December 03, 2020
By Michael Mercer
This story was originally titled “After the Inferno: The Sacramento River is still California’s healthiest and most productive trout river” It appeared in the Oct-Nov-Dec-20 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Pulling into the paved access, I noticed with satisfaction that, as usual, my car was the only one in the small lot. Quickly wadering up, I grabbed my rod and a box of flies and began the short stroll to the river, admiring the swaying oaks and sycamores overhead, and the loamy scent of the lush riparian vegetation.
When I reached the river, I stood and observed the water for a while, watching for the familiar and subtle betrayals of underwater life. Far upriver there was a heavy riffle, and a sudden explosion of spray there startled me—was it a big trout taking a dry in the middle of the day? Searching intently, I saw no hatching insects, but moments later another splashy plume of water erupted, and within it I glimpsed the hand-size fan of a huge king salmon tail. I mentally marked the spot, both to avoid wading into the likely nest of the fish later, and as I knew there would be fat rainbows hovering just downstream, gobbling up any eggs that drifted free from the pebbled redd.
Seeing nothing more, I waded into the tailout of the run, and launched my indicator and double nymph rig well upstream. Stripping line as it drifted back down to me, I then extended the drift as the yarn puff passed by, feeding 50 feet of slack line downstream into the current just faster than the water’s pace. The next cast was slightly farther out, and before the rig had even reached me, the indicator popped under. I came tight, and nearly 20 inches of crimson vaulted into the air. After bringing the heavy-shouldered rainbow to hand, I briefly admired its colors and nearly obscene girth. Releasing the fish, I reflected that even the river’s dense insect population was unlikely to swell a trout to those immense proportions, and found myself grateful again for the recent uptick in the numbers of spawning salmon in this reach of the lower Sacramento River. Three casts later the yarn vanished again, and when I struck, a small 14-inch fish cartwheeled out of the water.
Thirty minutes and four gorgeous wild rainbows later, I found myself opposite where I had visually “tagged” the spawning salmon. I could now see the enormous king holding in the fast, shallow water, and while it was not on a nest as I’d suspected, I had no doubt there would be trout hanging below it. Lobbing the yarn and nymphs well above and beyond the king, I was shocked when the indicator plunged under immediately, while still above the salmon and in what appeared impossibly skinny flow. A beast-trout rolled once, its massive spotted girth stealing my breath, before it turned and ripped downstream into my backing. I stumbled along in desperate pursuit, my violently bucking rod held high. The small mayfly nymph at some point simply pulled free, halting my sprint and leaving me trembling in a wash of adrenaline.
Carr Powerhouse Fire
On a sweltering late July day in 2018, residents of Redding, California, barely noticed a blurb in the local paper mentioning a wildfire started by sparks from the rim of a motorist’s flat tire, several miles west of town in the area of Carr Powerhouse.
We are in a rural, fire-prone area, and these sorts of threats are common, and nearly always brought under control quickly. Yet 72 hours later, the fire unexpectedly exploded into an uncontrolled wildfire of 30,000 acres.
Unthinkably, it jumped the mighty lower Sacramento River and quickly bullied its way into the western portion of Redding itself. Pandemonium erupted, and nearly 40,000 people were evacuated from their homes practically overnight. Over the next few days, more than 1,000 homes were incinerated, eight lives were lost, and local news stations reported a terrifying phenomenon called “fire tornadoes.” These nightmares generated wind speeds of up to 140 miles per hour, uprooting trees, destroying houses, and sending plumes of burning debris and smoke 18,000 feet into the air. They scorched vast swaths of ground and were beyond control—firefighters simply had to try and stay out of their way. This was a new kind of wildfire engagement, more closely resembling desperate warfare than civilized conflict.
On top of everything else, the density of smoke and ash suspended in the air was suffocating, causing many residents to become housebound for weeks and even making driving conditions dangerous. The Carr Fire eventually became the seventh largest in California’s history, and was a conflagration beyond what any of us could have imagined possible.
