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Outdoors: Historic look back at the American River

By: J.D. Richey
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Over the past couple of seasons, I’ve had the pleasure of taking Dennis and Red Davis of Georgetown down the lower American River in the drift boat.

When I floated the brothers down the creek in 2012, it was the first time they’d been down the American in decades!
 
For the former Fair Oaks residents, it was a trip down memory lane and, oh the stories they told!
 
Red, who is in his 80s now, recalled fishing the river in the pre-Folsom and Nimbus dams era (he also helped build Folsom Dam, which was completed in 1954). Back then, he says, the river in the summer was a trickle barely 40 feet across. But without the flood protection afforded by the aforementioned dams, the American could also turn into a frothing monster after a big winter storm. 
 
The Davis boys both remember the river climbing up toward the bottom of the Old Fair Oaks Bridge at high water. Just for reference sake, the deck of the bridge is now about 20 feet above the water.
 
This week, we caught some nice steelhead in the 30-inch range and Dennis told me that in the old days, the typical American steelhead was much smaller. It makes sense — the big hatchery steelies we see on the river in the modern era were originally brought over from the Eel River. Presumably,  the Department of Fish & Game introduced the larger strain of fish to give anglers more trophy fishing opportunities than originally existed on the river. 
 
Speaking of fishing, I asked Red to go into more depth on what the angling was like back before the dams. It’s fascinating to me  because I feel like I have a long history and connection with the American, having fished it for more than 30 years now — yet these guys had fished the river and moved on long before I was even born. Their relationship with the stream goes way beyond mine. 
 
Anyway, Red told me that in addition to fall salmon and spring steelhead, the river was loaded with smallmouth bass — and some good ones at that. The best all-around fishing  in his estimation, however,  was for catfish. They didn’t reach epic proportions, but they made up for their lack of size with numbers and tastiness.  Red said the American also had a good crop of sturgeon back in the day. 
 
Again, I find it so interesting that not only did the river look incredibly different from the one that I know, but the species composition was quite dissimilar as well. In my three-plus decades on the river, I have seen exactly one smallie and zero catfish or sturgeon. I’m sure that has a lot to do with the fact that water was warmer before the dams. 
 
I was also very interested to hear what the river looked like where the reservoirs are now. Red says they used to launch their little two-man life rafts by Rainbow Bridge up in the town of Folsom and do a float down to Old Fair Oaks — the entire drift is now covered by Lake Natoma. 
 
In that stretch is a now inundated landmark called Hindu Rock — and just above Rainbow Bridge was a place the locals called the Sturgeon Hole, which
was a deep pool below a cataract. The falls were formidable enough that sturgeon couldn’t make it over them and, thus, they piled up in very catchable numbers just below. 
 
Dennis says that the area from Folsom Boulevard north to the river was declared useless by government surveyors and when he and his brother were fishing and hunting the area, there was a house about every half mile or so. Obviously, developers eventually decided the area wasn’t a wasteland after all and  population densities have changed a bit since then! 
 
A lot of the names of spots on the river have since changed as well. Present Day Sailor Bar (allegedly named for a Navy man who drowned there) used to be known as “Cutter’s” for the landowner who used to run cattle there. 
 
The area now referred to as Upper Sunrise was “Bill’s Bar” back in the 50s — again named for the old man who lived there. 
I wish I could find some old pictures or video of the river in those days, but alas, there weren’t too many 8 megapixel iPhones or YouTube users back then. 
 
But I sure am grateful for the living history that Red and Dennis share with me when I get to  fish with them!