A Fishing Experience on The Fly Shop’s Private Waters of Northern California

It wouldn’t be the first time I discovered I had a bad attitude about something without fully considering the facts. My prejudice against private fly fishing venues ran something like, “Private waters are for anglers with too much money, and not enough skill.” Fortunately, life sometimes tosses you opportunities to get to the bottom of your own issues while you are still vertical; while still on that road to enlightenment.

For me, fly fishing has always been about skill; pursuing, maintaining and refining it. And what better judges of skill than selective, wild trout genetically programmed from the basement of time to look down their noses at anything less than perfection? Yet friends of mine who are good anglers and are not loaded treat themselves to a few days of private waters fishing every year. In one of life’s fleeting moments of abject honesty I posed myself the question, “I wonder if the problem is me?” 

Last summer I was allowed to check out four of the ten or so private Northern California ranches managed by The Fly Shop in Redding, to see what I thought. I’d known Duane Milleman who started and runs the program for a lot of years, so I just gave him a call. He couldn’t have been nicer, hooked me up with some dates and let me figure the rest out for myself. The experience was not at all what I expected.

It’s not just for rich guys. Some ranches are fancy with gourmet food and deluxe accommodations. Others are bare bones where you pay a modest fee (way cheaper than a lot of other things we do), bring your own food and spend a great day fishing. By not fishing a public venue, you could say you’re reducing pressure on fisheries that are often already too popular. You’re keeping the rod, reel, wader and float tube manufacturers (fly fishing magazines) in business. The fishing is not necessarily easy, and it’s healthier than going to a bar.

Antelope Creek Ranch

They call it the “Disneyland” of trophy trout fishing, and it struck me as a lot happier than the actual “Happiest Place on Earth.” Getting to there from Redding, almost two hours north and east, is a trip worth taking. Once you leave the I-5 corridor at Weed, the landscape rises and changes dramatically with a high priority on natural beauty and a low priority on human population and a sense of time. There’s a hint in the air of what the West might have been like long ago, and while the concept of time seems altered and irrelevant, the thought of spending some of it here fishing inspires childhood feelings of freedom regained, like the blissful first day of summer. The ranch is open for fishing May through October.

The lavish, modern lodge sits along Antelope Creek with manicured lawns surrounded by natural beauty. It is Disneyesque. The creek runs through the ranch and, though it looks completely natural and appealing, significant planning and restoration work have transformed it into first-class small stream trout habitat. A classic meandering meadow fishery, it twists and turns through stands of aspens, riffles, runs, pools and deeply undercut banks. The fish are a combination of mostly small, wild browns; wild and hatchery rainbows. If your heart isn’t set on huge fish, this is an exceedingly pleasant and challenging place to test your skill.

There are two ponds on the property, both able to satiate almost anyone’s big fish lust. The fish are rainbows, fairly large and not too difficult to catch, except when they are. Almost any bead-head nymph hung under a small strike indicator will produce. So will stripping a woolly bugger or leech pattern on either a floating or slow-sinking line. It doesn’t take long to realize you will catch fish here. Ah, but if this were always true eventually ennui would rear its ugly head. Fortunately nature and the trout’s  amazing inclination to become selective often sets in to keep the fishing from becoming too easy.

Just like that, the fishing can turn from relatively simple to maddeningly difficult, especially when there’s a hatch. The hour or so before dark can be magical with lots of rising fish. But the fish are trout, not suckers in any expression of the term, so don’t expect them to be easy. We had one of those sorts of evenings on the Wildlife Pond just before dark.

Who hasn’t experienced almost complete exasperation when trout are rising all around, boiling and churning the water everywhere, except in the vicinity of your dry fly? You wouldn’t necessarily expect that at a private ranch, but the trout apparently didn’t get that memo. Suddenly it seems the trout had fast-forwarded from being chumps all day long to PhDs in the evening, and it felt suspiciously like there was muffled trout laughter in the air. Clipping off and tying on dry fly after dry fly, it seemed like the only difference between “private waters” and spring creek fishing was that we had the place all to ourselves.

While the ponds are designed to offer room for bank access, you’re almost always better off in a float tube or pontoon boat. The Wildlife Pond below the lodge is the smaller of the two on the property, but there is no lack of sizable fish in either one. Upper Lake was recently enlarged, and it provides bays, islands, an inflow and an outflow. It’s a truly gorgeous place to spend time, especially when you’re landing big fish.

Antelope Creek also has a “Fish Camp” facility on the property dedicated to teaching young people. What better way to get kids into fly fishing than in fly fishing heaven on earth? Not only do they have an opportunity to do some catching along with their fishing, but they also learn what a great fishing spot can look like; great habitat treated well and completely devoid of litter. They are also taught the catch and release ethic from the start, suggesting that fly fishing is more about mastering a skill than merely providing a meal. It occured to me that The Fly Shop was grooming their own future customer base; but even on my most cynical day I couldn’t find fault with that. These kids will be the future members of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited and California Trout. 

Clear Creek Ranch

Though civilized in all of the best ways; private, beautiful, comfortable, big fish; Clear Creek feels wild, remote and pristine. Owing to the fact that Clear Creek is naturally deep and the access rugged, hardly anyone would describe this fishing as easy.

Not far west of Redding geographically, it takes about 40 minutes to get there. At the ranch, there is no illusion that you’re fishing some sort of man-made fishing playground. Clear Creek’s charm is that it’s tough, primitive, and you can’t make a backcast every place you might want to. Rather than plush accommodations, there are three cabins, two Spartan, one opulent, each on its own fishing beat. Bears and rattlesnakes are your closest neighbors.

