May 6, 2024

SACRAMENTO RIVER FLOWS IN REDDING: A GUIDE TO FISHING AND WATER ACTIVITIES

Lower Sacramento River
Guest blog post by The Fly Shop

 

We are fortunate to have the Sacramento River flowing through the heart of our city—Redding, California. This river is a world-renowned Rainbow Trout fishery and year-round destination for boating, kayaking, rafting, and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).

With favorable weather every season, an adventure awaits you on the river nearly every day of the year. For those planning a trip, the best time to visit Redding depends on the activities you’re interested in.

Kayaking at Keswick Reservoir

Photo Credit: Brent Van Auken

Understanding Factors Affecting Sacramento River Water Flows

While the river is fun, it can be dangerous at different flows for various reasons.

Lake Shasta primarily feeds the Sacramento River via Keswick Reservoir. This setup controls the river’s water flow and causes fluctuations.

Shasta Dam was built in the 1940s to provide flood control, hydroelectric power, and water for agriculture. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) controls water releases or the volume measured in cubic feet per second (CFS) to satisfy each need.

For example, during the winter, when there is no need to irrigate fields in the Central Valley, the BoR can increase the release of water to make way for storage if a large storm is approaching.

In February 2017, a strong El Niño produced enough rain to fill the lake, and the releases topped 78,000 CFS to make way for storage.

The high water volume from the lake and tributaries led to record river levels, causing flooding and hazards in Redding. The city closed river access due to the risks posed by the water coursing through yards, trees, and creating underwater dangers.

Getting ready to fish

Photo Credit: Brent Van Auken

Safety Concerns and Recommended Gear for Water Activities in Redding

It isn’t difficult to imagine the hazards and risks the river can present to even experienced boaters. Low flows can likewise present some problems for those who aren’t well-prepared.

In the winter, the BoR will drop the releases to the lowest possible water flows.

The Sacramento River is a large river that courses over freestone cobble, a mixture of large and small rocks polished in the riverbed for millennia.

Some stretches of the river have steep gradients. These slopes allow water to reach speeds even the best swimmers struggle to overcome. The Sacramento River’s flows are also cold, remaining below 55℉ for much of the stretch between Keswick and Red Bluff year-round.

Even a strong swimmer can succumb to hypothermia, which can lead to life-threatening situations.

A watercraft that needs more than a few inches of draft to float can make getting up and down shallow riffles problematic. Many of these steep, shallow riffles plummet into a bluff scoured out over time, causing some deep boils to develop.

Think a football field-sized washing machine—not a good place to wind up in the water!

We’re not attempting to scare anyone away from the river, but everyone who would like to boat, kayak, SUP, or wade should approach this waterway with the respect it is due.

Fly Fishing

Photo Credit: Brent Van Auken

Seasonal Sacramento River Flow Rates and Conditions for Fishing and Water Activities

Besides flood control, the BoR also considers agricultural needs downriver and water temperatures above Red Bluff as factors in the water released from Keswick.

Farmers will plant their crops in the spring, and you will see the water flows beginning to increase.

During a typical water year, they will top out somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 CFS. As these needs diminish in the fall, usually in September, the releases will gradually decrease over the next couple of months down to winter flows between 3,250 and 5,000 CFS.

The Sacramento River is the only watershed in the world with four distinct runs of Chinook Salmon: spring, fall, late fall, and winter. 

The Winter Run Kings were once the most abundant run in the Sacramento River. They historically entered the river from the ocean in December and January, hence the name Winter Run.

These amazing fish migrated up to as far as Canby on the Pit River to spawn and spawned in the upper stretches of the Sacramento River above Dunsmuir, the McCloud River, and other smaller creeks. They spawn in April, with most laying eggs in June and July.

When Shasta and Keswick Dams were built, these fish could no longer reach their natal spawning grounds. A small, vestige population was discovered in the 1970s, spawning right below Keswick Dam, where the water was the coolest.

All King Salmon require water temperatures below 55℉ to have their eggs and fry survive.

The Winter Run is unique because it evolved geographically and temporally, separate from all other runs. It can’t cross with the different runs since they don’t spawn simultaneously.

After being placed on the Endangered Species list, the Winter Run received protection from a temperature control device installed on Shasta Dam. As a result, the BoR is required to maintain the water temperature at Red Bluff at or below 54℉ from April through September to safeguard the spawning fish and their eggs.

This is a big reason the Rainbow Trout fishery in the river is fantastic, one of the best.

Cold water and abundant sunshine produce abundant aquatic insect life, creating ideal Rainbow conditions in Redding. 

