Fishing for Sacramento River Rainbows

By Richard Alves

“Relax…Just a nice easy cast…This is therapy,” Guide Kirk Portocarrero urged. My flys landed gently on the surface and disappeared into the river suspended by a Float Rite strike indicator. A few seconds later the indicator dipped below the surface.

I immediately jerked back on the rod to set the hook and the flys popped to the surface. Kirk started laughing. “You’ve been fishing the Smith too much,” he said. “Remember this is therapy. Everything we do today is going to be relaxed,” he added.

Sacramento River Rainbow
Indeed, over the course of the winter, we had both been doing a lot of high-pressure steelhead fishing on the coastal rivers. The near drought/low water conditions on the North State rivers had been tough on anglers. Maintaining the concentration to immediately set the hook with authority when you only get a few bumps a day is exhausting. For a guide, keeping the clients focused is every bit as challenging.

What a contrast to the Sacramento River between Redding and Anderson. Here the sun was shining, it was warm and there were an abundance of wild trout eager to take a fly!

The spring-like weather and the fishing a short drive from home enticed my wife Deborah to come along for a day on the river. Not being a fly fisher, she left her license at home. We met Kirk at the Fly Shop where I picked up a Delta Enhancement Stamp and a few flys. Then we took off for the river.

So the day started with clearing the mind of any preconceived notions about hooking a fish and learning a couple of new techniques. I think it would have been easier had I never fished a day in my life.

Mini-mayfly nymph I was using my medium fast nine foot 5 weight Rogue fly rod with a floating line. Kirk cut the leader leaving about eighteen inches at the top for a shock chord where he tied on the strike indicator. From the indicator he ran eight feet of 6X (3.7.lb.) fluorocarbon tippet. Two .4 gram non-toxic split shot were positioned at the mid point. A pink clear bead was tied in a couple of feet from the end where a size 12 gold egg emerger fly was tied on. The rig was completed with a mini-mayfly size 24 nymph on a 16″ trailer.

Using a roll cast or conventional fly cast for this setup instantly creates an impossible-to-fix tangle. Kirk demonstrated the casting technique. He let the current take out about 8 feet of fly line past the rod tip. The rod was brought to parallel with the water on the backcast. A smooth gentle cast straight over the top and releasing the line at about 10 o’clock took the indicator 20-30 feet off the side of the boat. After few practice casts, accompanied by Kirk and Deborah chanting, “This is therapy, This is therapy,” I had the fly line working nicely.

With a little coaching on dead drifting the fly and mending the line and we were ready to fish. Jerk the fly and the fish won’t hit it for a good thirty feet. If the fly is not moving at exactly the speed of the current (Dead Drift) the trout won’t hit it.

As complicated as all this seems, I was actually fighting a fish within an hour. The pumpkin went under, I flicked my wrist and gently set the hook, the rainbow took off like a rocket as I kept light tension on the excess line until the fish was on the reel. Line kept going out.

Ah the therapy of angler bliss as the fish made run after run. The hair thin tippet required gentle handling and a light drag setting. It took over five minutes just to get the trout close enough to see the flash of color in the water. The rainbow saw the boat and got a second wind. Another half a dozen short runs and we were able to net and release the fish.

A couple of fish later I hooked into a big one. The trout charged upriver. The reel screamed as line disappeared. “I’m into my backing Kirk,” I said. He responded. “Well break it off.” Then it hit me. I was in some kind of fish zen where losing one just didn’t matter because there were so many to catch!

It seemed every drift produced some kind of action. If you did it all right you would be rewarded with another rainbow testing your drag.

In the afternoon Deborah took over the netting duties. “I’ve never done this but it looks like fun,” she told us. After a day of Kirk’s gentle instruction, Deborah wants to take up fly fishing.

For me, the revitalizing day of therapy had me ready to again tackle the real world of computer hackers, cranky editors, and bad drivers.

Kirk giving instructions before netting a wild trout
I didn’t keep score, but I’m sure I got at least a dozen fish to the boat. The Sacramento River rainbows were 17-22 inches and some were pushing four pounds. Kirk told us there are a few five-pound fish in the river. If you have ever thought about giving fly-fishing a shot, this is an excellent place for a beginner to start.

A number of factors contribute to the health of this wild trout fishery. Water is released from Shasta Dam at a constant temperature, in the low 50’s, year round. This provides a stable environment for the development of both trout and the aquatic insects they feed on. Long stretches of gravel river bottom provide an abundance of spawning habitat and rock formations, trees and deep holes provide structure and protect trout from predators.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons the fishery is doing so well is that the guides and tackle shops in the area promote the fishery as catch and release and very few anglers keep the one fish under sixteen inches they are allowed to take. “The prevalent attitude around here is if you want meat, go up to the Lake (Shasta),” Kirk told us.

Kirk and his wife Lisa also own a single room Bed & Breakfast which can accommodate one couple or four angling buddies. The property features a one and a half acre pond where anglers can practice their fly-casting and even hook a bass if they are lucky, before hitting the river.