Year-Round Angling on the Upper Sac


L2R: Rick Cox, Wayne Eng, Steve Bertrand, Ron Hart, Charlie Costner, Alan Blankenship

L2R: Rick Cox, Wayne Eng, Steve Bertrand, Ron Hart, Charlie Costner, Alan Blankenship


First Published in Calfornia Fly Fisher Magazine, December 2006

On June 25, 2004, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted a City of Dunsmuir proposal to revise regulations on the upper Sacramento River to allow year-round angling. Beginning November 16, anglers will have their first opportunity to pursue wild trout on the upper Sac during the winter season. In anticipation of this event, a group of prominent local guides, Ron Hart, Alan Blankenship, Wayne Eng, Rick Cox, Stephen Bertrand, and Charlie Costner, gathered this fall in a roundtable format to share their views regarding the angling opportunities this new fishery will offer, including their views on the potential effects on the fishery and the local economy.

Costner: What do you think the winter season fishing conditions will be like?

Cox: In the winter, conditions such as weather and water temperature will dictate the fishing.

Bertrand: I agree, conditions will be variable depending on the weather. With frequent rain, the river will rise and can reduce the amount of fishable water. However, there will be frequent windows in between the storms that will allow for some good fishing opportunities.

Costner: No one has really looked at this river after November 15. Many times I wanted to go down and just see where and when the activity was, but did not. I felt it was so ignored I could go and fish and no one would ever know unless I spoke about it.

Eng: I have done river walks with Steve [Bertrand] during the winter months. We have spotted fish whenever water clarity was good.

Costner: I think flows will dictate it all. I feel certain flows make certain areas unfishable, and it will require spontaneity to maximize the fishing experience. For most people, the risk will be too high. What flows do you think make sections of the river unfishable?

Bertrand: the upper end of the river, near Dunsmuir, is hard to fish when the flows get in the 1000 cubic feet per second range. The lower end of the river is fishable up to about 3000 cfs. Anything over 3,000 cfs is likely to be unfishable.

Cox: I find that between 1,000 and 1,500 cfs at the gauge in Delta is the maximum for the
entire river.

Costner: I think that by the middle of the holiday season in most years, flows will be such that the river below Conant will be marginally fishable. It will be nice to check the cfs level for that time of year to see if it is fishable, but I think unless it is a drought year, the flows will be marginal until near the traditional opener. Do you think spring is likely to be a washout until near the opener?

Bertrand: Again, this is weather dependant. A cold spring will prevent the snowmelt from starting until mid to late April. This last year, March was very warm, so the snowmelt started early.

Cox: I think in most years, March could be a good month because temperatures normally haven’t gotten warm enough to produce a big runoff.

Costner: The locals, say from Redding north, will likely catch some of the Baetis hatches and times when the runoff declines enough to fish effectively, but for those farther away, many will go fishing for steelhead, like most of us, in other streams. After all, if we are going to be cold and wet, we might as well go after a big fish, right?

Blankenship: Weather will definitely be the deciding factor. I see many fishable days in the winter months when the flows are optimum, particularly between heavy winter rains and before the spring runoff.

Cox: Will anglers be aware of the hazards of winter fishing, for example, high and fast water conditions and cold water and air temperatures? In the winter, extreme weather is much more prevalent. Safety and caution are important.

Hart: Many of my clients would come with a ring on the phone if the fishing gets good. I don’t expect a jump in business, but if I’m available and the conditions are right, I’ll guide. With flow data readily available on the Internet, it won’t be too tough for people within driving distance to take advantage of good fishing conditions on any given day. I know people who will drive five hours in December to catch a couple fish in the middle of the afternoon on small dry flies.

Eng: On that note, how do you expect this to affect your guiding business and other local businesses that cater to fly fishers?

Bertrand: It can’t hurt, but I don’t expect heavy use of the river during the winter months. Only the hard-core fishers will be out.

