THE LITTLE TRUCKEE RIVER
...An absolute fly angling gem!
Below you'll find the "long" version of my personal take on the Little Truckee River below Stampede dam in Sierra & Nevada counties near the town of Truckee in California . The "short" version was published in the 2009 summer issue of Sierra Fisherman magazine. It is the most thorough article ever written about this gem of stream.
NOTE: The essay is copyrighted. Permission to reprint or duplicated on-line is required.
Copyright 2009 Frank R. Pisciotta
THE LITTLE TRUCKEE RIVER
Looking down from the high bluff I saw the bright, white mouth of an 18”-plus rainbow inhale a bug at the surface. I then observed several mayflies flying above the stream. I thought, “Right on time!” I hastened my pace down the trail, crossed the stream and got into position for my first cast to one of the rising trout. This occurred during what is now known as the “hatch of ’96”; six weeks of a prolonged and consistent 11AM- 4PM, Pale Morning Dun hatch…and rising trout.
This event occurred on the Little Truckee River, below Stampede dam. The “hatch of 1996” is considered the one important event that propelled the Little Truckee River to its status as one of California ’s premiere fly fishing venues. At that time, it was still a “secret”; and the locals wanted to keep it that way. But, the word spread out of the area and a lobbying campaign started for “catch & release” regulations.
New regulations, below the dam, became effective in 2000; from the last Saturday of April to November 15; only barbless artificials are permitted, the MAXimum size is 14” and the limit is two. In 2008, “winter” regulations opened the stretch to angling from November 16 to the last Friday of April. Gear restrictions remained the same as the “regular” season, the difference being no take; ZERO. These combined regulations apply to the 3-1/2 miles of the Little Truckee River from Stampede dam downriver to its inflow into Boca Lake .
The Lake Tahoe area has always been known as a world-renowned, recreational paradise in the High Sierra. In 1979 I built my first home there, specifically in Truckee , the historic and increasingly up-scale ski town. At the time there were few fly anglers on the area’s waters. During the ‘80’s, the “north shore” waters of Martis Lake and the Truckee River progressively attracted more fly casters because of their “Wild Trout” angling regulations. Currently there are eight (8) state-mandated “catch & release” waters with-in one hour’s drive of Truckee . Now, unbelievably, the region has arguably become a destination fly angling venue, with the Little Truckee being the crown-jewel.
The Little Truckee River, below Stampede dam, entails 3-1/2 miles of fishable water before its inflow at Boca Lake ; a 2-mile “Meadow” and a 1-1/2 “Canyon” section. Seven miles east of the town of Truckee take exit 194 off of interstate 80, cross the intercontinental railroad tracks; proceed along Stampede Road for 5 miles around Boca Reservoir to the river’s inlet. The special angling regulations start here and all the water upstream to Stampede dam. Depending on how early and the amount snow-pack, access to the river beyond Boca dam (5700’) from late November to late March can be “iffy”.
Unlike the main Truckee river the names of the favored fishing places on the Little Truckee do not reflect the twisted irreverence of the town of Truckee ’s lumbering and railroad town’s bawdy past. The big river has spots such as the Cat House Hole, the Toilet Bowl and, euphemistically, Fornicating Rock Run. The Little Truckee’s names are ordinary; Brian’s Bluff, Richard’s Riffle, Joe’s Bank, Dan’s Rock or Paul’s Point. Other spots are named after obvious landmarks; The Willow, The Bluff or The Sweepers.
The 2 mile, alpine meadow is an idyllic place to cast a fly. Here the river moves north to south with gentle riffles, long glides, pools, occasional bank-side willows (whose root-wads create superb protective lies), fallen timber and short stretches of pocket-water. The chaparral terrain is open and level, bordered by evergreens and sporadic stands of cottonwoods.
Along the entire west-side of the stream is a dense, upslope pine and fir forest. The vista to the south-east is of the distant mountains of the Carson range in Nevada ; in spring they are majestically snow-capped.
At the end of the meadow the Little Truckee moves through a ravine, then past a streamside campground. It continues on; the east side bordered by Stampede Road and on the west-side, a conifer forest, with an occasional granite out-cropping. Its journey finishes at Boca Lake . During this last 1-1/2 miles it is a freestone stream.
Water temperatures are not an issue because the trout are acclimated to the 44-46 degree water that spills out of the dam. Progressively, the flow gets warmer, as it courses downstream. During the summer, I’ve recorded temperatures as high as 61 degrees at the Boca Lake inlet.
The most productive water will be at heads of pools, knee-deep riffles, in front of and behind fallen timber or mid-stream boulders. These types of water provide the best feeding lies in both the meadow and canyon sections. These areas shelter opportunistic drift-feeders; a proper presentation may trigger that take.
