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Keswick Reservoir: Unlock the Secrets of California's Least-Known “Spring Creek”

Why do anglers ignore a wild-trout fishery with documented fish in the double-digits?

Keswick Reservoir: Unlock the Secrets of California's Least-Known “Spring Creek”

The average rainbow here runs about 16 inches, and there’s an 18-pound Keswick rainbow hanging on an office wall in Redding. (Chip O'Brien photo)

The security guard handed my driver’s license back and announced something into the burly walkie-talkie hoisted from his belt. There was a metallic clang somewhere, followed by a rasping sound like someone dragging a logging chain across a rough slab of concrete. The barrier in front of my vehicle slowly melted away, disappearing beneath the hard surface of California’s largest dam. The guard waved me on with a stern reminder not to stop on top of Shasta Dam.

While this may sound like the process for entering a maximum-security prison, I was actually about to fish California’s most unusual wild-trout fishery. Named after Lord Keswick of London who ran a mining operation here a century ago, Keswick Reservoir is the 9 miles of water between Shasta and Keswick dams, just north of Redding, California. Hardly a “new” fly-fishing destination, it has been around since the 1960s when Keswick Dam was completed. It looks like a river at the top, a lake at the bottom, but it fishes more like a spring creek. The magic of Keswick is that, in a state with a population over 36 million, it’s typically devoid of people. It gets virtually no fishing pressure at all: zero, zip, nada.

The obvious question is why do anglers ignore a centrally located wild-trout fishery with documented fish in the double-digits? What’s the catch? Well, probably not a darned thing if you try to fish Keswick in traditional ways, and that’s usually the problem.

Afterbay Tactics

If you approach Keswick like other places, you’re likely to join the legions of anglers who try it once and write it off as not worth the effort. Keswick is an “afterbay” reservoir, which means it was designed to moderate conditions in Shasta Lake above, and the Sacramento River below. It wasn’t designed as a destination itself, but apparently no one told that to the fish. They’ve adapted nicely to the constantly changing conditions, and learned to thrive by eating tiny midges almost continually. When the level or speed of the current changes, the fish just move to another comfortable spot and resume feeding.

Keswick Reservoir including a dam on a bluebird day.
Sandwiched between two dams, Keswick is officially labeled a reservoir, but the shallow, slow-moving tailwater fishes more like a giant spring creek. (Chip O’Brien photo)

There are large wild trout here that have seen very few flies. While I’ve hooked a number of fish at Keswick that I just couldn’t land, the best trout I’ve brought to hand was a robust 26-incher. The average rainbow here runs about 16 inches, and there’s an 18-pound Keswick rainbow hanging on an office wall in Redding.

These peculiar conditions dictate a singular approach to successful fishing here. Fly fishers have to be willing to think outside the box, and maybe walk a little on the wild side. But first, just for fun, how would you fish it? At times, grenades come to mind.

Picture a long, deep spring creek flowing through thick, choking underbrush with plenty of blackberry vines, poison oak, and the odd rattlesnake. Sandwiched between two dams, Keswick has almost no bank access. The upper reservoir is at least 7 miles from the nearest boat launch, and there are ominous, house-sized boulders looming above and just beneath the water, some positioned perfectly to tear the bottom off a fast-moving boat.

Most of the fish congregate in the faster-moving water near the top of the reservoir, where the speed of the current may fluctuate from fast to slow and back again at any time. The depth of the water can also change while you’re fishing, rising or falling as much as 6 vertical feet, either dewatering the hole you were just fishing, or creating new places to explore. The water is extremely clear and very cold.

There are virtually no mayflies or caddisflies at Keswick. Tiny midges (Diptera) are the staple of the trout diet here, and Keswick’s midges are almost microscopic. Strangely, people fishing from boats rarely catch fish, and dry flies don’t work at all. Fly fishers using Woolly Buggers and leech patterns on sinking lines certainly catch some fish, but experienced Keswick anglers consider this a secondary technique.




Finding the Target Zone

I’m always amused when I describe the fishing at Keswick, because so many people argue with me about it. You’d think I was suggesting using worms, or canned corn.

It may be heresy to some, but I believe Keswick, at least the upper beat close to Shasta Dam, is best fished from a float tube. What works best is launching the tube in the slowly moving current, fishing your way downstream using nymphs and strike indicators, then locating one of the paths leading up to the old railroad bed and hiking back to your vehicle.

Some of the best fishing is often in intimate rock gardens where the current sets up seams and feeding lanes. It’s easy to tuck a float tube behind a rock and fish off to either side, blissfully protected from the current. There is no access on the east side of the reservoir, and the old railroad bed on the west side has been turned into a first-rate hiking and biking trail with no motorized vehicles allowed.

