Best California Trout Streams for Spring
March 23, 2018
If you haven't fished these California trout streams yet, you are missing some great angling action.
With help from my dad, I caught my first stream trout in the Sierras well before entering the 1st grade. Before I'd even gotten that 9-inch rainbow out of the water I was addicted to fishing. And I've been a passionate California stream trout angler tossing flies, slow rolling spinners and drifting bait for nearly five decades and counting.
By the time I reached college I already had five years of fly-fishing experience under my belt, and I was tying upwards of 10,000 trout flies per year.
It was during my late teens and early 20s that I seriously fished countless Golden State streams with fly gear on the hunt trout, both large and small.
With no wife, no house and few responsibilities I fished a lot. I fished with my dad. I fished with my uncle and I fished alone. I fished waters close to major roads and I hiked deep into the remotest country available.
Fast forward to present and I'm still fishing. Of course, writing about fishing full time means that I've got to cover a wide swath of the Golden State angling scene. Much of the fishing I do these days requires conventional tackle for a myriad of species, but stream trout fishing with both fly tackle and conventional gear still holds a special place in my heart.
With winter weather largely behind us and spring breaking out across the state, this is a perfect time to start planning some stream trout adventures. This being the case, I'd like to share a few of my favorite destinations with my fellow trout junkies.
Some of my fondest memories come from chasing feisty trout and sleek bucks in Deer Creek canyon and other nearby drainages.
Deer Creek springs to life just beyond Deer Creek Meadows near the junction of Highways 32 and 36. From there it flows for about 60 miles before it reaches the first diversion dam on its waters less then 10 miles from its confluence with the Sacramento River.
Officially Deer Creek is a creek, but in reality, it's a small river with ample flow all season long and many deep swirling pools and surging runs. Some of the creek's flow comes from snow melt, but the lion's share of it comes from various springs along its course. This is why the stream always has a good flow and very cool water even during low water years.
Despite the fact that the stream gets a lot of its water from springs, Deer Creek should not be confused with a spring creek. This is classic freestone water that is rich in aquatic insects.
In its lower reaches from its junction with the Sacramento up to upper Deer Creek falls and the Ishi Wilderness Area, Deer Creek is a special regulation stream, since this stretch of the stream still plays host to spring and fall salmon runs and it hosts a population of winter run steelhead too.
I've caught salmon smolts while fishing the lower stretch of the creek, and they are absolutely amazing. They look exactly like big bad ocean run kings except they are tiny, measuring only 3 to 4 inches in length. Naturally, I released these fish with the greatest of care.
Above upper Deer Creek falls much of the stream is paralleled by Highway 32, giving good access to anglers. There are a handful of campgrounds that dot this stretch of the stream as well.
From Deer Creek Meadows downstream to the upper falls, the stream is planted regularly during the April to November trout season by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Most of the planters are standard government-issue rainbows that run 8 to 10 inches in length, but there are holdover rainbows, wild rainbows, colorful wild brook trout and good numbers of wary browns in the mix too.
A lot of folks that fish Deer Creek consider anything over 12 inches to be large, and these same folks claim that the stream doesn't hold any trout much longer then 16 inches.
While the average size of the trout I've caught on Deer Creel over the years does range from about 6 inches to 12 inches, regardless of species or pedigree, I have to go against conventional wisdom in terms of the high-end size of the trout that reside in the stream.
I've caught many holdover rainbows that range up to and beyond 2 pounds, and I've caught a handful of very large, very reclusive browns that weigh upwards of 4 pounds and measure well over 20 inches.
Curiously, I caught the largest trout I've ever caught in Deer Creek, a brown that measured 23 inches right up near the headwaters above Deer Creek Meadows where the stream is at its smallest. I tempted that trout with a No. 12 Humpy dry fly drifted beneath an old semi-submerged log that I'd fished dozens of times in the past. The log was usually good for a 7- to 9-inch rainbow or brown, so I was shocked when that big brown dashed off on a reel run.
How do you go about catching Deer Creek trout during the spring and early summer? That's simple, any way you want!
