Complete Guide to Sacramento River Fishing

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Stretching through 400 miles of Northern and Central California, the Sacramento River is the longest river in the state, and represents the core artery of its largest watershed. 

The Sacramento River is also an incredible fishing destination.

Flowing through remote countryside as well as major cities like Redding and Sacramento, the big river offers virtually unlimited possibilities. 

All the rainfall in a roughly 28,000 square-mile area of California drains into the Sacramento River.

Those waters ultimately merge with the San Joaquin River to form the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta—a spectacular fishing destination in its own right—before flowing into San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific Ocean.

This connection to the ocean, and the vast network of estuaries that forms the Delta, makes the Sacramento River a crucial spawning ground for anadromous fish including salmon, steelhead and striped bass.

The Sacramento River is also the year-round home to rainbow trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, and dozens of other species that, while perhaps not as sought-after by anglers, represent crucial parts of the local ecosystem. 

This all adds up to a river with year-round fishing opportunities. As one fishing season ends, another begins, and there’s always something exciting to catch in the Sacramento River.

Roughly 350 river miles from the coast, the Keswick and Shasta dams temporarily halt the river, forming Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir.

Cool water from the huge reservoir (a.k.a. Lake Shasta) and several other dams on the river system is released intentionally, with the aim of controlling not only the river’s flow, but its temperature.

For the most part, this keeps the river within the temperature range favored by trout, salmon and steelhead, and largely prevents it from getting blown out by spring rain and snowmelt.

The dam also marks the boundary between the “upper’ and “lower” Sacramento River.

The Upper Sacramento River above Lake Shasta is a picturesque mountain stream, where fly anglers chase wild rainbow trout and smallmouth bass in secluded pools.

It’s very different from the mighty Lower Sacramento River below, but no less enticing for anglers.

Salmon Fishing

Salmon have a long and complicated history in the Sacramento River.

To greatly simplify the story, this river system once hosted the most epic Chinook salmon run in California, but dams, mining and deforestation took a massive toll, nearly wiping out Sacramento River salmon by the late 20th century. 

Only in recent decades have efforts to improve the fishery seen success.

Today, salmon run up the Sacramento and its tributaries in numbers that, while perhaps not quite as great as in the past, are once again enough to make it one of California’s best salmon fishing rivers.

There are actually four distinct salmon runs in various seasons. But the fall and late fall runs are the most abundant and, at least at this writing, the only ones that are open to fishing.

The first of the fall-run Chinook salmon start to arrive in mid-summer, and the fishing reaches its peak in October.

The late fall run begins just as the previous run is winding down, and continues into early spring, although the legal fishing season ends in December.

There’s solid salmon fishing throughout the fall and first of winter in the Sacramento River.

As a general rule, the fall run is best for numbers of fish. But some of the biggest salmon of the year are part of the late fall run, so if you’re after giants, you’ll likely catch them a bit later.

Early in the salmon season, trolling and drifting in the lower Sacramento River is the tactic of choice.

Flasher rigs with plugs, hoochies or spoons trailing behind are popular for trolling, and some guides in the lower Sac drift-fish with anchovies, herring and other baitfish.

But fishing can be tough during the first month of the run. The lower reaches of the river are broad and somewhat featureless, lacking the defined pools and riffles that salmon utilize farther up.

Locals line up along the banks in the city of Sacramento’s riverfront parks, but most of the salmon fishing on the river is focused farther upstream, on the last 45 miles of the river from Keswick Dam down to Red Bluff.

Many anglers who fish the Sacramento for salmon wait until October, and many head straight to the Barge Hole. Located at the mouth of Battle Creek, it’s arguably the best fishing spot on the river, and certainly the most famous.

Battle Creek is one of the Sacramento River’s most important tributaries for spawning salmon, though some fish also spawn in the American River and Feather River, which meet the Sacramento closer to the ocean.

But for anglers, the best shot at catching a trophy Chinook is at the Barge Hole.

Salmon use deep areas like the Barge Hole to wait and rest up before pushing farther upstream. Sardine-wrapped flatfish plugs and natural salmon roe are used here to tempt aggressive salmon.

The area is easiest to access via drift boat, and it’s common to see a dozen or more in the area at any given time.

