The Sacramento's Rainbows Of Winter
September 29, 2010
Not all trout fishing in winter is limited to lakes and reservoirs. Come to Redding and you'll find some of the state's best wild rainbow trout
fishing in the Sacramento River.
New Year's Day was gone like water under the bridge when my friend Steve Scoggins pushed his drift boat off the trailer and into the beckoning waters of the Sacramento River. We were at the Sheriff's Posse Grounds inside the city limits of Redding, where, together with my daughter Meredith, we planned to honor at least one of our recent resolutions: to fish every chance we got, even in the dead of winter.
Steve rowed his boat with skill that day, swinging our small back-trolled lures into just the right spots time after time. The sky was cloudy and occasionally spit rain down on us, but we ignored the weather because the fishing on our short float was anything but boring. We caught at least a half-dozen blush-striped rainbows, including one hefty fish that was definitely the stuff of which memories are made.
As luck would have it, that fish took my lure in a deep slot next to the bank, bent my 7 1/2-foot spinning rod like a noodle, and quickly barreled downstream. I hung on, kept the 6-pound-test line taut and prayed the hook would stick and the line wouldn't break. The energetic trout came to the top and thrashed on the surface but didn't conduct any aerial displays, which made me happy; I didn't need a heart attack. I worked to slow it down a little. Finally, Steve had it in the net and all I could do for a minute or two was gawk at the 5-pound prize. Even on a gray day, it remains one of the most vivid rainbows I've ever seen anyplace at any time of year.
Steve has gone on to other things, and my daughter has married and moved away, but I'm still holding down the fort and, yes, I know how fortunate I am. I've fished in many great places throughout California and, for that matter, the West, and I've enjoyed myself thoroughly. But, honestly, if asked to name the best wild rainbow trout stream I've ever fished, I'd have to say that the year-round action on the main-stem Sacramento as it flows through Redding is the one to beat. The reason I'm so fortunate is that it flows practically in my backyard.
The author admires a Sacramento River rainbow trout he caught on a February fishing trip in the Redding city limits. Photo by John Higley
THE MAKING OF A TROUT RIVER The Sacramento starts life as a mountain trout stream in Siskiyou County and it gets progressively bigger as it picks up tributaries until it's swallowed by sprawling Lake Shasta. Below Shasta the river's flow is greatly increased by adding the lake's other three major river arms. In effect, the Sacramento becomes one with the McCloud and Pit rivers and Squaw Creek in addition to several more tributaries that are in the mix behind Shasta Dam. Water releases are ultimately regulated through Keswick Reservoir, the forebay to Lake Shasta.
The river you deal with below these impoundments is not an intimate mountain trout stream where you have to get up close and personal with the fish to have a chance at them. Instead, there's a heck of a lot of water to deal with, and while there's foot access to the river here and there, such opportunities are quite limited when weighed against the big picture. That means the most practical way to fish a variety of water is by boat, either a standard outboard or jet-powered model. If you want peace and quiet, and you don't mind a one-way trip, another option is a drift boat.
Examining the rainbow fishery today, it's hard to imagine that there was a time, decades ago, when there was no year-round trout fishery to speak of from Redding downstream. Prior to the 1940s, the river was simply too warm for trout during the summer months. All that changed a few years after the completion of Shasta Dam.
"A reservoir like Shasta ultimately produces a lot of plankton, which is released downstream and utilized by filter-feeding insects such as caddis which are abundant in the Sacramento River," explained Harry Rectenwald, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "Plankton guarantees a good insect food base and the cool water releases from the lake keep the trout comfortable all year. The result is a stable tailwater trout fishery that has become the most dependable of the river's fine fishing opportunities."
Of course, the Sacramento also offers the best river chinook salmon fishing in the state. For salmon, the river is divided into two parts, with separate opening dates a couple of weeks apart. When the first section opens in mid July, all eyes turn toward the south; it's party time from Bend Bridge (about five miles upstream from Red Bluff) downstream. With the second opening on Aug. 1, salmon fishing is open from the Deschutes Bridge in Anderson to Bend Bridge; it's when most salmon anglers head for the stretch below Ball's Ferry. Salmon fishing is terrific through October and it's not all that bad some years right up until the season closes on Jan. 14.
