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Fall River 'Bows & Browns

Fall River 'Bows & Browns

The Fall River offers some of the best wild trout fishing in California, and there's no better time to fish the system than during the late-spring/early summer Hex hatch.

Young Jack Marugg, fishing with his dad, Steve, caught this whopper rainbow on the Fall River in June. Photo by Chris Shaffer

By Chris Shaffer

No matter where you choose to fish for wild trout in the West, centering your efforts around insect hatches not only appears to take the science out of fishing but also greatly increases your catch rate. Without struggle, anglers know what trout are eating and how to target them: simply follow the hatch.

Hatches are prolific on nearly every successful wild trout system, and northeastern California's Fall River is no different. While the Fall River system offers the same great caddis and mayfly hatches that occur across much of the Golden State, it's a different type of hatch. The famed Hexagenia limbata hatch draws anglers from across the nation. The Hexagenia, or Hex, as it is commonly known, is an insect that burrows itself in the mud by day and hatches at sunset.

Yet the Hex isn't just another seasonal hatch. The Hex is one of the most prolific hatches on the globe and puts the Fall River's monster trout in a binge-eating mode that few anglers ever witness.

"It's overwhelming," says California Department of Fish and Game Northern California wild trout biologist Mike Dean. "Anything that looks like a Hex they target. They basically get drunk on them. The trout don't pay attention during the Hex hatch. They just eat. They are very vulnerable."

They sure are. However, scheduling a trip to experience the allure of the Hex hatch isn't always a surety. Unlike other hatches that take place, Hexes hatch for as little as a few days to only a few weeks - not months - each spring, and while all of this activity traditionally occurs during the same time frame each year, nothing is a guarantee.

The key to fishing the Hex hatch is timing. How do you know exactly when it will occur? Unfortunately, it's not a precise science. Fortunately, the phenomenon tends to arrive during a narrow window each year.


"The Hex hatch is probably more related to daylight than it is water temperature, (but) it may be somewhat water-related," Dean said. "It's like trying to plan a snowstorm. If you are a skier, you don't want to plan a snowstorm the last week of June and expect good powder. The same goes for the Hex hatch."


The Fall River system is known for its large rainbow trout. Nevertheless, a sprinkling of brown trout have become established in the system.


California Department of Fish and Game officials says it's likely the browns entered the system via a DFG stocking truck prior to the 1970s, when the agency stocked several species of trout. Today the browns inhabiting the Fall River are indeed a wild, reproducing population.


"The browns are 5 percent to 7 percent of the population of trout," said northern California wild trout biologist Mike Dean. Most Fall River browns range between 12 and 18 inches.


Two sections are worth some time when fishing for browns: the Whipple Section, which is just downstream of Spring Creek, and near the headwaters of the Fall River -- and more specifically in Rainbow Spring, Thousand Springs and Bear Creek. While a few browns are taken from the lower river below Fall River Lake and the section below the confluence with the Tule River, you'll find more browns the farther upriver you go.


Spin casters fare better than fly anglers in targeting brown trout. Try tossing a medium-sized Panther Martin, a large spoon or any minnow imitation. Try fishing early morning or late evening with a fat tube lure or a jointed minnow. Bait is not permitted.


To target browns with a fly rod, you'll need to match their food source and fish during low-light hours. "Most of the big browns are taken upriver near the nursery where the juvenile rainbows are. They feed on those rainbows," says local fly-fishing guide Steve Marugg of Finwing Guide Service. Be sure to fish the bottoms of large, deep pools and concentrate on fishing the upper section of the river. -- Chris Shaffer


Traditionally, the hatch begins either the last week of May or the first week of June. It apparently starts near the town of Fall River Mills and works upriver as water temperatures warm. Some years the hatch won't begin until June and continues through mid-July. Concentrate on fishing the Hex hatch from the upper end of Fall River Lake to Island Bridge.

How long Hexes hatch is another intangible.

"You don't know. It depends on the strength of the year," Dean said. "It can last three days or three weeks."

For the most part, anglers can expect a two- to three-week window of great fishing around the Hex hatch.

"When the Hex hatch is coming off, millions is an understatement. It's probably a magnitude or two higher than any other hatch in California," Dean said. "The surface of the water literally has tens of thousands of bugs on the surface. It's overwhelming. How do you compete with it? The surface is covered. You can't even see through the bugs."

What do you use to imitate the Hex? A Hex bug? Unfortunately, matching the size and pattern of the Hex isn't always the smartest thing to do.

"We use an emerger with a tall skinny wing on it (a Hex emerger, size 6)," says Jean Rodgers, a former fishing guide who now runs Vaughn's Sporting Goods in Burney. "You very often get a better hookset on the emerger because of the way it sits in the water. The hook sits down."

Hooksets can be tricky if your bug looks similar to the other thousands that are on the water. Slightly altering your bug can help you keep contact

with it. Some anglers put a small piece of yarn or paint on their Hex bug to change its appearance from the naturally hatching bugs.

"You really have to focus on your bug. It's the only way to really make sure you know what's going on. You can't take your eyes off it," Rodgers said. "When there are several hundreds of bugs within 10 feet of yours, you really need to pay attention. If you blink you'll lose it."

Anglers can catch trout with replicas of the Hex bug, but it's not always the most successful way to tap into the fishery.

"We have some (patterns) that closely match the regular bugs. The more important thing is to have a bug in the water that is the right shape," Rodgers said. "As late as the hatch comes off, the bugs are seen in silhouette. You don't need to be exact on the size and color.