While at Clear Creek we got to watch a Fly Shop crew “seed” the river with fish, some of which were huge. Because Clear Creek is part of a larger system where fish might move up or downstream or fall prey to otters and other fish-eating animals, the river requires regular maintenance to keep fish in their respective beats. The habitat is good enough that, once in the stream, even larger fish tend to put on weight.

Anglers fishing Clear Creek need to adapt their fishing to the unusual depth of the river. Not all of it is deep, but it’s not unusual to fish nymphs six or eight feet below a strike indicator. While most (not all) of the fish were bred in a hatchery, they very quickly adopt the canny cynicism of stream-bred fish. It’s entirely possible to get skunked on Clear Creek which, in my mind, somehow vindicates it from being considered an “elitist” fishery. I can respect a river that doesn’t give up its treasures too easily

Some sections of the creek are wadeable; others not because of the depth. You can fish most of the water by standing on rock outcroppings along the banks, but anglers who can’t identify poison oak have no business here. A day of fishing Clear Creek is also a day of climbing, hiking and getting a lot of exercise, so be prepared. Most of the deeper slots contain very large rainbows.

Management of the Clear Creek property is designed to imitate what it would be naturally, without humans to fish it out or Mother Nature to blow all the big fish downstream in seasonal floods.  Sometimes its necessary for waters to be private, if only to keep people from screwing up what nature is capable of making.

Hat Creek Ranch

An hour or so east of Redding, not far from Rising River Ranch once owned by both Bing Crosby and Clint Eastwood, Hat Creek Ranch is tucked away in a lava field not far from Burney, CA. There are three ponds to fish as well as a section of Hat Creek on this delightful working peppermint farm. We caught fish in Hat Creek, but since it was still somewhat blown out and off color from a higher-than-normal spring runoff, we concentrated most of our efforts on the ponds.

The pond closest to the cabin is Creek Pond. It’s fairly small with a piece of Hat Creek funneled in and out of it to keep it full. These fish were eager and almost every nymph we tossed out under an indicator got results. Because of its close proximity to the cabin, this is an easy after dinner or evening spot with very active fish.

Reservoir Pond, the lowest on the ranch, is a short drive on dirt roads through the peppermint fields. Had there not been trout rising and cruising the shallows, I would have sworn it was a weedy bass pond. What was most stunning here was the sheer number of damselflies we saw. After making a cast from the bank it wasn’t unusual for at least a dozen of these bright blue bombers to settle on your fly rod until you wiggled them off again.  I’ve seldom seen so much life as there is in these ponds, and it’s easy to imagine how huge a trout might grow here.

While we were there the new pond was simply referred to as Middle Pond. We could not hook any of the huge cruisers we saw there. It was weedy and just as full of damselflies as Reservoir Pond, but the fish were extremely difficult. We were mesmerized watching huge rainbows working predictable, repetitive feeding circuits, taking their time and being ultra critical. Our attitudes might have been different had there not been two other ponds with more cooperative fish close by. “Heck,” I figured, “I don’t even have to leave home to get rejection like this!”

Rock Creek Lake

When we pulled into Rock Creek Lake hidden hidden in the wooded hills an hour southeast of Redding, we immediately thought there must have been a mistake. There were guys in float tubes fishing, when we thought we would have the place to ourselves. It wasn’t about us, we just didn’t want to take away from the fishing experience of the other four guys already there. Fortunately the guys couldn’t have been nicer or more fun.

One of the first things they told us was that there was hardly any point in fishing during the day. They had already been there a few days, and had released a couple of fish during daylight hours, but the real action happened, they said, just before dark when the Callibaetis mayflies were on the water. They encouraged us to give it a go, and their description of the fishing proved to be spot on. I was able to lose two fish on nymphs while waiting for the bugs to pop. When they entered the water there were six of us altogether in float tubes, a pretty dramatic float tube hatch. But there was playful banter back and forth which assured my buddy Larry and I we could relax with this group. A stream enters the lake in the far, left hand corner, and this is where the action began.

As daylight faded there was a rise, then another, then another. For the most part they did not seem to be concentrated in any one area, but happening sporadically just here and there in that corner of the lake. Soon it really got going and there were more and more bugs on the water, and even more big trout sipping them in rises that did not betray their actual size. Soon there was a carnival atmosphere and bent rods all around. The fishing was hot, but we had to wait for it. One of the fish landed on a dry fly and released took over twenty minutes to net and stretched to 27 inches. Strangely, I had a hard time finding anything to complain about that evening.

In my deepest soul, I’m a wild trout guy. I’ve spent a good portion of my life supporting, pursuing  and defending wild trout and the precious habitats where they thrive. It’s no secret that without vigorous activism, these places might vanish leaving even the hard cases pursuing liver pellet-fed hatchery rejects in cement-lined canals. OK, maybe it wouldn’t really be that bad, but giving up those wild places and selective fish would mean losing something of incalculable value; something that’s become a part of me.

But on the way toward making the world better for wild trout and anglers, what’s wrong with also opening up more angling opportunities in places not formerly open to the public? I got to witness first-hand some of the back-breaking work The Fly Shop has put into enhancing or creating these fishing opportunities, and it isn’t easy. Neither is the fishing. There are other private fly fishing programs and venues in Northern California that may also be worth checking out. If they are run half as well as The Fly Shop’s private ranches, then they must be an asset to fly fishing.

So the problem was me, but at least I can admit it. The next time you are inclined to make judgements about things before getting all the facts, well, there’s always politics.

Learn more about fishing The Fly Shop’s private waters in Northern California.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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