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Exploring The Truckee River


The fast runs and pocketwater downstream from the town of Truckee provide good trout habitat. The river flows out of Lake Tahoe and has wild and stocked rainbows and browns. The best dry-fly fishing on the Truckee generally occurs in June and July.

Caddisflies | River Sections | Resources

My wife Lisa pulls gently on the oars of the raft and we glide over several dozen Truckee River rainbows and browns, none of which weigh less than three pounds. They are "pet" trout that have grown accustomed to eating marshmallows, popcorn, and white bread tossed from Fanny Bridge by
goggle-eyed tourists. The bridge is so named for the rear ends of the spectators bent over the bridge rails watching the trout.

My casting arm reflexively twitches, but I suppress the urge as we drift through the no-fishing zone that extends from Lake Tahoe's blue waters downstream a few hundred yards. As we near that invisible mark where the trout sanctuary ends, the fish numbers dwindle until they seemingly vanish. How do they know?

It is autumn and the summer crowds have long since disappeared on California's Truckee River. Without the daily raft and Powerbait hatch, the river's big fish are emboldened to leave the protected waters, locally known as the DMZ, and anglers have a better chance of tangling with double-digit trout all the way to River Ranch about three miles downstream.

In full summer, the fly fishing can be surprisingly good amid the flotilla of raucous, beer-swilling, barely dressed and otherwise good-timing rafters. In the flat, weedy stretches downstream of Tahoe City, Callibaetis and Siphlonurus mayflies start hatching in late June and create strong rises through most of July.

On this chilly October morning, the summer mayflies are biding their time as nymphs, but Baetis emergers and a few Hydropsyche caddisfly cripples left over from last night's hatch swirl helplessly in the back eddies and foam lines. Trout rise leisurely to the bugs and more often than not, my E/C Caddis pattern meets with their approval.

At River Ranch, where Deer Creek enters the Truckee, the gradient quickens and Lisa bends the oars to maneuver us downstream. The magic begins at Donner Creek, which gets its name from the Donner Party, those westward pioneers who became stranded in a snowstorm in the nearby mountains and who ate human flesh to survive. The water becomes abruptly more productive below the creek, and truck-size boulders stand like tombstones in the river all the way into Nevada. No fish are planted from here downstream to the Nevada state line. Only wild trout are allowed. Even in downtown Truckee, the incredible habitat and unlimited food produces over 2,000 fat trout per mile. Some of them are huge.

A few years ago we were driven off the river by a summer thunderstorm that instantly made the water murky. I told our fishing guests that this was the best time to catch the huge browns that lurk in the Truckee and suggested that great fishing could be had in the midst of town, but the rain was too much for them. On the way home, we drove into town and saw a young man with a huge grin on his face and his thumb sticking out. The hitchhiker was armed with a spinning rod and held two massive browns at his side. Neither was less than 30 inches long. We should have kept fishing.

The catch-and-release regulations that are in effect less than a mile downriver would have protected those fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has electroshocked browns up to 34 inches long in the Truckee.

The best pattern for fishing runoff conditions is the Goblin
(see for tying details). It has caught more jumbo Truckee
River brown trout than any other pattern I know. It's nothing more than a heavily hackled black Woolly Bugger with a bright orange rabbit strip lashed down over its back. The seductive action and wildly contrasting colors seem irresistible to trout.

If you need to sink the fly deep, add a brass cone head and a few wisps of Flashabou for decoration. Cast the Goblin upstream and work it with the current, rather than the usual down-and-across method most streamer anglers use. Think about it: A crippled or terrified baitfish will always take the path of least resistance--downstream. It is the action a predatory fish expects to see. Indulge him.

Today the river is neither murky nor stained. It is usually at its clearest in late autumn. The sun is high and the Baetis have quit for the time being. Wrinkled, caramel-colored husks rim the river's boulders. The relatively smaller husks are from Isonychia mayfly nymphs, and the larger, long ones with antennae are the pupal husks of the October Caddis (Dicosmoecus). I take my turn at the oars while Lisa ties on a #10 black Bird's Nest. Unlike most mayflies, Isonychia swim to the shallows and crawl onshore to hatch. The large size of these tender morsels draws hungry trout into the shallows to feed. Knowing that the trout expect to see the nymphs swimming shoreward, Lisa casts directly downstream, mends toward the bank and allows the belly in the line to swim her Bird's Nest up into the shallows just like it is supposed to. The fishing is easy.