Those are ample seasons but the point is the trout put on a good show before, during and after salmon fishing is history.
TOPNOTCH TROUT FISHING BELOW RED BLUFF Some of the best trout fishing occurs from Keswick Dam (actually fishing isn't allowed for 650 feet below the dam) roughly to Anderson. That includes the stretch inside the city limits of Redding. The fishing today is still tremendous in that area, but there is some evidence that a significant trout fishery is now developing south of Red Bluff in the vicinity of Woodsen Bridge west of Vina.
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised as the fish are merely adapting to fairly recent developments. In the mid-1990s, a cold-water distribution device was constructed on Shasta Lake at a cost of around $50 million. The project was designed especially to provide coldwater releases for salmon on a year-round basis. As a result, flows are now considerably cooler farther downstream than they were before.
"In the past I caught a few trout near Woodsen Bridge once in awhile, but it was nothing to write home about," said fishing guide Mike Bogue. "This year, though, I caught more rainbows there than ever before, and I think the coldwater releases have a lot to do with it."
I asked Bogue, who lives in Redding, if he'd travel that far downstream on a regular basis just for trout. "Honestly, no," he said. "Some of the best trout fishing is just a couple of miles from my home, so mainly I go to Woodsen for salmon and shad. But for someone who lives in that area or someone who wants to look at new scenery, why not? There seems to be plenty of trout down there these days."
Trout fishing on the Sacramento, as indicated earlier, is a four-season affair. There's a story in each time frame but since this article will ap
pear in early winter that's where most of our focus will be.
On a personal note, my experiences in the winter have been mostly positive. Still, I wondered what some of the local fishing guides would have to say. The earful I got from three of them has me fired up for another winter trout trip.
|Sacramento River Fishing Guides|
It is only with the help of local fishing guides that this story on Sacramento River rainbows outlines the situation as it really is. Sources providing information for this story include:
Mike Bogue, Mike Bogue's Guide Service, 530-246-8457, or www.mikebogue.com; Kirk Portocarrero, Outdoor Adventures Sportfishing, 530-241-4665 (business) or 530-347-5494 (home); Strictly Fishin' Guide and Tackle, 2451 Athens Ave., Redding, 530-241-4665.
For information on area facilities or for a full list of north state fishing guides, contact the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, 800-474-2782, or www.shastacascade.com.
GOOD WATER FLOWS IN WINTER One guide I talked to is Kirk Portocarrero of Outdoor Adventures Sportfishing. Sometimes Kirk seems to be everywhere at once, but it's only an illusion. He just likes to work long hours and take his clients to different places. One of his favorite spots - no surprise here - is the Sacramento River from Redding to Anderson.
"Let's face it," Portocarrero told California Game & Fish, "The Sacramento's rainbows are big and feisty, and they aren't going anywhere. The salmon come and go but the 'bows are happy where they are."
I asked Kirk to give me his thoughts on winter fishing. He was obviously enthusiastic about the prospects.
"I like the river in the winter as long as the water isn't too cloudy and releases are stable," he said. "Like any river, the Sacramento can be blown out by storms but usually the flows are manageable most of the time from November on. The Bureau of Reclamation is trying then to make sure there's room for run-off at Shasta but after a summer of high releases they don't want to draw the lake too far down in the process."
Portocarrero noted that normally late fall and winter releases are around 6,000 to 6,500 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is ideal for fishing, but boaters can have good days on the river when the flows are as high as 14,000 cfs.
Bogue concurred with most of what Portocarrero says. The fish are definitely catchable in the winter, and at that time of year they're in good shape. Surprisingly, though, Bogue has had some of his best days while the river was recovering from storm run-off. Obviously, it's all a matter of timing.
"The river was clearing but I'd say visibility was only 3 or 4 feet one day last year when my clients hooked up on nearly every run we went through. At first they couldn't believe the conditions, but I just told them to grab a rod and hold on. I think the cloudiness of the water let the fish relax, if fish can do such a thing. Whatever the reason, we had a great day!"
