Middle Fork American River Fly Fishing
tips and tactics
April 20th, 2022
Some of the best fly fishing in California is on the Middle Fork of the American river, but you need to do some research and prepare a plan. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just show up and catch fish.
This river is a tailwater that’s fed by Hellhole reservoir and French meadows reservoir, both of which are nestled in the Sierra mountain range at high elevation. As a result, it’s got relatively constant water temperatures year-round, which is hugely advantageous for catching fish. There are approximately 1,600 trout per mile in this river.
Fly fishing the Middle Fork of the American river can be extremely rewarding if you know where to go, how to access the water, what flies to use, and the most productive techniques. I’ve fly fished this river over 60 times, and have caught countless trout in its waters–I’ll teach you everything you need to know to be successful.
Here’s a nice rainbow trout I caught on the Middle Fork using a blue-winged olive dry fly on a crisp day in December.
What Fish Species live in the Middle Fork of the American River?
You can catch the following species of fish in the Middle Fork of the American river: rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), brown trout (Salmo trutta), smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu), largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), and the Sacramento pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus grandis) also called a Squawfish.
Various minnows such as dace and sculpins are also present.
The smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are primarily caught within a few miles of Folsom lake, the point at which the American river splits into the middle and south fork. This is because the water is warmer. As you move farther up the river (and closer to the headwaters in the mountains), the water becomes colder and less hospitable for bass.
Hellhole reservoir and French Meadows reservoir are stocked with Kokanee salmon, but they don’t make it through the dams and downriver.
Shad are prevalent below the Folsom dam (lower American river), but not in the middle or south fork (upper American river).
It’s worth mentioning that I did actually catch a sculpin on a woolly bugger while on the middle fork. Here’s a picture of the fish.
Middle Fork American River Fly Fishing Tips
The rainbow trout that live in the middle fork of the American river are descendants of central valley steelhead that were trapped when the Folsom dam was constructed in 1956. Yes, the same Folsom from the Johnny Cash song.
I can personally attest that the rainbows in this river are unusually strong. I can’t tell you how many times a 16-17 incher has made my reel scream as the fish peeled off line on a long run across the river. Specifically, I usually use a Sage trout reel with my drag on the #6 setting, if that gives you some context.
In terms of what types of fish are most prevalent, in the upper sections, you’ll likely catch 25 rainbow trout for every brown trout. That ratio will change if you’re tossing streamers (more on that below).
Also, it seems there aren’t small trout in the middle fork–almost every trout I catch is in the 14-18 inch range. My theory is that the smaller trout live in the tributaries such as the north fork of the middle fork, and many other streams and creeks feeding the main river.
I use a 9-foot 5-weight fly rod and it’s perfect for this river. The only caveat would be if you’re going to cast streamers, then I’d recommend a 6 or 7 weight rod.
Be prepared for a lot of aerial acrobatics by the fish–they jump more than usual. Remember to “bow” to the fish when they go airborne, meaning don’t keep the line taught while they’re in the air.
Oxbow dam’s effect on fishing
It’s vital that you understand how Oxbow dam affects the fly fishing on the middle fork. It’s beyond crucial.
The Oxbow dam release schedule is altered for the benefit of whitewater rafters. So, every weekday the flows are increased to around 1,000cfs. Below these levels, making it through the infamous tunnel chute would be nearly impossible.
If you’re interested, check out my article on understanding the best flow rates for fly fishing.
The flow rates will increase dramatically at around 9am, and then fall dramatically by around 1pm. Keep in mind, when the discharge rate changes at the dam, it takes just under an hour before the flow rate change will be seen a mile downriver.
Personally, my favorite flows on the middle fork are between 200cfs and 400cfs.
I’d highly recommend you get a good feel for the dam release schedule by monitoring the middle fork American river water flows. I used to check it at least once per day, and I could predict with relative accuracy when the flows would change.
Rain will cause a jump in the flow rates.
Here’s a seven-day graph from June that’ll give you a good idea of the daily flow rate increases for the rafters. See the cfs (cubic feet per second) spikes each day?
Catching trout on dry flies
The best time to catch trout on dries flies is during the summer and fall, when land-based insects are prevalent on the middle fork. Specifically, you’re going to have the most fun casting terrestrial fly patterns like hoppers and ants. I’ll detail my favorite middle fork flies below.
