California Fly Fishing 4 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the American River (South Fork)

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

May 8, 2020

American River (South Fork)

The South Fork of the American River was the site of James Marshall’s famous discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, which sparked the California Gold Rush.

Nowadays, the River is more popular with white water rafters than prospectors, with the South Fork attracting around 80,000 visitors in 2011. 

The South Fork also provides excellent fishing opportunities as well, and anglers can find plenty of rainbow trout and brown trout weighing up to eight pounds. Still, it wouldn’t be much fun if it were easy.

Check out our guide so you can find out exactly what makes the trout of the South Fork of the American River tick.

About South Fork American River

Fly Fishing in the American River (South Fork)

The South Fork of the American River is a major tributary of the American River. The River rises at Nebelhorn, about ten miles south of Lake Tahoe. The River then flows west for 87 miles and empties into Folsom Lake. The North Fork of the American River also flows into this Lake, and together, the combined forks form the American River. The South Fork is fed by numerous tributaries, including Silver Creek, Rock Creek, Silver Fork American River, and Weber Creek. 

The South Fork boasts eight sections of boatable whitewater, which range from class II to class IV. In addition to whitewater rafting, outdoor adventurers are drawn to the River for the hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking trails, and for the breathtaking foliage. The fall colors are sure to dazzle you, but if you visit in the spring, you’ll be treated to a beautiful landscape of rolling hills blooming with wildflowers.

The River is stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game every year with rainbow trout. The South Fork also contains non game species including the Sacramento pikeminnow, the Sacramento sucker, the California roach, the Kokanee Salmon, and riffle sculpin, in addition to the brown and rainbow trout. The rainbows average in length from 10 to 12 inches. With so many outdoor activities to enjoy on the South Fork, it can be a great destination to visit with your family, whether there are other anglers in your ranks or not.

American River (South Fork) Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots on the South Fork American River in California

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish American River (South Fork)

The upper reaches of the South Fork is relatively easy to access via Highway 50 (see map for access points). There are numerous pull-offs and picinic areas that provide access to the stream as it flows some 20 miles through Twin Bridges, Kyburz and Riverton.

Further downstream in the tailwater section below Chili Bar Reservoir, one of the best places to fly fish the South Fork is below Greenwood Creek. When the water level is low, boat access can be difficult. Follow the trail to the River, which is about 1.5 miles from the parking lot. If you follow the trails along the River, you will find several good bank access points.

Best Time to Fish the American River (South Fork)

The season for the South Fork of the American River is standard California trout season. The River is open from the last Saturday of April to November 15. Try fishing from early to late summer, and look for trout in the deeper pools.

Hatches on the the South Fork are typical of Sierra West Slope streams and include a variety of mayflies and caddisflies. Blue-winged Olives come off in March-April and then again in October-November.

Summer months bring Pale Morning Duns and caddis in June-August. There are also a variety of golden stoneflies that are active during the summer. Terrestrials are on the menu during summer too. Midges are present year round.

Fly Box – What You’ll Need

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the American River (South Fork):

  • Adams Parachute (#14-16)
  • Pale Morning Dun (#14-16)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (#12-14)
  • Yellow Humpy (#10-12)
  • Foam Ant
  • Hares Ear Nymph (#12-14)
  • Pheasant Tail Nymph (#14-16)
  • Golden Stone Nymph (#6-8)
  • Copper Johns (#10-14)
  • Krystal Caddis (#10-14)
  • Wooly Bugger (#4-6)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the American River (South Fork). A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

American River (South Fork) Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide an American River (South Fork) fly fishing report are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of California requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available. You can purchase a one-year, 10-day, two-day, or one-day license. Some areas also require a permit. You can purchase the license and learn about the most current regulations through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Trip Planning Tips

The nearest airport to the South Fork of the American River is the Sacramento International Airport, which is about 35 minutes away from your destination.

You can also travel to Reno Tahoe International Airport which would add about two hours to your journey. You can travel to any major or municipal airport in Central California and arrive at your destination after a few hours of scenic driving.

Placerville KOA is a great choice if you are traveling with your family. They offer close proximity to nearby attractions, including apple orchards and wineries, and they host a wide variety of family events, including movie nights under the stars. You can also enjoy their seasonal outdoor pool and classic arcade. But if you would rather stay indoors, National 9 Inn in Placerville offers modest, clean rooms and a free continental breakfast.

The South Fork of the American River is an excellent choice for your next angling destination. Whether you are fly fishing solo, or traveling with your loved ones, we guarantee you will make lasting memories on these waters.

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing California

Feature image by Saraivee