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Bamboo Fly Rod & Big Dry Flies: Winter Fly Fishing On The Upper Sacramento River?

Posted by Tom Chandler 1/10/2012

Read the stories, and you'll learn winter fly fishing is hard. Frozen fingers. Frozen lines. Real Jack London stuff.

Except when it isn't.

On Sunday, it wasn't.

An Upper Sacramento Rainbow Trout

Up here, we're still in the grip of our indecently nice winter weather -- a run of sunny, rain-and-snow-free days that defy the "winter" label.

The banks of the Upper Sacramento (the upper bits) should be carpeted with snow, and I should have skied down the road, but simply drove it instead, and could have done it in a two-wheel drive. I even fished some of the afternoon in a single long-sleeve undershirt before slipping on a light jacket.

It's early January, and I was fishing a bug with its roots in a hatch that began in early October, and while I haven't seen an October Caddis for weeks, I had an inkling.

For years I've suggested the "best" time to fish the October Caddis dry isn't during the actual hatch. I can't count the number of times I've caught more and bigger fish on an #18 PED parachute while October Caddis popped off the water like slow-moving hummingbirds.

Thousands of big bugs in the air, yet few -- if any -- trout eating them on the water.

Until they start dying.

Fly Fishing's Confidence Game


Fly fishermen often pretend at knowledge they simply can't possess. It's a time-honored tradition, so when I say that the trout "know" the late-season October Caddis on the water are probably dying and therefore can't escape, it sounds pretty good.

When I add -- as a virtual certainty -- they realize winter is here and the food-free spawn is coming soon afterwards, so they're seizing the opportunity to bulk up, it all seems reasonable.

But really, who the hell knows?

Dying October Caddis and a Raine Hollowbuilt bamboo fly rod

I can say that Wally the Wonderdog and I fished for less than two hours, most of it spent rigging up and hiking down the rails (and in the Wonderdog's case, rolling in something dead).

I only had three grabs.

But what grabs they were; slashing takes, like Northern Pike eating mice.

And yes, all the trout were big, at least by Upper Sacramento standards (they always are in winter).

The October Caddis


The big dying October Caddis pattern (a prototype tied by Raine, who has since changed the pattern) floats low in the water and the CDC wing no doubt looks tattered -- like you'd imagine a dead October Caddis would look.

The first trout was a good 14"-15", and like winter fish always do, he felt heavy and firm and solid and alive in my hand. After so long without a fly rod in my hand, it felt a little like I was reaching back into my past.

The second fish only stayed on for 4-5 seconds, and I'd suggest he was as big as the third, which -- when I tried to measure it against the wraps on the fly rod -- went on past the 18" wrap.

Unfortunately, we come to the bad news; unless I can find some kind of accommodation, this might have been Wally the Wonderdog's last fishing trip on the Upper Sac. In the past he was only peripherally interested in the fishing, but over time, he's wholly keyed in on the fish to the point he's trying to retrieve the damn things right out of my hand.

Wally the Wonderdog on the Upper Sacramento

It makes for a tough time landing and releasing them (not to mention getting a picture), and sooner or later he's going to catch one and kill it.

And I'm leaving out some of the language used when he decided to swim through a run while I was casting to it, or those moments when I lose a fish because I'm trying to horse them out of his reach.

Plus he's not as spry as he used to be, and we hadn't even reached the two-hour mark when he started limping and falling back, which meant it was time to go home.

We all get older, and the trick is to figure out what still works for us, and in the Wonderdog's case, that might not involve scrambling up and down steep rocky banks -- not exactly the Lab/Basset's forte to begin with.

The Gear Stuff


I fished the 8'3" Raine Hollowbuilt 5wt and the Rio Avid DT5 line, and the combination -- at close and medium ranges -- was astonishing.

Big dry flies are tough to fish accurately at short ranges; they're wind resistant, so until you've got enough line mass driving them, they open up your loops and kill accuracy.

And accuracy is pretty much what it's all about in this kind of fishing.

A short, strong leader is a necessity, as is a rod that will throw a decent loop at short range.

Bent bamboo fly rod

When Raine built new tips for this bamboo fly rod (converting it from a 4/5 to a true 5wt in the process), he added a little line speed to the equation.

It's almost as if he's reinvented the semi-parabolic style rod, only without all the weirdness.

More To Come


With the first real storm of the winter not expected until January 18 (and that's a long-range forecast, which is worth about as much as you'd guess it was), the dying October Caddis bite might last a little longer.

With most of our options out of reach, my short trips are confined to the river or the nearby lake, though with a big deadline on the table, it may be a couple more days.

Fly fishing in winter is often portrayed as a kind of manly pursuit practiced by those lacking common sense (a label sought by many these days), but in truth, it always feels quieter and more reflective, and the sense of stillness is almost palpable.

Because nobody's going anywhere in a hurry -- and any expectations of a spring-level body count are gone -- it's as if you're freed from the need to move quickly, and three big trout eating a dry fly is more reward, frankly, than it feels like I deserve.

