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Approaching cautiously, I dropped to one knee downstream of a big boulder and fired a cast into the American River. I’d intended for my Yo-Zuri to land several feet beyond the boulder. Instead, the cast was low, and the minnow plug ricocheted off it with a clack. What a confidence builder!
Undaunted, I let the plug rest until the splash rings disappeared and then began working it with a slow twitch and pause retrieve. During the third pause, the water erupted as my plug disappeared in an explosion of white water and brown bass. Instinctively, I yanked the rod tip up, and I was fast into a rampaging bronzeback.
The bass ran upstream with a surprising burst of speed, pulling my 6-pound test hard across the boulder’s face. Thank the fishing gods for P-Line! Just when I was certain my line would break, the bass rocketed skyward with a head-shaking jump, slashing for midstream as soon as it once again made contact with the water. With my line clear of the rock, it only took a few minutes to wear the fish down, despite its making two more wild, gill flaring jumps.
As I slid the stocky 2-pound fish back into the river, I couldn’t help but think: What a start…One cast, one beautiful smallmouth!
Smallmouth bass are not native to the American River. In fact, they aren’t native anywhere on the West Coast, but were introduced to Central Valley river, including the American, in the late Nineteenth Century. As north state anglers will attest, those original bass found the conditions within Folsom to their liking after the lake was filled and have provided a strong fishery in the years since.
While most Norcal anglers are aware of the bass fishing at Folsom Lake, few realize that smallmouth abounded in the American River drainage above the lake for many decades before Folsom Dam was built.
The smallmouth population in the river above the lake is very robust, according to data collected by the Department of Fish and Wildlife,
“We determined four age classes of bass present,” said retired DFW biologist Dennis Lee of an electroshock study on the American. “This indicates good reproduction. In the study, we collected a number of mature river smallmouth in the 2 to 3 pound range.”
Smallmouth bass fishing can be found on the North and South Forks of the American River. However, the North Fork fishery is the more extensive of the two. Excellent fishing on the North Fork can be had from Folsom Lake to near the town of Colfax some 16 miles upriver. This stretch of river falls within the Auburn State Recreation Area. Nearly all of it can be accessed by foot and bike trails. Bass fishing on the American gets started in early May and continues through October.
Upstream from Folsom, the river changes character several times, and the trails accessing the river vary from easy to challenging. From the lake to the confluence with the Middle Fork three and a half miles upstream, the river runs big with long, deep pools interrupted by heavy rapids. Each season this stretch yields the largest number of big bass and is best worked with spinning gear. I like a long 7-foot stick, matched with 6 or 8-pound monofilament.
Typically, river bass are very aggressive feeders and aren’t highly selective. Proven baits include 4-inch floating minnow plugs, 2 and 3-inch crankbaits in crawfish finishes, 3-inch root beer or smoke colored tube baits, and yellow 1/4-ounce Roostertail spinners. In addition, you’ll want some split shot and a few large Muddler Minnows and black Woolly Bugger streamer flies.
I’ve effectively fished streamers with spinning gear for years. I tie a streamer directly to my line and put enough split shot 20 inches above it to get the fly near the bottom on a dead drift. To fish the rig, I cast across the current and allow the streamer to reach the bottom. I then close the bail and raise the rod tip, allowing the fly to swing and rise as the line tightens. Strikes usually occur when the fly is on the rise.
At the confluence, bass anglers will want to focus on the North Fork. The Middle Fork, known, as the “cold fork,” is better suited to trout fishing.
About one mile upstream from the confluence on the North Fork stands Clementine Dam. The area from the dam to about a half-mile downstream is very productive for bass in the 12 to 14 inch range. I like to use topwater baits in this area. My favorites are a silver and black floating Yo-Zuri minnow plug or a 3-inch yellow backed Yo-Zuri Banana Boat walking bait.
Numerous boulders dot the water below the dam. Look for the bass to be holding on the downstream side of boulders adjacent to deep water and also near the shore where rock bluffs border areas of deep water.
You’ll find the fishing best early, late and during low light periods such as overcast summer afternoons throughout the river, and it’s a good thing because swimmers and people with gold pans find the access to be easy below the dam during just about any nice weather day.
Upstream, beyond Clementine Dam lies Lake Clementine, narrow, three miles in length and of moderate depth. The banks are very steep and there is virtually no shore access. The lake is lined with reeds and fallen trees. Clementine is loaded with bronzebacks ranging up to 3 pounds, along with some largemouth and spotted bass as well. When the bite is on, amazing 30 fish days are possible.
Launching a trailered boat at Clementine is a headache because of a narrow, winding access road and limited parking. A great way to fish the lake is from a fishing kayak or canoe, which can be rented in the town of Auburn about five miles from the lake. These kayaks are light, stable, maneuverable and silent.
Kayaks lend themselves perfectly to fly fishing for Clementine’s feisty bass. Spinning gear and the baits described above will certainly take their share of bass, but these fish really shine on fly gear. I like a 7 weight rod matched with a small selection of deer hair bugs. My favorite is a deer hair mouse tied on a 1/0 hook.
I tie my flies with mono weed guards, which allows me to cast them onto the bank without fear of snagging. I then gently pull them into the water, making for a realistic presentation that the bass really go for. Bugging for Clementine’s abundant bass is a great way to spend a summer evening.
Upstream of Clementine the canyon becomes rugged and access can be physically challenging. The river gradually becomes smaller and very clear as you move upstream. Bass above Clementine are generally more wary and will require lighter lines and leaders. Spinning gear can be effective in this area as long as smaller lures are used. Marabou jigs, ultra light plugs and small spinners represent top choices.
I enjoy hitting this upper stretch with fly gear. I fish it as if I am targeting trout using streamers, nymphs and large dries, such as deer hair hoppers. On the North Fork’s upper stretches fish holding areas become less obvious as the stream diminishes in size and flow.
Look for bass to be congregated under rocky ledges and camouflaged among the stones of the deepest pools. The upper river is so clear it’s easy to be fooled into thinking it doesn’t hold fish because you can't see them. Years ago I went snorkeling with my wife in a large pool on the North Fork outside Colfax. The pool seemed devoid of fish until I dove down and looked into an undercut crevasse in the bedrock. Staring back at me were about a dozen 1 to 2 pound bass!
Beyond the point where Yankee Jim’s road crosses the river east of Colfax, the river flows faster and at lower temperatures. Here the number of bass diminishes and trout numbers increase. Dry fly fishing for trout to 18 inches can be good, but that’s another story…
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