California: the state with the lights, glamour and lifestyle opportunities that everyone dreams of having at one point in their life. For the outdoor enthusiasts, they could spend time in the ocean, deserts and mountains all in one day. Even fly anglers can find access to all types of fishing in California. Everything from pristine mountain streams to fishing off the coast provides fly anglers a lifetime of opportunities to land a trophy fish.
Here is a list of the 15 best places to fly fish throughout California.
1. Hat Creek – Wild Trout
Hat Creek is the first place on this list that anglers need to target. This creek is famous amongst California Trout, an organization that strives to sustain a trout population throughout the state. It was the first model of a wild-trout fishery in California. Its success was helpful in creating the Wild Trout Program in California. The program provides anglers with 25 new miles of trout streams and one new lake each year. You’ll find both rainbow and brown trout throughout the Hat Creek.
Where to Fish on Hat Creek
Hat Creek is located about 70 miles east of Redding. It flows through two power plants and up until the Pit River is considered to be a wild-trout stream. Highway 89 follows the majority of this creek. Here is a good access point:
Recommended Flies for Hat Creek
For Northern California streams, Caddis, Mayfly’s, Terrestrials and Stoneflies are great options.
- Little Sister Caddis between 16-20 are going to work just fine on Hat Creek.
- By late summer, you can start using Tricos anywhere from size 18-22.
2. McCloud River – A Spring Fed River
The McCloud River provides anglers with a unique fishing experience. The river is surrounded by forest and has a similar feel to a mountain stream even though it’s at a lower elevation. It is spring fed, the water stays clear and holds a nice population of rainbow trout. There are migrating trout that can be found in the water as well. You’re only allowed to keep two fish and must use barbless hooks.
Where to Fish on McCloud River
The river flows between the towns of Dunsmuir and McCloud. There are several access points along the stream. The portion below the McCloud Reservoir is a part of the Wild Trout Program. Go ahead and fish at Fowler Camp near the headwaters. This area is going to take some effort to fish, but it is well worth it. Here is the access point:
Flies to use on the McCloud River
Stoneflies, stoneflies, stoneflies. These are going to be very plentiful throughout the season.
- Tunghead Stonefly Nymph is size 12-16 and is going to be a great option.
Similar to the Hat Creek, the Caddis fly population is also plentiful.
- Go ahead and use an Elk Hair Caddis between 14-20 to help you find fish.
3. Carson River, East Fork – Trout in the Mountains
The East Fork of the Carson River is a great option for anyone in search of a mountain stream. It’s open year round, but the best times to fish are from May to October. It challenges anglers with everything from deep runs to pools. Don’t be afraid to try your hand with different methods of river fishing. You’ll find cutthroat, brook, brown and rainbow trout.
Where to Fish the East Fork of the Carson River
The river is near Markleeville and has several points of access and holds a decent amount of anglers. Go ahead and try to access the lower headwaters via the Silver King Trailhead. It’ll require a bit of a walk, but this portion doesn’t receive as much pressure. Here is the access point:
Flies to use on the East Fork
Similar to the other Northern California streams on the list, Caddis Flies and Stoneflies are the best choices.
- The Bead Head Weighted Stonefly is a good option. Use this in a size 12-16. It has a weighted bead head on it and it will get you lower in the water column.
- The Rusty October Caddis is a smart fly to use. It’s ability to float keeps fish focused on it for quite awhile.
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4. Owens River – Busy but Productive
This is the first river on the list located in Southern California. There is both an upper and lower portion to the Owens. However, it can be a fairly difficult river to fish due to the flow of the water and smaller target areas. These challenges make catching fish much more rewarding. In the Owens, you can find rainbow and brown trout. The best time of year to fish this river is from April to November. Beware of fishing it on the weekends because it can fill fairly quickly, but during the week you can find some privacy. The public access can be found off of Owen’s River Road. Go ahead and fish with Stoneflies and Little Yellow May Flies while fishing the Owen’s.
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5. Hot Creek – Lots of Trout
Not to be confused with Hat Creek, Hot Creek is a lovely stream located in the Eastern Sierra. It’s fed by geothermal springs and also receives runoff out of Mammoth Creek. There is known to be 8,000 to 10,000 fish per mile and it’s catch-and-release only with barbless hooks. It can be fairly pressured, but most streams in California are subjected to a lot of flies. Public Access is found on the lower end of the Hot Creek Ranch. Do your best to stay hidden from the trout because they can be spooked. Use any sort of Blue-Winged Olive as well as Golden Stoneflies. If you’re struggling to land fish, try midges.
6. Smith River – Boat Water
The Smith River is one that every California angler should fish. It is located in the far Northwest corner of California near the Oregon border. Access can be found in Smith River or Crescent City. It’s a 20-mile river that flows into the Pacific Ocean and is the third largest river in California. It’s best fished from a drift boat. Anglers will start seeing Chinook Salmon in the river around October. Also, there is a large population of Steelhead in the river. These are found from January to March. Be sure you’re equipped with a 8 to 10-weight rod. Also, swinging eggs, nymphs and heavy streamers is your best bet. The water is clean, so brighter flies like Egg Sucking Leeches will work.
