Sacramento River Fishing – All You Need to Know
Mar 12, 2021 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

There are many impressive freshwater fisheries in Northern California, but none are as versatile as the Sacramento River. These 400 miles of productive waters are the haunt of every freshwater angler worth their salt. What’s more, the Sacramento River fishing scene is known around the country for its beauty and great catches.

An aerial view of the Sacramento River around Redding, CA

You can catch something here any day of the year – another advantage that adds to the river’s already significant appeal. With a reputation like this, the name “the Nile of the West” seems well-deserved. There’s so much to do and try, and if you’re new to the river, just keep reading.

Top Catches on the Sacramento River

“The Sac” is home to several coveted fish species, each of them more appealing than the last. If you ask the locals what their favorite fish is, the answer will vary depending on which part of this massive body of water they’re from.

On the Upper Sacramento River, stretching from Lake Siskiyou to Shasta Lake, fly fishing for Trout is all the craze. On the Lower Sac, flowing from Shasta Lake all the way to San Francisco Bay, Chinook Salmon is the only thing everyone can talk about. Of course, there are plenty more species to consider, so let’s dive right into the river’s top catches.

All About Rainbows and Steelhead

If you’re coming to the Sacramento River, Rainbow Trout should be at the very top of your to-catch list. They’re the belles of the river, not to mention that they fight like there’s no tomorrow. Add their seafaring relatives, Steelhead, to the mix and you’ve got a Trout fishery that will blow your mind.

A smiling fisherman holding a Rainbow Trout with a fly rod on his shoulder

Sacramento River Trout fishing is second to none in California and, yet, it’s often overlooked. The bite is on all year, with the peak season between April and October. If you’ve got your eye on Steelhead, the best time to go after them is in late fall and winter.

Wild Rainbow Trout can weigh anywhere from 1–7 pounds and be up to 25 inches long. Steelhead on their way from the ocean are larger and can grow to be up to 10–12 pounds. They’re more elusive, but also more aggressive, which makes them a prized catch.

Because they attack their prey with abandon, going fly fishing for Rainbows and Steelhead is the ultimate enjoyment, but also a challenge. The upper reaches of the river are well-known for their illustrious Trout action. These fish pack a punch, so when you hook one, be ready to fight it for every inch of the line.

Anglers like targeting Trout with ultra-light equipment around deep pools and pocket water. If you’re not into fly fishing, drift fishing from a boat is also effective. Wading conditions are good on the Upper Sac, just bear in mind that this part of the river is mostly a catch-and-release fishery.

Trout fishing on the Sac is one for the books. Even if going after these gorgeous fighters “isn’t your thing,” the mighty Sacramento River will change your mind!

Your Salmon Dreams Made True

It would be silly to talk about the Sacramento River’s fishing opportunities without mentioning the fantastic Salmon action. With its tributaries – the Feather, Pit, and American Rivers – this large area makes for incredible Salmon-chasing grounds. As Chinook begin their upstream journey mid-summer, fishermen from all over the country wait at the ready.

An older fisherman sitting on a boat holding a big Chinook Salmon

King Salmon first appear in the Lower Sac mid-July and they have three runs, of which the late fall run is the most productive. The season is usually open from July–December, which gives you plenty of time to get out and start fishing. If you’re on the lookout for big show-stoppers, the best time to come to the river is from October–December.

The size of your catch often depends on the time of the year and your fishing location – anything from 10–40 pounds is fair game. In the fall, the river is brimming with hungry fish on the way to their spawning grounds, and your chances of hooking a hefty dinner are significant. There’s a variety of techniques you can try out, especially if you’re fishing from a boat.

Trolling and side drifting are the most commonly used techniques and with good reason. Hungry Chinook can’t resist roe, so this is the best bait to use when you’re out there. Locals are also fans of boondoggling – side drifting while dragging roe along the river’s bottom. The name might be funny, but the number of catches will wow you!

Earning Your Stripes with Striped Bass

Striped Bass is one of the staple fish of NorCal and it’s definitely one of the top catches on the Sacramento River. You can find Stripers just about anywhere and they’re always fun to reel in. What’s more, you can target them with your family – your kids will have a blast and you’ll bring home plenty of fish fillets.

Three fishermen standing on the Sacramento River bank, holding six Striped Bass

There are two types of Stripers in the river – resident and anadromous. The first you can find swimming around all year, while the latter comes to the river in spring to spawn. While the season is always open, the best time to go after Striped Bass is from March and all the way through June.

When you get a Striper on the line, there’s no knowing how big it will be. Their average weight is between 2–10 pounds, but there are are some massive 50-pounders out there as well. A lot depends on your fishing location, and record-breakers are often found in the delta and close to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

High-speed trolling is a good technique for getting a Striper’s attention, as well as live bait drifting. Crab, mullet, and cut eel are all excellent options for bait. If you prefer to watch as your prey gobbles down your offering, topwater lures are the way to go. Either way, good times are guaranteed!

Sturgeon – the Beloved Monster of the Deep

Do you have a thirst for catching huge fish that will test your resilience and skill? Do you think you’ve got what it takes to pull up an ancient monster river’s the bottom, despite it fighting you with everything its got? If you’re nodding along, then you’ve got to give Sturgeon fishing on the Sacramento River a try.

A smiling angler standing on a boat holding a White Sturgeon with murky waters and cloudy skies in the background

These bottom-dwelling beasts are a treat to catch and they often hang around Striped Bass, which means you can go for a combo. You can target them all year, but local anglers will tell you that you’ll have the best luck from January–April.

