Lower American River Fly Fishing

Today the American River offers riches of another sort for fly fishers: The opportunity to fish for five of America’s finest fly-rod fish just a few miles downstream from that gold discovery site.

Anglers line up to fish near Sailor Bar in January. The upper stretch of the lower American is closed until January 1 for the spawning king salmon. When it opens, winter steelhead fishing can be excellent in this stretch of river.

Picture a river that flows clear and cold all year round. This river has a moderate gradient, regular cobble bottom, an average width of 100 yards, and is easy to wade and straightforward to fish. Picture a river that has enough water to float a drift boat, but not so much to make wading impossible, and a paved walking and bicycling path along its entire length, providing excellent access for walk-in anglers. Even in winter, days on this river are typically sunny and mild. Now place that river in the heart of one of California’s major cities, with excellent highways, airports, and services. Have it flow through parklands rich with otter, eagles, osprey, and beaver. And finally add the magic of five superb fly-rod fish. This is California’s lower American River.

The lower American begins at Nimbus Dam and ends at its confluence with the Sacramento River at Discovery Park, west of downtown Sacramento. It flows for 23 miles through parks and open spaces, through residential neighborhoods and under bridges carrying the commerce of California’s capital city. Yet, on the river, you are in a world apart; a world of great natural beauty and superb fly fishing.

For fly fishers, the upper 8 miles from Nimbus Dam to Howe Avenue Bridge is particularly appealing. Here the water is cooler and the many riffles and runs provide great holding and feeding water for fish as well as excellent wading and boating access for fly fishers. Below Howe Avenue, the river becomes slower and deeper and the access much more limited. This area is popular for powerboat fishing for big stripers in deep holes in late summer.

John Sherman Photo
The lower American is great for floating and wading. The river has a moderate gradient, regular cobble bottom, and an average width of 100 yards. With five species of fish and year-round action, it is an angler’s paradise.

The American provides good walk-and-wade access. Goethe Park offers a fine variety of water to fish. There is also good walk-and-wade fishing at Upper Sunrise and at Watt Avenue, where an island breaks up the river. Good studded wading boots are essential. Studs are a real advantage on the fist-sized washed river rocks common throughout the river or the few clay-bank sections. Many anglers use wading staffs.

For fall, winter, and early-spring fishing, you’ll also need waders. Though daytime temperatures in midwinter are typically in the 50s, the water is cold. From late May into September, it’s a great pleasure to put on shorts and boots and step into the cool river and begin casting for shad or stripers.

In addition to the ample wade-fishing opportunities, the American is a perfect float-fishing river. The gradient is moderate and the launch spots on the upper river are numerous and well-spaced for different length floats. Most of the fast water is straightforward and only two riffles require particular attention: the San Juan rapid just above Rossmoor and the Goethe rapid at the downstream end of the Goethe Park area. Each rapid offers ample opportunities to scout the water and to line your boat down the shallow margins at the normal fishing flows of 1,500 to 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Most guides use drift boats, but pontoon boats, catarafts, and canoes are also suitable. A boat provides great access to the best holding water. And because of the urban setting, solitary anglers can call a taxi for the shuttle!

Sailor Bar to Rossmoor, Upper Sunrise to Grist Mill, and Rossmoor to Watt Avenue are the most popular floats. Typical drifts are three to four miles long and allow plenty of time for both wading and boat fishing. Just below the dam, Sailor Bar has a paved launch ramp. There is another paved launch at the old Fair Oaks Bridge. Watt Avenue and Howe Avenue ramps are also paved. The launches at Rossmoor Bar and Grist Mill Park are not paved. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a good idea because these launches involve driving out onto the cobbles to get the trailer into the water.

David Deis Graphic
Most fly fishers on the American use conventional rods and floating lines to dead-drift nymphs and drys or strip streamer patterns with sinking lines. But in recent years, Spey rods have become popular on the American. The easy wading and long riffles throughout much of the river and the willingness of steelhead, shad, and king salmon to come to a swung fly make the American ideal Spey-rod water.

On a recent float with local guide Bill Lowe from Rossmoor to Grist Mill Park, I had my first Spey lesson. Using a 14-foot, 9-weight Sage rod with a Rio Windcutter line (which comes with three different weight sinking tips), I quickly picked up basic line control and casting skills. The fundamentals of a good casting stroke are the same with a Spey rod as with a conventional rod. And a roll cast is the same whether the rod is 9 or 14 feet. It is exhilarating to snap 80 feet of line out across the current and adjust the drift so the fly swings across and below you. The rod length makes it easy–even for a novice–to throw 60, 70, or 80 feet and control the drift. You can manipulate a lot of line with a 14-foot rod.