Bogue uses several tactics to catch winter trout. If late fall salmon are still spawning, which seems to be happening more and more these days, Bogue fishes Glo-Bugs or cured roe with spinning tackle. Both are deadly when trout are congregated near spawning salmon and feasting on stray eggs.
When the trout seem to be spread out, Bogue back-trolls small deep-running lures. (Consult the regulations for size and hook restrictions.) Sometimes he also side drifts with night crawlers, which is a common way to fish the river anytime of year. Interestingly, even with bait, strikes are quick and usually result in lip-hooked fish which can easily be released none the worse for wear.
That's a good thing since the regulations, which vary slightly depending on where and when you're fishing, generally allow a daily limit of only one hatchery trout or one hatchery steelhead from fall through winter. Keep in mind that the Sacramento is one of most regulated waterways in California, so check the regulations carefully and thoroughly, and if you have any questions, call the DFG office in Redding for clarifications.
FLY-FISHING & GLO-BUGS Gary Manies of Strictly Fishin' has been fishing the Sacramento since he was 12 and guiding there for 16 years. He uses all the tactics mentioned so far but he positively raves about the Glo-Bug bite in December and January and rarely fishes for trout with anything else at that time.
"Glo-Bugs are great around the holidays," Manies said, "I fish them on spinning tackle because that's the easiest way for my clients. I caught a pile of fish last winter with Glo-Bugs but I've caught trout on them in mid summer too. It's almost a year-round lure these days. The trick is in knowing where the salmon are spawning and concentrating on trout in those spots. Anywhere else you're probably wasting your time"
Portocarrero also fishes all of the ways mentioned by Bogue and Manies, and carries on with fly-fishing tackle as well. "The Sacramento is a nymphing stream all year," he said, "and I have some regular clients now who prefer fly-fishing.
"A 7-weight fly rod equipped with floating line is just right for most spots. And I use two weighted flies at once. The bottom fly is usually a size 16 or 18 and the dropper fly is a size 14 or 16. Depending on the current, I put one or two small split shot on the leader to get the flies down quickly, and I top the whole thing off with a strike indicator to show those subtle hits.
"As for flies, I use a variety of bead head and caddis patterns. Of course, when the trout are hanging around spawning salmon, Glo-Bugs are the only way to go."
Sacramento River rainbows attract their share of attention all year long because they are always worth catching. An abundant food supply helps sustain this robust fishery, but the rigors of spawning will result in anglers seeing some thin trout in the spring months.
Of course, the fish fatten up nicely again as summer approaches. That's when 20-inch rainbows that weigh nearly 5 pounds can be taken!
Without a doubt, the quality of the Sacramento's
wild trout fishery is enough to lure anglers from afar and the facilities present all along the river are a welcome bonus. From Redding to Red Bluff, and points beyond, there are motels, restaurants and shopping centers within a few minutes of wherever you are. It's not exactly a wilderness experience but the fishing is darn near as good and you can drive right to it.
As for access, there are a few walk-in spots, some well off the beaten track. The best way to find one is to inquire locally at Strictly Fishin' or the Fly Shop (see sidebar). Most anglers use boats; there are several boat ramps, beginning with one at the Posse Grounds in Redding. Others are located at the Bonnyview Bridge, Anderson River Park, Ball's Ferry, Bend Bridge, Red Bluff, Los Molinos and Woodsen Bridge.
Before launching your boat for the first time on the Sacramento, remember that safety always comes first. Always be sure your life jackets and other safety gear are in good order before you attempt a river trip. Perhaps, the best thing to do is to go with an experienced friend or take a guided trip just to get a feeling for the river and how to read the water. Remember that hazards change with the amount of water being released from Shasta Lake.
Off hand, it's hard to imagine another California river where an angler can realistically expect to catch a 5-pound wild rainbow trout nearly every time out. Of course, the Sacramento is an uncommon stream, and the rainbows of winter are definitely a bright spot during an unsettled time of year. Winter may not appeal to everyone, but given the opportunity, and at least passable weather, I'd rather bundle up and take a little boat ride than sit home and feed the fire. The rainbows of winter are waiting.
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