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Float tubing in moving water seems like a totally crazy thing to do, but the success of it here is undeniable. Some people get a little nervous about tubing in moving water, and may even experience some initial moments of vertigo, but this soon passes and they realize that whatever happens to the water level or speed, there’s little dangerous about it. In fact, it’s great fun.

When changes in water speed or depth occur at Keswick, they happen so slowly it may take an hour to notice that something is different. Even at its fastest, Keswick is like a big, slow spring creek, and there is no whitewater. The fastest water usually slides down the middle of the reservoir, and that’s not where the fish are anyway. The trout munch midges along the edges, and in the shallower bays.

There is a full-blown boat launch ramp off of Iron Mountain Road a mile above Keswick Dam, but motorboats contend with a host of problems. First, the boat launch is at least 5 miles below the middle of the reservoir—and well below the good fishing. Motoring up the reservoir can be a dangerous proposition due to the numerous house-sized boulders often just beneath the surface. I’ve seen expensive boats lodge themselves on these, and it isn’t pretty.

Even when boats make it through the minefield of boulders and into the upper reservoir, it seems boat anglers rarely catch fish. I’m convinced this is due to the clarity of the water, and the high profile of an angler sitting or standing in a boat. A float tube positions you down close to the surface, and even so, it’s rare to hook a trout less than 30 feet from your tube—so you better be able to cast that far from a seated position. Not everyone can.

One key to success is to seek out slowly moving water 3 to 6 feet deep. Despite constant fluctuation, feeding fish seem to prefer this zone. A place that met the right description yesterday may no longer fit the profile today. Finding that 3- to 6-feet-deep slot means you’re often finding a protected place to position your tube, then fishing in toward the bank. Keswick has numerous bays where the slow current sets up an eddy, with the water along the edges actually flowing upstream. Often you can hold your tube in the center of the “lazy Susan,” and fish there with minimal effort.

Keswick trout don’t see many anglers, so almost any general nymph pattern catches fish. I like a size #12 brown Bird’s Nest tied with a tungsten bead, and I hang it on a 4X tippet 4 to 5 feet below a small corky-style indicator. The bead allows you to avoid split-shot and the associated tangles.

Because these fish see so few artificials, you don’t have to worry about matching the hatch. But the trout here are fussy about the quality of your drift. Think Henry’s Fork or Hat Creek. If you can’t manage a drag-free drift from a float tube, plan on a day of casting practice rather than catching fish.

Fly fishers with solid spring creek experience have an advantage here, and even then, it does take a bit of practice to pull this off from a float tube that’s sometimes moving in a different direction than your strike indicator.

Just Beat It

Keswick’s best fishing can be broken into two different “beats.” The upper beat is immediately below Shasta Dam, and ends just above the old railroad tunnel mid-reservoir. The other is from Motion Creek, a major Keswick spawning tributary, down to the Chappie-Shasta OHV Area trail access.

Map of Keswick Reservoir.
(Graphic by Davis Deis)

Upper beat. Fishing the upper reservoir means driving over the top of Shasta Dam just west of Shasta Lake City. After the 9/11 terrorist attack, anglers could only drive across the dam after successfully applying for a permit, and undergoing a criminal background check. Federal officials have now dropped the permit requirement, but you are still required to present a current driver’s license to cross the dam, and you may also have to agree to a vehicle search.

If you fish this area often, the guards get to know you, and the process seems somewhat less threatening. On the other hand, I think it also keeps the hordes away from Keswick, and it’s a big reason why you’ll find an abundance of solitude there.

Once across the dam, follow the road downhill to the campground. Just below the campground there is a small parking lot with a few picnic tables. If you park here and hike upstream a couple of hundred feet, you will find several steep rocky paths going down to the water. This is the best place to launch your tube.

Pontoon boats do not work as well on upper Keswick because they are difficult to put in and take out of the reservoir. The water is at least a hundred feet below the river trail, and the paths down and up from the water are very steep, narrow, and rocky.

The last time a friend decided I was “full of it” on this point, and insisted on bringing a pontoon boat, I was audience to some of the most creative profanity I’ve ever heard. He assured me he’d never do that again.

In this upper beat, the best fishing is on the far side of the reservoir. This means your should kick your tube across the reservoir just as soon as you launch. When you get to the fastest current in the middle, you’ll find yourself drifting downstream at a brisk walking pace. Now is a great time not to freak out. You are completely safe and this is normal—at least “Keswick normal.”

Relax and just (sorry for the cliché) go with the flow. Sure, you will pass by some sexy trout water and you might not be able to fish it all, but there is no lack of good water. Once you’re comfortable, don’t hesitate to fish one side for a while, then cross over and fish the other.

