Your gateway to the best fly fishing that California has to offer                                                                                                             
photo by Greg Vinci

County, but those runs are somewhat sporadic and have drastically declined over the last one hundred and fifty years.  The Sacramento system is located roughly at the northern end of what is considered the Mediterranean climate zone in the USA, which means that one sees a fair number of palm trees interspersed among the indigenous deciduous trees that line the riparian zone of the American River.  Hence once Steelhead arive, you are literally fishing for Steelhead under the Palms.  One doesn’t normally associate fishing for the king of anadromous fishes where Palm trees grow, but what else would one expect in California?  It should be mentioned here that palm trees are not indigenous but were imported by land developers trying to satisfy the perceptions of prospective east coast immigrants.  Being very prolific at propagation,  palm tree seedlings sprout up in many unusual places including along the American River.

Access points with good Steelhead holding water can be found at the following locations on the river.  Rather than including street directions to each access, I’ve indicated in parenthesis the corresponding “Google Maps” keywords that will provide you with directions.  Beginning at Nimbus Dam which is the upstream begining of the lower American River section, the first access is Nimbus Basin (Hazel Avenue, Rancho Covdova CA) which is the short section between the dam and Hazel Avenue bridge.  Quite a few fish can stack up here but so can the fishermen and most of them are gear guys, who don’t coexist well with fly fishermen.  Not that they are unfriendly, it’s just that it can be crowded.  About a mile downstream is the Sailor Bar (Illinois Avenue and Noland Lane, Fair Oaks, CA) access. I might mention that most of the access points possess the names of the mining claims that existed here during the Gold Rush. This area  is close enough to the dam and the entrance to the hatchery that the fish get quite concentrated in this area during the winter run.   The fishermen get quite concentrated here too and those fishermen with experience avoid it for better sections downstream. The next parking/access point is the Upper Sunrise section (Lower Sunrise Drive, Rancho Cordova, CA), which is the area that is located from the Sunrise Bridge to about a mile upstream.  Parking is located on the South side of the river.  The river is split into two channels by an island and drops a couple of feet in elevation creating some productive slots.  The area around the island is a spawning area, and is consequently a magnet for the fish.  When fishing this area it is important to use the utmost discression when selecting which fish to cast to so as to make sure you don’t disturb those in the act of spawning.  Another mile downstream, below the Sunrise Bridge, is what is known as the Lower Sunrise area.  Parking is also on the South side of the river and is within a hundred yards of the section where it snakes through a gravel bar.  Continuing on downstream the next two access points are Elmanto Avenue and Rossmore Drive (both access points can be found on Google Maps by keying in “Elmanto Avenue, Rancho Cordova, CA).  Several riffles and runs are in this section and receive little pressure.  Another section that receives little pressure from Steelhead fishermen is the area downstream from the Hagen Park access.  If you don’t mind walking an extra hundred yards and would like to save $4.50, park in the lot just before the pay kiosk, for free.  The power lines that cross the river here mark the downstream boundary of the closure that runs between November 1st and December 31st, so as long as you stay downstream from the power line crossing it is legal to fish year round.  The next vehicle access points are Goethe Park (Goethe Park, Rancho Cordova, CA)  located on the south side of the river and William H. Pond Park located on the north side of the river which are connected by a bicycle/walk bridge.  Just downstream from the bridge the river splits into several channels that consist of deep slots and riffles.  This can be a magnet for “half pounders” and usually holds fish year round.  There is lots of productive water here.  The next vehicle access is what is known as the Gristmill (Kansas Way, Rancho Cordova, CA) area whose access is located at the intersection of Kansas Way and Mira Del Rio Dr.).  The river drops a couple of feet in elevation at this point and runs over a sandbar.  It’s not necessarily much of a winter steelhead spot but can be a good section for “half pounders”.  Below here the river is mostly frog water until you get to Watt Avenue  (Watt Avenue and Fair Oaks Blvd, Sacramento, CA).  The access is right next to the Watt Avenue Bridge and some good “half pounder” water can be found both up and downstream of the bridge.  About another three miles downstream is an area known as Paradise Beach (to find this on Google Maps, type in Glenn Hall Park, Sacramento, CA).  These are the first riffles the fish encounter on the way upstream on the American so it is a good call early in the season.  The winter run fish caught here are in better shape and in better fighting condition than those you will encounter later in the season upstream.  From here downstream to the confluence with the Sacramento River, its all frog water without either vehicle access or wadeable water.  

  How to Fish & What to Use

Most wade fishermen like to use the classic swing techniques that cover the most water, get the most exciting grabs and are suitable for fishing the relatively shallow water of the riffles that are found near the parking accesses.  Swinging streamer style flies is by far the most popular technique for winter Steelheaders.  Swing technique allows you to cover the most water and it is the best way to get grabs from those fish that hold right at the drop offs.  Fishermen in drift boats however have access to some of the deeper slots that hold the fresher traveling fish and consequently use indicator nymphing techniques along with swing techniques when in the shallower stretches.  There are two kinds of swing fishermen, those that fish the drop offs at the head of riffles and those who swing through fish sitting on or just below reds.   Now don’t jump to the conclusion that those fishing near the reds are ripping the lips off of females that are trying to spawn.  Though that is sometimes the case, the responsible fishermen are targeting the males that are sitting just downstream from her.  The key is to not swing to the males you can see, but swing through the slots and depressions downstream from the redd, providing there are no redds located there.  If you think you might disturb the hen, then don’t cast.  As mentioned above, one of the most successful techniques for locating fish is to look for slots and seams down stream from spawning areas as the scent being emitted from the spawning beds attracts lots of fish.  Experienced American River Steelhead fishermen have learned to walk the bluffs that rise over known Steelhead holding water and look for fish down below.  Steelhead often develop a white fungus on their heads after being in fresh water for awhile, so if one spots what looks like a white rock moving upstream it is a very good chance that it is a Steelhead. 