When it comes to their size and acrobatics, Sturgeon are second to none. They are true mammoths of the deep that can weigh over 1,000 pounds and reach up to 20 feet. Having that as your opponent in a tug-of-war is as daunting as it is exhilarating – and well worth the effort. However, your average Sturgeon is smaller – usually in the 50–100 lb ballpark – but still impressive.

Sturgeon prefer hunting in muddy brackish waters, and just about anything smelly will serve as good bait. Lamprey and shrimp are some of the best choices for bait, and all you need to do is drop it to the bottom and wait for a Sturgeon to pass by. You’ll need heavy tackle for this fishing endeavor, so come prepared for a fight and enjoy!

Types of Fishing on the Sacramento River

There are many Sacramento River fishing methods for anglers of all levels to enjoy, and it all comes down to your preferences. Whether you’re in the mood for a relaxing day of shore fishing or excitement is your middle name, the river won’t let you down. Here are some types of fishing that earned the Sac its good name.

Fly Fishing

A fly fisherman standing in the river mid-cast, surrounded by autumn foliage

There’s hardly a better place in all of NorCal than the Sacramento River to go fly fishing. Whether you’re a pro or a beginner, you’ll find that there’s something for you here. Trout are the stars of the show and you can target them just about anywhere along the river.

The Lower Sacramento offers incredible tailwater fishery, with dams that regulate water conditions and allow for a superb Trout bite year-round. The upper parts of the river are wilder, and allow anglers to be completely immersed in nature. These cold waters make for the perfect Trout habitat, which allows your prey to thrive.

All you need is a 9’ 5–6 wt rod with a floating line, because Trout are good at spotting the line in the clear water. If you’re going after Salmon and Steelhead, think a 9’ 8 wt rod. Add to that an array of fly patterns and the right choice of spots and you’re good to go.

Fishing with a Charter

An angler fishing from a charter boat with a bent rod, water and blue skies in the background

There’s no shortage of fish in the Sac, but it might not seem like that if you’re coming here for the first time. That’s why exploring the Sacramento River’s fishing potential is so much easier with a guide. The good news – there are plenty of charters all over the region to help you find the action.

While the Lower Sacramento has good shore access, things become trickier as you move to the upper river. The terrain becomes more rugged, and the best way to get to the best fishing grounds is with a boat. This is where local charters come into play. They’ll know where to take you, what tackle to use, and they’ll do their best to help you hook something good.

Whether you prefer urban fishing or going deep into the wild, the Sacramento River has it all. What’s even better, you can easily find a local captain to lead the way. Sacramento, Redding, and the California Delta are all good spots to find a charter to your liking.

Kayak Fishing

A kayak angler in a cap, with his back to the camera, sitting in his kayak loaded with fishing equipment

Anglers who don’t mind getting close and personal with the fish will enjoy kayak fishing on the Sacramento River. This is a great choice for outdoor enthusiasts and thrill-seekers who want to explore this unique type of angling. Trout, Bass, and Salmon are all on the menu.

Not only is fishing from a kayak exciting, but there are miles upon miles of water trails to explore, especially on the Lower Sacramento. The Upper Sacramento is gorgeous with its clear waters and stunning vistas, but it can also be dangerous because of the white waters in the spring. Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you start your kayak fishing adventure.

Sacramento River Top Fishing Spots

The bank of the Sacramento River in autumn

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that wherever you cast your line on the Sac, there are solid chances you’ll hook into something good. Still, there are some hotspots that freshwater anglers should definitely check out. Here are the best of the best.

  • Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: The Delta is easily one of the best fishing spots on the Sacramento River, nay, in California. Fishermen come here in search of record-breaking catches and are rarely disappointed. Sturgeon, Bass, Salmon, Trout are all there for the taking.
  • Sacramento: This city got its name from the river running through its center and is a beacon of excellent urban fishing. You can find charters in the city center to take you out or spend a day on the shore and try your luck for Stripers and Salmon.
  • Anderson: Continue further north, and you’ll end up in Anderson, where the bite is strong and there are plenty of fishing charters to choose from. Here, you can look forward to catching Shad, Trout, Striped Bass, and Chinook Salmon when you’re not enjoying the gorgeous nature.
  • Redding: Fly fishermen swear by Redding and its fantastic Trout population. Rainbows run the show here, and fishing is excellent from spring through fall, with Steelhead present from November through March. Bear in mind that it’s not allowed to fish for Salmon in Redding.
  • Dunsmuir: Looking to explore the farthest reaches of the Upper Sacramento? Cast a line around Dunsmuir – another Rainbow Trout treasure chest that avid fly fishermen will enjoy. There’s plenty of access to the fishing grounds even directly from the interstate, which is always good news.

Sacramento River Fishing Regulations

A picture of a badge with words Fishing License on it

Before you start off your Sacramento River fishing adventures, do some research on the angling regulations and size limits. Whether you’re fishing solo or with a charter, remember that you’ll need a valid freshwater fishing license before you head out.

Some parts of the river are strictly catch-and-release, especially when it comes to the Upper Sac. If you plan on keeping Trout or Sturgeon, you’re going to need an appropriate Report Card. If you’re fishing on your own, be sure to check daily limits top avoid keeping your catch illegally.

The Sacramento River – A Freshwater Angler’s Paradise

An aerial view of the Upper Sacramento River

It’s not a hard guess to say that the longest river in California offers good fishing. However, the Sacramento River’s fishing possibilities are much more than that – the richness of these waters, as well as the beauty that surrounds them, is simply magnificent. If you’re hungry for adventure and premier fishing action, the Sacramento River is the place for you!

Do you like fishing on the Sacramento River? What are some tips and tricks you’d like to share? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below.

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