Sacramento River

Northern California's Sacramento River system is huge, diverse and unique in terms of both water types and fishing opportunities . . . All of it, thankfully, is first-class fly fishing water with streams containing thousands of fish per mile and a fish biomass in the reservoirs measured in tons per square acre.

But beyond being merely massive and varied, the system is also constantly changing as water levels expand and recede throughout the year. Both man and nature play a role in keeping the Sacramento ecosystem in a constand state of flux. Know a thing or two about what to expect at various times of the year is an essential aid in not wasting valuable fishing time chasing wild geese. It's every bit as important for an angler to develop a sense of where not to be at a given time, as it is to be able to pinpoint the best fishing throughout the year.

Sacramento River

Upper Sacramento

Although the Sacramento River begins as two trickling forks that feed the the impoundment name Lake Siskiyou, the classic fishing water begins where the combined flows bubble out from beneath Box Canyon Dam southwest of the town of Mount Shasts. Flowing mainly from north to south, the 38 miles of flowing water between Box Canyon Dam and massive Shasta Lake is known as the "upper" Sacramento River, and is considered by many to be the premier Northern California wild trout stream. And considering the overall quality of other streams in the vicinity, this is saying a lot.

One thing you will notice about the upper Sac is the staggering clarity of the water. This, by the way, can be quite deceiving for the hapless wading angler enthusiastic to stick a few early season trout. The water is usually deeper than it appears, almost beckoning an angler to wade just a little deeper.

Traditional upper Sac flies

Another incredible feature of the upper Sac is that almost the entire river runs adjacent and parallel to the busiest north-south traffic thoroughfare on the west coast, sprawling U.S. Interstate 5. Virtually any exit off this superhighway between Shasta Lake to the south and the town of Mount Shata to the north will put you within a few minutes of prime trout water. And if a major superhighway weren't enough, all but the top few miles of this stream is also closely paralleled by railroad tracks allowing almost unlimited access to those willing to walk a little. Though it might seem to some an unlikely mixure, the determined chugging of trains up and down the river seems to add an irresistible ambiance found in few other places.[For a Map of the Sacramento River click here.]

Suprisingly few anglers are willing to walk the tracks in search of remote fishing. In a state with a population in the tens of millions, it seems outrageous that so few are willing to hike even a scant ten minutes to get away from designated parking areas . . .

Shasta Lake

One of the largest and grandest reservoirs on the west coast is Shasta Lake. When the lake is full it boasts 270 miles of shoreline and 29,500 acre feet of water. Two much water, you way? Leave it for the Budweiser Bass Fishing Team, you say? Well fly fishers shouldn't be too quick to declare Shasta unfishable, and are in a great position to take advantage of fluctuating water conditions.

Shasta was formed when a dam was built below the confluence of four great rivers: the Sacramento, McCloud, Squaw Creek and the Pit River. When the lake is full boaters can motor miles up these tributaries and have access to seemingly unlimited numbers of remote coves and bays within which to fish. But when the lake level drops in late summer, water that was once lake turns miraculously back into running water creating terrific opportunities to fish beautiful, remote an productive water left alone by most Shasta Lake anglers. This is water just made for the wading fly fisher.

Andy Burk's Shasta Lake patterns

And few people take advantage of these conditions. It's understandable why most boaters prefer to fish deeper water from the comfort of their watercraft, but they are really (sorry) missing the boat. A great tactic is to motor up as far as you comfortably can, park your boat and walk the banks until you find wadable water. These areas hold abundant populations of both wild stream fish and large Shasta Lake hatchery fish. Whichever you are able to connect with, the fishing can be really outstanding. In all the years I've been fishing this running lake water, I've seen very few anglers and never once could I have described these locations as crowded.

Another successful tactic for boatless anglers is to hike into these areas from the nearest road access. This usually ins't difficult. One of my favorites is the McCloud river arm, since Gilman Road (an exit off U.S. Interstate 5) closely parallels the water for miles in an area that is frequently turned into running water. There are numerous turnouts 15-20 miles off the freeway from which you can see the water. The further you are willing to hike, the less likely the water has been fished by anyone else in the recent past. And all the water is absolutely beautiful.

One more thing. The water on the Pitt arm of Shasta Lake is subject to daily fluctuation from the Pit 7 Powerhouse upsteam. Just be aware the depth and velocity of this running water might increase, wade accordingly. By all means pay attention. Don't waste time fishing the slower water and pools in this area since they contain few trout and many rough fish species. The trout are in the riffles and faster runs in this section.

Alabama spotted bass

In addition to the native trout trapped behind the gargantuan structure [Shasta Dam], non-native fish species were also introduced to maxamize the sport fishery. Over the years many experiments failed as various species couldn't adapt to Shasta, but several have been successful enough to create the immensely popular fishery we have today. But it has to be approached on its own terms. If you want the best fishing, you have to have the right equipment.

By far the best way to access this big water is from a power boat. Unless you plan to limit yourself to fishing one specific small area (a less than brilliant idea on Shasta ), leave your float tube and tiny pram at home. Part of the appeal of Shasta is its beauty and openness. Plan to see some of it while you hunt for fish. The other necessary piece of equipment is an electronic fish-finder.

I know there are a few "purists" out there to pooh-pooh the use of such technology in fly fishing. Well, let them waste all their time going nowhere and fishing blind on Shasta while the rest of us catch fish. Leave it at that. There's simply too much water here to approach it any other way. A power boat will allow you to get around Shasta efficiently and the fish finder will tell you where the fish are. Remember, you still have to get them to bite.

