By Chris Shaffer
Many northern California anglers feel intimidated by the Pit River between Lake Britton and Lake Shasta. This cold-flowing section of the Pit is full of rainbow trout that can be easy pickings for anglers with a fly rod, spin-casting gear or a bucket of worms.
And yet dozens of miles of roadside fishable water can be intimidating. Not knowing which sections of the water to fish can be an element that pushes anglers onto fishing smaller, better-known systems. But with a little bit of research and confidence in your ability to catch fish, fishing larger rivers and streams can yield bigger catches. If you know where to fish on the Pit, it can offer some of the best roadside coldwater fishing in the state.
The Pit poses several options to anglers. While some of the river is accessible within casting distance of your parked car, other stretches require hikes down well-maintained paths, bushwhacking through dense brush or a steep trek down a narrow canyon. The availability of fishable water is unlimited. You simply have to decide what type of experience you are looking for. Whatever it is, the Pit will offer it. There’s enough open water and good access for every angler to have their own honey hole.
On the other hand, fishing the Pit isn’t for everyone. Many anglers consider the Pit to be the toughest river to wade in the state. It’s recommended that if you are going to step foot in the river you use the buddy system and bring a wading staff.
“Wading the Pit River is like standing on a bowling ball covered in snot,” says Mike Dean, the northern California wild trout biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. “It’s treacherous wading. Make sure you watch your footing.”
Treacherous, yes. But definitely doable.
When it comes to fishing for wild rainbow trout in a backcountry setting with little pressure, few places rival the Pit. It is an excellent tailwater trout fishery that combines quality fish with the possibility of outstanding catches.
“The Pit is an interesting place. It is fairly nutrient-rich water because it comes from the Pit Drainage,” Dean said. “It’s fairly productive. The water is fairly cold and there’s a lot of trout in the system.”
No section of the Pit River has been planted with trout in at least 25 years. However, at one time or another every section of the Pit has been stocked with some strain of rainbow or brown trout. On the other hand, all the fish in the system now are part of a wild, self-sustaining population.
Dean says adequate spawning streams throughout the river make it likely the Pit River will never again be planted with trout. The population is in great shape.
This lower section of the Pit River can be split in smaller micro sections: Pit River III, IV, V and VII. These sections of the Pit are separated by hydroelectric facilities managed by the PG&E. Water is highly regulated throughout the river.
The most well known section of the Pit River is the stretch directly below Lake Britton, known as Pit III. Set aside as a wild trout water, this is the only section of the Pit governed by special regulations. Pit III anglers can keep two fish per day, each of which must be 18 inches or longer. Most anglers, however, practice all catch-and-release in this section.
Pit III is an excellent tailwater fishery that is only going to improve. Decades ago very little water flowed through this stretch at times, keeping fish populations low. However, increased flows, including over this summer, have allowed the trout to prevail. Base flows that were 150 cubic feet per second in 2003 have increased to 300 cfs this year.
According to Dean, the Pit is going to improve.
“I think you’ll see more fish, and I’m willing to bet you lunch for a week that if you give it two or three years you’ll see more fish and bigger fish in there. You have more water and more habitat,” Dean says. “The fish are going to be able to get into places that they couldn’t get into before. They are going to have more pools and bigger pools.” Yet there’s more. The additional water will improve water quality, lower water temperatures and of course, provide better habitat. As part of a new licensing agreement PG& E is also required to install ne
w gravel bars to improve spawning. The Pit is going to be in great shape.
“Productively it’s a big thing. There’s a lot of food in the water,” Dean says. “The Pit is a great system for trout.”
Despite its benefits, not all anglers are thrilled about the increase in flows to the Pit.
“It’s going to make it more difficult to wade, and their favorite fishing water will change,” Dean said. “Some of the places where you used to wade across the river you can’t wade anymore. Some of the riffles are going to be runs now. Others will be cascades. It’s going to be a whole new river.”
Pit III is primarily a rainbow trout fishery; brown trout make up just 10 percent of the trout population. Pit III runs roughly 5.5 miles and maintains a healthy population of 14- to 16-inch trout, slightly bigger than the entire river’s 12- to 14-inch average. Wild trout surveys suggest a catch rate of 1.5 fish per hour by all visitors. Veterans of the area average something closer to five fish per hour.
“The wild trout section is great because it’s colder water, it’s better trout habitat and there’s not as many non-game fish in there,” Dean said.
Fishing Pit III can be done many ways. The majority of anglers fishing this section will definitely be fly-fishing with indicators and nymphs.
While fly-fishing is the choice method for most anglers, tossing yellow 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Panther Martins with a silver blade can’t be beat. I landed three Pit River-strain rainbows with a spinner before my fishing partner and now-retired guide Jean Rodgers landed his first fish on a fly rod. Spin-casting can be excellent for anglers tossing across riffles, into deep holes and at the beginning of runs. Don’t waste your time fishing slow water with spinners. Keep in mind all hooks must be barbless in this section.
