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Let’s check out the Upper Sac

Backcountry Travelogues by Phil

he Upper Sacramento River – The Upper Sac – begins at Lake Siskiyou’s Box Canyon Dam and continues ~37 miles downstream to Lake Shasta. It is a classic freestone river born from the Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy watersheds and augmented by many spring-fed tributaries. Glacial runoff and springs ensure cold water for trout to thrive.

The Upper Sac is crisscrossed by Interstate 5 (I-5) and the Union Pacific Railroad, providing plenty of places to exit I-5, walk some railroad tracks, and find access to some great water to fly fish. The river harbors both rainbow and brown trout with the size class being anywhere from a few inches to over twenty inches in length. The river is open to fishing year round but regulations vary by location and season.

Lake Siskiyou with Mt. Shasta standing sentinel. photo by Phil Akers
Lake Siskiyou with Mt. Shasta standing sentinel...the Upper Sac begins its journey here at Box Canyon Dam.

California is one of the most stereotyped states in the Union and I’ll just say that absent from this stereotype is wild trout in pristine mountain streams, prolific stonefly hatches, and premier fly fishing opportunities. Initially, I was pretty bummed about receiving Navy orders to be stationed here in the early 1980’s. But thanks to a shipmate Sean Kelly, I quickly discovered the Upper Sac and McCloud rivers, hired a guide, learned how to effectively fly fish these streams, and over time covered every section of both rivers. I fell in love with California despite early disappointments and believing playgrounds such as the Upper Sac and McCloud were nonexistent.

Like bugs to a porch light, Sean and I shared the same attraction to the Upper Sac, and every weekend we didn’t have duty (three weekends each month we were free to roam) would find us arriving on the Upper Sac around evening time on Friday. Scratching out a dispersed campsite…somewhere…catch the evening dry-fly action, then drive into the town of Mount Shasta. We would find where the live country music was playing, dance and give the pretty girls a twirl until last call, buy a 6-pack from the bar just before closing, sit on a perch overlooking the Upper Sac until sunrise, double-checking our gear, anticipating that first drift of the day. Ah, to be young again…

Hedge Falls with a small cave which is actually erosion underneath columnar basalt. Photo by Phil Akers
Hedge Falls with a small cave which is actually erosion underneath columnar basalt. Just like Column of the Giants and Devil’s Post Pile National Monument, hexagonal shapes of basalt can be found a various locations on the Upper Sac. Story goes, stagecoach robber Black Bart once hid out in this cave to elude a posse.

What’s my favorite section of the Upper Sac? That’s like asking which homemade pie I like best…all good, depends on the season and what I’m craving at the time. Where on the Upper Sac to go fish depends on what type of fish and water you are craving. The Upper Sac drops ~2000 feet/elevation from Lake Siskiyou to Lake Shasta. The upper reaches of the river (above Dunsmuir) runs at a much higher gradient so there is more exciting pocket water and pools, but wading is far more challenging than the flatter water on the lower stretches of the river.

Railroad tracks, photo by Phil Akers
To experience the best and most unique parts of the Upper Sac will require hiking for miles on railroad tracks, all while peering the water for promising honey holes.

Starting from Box Canyon Dam, I will attempt to take you on an informative (and sometimes storytelling) trip downstream to Lake Shasta. As mentioned, this upper section is steeper and where the river loses most of its elevation. This is where trains labor up out of the river canyon on infamous switchbacks with names such as Cantara Loop and Sawmill Curve. In 1991, some train cars derailed at Cantara Loop spilling 19,000 gallons of metam sodium in the river. The river healed quickly but estimates are roughly half the fish exist today than population numbers before the spill.

Wild Rainbow fish, photo by Phil Akers
Following the toxic spill, wild Upper Sac trout like this still survived in the tributaries, and continue to spawn in their ancestral branches.

Train engine on the tracks, photo by Phil Akers
Be vigilant while walking the tracks. The rails will vibrate and hum well prior to a loaded train coming. The squealing of the railcars provide the best warning…not the locomotive like you‘d think. And a “light train,” which is a lone locomotive without a load, makes little noise. The ambient sound of the river can drown out a light train.

