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Winter Fly Angling on the West Slope of the Sierra

Frank Pisciotta  | Published on 12/30/2016

Winter Fly Angling on the West Slope of the Sierra

Copyright Frank R. Pisciotta…Published in Sierra Fisherman Winter 2009



     During the winter months there are prospects for drift-fishing on the CENTRAL VALLEY TAILWATERS and a couple of the same water-types further up-state. The water emanating from the Sierra’s west slope is gathered in reservoirs. Begrudgingly, their dam releases are heavily influenced by powerful agricultural interests. Most of the flows go south where there is little concern for the migrating fisheries. Water releases from the dams will affect your angling prospects.  Bookmark the flow releases so that you will fish at optimum times. Obviously, the more experience one has floating these waters, the higher the success. Please read the fishing regulations when visiting these rivers; they are convoluted. There are different open and closed seasons, gear restrictions, size and catch limits.


     On the LOWER MERCED, expect to be fishing over trout as the steelhead will not make a significant appearance until early spring. Best strategy for hooking these resident rainbows is to search for holding water that is swift and broken. If low flows occur, say in the 500 cfs range, more wading access may be an option in this routinely, drifted fishery. BWO’s are the bug that will provide fly anglers with showing fish targets. Double digit sessions are common here with most trout averaging 12”.


     The LOWER STANISLAUS can provide upper, water column, BWO action all day long using size 18 and 20 adult and emerger patterns. If your above and/or in-the-film offering is not being noticed, try a two-fly rig. Hang a metal or glass bead head pattern; depending how near you want to be to the meniscus.  A generic imitation such as a Pheasant Tail will work. Or, sans the bead, use a like size Copper John, about a foot off the bend of your surface fly. In the absence of showing trout, dead drift, deep, under a preferred indicator.


     The LOWER TUOLUMNE is the most unpredictable of these central valley venues. There are extended “lock-yaw” periods even though conditions differ little from the above two waters. The upside is there are fewer crowds, hence minimal pressure. During the winter, it is open to ZERO KILL, January 1-March 31. The upper section from La Grange Dam to the Santa Fe Railroad bridge mandates barbless, artificials only. The closures are intended to protect the recovering migrating runs from the salt.


     The waterway along highway 132 is progressively being noticed for the variety of fly angling it provides. The quarry runs the gamut; from large-mouth bass in the lower reaches, to steelhead, salmon and rainbow trout. Land ingress or egress can be difficult because there is a lot of private property that borders the riverbank (hello Montana!) more so as one proceeds downstream towards the valley town of Modesto. In the lower mileage you can hire a float guide who has authorized access.


     January and February provides the best chance for a steelhead hook-up; the salmon of November and December are gone (alevin patterns are a good choice).  When pursuing the trout, scan for risers disturbing the surface, ingesting BWO’s and larger caddis emergers. Both up and down-winged attractors produce. Otherwise, long-line indicator fish with nymphs and larva imitations. Remember to adjust your drop from the indicator at each new, suspected holding and/or feeding area. Dredge the deeper holes with sink-tip or intermediate lines retrieving undulating Leech patterns or flashy Zonkers if the water is discolored. The latter water turbidity will occur during and after a mild, winter freshet.


     The CALAVARAS RIVERs 6+ miles of fly fishable, freestone water below New Hogan dam is the only exclusively wading stream of the central valley’s tail-waters. Access is off spur roads of state-route 26, northwest of Stockton.


     As mentioned initially, there are convoluted regulations, best to read them before approaching the water. Right now, through March 31, one can take five fish to 16” (to protect a meager run of ocean fish) and no gear restraints.  Lots of fly fishers would prefer barbless hooks, limited kill and no bait, such as occurs late May through October. Such a move is afoot.


     Expect the standard midges and some sporadic blue-winged olive emergences; although there is inconsistent rise activity. Regulars mostly nymph, fish with size 16-20 attractors.  Mid-sized 10-12 streamers and buck-tails, fished deep in the pools, will produce the watershed’s bigger trout. The trout are generally small, 7’-10” with a 16-incher considered big.


The AMERICAN RIVER is metropolitan Sacramento’s local steelhead stream. In the early 90’s the wild-strain iron-heads became almost extinct. Most of the fishery is now hatchery-bred, although there is a meager offering of wild ones. The system has been attracting returning hatchery fish at 2000-4000 per annum. The immediate area below the Nimbus hatchery (upstream from the power lines at Ancil Hoffman Park) is closed until January 1. Access places to prospect are at Sailor’s Bar, Grist Mill, Goethe Park, Watt Avenue and Sunrise. In early December, expect the immature ½ pounders followed by the mature adults through January and into early February.



     This is a more wader-friendly stream than the central valley tail waters. When the runs are in …and fishable, expect crowds. Fly anglers will be out numbered by the conventional gear anglers. Two techniques can be used. First, swinging streamers such as Skunks and Brindle Bugs in the smooth runs and deeper riffles or smaller offerings such as #12 - #14, glass beaded pupae at drop-offs alongside the gravel bars. The second method is dead-drifting Glo Bugs or standard nymphs in shallow riffles, in the heads and tails-outs of runs.


     Another mixed wader/drift fishery close to Sacramento is the LOWER YUBA below Englebright Dam. The area above Park’s Bar Bridge at highway 20 is opened  the first of December. Then, think Glo Bug patterns because that is why there is a closure…to protect the spawning salmon and the far fewer steelhead. Regulars also use either drab colored nymphs under an indicator or swing caddis pupae at the gravel bar drop offs. Some anglers will attach a Glo Bug on an 18” tippet, knotted to the bend of a pupa pattern. Standard hook sizes are 10-16. Expect resident, 10”-16” rainbows, half-pounder steelhead and adults in the 20”-23” range.


     Yes, there are fly fishing opportunities in the Sierra during the dead of winter. An angler’s best chance for success will occur below the snow line and in the low elevation foothills. Notable fishing waters are those which are filtered through manmade impoundments…receiving their life-blood from the melt from the high Sierra peaks.

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