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Fly Fishing the Upper Sac's BWO Hatch (or, Are Trout Capable of Deceit and Revenge?)

By Tom Chandler 12/13/2009

You can't ascribe human terms like "revenge" or even "manipulative bastards" to trout, but you damn sure can experience those feelings when you're fishing for them.

One day you arrive late in the hatch and the trout show themselves just long enough to let you know they're down there, but they stop eating even as the blue-winged olives continue to float by.

Wayne Eng contemplates vengeful trout on the Upper Sacramento

"Too late" you think, and the next day you head back (only much earlier), and you and your friends catch the exact same number of fish as the prior day, and this despite experiencing the entire BWO hatch instead of just 20 minutes of it.

As you stand there in water that is only barely liquid (water temps at the Upper Sac's Delta gauge registered 36 degrees that morning), it's not hard to think you threw the trout off balance for a few minutes by showing up early, but they recovered quickly and sulked on the bottom.

The result?

Day One Party Wide Trout Count: 3
Day Two Party Wide Trout Count: 3

In what has come to be a regular occurrence, the BWOs of "deep" winter are actually larger than those that hatch in the fall. The early bugs are #20s and #22s, but the bugs now look like perfect 18s, though some have much larger wings (I'm told the females have bigger wings).

Raine picked this cripple out of the film. Poor cripple...

With air temps hovering around the water temperature, fly fishing the Upper Sacramento would normally offer fly fishermen few chances at trout but excellent odds on frost bite, but through the miracle of modern gear, I was a toasy, happy camper the whole day.

Yes, it rained. Yes the BWOs are now a size 18. Yes, I was warm.

Last year I became a convert to the fly fishing soft shell, a remarkably lightweight jacket that's achieved widespread acceptance among mountaineering and active types for its ability to keep the wearer dry even during high-output activities.

It's an ideal choice for many situations, but this, my cold-weather Undergrounders, wasn't one of them.

In truth, something warmer was called for - a Patagonia Micro-Puff jacket I got last year, but rarely wore on account of it being a little too warm.

The last week - with us experiencing temperatures in the low single digits and my time on the river making a weekend in a deep freeze seem tropical by comparison - I hauled it out, and was happy I did.

Lightweight, water resistant and damned warm, I'd marry it if I wasn't already married (and let's face it, the relationship would fall apart in the summer), but in terms of keeping me warm on the river, it was perfect - even to the point of being compressible and light enough to stuff in a vest back pocket.

It's winter - time to break out the prototype Raine quad hollowbuilt

As for fly rods, it's oddly true that fishing tiny bugs on tiny tippet on the Upper Sacramento in the winter demands more rod than you might imagine.

A three weight sounds like the right piece of equipment, but the trout on this particular stretch are wary, and you regularly find yourself laying out long leaders and long casts, and my mainstay in the winter has been a strong 8.5' 5wt, in this case a prototype Raine hollowbuilt quad that he loaned me for testing and forget to take back.

Let's Raine's not reading this...

Whenever I fish it and he's around, I cringe, wondering if he's going to remember and ask for it back. It's not as if I don't have other rods capable of doing the same job, but again, this one works real well, and only a fool would give that up.

At some point, you tend to settle in with the gear that works for you - and I've been that way roughly since I moved up here more than a decade ago - but every once in a while, you check out the new stuff and see if the state of the art has advanced (instead of the state of the industry's marketing), and in the jacket world, it appears it has.

That's coming from a guy who still mostly fishes bamboo and fiberglass fly rods, which suggests I'm a lot more interested in staying warm than I am in generating high line speeds. (Of the two, I know which is most useful on my river.)

Still, in the end, fly fishing the Upper Sacramento in the winter isn't about gear or even catching a lot of trout.

It's about practicing a sport in conditions where hope is your biggest ally, and the trout and the bugs often act like they're out to drive you mad.

See you on the river, Tom Chandler.

I could pretend I went for the painted effect, but the pic just wasn't that sharp...


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.

Snowfly: That is a beautiful fly…any chance on sharing the recipe! AGREED!, Let's see it! I can take a rough guess but does it have a name? Looks like a hackle tail, biot body, crystal flash abdomen, elk hair wing and Dun CDC parachute around the elk hair.
[...] on the right days, the Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) hatches remain steady, though the recent cold temperatures have kept the fish from moving a [...]
That is a beautiful fly…any chance on sharing the recipe!
Ooooo. Foul weather, olives and specks on varnished cane. Major domo.
On days like that a trout caught on a dry fly goes a lot further than one caught on a warm, sunny day.
Beautiful pics, Tom, as usual. Still hope to get up to that neck of the woods some day.

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