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Shasta Cascade a Prime Destination for Fall Trout and Steelhead

Habitat restoration on several northern California rivers makes them prime waters for rainbow trout and steelhead—especially during the fall months.

Shasta Cascade a Prime Destination for Fall Trout and Steelhead

Logjams along the Trinity River provide good holding cover for both trout and steelhead. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

I waded out and cast a three-fly nymph-and-egg rig under an indicator upstream from our launch point as guides Kris Kennedy and Bryan Quick of The Fly Shop in Redding, Calif., readied our raft for the float down a beautiful stretch of the Trinity River. Halfway through the run, the strike indicator plummeted and I quickly landed a small steelhead. That was an encouraging first cast in the tailwater fishery that flows from Trinity Lake downstream to Lewiston Lake and then from Lewiston Dam on to its confluence with the Klamath River at the town of Weitchpec.

We boarded the raft and began floating down an isolated 6-mile stretch of the Trinity. The entire 110-mile-long river is designated as wild and scenic, and flows through Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Six Rivers National Forest. The winding waterway has been going through an active habitat restoration program for several years that has brought back the greatest steelhead runs in decades, according to Kennedy.

Today, the Trinity River is arguably one of the finest steelhead waters in the West, and while it has a good king salmon run, the local guides target steelhead from about mid-September through February. The river is defined by dense evergreen forests, some boulder-strewn whitewater rapids and canyons carved through rugged terrain to create deep pools. There are few streams entering the upper 40 miles of the river and the flow is primarily controlled by releases from Lewiston Dam, so discolored waters from storm runoff normally clear within a few days.


“Since it is a tailwater fishery with few tributaries, we can usually fish it after big rains,” notes Quick. “The canyon is pretty deep and a lot of the main channels have been mined for gold, which has altered some of the original runs. The size of the river and minimum flow in the cooler months allow anglers to fish a lot of spots where steelhead pool. The fish in the Trinity are migratory fish that may move every day, and they are coming out of the ocean to spawn and not to feed.”


Once in the river, the steelhead often wait for a rain event to allow them to access the smaller tributaries, which is where the spawning normally takes place. According to Quick, the steelhead on the upper Trinity act more like a trout, while those fish that are closer to the coasts, such as those in the lower Trinity, are more aggressive.

“They go to the ocean where forage is more easily found and when they first come back to spawn, those steelhead still have that basic mentality,” he explains. “They will eat anything you put in front of them. The steelhead is basically a sea-going trout but they can get stranded or landlocked, and those that have been in the river longer and those in the upper stretches are just not as aggressive.”

Shasta-Cascade-trout-fishing
The lower Sacramento River near the Sundial Bridge offers rainbow trout that average 16 inches. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

Rafting Riffles and Rapids

We used an inflated raft for our 8-hour float on the upper Trinity due to the rocks, shallow rapids and boulders. Such a craft will go through rapids up to Class V, although we only experienced a few Class IIs in the area we floated that day.

Since we were basically trout fishing for steelhead, we employed very similar rigs to those used on other nearby waters. Our dropper rig consisted of an inline dropper with three flies. At the top, the third “fly” was often an 8 to 10 mm bead resembling a salmon egg positioned about two fingers away from a No. 12 barbless hook. Two nymphs, a caddis in the middle on a No. 16 hook and a mayfly below tied on a No. 18, completed the rig.

One way to control the dropper rig, according to the guides, is to mend the line so that the strike indicator stays away from the boat for maximum coverage in the longer runs. The angler needs to get the line off the water before moving it, either upstream or downstream. That allows the angler to keep the three flies drifting drag-free in the water a lot longer.


Quick used a similar rig and caught more fish than I did, and he also used a traditional steelhead swinging-fly method, a two-handed Spey rod technique. With his double-handed, 9 1/2-foot, 6-weight rod, he cast downstream and across to the opposite shoreline at a 45-degree angle to allow his fly to swing with the current.