7. Trinity River – Steelhead Fever
The Trinity River is another river that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Some would argue that it’s the best steelhead river in the state of California. It’s 110 miles long and is a tributary of the Klamath River located near the town of Lewiston. It flows all the way through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest along with the Six Rivers National Forest. The steelhead start showing themselves in early fall, but October is the start of the prime season. The best fishing is on the 40-mile portion of the North Fork of the river.
You can also find Chinook salmon and sea-run brown trout all averaging about six pounds. It’s possible to wade fish, but a drift boat is your best bet. Be sure to use at least a 7-weight rod on the Trinity. Longer leaders from 9 to 15 feet will be best. Swing some heavy streamers (Meg-A-Egg Sucking Leech, Conehead Bunny Muddler) or egg patterns. It’s a great river with a wide-variety of water to fish.
8. Piru Creek – Urban Fly Fishing
Now, it’s time to tackle some urban fishing. Yes, this can be a bit frightening due to the massive number of people who live in the greater Los Angeles area, but due to its unique features, the Piru is worth a try on your way to some of the more Northern Streams. The stream is supported by Cal Trout, Sierra Pacific Flyfishers and the California Department of Fish and Game.
There are numerous lakes and dams along the creek that control the water levels. It contains both wild and hatchery-raised rainbow trout. Stay between Pyramid Dam and Lake Piru when fishing. You won’t need anything more than a 5 or 6-weight rod. There are also some largemouth bass available to be caught so pack some poppers in your fly box to try. It can be a frustrating spot to fish for the anglers in pursuit of seclusion, but for those who only have a bit of time to fish and are staying in the greater Los Angeles area, go ahead and give it a try.
9. Putah Creek – Now a Tailwater Fishery
The Putah Creek is a hot topic for many anglers in California. What was once a Steelhead spawning area was turned into a dam and the Steelhead were forced to relocate. However, not all was lost as the creation of the Monticello Dam helped form a rainbow trout fishery. It is located in the Sacramento Valley near Dixon and Winters. Fish below the dam and you’ll have the most success.
Maneuver your way between the five access points along State highway #128 between Lake Solano and the dam and you’ll find rainbows upwards of 20 inches. Since there are both stocked and wild trout, be sure to match your fly selection to the desires of the wild trout. The best fly options are Blue-winged Olives, Midges and March Brown’s. Also, you’ll find that sculpin streamer patterns work as well. You won’t need anything more than a 6-weight rod to handle any of the fish you catch in the creek.
10. Upper Sacramento River – A Growing Success
The Upper Sacramento River is a unique fishery with a good amount of fish. A train dumped pesticides into the river in the early 1990’s, but the water has recovered since. It follows Interstate 5 near Dunsmuir. There is a wide-variety of access points all the way to the upper portion near the Box Canyon to CantAra. At times, you may find that the water clarity can be an issue.
The section between Ney Springs and Densmuir is a great spot to fish due to the lack of pressure. The lower you get, the more access points become available and more pressure is put on the fish. Access includes Shotgun Creek, Pollard Flat and Gibson. You’ll be able to fish pocket water, pools and riffles. Blue-Winged Olives are the most consistent hatch and Green Drakes are also a nice option. The Pale Morning Dun is another common fly you’ll find on the river along with the Spotted Sedge. You won’t need anything more than a 5-weight to handle the fish.
11. Yuba River – Rainbow Trout
The Yuba River is another quality fishery in Northern California. It was a popular gold mining river in the early 1900’s and was almost completely ruined as a result. The construction of the Englebright Dam helped improve water quality and restore aquatic life. It is home to a nice population of rainbow trout as well as steelhead and salmon. The best spawning areas for these fish are closed to fishing during October and November so anglers are unable to experience the joys of a salmon spawn. There is quite a bit of public access along the Yuba River.
South Yuba State Park is a great spot to fish. Be careful of the water levels and don’t be afraid to fish from shore. The typical Northern California flies will work on the Yuba. Stoneflies, Caddis’ and Midges are going to be your best bet. You won’t need to use anything more than a 5-weight rod and 3x leader if you’re targeting trout. For the salmon and steelhead anglers, use at least a 7-weight with 2x leader. Even if you don’t catch fish, you’ll have a great time exploring what the area has to offer.
12. Crowley Lake – Southern California Dreaming
Crowley Lake is a trout fishery located in Southern California near the Eastern Sierra’s. There’s anything from rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout in the lake. Fly anglers can have success from shore and on boats. Boats are obviously going to allow for more access to the lake so use one if you can. Chironomids (midge’s, buzzers) are plentiful all over Crowley lake.
