Fishing the Upper Sacramento River
By Tim Holt
Photo courtesy of John Moreno
There's all the difference in the world between fishing the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam and above it. Below Shasta Dam is a world of blacktop highways, fishing from a boat and hearing the sounds of traffic. Above the dam is a world of ospreys and eagles, dirt roads and wading waist deep in the river.
June is Goldilocks month for fishermen on the Upper Sacramento. The water’s not too cold and not too warm, not too high and fast and not too low and slow.
Experienced fly fishermen tend to go where the trout are the wildest, avoiding the stretches stocked with hatchery fish. They like the challenge of hooking, and releasing, those wily wild fish, the ones who have “stream smarts.” With each short, quick cast, you’ve got to absolutely mimic the action of a fly on the water, a technique developed and perfected by Ted Fay, one of the pioneer fly fishermen on the Upper Sac.
You’ve also got to be constantly alert for the slightest tug on the line.
“It’s an intricate, detail-oriented sport, a thinking man and woman’s game,” says Bob Grace, owner of Dunsmuir’s Ted Fay Fly Shop. He’s part of a legacy that goes back to the late 1940s, when a chain-smoking truck driver named Ted Fay bought a motel in Dunsmuir and converted one room to a fly fishing shop. Fifty years later, Grace bought the business from Joe Kimsey, one of Fay’s fishing guides.
In the 20 years since then, Grace has had plenty of time to observe the types of people who are drawn to the sport. He puts them in three neat categories: (1) Older, well-educated, achiever types– doctors, lawyers, architects– who are drawn to the challenge of catching wild fish. (2) Young, eager outdoors types who are also involved in mountain climbing and backcountry skiing and who also tend to be environmentalists. They’re drawn to fly fishing the Upper Sac because of its non-motorized, back-to-nature character. (3) Casual fishermen in their 30s, looking for something to do, a chance to get away from a stressful job and the big city a couple times a year.
Longtime fishermen have plenty of back-to-nature stories about fishing the Upper Sac and its nearby streams – stories about seeing
a mother bear playing with her cubs on the banks of the McCloud River, or seeing a deer swimming down that same stream, using it as a highway.
They know where the out-of-the-way creeks are, where you can catch trout in the spring on their way up to spawn. Sandy Watts, who’s 75 and has worked in The Fly Shop in Redding for the past 24 years, can tell you just when to catch the big rainbows as they head upriver from Shasta Lake to spawn.
David Walmisley lives right along the Upper Sac in Dunsmuir and knows “all its nooks and crannies." His favorite time to fish is the “magic hour” just before dark, when the big fish come out to feed. They’re more cautious than the smaller ones (that’s probably how they got to be big fish), and you have to perfectly mimic the action of a fly
above the water as you whip the line back and forth. The payoff in that magic hour, for experienced fishermen like Walmisley, is to see a two-foot-long fish leap out of the water and grab your fly.
For Bob Grace, owning a popular fly fishing shop is a bittersweet experience: During prime fishing season, from May to June and mid-September to November, he spends most of his waking hours making a living and helping others enjoy the sport and can barely squeeze in a few hours to get out on the river himself.
Still, when he does manage to do so, he’s reminded of what drew him to the sport in the first place.
“I like it because it forces you to be totally in the moment, to pay attention every minute,” he says. “While you’re out there, it takes your mind off any problems and worries you might have.”
John Moreno of Mount Shasta, who’s been fishing the Upper Sac for nearly two decades, often goes out by himself to his favorite spots on the river. “But you know,” he says, reflecting on the experience, “I’m never lonely when I’m out there by myself.”