The average size of a steelhead on the Trinity ranges from 4 to 8 pounds. We had plenty of action on the beautiful stream, but guide Kris had done better a week earlier with a client that caught seven steelhead between 20 and 33 inches long in that same stretch!

One interesting fact is that there are both hatchery and wild fish in the Trinity. The difference: the adipose fin is present on wild trout or steelhead. Hatchery trout or steelhead are those exhibiting a healed adipose fin clip (the adipose fin is absent). The fishery regulation states that unless otherwise provided, all non-hatchery trout and steelhead must be immediately released.

Shasta-Cascade-trout-fishing
Steelhead on the upper Trinity River act like trout, says guide Bryan Quick, and are caught by drifting multiple fly patterns on dropper rigs. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

Seasonal Considerations

While the Trinity River fishing season is open year around, flows usually don’t drop to fishable levels until July. Summer is a good time to target spring-run, double-digit chinook salmon in the river’s deep pools and riffles. Some 4- to 8-pound sea-run brown trout begin to show up in the last week of July and through August into September.

The summer steelhead run on the Trinity may arrive as early as late September, and that’s when I was there. By mid-October, though, the run is well underway, and anglers know it. Fortunately, the steelhead are spread throughout the river system. While this early run is mostly hatchery fish headed to the Lewiston National Fish Hatchery, there are, as we verified on our trip, always some wild steelhead mixed in.

December brings the winter run of wild steelhead, and the average size of the fish increases into the cold winter months. According to The Fly Shop guides, the best conditions for fishing the Trinity from October through February are stormy days, or the days immediately following a storm. Around mid-March, the Lewiston Hatchery releases its steelhead and salmon smolts into the river, and though there may still be steelhead around, getting your flies through the millions of smolts can be next to impossible.

The main draw in April is dry-fly fishing for the smolts and trout-sized, immature steelhead in the upriver riffles and runs. May and early June are often blown out by high dam-release flows, so check with local bait shops or outfitters prior to planning a trip to these waters. Fortunately, there are always fishable waters with active fish available near Redding.

Shasta-Cascade-trout-fishing
Fishing from a drift boat is often the best way to cover water on the lower Sacramento River. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

Lower Sacramento Floats

While the Trinity River produces lots of big fish and memorable action due to the small-stream character and varying topography, the lower Sacramento River is known for its numbers of trout year around. According to Kennedy, anglers will probably have multiple hookups and lots of opportunities on the lower Sac. The various bars and shoals vary the depth of the river’s runs as it flows south through Redding parks, buildings, golf courses and residential land.

Local guides concentrate on a 16-mile stretch from Redding south. Chelsea Baum, an expert fly angler from the Sacramento area, and I fished with Kennedy starting at a launch ramp just north of Redding’s famous and unique Sundial Bridge, the largest suspension walking-only bridge with a working sundial. It was designed to not interfere with the spawning salmon nursery, so there are no pylons in the water, and the walking deck is glass to let sunlight through. We each had hookups within a half mile of the ramp and caught a dozen or so rainbow trout up to 22 inches in length during our float. Action that day was almost non-stop on fish that averaged 16 to 17 inches, and we missed at least three-dozen more strikes.

There are six different-length float trips in drift boats offered on the lower Sac, as well as a 30-mile-long drift farther downstream through canyons and wilderness areas. Our drift over an 8-mile stretch from Redding carried us through runs beside several 200-foot-high cliffs, some of which had riverfront homes right at their edge. While most California trout waters have sandy, beachfront banks or other forms of loamy material, the geology on this river is composed of aggregate rock from the 14,000-foot Mt. Shasta, according to Kennedy.

“Shasta Dam and Keswick Dam, which is just two miles above Redding, were built with gravel from the Sacramento River to tame habitual flood waters,” he explains. “Shasta Dam is the second largest dam in mass in the U.S. and Shasta Lake solved that problem, but at the same time, the Sacramento River Delta began a catastrophic decline, and one of the most formidable runs of king salmon in the world was decimated. Fortunately, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a search for a solution to the king salmon decline, decided to construct a temperature-control device to release colder water from Shasta Lake’s depths.”

