in the work to target them. The upper section of the river will give you the best chances during the summer months. The small feeder streams can be easier to negotiate after snow melt and produce more trout in a days time. Be sure to study local maps and access points as the unkept trails in the area can be tough to traverse.
Fly Fishing California's Alpine Lakes
The high elevation Alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are a must see for any visitor to California. These smaller bodies of water are the homes to several species of trout. The Eastern Sierra Back Country Fishing Guide provided by the California Natural Resources agency is a must have for any anglers looking to explore these lakes. The guide will inform you of the trails and access to the lakes, as well as the species found in the lakes and when they were stocked. Rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout can be found in many lakes throughout the range. Anglers looking for less common trout such as the California Golden Trout and Lahontan Cutthroat trout can find special lakes tucked away that rarely see visiting anglers.
California Lahontan Cutthroat Fly Fishing
Lahontan Cutthroat are stocked to a lesser degree than the Golden Trout. The best place to find Lahontan's are in the alpine lakes of the Desolation Range. Heenan Lake, Lost Lakes, and other lakes of the Upper West Fork of the Carson River will hold Lahonton Cutthroat.
California Golden Trout Fly Fishing
California Golden Trout can be found in two to three dozen lakes throughout California, but the best bet for visiting anglers looking for this prized subspecies, is to target the waters in the Cottonwood Lakes, west of Lone Pine, California. Goldens will not only be found in the many lakes in the drainage, but also in the small creeks connecting them. Other lakes worth exploring for Golden Trout are the French Lake drainages, Desolation Lakes, Upper Alger Creek drainages, and the Franklin Lakes. For anglers limited on hiking abilities, the Laurel Lakes offers the shortest hike to reach golden trout. These fish are pressured to a higher degree, but are still quite catchable in these easily accessible waters.
California Trout Fishing Regulations
If you are planning to keep any trout or salmon during your time on the water, be sure to check the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for up to date regulations as there is heavy variation not only between different rivers, lakes, and streams, but also in different years based on salmon and steelhead numbers.