Silver Fork of the American
By Walt Simmons
Aside from the scenic section of Highway 49 that follows the North Fork of the Yuba River through Downieville, no highway is situated so close to, or for as long as US Highway 50 is from the South Fork of the American River. Comparing these two riverside stretches of highway is not truly fair, however. Highway 49, the North Fork of the Yuba and the historic town of Downieville are the principal attractions, where in the case of US Highway 50 from Riverton on upwards toward Strawberry, a comparative few of the worthy attractions along the way tempt travelers who have their sites set on Lake Tahoe and/or the various Stateline, Nevada casinos. Most of these people are from the Bay Area or Sacramento metro areas and after many hours behind the wheel, want nothing to do with anything that will impede their forward progress. This does not describe all US 50 travelers because a small subset chooses the destination of Twin Bridges from where they hike up the granite slabs of Horsetail Falls. Some stop at Strawberry Lodge to have a great breakfast, or to make the technical climb up the impressive north face of Lovers Leap.
All the while, the South Fork of the American churns along for miles to your right as you progress uphill on US Highway 50, in many places tempting the angler with riffles, runs and rocky pools. To be fair, “churns” is more of an early season descriptive. Flows often lighten up considerably by late summer. The DFG even plants catchable rainbows near Riverton. No matter how fishy this water may look to the passer-by, comparatively few people stop to wet a line, in many likely spots, the ambient cascading-over-the-rocks competes with the seemingly constant whirring of cars and the roar of downshifting semi trucks. Yet even smaller is the proportion of the US 50 travelers who pay any mind to a small, tree concealed and non-descript side road that follows the Silver Fork of the American, perhaps the most significant tributary to the South Fork of the American. I heard about the Silver Fork of the American a few times, and those who had been there described several quality riverside campgrounds in a tree lined canyon. They also spoke of decent trout fishing, though before further elaboration, it needs to be mentioned that not all of these people were fly fishers. Finally, I decided to see for myself what this stretch of river was really like, tempering my expectations for a scenic, if more sporadic wild trout locale.
First of all, the sign that advises you of the turn-off to Silver Fork Road just a mile down the highway is far more obvious than the point at which you actually turn off onto Silver Fork Road. I went on a Friday which ended up making this particular part of the journey that much more enjoyable. This is because had I gone on Saturday instead, it is certain that I would have been thrust into the uncomfortable position of trying to locate an unfamiliar turnoff while simultaneously enduring type-A drivers with acute “get-there-itis” behind me, shamelessly tailgating or worse.
Initially, Silver Fork Road is not immediately adjacent to the Silver Fork of the American, and it climbs up out of the South Fork canyon decidedly for a mile or so. Once the gradient lessens, I could see through the trees another expansive canyon. My first stop was to turn into China Flat Campground and check things out. The woman who greeted me was the Caretake, whose trailer was the first I saw upon entering the campground. She was very friendly and allowed me to drive through without paying a daily use fee once I told her that was not intending to camp or park for day use, but rather, to get a quick look at the site before some fishing. She directed me to a day use area just above this campground, where there is a small pedestrian footbridge. This bridge was certainly originally built as an access to an early-20th century cabin that is situated a few hundred above the bridge, currently undergoing restoration. It was here that I got my first really good look at the Silver Fork, and I was immediately taken by its beauty. It is really a classic Sierra stream that leaves you with the feeling that the frenetic pace of nearby US 50 is considerably farther away. Knowing better than to waste time fishing right by the campground, I walked upstream on the west bank, discovering many scenic sections where the water cut through the granite canyon base. I surveyed the water from the bridge and other vantage points with polarized glasses, noting that there were few fish in this area. A camper out on a leisurely hike saw me surveying the water for trout and he commented to me that I was several days early for the DFG planting, and that was certainly the reason why there were few fish to be seen. I thanked the gentleman and moved on, considering it a better use of my time not to engage him in a conversation about my relative indifference about the timing of my visit and the first DFG plant date.
Unlike Yosemite and parts of Emigrant Wilderness where granite looms high on both sides, the granite here is beneath the conifer-dappled canyon ridges, exposed in few places subject to centuries of erosion. I found that this river became more striking with upstream progress. It offers many features that are copasetic for trout to hold. There were some undercuts, deep pools, pocket sections, small runs and steady riffles. Though sections are purely granite, there are places where meadow sides and riparian shrubbery surround certain parts of the river and places where the water races over consistently smaller rocky substrate. This is the kind of place that you can look at and know that certain holding areas must be suitable for a small, elite population of oversized trout, but mainly you will recognize that the very modest number of smaller trout is what accounts for the vast majority of the river residents.
The time I chose to explore and fish the Silver Fork of the American was a time when the shad were running on the Lower American River, the latter being only a few miles from my house. One might ask why I would forego the electric charge of a shad on the line for a longer drive for smaller trout. The answer is simple for me since I am sometimes given to observing the masses and doing the opposite. Relative solitude while fishing was an objective at this particular time as there was still much to ponder and process in the aftermath of the recent death of my father. The Silver Fork of the American was just what the doctor ordered, in spite of appearing to be something quite less than a wild trout factory. My trip was early in June and the water was still flowing strong, clear and cold. I only walked a short distance above the footbridge, recognizing that on the opposite side, Silver Fork Road is right next to the river, offering myriad stopping places where insuring a steady diet of catch and take fishing pressure.