Depending on how far downstream you drift while crossing to the other side, try to identify the “target zone,” which is the slowly moving water 3 to 6 feet deep. Regardless of frequent changes in current velocity and depth, Keswick trout seldom feed in water that is deeper or shallower than this.

Once you become comfortable with this technique and land a few good trout, you can’t help but relax and notice the beauty of the place, and you’ll likely have it all to yourself. The upper beat has more current than the lower beat, but it also has more fish.

If you find yourself wanting to get downstream in a hurry, simply kick out to the middle and let the current take you for a ride. It feels a lot like one of those moving sidewalks in an airport, and you may find yourself not wanting it to end. It’s a relaxing and scenic ride.

The first takeout spot is directly below the first building you see on the bluff above you, on the Coram Guest Ranch property. This is a fairly narrow path, and it becomes overgrown from time to time, so look carefully.

You can launch a tube, fish your way down to this spot, and be out of the water in as little as two hours if you take out here. The hike back to your vehicle is about 20 minutes once you are up on the river trail.

If for some reason you float past that path, don’t worry about it. The second takeout is not far below, tucked into a little bay. Look for a white sign on the trail up above, and the takeout spot is directly below. This is probably the most popular takeout on the upper beat, and it’s a 30-minute hike back once you’re on the trail.

Lower beat. This float begins at Motion Creek and ends around the Chappie-Shasta OHV parking area. Start by hiking up to Motion Creek and float and fish your way back to your vehicle. The hike takes 35 to 45 minutes, and Motion Creek is the only bridge you will see.

There is a large gravel bar where Motion Creek enters the reservoir. This is one of the few places with decent bank access, and there are always trout lurking just offshore.

The lower beat may not have quite as many fish as up above, but the fishing is still good, and the current is slower, which makes for a less physically demanding day. In this section the trail is close to the water level, so pontoon boats and float tubes work equally well.

To get to the lower beat, take California 299 west from Redding. A mile outside of town turn right on Iron Mountain Road. Pass by the Keswick boat launch ramp and the Spring Creek Powerhouse. Turn right on the gravel road marked Chappie-Shasta Off Highway Vehicle Area and head downhill toward the reservoir. Drive upstream until the road is blocked by a big, yellow metal gate. Park here.

The best place to pull your boat from the water is a short way above the yellow gate where a small stream flows into Keswick. Just like at Motion Creek, there’s a gravel bar where it enters the reservoir. It’s a good idea to find this spot before you continue up to Motion Creek.

A scenic photo of Keswick Reservoir.
Choked by heavy brush, the shore of Keswick is difficult to walk-and-wade, but the slow current is easy to navigate in a float tube, and there’s an easy walking trail back to your car. (Chip O'Brien photo)

Gear & Seasons

I fish Keswick from a tube so my outfit is minimalistic. I like a fairly stiff 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight rod with a floating line. I use fairly standard 9-foot tapered leaders ending in 4X fluorocarbon. Bring a few extra leaders, a box loaded with nymphs, tippet, forceps, nippers, strike indicators, and water. I typically take my waders off for the hike in or out, and stow a pair of sandals in my tube for hiking.

Small, corky-style strike indicators cast easily and don’t spook the fish. If you wait for your indicator to dip fully under water, you’ll miss a lot of fish.

Some days the takes are so subtle that your indicator may just look sluggish, as if maybe you picked up a weed on your hook. That may be exactly what happened, but if you don’t strike each and every time, you will miss the ones that happen to be a huge trout taking an exploratory nibble.

Keswick fishes best from March through June. March is still the “wet season,” but the fish don’t mind the rain, and it seems to make the midges more active.

June is probably my favorite month to fish Keswick. The fishing is great, and the reservoir is lined with Scotch broom bushes, which bloom yellow this time of the year. Their soft, sweet scent rides the breezes and gives the impression that the air is perfumed.

From July well into October, Northern California is typically blast-furnace hot. Fishing success takes a noticeable dip as daytime temperatures eclipse 110 degrees and higher, but the water stays cold and you can always catch fish. As long as you lather on the sunscreen and drink plenty of water, sitting in a tube on Keswick in the heat is quite pleasant.

November has some decent days, but on the whole, the fishing slows. Even though there can be some beautiful weather from December through February, insect activity seems to be at a low ebb, and the fishing all but shuts down.

While gaining access to this fascinating fishery can seem like entering a penitentiary, it’s also just different enough, challenging enough, and special enough to warrant some serious consideration about the merits of a life of crime.


Chip O’Brien is the author of California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra (Headwater Books, 2010). He lives near Salem, Oregon.

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