May 26, 2024

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Fly Fishing in Northern California : An Angler’s Handbook

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Fly fishing can be an entertaining and highly-effective way to catch fish on almost any body of water. Contrary to the fish tales you may have heard over the years, it’s accessible to all anglers – including beginners.

California has 189,454 miles of rivers and streams, along with hundreds of thousands of acres of lakes and reservoirs. And most of these in the state’s northern half.

Northern California also offers ideal growing conditions and nearby access for anadromous fish that migrate between fresh and saltwater environments. Couple that with rivers and lakes acting as native waters for several popular species, and you have a fly fishing mecca!

Let’s look at the type of fish on offer, where they live, their diet, and when to plan your fly fishing trip. We’ll review licensing rules and look at some advantages of hiring a guide to make your trip memorable, too. You’ll also find answers to four common questions regarding fly fishing in Northern California. Are you ready? Let’s get to it!

Northern California Fly Fishing Targets

The Golden State offers anglers fly fishing opportunities in fresh and saltwater. You’ll get to test your skills in oceans, lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and streams. There are 133 native and non-native species in the state’s waterways, with most fly fishing targeting fish in freshwater settings. Anglers search for popular game fish like Bluegill, Bass, Salmon, Steelhead, Trout, and Whitefish.


An angler in a baseball cap and big winter jacket, sitting on cooler aboard a fishing boat moored at the side of a river in Northern California, and holding a large Salmon on a sunny day
Photo courtesy of Northern California Guide Service – Redding

Salmon is a popular target for fly fishing. Two of the four species in the state thrive in Northern California! Anglers go after Chinook Salmon for their fight, and these feisty creatures arrive inland near the end of the year as they migrate from the ocean upstream to spawn.

Coho Salmon move into the rivers a few weeks later. Anglers target them for their red color when spawning and acrobatic leaps during retrieves. You’ll need to explore rivers and tributaries feeding into the Pacific for a chance to fight one.

Rainbow Trout

A youthful angler in a baseball cap and sunglasses presents a Rainbow Trout to the camera with one hand on a cloudy day
Photo courtesy of Jacob Frye’s Guide Service – 25′

Any Rainbow Trout 16 inches or longer caught in anadromous waters is considered a “Steelhead” by the state’s governing agencies. Target rivers and tributaries with ocean access to add one to the stringer. They won’t give you as much of a fight as Salmon, but they can be just as acrobatic as Coho once the hook is set.


A female angler in a beanie hat holds a large Trout up to the camera, while standing on a fishing boat in Northern California on a cloudy day
Photo courtesy of Big Daddy’s Guide Service – Bucks Lake

Brown Trout are non-natives fish but go way back to when they were introduced in 1893. They are wary, making them a choice for those wanting a challenge. Coastal Cutthroat Trout are popular alternatives during other migratory fish runs. They gather in low-gradient streams with slower-moving waters.

Meanwhile, coastal Rainbows are the state’s most widely distributed Trout species, living in watersheds that drain into the Pacific. All three species thrive in the cold waters across Northern California.

Northern California Fly Fishing Spots

Deer Creek

An aerial view looking up the Sacramento River in Redding, Northern California, on a sunny day, with clear waters and lush, green shorelines visible

This is a popular fly fishing tributary of the Sacramento River. Hit the headwaters at Butt Mountain and its mouth west of Vina. The Upper Deer Creek Falls naturally divides it into two sections, with the lower section being anadromous catch-and-release waters while the upper section being stocked waters with a five-fish limit.

Upper access points include Alder and Elam campgrounds off Highway 32. Meanwhile, Red Bridge is the most popular access for the catch-and-release waters. It is known for its Brown, Rainbow, and Steelhead Trout (along with wild Chinook and Steelhead in the lower section).

Klamath River

While this stream may start in Oregon, the 257 miles of river meandering through Northern California provide some of the state’s best Steelhead, wild Rainbow Trout, and Chinook runs. And that’s all before it empties into the Pacific.