One month later the firestorm was finally contained, after consuming over 200,000 acres of Northern California, much of it in the lower Sacramento River watershed. The cost was a staggering $1.65 billion. Redding fly fishers did not really know what to expect in the aftermath, in terms of habitat degradation. Would the streams and main river be destroyed? Would the massive amounts of ash and silt generated by the fire choke the waterways, effectively smothering all healthy streambeds, aquatic insects, and the indigenous fish themselves? Would the storms of the quickly approaching winter create devastating debris flows in the mountainous tributary creeks, threatening both people and fisheries alike? Would the lower Sacramento River as we knew it survive?
The lower Sac has for years been a trout fishery in transition. When I first began fishing it within the Redding city limits more than 40 years ago, a scant few miles downstream of massive Shasta Dam, there were quality rainbow trout, but in such small numbers that few anglers even bothered, preferring the many blue ribbon trout streams within a short drive of town. Though a tailwater, at the time there was no significant effort expended to maintain constant flows or water temperatures throughout the year to support fish health; both were affected dramatically by drought, floods, and the infamous summer heat of Redding.
As well, the aquatic insect biomass was far from diverse, comprised mainly of hardy caddis populations. What was not widely known then was there were some horrific sources of death leaking into the river, not least of which were toxins pouring from Iron Mountain Mine just downstream of Shasta Dam. The mine is a source of acid mine drainage and as one of America’s most toxic waste sites, it has been listed as a federal Superfund site since 1983. The water leaking from the mine is the most acidic water naturally found on Earth. In 1994 a water treatment plant was built to stem the flow of poison into the lower Sacramento River. Anecdotally I can report the improvement in diversity and biomass of aquatic insects—critically important to the health of rainbow trout—has been dramatic.
In 1996, an 8,000-ton temperature control device was installed on the upstream face of Shasta Dam. Its purpose was to release varying amounts of water from three depths (to a maximum depth of 350 feet) to maintain favorable downstream temperatures for spawning king salmon. This device maintains optimal coldwater temperatures all year long, and while it was intended to reduce salmon mortality, it has also clearly improved the quality of the river’s trout habitat by providing ideal aquatic temperatures for trout and insects. Within a relatively few short years we have witnessed these two major improvements—water purity, and temperature—expand the aquatic insect populations to include everything from Salmonflies to Tricos. Needless to say, the quality of the trout population has responded favorably!
The lower Sacramento is somewhat unique in the world of great trout streams in that it fishes well 12 months of the year. Much is made of the hot summer weather in Redding—and there are a lot of days in the 100-degree range—yet the river remains cold, and some of the best PMD, Little Yellow Stone, and caddis hatches emerge in this heat. The flows are at their highest (to meet downstream agricultural demand), and at 13,000 to 18,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), it’s a great time to float and fish from drift boats.
Autumn is also a popular season. In September, flows drop and hold in the 6,000 to 8,000 cfs range, king salmon move into the upper stretches to spawn, and the trout are drawn like magnets to the egg feast. The lower flows mean wade fishing becomes a realistic option, and as the days grow cooler Blue-winged Olives begin to show on almost every overcast afternoon. Trout are wide-shouldered and powerful from the abundance of such a rich diet.
Winter is my favorite time for wading. Barring heavy, continuous rainstorms, the Sac is typically at its lowest flows, and because of its slight elevation, the weather is normally mild; daytime highs in the 50s, 60s, and even 70s are common. The reduced water level opens up stretches to wading that were previously accessible only by boat, and this is the season of the tiny Blue-winged Olives. These mayfly hatches occur reliably in the afternoons, and if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place, every big trout comes up to them, although small mayfly nymphs beneath indicators account for the majority of large fish.
