Hexagenia Heaven: A Unique Fly Fishing Experience on Northern California’s Fall River

From the prow of our anchored pram I gazed across the Fall River Valley in the setting sun, and the immensity of the sky took some of my breath away. We were there for the Hex hatch, but it was hard to completely ignore that much darkening sky seemingly all around us. The first stars were beginning to show. In the margins between the water and the sky were cattails, red-winged blackbirds chattering back and forth, and the almost imperceptible murmur of spring creek water slipping inevitably toward the Pacific hundreds of miles away.

Fall River normally keeps a poker face, rarely betraying much of what waits beneath the surface. Some summer evenings there is no Hex hatch, but I had this funny feeling we were about to experience something really special. As we waited for what we hoped would happen, I imagined the river grinning at me with a Mona Lisa smile.

Northern California’s Fall River ranks among the longest spring creeks in North America with fishing comparable to other legendary Western spring creeks like Henry’s Fork or Silver Creek. It’s unusual in that public access is limited and fishing it requires a boat with either a small gasoline or electric motor. The river is much too deep for wading and all of the banks are private property. The ecosystem is a virtual bug and fish factory, but the fish are far from naive seeing as many flies as they do in a typical season.

Hatches vary in intensity year to year, and there’s a relatively short list of mayfly species that dominate the fish menu. That said, while there are only a few bug species to imitate, you never know from day to day if the fish will want nymphs, dry flies, dead drift, swinging flies, martinis, Quaaludes or hand grenades. Like people, they seem to take pride in not being considered too easy.

The Basics

Getting to Fall River requires heading east out of Redding on Hwy. 299. About an hour later you go through the small town of Burney, and then it’s another 15-20 minutes before you drop down into the Fall River Valley.

Most anglers access the river via the California Trout (CalTrout) boat launch ramp on Island Road. Unless you’re a guest at one of the several ranches along the river or working with a guide, it’s the only game in town that doesn’t come with a price tag. While privately owned like every other centimeter of Fall River shoreline, CalTrout allows anglers free access and there is great fishing both up and downstream from their property. Prams are most popular because they provide a fairly stable platform from which to fish, but keep your vessel somewhat on the small side. You will need to carry/drag/push your boat some distance from where you park your car to the river, and several of the bridges you may want to go under are quite low to the water.

The standard protocol for fishing Fall goes something like this: Motor up or down from CalTrout as you see fit. If you don’t know the likely spots to fish, watch where the other boats go and politely slip into those sections after they move on. Another technique is to don your polarized sunglasses as you move up or down the river looking for scattering pods of fish. The fish usually move back into those same slots a few minutes after being disturbed. There is no shade on Fall River unless you take refuge under one of the bridges, so bring plenty of sunscreen and drinking water.

Fall River “regulars” usually carry two anchors, one for the bow and the other for the stern of their boats. Position your boat sideways in the current and drop both anchors. By adjusting the length of the anchor ropes you can position your boat so that two anglers can fish downstream at the same time without getting in one another’s way too much. There is no such thing as casting upstream on Fall River, and this is where nurturing your spring creek presentation skills comes into play.

Let’s say you have two anglers in the boat with your anchor ropes adjusted so your pram is sitting broadside to the current (side-to-side rather than pointing your boat upstream). Let’s also imagine it’s a typical day with maybe a few bugs showing but no rising fish. Your best bets are fishing either nymphs under a floating strike indicator or swinging/stripping leeches. Most of the time nymphs are a solid bet.

Casting is hardly necessary. One angler can flip their fly/strike indicator rig to the right, the other to the left (so the two avoid getting tangled). This doesn’t need to be far, only maybe a rod’s length off to the side.

Once the flies are in the water both anglers should throw out a bit of slack fly line (hopefully without moving their indicators), point their rods directly downstream and start slowly feeding line down. If done correctly what happens is the nymphs float downstream dead drift a good long way. How far you let them go is up to the individual, but 30-40 feet is a good place to start. With flies off to the side and feeding your line directly downstream, your fly line will look like a large “L” moving down the river.

When your strike indicator has reached the downward limit of your presentation, quit feeding out line and pinch the fly line between your hand and rod grip. This causes the nymph(s) to slowly swing and rise in the current, and this is a very likely place to get a grab. Some days the fish seem to prefer nymphs dead drifted while other days they prefer the swing. This presentation technique offers the fish some of each and is a staple for Fall River success. It really isn’t as difficult as it may sound.

Fishing the Season

Early season typically finds most of the fish up high in the system close to the spawning areas. We consulted friend and accomplished Fall River guide Scott Saiki to lead us through a typical season. “In a typical year,” said Saiki, “the fish are spread out by mid-June all through the system.”

No two years are always exactly the same, but generally speaking the hatches don’t move into full swing until June. The month of May still offers good fishing, but you have to know where the fish are (still grouped upstream or spread out through the entire river). Once you know where the fish are, fishing leech patterns on sinking fly lines is an effective early season technique. Sparsely tied Monroe Leeches in olive or rust (#10) will take fish most days.

“Just after the opener we typically fish sinking lines through the deeper spots,” said Saiki, “Type IIs, Types IIIs, even Type Vs. The fish are not too selective, just looking for movement.” Leaders for this fishing are basically a short length of 4X or 5x rather than using a tapered leader.

The first insects to appear in any numbers are the Baetis mayflies, a.k.a. Blue Winged Olives. The early season weather is transitioning from cooler, cloudier months toward the warmer blue-sky days of summer. Blue Winged Olives like both types of weather, but are best known for hatching heavily on cloudy, rainy days. It would be rare to observe any great dry fly activity early in the season, but anything is possible. Chances are good most successful anglers will be fishing Baetis nymph patterns like Pheasant Tail (PT) Nymphs, Hogan’s S&M Nymph or Burk’s HBI Nymph in sizes #16-18. Anglers typically start fishing one or two nymphs under an indicator dead drift. If that doesn’t produce, try taking off the indicator and letting them swing in the current.

