Winter Angling on the Upper Sac

First Published in California Fly Fisher Magazine, January/February issue 2006

Glancing up from the tiny olive soft hackle I’ve just completed it takes a moment for my eyes to fully focus on the snowflakes accumulating in the season’s first winter storm.  My thoughts advance to this afternoon’s fishing plans and I am hoping that the October Caddis bite will not be shut down by the cold storm and wondering if the Blue Wing Olives (BWOs) will make their first regular appearance of this season, our second winter on the Upper Sac.

With what looks to be six to eight inches here at my home in Mt. Shasta, I am pretty certain access to my favorite caddis haunts will be snowed in, but perhaps downriver, at some lower elevation, it is raining, rather than snowing. Storms like this one sometimes really get the BWOs going on the upper Sacramento. I hope it isn’t raining too hard, melting the snow and blowing the river out completely. I should probably give one of my fishing buddies down the hill in Dunsmuir a call and see what the weather is doing there before I commit to a nasty drive to check the river in this storm. I am also wondering where I might have stowed that lucky brown bomber hat I fished in last winter.

Last season, for California Fly Fisher, I queried a number of local upper Sac guides on their expectations for the first-ever winter season, opened under special regulations by the Fish and Game Commission on November 16, 2004. Then, the locals’ theories on winter fishing the upper Sac were pure speculation. We now have a year’s experience behind us. While one winter of fishing doesn’t bring certainty, the locals did come to understand a bit about the winter fishery, while managing to get in some quality fishing.

Winter Windows

The common theme that reverberated with all the anglers I queried was that the Upper Sac in winter is a window-of-opportunity fishery. Tom Chandler, a local writer and ardent dry-fly enthusiast, probably summed it up best: “Last winter, we got to see the other Upper Sacramento River, the one surrounded by snow and ice, and it was very, very different from the warm, sunny, summer upper Sac.” Tom, who chronicled his and local bamboo rod maker Chris Rainey’s winter adventures on Tom’s Web site, www.uppersac.com, chased the afternoon Blue-Winged Olive hatches a couple days a week through the fall and winter with some success. He states: “Our secret weapon was flexibility. We watched the weather and ran for the river when conditions were cloudy or even rainy . . . and while we enjoyed some steady dry-fly fishing during the BWO hatches, we also killed a fair amount of time waiting for hatches that never quite came off.”

Steven Bertrand, a local fishing guide who contributed to the California Fly Fisher article last year, was also a member of the Department of Fish and Game’s first winter-season survey team. He was surprised that visiting anglers he surveyed experienced such poor fishing, while locals anglers reported good, but limited fishing—“limited in the sense that the fishing was good during the midday BWO hatch, but slow otherwise,” Steven states. “While we expected that the BWO hatch would run into the winter, the BWO dry-fly fishing was much better than expected, while the nymph fishing was much poorer than expected.” Tom Chandler said that “hitting the right window was key, and even then, fishing was typically limited to an early afternoon hatch. Once the hatch finished, the fishing tended to fade. Unlike the summer months, you couldn’t continue to nymph grimly away with much hope of success.”

Both Tom and Steven found that accessing the river in winter could be a challenge, as well. Tom notes: “While anglers enjoy easy access to almost every inch of the Upper Sac during the warmer months, a winter snowstorm and the snow plows that follow could wall off 95 percent of the fishery behind impassable roads or six-foot ice berms.” Tom found that “the fishing was sometimes good, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, because weather and access were often a problem. When it was sunny, the BWOs would still hatch, but fewer fish were willing to show themselves. Our best days were consistently cloudy, rainy, or snowy—or all three.” Steven further notes that “while the harsh winter in terms of snowfall served to keep the river flows lower than expected . . . we had to walk into spots that we normally drive to and were unable to fish the upper end of the river for many months, unless we skied or snowshoed to gain access.”