You’ll find 25 points off Highway 96 within the 85-mile stretch running through the Klamath National Forest. There are several hydroelectric dams on the upper part of the river, the lowest being the Iron Gate Dam east of Hornbrook.

Manzanita Lake

A view across Lake Manzanita towards a snow-capped Lassen Peak, with the lake reflecting the peak on a sunny day

This pristine body of water has a blue-ribbon fly fishery rating by California’s Department of Fish and Game. Created by a rock avalanche 300 years ago, Manzanita Lake provides the chance to sight fish for Brown and Rainbow Trout. A looping trail skirts most of the shoreline, offering plenty of access. The best fishing here is May through October, as the lake freezes over during the winter.

Lake Almanor

Lake Almanor is a 1,308,000-acre reservoir listed by many anglers as one of Northern California’s best Salmon and Trout fisheries for trophy-sized fish. But it’s also one of the better Smallmouth Bass waterways! Here, you’ll target Browns, Rainbows, and land-locked Chinook.

It has two boat launches, and you can access the shore from several campsites or the recreational trail. Fly fishing from a float tube is a popular method and works well in areas along the southern shoreline.

Northern California Fly Fishing Seasons

California is a state that can keep an angler busy year-round due to its variety of fish and water conditions. Depending on the species you’re going for, fishing access can range between mid-August through April for migrating fish to twelve-month access to inland-bound Trout in rivers and lakes. These months cover a range of spawn and bulking seasons for several fish associated with fly fishing.

The Chinook Salmon arrive inland for spawning starting in the middle of August and going through October, with local anglers noting peak fishing from the Chinook’s arrival through November.

A view across the water towards a fishing boat, with two anglers practicing fly fishing in Northern California, with a bridge and snow-capped mountain in the distance on a day with sunny intervals
Photo courtesy of Lower Sacramento River Fly Fishing

Coho Salmon follow right behind, arriving in freshwater spawn sites in November and staying through January (February or March in some locations). Peak fly fishing for Coho tends to be between December and January.

Plan for spawns from January through March if you want to catch some Steelhead Trout. They can start as early as mid-December in waters near the ocean and go as late as April as you fish upper tributaries far inland.

Brown Trout spawn between November and December, but you can fly fish for them year-round. Just beware that summer may prove more difficult with higher water temperatures and more direct sunlight. Coastal Cutthroat Trout will spawn in larger rivers beginning in December and in smaller tributaries between January and February. Coastal Rainbow generally spawn between February to June. However, you can fly fish for Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout year-round, too.

Techniques for Fly Fishing in Northern California


A load of fly fishing tackle spread out on a table including one reel, two rods, and a selection of colorful flies in a tackle box and spread on the table

First things first. The term “fly” refers to the lightweight casting bait used to imitate insects and other small prey items your target fish feed on naturally. “Matching the hatch” is a common phrase among fly fishermen, which describes mimicking the insects currently hatching and living on or near the water with your fly. Let’s break these down to dry flies, wet flies, and streamers to keep things simple.

A dry fly remains at the top of the surface, imitating insects ready to leave the water or those landing on it. The Adams parachute or elk wing caddis are recommended by guides fishing for various Trout. Bombers and Wulff patterns can do well for Coho feeding off the surface.

Wet flies attract fish below the surface. Nymphs float deeper and emergers suspend higher in the water. You won’t go wrong with pheasant tail nymphs for Trout and hex nymphs for Salmon. Caddis and morning duns matching the hatch can draw the attention of most fish in Northern California waterways.

Streamers traditionally represent food items such as bait fish. They are wet flies you fish below the surface, and their size and weight allow them to run deeper than smaller wet flies. Autumn splendors and muddler minnows are common streamer patterns for Trout, while leech and wooly bugger patterns are good options for Salmon.


An angler aboard a boat, casting a fly fishing line on a river in Northern California on a clear day, with lush green trees visible around him and a dog next to him looking into the water
Photo courtesy of Lower Sacramento River Fly Fishing

The two most basic casts with a fly rod are the overhead and roll. Casting overhead involves bringing the rod behind you with the tip near “one o’clock.” You’ll then cast the line forward while the fly is in the air. Roll casting starts with the line in the water in front of you while you pull the rod backwards overhead. Effectively, you create a roll when the line moves behind you from the tip, and then cast forward.