There are always holdover trout left in the lake and it’s not uncommon to find double digit fish. Regardless of the time of year, you’ll be able to catch fish in Crowley Lake. When fishing lakes, be sure you have enough weight to reach the deepest portions. Use Weight Forward or Sinking Tip line. The larger fish are going to sit near the bottom and are very particular when it comes to what they will strike. Be patient and strip slowly back towards yourself when fishing the lake.
13. Los Vaqueros Reservoir – A Cool Tailwater Fishery
The reservoir is located near San Francisco Bay and has gained the appreciation of many anglers in the area. The reservoir is stocked almost annually and whenever it is it receives 12,000 to 24,000 fish. The water temperature rarely finds its way over 70 degrees and it’s a comfortable temperature for trout to flourish. Trout hang out near the South Cove in the marina and along Oak Point. Similar to Crowley Lake, be sure you have the proper tackle for lake fishing. Unless you see trout striking the surface, you’ll need some sort of Weight Forward or Sinking Tip line to ensure that you’ll reach the necessary depths. Also, be sure to use heavier streamers to help you reach the bottom and locate the double digit trout that hang out in the water. The larger the bait, the larger the fish that will strike. However, the strikes may become more rare as a result of the larger bait, but it’s well worth it when they do. A 6-weight rod should work well in the reservoir.
14. Eagle Lake – Special Rainbows
Eagle Lake is the second largest natural lake in California. The main fish to target in the lake is rainbow trout. These rainbow trout are particularly special due to their ability to withstand high alkalinity. They’re known as Eagle Lake trout. They’re usually 17 or 18 inches and can live for over a decade. The water levels took a hit due to the recent drought, but it’s working its way back to become one of the more unique fisheries in all of California.
It’s located in Lassen County about 15 miles north of Susanville. In the lake, you’ll also find bass and some bullhead. It can be an entertaining day on the water depending on what fish you’re targeting. If you want a rod that can handle all of the different types of fish, go ahead and use a 6-weight. It’ll take care of the larger trout and also have enough power to land the bass. As far as flies are concerned, Assassins, Wooly Buggers, Midges and Level Leeches are all going to work. There is a daily limit of two trout and no live bait is allowed. Once you’ve caught and kept two trout, you cannot continue fishing. If you’re practicing catch-and-release, you’re free to catch as many fish as you would like.
15. Pit River – Great Access for an Angler
The Pit River is located in Northeastern California and is a long tributary of the Sacramento River. The Achumawi Tribe dug pits along the river in hopes of trapping animals that used the river as a water source. It flows through the Modoc National Forest and through the town of Fall River Mills. There are plenty of access points for anglers to choose from throughout the 207-mile long tributary.
It’s a fast moving river with a slippery bottom that can make wading a bit more difficult. Be careful when you do wade, but don’t let the warning keep you away. It’s a great river filled with trout that’ s best fished from May-November. In your fly box, be sure you have Blue Winged Olives, Golden Stoneflies, Salmon Flies along with various Caddis flies. You’ll only need a 5-weight to fish this river and be sure to use anywhere between 3x and 5x leader. This river will be a challenge, but anyone anxious to test their skills needs to give the Pit a try.
Recommended Gear for Fly Fishing in California
For the most part, you’ll be able to fish with a 5 or 6-weight in the majority of rivers and lakes on the list and be just fine. However, there are a few locations on this list (Trinity, Smith & Yuba) that hold Steelhead, salmon or sea-run trout. These fish are going to require at least a 7-weight rod to handle. As far as flies are concerned, California is going to have an assortment of Caddis, Mayflies, Terrestrials and Stoneflies. Dry fly fishing is a great option since it’s often warm and the water clarity is solid. Remember that any lake is going to require a line that’s going to reach the bottom. Sinking tip or Weight-Forward are smart options to use when pursuing fish in a lake.
Official References for Fly Fishing in California
Here is the link to the stocking schedule for the state of California. This is a great tool to use when planning your trips to certain lakes or rivers. Remember that stocked fish need a few days to acclimate themselves to their new water. They may not be used to eating flies or other natural baits so give them a few days to become comfortable. Once they’re content in their space, stocked trout are willing to hit just about anything.
This is a link to the Fish and Wildlife website for California. On it, you’ll find license requirements along with regularly updated water conditions. There are flow updates along with other general information that you may need.
There are also several fly fishing clubs in California that are always looking for members.
California Fly Fishers Unlimited is one of the more popular clubs in California. It has a monthly newsletter as well as numerous charity dinners to help raise money for conservation in California waters.
Peninsula Fly Fishers is another great option for a fly fishing club in California. They meet the third Thursday of the month. Go ahead and check out their website.
Popular Fly Shops in California
The Fly Shop- This store in Redding California is a great option for anyone looking to fish in the Redding Area. It has everything from rods to apparel. Here is a link to the website if you would like some more information.
Bob Marriott’s Fly Fishing store is in Fullerton California. It’s been around for over 40 years and has a great reputation amongst anglers. Located in Orange County, it is in a central location that will provide information on all of the surrounding waters.
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