Spring and Summer

The problem with April is it offers too many choices. In the back of my mind is the knowledge that the Brachycentrus caddis hatch on the lower Sacramento in Redding is at its peak. There can also be some terrific opportunites to fish the same hatch for truly monster trout on the upper Keswick Reservoir. But the lure of Shasta Lake is often strong enough to drag me away from these other great fishing locations.

The best place to locate rainbow and brown trout during warmer months is far up the various arms where the cooler waters merge with Shasta Lake. Shasta trout may be either wild or hatchery fish, but few fish in this water are ever small. An initial stocking of about 200,00, 10 or 11-inch rainbows are planted in the spring with regular plants continuing throughout most of the summer. Because of the abundance of threadfin shad in the lake, it takes only a few months for these hatchery trout to reach 16 inches or larger. Most of the trout caught exceed 18 inches. There are also plenty of wild rainbow and brown trout in Shasta.

Fall and Winter

During cooler months most fly anglers go after Shasta Lake trout. While the major tributaries like the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers close to fishing around November 15th, Shasta Lake is open all year. As long as you are fishing below the last riffle in these running water systems, it is legally considered part of the lake. In other words you can fine some high-quality stream-like fishing for big trout in these areas even after the traditional trout season has ended. Besides, its one of the best times of the year to be on Shasta.

Fishing The Far Side Of The Moon

Below Shasta Dam there's a mysterious ribbon of trout water that defies traditional still water fishing methods. Stretching about nine miles before coming to the next dam in the system, Keswich Reservoir shares attributes of both lake and stream and beckons to those who have learned to keep an open mind. Wild rainbow trout to 19 pounds provide sufficient motivation.

The Lower Sacramento

Mike Mercer on the lower Sac
The flows below Keswick Dam through the city of Redding seem to have an inverse relationship to levels in Shasta Lake and create two very different rivers. In between Shasta Lake and Keswick Dam is nine miles of water called Keswick Reservior that fluctuates not seasonally, but daily . . .

Located about three miles north of the city of Redding, the water referred to as the Lower Sacramento emerges cold and deep from below Keswich Dam. For about 25 miles this river is considered one of the finest wild rainbow trout fisheries on the west coast, flowing right through the city of Redding, a growing city of almost 80,000 people.

It's obvious that trout would move around within the river as various hatches and other food sources become available throught the year. But the huge fluctuation in water levels between the seasons intensifies this movement to the point where you cannot always count on water that's proven productive in the summer, producing well during the winter. In fact, that productive riffle you discovered last summer might not even be under water in the winter.

While it might seem that nothing stays the same for very long in the Sacramento River system, one thing remains constant. The successful anglers has to think about how the changing flows might effect the fish, as well as access for fishing. A little knowledge and related strategic planning can produce impressive results.

Spring and Summer of the Lower Sac

You can fish dry flies for impressive rainbows within easy sight of hundreds of people sitting at desks, working at their computers and talking on the telephone. The best part is, at least for today, you're not one of them.

Clearly the answer to catching these magnificent fish most of the time is caddisflies. The entomology of the lower Sac is indeed rich, about 2500 insects per square foot of river bottom, and heavily tipped in favor of caddis. Two bugs in particular, the Brachycentrus and Hydropsychid caddisflies, are super abundant and carry the fish and the angler through most of the warmer months. [For the flies, click here.]

Fall and Winter Fishing on the Lower Sac

The lower Sacramento River offers angling opportunities 365 days a year, so the fun and challenge never end. But cool weather angling on the river is decidedly different than summertime river flows, accessibility, flies and techniques all undergo a marked transformation. In order to keep up with this constantly changing ecosystem, the successful angler has to be willing to abandon trusted flies and techniques and approach the river with an open mind.

The first thing you will notice is that there's a lot less river. Depending on the year, flows from beneath Keswick Dam will drop from 12,000 to 14,000 cfs range to 4,000 to 5,000 cfs, usually in mid-September. What had been previously a drift boat fishery transforms overnight into a wader-friendly river allowing almost limitless access. Gone are the days of having to give consideration to safety before entering the water, but another factor comes into play which begs the wading angler to be extremely careful before setting foot on the stream bottom.

The Sacramento River above the Deschutes Bridge is managed as a sanctuary for spawning Chinook salmon. Almost constantly during the cooler months the river is host to many thousands of huge, ocean-bright salmon building redds, or nests, on every suitable shallow gravel bar in the river. You can almost see the conflict coming.

Too often well-meaning anglers in the throws of fish fever look at the opportunity to catch egg-gorging trout behind the salmon redds without noticing they are tramping all over the redds. And we might as well come clean. Fly fishers are no better about this than anyone else.

Olelbis, Creator Spirit of the Wintu people, reached up and broke off a strip of the sky. Then, sharpening one end, plunged it into the earth at the base of Mount Shasta and carved out the McCloud and the Pit Rivers, and finally the Sacramento.

According to the Wintu legend, all life sprung from their beloved river and each man, woman, tree, animal and fish was to be revered and respected as a connected part of their Creator. Perhaps the colorful people and lurid legends surrounding the river first set the stage for the remarkable romance people seem to feel for the Sacramento. ~ Chip O'Brien

For a map of The Sacramento River, click here.
For the flies for The Sacramento River, click here.
To ORDER Sacramento River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Sacramento part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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