California fly fishing is something all fly anglers should experience at some point in their lives. Between the diverse array of species and the stunning environments you will find yourself casting a line in, it’s a bit of a paradise made for fly fishermen.
You can target wild fish in the form of brown trout, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and the Californian golden trout too as well as largemouth bass and striped bass, so there are some saltwater fly fishing options too.
In this article, you will find a guide that covers everything you need to know about California fly fishing from where to fly fish, what flies to use, and the valid fishing license you’ll need to fish with too.
East Fork Of The Carson River
The East Fork of the Carson River is an iconic California fly fishing stream as it is set up just north of Yosemite National Park. The scenery is some of the best you will find and the fly fishing on this wild trout stream is also excellent.
You will find a diverse range of trout species in this productive stream including brook trout, cutthroat trout, plus rainbow and brown trout too. Fly fishermen can cast a line on this river all year round but the best fly fishing can be found between May and October.
The river flows through deep holes, riffles, and shallow sections which will challenge your skill set so be sure to use a diverse range of tactics from euro nymphing to wet flies and dry flies too.
Where To Fish On The Carson
The Carson sits close to the border of California and Nevada near a town called Markleeville. It is a popular river and you will find quite a few anglers fishing it.
The best fly fishing will be found where not so many anglers bother to hike in to, and a great spot to cast a line is featured on the map below. Follow the Silver King Trailhead down to the river and you will have some amazing California fly fishing all to yourself.
Recommended Flies For The Carson
- Rusty caddis
- Elk hair caddis
- Bead head stoneflies
- Prince nymphs
- Pheasant tail nymphs
- Parachute adams
One of the most famous California fly fishing destinations that has changed the fly fishing in California forever is Hat Creek. Hat Creek was the first site used by the organization California Trout which does its utmost to protect wild trout in the state.
The success of Hat Creek created the wild trout program in California which now provides the California fly fishing community with a new lake and 25 miles of new trout streams every year.
Sitting in northern California just outside of Lassen National Forest, Hat Creek is home to both wild rainbow and brown trout fishing. The trout fishing can get a little technical on this northern California stream mainly because it is lined with trees so watch your back cast.
Where To Fish On Hat Creek
Highway 89 east of Redding offers relatively easy access to this awesome trout stream but if you look at a map, you will find a lot of campgrounds and RV parks close by.
As we all know, the best fly fishing is always away from people so I would recommend you fly fish upstream from the spot on the map below as fewer anglers head up that way.
Recommended Flies For Hat Creek
- Tricos – late summer
- Little sister caddis
- Stonefly nymphs
The McCloud River is an iconic stream and one you kind of have to cast a line on while fly fishing in California. Sitting in northern California amongst the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the setting is absolutely mind-blowing and the crystal clear waters are incredibly inviting.
The McCloud River is spring-fed which means the water always stays clear and it is home to some great rainbow trout fishing too. It is one of the most pristine rivers in California, the fish are wild trout, and you can find some trophy trout in there too.
There are some rules you need to follow on this trout fishery one of which is that you can only keep two trout and the other being you have to use barbless hooks.
Where To Fish On The McCloud River
There are some great sections of the McCloud River with easy access but the two hotspots include the tailwater fishery below Lake McCloud which you find on the map below.
The other great spot if you are looking for some wild trout fishing is above the McCloud Reservoir. This area is stunning as it features a series of waterfalls surrounded by incredible forests.
Recommended Flies For The McCloud River
- Tungsten stonefly nymphs
- Bead head stonefly nymphs
- Elk hair caddis
You will find Hot Creek in southern California and it offers some of the best fly fishing opportunities in this part of the state. Located in Sierra Nevada just south of Yosemite National Park, Hot Creek is home to thousands of fish making the trout fishing pretty amazing.
You will find anywhere between 8000 to 10000 fish per mile in this creek and since it is fed by a geothermal spring, the water is crystal clear, unless it is affected by runoff from Mammoth Creek.
If you want to catch fish in this creek, you are going to have to be quite subtle as the clear waters means the trout are easily spooked. You will find rainbow trout, brown trout, and cutthroat trout in this creek and it is all catch and release fishing, which means the fish are pretty smart.
Where To Fish On Hot Creek
Hot Creek is an incredibly popular fly fishing spot for Southern California fly fishermen and therefore it is best fished during the week if you want to avoid the crowds. The best access can be found above the Hot Creek hatchery featured on the map below.
