California Spring

California Spring

Two great dryfly options for the new angling year.

  • By: Val Atkinson
  • Photography by: Val Atkinson

Click image for slideshow.

California may be the promised land for many, including all those snowbirds who ride out winter in Palm Desert, and the yearlong sun seekers living large and scantily clad in SoCal, but eastern and northern California feel a lot like the rest of the country during winter, which makes spring a blessing when it arrives.
That’s especially so for fly fishers, because that change in seasons coincides with some of the best hatches of the year on two noted streams, the mighty Sacramento River and a gem of the eastern Sierra, Hot Creek.
These two streams couldn’t be more polar opposite of each other—the Sacramento is wide and daunting, and its oft-times heavy flows are best fished from a driftboat, although anglers who wade find success, too. That heavy water breeds rainbows that bend rods over and make reels scream; many anglers would argue that this big river offers the state’s best trout fishing and its strongest fish. To access those rainbows you don’t have to travel far—the Sacramento flows right through Redding and off into the farmlands.
Hot Creek, in contrast, is a sliver of fertile spring water that twists through the high desert on the east side of the Sierra Mountains. However, it’s a bit off the beaten path and requires a five-hour drive to reach from Sacramento, and is six hours from San Francisco. Once there, anglers find themselves in a broad, grassy valley with a trout paradise, including lots of large but “educated” fish in front. Unlike the Sacramento, these fish are always looking up, making it a great place for the most sophisticated hatch matchers.

Spring on the Sacramento is known as the “sleeper” season because it is one of the least-fished but most productive times of the year. And it is the time to fish dry flies, according to Mike Mercer, of The Fly Shop, in Redding (that’s him at right).
“If you want to target the dryfly action you can find Blue-Wing Olives (size 18 to 20) hatching through March and into early April,” he said. “In addition, we see the Brachycentrus caddis (Grannom; size 14 and 16) beginning in late February, and that hatch runs through March. Sometime in March, when the warmer spring weather begins, Pale Morning Duns (size 16 and 18) begin to pop and they will continue to do so throughout spring and summer.”
During spring anglers find the river in perfect condition, running cold and clear, and highly consistent due to controlled releases from Shasta Dam. That consistency makes trout happy and eager to rise for the Sac’s predictable spring hatches.

Prior to 2007 Hot Creek didn’t even open until late April, but now it’s open all year and anglers are just realizing what they’ve missed—major hatches and eager fish during March and April.
“Before the change we didn’t even realize the great fishing we were missing in the early season,” said Dave Neal, a guide who used to live on the banks of the creek (he’s now in Redding). “What we saw was a big, early generation Blue-Wing Olive that comes off in February and March in an honest size 16. A size-14 Parachute Adams might even fool fish during the hatch.
“This was a huge discovery,” Neal added, “because pre-2007, opening day was in late April and at that time the PMDs came off in their tiny form, size 20, and that’s what we had to match.”
In addition to PMDs, a Hot Creek spring offers midges and Brachycentrus caddis, the latter often emerging around St. Patrick’s Day, especially during above-average temperatures. Yellow Sallies join the mix in late April or May, but beware the influences of runoff in late May—at that time the fishing may turn off, but it comes back strong just as the water drops and clears.
When fishing Hot Creek, expect company—this stream has a high density of trout that is equalled by the number of anglers fishing for them. Much of the river is private, but there are stretches open to the public, which is why spring is a great time to fish this creek, when the weeds are down and anglers are just shaking out of hibernation. Get there early and you might have some water to yourself. Wait until summer and you’ll have plenty of company.
Like what you see? Check out more Hot Creek and Sacramento images at