Fishing dry flies is all about accuracy in the cast because it allows you to place the fly in the strike zone. Practice mending your line upstream to keep it floating in the target area longer – that provides more opportunities to attract the fish. Keep moving to adjust your casting angles, including wading, to avoid potential obstacles affecting your drift.

The challenge with nymphing is keeping your fly at the correct depth and speed to entice a strike. That’s because most casts offer a perfect presentation for only a couple of feet before things start to look suspicious to the fish. Mending with several small loops upstream can keep your nymph moving slower and help keep it off the bottom in the area a fish will see.

Targeting an upstream location is crucial for streamer fishing because you need time for it to sink. Keeping your rod tip high after the cast can help it drop faster. Land close to the far bank so the fly moves across all the water you’re fishing (and entices big bruisers feeding near overhangs that provide protection).

Northern California Fly Fishing Guides

You might think a guide isn’t worth the expense, but there are several advantages to using their services on your fly fishing trip. Using a guide helps you be more productive and safe out on the water.

With thousands of miles of shoreline, knowing where to cast your fly in Northern California waters is overwhelming. Local California fishing guides have first-hand knowledge of the waterways, so they can quickly direct you to the best structure. They also understand the localized food supply, allowing you to match hook size and color patterns to the current hatch.

Fly fishing along rivers poses challenges that a guide can help you overcome. They’ll know how a river behaves and will help you avoid problematic areas that provide poor footing or overbearing currents. They can also give you wading safety tips, provide proper gear, and help you master fly fishing techniques while standing on rocks in thigh-deep moving water!

Northern California Fishing Regulations

An infographic featuring the state flag of California along with text that says "Northern California Fly Fishing Regulations: What You Need to Know" against a dark blue background.

While licensing seems like a hassle to some, the reality is that the money collected from California Sports Fishing Licenses and Report Cards goes into conservation programs that develop and monitor the sport we all love. The money helps support fisheries that continuously stock various species of fish throughout the state, including some prime fly fishing waters in Northern California.

It also funds research into fishing pressure and populations, helping lay out the groundwork for emergency conservation plans. These include angling restrictions that help to ensure everyone has access to pressured species for generations to come.

Putting the cost into a license and report card format helps secure funds from those participating in angling instead of the general public. That also protects monetary resources from the whims of politicians. It’s a win-win for us and the fish!

If you’re 16 or older, you’ll need a license to take fish from state waterways. These come in annual, one-day, two-day, ten-day, and reduced-fee licenses. Check out FishingBooker’s handy guide to see which license you should get. You’ll also need additional report cards for popular fly fishing species including Salmon and Steelhead.

Northern California Fly Fishing FAQs

Northern California: Fly Fishing Is What Makes It Special

An aerial view of the Klamath River, winding its way through the Northern California countryside on a sunny day

So there you have it! Northern California offers access to several popular species like Chinook and Coho Salmon, Coastal Brown Trout, along with Coastal Rainbows that become Steelhead when they get big enough. You’ll find world-class lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and streams in the region that can produce trophy-sized fish.

This part of the state can keep you busy with fly fishing opportunities year-round, especially between late fall through spring when many of these species migrate from the ocean to spawn. Learning to match the hatch and becoming proficient with the overhead and roll cast will let you find success once you reach the water.

So pick the type of fish you want your next photo to include, get licensed, hire a guide, and get yourself out there today! It won’t take long for you to realize that Northern California is a must-visit fly fishing region!

Have you ever been fly fishing in Northern California? What species did you target? We’d love to hear all about your experience in the comments below!

The post How to Go Fly Fishing in Northern California: An Angler’s Guide appeared first on FishingBooker Blog.

By: Jon Stewart
Title: How to Go Fly Fishing in Northern California: An Angler’s Guide
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Published Date: Sun, 23 Jul 2023 11:36:07 +0000

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