Plain and simple, the Clavey River is my all-time coastal rainbow trout fishery. The remote nature of this undammed river that careens over granite boulders and deep canyons is nothing short of perfect. What’s more is the way it changes throughout the season. During runoff, this understated river rages and is a deadly whitewater destination for kayakers from around the world. Large fish are known to make their way up river from just above the falls which feed the Tuolomne. As the surge subsides, these lovely 16-inch beauties hang around for only a few weeks to spawn before descending into the nearly unreachable lower ends. The more accessible and no less stunning upper two-thirds of the river house plentiful numbers of 7- to 12-inch ‘bows whose genetic integrity is about as strong as possible, given the rich stocking history of our fine state’s fish and game department. Certainly the anadromous populations of steelhead found in the Smith River are purer, but when it comes to locked resident populations, they don’t get much better than the Clavey lineage.
In September, we were in Northern California visiting family and decided to make a very long day trip to the river. Earlier in the summer, the Rim Fire raged through the area. I was devastated as I daily followed along with its destructive progression. Thankfully the upper Clavey was spared, and this was our targeted area. The early fall colors were in swing, and it was a lovely day on the water. Up this far the fish aren’t large. Ten plus inches is a real beast. But it wasn’t the size of the fish that were enticing. It was the peaceful and beautiful afternoon with my wife and native trout that I sought.
The low water levels revealed a different Clavey than I had never seen. The bog-deep swimming pools were gone. Instead, a twisting, turning, and jackknifing ribbon of water replaced it. Massive boulders created small plunge pools. The rocky bottom showcased a bouquet of color that would perfectly hide an approaching rainbow from unknowing buggers. Nooks and crannies for trout to scurry and hide in were everywhere. Normally inaccessible reaches were now replaced by plentiful niches to protect perfect trout. This large river was transformed into an alpine stream, and I must admit that I was caught a bit off guard.
I was not remotely concerned about spooking fish when we arrived. Heck, I even brought a set of hip waders. Instead, I needed stronger wading sandals to support my ankles over the granite landscape. It didn’t take long for me to settle down and adjust my approach. I would need to be stealthy and to present dry flies with a very long leader/tippet. The slightest thwap of the fly line would send the fish zipping for cover. Think exposed alpine stream at 10,000+ feet in elevation. That’s what this became. Game on!
Numerous fish were brought to hand, and after a few hours, we made our way back to the car to grab lunch. A random mix of crackers, cheeses, cured meats, sports drinks, and fruit sated our appetites, and it was nice to relax in the shade as we listened to the light wind in the redwoods. That faint whistle and occasional pop of a too-far bent branch is about as calming as it gets. Throw in the distant sound of the babbling river, and a brief nap was in order.
It wouldn’t be long before we’d be forced to retreat back to civilization, so we fished another hour or so and delighted in the few fish I brought to hand. Soon enough, it was time to load up the car and leave the mountains through Sonora, eventually passing through Gold Country until reaching Hwy 50. What a day!