On a river like the American where salmon, shad, and steelhead all come readily to a submerged swinging fly, the key is keeping your fly swimming in the water as long as possible. Bill did an interesting exercise to demonstrate the effectiveness of Spey fishing. We stood in the shallow water at the head of a long riffle with a single-handed and a Spey rod rigged up. He took my 8-weight, 9-foot single-handed rod and had me count how long it took to make a conventional cast with a sinking line.

As I began counting, he stripped in 30 feet of the line that streamed out in the current below us. He made three false casts to get that 30 feet in the air and develop line speed. On his final cast, he shot the line 60 feet out across the water and immediately mended his line to set up his drift. When Bill judged his fly to be at the depth and speed he wanted to fish, I stopped my count: 18 seconds.

Then he repeated the exercise with his 14-foot, 9-weight Spey rod. He made a quick horizontal snap cast upstream and dropped the fly a few feet below where we stood. This established the anchor point for the roll cast that followed. The line shot out 80 feet.

With the long rod, Bill lifted 30 feet of line off the water and placed it carefully to set up his drift. “Mark.” Eight seconds! In less than half the time, he had thrown more line, with no false casts or backcast.

The point of sinking-line fishing is to keep your fly in the water in front of fish. Spey casting provides twice the in-the-water time for half the effort.

We worked down through the long riffle: cast, swing, take a big step downstream, cast, swing, and step. I learned a valuable new technique that has me thinking hard about how to apply the same techniques to my single-handed trout fishing. Spey rods are now available in 12- to 15-foot lengths from 5- to 9-weight lines that are well suited to the lower American.

Steelhead are the most highly prized anadromous fish on the West Coast. Renowned for their size, strength, beauty, and willingness to take a fly, these seagoing rainbows have been an obsession with West Coast fly fishers for over a century. They return to spawn several times in their natal waters.

The American River has three steelhead runs. Half-pounders run in April and May and again in September and October. Large Eel River-strain steelhead run December to March.
The lower American has three steelhead runs. The spring and fall runs are relatively small fish called “half-pounders.” Spring fish are in the river April and May and average 14 to 16 inches. Fall fish come into the river in late September and October. These steelhead average 16 to 20 inches.

Most anglers fish with 5- to 7-weight outfits and use short-line and indicator nymphing techniques with egg patterns, Pheasant Tails, Rubberlegs, and Z-wing Caddis. Flies such as black and orange leech patterns, Copper Shrimp, and black and purple steelhead flies fished on a sinking-tip line are also effective. Spring and fall caddis hatches often provide good dry-fly opportunities, particularly in the evenings. Spring fish seem to prefer the upper reaches of the river, above Goethe Park, while the fall fish stay lower in the river, from Goethe Park down to Paradise Beach.

When Nimbus Dam was completed in 1958, creating Lake Natomas and defining the lower section of river, the Nimbus hatchery began stocking the Eel River strain of steelhead. Eel fish average from 6 to 10 pounds but can run up to 20 pounds. They form the majority of the winter run and arrive in early December. The fishing is excellent through March. These are the prime Spey-rod steelhead, using 7- and 8-weight rods with sinking-tip lines and bright steelhead flies in black and purple, as well as the leech patterns mentioned above. Conventional tackle and dead-drift nymphing techniques also work well. These bigger fish like to hold in the upper river in the prime salmon spawning area and feed on salmon eggs that wash out of the redds.

Historically there were multiple salmon runs of several different species throughout the American River drainage and all the other tributaries of the Sacramento River. Mining activities in the late 1800s decimated these fish, but aggressive efforts by state and federal fish and game agencies have restored many runs to self-sustaining populations.

The king salmon (Chinook) run has been particularly strong in the lower American in recent years and is sustained by an extensive hatchery program at the dam. These 10- to 20-pound fish begin to enter the river in August. In August and September and into the beginning of October, these bright and aggressive fish are fresh from the salt. They, too, are perfect Spey-rod fish, eager to take a brightly colored fly swung across their lie. Nine- and ten-weight rods, sinking lines, and salmon flies such as chartreuse or orange Comets work well.

King salmon in the 10- to 20-pound range enter the American in August and continue to arrive through October.