Access up here is okay but the wading is hard. Once across the Box Canyon Dam, turn left on Castle Lake Road then another left on Ney Springs Road. Here and Cantara Loop offer the best access in this section of river. Just six miles to the north of Castle Crags Wilderness – and part of the same granite outcrop as Castle Crags – Castle Lake was known to the Wintu Indians as “Castle of the Devil”, and home to the evil spirit Ku-Ku-Pa-Rick. I cannot gather much information about this evil spirit other than simply noises being heard. Anyway, another great access spot is via Old Stage Road in the area where Highway 89 meets I-5, turning on Cantara Loop Road and following this gravel road until you reach the river. The regulations in this upper section are artificial lures, barbless, catch-and-release with zero limit. There’s excellent plunges, pools, and pocket water here!

This is remote Mossbrae Falls aka “Forbidden Falls“. Photo by Phil Akers
This is remote Mossbrae Falls aka “Forbidden Falls." The City of Dunsmuir is currently working with private land owners to build a trail from Hedge Falls to Mossbrae. Until then, there is no easy way of getting here. Because of the lousy access, Mossbrae is my favorite falls.

Moving downstream takes us into Dunsmuir proper where there are many access locations. I would be remiss to write about the Upper Sac and Dunsmuir without mention of Ted Fay Fly Shop. In the 1920’s, Ted Towendolly – a Wintu Indian – began tying up heavily weighted flies with names like Bomber and Spent Wing with two files per leader. Ten turns of .025” lead wire got them down to the bottom in this swift water. Towendolly also created a way to fish these heavily weighted flies, now called short-line nymphing. That’s right, the Wintu were fly fishing with bamboo and this short-line nymphing method later became the dominant technique of fishing pocket water in California and the western U.S. Towendolly shared his flies and fishing technique with his good friend Ted Fay who started his fly shop in 1948. Later on, in 1973, McCloud native Joe Kimsey returned home from a 20-year military stint and started working for Ted Fay where he too learned how to tie and fish the weighted bombers.

Fishing flies, photo by Phil Akers
Bob Grace, current owner of Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir, offers bomber flies tied to the original recipe. Black and brown bombers, black and brown spent wing, and bee bomber are the original flies of lore.

Earlier I mentioned hiring a guide…that was Joe Kimsey. Joe bought Ted Fay’s Fly Shop in 1983 and re-located to the front room of the Garden Motel (now called the Acorn Motel). I met Joe in 1984. Joe would simply take most clients fishing around the town of Dunsmuir – where the planters were – and afterwards say, “Welcome to the Upper Sac, now go home.” Joe was a radiant individual…a real character but at least engaging. Ted Fay’s personality was terse, gruff…not always socially graceful. But Joe liked me, I don’t really know why. Being retired military, perhaps he took a unique bond to an active-service fly fishing newbie. Or, perhaps, because I dished his crap back at him in equal portion. He was, however, convinced I sniffed a wild-trout scent, unlike routine clients whose only priority was being put on big fish. Before long, I quit paying for fly fishing lessons, the training wheels were off, but Joe and I would continue to sneak out to the river now and then. So not only did I learn the legendary weighted-fly, signature dropper setups, high-stick, short-line, fish-all-water techniques he offered, but also the nooks and crannies of the Upper Sac…the tributaries, and lesser known locales. His guidance on the McCloud (where he hailed) and the experience I gained from him on the McCloud is immeasurable. I called him “Calastogie” after the area’s natural mineral water he bragged so much about. He would always pull up to the pipe at Soda Springs, fill up his caked cup, take a large swig, smack his lips and declare, “Tastes just like that thar Calastogie.” My stories of Joe Kimsey, Ted Fay Fly Shop, and stories of the Native American who invented the weighted-fly technique, is worthy of a whole separate article. While I really need to get off my butt and write that piece, for now I will simply say, I’m digging bones from a better day.

Classic Upper Sac water around Dunsmuir. Photo by Phil Akers
Classic Upper Sac water around Dunsmuir

Dunsmuir is proud of their water, and rightfully so, both pure spring water and mineral water. Joe and I may have called the mineral water Calastogie but most all locals called it “egg water” because it smelled and tasted (to some) like rotten eggs…I think it tastes like rocks. Starting in 1886, egg water was shipped in glass-lined tankers to San Francisco where city folks paid big money for it. Shasta Soda (it hasta be Shasta) started in 1889 but flavored Shasta soda wasn’t introduced until the 1920’s. Shasta was the first company to package soft drinks in 1953. Dear friend Stan Kulak started Mt. Shasta Spring Water in 1987, putting every profitable cent back into the company until 1990. In the Dunsmuir city park there were two faucets side-by-side…one was spring water, and the other egg water.