"Most folks fish the Hex hatch because they want to catch a really big fish on the dry. Those fish are plumb stuffed with those bugs. If you have a Hex bug in the water during the hatch, chances are it's going to get eaten."

Timing the hatch is imperative. The Hex hatch generally occurs at sundown and lasts through legal fishing time. While trout continue to feed through the twilight hours, the river closes to legal fishing one hour after sunset.

"While some anglers can catch fish on Hex nymphs before the hatch occurs, fishing is usually best during the hatch," Rodgers said. "Usually the Hex hatch happens after sundown within the last half-hour of fishing. You are looking at a half-hour to an hour of fishing on the bugs if you stay within the legal limits of fishing."

How do you want to fish the fly? Basically, you can't fish it incorrectly. The trout aren't picky when the hatch is occurring. Many anglers cast out 10 to 20 feet from the boat and allow the fly to drift downriver. However, you'll find trout rising alongside your boat to nab Hex bugs. If you have a No. 4 or No. 6 Hex bug in the water, you are in the game.


The Fall River provides a country-like setting in the flat and heavily farmed Fall River Valley. There is plenty of comfort to go around.


Nearby Burney has restaurants, services and lodging: Contact the Burney Motel, (530) 335-4500; Green Gables Motel, (530) 335-2264; or Shasta Pines Motel, (530) 335-2201.


The town of Fall River Mills offers limited lodging and services.


No public campgrounds border the Fall River itself, but camping is available nearby on Hat Creek and Lake Britton. You can rent some pricey riverside cabins on the Fall River that provide backdoor river access. Call Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, (530) 365-7500.


For guided fishing, call Steve Marugg of Finwing Guide Service in Fall River Valley, (530) 336-6423.


For fishing information, contact Vaughn's Sporting Goods in Burney, (530) 335-2381. -- Chris Shaffer


You don't have to be a flyfisherman to cash in on the action. While the Fall River is a wild trout stream, anglers are also permitted to use artificial spinners. A Panther Martin spinner is another excellent choice.

"At the time the flies are hatching there are Hex nymphs swimming all around. They are coming out of the mud bottom and swimming to the surface, and they are a pretty good size bug," says local fly fishing guide Steve Marugg of Finwing Guide Service. "They swim pretty fast. When I have people lure fishing, I have them use a Rooster Tail with a yellow body on it so it looks like a nymph body. I don't think the trout are that selective. It's a feeding frenzy that's going on. Anything that's swimming, they'll hammer it."

The Fall River is one of California's most prized wild trout streams. This spring-fed river is blessed with a population of some of the finest and largest wild trout in the state. Above the Fall River's confluence with the Tule River, there is a two-fish limit and each fish must be 14 inches or smaller to take. General fishing regulations apply to the water below the confluence.

"The Fall River is an excellent wild trout stream. What I like best is you can cruise the river and see some huge pigs down there," says Marugg. "We don't catch a lot of dinks around here. The fish we are catching are quality fish."

Quality is severed daily on this gin-clear system. While anglers can spot many fish in the 8- to 12-inch class, the bulk of fish anglers catch range from 12 to 18 inches. There are larger fish as well; however, they are even more rare. A 17-pound rainbow is the largest verified catch to date. That fish came in 1975.

There is one downfall to the Fall River: access. There isn't a lot of public access to be found, which is a double-edged sword. Due to the limited access and strict regulations, you won't find caches of beer cans, cigarette butts and empty bait jars along the shoreline, yet many anglers don't have the means to fish the system either.

Many locals utilize private land to fish the Fall River. Farmers own most of the land bordering the shallow, winding river. Guides have worked out deals with some ranchers, but most anglers are restricted to entering the river via two public access points: the Cal Trout access point at Island Bridge and Rat Ranch launch ramp on the Tule River. Anglers choosing the latter option can pick up the Rat Ranch access point near the town of McArthur and must navigate downstream from the Tule River to the Fall River.

Monster rainbows are common for anglers who make the effort to fish the river. Unfortunately, shoreline fishing isn't great here, unless you own property along the bank. Small car-top boats, canoes and other floating devices work best.

"The rainbows on the Fall River are deep-bodied. They grow fairly quickly," Dean said. "There is good productivity in the river and it has strong year-classes. It's not uncommon for these fish to grow five to seven inches a year."

There's confusion as to which strain or strains o

f trout the Pit holds. While some anglers maintain that all the fish in the drainage are native, the presence of brown trout (a European import from the 1800s) squanders that theory.

"We aren't sure," Dean said. "The trout in there could be a mix of several strains. Over the years the DFG and locals have stocked a number of fish into the Fall River."

Most likely the rainbows in the Fall River are kin to the Pit River strain, but the DFG doesn't know the exact strain. "We do know some of them are derived from the Pit strain, but we aren't positive (about all strains)."

The Fall River above the confluence with the Tule River is a clear system. Fish can be leader-shy during the day, however, that's not the case at dusk when anglers fish the Hex hatch.

"Not nearly so much," says Marugg of the spookiness of trout when anglers fish the Hex hatch as opposed to fishing the river during daylight hours. "I think sometimes it does make a difference if you use lighter line, but not so much during the Hex hatch."

When fishing the Hex it's best to use a 6-weight rod. Some experts get away with using 5-weights. Use a floating line with 4X tippet. Spin-casting anglers do best with 6- to 8-pound-test on a medium-light rig.

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