By Walt Simmons
It is not common that a coastal mountain stream supports an above average non-anadromous trout fishery. But Putah Creek ranks among the uncommon, and to the delight of those who seek a trout fishing option in winter it is surprisingly close to the Bay Area and Sacramento metro area. Who says you can’t be in two places at once? When you foot-navigate Putah Creek, you will be fishing in Solano and Yolo Counties simultaneously as the creek represents the county line.
Putah Creek is a tail water fishery that rolls over large cobble rock in a beautiful, deep and tree shaded canyon below Monticello Dam and massive Lake Bereyessa. The smaller impoundment of Lake Solano is just below the prime fly fishing section of Putah Creek, so the section is self-contained. Putah Creek is truly a unique fishery for this area. A bit to the north is Cache Creek, a creek similar in size to Putah Creek, but a creek that is better known for the massive catfish that live in the Capay Valley section. A few wild trout are caught in Stoney Creek, about 80 miles to the north. While that destination is an option for wild trout close to I-5, that fishery holds nary a candle to Putah Creek, which sports deeper holes, lots of substrate, and much larger trout.
Is Putah Creek solely a wild trout venue? No, Department of Fish & Game does plant in Putah Creek, but the number of wild trout living there is considerable, and five pound rainbows are not a figment of your imagination. Too, the Winter months are subject to restriction on Putah Creek as barbless artificials and no kill regulations are enforced. There are also brown trout in Putah Creek, though they are more common in the slower waters at the base of the canyon section. This is rainbow country, for the most part.
Now, be advised that these fish do not necessarily come easy. A number of factors ensure a challenging quarry. Firstly, the wading can be challenging. There are large mossy rocks under turbid water, so “wading by Braille” is less the exception as it is the rule. Though a smaller watercourse by volume than the Truckee or East Walker Rivers, many fly fishers will attest that wading in Putah Creek is more akin to wading in the Pit River. So why wade then, you may ask? Because much of the sides of Putah Creek in the prime sections are lined with brush, making access for presentation and mobility extremely difficult. This is the same predicament served up by much of the Pit River and sections of the East Walker River. If this seems like a negative, consider the kind of fishery it could become if access was much easier. The common color of Putah Creek is a light green hue, and the many rocks create excellent small scale pocket water. Unlike the gin clear waters of Fall Creek, concealment allows a closer approach. However, do not allow this to lull you into an assumption that careless tactics will go unnoticed by your finned and finicky friends. Remember, Putah Creek is not exactly a secret. The four million-plus populated Bay Area metropolitan area is within striking distance, and a Bay Area fly fisher would have to be living under a rock not to have heard of, let alone fished Putah Creek. Add the fact that the prime fishable area is very short, and you have a quality fishery with lots of pressure and very educated trout.
Does this mean that you stand a slim chance? No, but you need to query those who know how to fish Putah Creek. Fly selection, leader configuration, tippet size, presentation and line control are extremely important at Putah. Oh, if you are predominantly a dry fly specialist, Putah Creek may leave you frustrated. Here, a short line nymphing technique provides the most consistent results. Indicator and split shot fishing on a nine foot leader that tapers down to tippet no thicker than 6X. Some anglers even use 7X tippet, but that’s not essential and possibly harmful to a large trout in the hands of an angler inexperienced with landing large fish on very fine tippet. Rod selection is important. Anything less than eight and a half feet is not ideal since high stick reaching and line control in compact pocket water is commonplace. Nine or nine and a half feet is more ideal. If you have a fast action “cannon”, save it for open water in the afternoon breeze. You will be lobbing nymph, split shot, indicator just a short distance here. Granted some contemporary fast action rods have a flex not limited to the tip, a mid flex or progressive action rod will pay dividends in the form of tippet protection if you are fortunate enough to hook up with a five-plus pounder. Spontaneous eruptions of expletives have been heard on Putah Creek periodically by anglers who broke off a trophy trout by trying to horse it in too fast on fine tippet. In your fly selection, think small. Brassies and Mercer’s micro mayflies are two proven producers. Also consider midges, micro caddis, scud patterns, and the smallest worm patterns you can find. In terms of small. size 18 is about as large as you want to go, sizes 20-22 are better. Add up all of these things and you have a pristine location (not implying solitude), wild and relatively sophisticated trout and challenging fishing while feeling the cool snap of winter air seemingly far from the big cities. And the best part is that for many of us, the drive does not account for the largest portion of the adventure.
If you live in the Sacramento area, take Interstate 80 toward Vacaville, take the Interstate 505 cut-off to the north, then take highway 128 west through the small, Norman Rockwellian town of Winters, past Lake Solano Park. Park on Highway 128 aside the canyon section of Putah Creek.
From the Bay Area, take Interstate 80 eastbound, following Highway 128 as mentioned above. Also, you can take Pleasant Valley Road on the across Putah Creek and turn on Sackett Lane (not a through road), and park there for stream access. From Redding or northern valley areas, take the Interstate 505 cut-off south toward Vacaville, exit at Highway 128 west, and follow directions above.
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