Fly Fishing on the Haunted Upper Sacramento River

Photo by by Craig Nielson, Shasta Trout Guide Service

Thankfully, no invisible or bony hand ever reached out to touch my shoulder on dark evenings while fishing the October Caddis hatch on the upper Sac. Yet the Halloween season and unusual nature of this intriguing fall fishing could easily evoke such musings. I’d give in to the daydream entirely, except I just hooked another fish.

Perhaps “haunting” is a better word. It’s almost dark and the entire world is in shadow except for the fleeting ghosts of ungainly caddisflies bobbing up and down in the air like so many fluttering Duncan yo-yos. The distant, vacant droning of truck traffic on I-5 merges with the sweet music of river water tripping over rocks, punctuated again by the eager splash of a trout ruining a caddisfly’s evening, forever. The October Caddis hatch on the upper Sac (especially above Dunsmuir) is phenomenal and well worth stumbling around in the dark for a few evenings this fall. Like flying Jack-o’-lanterns, the bugs themselves are even orange in color. If you haven’t experienced it, you’ve been missing some of the most memorable seasonable fishing the North State has to offer.

First, let’s get the lingo straight. This is not the same part of the Sacramento River that flows from beneath Shasta Dam and through downtown Redding. In angler nomenclature, that is called the lower Sac. The river above Shasta Lake is the upper Sac, and the best part of it for this hatch is between Lake Siskiyou and Dunsmuir. When the October Caddisflies return to the river to lay their eggs, it’s unbelievable the river doesn’t turn into an angling three-ring-circus. The great thing is that it doesn’t.

Photo by by Craig Nielson, Shasta Trout Guide Service

What is an October Caddis? These are large, moth-like insects that crawl out of those large tubes you see glued to the rocks all over the upper Sac. It’s one of the biggest bugs in the river, and to a trout it must seem like a 16-ounce sirloin after living off popcorn most of the year. In the fall (September into November) it crawls out of the water on rocks or sticks or anything else sticking out of the river, becomes a winged insect and takes flight. The fluttering adults resemble moths that are over an inch long. On most fall evenings blizzards of females return to the stream to deposit their eggs back into the river, and the trout are waiting.

If you’re not a fly fisher, the October Caddis hatch might seem rather underwhelming. What’s all the excitement about anyway? First, it’s one of the most enjoyable and active ways to get out there and celebrate the fall season. Trees along the river are sporting orange, gold or yellow leaves, and the weather is usually quite mild. The days are getting shorter and it’s a beautiful time to be outside.

If you’re already into fly-fishing, you will need some big (size #8-10) dry flies. There are dry flies designed specifically to match this hatch, and a number of good, all-around attractor dry flies that will also fit the bill. A visit to the Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir or The Fly Shop in Redding is a great idea where you can pick up any needed flies or equipment and up-to-date advice as well.

Like in most sports, you can spend a small fortune on equipment if you want to, but you certainly don’t have to. Most fly shops offer moderately priced outfits that work very well. It’s amazing how many garage sales end up with fly-fishing equipment in them. If you are new to the sport, it’s also worth the money to hire a local guide who knows fly-fishing and knows the river to get you off to a good start.

Photo by by Craig Nielson, Shasta Trout Guide Service

You don’t have to cast very far when the bugs are in the air. For most situations, fifteen feet is often close enough. Just drop your fly in every little pocket (around boulders) or any deeper spots you find. These areas almost always hold trout. The fish are primed, so they often strike just as the fly lands on the water. Be ready.

Probably the best area of the river to fish the October Caddis hatch is around Cantara (watch out for falling trains) between Mt. Shasta and Dunsmuir. From Mt. Shasta, drive south on Old Stage Road, which is just West of I-5. Turn right on Cantara Loop Road and park at the end of the road. The river is close by. It was in 1991 that a railroad car full of poison fell off the Cantara Bridge killing all plants, bugs and fish all the way down to Shasta Lake. Now, more than twenty years after the spill, the river is fully recovered and well protected.

This upper-most section of the river also carries some of the strictest angling regulations around. Anglers may only fish with barbless, artificial lures or flies (no bait), and all angling is on a catch and release basis only. If you want fish for dinner, swing by Safeway on the way home. Angling regulations downstream are somewhat different, so always make sure you know the rules for the section of river you are fishing.

Photo by by Craig Nielson, Shasta Trout Guide Service

Even though the bug activity peaks around the time you can no longer see your hand in front of your face, you don’t have to wait until dark to start fishing. You should also understand that the certainty of insect hatches is not up there with death and taxes. Some nights the hatch is profuse, insane, and ridiculous; other nights it is nearly non-existent. Don’t be concerned if you don’t see billions of dancing October Caddisflies around the stream. The fish will still be looking for them.

Fishing the October Caddis hatch on the upper Sac will always evoke images of corn maize hanging on front doors, pint-sized ghouls trudging door to door in search of treats and the sound of a trout scoring a treat of its own on the surface of the river. I’d give in to the daydream entirely, except I just hooked another fish.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.
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