While summer and fall are the best dry fly seasons on the middle fork, winter can actually be really productive too. Spring runoff does create challenges, so March through May can mean high water and fast currents.
The insects you’ll see hatching on the water are blue-winged olives (BWOs), midges, caddisflies, and golden stoneflies. I wrote a detailed article on BWO fly fishing tactics if you’re interested in learning more about these mayflies and how to fish them successfully.
Since the middle fork of the american river is generally a crystal clear body of water, the trout are going to have plenty of time to analyze your flies. This means you need to avoid drag (as always), and avoid casting your fly line directly over the trout, since they’ll spook easily.
Use some good floatant to keep your flies riding high. I wrote an article on the best fly fishing floatant as well. Hint: you can’t go wrong with Lochsa. It’s all I use.
If you’re looking for rising trout, find shady areas, or wait until the sun’s gone down.
Here’s a solid rainbow trout I caught on the middle fork of the American river using a dry fly during late June.
Catching trout on nymphs
Nymphing is the most popular method of fly fishing on the middle fork. You can use a standard indicator, or a dry-dropper rig whereby the “indicator” is actually a buoyant terrestrial fly. I’ve had success using both methods.
One evening I was packing up my gear after a fun day of fishing the middle fork, and a van pulled up nearby. I thought it was odd because the sun had set and he was just arriving.
It turns out he was a gregarious guy, and an established fly fishing guide on the river. One of very few.
He told me the best nymph for the middle fork was…find out below. He actually gave me several of the nymphs, which was really kind.
He also mentioned that he’d seen brown trout leap out of the water trying to eat big dragonflies (not damselflies). He’d actually rigged-up a short rod and had a blue dragonfly pattern which he occasionally would wave over the water in an attempt to lure-in a big brown trout.
I found it fascinating and original.
Anyhow, you’re going to want to focus on gentle riffles, runs, and pools with your nymphs. Yes, pools too. I’ve caught many trout in the pools on this river–the ones with a nice slow current.
Catching trout on streamers
This is the preferred method if you’re chasing big brown trout. The middle fork of the American river has more than its fair share of huge browns.
The best way to fish streamers is to cast them from a boat towards the shoreline, and strip-in quickly. You retrieve must be rapid. It’s not uncommon to hook into a 24-incher this way.
But, not everyone has a boat or can hire a guide.
If you’re wading, I recommend getting to the middle of the river (if possible), and casting towards the shorelines using the above stripping method. Cover a lot of water, don’t stay in one spot very long.
Another productive method with a streamer is to cast 45-degrees downstream and let your fly swing through the current, until it’s directly below you, then strip it back to you.
If you find a nice pool of moderate depth, you should definitely focus on it. During the day, big browns can often be found holding in pools.
Use a sink-tip line or, my preference, a full sinking fly line.
When a fish takes your fly, remember to do a strip-set, not a trout-set. This makes a big difference.
Here’s a long rainbow trout that almost took me into my backing–middle fork rainbows are strong.
The Best Flies for the Middle Fork
Blue Winged Olive
You’ll see plenty of blue winged olive (BWO) mayflies hatching on the middle fork, and that’s precisely why you’ll want this fly pattern in your pack. The most productive size is 16-20. During the winter, this fly is mandatory.
One evening, I noticed a small inlet off the main river–it was a still pond, for lack of a better word. But, there were fish rising in it. It sure didn’t seem like trout water, but I cast my BWO and sure enough, the fish went after my fly.
But, they were apparently small because I was having trout hooking them. Until I did. They were Sacramento pikeminnows.
While you’ll rarely actually see a yellow sally on the middle fork, they work really well on the rainbow trout, even in the middle of a blue winged olive hatch. Use these in sizes 18-20.
The fat albert terrestrial fly pattern is time-tested on the middle fork. The guides use them (that’s how I learned about them), and they work. Use them in size 10-14 during the summer and fall.
Elk Hair Caddis
This revered fly has caught me many, many trout on this river. I use it in sizes 14-16.
Psycho prince nymph
– Remember when the guide told me there’s one nymph that outperforms all others on the middle fork of the American river? This is it.
The psycho prince nymph, it turns out, is the best nymph pattern I’ve ever used on the middle fork. Use the beadhead version in size 18.
There are plenty of midge larva in this river, and that’s why this nymph pattern works so well. I catch plenty of rainbows using a beadhead size 18 red midge.