Costner: I think the economics will work out for those who don’t rely too heavily on a winter season. One factor is that until the traditional opener, anglers cannot legally fish the other streams for trout. During the regular season, if the water is too high on the Sac, we can go to the McCloud. That can’t happen now until the last Saturday in April, so I don’t think anglers will come until then.

Cox: I expect a minimal impact initially. I see the majority of the anglers visiting the area from November 15 to the Christmas holidays. Then if we have a normal winter, the river will be blown out and unfishable. Has anyone else had feedback from clients this year stating their desire to fish the river this winter?

Costner: I expect maybe a couple more guide dates in late November through about January. The first snow comes around Thanksgiving, if not sooner, and then the holidays arrive, and next thing you know, people are thinking about skiing rather than trout fishing. I’m trying not to be cynical, just realistic. I would like to see only positives come from this — no damage to the fishery and the local economy, and the fishing-related community and businesses helped out. If guides get a dozen or so more fishing dates, that would be great.

Blankenship: I think that we will see a few more guide days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. But I believe we will see a lot of activity in the early spring, especially in March and April, in between winter rains and the spring runoff, when flows permit.

Costner: What flows will constitute fishable water in the off-season?

ENG: High water may knock out 90 percent of the usual fishable water, but will create 10 percent new water, such as the gravel bars found in the middle to lower river that are dry in lower flows.

Blankenship: I think that we will definitely see plenty of fishable water during the normal off-season. The river isn’t really blown out that often, and during high water, we can still fish the edges and the pools where the fish are forced to hold. I think that we will have windows of fishable water and then we’ll have to drive or hike to the next piece — a little more time in the car and a little more boot leather.

Bertrand: I expect that during the winter season, the flows are going to be a significant factor in finding the fish. We will have to cover much more distance to find suitable holding water for the fish during high flows. In effect, we will be having spring-type fishing, when the river is high from the snowmelt. Many anglers do not fish the upper Sac during May, when it is high, and they miss out on some great fishing opportunities and challenges.

Hart: We will all likely learn spots that hold feeding fish at flows up to around 1500 cfs. It may be a deep eddy behind a large rock in the main current, a foam line along the edge, or a slick in the tail of a longer pool. Regardless, the water temperature will be cold, in the high 30s to high 40s, and fish will be reluctant to move far to feed, so spoon feeding will be in order.

Costner: We haven’t really talked about the effect of water temperatures.

Bertrand: We will know much more about the effects of winter water temperatures after this first season. Thanks to the moderating effects of the dam upstream and the springs that come into the river around Mossbrae Falls, I expect the water temperatures to remain fairly reasonable. However, temperatures certainly will be lower than during the summer. This will tend to make the fish lethargic, and I agree that they will not move much to the fly. I have checked the past few years’ data on the California Department of Environmental Conservation<<RICHARD: CORRECT UNPACKING OF “CDEC”?>>Web site, and it appears to me that the lower end of the river stays mostly in the low 40s during the winter. We will have to monitor the temperatures in the upper end of the river to see how they compare. Of course the standard refrain for most of these questions applies: “It depends on the weather.” There was one week in 2002 where the river temperature did not climb above 38, and a few degrees difference in the temperatures on either side of 40 has a significant effect. In other very cold tailwater fisheries such as the San Juan in New Mexico, the fishing remains good despite river temperatures that average in the low 40s.

Costner: What fly-fishing techniques do you expect to use in the extended season?

Hart: We will usually start with what works best day in and day out, nymph fishing with an indicator, getting small nymphs into the strike zone. The chances are, we’ll go down in size to imitate the bugs de jour (midges and Blue-Winged Olives). If the fish are feeding on the surface, a nymph fished under the appropriate dry could be the ticket. Or heaven help us, just the right dry fly.

Bertrand: I don’t expect much difference in techniques, but rather a shift in when to use them. Dry-fly fishing will shift from late afternoon and evening to midday, when the water is warmest. Nymphing will continue to be used when dries are not effective.