Recommended Flies For Hot Creek
- Zebra midge
- Griffth’s gnat
- Parachute Adams (size 18-22)
- Gold Stoneflies
Upper Sacramento River
The Upper Sacramento River has a bit of a torrid past as pesticides were dumped into the river in the 1990s which made it unfishable but it has since corrected itself and it now offers some of the best fly fishing opportunities in Northern California.
The Upper Sacramento River has miles of water to fly fish and it is home to both brown trout and rainbow trout. The rainbow trout in this trout fishery can grow to be huge fish and catching trophy trout of over 20 inches is very possible when you fly fish here.
The dry fly fishing on this river is pretty incredible when the hatch is on and it is some of the best dry fly fishing in California. But, as it is such a popular place where local anglers love catching fish, it can get quite busy.
Where To Fish On The Upper Sacramento River
One of the best spots to go fly fishing on the Upper Sacramento is at the tailwater fishery that flows out of Box Canyon Dam aka Lake Siskiyou.
This top section of the river is fished a lot less than the lower reaches so your chances of catching a trophy Californian trout increase immensely and the cool waters from Lake Siskiyou keep the trout happy for the whole fishing season.
Recommended Flies For The Upper Sacramento River
- Green Drakes
- Blue-Winged Olives
- Pale Morning Duns
- Spotted Sedges
- Copper John
- Pheasant Tail Nymphs
If you are looking for a unique urban fishing opportunity then you should try fly fishing on Piru Creek.
Sitting in Southern California just inside of the Greater Los Angeles Area, Piru Creek flows through numerous lakes and is home to stocked rainbow trout, wild rainbow trout, and largemouth too, and is managed by Cal Trout.
While this creek offers urban fly fishing, it does get rather busy so if you are looking to fish alone out in nature then it might not be for you. That being said, if you live in the LA area, you can have a quick fish after work on this creek.
Where To Fish On Piru Creek
The best fly fishing on Piru Creek sits between Pyramid Lake and Lake Piru. This section has some slow-moving river as well as faster riffles and deep pools too. You can access it easily by using the map below.
Recommended Flies For Piru Creek
- Poppers (for bass)
- Big Streamers (for bass)
- Prince Nymphs
- Copper Johns
- Stonefly nymphs
The Owens River is a favorite among the fly anglers in Southern California and you will find it in the Eastern Sierra. The Upper Owens River is fished less often than the lower section so if you want to avoid the crowds, fish during the week and stick to the Upper Owens River instead of the lower section.
Fly fishing on the Owens River can be quite tough as it can be affected by low flow rates. This makes the brown trout and rainbow trout that call this river home a little finicky, so be sure to use all the stealth tactics you have in your tackle box.
The best time of year to fish the Owens River is between April and November and if you can, stick to early fall and late spring.
Where To Fish On The Owens River
There are a load of great access points along the river and one of the best places to start fly fishing can be found on the map below. From there, you can fish upstream or downstream, but the further you go the more chance you will have of fly fishing the river alone.
Recommended Flies For The Owens River
- Stonefly Nymphs
- Yellow Mayflies
- Pheasant tails
- Copper Johns
The Kern River, located in the Sequoia National Forest, is one of the top fly fishing rivers in Southern California. The upper Kern River is home to both golden trout and rainbow trout and with miles of rugged trout stream to cast a line on, it is a favorite amongst the local anglers.
The rainbow trout in this section of the upper river can grow to huge sizes while the golden trout can be tricky to find, but they are there if you put in the effort. This will involve some heavy hikes and scrambles but it is well worth it.
The section of the river below Isabella Lake is home to smallmouth bass so you can have a very diverse day of fly fishing by fishing both the upper and lower sections.
Where To Fish On The Kern River
If you want to go fly fishing for trout on the Kern, your best bet is to get as far up river as possible. Moutain Highway 99 follows the Kern making access very easy for anglers.
I would recommend parking where the the highway stops following the river, featured on the map below, and then hiking upstream for 30 mins before you start fishing.
If you want to target the smallmouth bass below the lake, drive on down to one of the many campsites that offer easy access. You will find a great spot to park on the map below.
Recommended Flies For The Kern River
- Large streamers (bass)
- Poppers (bass)
- Parachute Adams
The Merced River isn’t known for its abundance of big fish but it is home to a lot of rainbow trout that are not very fussy, making for a fun day on the water.
While the Merced River doesn’t offer the best of the fly fishing opportunities California has to offer, the setting is iconic.
Sitting in the heart of Yosemite National Park, you will be gazing at mountain peaks and walking through lush forests while fly fishing this river, which makes it a must-visit for me when fly fishing in California.
This is a popular river though so be sure to get off the beaten track to find happy trout and some seclusion too.
