Figure-1_Lower Stanislaus from the Air

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

This is a tale of failure…like so many are. I desperately wanted to get out of the house and hit the water somewhere, but with so few waters available to me and with logistics as encumbered as they’ve been of late, I decided to try a new place.  And so it became a bit of a scouting trip, with all the chances for failure that that mindset ushers in.

The lower Stanislaus river is said to hold large brown trout, but that’s upstream in the constricted gorge, where wading is utterly impossible and access worse yet. In the half-mile below that, the stream attempts to traverse the wide and warm central valley of California, which means it completely transitions from the tail end of a trout fishery to a smallmouth, then largemouth, then carp bath. And where the transition occurs depends on the time of year–how high is the sun, how warm is the land. As summer warms, a wall of warm water creeps relentlessly upstream to a trout’s detriment, and with it a horde of aggressive warm-water species keen to attack even 10-inch fish and certainly to siphon up the available food. For this outing I chose to see what things looked like for trout at about as downstream a point as one could hope to find them in mid-July, which was as decisions go my own fault, but the access was good and I didn’t have much time on this particular afternoon anyway.

Figure 1.  Lower Stanislaus from the Air

Figure 2.  Lower Stan Earlier in Summer

I’ve kayaked the ten miles below this point so many times in the last twenty years I’ve long since lost count. I’ve never seen a trout, or a trout fisherman either. I did once see a few large fish making their way upstream late one October, realizing years later that they were Chinook…but they’ll charge through anything that time of year because it’s their life’s destiny at stake, so it didn’t mean the water would hold trout by autumn.

So this late July day I was scouting an absolute prayer of a fishing spot. Now, scouting is part of the game. Who among us hasn’t visited new water, only to find it too shallow, or the hike deadly, or that we’re rushing the season and it’s still frozen over? Who among us has not hiked thousands of feet up to some high alpine lake shown on a topo map, to find it a bed of cracked mud? Who of us has never arrived with gear all set up to a place we immediately swear we’ll never revisit? I’m seeing no hands out there.

Figure 3.  Lower Stan and Covered Bridge

I got there, and it was hot. Twenty feet downstream of where I parked is the put-in for the ubiquitous procession of beer-laden rubber rafts, from where begins their float down to the nearest town. This was past 5pm so I’d expected the put-in to be empty, but shrieking picnickers were everywhere. I wisely hiked in the other direction, upstream past the restrooms, past the old ruins of a Spanish mission, past the old covered bridge, traipsing across it first to see if I could tell what the water looked like below…but I couldn’t because it turns out a covered bridge is…uh…covered. I continued with my gear upstream several hundred more yards on a trail that stood some distance from the river, until I spied a riffle down there where the low still water actually seemed to be pouring over something, and I turned off the trail to see if I could reach that spot.

Figure 4.  The Riffle I Chose

Hiking was difficult despite the relative gentleness of the terrain, partly because of a gimpy hip I’ve been trying to nurse back to youth, and the closer to the water I got the more I realized a number of things.

Now a scouting trip may not even end up in a set-up rod, I knew, so noticing details that can help on a return trip, possibly even in a different season, can be important. Things I find it useful to notice while scouting are:

–  High water line.  That by itself doesn’t tell an annually repeating story, but it might.

–  What constitutes the banks. The very narrow stretch here was lined on both banks with huge jagged boulders; to get to the water I’d have to find a way through them while keeping gear and skeletal system intact. This meant that places to wade would be few and far between. But there was little vegetation along these banks, so wading might not be necessary to get back-cast room. Still it might not be so easy finding a place that would permit casting to more than one little hole at a time. Fishing while boulder-scrambling usually means a lot more technical rock climbing, a lot more whacking of fine rods against sharp rocks, and a number of extra expletives.

–  Streambed type.  In this case the streambed was identical to the huge-clean-boulder banks–scoured, house-sized granite chunks. This meant there would be little if any silt, and it meant that slow-water subaquatic insects like midge larvae and scuds and damsel fly larvae would be scarce.  It also helped explain the large rocks along the banks–water clearly raged through here high and fast on a regular basis, with little in the way of soil left behind. If I came back another day it would be wise to check the level before making the 2-hour drive, and I made a mental note to find out what level it was today, for comparison.

In truth this river can be a fluid locomotive in spring and early summer, because the upstream spillway dam and the huge water-release gate a half mile above that are there to quench the thirst of the agricultural land all around. But once that phase of the year is past, this stretch is what it was today–flat water sliding downstream at some imperceptible rate.

