The best rivers to fly fish in California

California is a state known for many things – Hollywood, beaches, wine, national parks and, for those interested in casting a line, world class fly fishing. The angling on offer in California is magnificent, partly because of the sheer number of healthy fish that are waiting patiently to be caught, and partly because of the spectacular scenery that will engulf you wherever you fish throughout the state. As California covers such a vast expanse of land and spans many different climates, it can be difficult to know which of the many rivers to divide your precious time between. When it comes to fly fishing Californian rivers, the only thing that’s certain is that you won’t run out of places to visit. Some of our favorites are described below.

Yuba River

The best rivers to fly fish in California Yuba River - Fly fish for fun
Photo Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (photo by Robert Kidd)

Located in northern California, the Yuba River is one of the best trout fisheries in the western United States. The story of this river is an interesting one, as it was almost mined to destruction for gold in the early 1900s. Much of the aquatic life on the lower Yuba was completely wiped out, a trend that continued in California until laws were passed to stop hydraulic mining. These laws, along with the construction of Englebright Dam upstream to collect sediment still washing into the river, allowed for the gradual regeneration of the river and the aquatic life within it.

Today, the Yuba River is home to one of the healthiest and most famous rainbow trout populations in the United States. While the river is also home to steelhead and salmon runs, these aren’t particularly fishable as the upper portion of the lower Yuba (where the best spawning areas are) is actually closed to fishing during October and November when the fish are present. Despite this, the Yuba offers spectacular fishing for rainbows and steelhead smolt. Public access to the Yuba is plentiful, making it the perfect place to cast a line in beautiful surroundings to plentiful fish.

Sacramento River

The best rivers to fly fish in California - Sacramento River - Fly fish for fun
Photo Credit: Franco Folini

The Sacramento River covers an expansive stretch of land, with both the upper and lower portions offering exceptional fly fishing. The lower Sacramento covers the portion of the river that flows out of Shasta Dam and runs through the town itself, making it quite an urban fishery, but one of the best ones out there. The wild population of rainbows offer year round entertainment for the whole family, and the seasonal salmon and steelhead runs make the fishing even more exciting during the summer and fall. Typically, the lower Sacramento River is a big, deep, meandering waterway without numerous riffles or smaller pools.

Conversely, the upper portion of the Sacramento River is almost entirely composed of freestone. This section of the river is incredibly scenic, and home to some seriously hungry trout. Although fishing is permitted on the upper Sacramento year round, there are some catch and release requirements which may change from season to season, so make sure you know the rules before hitting the water. The upper Sacramento River is one of the most accessible trout fishing hot spots in the entire United States – Interstate 5 parallels the river for most of its length and provides numerous off ramps which can take you straight down to the action.

Yosemite National Park

The best rivers to fly fish in California - Yosemite National Park - Fly fish for fun
Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano

Of course, there’s so much to do and see in the spectacular Yosemite National Park that it’s not just a world class fly fishing destination – it’s a whole experience that will provide memories to last a lifetime. The national park itself and the surrounding region is enormous, and it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to fly fishing. Inside the park, the Merced River offers incredible fishing. You couldn’t imagine a more scenically beautiful place to cast a line, and the fishing isn’t bad either!

The best rivers to fly fish in California - Yosemite National Park Fly Fishing - Fly fish for fun
Photo Credit: Paulo Philippidis

Despite the fact that this is the most popular and well known river within the national park, it is common to find a stretch where you can fish for the whole day without seeing another person. If it is solitude you’re looking for, the best place to start is downstream of Yosemite Valley, where the river becomes deeper before heading down the Merced Gorge.

Owens River

The best rivers to fly fish in California - Owens River - Fly fish for fun
Photo Credit: Ralphman

Whether it’s the upper or lower Owens River you’re fishing, this gorgeous Californian waterway is sure to deliver the goods. The upper portion of the river begins as a meadow creek before dropping into a canyon where it is fed by several lava tubes, making for spectacular scenery. This region is generally highly accessible, but still loaded with healthy rainbows and browns. The lower Owens flows out of the Pleasant Valley Reservoir, and is a deeper waterway with distinct channels. Wading is difficult, and this section is best fished by boat. That said, the river is definitely worth your time, and is filled with wild brown and rainbow trout. Catch limits do apply for both the upper and lower Owens River, so check with the appropriate governing bodies before setting out.

If you are planning a trip and want to make the most out of your trip we recommend a few things to get you going in the right direction:

  • Hire a dependable and local guide for the first day or two of your trip. That way you can get the lay of the land and pick their brain on what flies to use, the best stretches on water to fish on, and best practices on the water.
  • Plan ahead: Make sure you have the essentials before you go on your trip. It’s always good to stop by the local fly shop and pick up some flies and other items but you never know what may happen so get your gear before you go. We order online from some cool fly shops and our favorite (essential) items are Simms Waders, Buff Wear, extra Fly line, two+ dependable reels, two fly rods, and a solid selection of flies for the area (California Flies).
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I spend time between the love of my life (my wife), my digital agency, and trying to squeak in time for fly fishing when I can hide from responsibilities. If you want to strike up a conversation with me try subjects on: fly fishing, fly tying, cooking, photography, reading, camping or anything related to social media or marketing.