Chasing Skwallas on the Lower Yuba

Written by: Jason Cotta

Lower Yuba 1

The author’s pal with a chunky Yuba River rainbow.

photo by Jason Cotta

The clouds loomed overhead when I picked up my good friend Jason to begin yet another California adventure. We were headed to the Yuba River, located less than 90 minutes outside Sacramento. The trip wasn’t as glamorous as our exploits over the last couple weeks, but we were excited nonetheless. In the last month, we’ve been fortunate enough to catch steelhead up to ten pounds on fabled waters such as the Klamath and Trinity, but the thought of catching a few trout on dry flies in the middle of February certainly has its allure. Word on the street had it that the fish had been rising to hatches of blue-winged olives and were punishing the early-season Skwallas. One of my best friends, and fellow Orvis employee, Mike Folden, had been on the water the week before and had nothing but good things to say about what we could expect.

On the drive to the river, we discussed a few different spots to hit and kept our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be too crowded. It was President’s Day, and with everyone off work, we suspected many of our favorite runs would be filled with anglers by our arrival. Once there, we were pleasantly surprised to see just one drift boat at the put in and not a single truck at the first run. Even more astounding, over the course of the day, we never crossed the path of a fellow angler and saw only two drift boats on the water.

We parked the truck as the sun briefly peeked through the clouds and began to wader-up. I had had the foresight to rig my rods up the night before, and lacking any semblance of patience, I left Jason at the truck to start the 100-yard walk down to the river. Within ten minutes, my indicator bolted underwater and a fish peeled off drag as it headed downstream. Yuba River fish are notoriously hot, and even the smallest fish will put up a noble fight. I netted and released a 15-inch bow and knew instantly it was going to be a good day. As Jason walked up, muttering something about my lack of patience, I was hooked up once again, and he quickly got some flies in the water.

Lower Yuba 2

The real thing and the imitation. Can you tell which is which?

photo by Jason Cotta

We continued to hook and land fish under indicators, but never really got into the dry-fly action we were looking for. We were inhibited by adverse weather conditions over the course of the day. Strong winds howled at our faces, causing any insects coming off to be thrown to the bank and impairing our ability to mend. The sun wouldn’t cooperate with us, staying out just long enough to keep the Baetis from hatching but hidden enough to keep the Skwallas down. We did, however, manage to elicit a few rises by beating the banks with Skwalla patterns, but were unable to hook up on top.

As the sun began to set, we broke down our rods, and packed up the gear. Since we were exhausted from a day of fishing, the drive home had a bit less conversation than earlier that morning. I lamented over my ever-increasing girth, so naturally we decided to stop for dinner and enjoyed a burrito the size of a small dog. After dropping Jason off, I headed home to fall into a food-induced coma.

Lower Yuba River Overview
The lower Yuba is a tailwater fishery that has long runs, deep pools, and broad riffles. The main access point is from the Highway 20 bridge, from where you can fish upstream or downstream. The water above the bridge is restricted to artificial lures, with single barbless hooks and a zero-fish limit. It is open from December 1st to September 30th. Below the bridge is open year-round. Fishing conditions are dependent on water releases from Englebright Dam. The river fishes best with flows under 3,000 cfs. Always check flows and regulations before leaving on your trip.

Lower Yuba 3

It’s fun to see a Skwalla on your fly rod, but you’d rather see them on the water and the fish eating them.

photo by Jason Cotta

Nymphs will produce fish all year long. Dry flies can be used at some point of the day all year long, and if you like to use a sinking tip line, hold on to your rod, because fish over 20-inches can chomp on a large Woolly Bugger or minnow imitation. During the salmon run, you can also catch large rainbows while drifting an egg pattern. Rainbows fight like steelhead. Experts say that steelhead are present all year long in the Yuba River, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the rainbows and the steelhead. During the steelhead season, a nymph and an egg pattern is a hard combination to beat. Abundant half-pounders and adult steelhead allow for good success rates, and you usually catch a few trout in the process.

Jason Cotta is the fishing manager at Orvis Roseville, CA.

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