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Spring Time on the Middle Fork Feather River

By Jon Baiocchi
03/04/14 -- The words unique and magnificent best describes the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Feather River. The head waters begin in the mountains surrounding the 4th highest dry lake bed in North America; the Sierra Valley. Before these flows come together and become one they must first pass through two reservoirs from the state water project; Frenchman’s and Davis. The MFFR then forms on the west side of the Sierra Valley and flows slowly downstream through Eastern Plumas County before it plunges though vast gorges into Butte County and into Lake Oroville. One of the first rivers to be designated “Wild and Scenic” in 1968, it is referred to by many as the most beautiful river in the state of California. The river is divided into three sections, the first being the 65.4 mile Recreational zone from the town of Beckwourth to the tiny community of Sloat, followed by the 9.7 mile Scenic zone from Sloat to just past Nelson Point, and ending with the 32.9 mile Wild zone where access is limited only after strenuous hiking or traveling down some serious 4WD roads. The upper river is lined with lush native grasses and rich green forests, while the lower end is dominated by polished granite honed from flowing water over thousands of years. There are areas like the Bald Rock gorge that has 2,000 foot walls rising up to the sky. It is quite spectacular!

Wild and Scenic Middle Fork feather River
The Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Feather is rich in flora and fauna. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

The river supports many different fish in the system from smallmouth bass, monster carp, and brown trout in the upper section, to gorgeous native rainbows who reside in almost the entire river. The MFFR is also planted with hatchery rainbows in the recreational zone in the more popular areas; the limit is 5 fish of any size with no special regulations. It always makes me cringe to see anglers walk away with a stringer of small native rainbows that could grow into something of larger proportions. The average rainbow on the MFFR runs about 10” to 16”, they are beautiful creatures with crisp clean lines and white tipped orange fins that offer some serious eye candy for those who are looking.

Sig Whallen hooked up at Pinnacle pool. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

The MFFR runs quite cold in the winter due to its start at higher elevations, and after the bulk of run off from snow melt is gone the river can heat up like bath tub water in the summer months. That’s good news for the carp and bass but for the native trout they do what they must in order to survive; migrate to cooler water temperatures. Small streams provide cold water inflow during the warmer summer months, streams including little jewels like Jamison and Nelson Creek. The fish will also seek out springs, deep pools and areas of shade to keep comfortable. The trout wild of the MFFR have adapted to the wide range of water temperatures over the years and do quite well when the water warms, they are hardy and resilient. There are two periods of opportunity for the fly angler when it comes to fishing, spring and fall. While autumn is a stunning time to fish with cottonwoods and willows glowing like coals from a well stoked fire, it’s spring time that produces the best results and the biggest fish of the year.

There are no damns on the MFFR making run off predictions tough. Every year is different depending on the snow pack and passing weather systems that can be arctic or tropical. A special portion of this river opens earlier than most Sierra waters and is legal to fish from the Beckwourth Calpine state A-23 Bridge 4 miles east of Portola down to the Mohawk Bridge on the first Saturday of April. DFW implemented this early opener to appease the locals after the first treatment of Lake Davis to eradicate the Northern pike. Water levels and temperatures will predict just how good the fishing will be, and these fish will start to take flies when the thermometer hits 50-55 degrees. As I stated earlier these fish do well in warmer water than trout in other Sierra rivers and because of that, they do not take flies readily when the water is 50 degrees or lower.

brown trout from feather lake, jon baiocchi
Spring is your best shot at a trophy brown trout using streamer tactics. Photo by John Juracek.

Early spring and late spring can be vastly different in both fish behavior and hatches. In early spring the trout will tend to be in their winter homes which are usually the slower deeper tail out of major runs. It can be quite frustrating to see good numbers of aquatic insects on the surface, yet the trout are not looking up yet. When water temperatures start climbing in the 55-60 degree range, you’ll start seeing active feeding fish taking aquatic insects off the surface. There are two main tactics during this time, nymphing with or without an indicator, and swinging streamers with a sinking line. The fish will be hugging the bottom for the most part so additional weight to the leader is essential to getting down and ticking your fly along the bottom structure. Plan on losing flies, not only on bottom cobble stones, but submerged log jams and brush piles that are hard to see even with good polarized glasses. For nymphing in the early spring season I use 3x tippet to my first fly which is usually a bigger fly, and 4x tippet to my smaller dropper fly. Basic rigs work just fine here and there is no need for any specialized set ups, good drifts in the seams are far more important.

Spring streamer fishing on the MFFR involves many casts and covering vast amounts of water. You’re not going to have big number days but if you do hook up with a fish it’s going to be large. Swinging streamers involves a lot of work but the anticipation of a grab keeps you plying the water. This is the time of year when an angler will have the best chance at hooking into some real toads, 16” to 24” trout running 2-5 pounds. Depending on the water levels will dictate which sinking line to use. In high roily water, a 24 foot fast sink tip with a moderately weighted fly is a good choice. If conditions are like last year with a weak winter and a skimpy snow pack, a clear camo Intermediate line with a heavy fly will work great, especially with lower water levels that are usually clearer. Short 7 foot leaders to 2x is good insurance that you will not break off any nice fish if you do indeed get a solid hook up.

upper wathershed of feather fork reiver, rich native grass on banks, jon baiocchi
Gliding runs and rich native grass are common place in the upper watershed. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

The layout of the upper river is riffle, pool, and long areas of calm “frog” water. For early season the frog water is your best approach when swinging big flies as the water has a chance to warm up a few degrees. Methodically work a run from the tail out and on downstream; think classic steelhead swinging tactics. When your swing is done strip the fly back in as many trout will follow you fly and attack on the strip. Seeking out sloughs that are off the main stem of the river is a wise choice when fishing streamers, there is no current and the water is considerately warmer. The fish will seek these areas out as they are more comfortable with a plentiful source of food items available.