For those who love the challenge of hatch-driven surface feeders; the most “technical” water will be found in deep, flat water; places such as the “610”, Papa’s Pool, Richard’s Pool, Frustration and the tail-out of the Bat Cave . These areas harbor the most finicky, surface feeding trout. The most productive imitations for this tricky water will be the ever-present midges, various Baetis, black winter stones and the lime stoneflies of fall, all within sizes #18-#26.
The medium-size, natural trout a fly angler should anticipate are in the 14”-15” range, 16”-18” fish are common and those in the 18”-22” slot are lurking. Occasionally, 23”-28” fish are encountered; whether you net them is another question. The larger trout are browns, with rainbows representing a disproportionate percentage of the catch.
Similar to the big Truckee the Little Truckee is not a quick-action stream; double digit days are scarce. When approaching this stream one is looking at a fat 0; 1-3 trout (brought to hand) is OK , a 4-6 fish session is good…numbers beyond, wonderful! What compensates for the low catch numbers; is that during a 4-6 fish session, a 17” trout can be the “small” one. On the first day of 2009’s spring; two compatriots and I had a quiet, 2 hour session that resulted in merely three netted Rainbows; the smallest was a thick 18-1/2” rainbow. The other two were equally-hefty rainbows, both just shy of 20”...not bad. We were pleased. (See picture on page 20).
The rainbows and browns will inhabit all the same water types; riffles, flats, runs, pocket-water and pools. Water levels will determine whether they are dispersed or “stacked-up”. When hooked, the rainbows will make quicker, unpredictable moves and more aerials. The browns will slug it out with you, doggedly hugging the bottom with shorter, but stronger surges. Regardless of which trout you hook; it will seek the closest cover. Then, one of two things will occur, one good the other bad. You will either “turn-it” away from the security lie or break it off. I prefer avoiding the latter option; being the reason why I use a stout, 5-weight rod and seldom use tippets less than 5x.
I’ll use a 6x tippet only when fishing a large pool or deep run that is known to have minimal obstructions. I want to land these trout as quickly as possible, resuscitate it and release it…in survivable condition. Using 6x and 7x tippets instead of 5x, will stress these trout, resulting in a lesser chance of recovery.
There is sparse surface activity during winter; the advised strategy is to probe underwater. The best opportunity of spotting fish eating on the surface will be mid-day, with the sun shining and minimal wind. The trout will be keying on tiny, winter black and brown stones, BWO’s or midge pupae.
Late June to early September is the best time for dry fly activity. July is the fly angler’s first chance of consistently fooling feeding trout on top. Progressively, more varieties and numbers of mayflies and caddis start to emerge; along with the ever-present midges.
Terrestrials appear during August and September. A #12-14 black beetle pattern out-performs the more noticeable grasshoppers. One tactic is searching the water with a deer-hair beetle pattern and trailing a small bead-head nymph, spinner or BWO emerger. Suggested water is at spill-ins at the head of pools and 1-2 foot riffles.
Late-September to late November affords autumn anglers the opportunity to experience a glorious Indian summer and an occasional short-lived thundershower. Crowds are gone, days are shorter, nights become brisk and the cottonwoods and alders turn golden. Dam releases are low; water is crystal clear…stealth now becomes a necessary tactic.
Fall months are a prime-time to “head-hunt”. I’ve stalked sections of the Little Truckee during this period for up to three hours…not casting once…because I did not see a single trout sipping, slurping or gulping on top. This is the mood this intimate stream can engender in autumn.
Stampede dam’s water releases decide the “what, where and how” of the fly angler’s strategy. The highest flows will occur April and May, up to 550 cubic feet per second; the lowest from September thru March, to a low of 30 cubic feet per second.
How do you say M-I-D-G-E? Simply, midges (Chironomidae family of Diptera) are the most prolific aquatic insect in the Little Truckee River. Trout will eat them in all their life-phases; all day, 365 days per year. Deep, dead-drifting of midge imitations is the most effective and productive technique on this water…period. Water-types will determine which method to employ; either “high-sticking” or long-line, indicator nymphing.
Use “searching”, tandem rigs. The selected flies can vary; larva/larva, larva/pupae larva/nymph, pupa/worm or egg, whichever you choose. The midge patterns are sized #20-#26; best colors are black, olive or grey. When using these tiny hooks off-set the point to “open the gap”; providing a better hooking angle. You want the trout to ingest your fly. To set, merely tighten-up slack or lift your rod. If you are heavy-handed, use a “slip-set” by quickly releasing a loop of line on the take; the loop of line is pinched between your line-control finger and the reel. You hope the teeny hook gets stuck in the mouth, the bony nib, an upper-lip cartilage or slides into a corner of the jaw.