Costner: I think that many of the nymphs we currently use in small sizes, 16 to 20, will be successful. Examples would be Pheasant Tails, WD-40s and WD-50s, Brassies, midge patterns, and the October Caddis. I think many of us who are tyers will likely have a pattern or two that we will work up as the season moves forward.

Cox: I think that the same techniques we’ve always used, along with more swinging sinking lines, will be the ticket.

Costner: Do the conditions fit for dredging with sinking line?

Bertrand: It will be worth a try.

Costner: So, deep nymphing and likely a sinking line except on those days one gets the Baetis hatch at midday? What are your likely fly selections?

Bertrand: BWO nymphs and dries, as well as stonefly nymphs. There is a Little Winter Stone on this river that hatches in midwinter in about a size 14, long and black. I hope to get a better idea of what hatches occur during the winter.

Hart: I’ve seen evidence of some large varieties of Golden Stones emerging midwinter and in the early spring, and the BWOs may be awesome at times.

Blankenship: The October Caddis is pretty much a done deal by the end of our normal trout season. It seems as soon as we get our cold weather, the caddisflies are done, and we are on to the BWOs.

Cox: Of course, there is bound to be a learning curve. This is a river we have never fished at this particular time of the year. What I’m going to be looking for to start off with this winter are those days in January through April when we are blessed with that short spell of warm weather — what I call a “false spring.” I’m very anxious, if the river flows are reasonable, to get on some of the flats downriver from Simms to throw dry flies. On those days when the air temperature breaks say, 55 degrees, I’m certain that we’ll see a hatch, and I’ll be there, toplining with a small Adams, swinging soft-hackle emergers, and enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Bertrand: Swinging soft hackles maybe a worthwhile technique when the water is at its warmest.

Blankenship: I have to agree with Ron on this one. As we come into late fall fishing, our main hatch is the midday BWOs, with large stonefly patterns also producing.

Cox: I agree, but I’m very interested in trying to nymph with an old favorite of mine, the San Juan Worm, the supreme imitator of garden hackle. With the rains and snow washing the banks and the rise and fall of the river, I see these guys being a source of food for the fish and a perfect fly to attract fish. I will also be swinging soft hackles, both toplining and at the end of my nymph drifts.

Eng: One of my favorite ways to fish the Sac in the fall is shotgunning dry flies such as an October Caddis and parachute mayfly dries. To conserve energy, the fish will be holding in easy water, slower-moving water with a feed lane. I methodically work upstream, taking apart every seam, pocket, and edge along the bank.

Hart: The prospect of fishing the upper Sac all year is interesting in many ways. We’ll have late fall hatches and techniques — early spring fishing and hatches, too. In addition to this, we’ll have midwinter conditions, which will likely vary greatly with the weather and remain a mystery more than any other period, because it will take some years to find a trend.

Costner: Will the lower river become a brown trout fishery?

Bertrand: I hope so!

Costner: Do the brown trout come up the river later in the fall than in the McCloud?

Bertrand: I don’t know — yet.

Cox: They used to arrive to spawn in the 1980s, but it’s hard to say if they will make a comeback.

Costner: It is interesting that I have heard of more brown trout being caught during this season than at any other time since the spill. Individuals who fished this river in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s say there were brown trout regularly caught all the way to the I-5 bridge. Is it a cycle, or are they actually coming back to the levels of earlier years?

Cox: I hope they are coming back. I’ve yet to take a brown since the spill in the lower river in November.

Costner: Since the metam sodium spill at the Cantara Loop in 1991, what is the farthest upstream a brown trout has been found?

Bertrand: I have seen lake-run browns up to Simms. I have seen browns at Ney Springs, but I think those came over the dam from Lake Siskiyou.

Eng: What do you see as the opportunities and concerns of opening the upper Sac to year-round angling?

Blankenship: I like the idea of the upper Sac being open for an extended period of time, but only through January or February. I am concerned about the trout spawning in the river system in the early spring. They are pretty much left alone now, with the season being closed and high-water conditions during the spring runoff. I believe fish benefit from the rest that they receive during the off-season months and that they should continue to receive that down time to promote a healthy fishery.