I decided to drive upwards to a place along the road where the river ventures farther from the road, and that a hike would afford me access to sections of water that the majority of the people lack the motivation to explore. I eventually caught a small rainbow by using a nymph rig, consisting of a size 14 green Fox’s pupa and a size 16 BH pulsating caddis. This fish was about 10 inches, and very pretty one at that. However, the coldness of the water and the time of day made for a slow day overall. I was soon to feel the agony of defeat as I adjusted my strike indicator and dead drifted this same offering past an undercut section, missing a set on what I suspected by the intensity of the jolt to be a much larger trout. That section sat in the shadows at the time I fished it and occasional browns are known to reside in these waters, so I contemplated what might have been and pressed onward.
Make no mistake about it, the lower reaches of the Silver Fork of the American River is a classic Sierra stream setting, but if you will set yourself up for disappointment if you set your gauge of angling expectations according to a fisheries such as the Upper Sac or Lower Yuba River. Perhaps more than an angling pursuit, the Silver Fork of the American attracts quite a few whitewater kayak enthusiasts in early season, seeking out some of the many cataracts over granite drops. Not to duress on kayaking, it should be noted that this stretch when in high flow is not for beginners, and a kayaker died recently as a result of being sucked into a strong hydraulic from which there was no escape. As an angler who seeks trout of the wild variety, approach your mission with the consideration that the location and scenery and the journey are at least as important as the fishery. As you progress away from signs of civilization, the stream has a wild feel. There are times when you walk up this stream when you get the idea it is a freestone type. However, many miles above, the Silver Fork of the American is regulated by a dam at Silver Lake, a fine Stillwater fishing destination of its own right on Highway 88. Actually, Silver Fork of the American is regulated by two dams when you consider that it receives the inflow from Caples Creek, dammed at Caples Lake, another fine fishing objective on Highway 88.
Accesses to Silver Fork of the American beyond China Flat Campground are at Girard Creek Rd, Silver Fork Campground, and at the bridge where Silver Fork Road crosses a top end of a miniature granite gorge. One can park at a trailhead area on the right of the bridge and hike into the backcountry, and it’s approximately a mile to where Caples Creek merges with the Silver Fork of the American. It is in the stretches above Silver Fork Road where the chances of dances with wild trout increase. The farther you progress, the less likely you are to find any large trout, but the numbers of seven to nine inchers will increase. This is not to suggest that large trout are absent in the waters above Silver Fork Road. Granite slabs and benches are common as the gradient increases, and there are quite a few pools, several of which are patrolled by a decent sized brown or two. A nine foot five weight is likely as much rod as you will need on the lower stretches, and that’s more a wind issue when compared with the relatively lower chance that a pool lunker will smack your fly. Up higher, anything above a four weight is like killing a mouse with a cannon for about 90% of the time. If your goal is some of the “pool kings”, then you will want more backbone than a sub-5 weight can provide. This is scenic backcountry in which Caples Creek and the Silver Fork of the American traverse. It is where sugar pines eventually yield to lodgepole pines, and granite benches and miniature domes are plentiful. This area is now under consideration for being designated as Caples Creek Wilderness. The Sierra Club and other hiking-oriented political action groups are in strong support of the wilderness, while off-road vehicle groups strongly oppose. No matter the outcome, there is solitude and trout, albeit mostly of the small variety, to be found for someone willing to strap on a backpack and explore.
Overall, I felt the lower canyon of the Silver Fork of the American offered considerable mountain stream beauty, though large stretches here proved to be more ideally suited for the family camper where the introduction of hatchery trout would provide a modest thrill and frying pan bonus for someone with a jar of salmon eggs, single hooks and sliding egg sinkers. It is probable that some of these planted trout can survive and naturalize, but a far greater number are unlikely to survive long enough to do so. A little bit of walking can improve the prospects of finding wild trout. However, my preference and future objective is strap on a backpack and spend a night or two in the country well away from the roads between Silver Fork Road and Silver Lake Dam. That’s where there are more wild ones to tempt.
If You Go
Clearly, the best way to work these waters is to stay a night or two in the area. Not only does this afford access to the water at the dimly lit times of day when the fish are more likely to be duped by your offering, but it gives you more time to penetrate and retreat from areas that are farther than the typically under-motivated masses are willing to explore. The upper stretches offer backpacking with mild gradient by trails and non-technical cross country hiking. If you like camping, China Flat Campground and Silver Fork Campground offer comfortable sites for a very modest fee. If you need something with more amenities, you may wish to consider Strawberry Lodge, several miles above the Silver Fork Road turnoff. One last thing I want to mention is not anything to be considered trivial unless you posses the patience of Job. Exiting back onto US Highway 50 from Silver Fork Road, whether you are eastbound or westbound, can be excruciating. The frequently constant flow of traffic in both directions makes it a game of patience, nerves, wit and acceleration to get back onto US Highway 50. If you go on a weekend, the better bet (especially if you’re heading westward) is to take Silver Fork road up to where it ends at Mormon Emigrant Trail. If you’re Sacramento or Bay Area-bound, take a right on Mormon Emigrant Trail where you will arrive at the much better regulated access to Highway 50 at Pollock Pines. If you’re headed toward Stockton or Modesto, take a left on Mormon Emigrant Trail and a right turn on Highway 88.
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