In the spring the Ameletus and in the summer the Siphlonurus both emerge in exactly the same fashion as their fall-hatching cousin, the Isonychia. A large Bird's Nest swung from deep water into the shallows is a fly and technique for all seasons on the Truckee.

As we drift under the Glenshire Bridge, we enter a 2.5-mile private stretch owned by an elite group, the San Francisco Flycasters. Many local anglers (probably most) resent the fact that the best part of the Truckee is controlled by "flatlanders," and these anglers probably resent even more the fact that trespassers are arrested on the spot by roaming patrols armed with handcuffs, radios, and night-vision goggles.

Lisa and I view the private holding as a good thing. Despite the fact that it is owned by a fly-fishing club, its relatively few members barely touch the fishery, which gives Truckee River trout a huge refuge amid miles of publicly flogged water. I believe this sanctuary is, in some part, responsible for the great fishery the Truckee supports today. It is legal to float and fish through the Flycasters's water, but don't even think about beaching your craft!

The private water ends just upstream of where Prosser Creek dumps into the river. This is one of my favorite early-season spots for fishing the #6 chestnut-colored Skwala stoneflies. The Skwalas never come off in droves, but hatch consistently from March well into May. By Opening Day at the end of April, the trout are well accustomed to seeing and feeding on these bugs. Early-season water temperatures are in the low 40s (F.) and fish won't travel far for a fly. Work every fishy-looking spot with a stonefly pattern, then work it again.

Temperature is hugely important on the Truckee. Fish will actively search for water between 58 and 64 degrees (F.). In the early season, trout bask in the thermal plumes of relatively warm feeder creeks and springs. In the summer, fish search for cooling influences and areas of highly oxygenated flow. It is not uncommon for the Truckee River water temperature to swing from the low 50s (F.) in the morning to the upper 70s on any August day. Follow your thermometer.

Immediately following the Skwala hatches are the Rhithrogena (March Browns), Ameletus, and Baetis (Blue-winged Olives, BWO) mayflies and swarms of #16 yellow craneflies. By early June, the first Ephemerella infrequens (Pale Morning Duns, PMDs) are hatching and the water has usually warmed; expect to work over large numbers of rising trout. In mid-June, the hatches hit full swing and smart anglers have their fly boxes armed to match the PMDs and their close relatives, the #14 orange-bodied, gray-winged E. tibialis.

E. tibialis is the single most important mayfly on the river. They hatch for a full two months and their numbers are such that you can frequently see trout rising past the huge Drunella (Green Drakes) and Drunella Flavilinea (Flavs) mayflies to selectively dine on the smaller E. tibialis.

Along with the various Ephemerella, the Truckee has fishable summer hatches of Epeorus (Sulphurs) and, in the slow stretches, Callibaetis and Siphlonurus. In the fall, BWOs come on strong once again, as do the large indigo Isonychia and those beautiful Paraleptophlebias commonly known as Mahogany Duns.

In midsummer, the river explodes with various little yellow stoneflies. They are an indispensable pattern during the heavy evening ovipositing flights, but I think they are even more important as a daytime searching pattern. The adult little yellow stone releases itself from its perch in the willows and alders and drops into the foliage where, presumably, it is safe from pursuing lizards and birds.

Where the bank bushes hang over the water, however, the stoneflies are only putting themselves in more danger of becoming a meal for the trout. Drift a little yellow stonefly into the bank shade and oblige the opportunistic trout lurking there. On the grab, sweep your rod away from the bank to pull the fish immediately away from the tangling roots and draping foliage. This high-riding stonefly pattern is also an excellent whitewater attractor because it floats like a cork and is easy to see.

