Northwest Fly Fishing

Best in the West?
By Chip O’Brien

How would you characterize the great lower Sacramento River fishery, the water between Redding and Red Bluff, without hyperbole or being accused of being economical with the truth? So it goes with anything having the distinction of being the biggest, best, or the most grand. The fact that this renowned wild trout fishery seems utterly misplaced within plain sight of office buildings, palatial homes, shady city parks, and nearly 100,000 people leads one to the almost inescapable conclusion: Only in California.
   Yet the California so infamous the world over—tinsel town, home to movie stars, surfer culture, and millionaires—is more than 500 miles from this place. Here is clearly another California where the lower Sac is popularly known as the best wild trout stream on the West Coast. This fishery produces wild rainbow trout in numbers impossible to quantify. There is too much river, too many trout, and they migrate from area to area like flocks of underwater birds.
   This is big water, so grasping its nuances might seem a little daunting, like learning to fish the Pacific Ocean. Some anglers forgo the big river altogether and concentrate on the tributaries—the upper Sac, McCloud, and Pit Rivers—all excellent trout streams in their own right. Despite its sometimes seeming like a wetter version of the massive Interstate 5 freeway that parallels the river, despite its flowing through a big city, despite its moodiness and eccentricities, the quality of the fishing redeems it all. Most residents of Redding are oblivious to the fact that they live in such close proximity to so many big, wild rainbow trout, and that it’s possible to crack the code. 
   The notion that all of this sounds like a great foundation upon which to build a business hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. Fly-fishing guides abound in Northern California. In fact, will anyone not a lower Sacramento River guide please raise your hand? The lower Sac is not merely a trout stream; it’s an entire subculture. To speak intelligently about the river, it’s necessary to understand the jargon. The upper Sac refers to the almost 40 miles of gorgeous trout water above Shasta Dam. The lower Sac, the object of this writing, refers to the water below Keswick Dam just north of Redding. It flows down to Red Bluff where it is interrupted by the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, and remains terrific trout habitat at least as far downstream as Chico.

 

Overview
While the river’s reputation as an angling destination is not misplaced, that does not necessarily translate into easy fishing. The Sac gets a lot of fishing pressure, but the fish are still there and they have to eat. Those who enjoy consistent success have learned a few things that keep them above the fray, some common to all wild trout venues, others more site specific.
   Given the fact that these fish see a lot of anglers and a lot of drifting flies, it’s that much more important not to insult the fish with shoddy presentations. These fish require skillful dead drifts every time and the ability to set the hook like greased lightning when called for. Another secret is to cover a lot of water (best accomplished with a drift boat). Lower Sac trout move around, so it makes sense to do the same until you find success.
   Not all of the hatches happen in all of the river. You may stumble upon the one riffle in the Sac where Pale Morning Dun mayflies are coming off and the fish are gorging on them, and nowhere else. The aquatic insect base is both abundant and varied, so matching the hatch is just as important as showing the fish a few different flies. This almost sounds like Mission Impossible, and it would be except for the fact that these fish are almost constantly feeding. They want to eat your flies, so help them do it.
   Beyond a rod and reel, the most important tool you can bring is a drift boat—yours or a guide’s. That’s not to say you can’t wade-fish and do pretty well, but you severely limit yourself in terms of the quantity and quality of water you can reach. The lower Sac is a massive river even in low flow months (September into May). It never occurs to many wading anglers that just because the water next to the bank is deep and fast, that not all of it is. There are plenty of shallower areas that might offer great fishing in the middle of the river, inaccessible to wading anglers. A driftboat also allows you to move around at your leisure without feeling limited, and this is a huge asset. Drifting anglers don’t have to be concerned with making long casts because they always have the option to move the boat closer to productive areas.
   Generally speaking, flows run 12,000 to 14,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) from May into September, and 4,000 to 5,000 cfs during the rest of the year. Potential things that might upset these traditional numbers are drought (not enough water behind Shasta Dam) and big rain events. Anglers without drift boats have many more options during low-flow months, but they are always trumped by anglers who float.
   While there are opportunities for dry-fly fishing worth cultivating, by far most of the fish are caught on nymphs under strike indicators. A professional entomologist friend of mine ran a study and concluded there were approximately 2,500 aquatic insects per square foot of river bottom in the lower Sac. That’s like living in a Hometown Buffet, and needless to say, there are always nymphs and emergers caught in the drift. Successful lower Sac anglers learn how to manage different nymphing rigs while spending as much time as possible fishing and as little getting untangled.