Daralin Dotts displays beautiful wild rainbow, Duante Dotts
Daralin Dotts displays a beautiful wild rainbow. Photo by Duane Dotts.

June is the banner month on the MFFR, hatches are starting to peak, and the fish are feeding more aggressively. It’s also the time of year when tourism kicks in and the river receives more pressure. Nymphing early is a smart tactic, but be observant for a late morning hatch and rising fish. From the middle of the day to late afternoon sub-surface presentations are best, nymphing gets the job done. Lighter tippets to 5x and longer leaders come into effect now, and the only line you’ll need is a floater. Working the heads of runs, pools, and riffles with highly oxygenated water is where you will find the majority of the fish. As evening comes you’ll want to switch over to dry flies and hunt heads. Make sure you stay for the last few hours of light. A typical run will produce a few fish during the day but when the magic hour occurs, that same run can come alive with a high level of active surface feeders.

Jon Baiocci holding an average wild rainbow, photo by Dave Underwood
The author with an average wild rainbow. Photo by Dave Underwood.

Bug life is very prolific on the MFFR, on low water years without major runoff and scouring of the bottom substrate, the populations are profuse and abundant. The major players during early spring are march browns, gray drakes, skwala stoneflies, brown duns, midges, and blue wing olives. These aquatic insects can be found on streamside foliage adapting to their new world out of the water, and on the surface of water. If the water temps are in the right range there can be some dry fly action but it is rare this time of year as the fish are not looking on top. In late spring there are even more aquatic insects with a few remaining from the previous month’s hatches. Golden stones, salmon flies, pale morning duns, carpenter ants, green drakes, pale evening duns, crane flies, little green stones, yellow sallies, and at least a half dozen different caddis flies flourish in the mountain air. In the slower frog water sections damsel flies and dragon flies can be found. Terrestrials include good numbers of hoppers and beetles. Rounding out the menu are crayfish, a favorite of the bigger fish. Sometimes the hatches on the MFFR are so grand that I set the rod down and sit mesmerized while watching the show, observations of these kinds can teach a fly angler so much more as you are only focused on trout and insect behavior, and most importantly their interaction with each other.

Fly selection for this time of year depends on whether it is early or late in spring and which game you opt to play. For early season nymphing the flash back BH pheasant tail is king, as is the BH gold ribbed hare’s ear. Carry both of these nymphs in sizes 10 -16. Other effective flies include free living caddis patterns 12-16, copper johns 10-18, and don’t forget about san juan worms in natural colors, an important fly considering there is 6 golf courses in the area. For streamers the top fly is the BH woolly bugger in black with copper flash 6-8, minnow patterns in olive and white schemes 4-8, and brown zonkers with gold mylar bodies 4-8. In late spring the top nymphs are still those listed above with additions of the G6 caddis in olive 12-16, golden stone nymphs 6-8, and black rubber legs 6-8. Now the fun stuff, dry flies. As the spring season progresses and the trout see more flies presented before them, a sparser pattern may be needed with a fly first presentation to selective feeders. Effective dries to carry are parachute adams 12-18, pmd sparkle comparaduns 14-16, x-caddis in olive, gray, yellow, and tan 12-16, stimulators in tan, yellow, and orange 6-8, and loco ants 12-16. Don’t be shy about using your confidence patterns, the flies that have performed well for you and that you believe in. Presentation before the pattern holds true on the MFFR.

Last spring middle fork feather river, Jon Baiocchi
Late Spring offers warmer weather and perfect conditions for excellent trout fishing. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

Outfitting yourself with the right rod is as basic as can be. For early nymphing and streamer fishing, a 9 foot long 5-6 weight rod with a medium to fast action is perfect. In late spring when dry fly fishing is at its best, an 8-9 foot 3-5 weight rod with a medium action is preferred. I also like the lighter weight rods when nymphing, these rods will help protect lighter tippets resulting in less break offs.

Access and parking for the MFFR in the recreational zone is easy, and many roads are located right next to the river. Some of the areas will require a little hiking but nothing like the lower end of the river. There are also five bridges that allow access for the public. Starting at the state A-23 Bridge and traveling downstream Rocky Point road runs parallel to Hwy. 70 before the river flows through the town of Portola. Your next access road is the Clio state 40A road which follows the river down to the town of Clio, this section requires some hiking to get into the canyon below Gold Mountain but it’s worth it. I’ve caught my biggest smallmouth bass in this section. From Clio down to Mohawk there are bridges including the Blairsden Bridge, and the Hwy 89 Bridge. These are very good access areas where an angler can hike upstream or downstream and cover productive water. Google Earth, Mapquest, and USFS maps can be of great use, if you’re new to the area do your homework, take notes, and make a plan.

The attraction to the MFFR is the natural beauty it provides with abundant wildlife, you never know what’s around the corner, a bobcat or a river otter just might surprise you. Solitude and complete bliss can be easily found if one is willing to hike along the river, I have had plenty of days where I have not seen another angler, and only a joyful dipper to keep me company. When it comes to spring time in the Northern Sierra, the Middle Fork Feather River is a fantastic area to escape, explore, and lose yourself.

Jon Baiocchi has been fly fishing and tying flies since 1972 and is a California licensed fly fishing guide, published author, educator, innovative tier and public speaker has given fly fishing presentations to clubs and expos around the state. Jon operates Baiocchi’s Troutfitters guide service in Northeastern California where he has a reputation as a hard working guide who has been trained by some of fly fishing’s best known master anglers. He can be reached at

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