Another dead-drifting technique is using a larva/pupa set-up; trailing the pupa off the bend of the larva hook. Upon finishing the drift, lower the rod and let the line swing below you. The pupa pattern will then mimic an ascending midge emerger; hopefully, triggering a grab. Do not use thin tippets because the take will be aggressive, not “soft”.
Mayflies are not as numerous as the midges on the Little Truckee; but, they remain a vital food item. They are eaten by the trout in all of their life-stages; nymph, emerger, adult and spinner. Their real attraction is when they emerge; providing the dry fly “purist” with exciting top-water action. Patterns that sit on or in the surface-film work best, such as Paraduns, Cripples and Comparaduns.
The most predictable mayfly hatches occur July and August. During these months there are multiple emergences; befuddling fly anglers with confusing “masking” hatches. Masking hatches happen when trout are eating a less noticeable insect and ignoring a more visible emerger or adult. Two-fly combinations; such as large/small, adult/cripple or emerger/bead-head nymph work well during such events.
The Little Truckee has several varieties of mayflies; the heaviest concentrations being Blue-Winged Olives and Pale Morning Duns. The BWO’s are multi-brood aquatics; there will be at least two full-cycles per year. Expect to see the adults late-morning to late afternoon. They will range in sizes #16-#24; the spring brood being the largest and early fall’s Psuedocleons being the tiniest. Prime-times to use spinner imitations are late morning and dusk. Bring your spring-creek “A” game when trout selectively are slurping this life-stage.
Pale Morning Dun hatches happen late morning to mid-afternoon. Their emergences can be short and intense or prolonged and sparse. My best PMD fishing has occurred during overcast and drizzly days. What is appealing about this hatch is that it lasts for 6-7 weeks during pleasant summer weather.
Other fishable Little Truckee mayflies are Green Drakes, Pale Evening Duns, Yellow Quills, Mahogany Duns and “Flavs”. Green Drakes are largest, in sizes #6-#8. The duration of the hatch is short-lived; at most three weeks. The daily emergences are unpredictable; sometimes 10:30-12 noon and other times 1-3PM. There are few adults; observing 2-3 dozen is considered a good number. Nevertheless, trout are aware that this high-caloric food-item is around and they are on the look-out. The Little Western Green Drake (“Flav”), in #10-#12 sizes, hatches for 4-5 weeks. It also has sparse numbers. Time-wise, they are more predictable than their big brother; late afternoons from 4-6 PM, at most…then they’re gone.
Stoneflies and caddis are present; in lesser numbers than midges and mayflies. The stoneflies are small; size #’s 16-20. The little winter black and brown stones are seen on the snow, in and on the water, during January through March. During August and into September, fluttering green stone flies are observed. The most abundant caddis is the Little Watery Green Sedge (#14-#20) and it is available to the trout for an extended period, from May to September. The first out-sized caddis, the #8-#10 Cinnamon Caddis, is seen starting in mid-September. As they fade in mid-October, the #4-#8 October Caddis appears and is gone by mid-November.
Sculpin are stream inhabitants. Present your patterns with staccato-strips in deep runs, under-cuts and 1’-2’ cobbled riffles. Full-floaters or sink-tips are used by those who toss streamers and buck tails. There is no need for full-sinkers, with maybe a couple of exceptions being at the “The Cut Bank” or “Corner Pool.”
A 9-foot, 4 weight, medium-fast rod is an ideal rod for the Little Truckee. I have used such a rod in the past; I seldom do now. I prefer a 9’-10’, 5-weight fly rod. The three reasons are; it manages gusty winds well, functions efficiently for mending and is stout enough to “turn” the 2-4 pound trout that you are likely to encounter if you frequent this water.
Bring your standard vest accessories; mosquito repellant, lip-balm, sun-block and a light-weight rain/wind shell. There are some other items that are useful while fly fishing the Little Truckee River. The mosquitoes can be bothersome in late spring and early summer; I carry a long-sleeved mesh-jacket that has a face-hood and hand-mitts. Use non-toxic lead-shot; mostly in sizes #4 and #6. For the high releases of spring I’ll use larger weights or lead putty. During autumn’s late-afternoons, the light becomes flat, making it difficult to see your small surface imitation. For a visual aid, I suggest using a small bit of fluorescent-red indicator putty; chartreuse is a second color choice. It will stay on better if applied to the tippet knot. Or, use a highly visible “indicator” dry fly.
The trophy water of the Little Truckee provides fly anglers with “wouda, couda, shouda” moments. You will experience jubilation and despair here; regardless, it is fun. This river is a prime example of what is good about tail-water fisheries; healthy wild trout (a high percentage being large) and robust aquatic insect populations. It is open year around. Conversely, it also a classic example what is wrong with them; over-crowding, displays of poor stream-side etiquette and unethical fishing over spawning trout.