Winter Wonders

During the windows of opportunity of the early season, before the high flows of February, one of the most pleasant discoveries was the attractor dry-fly bite. Wayne Eng, a local guide who practices shotgunning dry flies during the regular season, found that winter fish are also susceptible to the technique. Wayne’s favorite attractor is the Royal Wulff, which he fishes much like he would high sticking a nymph.  Wayne flicks short casts to likely holding water searching each seam and pocket taking apart each run as he advances upstream.  Tom Chandler took notice. He states: “When I think winter, I think of tiny flies, flimsy tippets, and even flimsier odds of success. Instead, Wayne Eng put me on this attractor bite, and in the right conditions, I found myself catching fish on a size 12 Beetle Bug in 10 inches of water. Sometimes the universe is a happy place indeed.”

I discovered this winter attractor bite along with Charlie Costner, the lead guide for the Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir, through a different experience. Finding ourselves frustrated trying to see our tiny Blue-Winged Olive emergers through fogged glasses and the flat light that BWOs prefer, we attached the emergers as droppers to our October Caddis dry-fly imitations, intending to use the caddis as an indicator fly. Much to our delight the fish would gulp our big October Caddis dry more often than we reasonably expected. We also found that the big dry is effective not only as an October Caddis, but as a November/December/January/February Caddis.

Another very pleasant surprise was the average size of fish we caught last winter. Steven Bertrand found that “all the small fish seemed to disappear during the winter. The vast majority of the fish caught were over 14 inches.” Tom Chandler offered one explanation: “I learned very quickly to watch the risers and pick out the better fish. Catching one or two often put the whole pod down, so why waste your time on the little ones?” Charlie Costner and I were also pleasantly surprised by the frequency of fish measuring over 20 inches last winter, compared with the regular season, when fish we landed represented a wider range of sizes and a fewer percentage of these were large fish.

Another explanation for the big-fish phenomenon is the locally held theory that “steelhead” migrate to the upper Sac and winter over. According to this theory, if a fish looks like a steelhead, acts like steelhead, fights like steelhead . . . perhaps it is a steelhead—a lake-run genetic remnant of the steelhead that migrated to the salt before Shasta Dam blocked their path. Locals most often refer to these fish as “lakers.” The common view has these big rainbows entering the lower river from Shasta Lake in the late summer. The rainbows typically have a silver coloration, much like fresh-run steelhead, are larger in average size than the resident fish, are often found traveling together in pods (where you find one you’re likely to find more), and provide leaps and tugs comparable to those of the “half-pounder” steelhead strains found on the lower Sacramento, Klamath, and Rogue Rivers. I couldn’t find any anglers concerned enough to do the requisite DNA testing to prove or disprove the local theory. Most of those familiar with this “run” simply have searched out these fish and have enjoyed the great  sport they provide.

There are a few other winter surprises of note. Many locals hoped for and expected winter hatches of midges and perhaps winter stoneflies. Steven Bertrand found that “there were good numbers of little winter stones out, but the fish did not seem to key in on them.” He notes: “I was also hoping for a Skwalla Stonefly hatch, but it was nonexistent.” Tom Chandler offers: “The absence of significant midge hatches was a surprise. I was fine tuning my midge box with the expectation I’d be fishing nothing but midges after the BWOs died out. Instead, the BWOs didn’t falter until late March, and I never once hit a decent midge hatch.”

Strategies for Winter Flows

Another piece of information worth uncovering was the way the river flows affected the fishing. Access to the river was divided into two different windows of opportunity with relatively low flows early and higher flows late in winter and through the spring runoff. While precipitation last winter was reasonably normal, with no major flooding or drought, the gauge at Delta (just above lake Shasta) on most days could be found below 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) until the end of January. Then a series of big storms hit, and on January 26, flows increased to 6137 cfs and remained relatively high (over 1000 cfs) until July. In fact, June, normally a premier month on the upper Sac, had so much unseasonable weather that I decided an alternative to fishing was in order and found myself backcountry skiing on Mount Shasta in two feet of powder on Father’s Day. A local mountain guide with whom I was skiing referred to the weather we were experiencing as “June-uary.”

Tom Chandler explains: “Conditions were most stable prior to Christmas, and we enjoyed steady, if not spectacular BWO hatches. The low, clear water conditions placed a premium on stealth and precision casting. After a series of winter storms hit the area, flows increased, and the fish were less spooky, though wading could be challenging, and even getting to the river was difficult.”