Costner: An extended season cannot help the fishery in any way. It may help the economy of the area, but it is pure conjecture that there will be increased revenues without increased expenses for businesses.

Cox: There are some possible economic benefits to the area with increased fishing days, but these are probably limited to the period from November 15 through January 1 and March through April. I am also concerned about damage to redds and dirt-road damage from vehicles accessing the river.

Bertrand: We will need to be careful on the dirt access roads that go down to the river from the freeway. They may be slick and muddy during the winter. There will be problems from tearing the road up, creating bad ruts, and getting stuck at the bottom of a hill. These problems will combine with the reduction in available water due to high flows to mean that we will have to do much more walking to get at the water. Fortunately, with the lower temperatures during the winter, that will just turn out to be a great way to warm up. Any bets on who will be the first guide to get stuck?

Costner: Let’s pray for high water and normal early season flows. It will keep the anglers out of the river. The spin fisher does not usually wade, and fly shops, when they get the question “How’s the river fishing?” need to remind anglers to wade cautiously. Many new anglers don’t even know what a redd is, since it’s not obvious redds are related to spawning.

Hart: I, too, am concerned for the health of the spawning native rainbows if stressed by fishing pressure and wading. As Charlie said, high water will likely limit wading during most seasons, but during low-water years, I think the Department of Fish and Game should take responsibility for educating the public. Public awareness is where the DFG said they wanted to spend their budget when they cut back on law enforcement. How can we help with the education of anglers about care in fishing around spawning fish and redds?

Bertrand: As guides, we will have the opportunity to point out redds to our clients and teach them to avoid them.

Cox: We need to get the word out to fly shops, write letters to California Fly Fisher, make use of CalTrout’s newsletter, as well as of clubs and posts on Internet boards. And wee need to get the DFG to post a warning in the regulations.

Blankenship: The DFG is understaffed when it comes to wardens, and I am concerned that poaching will be easier during the winter months, when there will be fewer law-abiding anglers on the river to keep an eye on this problem.

Bertrand: Actually, I hope that the river being open will result in less of a problem with poaching. As things are now, there are no anglers on the river during the winter months. With the river open, it is more likely that someone will see poachers and report them.

Hart: As anglers, how can we help the Department of Fish and Game control the use of bait and other means of poaching?

Costner: It will take a concerted effort by every individual involved in the sportfishing world to keep poaching down and to fish according to the regulations. The DFG will take the lead, since they are the ones who approved a year-round season. They need to respond to CalTip calls. If they can’t manage it, then they shouldn’t have passed this regulation change.

Blankenship: I would like the DFG to answer one question for me. With the declining fish counts every year on the upper Sac (prespill fish counts of 8900 fish per mile, reopening fish counts of 4800 fish per mile, and the last fish count published in California Fly Fisher of one fish every five feet, or 980 fish per mile), why does the DFG go along with laxer regulations?

Hart: That’s an interesting question. Did the DFG commit to continue to study the fish counts and monitor the effect of winter fishing? I don’t expect much negative to come of the change, though, and I am looking forward to some winter fun and to learning some new things about our stream.

Bertrand: As part of the deal to open the river, the Fish and Game Commission has instructed the DFG to increase warden presence on the river and to monitor the fishing. The DFG is planning angler surveys on the river like they did just after the spill.

Costner: Those who spoke the loudest will have their feet to the fire if there is damage to the fishery. I feel that many of the environmental groups did not speak loudly enough against this change. Just try to pass this change on the McCloud or Pit River. . . .

Cox: I wonder if winter fishing here will entice other areas to do likewise? Could Burney pursue opening up the Pit, the Fall River, and Hat Creek for economic gain? A point to ponder.

Costner: I — we — did not speak loudly enough to stop this from happening. If you don’t believe in it, then don’t participate in it. We can go out every day and police the river ourselves.

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