Honestly, if you fish this wild trout section with spinners, you are going to get plenty of dirty looks from flyfishermen. I know I did. Flyfishermen are very protective of this section of the river. Many fly-fishing guides from Redding and the mountain communities make their living on this river and aren’t thrilled about anglers using hardware. However, if you pinch the barbs on your hooks, you are well within the legal limits and shouldn’t feel bad about fishing a spinner.
In August nymph fishing can be excellent. Nymphing is the most productive way to be successful. Size 6 and 8 dark stonefly nymphs and black rubberlegs and size 16 Prince Nymphs and Copper Johns are your best bets, as well as bead-headed Pheasant Tails and caddis pupa in cream and green.
When it comes to fishing the surface, salmon flies are key. Unfortunately, they only hatch in May and June. Elk hair caddis in size 16 are typical on summer evenings. Fall marks the time for October cadis. Try a size 6 or 8 orange Stimulator.
Pit IV and Pit V fall downriver of the wild trout section and have no angling restrictions save for the state’s general regulations. A daily bag limit of five fish can be kept, and angling methods are not restricted.
“It’s bigger water down there,” Dean said, “with big forebays and bigger water, and there’s more food. It’s almost the same as a fish in an aquarium syndrome. It’s like putting an Oscar in a small tank. It won’t grow so fast in the small tank, but if you put it in a big aquarium, it grows like crazy.”
The same goes for trout: Smaller rivers tend to harbor smaller fish.
“You don’t see a 14-inch trout very often in a small stream; you see 6- or 8-inch fish,” Dean said. “If they have lots of space, food and water, they’ll grow more quickly.”
The lower stretches of the Pit have more space for the fish to grow and, subsequently, they grow to become larger trout than those upstream. They also look quite different than the fish in the wild trout section. While the wild trout section rests in a heavily forested area, the lower stretches are situated in much drier terrain. You tend to find more gravel bars, deeper holes, and bigger, faster water.
If you can get a good drift with your bait, it’s not uncommon to land some hefty trout running anywhere from 16 to 24 inches. There are some lunkers in many of the deeper holes. Catching trout from 3 to 5 pounds can be quite common for anglers who put their time in.
It’s best to come rigged with an arsenal of gear. While fly-fishing can be productive in this lower section, most anglers can be found tossing spinners and drifting night crawlers. Night crawlers are a great portion of the trout’s diet, because after a storm many of them are washed into the system. Hands down, they are probably the most productive bait.
It’s important to stay away from fishing frog water. The Pit River has a big problem with squawfish. If you fish the frog water, you minimize opportunities to catch trout and increase your odds of catching squawfish.
When targeting trout, fish moving water. You’ll find more trout to be in areas with frothy water. During the summer the Pit River drainage is hot and dry. Trout look for well-oxygenated areas. Fishing riffles, small cascades and any place where you see small bubbles in the water is your best bet.
When fishing a night crawler, cast upriver and across the way, allowing the worm to drift down into the strike zone. You tend to find August trout stationed just outside the current or positioned behind obstacles in the river. Spinners can be effective but can pose a challenge to anglers trying to keep their bait in the strike zone.
Pit VII tends to attract mostly bait dunkers. The upper section of Pit VII is partially moving water; the lower section becomes Shasta Lake. It’s not uncommon for anglers to catch larger trout in this section than any of the others. The reason has to do with the lake itself.
While most browns spawn in the McCloud River arm of the lake, some big browns find their way into the Pit arm as well. In fact, many of them cruise all the way to where the Pit River turns into Lake Shasta. It’s true that browns spawn in the fall, but you’ll find some browns in this area as early as late summer staging to spawn. On the other hand, don’t discount the great rainbow trout fishery here either.
Fishing access is excellent. After driving down the dirt road there is a flattened-out parking area before you walk down to the river/lake. You’ll find a small concrete dam, which distinguishes the boundary between the river and lake. Fortunately, during the summer, Lake Shasta is drawn down so low that anglers can walk out to and fish off the dam. (In spring the dam will likely be submerged.)
The significance of the dam is important to anglers. First, it gives them a fishing platform that extends three-quarters of the way across the river channel. Second, it makes it easy for anglers to find the strike zone
. When the dam is out of the water, anglers can walk out to the end of the dam to where the river (moving water) meets the lake. This is prime trout water and it’s no secret to folks who have fished here before.
Many anglers cast large spoons and spinners into the fast-moving river water and pull them slightly out of the current where the fish are resting. It’s common to find hundreds of trout schooled up in this area. The Pit drags a tremendous amount of food into the lake.
When fishing this area, it’s better to use a heavy spoon than a lightweight model. Toss a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Krocodile, Thomas Buoyant, Kastmaster or any flat wobblers. The heavier spoons allow you to keep your bait in the strike zone longer instead of it getting dragged out of the strike zone by the current.
Other methods including tossing bait: Crickets, night crawlers and other natural baits work great. Matching food that comes with natural runoff is key.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to California Game & Fish