THE Lower Sacramento TAILWATER.
HOW MANY RIVERS DO YOU KNOW Where you can wade out on a riffle and hook a battling 5-pound rainbow trout? Not many, I'd guess. The lower Sacramento River--right where it flows through California's largest northern city--is one place where you can.
The tailwater section of the 148-mile-long Sacramento River, from Keswick Dam near Redding, California, downstream about 23 miles to Anderson Park, contains a remarkable rainbow-trout fishery. The typical wild rainbow weighs 1 1/2 pounds. Two-and 2 1/2-pounders are numerous. Three-to 5-pound fish are often caught, and a battle with a 28 incher is a distinct possibility! The prospect of hooking as many as 50 fierce-fighting rainbows in a day is good.
Not to exaggerate, it's been my experience that one good day on this river can be enough to warm a muscular fellow's rod arm. The reason? The lower Sacramento's football-shaped rainbows are the hardest-fighting rainbow trout I've encountered anywhere in North America. They are more than a match for any comparably sized Alaskan rainbows, which until I fished the lower Sacramento, or "Sac," ranked at the top of my list of hard-nosed freshwater battlers.
Because the rainbows are so strong, landing them can be more difficult than hooking them. When the river flows at around 8,500 cubic feet per second (cfs), you can expect to lose half the fish you hook. You need a strategy for landing big rainbows before you hook them, especially if you use barbless hooks. Once you hook a big fish, you must play it cautiously until you know its size. Last September I hooked an 18-incher that fought like a fish twice ice as large. In a way, it was. The fish had a girth that virtually matched its length.
Endangered Species Benefits
THE LOWER SACRAMENTO RIVER TROUT FISHERY developed, in large part, as a result of major efforts under the federal Endangered Species Act to save the river's legendary Chinook salmon fishery. After the salmon were placed on the federal Endangered Species List in the early '90s, the Bureau of Reclamation and others took steps to improve Chinook salmon spawning habitat, which in turn led to an improved trout fishery.
Some of the major river improvements included the installation of a water-cooling facility at Shasta Dam, the cleanup of a polluted mine discharge, and the establishment of a stream-corridor program that protects the river's feeder creeks from siltation and warming. The efforts had the cooperation of the city of Redding. Shasta County, and the National Resource Conservation Service, among others. The time, effort, and money put into providing cooler, cleaner water for successful salmon spawning, hatching, and rearing has made the Sac a world-class trout river.
Now salmon are in the Sacramento every month of the year, according to Harry Rectenwald, senior environmental specialist and aquatic biologist with the California Department of Fish & Game. Four distinct races of Chinook salmon make their way to the lower Sacramento, he says.
The rainbow-trout story began with the construction of Keswick Dam on the Sacramento River just upstream of Redding in 1946. Keswick Dam, seven miles downstream from Shasta Dam, regulates the Sacramento's flow. Water released from the dam provides a cold flow for trout and salmon. By the late '70s, the tailwater was a fine trout fishery, but not world class.
When I started fishing the lower Sac in the early '80s, I was amazed at how uncrowded it was. I was surprised that there could be a high-quality tailwater fishery in California without anglers competing for space as they do on other major Western tailwaters. I discovered that many local fly fishers didn't know that excellent trout fishing existed right in the center of their hometown. Despite the fact that the fish are now chunkier and the fishing is now better than it was in the '80s, many local anglers are still not aware that a trophy trout stream flows literally right through their backyards.
The lower Sacramento River today has plenty of wild trophy trout lurking in its riffles, pockets, and deep runs because it is managed as a trophy-trout fishery with restrictive harvest regulations. From 650 feet below Keswick Dam to Bend Bridge, about five miles north of Red Bluff, the river's daily creel limit year-round is one hatchery trout or hatchery steelhead (recognized by a clipped dorsal fin, clipped adipose fin, or both). From April 1 through August 30, in addition to a hatchery fish, anglers in the Keswick-to-Bend section may keep one wild trout per day. No barbed hooks may be used at any time of year between Keswick Dam and Deschutes Bridge. There is no open season on Chinook salmon above Deschutes Bridge.