Drunk and Disorderly
Go big, or go home. This is a proven middle fork streamer that should be your first choice when tossing meat. Remember to strip it through the water quickly, faster than you’re probably used to stripping.
This streamer pattern should be familiar to every fly angler, because it’s just that effective. You saw in the picture above that even sculpin go for them. These can be stripped or swing, or even drifted under an indicator. Black is the most productive color year-round on the middle fork.
Here’s a feisty brown trout (Salmo trutta) I caught on the middle fork of the American river in January on a yellow sally dry fly.
Where can I fish on the Middle Fork of the American River?
You can gain access to fish the middle fork of the American river at four main locations, including Mammoth bar road off of Foresthill road, Drivers flat road off of Foresthill road, at Oxbow reservoir off of Mosquito ridge road, and directly below the French meadows reservoir dam.
This river is not considered easily accessible because much of it is hidden in deep canyons or bordered by private property.
Ideally, you’ll hire a guide for a float trip from Oxbow reservoir to Drivers flat. You can even book multi-day trips.
Middle Fork American River Safety & Wildlife
I mentioned earlier that whitewater rafters love the middle fork of the American river. There’s a reason for that. The middle fork has plenty of very dangerous rapids, sheer cliffs, and wicked currents.
There are many class III rapids, a few class IV rapids, and one class V rapid. So, be careful, this river is no joke.
One day I was with a group of fly anglers on a tour of a section of this river and we were all on Scadden crafts. When we hit some class III rapids, I was flipped over into the rushing water. I had a lifejacket on, but none of us wore helmets.
I swam to the shoreline, found my Scadden, flipped it over, and hopped back on. It was eye-opening, and those were class III rapids.
Tunnel chute, about a mile or so below Oxbow reservoir, has been deadly.
The class V rapids are located at Ruck-A-Chucky falls and they’re legit. Some guides take their rafts down it, but it’s risky.
The river is lined with slipper boulders, and I’ve had my fair share of slips into the water.
Watch for rattlesnakes–there are a lot of them along the shoreline. Plenty of harmless gopher and garter snakes too.
There’s some poison oak that lines the river. Remember the “leaves of three” saying.
There are mountain lions in the American river canyons, but I never saw any.
I did, however, see bears.
Once, at dusk, I was walking out of the river after having fly fished for several hours, and I had that strange feeling that I was being watched. You know the feeling.
I looked to my right and sure enough a big black bear was sitting there watching me, about 50-feet away.
I kept walking casually towards my vehicle, turning to monitor the bear frequently. When I unlocked my doors, in made a beeping noise and the bear ran away. But, he came back about ten minutes later.
The good news is that because it’s not a recreation-type river (float tubes, etc), and because of the lack of access, the fish receive little pressure from anglers.
Whenever I stayed until the sun went behind the mountains, the bats would come out in search of insects. They would very often pick my dry fly up off of the surface of the water and drop it once they realized it wasn’t edible. This happened at least 50 times.
Is the Middle Fork of the American River open for Fishing?
Yes, the middle fork of the American river is open for all types of fishing year-round. All that is necessary is a California state fishing license which is available online at a cost of $54 for residents, and $146 for non-residents.
Middle Fork Fishing Regulations
While it is open to fishing year-round, there are some specific fishing regulations for the middle fork of the American river.
Specifically, from the Saturday preceding Memorial Day through September 30th, the catch limit is five trout, and there are no gear restrictions (hooks, etc).
From October 1st through the Friday directly preceding Memorial Day, you cannot keep any trout (limit is zero), and you can only use artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks.
The middle fork of the American river is one of my favorite places to fly fish in the world because the fish are big and smart, the wildlife is impressive, and the scenery is straight out of a movie.
Forget about the shad run on the lower American river and instead get out of the city and visit the upper American for some wild times. You can even fish the many tributaries that feed the middle fork if you’re into pocket water fly angling and solitude.
If you want to sharpen your skills in preparation, check out my article on fly fishing for brown trout.
About the Author
My name's Sam and I'm a fly fishing enthusiast just like you. I get out onto the water 80+ times each year, whether it's blazing hot or snow is falling. I enjoy chasing everything from brown trout to carp, and exploring new waters is something I savor. My goal is to discover something new each time I hit the water. Along those lines, I record everything I learn in my fly fishing journal so I can share it with you.