Where To Fish On The Merced River
For the best the Merced River has to offer, join the John Muir Trailhead and hike above Nevada Falls as this is home to some of the most beautiful scenery and very happy trout too.
Recommended Flies For The Merced River
- Parachute Adams
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Griffith’s Gnat
- Zebra Midge
- Pheasant tail nymphs
- Copper Johns
Sitting next to the Oregon border in Northern California is one of the most famous rivers in the state, the Smith River.
This river is home to rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, steelhead, and salmon. It holds the record for the largest steelhead ever caught in California and it has some of the biggest salmon in the US outside of Alaska.
The water in the Smith stays clean and if you want to fish for salmon you should be fishing the river after October and the steelhead run between January and March. These fish are best targeted in the lower section of the river which should be fished from a drift boat as the river is large here.
This part of the Smith is immensely popular but it still has to be fished and after a few days of swinging flies, you may want to go to the upper reaches to fish for rainbow trout and cutthroats in seclusion.
Where To Fish On The Smith River
For steelhead and salmon head to the lower section featured on the map and drift down towards the ocean.
For some seclusion, head up to the higher reaches featured on the map below.
Recommended Flies For The Smith River
- Egg patterns (salmon/steelhead)
- Egg-sucking leeches (salmon/steelhead)
- Big nymphs (salmon/steelhead)
- Heavy streamers (salmon/steelhead)
- Small nymphs
- Wooly buggers
The Fall River is renowned as one of the best fishing rivers in Northern California and the Pit River that is a part of its tributaries is pretty awesome too. What makes this Fall River so great is that its crystal clear waters are spring-fed and the rainbow trout are gigantic.
The water moves slowly, the rainbow trout are smart, it’s busy with anglers and access is limited, which might not paint the best picture but you have to fish it if you can.
The best time to fish this river is during the fall as this is when the hatches turn on and the giant rainbows forget their wise ways and start sipping on the surface.
You should book a guide ahead of time for this part of the season and you should always fish this river from a boat if you can as it will give you better access to the fishy areas.
Where To Fish On The Fall River
A great place to access this river is above Fall River Mills and this is also where you can access the Pit River too. You will find a great place to park on the map below.
I would however suggest that you fish from a boat as this river is large, wide, and slow so getting your fly to the fish can be very hard from the bank while wading it.
Recommended Flies For The Fall River
- Green Drake
- Pale Morning Dun
- Blue Winged Olive
San Francisco Bay & California’s Coast
Back in the 1870s, striped bass from the East Coast of the US were stocked in the waters off California and today you can catch them around the bay area and the deltas of the San Joaquin River and Sacramento River.
Their population exploded to the point that they were fished for commercially but this was stopped to ensure recreational anglers had a chance too.
When fishing for striped bass, you are best off fishing with a guide as you will need their local knowledge to put you on the fish.
Where To Fish For Striped Bass
As I already mentioned, grab a guide and head into the bay and into the Sacramento and San Joaquin river deltas and you can hook up to some huge striped bass. You will find all these spots on the maps below.
You can also fish for stripers all the way up the coast so you are not limited to the bay area.
You should also visit Arizona if you’re still planning on where to go on your next fly fishing adventure. Fly fishing Arizona will surely not disappoint you since it has a lot of awesome destinations.
Licenses & Regulations
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife requires all anglers who are 16 years old and older to have a state fishing license.
You can buy a non-resident or resident license depending on where you are from and you have the option to get a 1, 2, 10-day, or 1-year license.
Be sure to follow the rules for each fishery as some require barbless hooks, have catch limits, or are catch and release on fisheries. You may also need an additional permit to fish in some spots too.
You can buy your license online here and get all the info about each fishery’s rules and you need an extra permit.
Recommended Fly Shops In California
When fly fishing in new areas, I always head to a local fly shop before I start fishing. You can top up on local flies, get great info about what flies are working, and how the area is fishing. here are some great fly shops to check out.
Recommended Fly Fishing Guides In California
It always pays to have a fly fishing guide with you on day one of fishing a new river as it gives you the fast track to success for the next few days to come. Here are some great California fly fishing guides to choose from.
- Kevin Brock Fishing – Smith River and Striped Bass
- Trinity Fly Shop – Northern California
- Sierra Trout Magnet (STM) Fly Shop
- Kern River Fly Fishing Guide Service
Thanks so much for reading my article. I hope you enjoyed it and now have all the information you need to go fly fishing in Southern and Northern California. The array of fly fishing opportunities on offer is incredibly diverse, and the landscapes are mind-blowing too!
Be sure to try for all the species too from the striped bass to the steelhead, salmon, and all the wonderful species of trout.