Scarlett Way and Dunsmuir Ave street signs, photo by Phil Akers
From Scarlett Way bridge downstream to Sweetbriar you can fish without any special restrictions and keep five trout from the last Saturday in April through November 15.

Within Dunsmuir there are many parking areas and easy river access. One thing that confuses folks is the so-called Scarlett Way bridge where the DFW fishing regulations change. This is also referred to as Shasta Retreat bridge or Cave bridge. It is important to note that the entire Shasta Retreat community is privately owned property and posted. Parking has never been allowed here and you will receive a quick ticket if you try. I always park down the road on Dunsmuir Avenue and walk. A couple of years ago, river access here became even more challenging when a woman was hit by a train. You see, the Shasta Retreat bridge is the nearest railroad access point to visit Mossbrae Falls which still requires hiking upstream along the tracks for a mile, and one section is fairly cliffy. The woman thought she could crouch down, make herself small between the cliff face and the approaching train, but the step of the locomotive hit her in the head. While she survived the incident, it caused Union Pacific to post no trespassing signs along this section of tracks. The premise of this article; if you want to get away from the bridges, experience special places like Mossbrae, and fish less-pressured water, you have to walk active train tracks, cross train trestles, and deal with heavy vegetation consisting primarily of poison oak and blackberries. Oh, and don’t forget about the rattlesnakes and extremely slippery rocks. Fishing the Upper Sac is never a pleasant stroll.

Tauhindauli sign, photo by Phil Akers
Don’t expect plush mowed lawns or manicured landscapes at Tauhindali Park. It is being managed as a native plant sanctuary and is more rustic than posh.

Still in Dunsmuir, going downstream is the City Park area, Upper Soda Springs, and the “I-5 Pool” at Tauhindali Park. Both offer excellent access and fishing. If you think the name Tauhindali sounds a lot like Towendolly you’re correct. This park is named after the Tauhindali family of Wintu. They were made to change their name (for stupid, simplistic reasons) before Ted Towendolly was born. So Ted Towendolly is Tauhindali blood. Wow…anyway…from the Tauhindali parking lot, go downstream, fish below the I-5 bridge and beyond. Further downstream, discover River Avenue for access – Old Man Flat and the River Avenue bridge. From River Avenue, downstream, across from the Amtrak station, Bush Street bridge at Butterfly Avenue and the Butterfly Avenue wall are good access locations. Most Dunsmuir businesses offer free fishing maps for visitors. In addition to regular plants by CDFW, the City of Dunsmuir plants some lunker rainbow trout for their Trophy Trout Event, reared at the Mt. Lassen Hatchery.

A fantastic bending pool at Tauhindali Park. Photo by Phil Akers
A fantastic bending pool at Tauhindali Park

If you are hungry after a full morning of wading the river in Dunsmuir, the new buzz is Yaks located next to the Chevron station where the old Hitchin’ Post Café used to be. They specialize in appetizers, 100% grass-fed burgers, and salads. A signature is the garlic fries. I ordered the Hot Blonde burger which was so tall it would have fallen over if not for the wooden skewer through the center. The burgers are served with homemade potato chips. What makes this burger possibly the best I have ever eaten – what tips the scales – is their homemade sauces. The beer menu is much larger than the food menu. Casual atmosphere and the food here is hard to spit out! Bring your wallet! The Burger Barn has always offered an excellent burger at a much more reasonable price.

Traveling downstream, leaving Dunsmuir behind, the next section covers Soda Creek to Sweetbriar. Henceforth, each access name mentioned (Soda Creek, Sweetbriar, etc.) are I-5 freeway exits. Generally speaking, take any exit off I-5 and explore each way and up-and-down the railroad tracks. The challenge continues to be private property and thick railroad/shoreline vegetation. The entire area around Soda Creek bridge is posted by Castle Crags LLC but going downstream, you soon enter State Park land and can take a break from the relentless private property. Before crossing Soda Creek bridge you may turn right on Frontage Road which travels between I-5 and the railroad tracks but I recommend crossing the bridge and taking the second frontage road, Riverside Road. This is a narrow, sinuous road that will take you by several obvious pull-outs. From the pull-outs, look for pathways leading to an elaborate streamside trail system. This is one of my favorite places along the Upper Sac. This winding road eventually reaches Castella.

