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Truckee: Funky flows, finicky trout
By Joel Shangle
Special to Great Outdoor Games

RENO, Nev. — Throw the element of a "home field" advantage out the window this summer in the ESPN Great Outdoor Games Fly Fishing competition. Even if the 12-man field of competitors is heavily stocked with western anglers — as it was in 2002, when nine anglers came from west of the Rocky Mountains — there's a good chance that each and every one of them will be faced with learning a "new" river.

Fly Fish
Even if the Fly Fish event is heavily stocked with Western anglers, as it was in 2002, the Truckee River will still present challenges.

Despite its potential for trophy trout, the Truckee River, site of the 2003 Fly Fishing competition, isn't a well-known fishery outside of western Nevada and Northern California. And even if the event's dozen competitors have had some previous experience wading the Truckee's chilly waters, they won't recognize the face of this stream if they haven't seen it in the past five years.

"This river has changed pretty much top to bottom since the late 1990s," says 2002 Great Outdoor Games regional competitor Andy Burke at Reno Fly Shop. "It's definitely a different river than it was in 1997."

That's because Mother Nature performed an extensive facelift that rearranged the Truckee's course in January of that year — one of the heaviest precipitation indexes in several decades in the Reno-Tahoe area turned into the New Years Flood of 1997. Over 2,600 cubic feet of water per second blasted down the Truckee for three solid days, causing millions of dollars in damage and, more importantly to the Great Outdoor Games fly fishermen, rearranging runs, riffles, structures and hatch habitat.

"In the whole scheme of things, the flood probably did some good because it flushed out the silt and cleaned some things up that naturally collect in a stream over time, but it definitely created some new conditions that we've all had to relearn," says Burke. "Huge trees that you would have fished are gone now, and there are new structure spots that didn't exist back then. The basic makeup of the river is still the same, but with several pretty noticeable differences."

The Truckee's course

The Truckee spills out of Lake Tahoe south of Tahoe City, California, winding its way north for 14 miles to the small town of Truckee before bending north/northeast and following I-80 across the California/Nevada state line for roughly 30 miles to downtown Reno. It then continues east for another 44 miles before emptying into Pyramid Lake.

  Truckee River flybox

Fishing the Truckee River during the summer is a lesson in mayfly and caddis. Fly patterns should include a wide mix of both wet and dry flies, with a handful of terrestrials and streamers thrown in.

Pheasant Tail (16-18)
Sparkle Caddis (14-18)
Caddis larvae/Rockworm (16-18)
Birds Nest (14-18)
Z Wing Caddis (14-18)
Caddis emerger (16-18)
Elk Hair Caddis (16-18)
Soft Hackle (14-18)

Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear (14-18)
Pheasant Tail (16-18)
Compara Dun (16-18)
Humpy (16-18)
PMD nymph (16-18)
Parachute PMD (16-18)

Little Yellow Stone (14-18)
Madam X (10-12)
Stimulator (14-16)

Terrestrials, Etc.
Black Ant (10)
Sculpin (6-8)
Woolly Bugger (6-8)

From top to bottom, the river provides one key challenge for the Great Outdoor Games' competitors: highly unpredictable water conditions.

"Water in July can vary from flooding to moderate flows," says Truckee-based guide Brian Slusser. "Normally the river is on its way down and evening hatches are starting to peak, but the water can change at any minute. It's the Sierras — snow wouldn't be (out of the question). It could be a trickle, or it could be too big to wade."

The Truckee's best fly water lies between Truckee and Reno, specifically a highly regulated catch-and-release, selective-gear-only section of river between Trout Creek (just below Truckee) and the state line. Water conditions here are heavily influenced by feeder streams, and by outflows from Tahoe and three other bodies of water: Donner Lake, Boca Reservoir and Prosser Reservoir.

"You'll see smaller water and more pools with a few riffles closer to Truckee, and big runs of pocket water closer to Reno," says Slusser. "Springs and year-around feeder streams keep it flowing when it's barely coming out of the lake, and releases from Boca, Prosser and Donner can really affect the section near Truckee. There's a mix of pools, riffles and runs but the best fishing is in the pocket water, and there's a lot of that."

Tough trout

The fish is the star in the One Fish format, and the Truckee holds both rainbows and German browns that could alter the course of the competition in one fortuitous cast. Most of the river's fish fall in the 7- to 12-inch range, but much, much bigger trophies lurk in the prime slots below Truckee.

"The biggest brown I've taped was 25 inches, the biggest rainbow 23 inches," says Slusser. "Most people catch the smaller fish, but when you least expect it, an 18- to 23-incher hits you. That's what the Truckee is all about."

It's also about having the patience and skill to fool famously finicky fish. With an abundant crayfish population and handful of caddis and mayfly hatches popping in July, there's no shortage of natural forage for the river's "educated" trout.

"I liken them to spring creek fish in a freestone habitat," says Burke. "They're not easily swayed by poor presentations. The Truckee is an approach river — you have to be conscious of your footfalls on the bank and you have to keep a low profile. If your indicator rigs splash around and make a lot of noise, you're sunk. Normally, if you get a couple of fish out of a run, it's time to move. They'll either vacate a run, which is a little unusual for most streams, or they'll stop biting. It's not an easy fishery."