I am going to start this by saying that I am biased. But, aren’t we all to some degree? I live in northern California in the small college town of Chico, on the Lower Sacramento River. The Sac drains northern California’s Central Valley, the northern Sierra Nevada range, and Mount Shasta into the San Francisco Bay. I’m comfortable saying that Northern California has the most diverse fly fishing opportunities in the country. This is an opinion, but opinion in fly fishing borders on fact.
Fresh, salt, warm, cold, lake, creek, freestone, tailwater, spring, sea-run, resident, lake, delta, swamp, puddle, ditch, and all types of water and fish in-between can be found in northern Cal. An argument could be made that in Southern California (which is part of California, though some from my neck of the woods don’t recognize this fact) tropical fishing is available – you can catch bonefish in San Diego Bay. These options make for a very diverse angling community, as diversity allows for high degrees of specialization.
I began as a trout/steelhead angler growing up on the Lower Yuba River. There are ‘just steelhead’ anglers in Nor Cal, which I am not. When you say, “I’m a trout angler”, you could be a lake guy, a small stream Sierra guy who only fishes dry flies on 4 and 3wt rods, a Truckee river or freestone guy that high-sticks 10 foot nymph rods and throws streamers, or a Fall River/Hat Creek guy that lives for PMD hatches where a big fly is a #14. I was a drift boat trout guy fishing and guiding the Lower Sac and the Lower Yuba River around where I grew up. You could find me chucking big indicators, lead, and 3 flies for tailwater trout…and on occasion fishing dry flies. But, heck, if you live in Nor Cal you know dry flies don’t catch fish. I say that with some bitterness (and a tad of sarcasm) towards rivers and places in the country where flies made of foam, flash, and rubber legs floated on the surface bring fish up to the surface.
When I moved to Chico nearly 15 years ago, I was getting into bass fishing…’cuz fishing indicators gets boring, right? Within the first month of arriving I was introduced to the striped bass. It was like seeing a Playboy for the first time. I was working at a fly shop in Chico and one of the owners took me fishing on the California Delta, 3 hours south of Chico where stripers migrate through every year on their spawning runs from the San Francisco Bay up into the major California rivers. Stripers were introduced in 1879 from the East Coast right around Martinez, California; needless to say, they’ve thrived. There are now two populations of stripers in Northern California. Migratory fish that move from the Pacific Ocean into the brackish water of the Delta, to the Lower Sacramento River and San Juaquin River to spawn, and then return to the salt. Then there are the resident fish, which I consider the smarter ones, that realized staying and living in the Sacramento River and its tributaries is a WAY easier life.
The resident fish are my guys…they live in the Sacramento River from Redding down to the Colusa area. I guide for them April – October based out of Chico, catching fish from 12” to 50lbs. For the uninitiated, the grab and pull of a striper is like nothing else…to say they hit like a freight train would be like saying hitting a brick wall going 90mph is a sudden stop. Some run, some bulldog, some violently head shake. All are bad ass fish, period. A 14” striper can bend a 9wt to the cork and a 10lb striper will make a 9wt feel like a 2wt. There is no other type of fishing I have done where the gap between a good fish and a trophy is so big. A 5 pounder is a great, solid, hard-fighting fish…but the next one could be a fish bigger than the average 2nd grader.
In the end, if an angler gets into striper fishing they usually do the following:
Quickly lose interest in other types of fishing, take out a big loan to buy a jet boat or delta bass boat, sell all their 5wts, buy all new 9wts, tie MASSIVE amounts of Clouser minnows (in every conceivable color, density, and weight), and develop a wicked strip-set that causes them to break off every trout they hook. It’s rough.
Kicks aside, not everyone loves the striped bass. Stripers, though being around for nearly 150 years, get blamed for downturns in salmon populations in the Sacramento River watershed as, all of the sudden, people believe they’ve been devouring salmon at a high enough rate to cause salmon returns to crash over the last few years. Historic drought, agricultural diversions, and TERRIBLE flow management need to be considered as the real culprits. I’m not saying that stripers don’t eat salmon smolt, but they have lived together for a LONG time and worked their relationship out (ha). Case in point: ten years ago there were epic salmon runs AND striper populations. I have cleaned a fair number of stripers in the 12 years I have guided for them and I have never found a salmon smolt in a striper’s belly. Tons of pike minnow that eat more salmon eggs and smolt from what I have found, but zero stripers. So, in my opinion – and let’s be honest, in fly fishing opinion is fact – stripers are helping preserve the salmon population.
Hogan Brown is a fly fishing guide based in Northern California. He’s an ECHO Fly Rods and Airflo Fly Lines Pro Staffer, Simms Ambassador, and fly tier for Montana Fly Co. Like many of us, he’s an occasional connoisseur of fine ales and fermented grains. When not on the water, you can find him gardening, watching football, or hanging with his wife and two boys. Check him out at www.hgbflyfishing.com.