June 14, 2016
This story appeared in the Feb-March 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman and was originally titled "Bass and Whiskey: How the drought boosted a warmwater utopia on the Sacramento River".
Mark Twain famously said "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over." After several years of drought, his words could not be more true, as California is in the middle of one of the worst dry spells in history. Blue ribbon trout streams like the Truckee have dried up, and many reservoirs are nearly empty.
While there is a massive El Niño forecast for the fall/winter of 2015-2016, most fly fishers in California are of the we-will-believe-it-when-we-see-it mentality. For months all the news regarding trout, steelhead, and salmon fishing in California has been of the gloom and doom variety, and many fly fishers have had to look outside their normal trout, steelhead, and salmon traditions in order to bend a rod.
The lower Sacramento River drains nearly all of Northern California into San Francisco Bay, and is widely considered one of the best trout fisheries in the West. It offers 365 days of fishing per year, and more than 70 miles of fishable rainbow trout and steelhead water between the towns of Redding and Red Bluff.
As with all rivers in California, the dry spell has hit the Sacramento hard. Because the drought has lowered flows, warmed temperatures, and threatened the sustainability of once-vibrant salmon and steelhead runs, fly fishers have looked for other species to fill the gap.
Rainbow trout and steelhead always will be the premier species on the lower Sacramento, but more and more of us are now chasing resident striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and carp even farther downstream between the towns of Red Bluff and Butte City. Here, water temperatures hover in the 60s and low 70s and the sloughs, backwaters, oxbows, countless islands, side channels, and creeks provide nurseries, refuge, food, and cover during all four seasons.
The river is large, and best accessed with a motorboat outfitted with a bow-mount trolling motor. Your boat should be big enough to get you around comfortably, but at the same time maneuverable enough to get into some tight backwater sloughs and shallow flats.
With boat ramps outside the towns of Red Bluff, Los Molinos, Corning, Chico, and Butte City, you can also float the river in drift boats, kayaks, or one-man inflatable craft. There is no major whitewater, but snags, strong currents, and wind could at times present challenges for inexperienced rowers.
Fly fishers on foot are limited to Annie Bidwell State Park outside of Chico, a few pullouts along River Road between Highway 32 and Chico River Road, and along Highway 45 south of Hamilton City. Many of these pullouts provide access to sloughs and tributary creeks where you can launch a float tube or canoe. Two of my favorites are the Car Top launch at Big Chico Creek and the Pine Creek boat ramp outside of Chico. Both provide access for kayaks, inflatables, and smaller boats to Big Chico Creek and Pine Creek both of which connect to the main river.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass live in a variety of areas in and off the main river. Given the river's historic floodplain, and its soft clay banks, the river changes dramatically during high-water events to create excellent fish-holding habitat.
Largemouth bass fishing is best mid-March to late June, and then again September through October. Flows historically rose in the spring to levels that made it difficult to fish during runoff, but during the drought of the last four years, this has not been an issue we've had good bass fishing from late February straight through June.
As you boat up or down the river you should assume that any small opening on the bank into a slough or deep cove should hold largemouth or smallmouth bass. These spots are usually overgrown and resemble mangrove channels that open into vast lakes, ponds, or just boat-width channels that travel up to a mile before they come to a dead end.
Largemouths prefer the sloughs that travel farther back from the river as they usually have warmer water and no current. These sloughs are traditionally tree- and weed-lined, forcing you to pilot your boat directly down the middle, fishing tightly against the bankside structure with a vertical presentation and a short retrieve. Some of these sloughs open up into bigger ponds with open water, but those have become much rarer due to the drought.
Largemouth bass in the sloughs and backwaters feast on a wide variety of frogs, tadpoles, bluegills, pikeminnows, and a host of warmwater macroinvertebrates. I fish olive jig-style flies in olive to imitate frogs and tadpoles, and rust or orange-and-brown to imitate crayfish. There are times when I use white-and-gray or bluegill-colored baitfish patterns to imitate small fish searching safety along the banks. During low-light hours in the spring and early summer, throwing topwater frog patterns is a thrilling way to fish for bigger largemouth in the sloughs.
Smallmouth bass prefer tributary creeks with a colder water source over sloughs and backwaters. Areas close to the main river like a deep cove that provides a current break, but maintains the temperature of the main river, are also likely holding areas.
I have found that blind casing to the banks of these tributary creeks with a weighted baitfish or crayfish pattern on a floating line is the most productive. I vary the weight of the fly based on the depth of the water I am fishing.
There are many opportunities to sight-fish for smallmouth in these creeks, but you have to move cautiously and quietly, and have excellent vision. Otherwise, by the time you see the fish, it has already spooked. Fishing the main stem of the river for smallmouth can be good as well and usually produces bigger fish.
I find that smallmouth move in and out of larger river coves throughout the season depending on water temperatures. During spring and fall, they are back deep in the coves cruising structure like weed beds or rock walls looking for prey. During the summer and fall when the water temperatures climb into the low 70s, they migrate to the main river seeking cooler water.
When smallmouth fishing, I use a 250-grain fast-sinking shooting head with a crayfish or larger baitfish imitation. Covering the water is the key when smallmouth fishing. These fish are either willing to grab a fly or not. There is very little use in changing flies or switching presentations when it comes to enticing them. Show them the fly once, and then move along to the next opportunity.