The campground at Castle Crags State Park is connected to a maintained streamside trail by this tunnel under the I-5 freeway. Photo by Phil Akers
The campground at Castle Crags State Park is connected to a maintained streamside trail by this tunnel under the I-5 freeway. Follow this trail upstream toward Soda Creek.

At Castella there is a huge, popular campground – Castle Crags. If camping here, the River Trail connects the campground to the streamside trail system and crosses I-5 via a tunnel under the freeway. If in a car, there is a day-use area across the river. You can also follow the frontage road either upstream or downstream where many fine access places can be found. Downstream from Castella, many nice holes and pocket water await, separated by very long runs of non-productive water. Wading really becomes easy the further downstream you go on the Upper Sac. Explore!

Upriver is home to an evil spirit Ku-Ku-Pa-Rick, but down here, Castle Crags is home to deep love spirits. I know, I lost my heart here. Fly fishing here is how I courted my wife…now at our milestone silver anniversary. Our very first camping trip together was to Castle Crags for three days of wet kisses, fly fishing, and rock climbing. It did not go uneventful! To this day she refers to the trip as a “wife test”…well…you have to admit, camping is a good way of gauging things. You can quickly learn if someone is afraid of bears, can deal with discomforts, or light a gas lantern. Valley girl kept up with me though, I was impressed. Ask her today, you will receive a finger point, a stomp on the ground, and verbal assurance of the trouper she once was. She fly fished with me! I was in love! If Jon Baiocchi was marrying fly angling couples on the water back then like he is now, we would’ve certainly said, “I do.” Seriously, Jon is an ordained minister and can marry you on the water…in waders, how cool that would be!

yellow train coming down the tracks, photo by Phil Akers
The premise continues to be: Follow the tracks to good water.

Next stop, Sweetbriar downstream to Conant, Flume Creek, then Sims Flat. Sweetbriar is where the DFW fishing regulations change for the last time. You can no longer keep five fish. From here to Lake Shasta two trout may be kept during regular trout season…artificial lures and barbless hooks. Because of the gradient through the Conant area, you have some very nice water to choose from. After exiting at Conant, drive under the freeway a short distance to the road’s end. From here, walk down to the railroad track and follow the tracks to some productive water that receives little pressure but it is somewhat arduous. Same can be said for Flume Creek, downstream is especially good and especially tough.

Sims Bridge, photo by Phil Akers
The Sims Bridge was completed in 1933 and is renowned as the first major construction project by any of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) programs throughout the US. In 1975 the bridge was dedicated to E. Raymond Huber and the men of the CCC. The USFS maintains this bridge (now for pedestrian use only) for its historical significance.

Wow, we’re already at Sims Flat. Generally, any place called “flat” is just that. Crossing the bridge into the Forest Service campground, the water here is flat, unattractive, and receives heavy pressure. From the campground, you can access the railroad tracks by crossing the historic suspension bridge. In addition to the bridge, there are other historical interests. A major Indian trail starts here, goes up the banks of Hazel Creek, across the mountains to the McCloud River. The Wintun called this trail “Wayti puydahl” meaning north side (trail) going easterly. The first California CCC camp was here along with a sawmill that changed hands four times. The sawmill was the beginning of a little community at Sims. The community, also known as “Hazel Creek” boasted a post office and one-room school house. If you fish here, I recommend hiking the tracks way downstream, at least a mile. Then – yawn – fight the poison oak, blackberries, and rattlesnakes.

One of many inviting pools reached from Gibson Road pullouts and hiking the railroad tracks, photo by Phil Akers
One of many inviting pools reached from Gibson Road pullouts and hiking the railroad tracks. This is a wonderful stretch of river.

Traveling further downstream on I-5 take the Gibson exit and turn right. You can follow this road all the way to Pollard which is the next freeway exit. Both the road and the river crisscross the freeway a couple of times and good fishing and access is at these intersections of pavement and water. Not to be a broken record but there will be obvious pullouts. These pullouts are there for a reason. Look for a way to the railroad tracks, walk the tracks until you see good water. One particularly large pullout with huge canyon oak shade trees is at Boulder Creek where there is very good access to some sweet pools. The only drawback to this area is it does receive heavy fishing pressure so you need to look around. A big nugget; sometimes you only need to get an eighth of a mile from a popular area. It’s crazy! Gibson road turns into Eagle’s Roost Road before reaching the signed turnoff for Pollard Gulch.