 

Hatch Madness
In a system this big, it’s difficult to discuss aquatic insects with a lot of specificity. Though it might sound ridiculous, almost every aquatic insect you can think of probably hatches somewhere on this river at some time of the year. That information might not help much in terms of knowing what nymphs to carry, but the point is, carry a lot of different sizes and colors. If you’re prepared for the major insect groups most abundant on the river, you’ve probably got your bases covered. The Sac has tremendous populations of caddisflies and mayflies, some seasonal stonefly activity, and tons and tons of eggs. 
   One of the interesting (maddening?) things about this river is that there are a lot of small, localized hatches, and you never know what you might find. I’ve seen huge, yellow Hexagenia mayflies hatching along slow, muddy banks. The river has a healthy population of craneflies and the fish may focus on them. Alderflies, terrestrial insects that look like black caddisflies and hatch in the spring, can get the fish active when buzzing around bushes overhanging the water. I’ve seen localized hatches of Little Yellow Stoneflies in late spring. Spend enough time on this river and you’re apt to see just about every kind of bug you can imagine, and trout blissfully gorging on them.
   If I had to pick one nymph to fish year-round, it would be a small mayfly pattern like Kevin Price’s Nosepicker PMD or Mike Mercer’s Micro Mayfly, size 16. If you asked me why not a caddisfly or one of the many effective egg patterns, I would be forced to speculate. The fact is, trout always seem to prefer mayfly nymphs, even when there are a billion caddisflies blanketing the water or even salmon in the river cranking out eggs like an assembly line. Could mayflies taste better? Are they easier to catch than other foods? You’d have to ask a trout those questions, but I’ll stick to my guns. If I had to choose one fly, I’m going with a small mayfly nymph all the way.
   Speaking of mayflies, the most likely fly you will encounter (you might have to look closely) during the cooler months are tiny Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) mayflies. These are common on many western rivers during the cloudy, rainy days of winter and spring; on the lower Sac, they are somewhat distinctive. Their wings seem to be about one size longer than their bodies. That is to say, the bodies of these lower Sac BWOs run around a size 16, but their wings tend to be size 14.
   I’m not sure if it matters much to the trout that sip them off the surface on drizzly winter afternoons, but if you tie your own dry flies with slightly longer wings, they are easier to see, and that is, of course, helpful. During the warmer months, there are also large numbers of PMDs in the system, so there is never a month when a small mayfly nymph is not a good option.
   February and March bring sporadic stonefly action on the river, so carry a few size 8 dries (Stimulator, Madam X, Goofball, Mercer’s Flush Floater Foam Stone). Though not enough people give it a chance, fishing a big floating stonefly on top and dragging a smaller nymph behind as a dropper has proven to be deadly on the lower Sac on some spring days.
   During spring and summer, the caddisfly hatches on the lower Sac can be ridiculous, especially when there have been several years of low water (drought). The big March/April Brachycentrus caddis (called the Blanket Caddis Hatch because the bugs hatch in such abundance, they blanket the surface) can be amazing to behold. Picture tens of thousands of caddisflies on the surface and hundreds of trout noses slurping one after another after another. It’s the stuff of dreams, but fishing under such conditions can do funny things to your sanity if you are not catching fish.
   The thing is to make your bug a little different, but not too different. Try fishing a dry one size larger than the natural, or even giving yours an occasional twitch. Not only will these tactics help your fly stand out from the other bazillions on the water, but you will also be able to see your fly better.
   Again, most lower Sac anglers fish nymphs most of the time, but that’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for dry-fly fishing. In fact, a pod of rising fish can magically materialize at almost any time or place on this river. The most likely times for fish to be eating mayflies or caddisflies on the surface are on spring and summer evenings, but it could happen almost any time. During the fall and winter seasons, especially on overcast or drizzly days, there might be afternoon Blue-Winged Olive hatches. These hatches often draw fish into fairly shallow water, so the trout can be quite spooky.
   Be sure to rebuild your leader when going from nymphing to dry-fly fishing. Probably the easiest way is to have leaders for each premade and connected to your butt section with a loop-to-loop connection. For dries, I prefer 12- to 14-foot leaders tapered to 5X. If you can manage it without tangling, it’s a good strategy to fish two dry flies, about 18 inches apart, the bottom fly knotted to the bend of the hook of the top fly.
   After the spring Brachycentrus caddisflies begin fading, the summer Hydropsyche caddisflies move in and take their place to little fanfare. Most anglers can’t tell the difference and the fish don’t seem to give a rip. The Brachycentrus are case builders, slightly smaller, and greenish (sizes 14 to 16). The Hydropsyche are net spinners, slightly larger, and tannish (sizes 12 to 14). That’s pretty much all you need to know. They are close enough in size and color that the same flies serve for both hatches. These caddisfly hatches present dry-fly opportunities just before dark. During the warmer months (it can remain 110 degrees well into October), the river sees a good mix of caddisflies and mayflies, and the trout respond in kind.
   While salmon are spawning every month of the year, the real “egg hatch” begins in the fall. A lot of guides always use an egg pattern as their bottom fly regardless of time of year. By the time the king salmon start showing up in good numbers, the flows are low and the river is almost too wadable. Trout stack up in schools below the salmon redds to pick off eggs that get washed downstream. Drift boats can easily reach these trout without doing damage to fragile redds, but many wading anglers cannot or just do not. Every year, I see excited anglers wading right through redds without the slightest inkling of the damage they’re doing to the fishery. Guilty anglers are likely to get a good scolding from guides who see them doing it.
   Sometimes identifying salmon redds can be difficult, especially when multiple salmon have been using the same area and might have subsequently moved on. Redds are bowl-shaped depressions in gravelly areas anywhere from 2 to 4 feet deep, usually about 3 feet across. There may or may not be salmon still in the vicinity. It’s up to every wading angler to adopt a better safe than sorry attitude and resist the urge to wade through these areas during the fall.
   The list of guides who ply some portion of their living from the lower Sac is extensive. The Fly Shop alone (the largest guide presence on the river) runs around a thousand lower Sac trips each year, and has been doing it for decades. The parade of drift boats waiting to depart from popular launch ramps can resemble a Costco checkout line on a Saturday afternoon.