“The key out there,” Saiki pointed out, “is to have a bunch of different bugs. They’re picky enough to want maybe a Paradun one day and the next day a Comparadun.”

Early season you can get away with fishing heavier tippets like 5X. Later in the season the fish have become more selective and most anglers drop down to 6X or even 7X. You can fish 9-foot leaders while nymphing all season long, but you may need to reach out to 12 or even 14-foot leaders fishing to rising fish. Rods throwing #4-5 weight lines work very well for most Fall River fishing.

After the Baetis mayflies of spring, the major mayflies of summer are the (Ephemerella) Pale Morning Duns (PMDs). They are fished for pretty much the same way anglers approach the Blue Winged Olives, only with slightly larger flies #14-16. “Fish focus on the size of the fly, then shape, then color,” added Saiki.

The most popular dry flies for Fall River seem rather traditional even though the preference of the fish changes quite often. Paraduns and Comparaduns in a wide variety of sizes and colors round out what you will need for most of the hatches. Have sizes #14-18 in olive, grey, cream and rust with you at the very least.

Fishing season opens the last Saturday in April on Fall River and extends through November 15th. Bait is prohibited and anglers must use barbless hooks and either lures or flies. The vast majority of anglers catch and release, but it’s legal to harvest two trout per day with a maximum length of 14 inches per fish.

Do not presume you don’t have to follow the angling regulations to the letter just because access is fairly limited. Game wardens work the river fairly often checking licenses and making sure everyone is fishing barbless. Several years ago I got to ride in the warden’s boat for a day and I was astounded by how many anglers either did not have a fishing license or who were fishing with barbed hooks. I could not fathom people willing to spend $1,000 on a premium rod and reel, and then be too cheap to buy a fishing license.

Getting your Hex on

Fall River’s Hexagenia Limbata (Hex) hatch is legendary, usually beginning mid-June and lasting well into August.

“The Hex is never a numbers game,” mused Saiki, “but it is something everyone should do a time or two, just to see the spectacle of it in a beautiful place, hear the fish coming up.”    

Hexagenia mayflies are among the largest mayfly species on earth. An adult is a soft yellow color with olive highlights stretching out to several inches long. The nymphs live for several years in the silty/muddy bottoms of lakes and streams before hatching on summer evenings just as the sun goes down and after. The fading light of nighttime inspires and seems to intensify the hatch. The Hex is characterized by anglers fishing in the dark setting their hooks to the sound of the rises they can no longer see. Some evenings are productive, others not. But these are always memorable experiences.

The lower reaches of Fall River down as far as the Tule River are known as the best areas for Hexing, but they are a long boat ride away. Anglers often position their boats in likely spots hours in advance of darkness and just wait for the telltale sounds of rising fish.

If there are too many Hexs hatching, then it becomes less likely the trout will be attracted to your dry fly. If too few are on the water the fish may not rise at all. “On a perfect night,” said Saiki, “there are decent numbers of bugs, not too many, and a lot of fish coming up.”

There are several different Hex nymphs on the market, but they are not popular on Fall River. To get the full haunting effect of fishing the Hex hatch, you need to stick to dry flies, although according to Saiki, “I hook a lot more fish on cripples than I do the duns.” Try Mercer’s Poxyback Hex Emerger of Milt’s Hex Cripple #6. The Hex hatch is also an excellent time to cut your leader back to 4X, 3X or larger.

Late Season

Obviously there is never a bad time to fish Fall, but the late season doesn’t offer too much that is new or unique.

Summer in the Fall River Valley lasts well into October with the same bugs (only smaller) and the same fish (only wiser). Without the help of a calendar, you might be hard pressed to tell a July day from a September day. Something that becomes more of a factor later in the season are the abundance of surface weed beds. Early in the year there are virtually none of these showing above the surface of the water. By late season parts of the river are clogged with them and some of these turn into heavy matts all but halting up or downstream boat traffic under some of the bridges. On the other hand, the open channels between the weed beds can funnel food to the fish and concentrate pods of feeding fish.

Fall River does have a respectable population of Mahogany Duns, Paraleptophlebia mayflies, that may hatch all afternoon on cool fall days. “To me late season means fishing dries in the middle of the day,” Saiki said, “something you can’t do that often.”

Magical places like Fall River have the capacity to get under your skin, and Fall has a huge and devoted following. The fishing is captivating, challenging and there are a lot of big fish. The setting is as fine, majestic and Western as you’re apt to find, and seeing real cowboys working ranches along the river is a distinct possibility. Over the years I’ve observed many bald eagles, herons, Sandhill cranes, countless deer and antelope, one bear and a nudist on the river; a real feast for lovers of natural beauty (well, the nudist not so much).

As the last flicker of daylight faded into a narrow crimson line on the western horizon we began hearing what sounded like someone tossing stones into the river, big fish rising to big bugs. It was on! The night was perfect with only a few clumsy yellow sailboats (Hexs) popping here and there. Soon the red-winged blackbirds and the bats were also getting in on the feast plucking big, yellow mouthfuls off the water.

A fish suddenly inhaled a bug no more than forty feet below our boat. Right on cue I fed my Hex cripple downstream watching it inch closer, closer, closer to the fading rings on the water. In that frozen moment I did not know if my dry fly was drifting toward victory or defeat, but I did know whose face was now sporting a Mona Lisa smile.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.
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