Fly-anglers excel tossing the usual regiment of stonefly and caddis fly nymphs. The best sizes typically range from No. 8 to 14. If you want to hook a big early season brown on fly gear, muddler minnows and wooly worms in size 8 work well.
Spin-anglers achieve results with dark colored spinners. Gold spoons in the same size range will draw early season strikes, too.
If you want to fish bait, salmon eggs work great near the campgrounds where the planters swim. I typically favor yellow or orange eggs over the traditional red eggs. Overall the best bait for both planters and non-planters is a cricket followed by mini-crawlers and meal worms.
While you can catch plenty of trout within sight of the campgrounds, I typically like to hike a bit. During the summer, I typically wade the stream in shorts and old hiking boots, but in the spring it is usually chilly so I like to run with hip boots. Full blown chest waders aren't necessary.
Spring fishing is great on Deer Creek, but the action is just as good throughout the summer. And things can get really exciting in the fall when big hatches of caddisflies and colder shorter days really spur the trout to action.
MIDDLE FORK AMERICAN RIVER
I consider the Middle Fork of the American River to be the sleeper of Sierra sleepers when it comes to trout fishing. The river is a designated wild trout fishery. While standard regulations and bait anglers as well as barbed hooks are welcome, the river isn't stocked with government rainbows and hasn't been since the 1960s.
The Middle American gets its start high in the Sierra's Granite Chief Wilderness and flows in a westerly direction for about 40 miles constantly gaining flow until it merges with the North Fork American River near the town of Auburn, California.
The Middle American is a big brawling river that has been altered significantly by mining operations in the middle to late 1800s and early 1900s. Over time, miners diverted the river and dredged the river channel with heavy equipment.
As a result, we are now confronted with a river that boasts holes that are over 30 feet deep that cloak granite boulders that range from the size of compact cars to houses.
The river is flush with food in the form of insects, small trout, sculpins, crawfish and even salamanders. The wild rainbows and browns that reside in the river's deep dark pools grow to epic proportions and due to the steep rugged canyon that guards the river's secrets many of them live out their entire lives without seeing a lure or hook.
My personal best Middle American rainbow measured 27 inches, and I've seen 'bows that weighed upwards of 7 pounds. My best ever brown weighed only about 4 pounds. That's a pretty modestly sized fish considering that I've personally seen browns to 9 caught and hear of browns in excess of 10 pounds being caught or hooked and lost every year.
In the spring and early summer the river will be running big due to snow melt, giving conventional gear anglers an edge over fly guys.
Fishing the American doesn't require any fancy tactics or gear. To score all you need is a can of worms, split-shot, hooks, some spinners and an assortment of Countdown minnow plugs in rainbow trout, gold/black and silver/black finishes. Small lures will draw strikes from small- to medium- size trout.
If you want that double-digit brown, tie on a 6-inch rip bait and work it like you are Kevin VanDam trying to win the Bassmaster Classic. You won't get many strikes aggressively working big plugs, but when you do get hit it will likely be the trout of a lifetime!
There is one word of caution. This is not a river to wade at any time of the year and during the spring when the flows are robust you'll want to use extreme caution hiking the canyon. If you fall into the river and get caught in the whitewater, there is a good chance you'll never be seen again.
EAST WALKER RIVER
The Eastern Sierras are home to a long list of fabled trout waters. The emphasis in this region is lake fishing, but there is some epic stream action on tap, too. In terms of the size and quantity of trout, it's hard to beat the East Walker River.
The East Walker flows out of Bridgeport Reservoir and proceeds east out of California and into Nevada.
When the river emerges from the reservoir it runs beside Highway 182 for about 10 miles until it crosses the Nevada border. There is lots of public access for the first 6 miles or so, but after that you've got to watch out for private property.
The East Walker is fly water. Early in the season, nymphs such as size 6 to 10 stone fly imitations, along with caddis imitations are the way to go for average-size fish.
For the big boys that lurk near Bridgeport Reservoir there is nothing better than a streamer that imitates the Sacramento perch that get sucked out of the lake and deposited in the river. This work calls for stout gear, sink-tip lines and an aggressive mindset, but the rewards can be great when that big brown comes knocking!