Common carp live throughout the lower Sacramento and are no longer ignored by serious sportsmen. Carp fishing on the historic floodplains between Red Bluff and Butte City is freshwater flats fishing over mud bottoms, and it's visual and cerebral.
Most of the mud flats stretch back off sloughs or large coves attached to the main body of the river. Many of these flats are too choked with weeds to fish during the summer, but spring fishing is excellent. For this kind of fishing you must have a larger boat with a poling platform or a cooler you can stand on to spot fish and cast. Sitting low in the water in a kayak is not going to cut it.
At the right time of year you can get out and walk-and-stalk the banks in search of tailing or mudding carp. This may be the ultimate sight-fishing challenge on the Sacramento and it's amazing how close you can get to a feeding carp if you move slowly and quietly. As the summer progresses, the shorelines become weed-locked and those opportunities for shore fishing become very limited.
You see carp all the time suspended along weed edges in the main stem of the river, but these fish are typically spooky and finicky. The best carp fishing is when they have moved onto the mud flats where they actively feed.
I use 8-weight rods and floating lines with 12-foot leaders to place the fly close to the fish, and directly in their field of vision. On deeper flats, you'll need weight in the fly to drop it into the carp's feeding path, and the fly should ride with the hook point up. I've had the best success with size 10 to 12 olive and/or rust flies. [For more detailed information on carp flies and how to make them ride with the hook point up, see the story "Hydrodynamics 101" by Jay Zimmerman in the Aug-Sep 2015 issue.]
While bass and carp are growing in popularity on the lower Sacramento, the most prized gamefish are without a doubt striped bass.
The river south of Butte City between the towns of Knights Landing and Colusa is home to a large run of migratory striped bass that move upriver each spring from San Francisco Bay to reproduce. These fish enter the river in large schools between March and May, and usually stay until the first full moon when they spawn. Soon after, they move back down toward the bay.
This migration is no local secret, in fact fly fishers from across the country travel to the Sacramento River each spring to hunt these anadromous fish, and the event is as prized as any steelhead or salmon run in the state. But while the run of migratory stripers has a national reputation and devout following, few anglers are aware of the resident population of striped bass that has developed in this area.
Over the last eight or nine years it has become very apparent that striped bass have established a healthy and prolific resident population throughout the Sacramento River. I have seen it firsthand as a guide. A decade ago, striper fishing was something I would do on my day off, hoping for just a few fish. Now I guide for stripers exclusively from March to mid-October.
The famous San Joaquin/Sacramento Delta striped bass fishery is on a precipitous decline due to four years of drought. With saltwater -intrusion, massive water diversion for central California agriculture, and the extinction of the Delta smelt, the San Joaquin/Sacramento Delta is not as hospitable as it once was for stripers.
As conditions worsened in the Delta, the fresh water upstream in the Sacramento River became a more attractive place to spawn and to live. Not only have the migratory runs become stronger, a healthy population of resident stripers has developed.
Ten years ago, catching a few 5- to 8-pound stripers here was considered a great day of fishing. Most of us assumed that these fish were stray migratory males that would stick around for May and June, and be gone by July. Now we target striped bass of all sizes in the Sacramento all year, with the best fishing between March and mid-October.
Striped bass run a full range of sizes: There are swarms of fish ranging from 4 to 8 pounds and most anglers find a 15- to 20-pound fish on most days during the peak of the season. True trophies from 30 up to 50 pounds are hooked each summer by fly fishers.
The key to consistently finding striped bass on the Sacramento is covering the water. This is best done using a jet boat, but there are also some good drifts that cover great striper water.
Resident stripers hold in water from shallow to about 15 feet deep, but they most often prefer water 5 to 10 feet deep with little to no current along weed beds or downed tree-lined banks.
The weed beds and bank structure like downed trees or snags along the main channel are perfect habitat for baitfish like pikeminnows, bluegills, and Sacramento perch. Fishing the deeper water or main current is rarely productive as these areas traditionally have too much current, or are simply too deep to hold active, feeding fish.
Having a full arsenal of shooting heads set up is key to covering the water effectively from top to bottom. On a typical day you can expect to cast topwater flies early in the morning during low-light hours, a type 3 head over submerged weeds, and a type 7 head in water up to 15 feet deep along weed edges when the sun is high.
Flies vary in style and size greatly, and I tend to believe that finding happy, feeding fish is more important than the exact fly pattern you're fishing. But having a good fly sure doesn't hurt.
My most productive flies are chartreuse-and-white, black-and-purple, and gray-and-white Clouser Minnows with flash, and those same color combinations of Dan Blanton's Flashtail Whistlers. I tie my flies on #2/0 and #4/0 hooks in varying densities to have multiple depth options. Some days they want slim, smaller flies; other days they want a big bulky fly.
The Sacramento River California between Red Bluff and Butte City has always been a special fishery, but it's been fascinating to watch it improve while at the same time so many other California opportunities have been deteriorating.
While it may not have the glamour species like rainbow trout and steelhead, it has thrived during the drought, and there's just so much water it's easy to feel like you have it all to yourself.
Capt. Hogan Brown is a contract tier for Montana Fly Company and a fulltime guide (hgbflyfishing.com). He lives in Chico, California.