In 1992, the temperature-control device was completed, and the lower Sac has maintained a consistent 56-degree temperature year around since then. While the colder controlled flows at first seemed to be helpful in restoring the salmon runs, they proved to be far more beneficial to the resident trout fishery, notes Kennedy. The river’s now plentiful wild rainbows are able to feed and grow all year.

Shasta-Cascade-trout-fishing
Hatches of large caddis flies in September and October bring trout to the surface in several northern California rivers, including the McCloud. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

McCloud River Redbands

Another great rainbow trout water near Redding is the McCloud River, which cascades through wild sections of boulder-strewn pocket riffles and deep pools that are ideal for nymphing and dry fly fishing. The beautiful river is called, “the world’s most iconic trout stream and home to the most famous rainbow in the world.” The McCloud River redband rainbows were distributed to countries all over the world by steamship some 118 years ago, explains Kennedy.

Most of the McCloud River tributaries above the McCloud Reservoir are clear spring creeks coming out of the 14,000-foot Mt. Shasta Volcano, and from there the river flows into Shasta Lake. Most river-canyon trout below McCloud Reservoir are wild, but some hatchery fish do fall over the dam. The river used to be connected to the Sacramento before the Shasta Dam was built, and as a consequence, there are plenty of rainbows and browns in those waters.

The McCloud is normally a walk-and-wade river due to the unique topography. Wading over rugged terrain such as bedrock, volcanic outcroppings along walls, cliffs, plunge pools, runs and riffles, and along dense evergreen and hardwood forest shoreline can be challenging. Like to hike?

The season on the McCloud River opens in late April, and prime time is late May through early July when there are a lot of hatches. Early on, melting glaciers on Mount Shasta may discolor the lower river some, but fishing is normally not impacted too much. According to Kennedy, if there is a foot or more of visibility, the fish will still be able to find your flies.

When fall arrives, fishing action for even larger trout kicks off. The cool nights in late September and October bring on the caddis hatch. One tip from locals is that in October, caddis flies can be very large. This allows dry-fly anglers to more effectively target the bigger trout that are migrating upriver from Shasta Lake. Big brown trout are hungry then and more easily fooled by large dry flies.

This is but a sampling of great trout waters in the Shasta Cascade region around Redding. There are several others, so be sure to allow time to explore the area. You won’t be disappointed.


Shasta Cascade Trip Planner

For more northern California information on fly-fishing the Shasta Cascade rivers including the Trinity, McCloud and lower Sacramento, contact Bryan Quick, director of outfitters at The Fly Shop in Redding, at 800-669-3474. You can also visit theflyshop.com. The Fly Shop is the largest fly-fishing outfitter in the area, offering extensive regional guide services. It is the only guide service in the region that holds permits for the Shasta, Trinity, Six Rivers and Klamath National Forest lands, and all the regional rivers, streams and fisheries administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Fly Shop books full-day fishing trips (one or two anglers per guide) on a variety of area waters with drift boats or fishing rafts, and they include 8 to 10 hours of fishing plus lunch for $500. The shop also offers a $550 package deal that includes the necessary rods, reels, flies and equipment. Half-day trips on the Lower Sac, minutes from the shop, are also available. Experienced anglers or fly tiers can call The Fly Shop ahead of their visit, and guides will let them know what flies are producing.

Kris Kennedy, one of the area’s top guides, is on the water with The Fly Shop clients more than 250 days a year. He spends almost every other day with anglers from his independent family guide service, Fish Kennedy Brothers. For additional info, visit fishkennedybrothers.com.

Those wanting further adventure should check out the Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Lake Shasta Caverns. You’ll have a wonderful boat ride across the lake to visit the Caverns. Both Lassen and the Caverns offer memorable views and activities for visitors. The entire family will love Turtle Bay Exploration Park, which is on the waterfront in the beautiful city of Redding. More information about the abundance of natural resources in the Shasta Cascade region is available at visitredding.com.

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