As important and fun as the mayflies and stoneflies are, they pale in comparison to caddisflies. In a single Truckee River tributary, biologists have identified more than 50 species of caddis. Glossosoma, Rhyacophila, and Hydropsyche are the most common caddis in the Truckee, and they frequently hatch in choking numbers. Expect trout to eat caddisflies from early June through October.

I could write a book on how to fish the Truckee caddis hatches, but for now here are three
tips that can work well on any North American freestone river.
1. When caddis are about but trout aren't rising, it's a fair bet the fish are feeding on ovipositing caddisflies along the riverbed. Tie on a Bird's Nest and rub it with fly floatant crystals, then fix a split-shot about two inches up the leader from the fly. The ovipositors breathe from an air bubble trapped about their bodies. A treated Bird's Nest will carry an air bubble that is shockingly realistic. Swim this bug along the riverbed and hold on.

2. When caddis are flying and trout are rolling or slashing at the surface, it's a good bet they are eating the caddis pupae, not the winged adults. Throw away that Elk-hair Caddis and fish your Bird's Nest just under the surface with an erratic, twitchy retrieve. The grabs will be wrenching.

3. When few or no caddis are about, you can bet the trout will eagerly feed on the crippled caddis left over from the hatch. The cripples can live for days, and there is no wrong time for fish to see them. So I invariably tie on an E/C Caddis. In a mixed hatch of mayflies, midges, and caddisflies, the E/C Caddis is the one fly I can fish confidently, knowing that it can represent any of these insects trapped in its subadult husk.

Lisa Cutter uses an E/C Caddis to land rainbows in the Truckee's middle section. The river's slow, quiet pools are ideal for match-the-hatch dry-fly fishing.

Toward mid-August, most of the hatches will be over and the fish will feed on terrestrials such as hoppers and ants. The only hopper imitation I use any more on the Truckee is Andy Burk's Spent Hopper pattern. Carpenter ant flights peak in June, but trout take them all season long. A #10 Perfect Ant (see for tying instructions) can do wonders on an otherwise nonproductive day.

We anchor the raft near one of the huge holes downstream of Hirschdale. It is midafternoon and nothing seems to be happening, so I pull on a face mask and small scuba tank and glide through the cool water to view the riverbed. I flip a plate-size rock and no fewer than a half dozen crayfish dart from the silt cloud. As I smile around the regulator, a stream of bubbles showers upward. These crayfish are the secret weapons of the Truckee River fly angler.

One crayfish was squashed when the rock turned and small white globs of the crustacean's innards swirl downstream. Within seconds fishy forms melt out of the gloomy water and bird-dog the scent. I break off bits of crayfish and feed the Truckee's wild rainbows, browns, whitefish, and smallmouth bass as easily as feeding pigeons in the park.

By the time they reach 18 inches, most of the Truckee's fish have converted from an insect diet to crayfish. Plenty of large Truckee browns have been taken on poppers and sculpin patterns, but when the right conditions exist, nothing outfishes a crayfish imitation. Day in and day out, the majority of large trout eat crayfish.

You can locate the homes of big, crayfish-eating trout by keeping an open eye for gastroliths. Crayfish require a large amount of calcium to build their shells. Immediately prior to molting, the crayfish absorb the calcium from their shells and store the mineral as a pair of white disks called gastroliths (literally, "belly stones"). After molting, the calcium is metabolized to be re-used in carapace formation. When a trout eats a molting crayfish, the gastroliths are defecated. Over a summer, quite a collection of these shiny white buttons can litter the streambed surrounding the trout's lie.
Clouser Minnows tied in olive and orange and mooched downstream can be killer crayfish imitations. Tan or brown Woolly Buggers and Mike Mercer's impressionistic crayfish pattern also work wonders when fished with a dead drift. Don't even try to imitate the action of a swimming crayfish. I've never seen any retrieve that looks remotely realistic. Less is better when fishing these crustaceans.

As the afternoon shadows deepen, we drift past the remnants of the Floriston Dam, which was blown out in the 1996 floods. Paraleptophlebia spinners dance over the water and a few October Caddis jink like orange-and-brown hummingbirds across the river's surface. This stretch is dense with the fat caddis pupae, and willing trout pull hard on Dave Whitlock's Red Squirrel Nymphs and Tangerine Dreams (see for tying instructions).