The salmon spawn begins in earnest in October and the fish lose interest in feeding as the spawn progresses into December. The upper five miles of the river are closed to all fishing from November 1 to December 31 during the salmon spawn.

In the nationwide fish transplanting that began in the late 1800s, California gave the rest of the world rainbow trout from the McCloud River and Sonoma Creek. In return, San Francisco Bay received two superb fly-rod fish from the East Coast: the American shad in 1871 and the striped bass eight years later. The Bay, with its vast delta and many rivers running into it, has proven to be a great environment for these fish.

These giant herring are so aggressive and acrobatic when you hook them they have been called freshwater tarpon. Traveling in schools and eager to take a brightly colored, bead-eye fly, shad put on sizzling runs and fantastic leaps when hooked. American River shad run one to two pounds for males and up to five pounds for females. They begin to come into the lower river in mid-May. By the end of the month they are well distributed throughout. It is a remarkable spectacle on June evenings to watch female shad rolling on the surface laying their eggs, surrounded by frenzied groups of smaller males expelling milt.

American River shad begin to come into the lower river in mid-May. Males run one to two pounds and females run up to five pounds.

Late May and June are prime fishing times. Because shad are schooling fish, anglers must often cover a lot of water to locate a school and have good fishing. Spey rods are made for that purpose. Single-handed 7- and 8-weight rods and Teeny 200 lines fished across also work well. Shad darts–brightly colored chenille bodies with bead eyes–in white, pink, chartreuse, orange, or red in sizes 6 and 8 are all you need. As an added bonus, you can occasionally bring shad to the surface with a big dry such as a Waller Waker or a Goddard Caddis skated in the shallows at dusk. The shad leave the river by the middle of July.

Stripers are the bad boys of San Francisco Bay. Aggressive, abundant, hungry, and tough, striped bass are the biggest fish in the river and the most numerous. There are three groups of stripers: the “schoolies,” which run up to 6 pounds; a large group of adult fish to 20 pounds; and finally, the lunkers to 40-plus pounds. The abundant suckers, shad, and small steelhead in the river in the late spring and early summer bring these big fish in to feed and create the opportunity for the fish of a lifetime.

The best striper fishing is in the spring, summer, and early fall.

Stripers live in the river year-round, although the best fishing is in the spring, summer, and early fall. The bigger bass are caught in the big deep holes below Watt Avenue, which is the takeout for most of the fly-rod fishing in the river. However, small to medium-size bass swim throughout the entire upper river, especially after midsummer when water temperatures rise. Like bass everywhere, they prefer to feed early and late in the day.

To catch these fish, that commonly run up to 20 pounds, fish Clousers and Deceiver-style flies with a fast strip retrieve on sinking-tip or lead-core lines.

A 7- to 9-weight single-handed rod is the best choice for bass, with a fast-sinking shooting head and a big green, gray, yellow, or chartreuse-and-white #2 to #2/0 Clouser or Deceiver retrieved to imitate a fleeing baitfish.

Many dedicated striper anglers use 26 feet of 300-grain lead-core line as their head to get the big flies down fast and keep them there during a fast retrieve. Casting this rig takes practice. An open, looping cast in which the lead head is essentially lobbed at the target is the best approach. That long section of lead-core flying through the air with a #1/0 streamer on the end gives a particular urgency to the old notion of “chuck and duck!” A stripping basket helps keep the shooting line from tangling.

Nimbus Hatchery also stocks rainbow trout into the river. Rainbows are the frosting on the cake for American River anglers. You can catch numerous 12-inch rainbows with a light rod and an Elk-hair Caddis in the shallow riffles. Fishing in shorts on warm summer evenings is a nice change from the supercharged action of the other fish in the river.

Even though there are several dams and reservoirs on the various forks of the American above Nimbus Dam, winter and spring flows are determined by winter rain and snow in the Sierra headwaters. Some years there is simply too much water coming into the lower river to allow safe and productive fishing. It is generally considered wadeable and fishable up to about 3,000 cfs. Above that it becomes difficult to access and dangerous to move around in. The ideal flow is 2,000 cfs. (http://cdec.water.ca.gov/ river/americanStages.html Go to the “Fair Oaks” river flow gauge for current conditions below Nimbus Dam.) In the summer the flows are often as low as 1,500 cfs. The fishing remains good, but summer temperatures in the 80s and 90s make the river a popular place for tubers, rafters, kayakers, swimmers, canoeists, and picnickers. At this time, the fish are harder to get at and more cautious.