However, the cold water can be dangerous for swimmers in the summer. While the air temperature may soar above 100℉, you can become hypothermic quickly in 50℉ water.

Best Times to Fish and Enjoy Water Activities on the Sacramento River

So, when is the best time to enjoy the water in Redding? Let’s look at the different seasons, typical flows, and weather conditions, and we’ll also make some recommendations on where to find more information on how to prepare.

Lake Redding Drone

Photo Credit: Nolan Erickson

Spring

Spring weather in California is typically variable, with some storms blowing in quickly, bringing showers and wind.

In spring, the Sacramento River flows generally vary from a low of 3,250 CFS to a high of 5-7,000 CFS. 

Towards the end of spring, as the weather warms and farmers begin to irrigate, the BoR will increase the releases. The summer volume ramps up to 12-15,000 CFS in June.

The spring fishing on the Sacramento River through Redding and down past Anderson is fantastic! This is when the most significant insect hatches occur, and the Rainbows have completed spawning and are super hungry.

Many fly fishers in the know plan their year around a springtime Lower Sac trip. Wading anglers can take advantage of the early lower flows. Until the releases top 7,000 CFS, you can find many great locations to wade in from the banks to fish productive water.

Summer

Summer in Redding has the highest typical releases from Keswick, and these flows afford excellent jet boat access to just about all stretches of the river.

Every shallow riffle will have enough depth for even the larger boats to navigate safely. While the daytime temperatures can soar above the century mark, the water remains below 55℉, and coupled with a cool breeze, the apparent temperature on the river can be pretty reasonable. The river is a favorite cold plunging spot for many locals, too!

In the mornings and evenings, anglers and boaters enjoy plentiful river use. Bring sunscreen, loose clothing, the appropriate floatation device, and paddle, row, or jet in comfort. Fishing for the resident Rainbows towards dark, when we see blizzard insect hatches, will have fly fishers wading into the shallow riffles to hook a trophy fish on a dry fly. It’s awesome!

Fall

As summer ends and we head into the fall, irrigation demands wane, and the flows are gradually dropped to conserve water. These lowered releases typically begin in September and are ramped down throughout November.

The weather in Redding is nearly perfect for being on the river from mid-September through October.

This is one of the most popular times to fish, as the weather and fishing conditions are both optimum. From late spring through the fall, the weather and river conditions are ideal for kayaking, rafting, and SUP boards.

The increased flows tend to flatten the river for SUP boarders, and with increased water volumes, there are fewer slow ‘frog water’ stretches. You can make your way down the river more quickly and cover more water.

Winter

Fishing can be good, if not fantastic, in the winter. But it must be tempered by the fact that it is winter; the days are shorter, and weather can play a factor.

On the plus side, if you are from Nebraska and staring at a six-foot snowdrift at the end of your driveway, 50℉ is positively balmy.

The lower flows create some hazards for jet boaters. Storms dump a lot of water, which develops higher flows and decreased visibility from muddy water downstream of the major tributaries.

Conversely, lower releases and water flows provide more access to wading anglers.

If you have a warm, sunny day in January or February, watch out for some large insect hatches that can drive the Rainbows crazy!

Friends by Kayak at Nur Pon

Photo Credit: Avery Rosenthal-Murray

Tips for a Safe and Enjoyable Sacramento River Adventure

If you are a kayaker, SUP boarder, jet boater, or row a drift boat, the main thing to remember when planning your trip is to watch the flows.

Sacramento River flows in Redding below 7,000 CFS can present problems for larger jet boats and SUPs. 

More significant flows above 15,000 CFS cause other issues for all watercraft. And with the annual cold river temperatures, whether on a kayak, raft, or SUP, you should always wear the appropriate personal floatation device (PFD) and may even consider a wet suit.

All boaters must have U.S.C.G.-approved floatation devices on board for every individual. Those under 13 years of age are required to wear it at all times.

If you’re a drift boater, rafter, or jet boater without experience on the river or would like to plan a trip, contact us at The Fly Shop®. We can offer expert advice and recommendations on the current and forecast river conditions.

Headwaters Adventure Co. in Redding is an excellent resource for kayakers, rafters, and SUP boarders.

Obviously, we love the Lower Sac. The scenery, history, and the fantastic, world-class Rainbow Trout fishing we experience year-round make it a great place to live.

Approached with respect, this is a great place to fish, bird, and view wildlife. If you want an extended adventure, there are so many other places nearby to explore.

Redding truly is the ultimate base camp.

If you want more information or have questions regarding the Sacramento River or other things to do in the area, call us at The Fly Shop®.

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