Downstream from Pollard Gulch requires crossing the train trestle shown here, photo by Phil Akers
Continuing downstream from Pollard Gulch requires crossing the train trestle. There’s excellent fishing downstream but you deal with poor access and private property challenges. You are legal while remaining below the high water mark. Good luck at that!

Pollard Gulch river access is complete with a pit toilet, trash container, and a few scattered picnic tables. A large walkway and railroad tie stairs direct you down to the river. There are inviting pools right at Pollard Gulch but this place also receives heavy pressure and is a popular swimming hole. More productive pools are downstream from here receiving no pressure. But, as the story goes, you are back into private property and thick shoreline vegetation. To continue downstream from Pollard Gulch on the railroad tracks requires crossing the trestle.

Following Eagle’s Roost Road to the end is a cul-de-sac where the old Pollard Flat FS campground used to be. Although the campground still appears on Google and other maps, it has been closed for many years. The truck stop and restaurant is another food place worth mentioning. Some locals call this the Snake Pit, although the founding family cannot confirm such a name ever existed. The truth is one of the family’s kids brought a baby rattlesnake into the joint thinking it was a gopher snake. Luckily, the youth didn’t get bit and the rattlesnake graced the restaurant with its presence for years living in an aquarium. They had a chef called Buttcrack Billy – yes, a chef with a nickname of Buttcrack – that was a very large guy. He had a BBQ pit out back where he cooked tri-tip to perfection. One day, after a few too many drinks, Buttcrack Billy bet some truckers twenty bucks he could reach into the aquarium and pet the snake. Well, Buttcrack Billy got bit, and based on the total cost it must have taken six vials of anti-venom to make him right again. The rattlesnake has long since died. I recommend eating here, especially breakfast – the ham and eggs are highly touted – and if you’re a guy, don’t pass up the opportunity to experience the men’s facility. The lady in the bathtub will get you every time…even if you know what’s coming.

Downstream river pool, photo by Phil Akers
Downstream almost to Shasta, some great pools with long periods of broken, nonproductive water in between. Popular swimming holes and crowds become prevalent.

There’s only another couple of stops before Lake Shasta; La Moine and Vollmers. Right now the water temperature here is at 70°F in the afternoon period, unethical to fish for trout. But for reference, the La Moine, Slate Creek area is uneventful fishing during the summer. The historic tee-beam bridge at Slate Creek, built in 1927, is interesting if you’re a bridge hound like me. The Vollmers Delta area can get very crowded during the summer months. There’s an awesome, very large swimming hole complete with a sandy beach and bizarre rocky cliff scenery. Popular with families, this is a great place to take the kids.

The best area here is accessed from McCardle Flat off of the Vollmers exit. Many anglers believe these lower sections of river can provide seasonal opportunities to catch lunker trout coming up from Lake Shasta. The truth is, yes, but not just here…and not just trout. Spotted bass – I wish these weren’t in the river – have been found all the way to Dunsmuir. Planted in Shasta, these are river bass and very aggressive eaters. Trout suffer serious consequences with these bass in the river. A few years ago a 6-pound spot was caught a-mile-or-so downstream of Pollard Gulch. Also, squawfish up to 4-feet in length spawn way up river. Many anglers have never seen squawfish and some have never heard of them. Because of this, folks confuse squawfish for other species when they are seen spawning in the river.

This concludes a trip down the Upper Sac. Although this was a long article, I left a lot out. We’ll pick it back up sometime. Ted Fay Fly Shop is now located at 5732 Dunsmuir Avenue, across from the theater, and current owner Bob Grace still offers flies tied to the original weighted bomber recipe. My thanks goes to Bob for carrying on a long tradition of Ted Fay Fly Shop and fly fishing on the Upper Sac. Guide service is no longer offered but the fly shop continues to be an excellent resource. I also want to thank the late Joe Kimsey for liking me, and taking me under your wing…RIP Calastogie. Thanks to dear friend and Upper Sac native Stan Kulak for liking me, and taking me under your wing. I continue to hang with my outdoor buddy Stan! And finally, I want to thank an old Navy shipmate, Sean Kelly. I was new to California, stationed at Alameda, bored with fly fishing Putah Creek and the Moke…I was singing the blues when my friend Sean suggested, “Let’s check out the Upper Sac.”

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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