The “LT” is being loved to death! My hope in authoring this article is that anglers who visit the stream will respect the fish and other fellow anglers; so that the Little Truckee will remain an enjoyable and memorable place to fly-fish into the future.
Copyright 2009 Frank R. Pisciotta
Here is the genesis of the Little Truckee story:
YES!! SPECIAL REGS FOR THE LITTLE TRUCKEE Special Thanks to All of You!
Thanks to Those
of You Who Responded to the Plea at the End of this Page:
The regulations listed below are now a reality!! From the Boca Inlet all the way upstream to the bottom of Stampede Dam - Enjoy!
WHERE CREDIT IS DUE!
(The following is a letter I had intended to send to California Fly Fishers, but inadvertently did not)
Your October, 99, News Casts noted the proposal for special regulations on the Little Truckee River, the beautiful, 4 miles tail water fishery between Boca and Stampede. Reservoirs. You did mention Ralph Cutter’s effect in this long overdue regulation change; rightfully so, because it is well deserved. Most recently, he hand carried 150 letters of support to the October 8 meeting of the Fish & Game Commission in Redding . Both he and Lisa have been quietly laying a solid foundation for years. Unfortunately, I feel you have overlooked a significant, final, driving force in the proposal: Rob and Cindy Legget of the Granite Bay Fly Fishers. Also, special thanks to Rob Ferrigiarro, Conservation Chair of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Nick Di Croce of Cal Trout, and the silent leadership of Dan McDaniel, President NCCFFF.
Although knowledgeable fly fishers had discussed the necessity to protect and enhance this fishery, via special regs to protect this highly utilized resource for years, it was Rod & Cindy who “took the bull by the horns”. They actively pursued the proposal, volunteering many hours of work necessary to bring the idea into reality, did the legwork at the administrative level and sought the support necessary to make the proposed regulation change viable. They brought their proposal to the NCCFFF, the organizational lead group in this matter, for endorsement. The council accepted and directed the change along with several others to the Fish & Game Commission. While the support of other members of the angling community is invaluable, if the change occurs it will be partially due to the hard work and follow-through of Rod & Cindy. I feel they should be acknowledged and given credit for their contribution…Current and future generations of fly anglers will be thankful.
The Final Plea that was Posted
Please inform the Fish & Game Commission via E-mail & hardcopy that you support the regulation changes for the Little Truckee River below Stampede Dam. The final meeting of the Commission to determine changes for the Millennium season is December 3rd 1999 in Sacramento .......so it is urgent that you act now.
The proposed changes recommended by Fish & Game biologists are:
1---Barbless Artificials ONLY
The potential for a "blue-ribbon", Wild Trout fishery is tremendous with these regs!!!
letters to: Robert Treanor
California Fish & Game Commission
1416 Ninth Street
PO Box 944209
Sacramento , CA 94244-2090
Send e-mails to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Whether letter or e-mail, - send me a copy & I'll send you a "secret" fly to fish the Baetis hatch.
Thanks to the Northern California Federation of Fly Fishers & Cal Trout for the organizational support....individuals who have been extremely active have been Lisa & Ralph Cutter & Cindy & Rod Leggett of the Granite Bay Fly Fishers
POST-LITTLE TRUCKEE CAMPAIGN BACKGROUND:
In the 2002 spring issue of North West Fly
Fishing I authored an article on the Truckee River (...on the
California side). It was well received. Both the Publisher and Editor wanted me
to write about the Little Truckee River. I declined because I felt it was too
small of a stream for fear that any exposure would diminish the ambiance of this
special place. Well, in 2005 they got a well-known writer & fly tier, Andy
Burk, to do so...OK. Then in the winter of 2009 it was featured on Trout
Unlimited's national TV program "On the Rise"! So it was exposed. I felt I knew
lots more about the river, its fish and its hatches…so I wrote an article for
the regional magazine Sierra Fisherman.
My intent was to fully educate fly anglers about this wonderful little stream,
with the hope that everyone tread lightly and respect the trout and their fellow
My latest campaign is to limit commercial guiding on the river because, IMO, it is being exploited for profit. To say the least the local guiding community is perturbed at me...and I can care less. The non-guided angling public is being deprived of enjoying this river because...simply...there are too many guides there. Most are strictly "takers" and not "givers"; in the latter sense that they do get involved with hands-on fishery restoration projects, lobby politically to protect and enhance the local wild trout fisheries immediately around my home town of Truckee and do not give $$$ to the local fishery conservation fund.
…I appreciate you’re reading of the last paragraph’s
Frank R. Pisciotta