To swing for winter fish, most fishermen use a conventional 9 foot 8 or 9 weight rod.  For “half pounders” a five or six weight rod is adequate.  The spey rodders prefer 7 and 8 weight 13 foot rods or 10 foot switch rods. A Typical set up will be some kind of sink tip arrangement with about a five foot leader.  Sink tip set ups can consist of a conventional sink tip line (sink rate to be determined by the water depth) or floating line with a sinking leader such as Rio’s Powerflex.  Leader material is usually 8 lb. fluorocarbon and set up with two flies.  The anchor fly is a heavily weighted nymph or streamer with a glow bug dropper tied about eighteen inches below it.  Some fishermen reverse the order. Earlier in the season you get more grabs on the nymph and later in the season you get more grabs on the glow bug.  Some substitute comet style traditional streamers for the nymph or just fish the streamer all by itself.   For dead drift indicator fishing, the rigging is similar except that a floating line is used along with the two fly setup.  A nine foot leader tapered to 3X with a 3X (8 lb) fluorocarbon tippet and two flies about eighteen inches apart is the most popular set up.  As with the swinging set up, the two fly rig also consists of a heavily weighted nymph and a glow bug.  I personally like to go with a more realistic nymph on the dead drift rig and a more flashy nymph on the swinging rig.  Extra weight is added to the knot just above the anchor nymph as you are usually fishing fast and deep slots when dead drifting, and because of that you need a large strike indicator to support it.  Long time guide Bill Lowe says “if I’m going to be indicator fishing I want an indicator that floats well, casts well, is highly visible, and easy to adjust.  Using the 1-1/2 times the water’s depth rule as a guide-line, I’ll start with the indicator attached just into the butt-end of the tapered leader and then add tippet to get my desired length.  I’ll then add 1-1/2 feet of tippet, followed by the top fly, then another 1-1/2 feet of tippet to the dropper.”  Heavy adjustable hard foam strike indicators such as Micro-Balls, Pop-Tops and Tipper Indicators. all come in sizes that will support the extra weight and also make it easier to load the rod for roll casts.   Large yarn indicators, though easy to see, are terrible to cast.

Half Pounder set ups are similar to those for traditional trout fishing.  Half Pounders are actively feeding during their visit so typical double fly nymph rigs under an indicator work well.  Early season (September) Half Pounders, will actively feed on evening Caddis and a little later in the Fall they take advantage of the Baetis that are starting to show so traditional dry fly rigs are effective  A good number of American River fly fishermen use swinging techniques on Half Pounders too.  A two fly nymph rig will consist of a nine foot tapered to 4X, then a separate twelve inch section of 4X fluorocarbon tippet that is tied to a heavily weighted anchor fly.  To its bend tie in another eighteen inches of 4x fluorocarbon and then your dropper fly.  Split shot is placed above the knot that attaches the tapered leader to the tippet.  This is big water so don’t be shy about using lots of weight.  As with the winter steelhead rig, heavier strike indicators such as ¾” Micro-Ball Indicators and Pop-Tops, or  medium (½”) and large (1 ¼”) Tipper Indicators both support lots of weight and make roll casting easier as they help lode the line.  Dry fly fishing doesn’t require a sophisticated set up.  A nine foot tapered leader tapered to 5X with a foot or two of 5X mono is adequate.   For swinging you can use a sink tip line, but most just use a floating line with a nine foot tapered leader with 4X mono for the tippet.  Split shot can be attached at the knot where the leader is tied to the tippet.  I like to tie in the fly about two feet from the split shot, though this can vary depending on the weight of the fly.  On longer tippets you can use heavier flies. 

Flies are pretty straight forward.  Popular streamers for winter Steelhead are Wooly Buggers and Articulated Leaches in Olive, Black, Purple and Rust in sizes #6 and #8.  Comets (various colors with black being the traditional favorite) size #8 and #10.  and the double beaded  Black Knight.  Streamer fly success is mostly about presentation, color, size and movement and not necessarily the actual shape of the bug.  Glow Bugs patterns are a part of every double fly rig and popular styles are “Fox’s Fertilizer” and Hanley’s Furled Alevin for later in the season.

For Half Pounders,  swinging a Bird’s Nest or a soft hackle can be effective.  Fox’s Pupah in tan and olive is a popular fly for swinging on the American and most other rivers in the valley.  Flies for dead drift indicator rigs include heavily weighted versions of flies such as the Prince Nymph and the Double Down Caddis (larva) as the an anchor fly.  The important thing is that it be heavy.  The dropper should resemble whatever bug is the most common that time of the year so for Caddis pupa a good call would be Fox’s (Rick) “Radical Caddis”, or Vinci’s “Gas Caddis”.  For Mayfly the good old Pheasant Tail in sizes #16-#18 or Sloan’s “Mity Mite Baetis” are popular, and last but not least “Shafer’s 3D Nymph” is very successful on the American.

Steelhead fishing in an urban area means that there is lodging available priced to accommodate anyone’s pocket book.  Same goes for dining.  Being that Sacramento is loaded with historical sites, ones non fishing spouse could be well entertained for the day visiting the many museums, shopping and dining establishments around town.  If you want to fish for Steelhead in an environment with a little different ambience than you would normally associate with the sport, the American River will provide an experience that can be found nowhere else.