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