Figure 5.  Lower Stan by Mid-Summer

– Algae. There was little on the submerged rocks, signifying that the water wasn’t tepid yet and that the current had still been considerable, relatively recently. Those data points would tell me what to expect if I arrived a few weeks earlier in another summer, and what kind of forage and what game fish might have taken up residence in the stretch.

– Fishing line or footprints right along the bank. I saw neither, but if I had it would speak to the fishing pressure this stretch sees.

Another thing that became evident was that the picnickers had easily reached this far upstream–there were trails a-plenty. They blared radios from everywhere a flattish spot could be found.  They yelled. They dove in the water and swam back and forth across the river…which told me it wasn’t cold enough for trout long before I ever dipped finger into water myself. On a scouting trip it’s vital to identify water temperature and commit it to memory for the time of year.

A partly disintegrating shoe didn’t help my rock-scrambling, but found a place I could balance myself, and set up a rod, to at least see if a wet fly might tempt a take in the aerated pool immediately below the twelve-inch pourover–the only aerated spot within hundreds of yards, per my gaze. This looked like it should be grasshopper country, but I’d seen none in the grass hiking down, and given the heat, the brightness of the day, and the noise no doubt transmitted through the water by bodies belly-flopping as near as 30 or so yards away, I opted for something subsurface.  Just maybe something was feeding in that hole below the hydraulic…

I got no takes. Despite it being 6pm, it still seemed like high noon. I eventually realized that if there were still trout in this section they’d be hunkered down conserving energy, feeding only at night. More likely they’d migrated upstream weeks before to where bass wouldn’t like it. When a series of skipping stones came within ten feet of my position from across and down, and I realized that two complicit teenage boys just didn’t care whether someone was trying to fish right there or not, I called it a day, packed up, and left.

Conclusions: This stretch might bear consideration in late winter, much earlier in the morning, very late in autumn, and farther upstream than large coolers and watermelons would care to be carried. But the scouting trip mostly yielded a firm decision that on a midsummer weekend afternoon it was a big fat no.

Well, such is the nature of scouting. One must know what waters, within one’s territory, might work and what will not. I came; I learned; I left. Lived to scout another day.

– Mike

Oh yeah…and sorry for the spelling typo in the article’s title…but as Figure 6 shows, I did indeed nearly lose my sole while fishing.

Figure 6.  Nearly Lost My Sole




  1. Nice story, Mike. You’re far more determined than I would have been. Scrambling around that kind of terrain you’re lucky that you only lost your sole. Even so, one must scout! Some truisms:
    1. He who does not scout finds no new places to fish.
    2. As old favorites are discovered by other anglers, finding new ones is essential.
    3. Remember to revisit formerly good spots that you’d written off. Things change.
    4. There are no Secret Fishing Spots, except for the ones that have no fish.
    5. Sooner or later scouting always pays off, if you keep trying.
    6. Success is all the more sweet for the failures that precede it.

    1. Thanks Mary. I like your six-point list, to which I’ll add one more:

      7. When skunked, calling it “scouting” is a useful face-saver.

      And I scout a LOT. : )

      I especially like your #4. Sad but true anymore.

      – Mike

  2. Mike:
    I know that area well. That is the area around Knights Ferry. My partner and I have scouted that area on several different occasions. Up stream on the opposite side from the rest rooms and past the covered bridge, there is a big hill. On the other side of the hill, if you look down, you’ll see a wide gravel beach. The water looks deep, as it winds around a big granite out cropping. We didn’t fish that day, but looks like a place to try deep with the proper fly. But there is a lot of current, so the proper weight will be critical. But I never cared for fishing in a zoo and any time the sun is out and it’s warm, that’s what that place becomes:

    1. A zoo is a good word for it Chuck. Thanks for the tip…if I get there late next spring on a weekday I’ll see if I can find the spot you mention. Of course in the spring it’s a torrent, with thousands of CFS released for the agricultural needs. Maybe late October is really the only good time–that or late summer around dawn.

      If you email me at my first name at my last name dot com, maybe we could swap a few thoughts on favorite local places, or meet on the water one day. There’s not a lot left this year although I do hope to get up onto the Calaveras for a couple of hours in the next 1-2 weeks, just to whip flies around in the air.

      – Mike

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