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Sacramento River Rainbows

Sacramento River Rainbows

Unspoiled by the trout fishing masses, Redding's portion of the Sacramento River hosts a population of rainbow trout that will test your mettle and your skill.

Craig Isberg holds up one of the Sacramento River's hefty rainbow trout. Tinted line and black sinker socks, swivels and hooks all figure into the plan. Photo by Art Isberg

By Art Isberg

Can you imagine floating down a big, brawling river passing under bridges busy with traffic, with a popular waterway trail just yards away where joggers and bicyclists match your pace as you experience some of the finest rainbow trout fishing anywhere in the Golden State? It sounds like a pipe dream, but it's not.

The northern Sacramento River, ice cold from releases at Shasta Dam just upstream, is the best-kept secret among big-fish aficionados in California and one of the most unique fishing opportunities you can experience.

Most anglers think of battling trophy-sized rainbow trout as the exclusive domain of hard-to-reach backcountry waters, but the growing north state town of Redding is the setting for this trout fishing paradise. When you can go out float after float and battle fish in the 16- to 20-inch class, paradise is certainly not too strong a word to use.

My fishing pal and expert river man Rod Libolt, who lives in Redding, first showed me his unusual drift-fishing technique several years back, and although I've made some slight refinements it's basically his approach and delivery system I use to this day.

That first trip we went far upriver, then drifted back down at natural current speed, bottom-bouncing large night crawlers through deep holes and churning, boulder-lined pools to reach deep fish. It took me awhile to get the hang of that drift because you must learn to distinguish between the bump, bounce and drag of underwater rocks and vegetation, and the actual pick-up of a fish. I hooked several lovely 4-pound gray boulders before catching my first fish, but by the time our fishing trip ended four hours later we'd hooked eight big, slab-sided rainbows ranging from 17 to 20 inches.

I was stunned by the results.



Four species of chinook salmon run in the Sacramento River each year.

Genetic research has shown that the winter-run chinook is different from all other salmon in the Central Valley. The species has been on the endangered species list since the late 1980s, leading to a host of special rules and regulations, as well as rehabilitation projects designed to mitigate for the fish's lost access to spawning habitat upstream of Shasta Dam.

Often nicknamed "kings" because of their great size, they average between 18 and 28 pounds, with a few fish reaching beyond the 40-pound mark. While winter-run fish numbers have generally been low in recent years, heavy rainfall in the late 1990s and in early 2000 helped stabilize their numbers, and quality water control and steady flows from Shasta Dam during spawning season have also helped these fish.

King salmon upstream of Woodson Bridge in Red Bluff may not be taken and kept until after July 16 each year, and no fish can be taken and kept at any time upstream of the Deschutes River Bridge in the town of Anderson 10 miles south of Redding. Any winter-run chinook taken above that point in the river must always be released unharmed, regardless of the time of year and without bringing the fish into a boat or onto a bank. This helps ensure high survival rates.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service counts of winter-run king salmon at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam tallied 5,501 fish in 1999. Their propagation program and the construction of the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery at the base of Shasta Dam led to the release of about 150,000 juvenile winter-run salmon into the upper Sacramento River in 1999, and another 32,000 in the year 2000. — Art Isberg



This deep drifting natural bait delivery is really best described as a "slip-sinker rig" but with several modifications. I settled on medium-weight spinning rods in the 5 1/2- to 6 1/2-foot class with light tips to feel the bait tumbling down deep, but with a fairly good backbone to quickly set the hook using long-line drifting where line stretch must be dealt with.

I settled on 6-pound monofilament line in green tint for two reasons. First, this color nearly disappears on bottoms in the river's sepia waters, which prevents the spooking of fish you get with lighter and even clear mono. Second, 6-pound actually has the tensile strength of heavier lines and has been able to handle fish up to 24 inches in length. Lighter line weights break off on snags, and these cautious fish see heavier lines, reducing the number of hook-ups.

Spinning reels able to wind on 240 to 250 yards of the 6-pound-test mono are a good match for these rods and line size.


I've come to prefer black hooks, barrel and snap swivels. The shine of bright brass can turn fish away. Down deep, black tends to be all but invisible, leaving the fish to concentrate on your bait.

For sinkers cut round, 1/4-inch lead from 2 1/2 to 3 1/3 inches long, inserting them into either black surgical tubing or a brown vinyl sleeve to hide the light color. Weight selection depends on water speed. The key is to keep the bait on the bottom but to still allow the rig to move downstream without becoming snagged.

To the tubing lip hook a small snap swivel through which the line is run tied below to a barrel swivel, which serves as a stop for the sinker. Below the barrel I tie on another 16 to 20 inches of 6-pound-test snelled to a No. 6 barbless hook.