Springtime brings warm days, higher flows, and the beginning of PMD and caddis hatches. It’s arguably the most pleasant time of the year, daily temperatures tend to hover around 80 degrees, and floating the river with one rod set up with nymphs, and the other with a dry fly will cover any situation you are likely to encounter. This can be a great time to fish a dry/dropper rig in some of the shallow riffle drop-offs, where fat rainbows often congregate to gorge on emerging mayflies and the occasional salmonfly nymph.
Regardless of your timing, you will find healthy numbers of rainbow trout in the 15"-20" range, with larger fish an everyday possibility. And the size of the river provides a constant safe haven for fish. There is always plenty of water left untouched. Consequently, it is rare to catch a fish with a face scarred from being previously hooked.
Following the blaze, we waited anxiously for the first autumn storms. As expected, the initial few heavy rains washed significant ash into some tributaries, which then belched their black effluent into the main river. With each ensuing downpour we held our breaths, certain the charred ground would eventually slough off in massive slides, releasing enormous debris flows, which would find their way into the Sacramento and asphyxiate its precious trout and salmon spawning beds. Yet it never happened.
By the time several wet systems had come and gone, the tributaries had began to show only lightly discolored flows, which were quickly absorbed by the big river. I have walked one of the major spawning tributaries extensively, and while there is definitely more silt on the cobbled stream bottom, the resident fish—both trout and returning, actively spawning salmon—seem healthy, and the insect hatches are vigorous. I have also noted little increased silt load in the main river.
I asked several of our guides at The Fly Shop what they have observed. They unanimously agree that the expected siltation issue never materialized—in fact, salmon escapement in the upper river in 2019 was the strongest they have seen in years, and they have seen nothing to indicate it won’t be successful. The rocks in the spawning areas are clean and sediment free. And because the big river rainbows often spawn in similar areas, they have every reason to believe that their spawn will be equally successful. The guides noticed legions of the big trout spawning in their traditional locations this past spring, and expect the same in 2021.
Certainly we have a ways to go before we declare the lower Sac out of danger. The fact is that while severe soil damage on the river itself was relatively minimal, loss of vegetation and soil charring was catastrophic in some areas of the tributaries. Only time will tell if those vegetated areas will firmly reestablish before we experience an unusually heavy precipitation year. Yet as I write this, we have two normal winters behind us, and it is encouraging to see solid amounts of soil-holding regrowth in the watersheds.
In the summer of 2020, the incredible fishing for large wild rainbows was as good as it has ever been, showcasing the amazing resilience of our natural environment. It fishes well 365 days a year, and angling pressure is strikingly absent compared to many well-known Western rivers. Whether you choose to float it with a guide or wade it on your own, you will be impressed. It is not that the fishing has recovered from the devastation of the 2018 Carr Fire—it has simply remained unchanged.
Momentarily disappointed at the loss of the huge trout, I gazed forlornly at the spot where the fish had come unbuttoned. I was startled to see another fish rise, not 10 yards downstream. Watching, I saw it come up again, the deliberate bulge of a significant fish sucking in a helplessly emerging mayfly. Then another showed on the far bank, and well downstream two more trout rose simultaneously; and with them, my dismay evaporated.
Everywhere I looked, tiny mayflies floated on the surface or fluttered in the air, and for the first time I realized just how many rainbows were in this 50 yards of river. Thoughts of the lost rainbow vanished. With my fingers trembling in anticipation, I removed the indicator and nymphs, extended the 5X tippet, and knotted on a small olive emerger. This was going to be good . . .
Mike Mercer is a longtime Fly Fisherman field editor. His last story was “The Missing Link” in the June-July 2018 issue. He is an Umpqua Feather Merchants signature tier, and at last count Umpqua manufactures and sells more than 45 of his designs, including all the “Poxyback” mayfly and stonefly nymphs, “Z-wing” caddis series, and many others. At age 18, he was the first employee of The Fly Shop in Redding, California and for more than 40 years he has helped people plan their dream trips to Alaska and abroad.