If Sierra Pacific Power (SPP) has their way, the company will build another dam upstream of here. The project will provide a meager 2.5 megawatts of power, and like the previous dam, it will choke the life out of nearly two miles of wild and wonderful water. Sierra Pacific Power is fighting to build the dam without an environmental impact report, and anglers are working to stop the dam. To join the struggle, contact Friends of the River, Fort Mason Center, Building C., San Francisco, CA 94123.

It has been a long day and it's getting cold. The snows will fly any week now and the season closes in mid-November. As Lisa and I struggle to roll the raft into the back of the pickup, we plan our first outing of the year to Pyramid Lake, the graveyard of the Truckee. In this graveyard swam the largest trout that ever lived, and there is real hope that one day great cutthroats will once again swim up the Truckee to spawn.

When they do, I'll be waiting for them.

Seasons and Sections
The California portion of the Truckee River can be divided into three sections: Lake Tahoe to Trout Creek, Trout Creek to the Boca Outflow, and Boca to the state line.

Section 1 (Lake Tahoe to Trout Creek) originates from Lake Tahoe and has a few small tributaries. It is heavily stocked with legal-size rainbows throughout the fishing season (fourth Saturday in April through November 15). When the river becomes muddy and high with runoff early in the season, Section 1 remains fishable.

The area upstream of River Ranch rarely dirties and provides limited but reliable angling. During summer, rafters make midday angling in this section impossible. The River Ranch to Trout Creek (east of Truckee) stretch is freestone water with a mild gradient. It is easily accessible from Highway 89.

Section 2 (Trout Creek to the Boca Outflow) is a state-designated wild- trout stream with wild rainbows and browns. Only barbless flies and lures are allowed. Two trout over 15 inches may be kept, but most anglers release all fish in this stretch. More than a few anglers with a stringer of dead fish have returned to their car to find their tires flattened. The local game warden, district attorney, and judge are fly fishers and enforce the game laws with a vengeance. Wear your license, use barbless hooks, and release your fish!
Glenshire Drive provides access just east of town. This is possibly the most pressured section of the entire river. The best time to fish it is after spring runoff until hot summer temperatures arrive. By July, the water heats up and trout become inactive during the day.
The water is deeper and cooler below Prosser Creek (at the first I-80 river overpass east of Truckee), and from there to the Boca Outlet, the fishing is better than the upper sections. The Boca exit and the second I-80 river overpass east of Truckee provide easy access. Section 3 (Boca to the state line) has special angling restrictions (see current Fish & Game regulations). This water has some of the river's largest trout and a good population of smallmouth bass. The water is deep and treacherous in spots, so fish accordingly. Access is limited. Most anglers enter at Boca, Floriston, or Farad.

Early in the season, the Truckee can be cold and blown out with high water. Fish it upstream of the tributaries, especially around River Ranch. For a large-trout challenge, fish runoff with a #4 to #3/0 Goblin or other streamer with contrasting colors.

Because the water is cold, the trout don't chase little stuff. The murky water and the lack of fishing pressure make the big trout more susceptible than they might be later in the year.

As the water clears, the bugs begin to hatch. When the willows and alders leaf out, the bulk of the Truckee insects begin to emerge and the trout start to rise freely. June and July typically have the best dry-fly fishing.

In summer's dog days, fish early in the morning and late in the evening. Also try windy afternoons; fish grasshopper patterns for explosive strikes.

Truckee Fly-fishing Resources
In addition to the Truckee River, the area around Truckee, California, offers other angling options, from small wild-trout streams to big lakes and high-mountain lakes. For trip planning details and current conditions, contact the following businesses. Daily online reports with fishing conditions, hatches, and flows are available at

California School of Flyfishing (530) 587-7005
Mountain Hardware (530) 587-6686
Reno Fly Shop (775) 827-0600
Truckee River Outfitters (530) 582-0090
Outdoor & Flyfishing Store (530) 541 8208

Ralph Cutter is the author of Sierra Trout Guide and operates the California School of fly Fishing. He lives in Truckee, California.