For a final touch, add a round, half-inch plastic strike indicator used by flyfishermen - but it's not used for indicating strikes. These bright yellow/orange floats have just enough buoyancy to keep the bait inches off the bottom and avoid snags. I've also come to believe it makes it easier for fish to see the bait in shadowy waters.

The final touch is a large night crawler threaded fully up the hook

right to the strike indicator but with the barb sticking out. Now you're ready to go to work.

Some anglers also use small, multi-colored "fuzz balls" for bottom drifting (minus the strike indicator). These too will take fish. I've also used orange imitation plastic salmon eggs, but night crawlers not only take more fish but also larger ones.


The Sacramento River is divided into various sections with rules on limits, baits and seasons often varying on each one. This means paying attention to the regulations book, available at most sporting goods stores statewide, in the Redding Department of Fish and Game office at 601 Locust Street, or by phoning 530-225-2300 or 530-225-2852.

For the section of river I'm outlining here, which runs from 650 feet below Keswick Dam through Redding itself and all the way down to the Deschutes Road Bridge 10 miles downstream, the river is open to trout fishing all year with a maximum size limit of 16 inches and only barbless hooks legal. You may keep one trout per day but no salmon, which can sometimes be hooked when using the two artificials I mentioned earlier. A 36-inch, 20-pound salmon suddenly on the end of your line will give you a wake up call like nothing else, but all salmon must be immediately released unharmed back into the water.


Fly-fishing is also a very popular float not only for local anglers but also for those traveling north who suddenly find themselves in this trout Valhalla. This has spawned a thriving guide service industry, and whether you want to drift bait or flies, one of the best ways to hook one of these bruiser rainbows is through the Fly Shop on 4140 Churn Creek Road, or by phone at 530-222-3555. Most even offer rods, reels and artificials if needed, so lack of personal gear means but little. They know what fish are taking at any time.

Another excellent source of river guides is found simply by using the Yellow Pages of the Redding phone book or dialing information. A number of guides are listed who have been in the business for decades. Their extensive knowledge to first-time Sacramento River anglers is invaluable and would take many floats to pick up on your own. That alone is worth the price of admission.


Many variables can influence fishing success on a river of this size, including dark, cloudy days as opposed to bright, sunlit ones, the hatch of insects as weather turns from cold to warming spring days, and the amount of fresh water being introduced into the river from tributary streams after heavy rains. But of all these the single most important factor is the release and volume of water from Shasta Dam and then through Keswick Dam, which lies seven miles downstream into the main stem of the river.

The high, fast water of late winter makes keeping drift baits on the bottom where they must be a challenge, while also literally moving them along at a fast pace that gives fish little time to pick them up. Heavy releases also stir up bottom sediments, clouding the water and making it tough for trout to see the bait beyond just a few feet.

At these times it's best to stay out of mainstream current and fish water with eddies, backwater holes and runs along the bank or boulder pockets. I'm also convinced that fast water like this moves fish to different holding areas, demanding yet another change in tactics, including the heaviest lead sinker to offset current. As a general guide this would be the months of December, January and February.


Each day Sacramento River anglers pass under Redding's newest attraction, the stunning Sundial Bridge.

This 23-foot-wide cable/suspension walking bridge spans 700 feet, linking the Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the river's eastern shore without a single mid-stream bridge footing. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed the bridge to protect delicate and critical salmon spawning beds that lie in its shadow.

The Sundial Bridge's 217-foot sky-scraping pylon attaches 4,342 feet of galvanized steel cable to support the free span. Non-skid glass panels pave its walking deck, totaling 200 tons of glass and granite liners. — Art Isberg


Two major seasonal periods produce the highest feeding activity of trout and highest number of hook-ups. These are first, the months of March, April and May when releases are going down, and once again in late fall from September through October and November, before steady winter rains have begun in earnest. I do not say you cannot catch fish at other times of the year because you can, but these time periods clearly stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The lightest weights can now be used, making this type of "touch and feel" trout fishing all the more successful. Slow water speeds keep bait on the bottom yet moving at a pace that gives fish time to pick them up and strike. And when you add those elements to the rainbows and browns' natural elevated feeding levels, you've got a recipe for some magical days of fishing here.

Through the long, hot days of north state summers in June, July and August, the best bite comes from first good light to about 90 minutes after the sun hits the water. Then things slow considerably. Once again in late afternoon, when long shadows begin to cover the river, the bite comes back on.

Like any piece of water either large or small, the mighty Sacramento River has moods. These are influenced by nature, including the seasons of the year, and by man's devices. Learn those secrets on the Sacramento River and you are sure to experience the best it has to offer. This fishing jewel and its quality rainbow trout, still largely untapped by trout fishing's jet set, will test you in several ways, and once you've hooked one of them, you too will be hooked on this river.

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