The river has good public wade-in access in Redding, at the Knighton Road access and at Anderson River Park (good riffles and more than a mile of river available).
The River's Flows
THE LOWER SAC IS BIG, FLAT, and deceptively swift. It is charmingly urban where it flows through Redding, compared to the wild canyon environment of the upper river. Below Keswick Dam, canyon and forest yield to green, brown, and gold cultivated lands, followed by river-front mansions with extensive, well-manicured lawns, stately black oaks, and graceful weeping willows.
You can catch fish with flies on the lower Sac anytime, but the fishing is best two or three days after a flow change. Once the flow has stabilized, search the water to find where the fish are holding-easier said than done. When you find the fish, concentrate your efforts on similar water. Visiting anglers quickly discover that hiring a local guide is the best way to find the fish. For information on the flow rate on lower Sac and the nearby Trinity River, call the Bureau of Reclamation, (530) 246-7594.
The lower Sac is best fished from a boat when the flow is below 20,000 cfs. When the flow falls below 10,000 cfs, wade-fishing becomes practical, but wading is much easier when the flow drops to around 5,000 cfs. It is easy to wade the long riffles when the water level is very low (about 1,400 cfs).
During the late '70s and 'SOs, flow changes (controlled at the dam) occurred quickly. This not only threatened wading fishermen with fast-rising water, but also stranded fish when the flow dropped just as rapidly from 10,000 cfs down to 5,000 cfs in a day. One of the major water-flow improvements was to modernize the irrigation dams so that it is no longer necessary to change the flow at such a radical rate. That has helped both the fish and the fishermen.
March, April, September, and October normally present the lowest flows (5,000 cfs to 8,000 cfs), but weather permitting, midwinter and early-spring fishing can be outstanding. The flow usually increases in May, causing high water (10,000 cfs to 15,000 cfs) at about the same time warmer weather arrives. This can bring on big-time caddis hatches.
The big March hatch is a greenish-bodied Brachycentrus caddis in #16 and #18. The predominant summer caddis hatch is a #12-#14 Hydropsyche. Larvae of this species have a greenish color, pupae are amber-colored, and adults have brownish bodies.
NYMPH FISHING IS BY FAR the most productive fly-fishing method during most of the year on the lower Sac. The river is rich with nutrients which produce abundant food for trout. The water teems with caddis, mayflies, craneflies, and golden stoneflies, plus a fair number of forage fish.
Studies conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game before the river improvements showed that caddis are the predominant aquatic insects trout eat. According to biologist Rectenwald, during drought years the caddis hatches are dense. If there's a big, scouring winter, however, they're not as dense, but still present in sufficient numbers to make for outstanding fly fishing, he says.
My first lower Sac experiences were with guide Ernie Denison, who knows how to find 3- to 5-pound trout. According to Denison, the keys to fishing the lower Sac are mobility and having a good feel for when the hatches are likely to occur. Unfortunately, unless you live in Redding and follow the river's variables on a daily basis, the best way to locate the trout is to float the river, which you can do with a guide or on your own, since there is ample public access.
Hatch/no-hatch situations. There arc two basic situations on the lower Sac: hatch and no-hatch. If there's no hatch under way, you can catch fish by fishing the riffles and cuts with a nymph like the Gold Bead-head (G.B.) Bird's Nest or the fur-veiled, glass-bead-body G.B. Pulsating Caddis. Rig with a kingsize (1 1/2-inch diameter) floating strike indicator made of poly-yarn heavily doped with floatant (see illustration).
Flies. Green- or olive-body caddis pupa patterns seem to work best in March and April, and tan and brown patterns have an edge from May through September. For mayfly nymphing, a rusty-bodied Hunch Back Infrequens (H.B.I.) nymph is deadly from roughly October through February.