Most anglers concluded that in heavy flows, the amount of fishable water shrinks, and the windows of opportunity narrow. Most of the usual runs, pocket water, and riffles are blown out. In last season’s article, Wayne Eng predicted a 90 percent reduction of fishable water during high flows, which for the flows we saw last winter seemed a fair estimate. Wayne also predicted about a 10 percent increase in fishable water, mostly on the gravel bars that are high and dry in low water. With a net loss of 80 percent of fishable water, compared with summer flows, a few lucky anglers searched and found a few gravel bars that produced exceptional fishing during high flows last winter, especially with dry flies. As Tom Chandler describes it, “While fishing was still possible, it was considerably trickier, and a sizable spike in flows usually soured the fishing, though stable high water offered some opportunities to the enterprising angler.”

Costner observed: “There is no magic flow except to say lower is usually better. The measurement at Delta does not allow anglers to tell where the flow comes from—the dam spilling, the tributaries. or both.” The water at Delta can be high and off-color from the tributaries while higher up on the river, conditions can still be good, particularly during the colder storms. The opposite can be true if the dam is spilling, but feeder streams aren’t pumping out water, which makes the wide banks and lower gradient of the lower river a more fishable option.

Despite the possible complexities of winter flows, when the gauge at Delta reaches somewhere between 1000 to 2000 cfs., crossing the upper Sac in most locations becomes difficult and dangerous, and many anglers adopt a new strategy. In low flows, anglers can successfully work upstream or downstream on a stretch that fished well for them during the summer and fall, while in high flows, anglers find better success by looking for soft runs and a fishable hatch and then moving on to another run or (if they didn’t find a hatch) by driving to a new location. This is easy to do on the upper Sac in good weather, with Interstate 5 and the railroad track paralleling the river. Of course, in the winter, snow and mud can sometimes block access to anglers’ favorite, most productive runs.

High water on the upper Sac during the winter places a premium on casting. It frequently is not possible to wade to the optimum point to make your cast. In fact, in some runs, it is not possible to wade at all, and anglers must cast from shore. The ability to make long, accurate casts with aerial mends to get dead drifts becomes the key to getting consistent takes. With the river full of water, wading anglers often have trees and bushes right at their backs. In this scenario, Charlie Costner observes, “technique will be a factor. If you can roll cast and mend at distance, you will reach the slower lies and rising fish on the other side of the fast current.”

The high water and lack of access affected anglers’ views of the new regulations. Last season, a few anglers voiced concerns that the upper Sac fishery might be harmed, particularly by poachers and anglers targeting spawning fish during the winter. Mike Dean, a Department of Fish and Game biologist, minimized these concerns in last year’s article, but the reality of flows and the limited access on the Upper Sac in the winter seems to have significantly quieted those concerns.

The Upper Sac in the winter clearly is not an angling experience that many anglers are seeking. Steven Bertrand, Wayne Eng, Charlie Costner, and I, as well as most other local guides reported few requests for guide services on the Upper Sac last winter. For the few inquiries we did get, the most we usually offered was a “half -day dry-fly” experience. This affected the local businesses. Steven Bertrand summed it up: “The very low angler turnout and lack of calls for guide services suggests that the local motels, shops, and restaurants did not see much of an upswing in business, either.”

Fishing in the winter on the Upper Sac may be destined to be limited to locals, skiers and  other visitors in the area who also pack a rod, and the few anglers enthusiastic enough to drive three to five hours for a couple of hours of dry-fly fishing in the afternoon. Tom Chandler noted: “Under the conditions we experienced last winter, it was often difficult to plan a trip more than a few days in advance.” As he summed up his winter season, “It’s an ideal situation for a local angler without gainful employment or much sense of adult responsibility, but for those who need to plan and travel, it might be tough.”

When friends call me for a fishing report and ask if it’s a good time to plan a trip, I attempt to give them the most accurate up to date information but often conclude: “My favorite time to fish is when I can.” If you are one of the few hardy souls hoping to fish this winter on the Upper Sac perhaps we’ll see you.

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