See you on the river, Tom Chandler.

Upper Sacramento River ice

AuthorPicture

Tom Chandler

As the author of the decade leading fly fishing blog Trout Underground, Tom believes that fishing is not about measuring the experience but instead of about having fun. As a staunch environmentalist, he brings to the Yobi Community thought leadership on environmental and access issues facing us today.

19 comments
I need to get out fishing more in January. I've had luck with caddis flies before, but most of the time when I fish in January, I only catch browns. That rainbow you caught was beautiful. "Wonder Dog" sounds amazing. I can't say whether I'll be cheering for him when her finally catches one...Ok, I secretly will (Seeing how he'll release it).
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Tom Chandler: Rod envy? Hey, I’ve got the weird prototype with the odd reel seat; Raine just finished up another of the production versions, which looks and feels kinda flawless. I’m going to take pictures of it for him one of these days (unless someone buys it from him first). In other words, one phone call to Chris, and I’ll be the one with rod envy… Sure, big guy! I'm guessing this one of ... more a kind rod is laid by a statue of budda, incence is lit, and listen to the sounds on one hand casting... after a day on the creek. tw
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Tom Chandler: I didn’t notice the fin until you mentioned it; it’s possible he’s from the lake (though it was a ways down for that). It’s also possible he lost it some other way. I thought you might say something about finding nemo, however, up my way it the adipose fin that gets clipped by the bio techies. tw
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Waterouzel: Tom, are you promoting rod envy? Pec fin is missing on trout photo? I’ll fire one back at you. 8 on,landed 5 steelies on Friday... Rod envy? Hey, I've got the weird prototype with the odd reel seat; Raine just finished up another of the production versions, which looks and feels kinda flawless. I'm going to take pictures of it for him one of these days (unless someone buys it from him ... more first). In other words, one phone call to Chris, and I'll be the one with rod envy...
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For the most part, the rainbows are kinda hard to come by (unless you're a cagey local type), but I hear what you're saying. In fact, it was true for me before I went fishing this time...
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I didn't notice the fin until you mentioned it; it's possible he's from the lake (though it was a ways down for that). It's also possible he lost it some other way.
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I'm working on figuring out other places to go -- especially when the fishing isn't the biggest part of the gig. This last trip, I'd been off the water too long, and his antics got kinda irritating..
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For our casual readers, I'd like to point out that there are no big fish in the stretch of river mentioned above, though it's certainly possible that some have been caught by the handful of fly fishermen who visited that stretch and never returned -- probably due to the massive mountain lion population.
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Tom, are you promoting rod envy? Pec fin is missing on trout photo? I'll fire one back at you. 8 on,landed 5 steelies on Friday, almost lost my G Loomis IMX 7wt. when a fish pulled the rod out of the boat. Low water has a stack of fish waiting to move up a major trib. The water is so low at (cant say), aluminum drift boats can't make it down the creek. Will give it another shot this Friday, maybe ... more I'll get to set a person best. tw
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Missing northern CA fishing. All we have in NM right now is northern pike in the Rio Grande and some cold weather nymphing. A wild rainbow from the Sac would be good medicine now. Waah.
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Judging from that photo that looks like a hatchery fish (unless Wally chewed off that front fin :-)), most likely a refugee from Lake Siskiyou?
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I thouroughly enjoyed this story. The Wonderdog has given years of river enjoyment...kind of like your bonding time with him. It will be hard not to have your buddy next to you, but it sounds like it is time for him to wait for you to come home at the end of the day! (and occasionaly bring him a treat - not a deer leg necessarily!!)
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love the ice photo!
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A few weeks ago I worked the river from Prospect up toward Mossbrae. Massive flies and massive fish!
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"...it's just a jump to the left,then a step to your right,tuck your knees in tight...." I know the feeling,caught a nice kokanee at the folks place in E.WA....Chunky bugger and los of fun......
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Clearly, I should feel kinda cagey about this one, and I guess the goat sacrifice worked. I figured there was one stretch on the river I had a decent shot at some fish on the big dry, and it actually worked. I'm going to begin the "I'm awesome" dance as soon as I'm done typing this (shame you're not here to see it).
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Thanks. The Wonderdog's got a few hikes left in him, but given his starting point was a dog who couldn't care less about fish, he's become something of a fish fiend, and it really is starting to get in the way of the fishing. I suspect he'll come along on some of the small stream and lake trips.
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How about that - I was on the river Sunday as well, but from the looks of those photos (guessing you were fishing at XXXXXXX) I was well down-river. In 3 hours I saw 2 BWOs and no rises. Nothing was bringing them to the surface. I may as well have been throwing rocks in the river. Walker came along for the trip and he was watching just as intently as Wally. Being a herding breed though, he'll wade ... more but he has no desire to actually swim through a run.
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Sad to hear that Wally might not make it on fishing trips any longer. We are going through the same thing with our aging GSP. Crossing my fingers for snow both in your area and in Colorado or we aren't going to have any water to fish come July. Enjoyed the photos from your latest outing.
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