 

Perspective
Shasta Dam was completed in 1945 and Keswick Dam, just above Redding, in 1950.Before these structures were installed, much of what is now Redding was uninhabitable due to seasonal flooding. Oldtimers describe the Redding fishery before the dams mainly in terms of the king (chinook) salmon runs and how anglers could virtually walk across the river on the backs of salmon.
   The river and town surrounding it have changed substantially since then. The river no longer floods. Salmon runs have dwindled to the point where rainbow trout are now the real kings of the river.
   Mike Michalak and partner Brad Jackson founded The Fly Shop in Redding in 1978. Jackson left the business in 1987 and Michalak has been sole owner ever since. It’s doubtful that anyone else could offer a better perspective on the lower Sac fishery spanning as many years as Michalak. Recently, he shared with me his long-term perspective on the evolution of this world-class fishery:

   The Fly Shop’s primary guided destination in 1979 was the Klamath and its remarkable run of half pounders. Second on our list was Fall River, and behind that our guides—Brad Jackson, Mike Mercer, and myself—spent a bit of time on the Trinity, and very little on the Sacramento.
   Efforts began in the 1980s to restore the king salmon fishery below Shasta Dam. With every improvement and measure intended to help the chinooks, the trout fishery improved unintentionally. The crowning achievement, which ensured the upward spiral of the health of the resident trout fishery between Redding and Red Bluff, was the water-temperature-control device assembled on the lakeside face of Shasta Dam.
   By reducing the temperature of the downstream water, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was increasing the annual growth cycle of the trout by an amazing 60 percent. What happened then was predictable. Trout began growing faster. Larger trout produce exponentially more spawn. More spawn, more fish, all of them growing faster, and pretty soon, we had a superb tailwater fishery in our backyard. 
   I credit our own guides with developing and refining the techniques that are so effective on the lower Sacramento, and for expanding the scope of the drift fishing to include water far downstream of Redding. Like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Fly Shop had little to do with the creation of a great fishery. That part was
almost accidental.

   Today, we have a sense of what the river was like before dams tamed its torrents and trout replaced salmon as the primary focus. Thanks to all of the talented guides and anglers who fish the Sac nearly every day, we’ve developed an appreciation for how remarkable the trout fishery has become. The only question remaining is, what happens to this incredible resource in the future? We all play a part in writing that chapter.

 

The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.