The Headwaters: Fly Fishing the Santa Ana River


trout mouth-1

Article contributed by Editor in Chief J. Townsend. Photography by J. Deardorff

It is mesmerizing how much one tiny item can cause so much enjoyment, happiness, frustration, and sadness. In the most simple form, a fly is nothing more than a hook, feathers, fur, and wire which is skillfully constructed by the hands of the fly tyer. In a complex sense, that same fly is constructed with a predetermined set of conditions, environment, water flow, and fish species in mind. Depending on how it is cast, allowed to sink or float, will yield fruitful or bare.

With all this said, I recently had the pleasure of chasing wild trout at the headwaters of the Santa Ana River near Big Bear Lake, California. These same waters converge together with other local streams to form the same Santa Ana River that is seen flowing through the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. At the headwaters, you feel so far separated from the hustle of the city down below. You feel far removed from everything other than your pursuit.

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Justin casting

This stream, is pocketed with rainbow, brown, and what I believe to be German trout for more than 11 miles of fishable water. I warn you, much patience is needed to cast your fly, but holding true to that patience will definitely pay off. The fish here are visited often by people, both anglers and hikers, so they are weary to your presentation. I felt a great deal of frustration at presenting a variety of flies to a group of five fish for the better part of an hour without one bit of interest shown.

The environment could only be described as remote and peaceful. The stream is bordered by many species of trees, to include oaks and pines. The stream is not wide nor is it really worthy of wading. At most points you can simply hop across. Your best strategy is to hike along its banks and spot the fish. Once spotted, you must carefully aim your fly and be precise in the presentation for there are many downed logs and overhanging branches.

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The odd, disinterested behavior of these fish was later explained to me by friend who resides locally. He said that many people go swimming in this area of the stream and feed the fish. While this seems enjoyable to them at the moment, they are creating unforeseen problems which not only affect me in my angling, but impacts the survival of the fish. The fish learn to rely on the food from humans and will not seek out insects or other natural prey. This makes fishing these fish difficult unless you can fashion a fly which resembles trout food.

Justin with troutAs I previously stated, there is a fine line between frustration and delight, in regards to fly fishing. One cast can completely change your mood, and the results of the trip. For me, that one perfect cast was made as I presented an Elk Hair Caddis fly directly in front of a very pleased trout. I saw him rise, bite, and make an attempt to run with the fly in mouth. In the moment when the rod bends, everything negative is forgotten and dismissed. All of the ill-fated thoughts fade away and the pleasure of the “fight” begins. Then after a few moments of fighting, when the fish is in the net, you are able to look down upon the fish and admire its beauty.

The rainbow colors dance across its scales and the flashy silver glows in the sunlight. A quiet word of thanks leaves you with a decision. Do you release it back into the water to return home, or do you keep the fish to be prepared in the most respectful dish? In streams which require catch and release fishing, I will always return the fish, but in this case, this trout will feed my family for a meal. I smile as I slide the trout into the creel. My opinion of this stream has certainly changed for the better and I look forward to exploring the waters further.

trout scales

Justin Townsend

Justin (Choctaw) is an avid hunter, angler, and chef whose passion for the outdoors lead him to create Harvesting Nature in 2011. He continues to hunt, fish, and cook all while sharing his experiences with others through film, podcasts, print, and with recipes. He also proudly serves in the United States Coast Guard.

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