When you fish areas that are thick with spawning salmon (October through December), start with a two-fly rig--a Glo-Bug at the point and a G.B. Pulsating Caddis on the dropper. Mike Mercer, manager of The Fly Shop, can provide a complete list of seasonal flies and their dressings.
March (occasionally February) through April is prime time for midday caddis hatches. Caddis pupa fishing lasts all summer and through the fall, until there is a cold snap. Because of the large, air-resistant strike indicators used and the frequent windy conditions, a 9-to 10-foot, 5-, 6-, or 7-weight rod is ideal for meeting the Sac's hatches. My personal choice is a medium-action 10-foot, 6-weight.
During spring and summer, most guides and lower Sac veterans favor #12 through #16 flies suggesting caddis pupae. Dry-fly fishing is difficult to call. On certain summer days when you might expect the dry-fly fishing to be good, it can be virtually impossible to get a fish to take a dry. On other days, you can do well with drys, but not all day long.
During the fall months, the lower Sac has caddis and Baetis mayfly hatches. The hatches follow a midday schedule during low-water flows.
Glo-Bug time. Before the fall Chinook run became endangered, old-timers say, there were so many salmon in the river that all you had to do was chuck a Glo-Bug near some salmon to find rainbows. In some river sections with good spawning habitat (near Redding), that's true, to an extent, today. If you can find spawning salmon, you can often find rainbows behind them feeding on eggs. To protect spawned salmon eggs, avoid wading among the redds.
To catch rainbows behind the salmon, use a big strike indicator and add enough split-shot to the leader to get the fly down to where it will lightly bounce along the bottom. Gauge the shot size to the type of water you fish. A dropper fly, usually a bead-head caddis pupa or nymph, can be attached directly to the leader about 20 inches above the Glo-Bug. Cast the rig up-and-across stream (with a stack-mend cast) and drift the fly naturally to the fish without drag.
Hatches of Baetis frequently appear on overcast winter days, and when it's sunny and warmer, caddis hatches can appear. The Flashback Pheasant-tail Nymph in #16 and #18 is one of the best winter patterns for imitating the lower Sac's Baetis. Dress it with a little weight under the thorax. A #18 copper-bead Poxyback Nymph is another good producer.
TO FISH A STRIKE INDICATOR AND NYMPH from a drift boat effectively, your fly must land in a fish's feeding lane (or a suspected lane). Make a stack-mend reach cast to give the fly enough slack to sink and to set up a drag-free drift. Pay out additional slack line quickly to extend the drift down the fish's lane for as far as you can maintain visual contact with the strike indicator.
Some anglers swing nymphs in conventional fashion while wading or casting from an anchored boat. This method misses the benefits of using a strike indicator--achieving a drag-free presentation and presenting the fly directly to the fish at its feeding level. It is not the preferred method, except in situations where you spot fish feeding in extremely low, clear water and they would spook if a large, bulky indicator drifted overhead.
In the area around Bend, about 42 miles downstream from Keswick Dam, large #6 and #8 flies like black Woolly Buggers, Olive Matukas, and Spruce Flies can be deadly from April through October. You can fish them a couple of ways. One way is to use a sinking-tip line to work them through big, open riffles by stripping in line to retrieve the fly. The other is to use a floating line, a 9-foot or longer leader, and split-shot to swim the flies through the pocketwater. Again, strip in line to work the fly around rocks and deep holes. Some anglers use weighted flies for this technique.
WHEN I FIRST STARTED FISHING the lower Sac in the 1980s, a competent fly fisherman could expect to hook from 7 to 10 good fish on an average day. Now, a good day is likely to produce 25 or more hookups and from 8 to 25 fish to release. On the occasional "glory days," a proficient fly fisher might tie into 50 or more fish, but he'll bring only about half of them to the net for release.
When the river flows at 8,500 cfs or faster, the fish have a distinct advantage. That's little consolation when you hook a really big lower Sac rainbow--like I did last September--and the fish heads upstream at 30 miles per hour and doesn't bother to stop when it has run you out of backing!
REX GERLACH is a freelance writer from Garden Grove, California.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 1999|
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