Side-drifting salmon roe along the bottom, known by some locals as “boondoggling,” is a popular technique that works best from a boat. 

There are other spots worth fishing in the area too, should the Barge Hole prove a little too lively.

Anderson Park in the city of Anderson is a good spot a little ways upriver, and the Keswick Dam area just above Redding is also productive.

For many anglers, the key to success is paying attention to the water flow

When the Sacramento River is on the rise, salmon move freely upstream. But when water levels fall, they’re more inclined to “hole up” in deep areas and bide their time. 

Typical Sacramento River Chinook salmon weigh anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds, though a few 40-pound giants are caught every year. The California state record, caught in the Sacramento River in 1979, weighed 88 pounds.

The Sacramento River system also is home to some of the big reservoirs listed among our picks for Best Landlocked Chinook Salmon Fishing Lakes in California.

Find more salmon-fishing tips and techniques in our simple guide.

Steelhead Fishing

As is the case in most California rivers, the steelhead run is just a step behind the salmon run in the Sacramento.

Steelhead—ocean-run rainbow trout that spend much of their lives in saltwater—start invading the Sacramento River just as the fall salmon run begins to slow down.

Steelhead are often overlooked in the Sacramento River itself, but they arrive in droves every winter.

Some steelhead make it all the way up to the Keswick Dam, but most end up spawning in one of the Sac’s major tributaries, including the American River and Feather River, both on our list of best steelhead fishing rivers in California, as well as Butte Creek, Mill Creek and Battle Creek.

Many are heading to hatcheries where they were raised before release.

There are opportunities to catch steelhead from late fall through early spring, but December through January is arguably the best time to be on the water.

Much like salmon, the best fishing for steelhead tends to be in the uppermost 45 miles of the lower Sacramento River, from Keswick Dam down to around Red Bluff. 

Balls Ferry Fishing Access Site, Bonnyview Boat Launch and Anderson River Park are great fishing spots, along with the aforementioned Barge Hole.

There’s good access on Battle Creek as well, especially below the Coleman Fish Hatchery, which is where many of these steelhead were born and thus return.

Steelhead love to snack on salmon eggs, making roe the go-to bait for many steelhead anglers here.

Artificial lures, including Kastmaster spoons, Little Cleos and Panther Martin Spinners can also be effective.

But the Sacramento River tends to be clear enough that steelhead can see clearly, making natural presentations the best choice. 

A little later in the run, steelhead often start to key in on spring insect hatches, giving fly anglers a shot at catching them in the upper portions of the Lower Sacramento River.

Swinging flies across the current using spey rods is a popular technique, and nymphing under a strike indicator in deep pools works as well.

With nymphing, the trick often lies in keeping your fly close to the bottom where steelhead typically hold.

Most fly anglers here use standard nymphs, along with heavily-weighted leeches or Woolly Bugger patterns. Weighted line is helpful for getting your presentation down a little deeper.

Steelhead typically run between 8 and 12 pounds on the Sacramento River, though there’s always an outside shot at a 20-pounder. Some of the biggest fish are caught toward the end of the season in February and March.

Most of the steelhead that run in the Sacramento and its tributaries are hatchery-raised fish. But there’s also a growing population of wild steelhead, which can be identified by their adipose fins, which are not clipped as hatchery fish are. 

Wild steelhead must be released immediately if caught.

Steelhead are notoriously difficult to catch. Up your odds by reading about the various steelhead fishing techniques and tips in our how-to guide.

Resident Rainbow Trout

In addition to steelhead, the Sacramento River is also home to a healthy population of resident rainbow trout that live in the lower Sacramento River (below Keswick Dam) and upper Sacramento River (above Lake Shasta) year-round. 

The peak season for anglers fishing for native rainbows is from their spring spawning season in April until steelhead season begins in October. These fish commonly weigh anywhere from 1 to 7 pounds and measure up to 24 inches.

In the lower Sacramento River, salmon roe is the most popular and effective bait for rainbow trout.

While salmon are in the river, wild rainbows head toward shallow areas and gorge themselves on salmon eggs. Anglers either cast natural roe on spinning tackle, or fly-fish using egg imitations.

Fly fishing on the lower Sacramento River can generally be challenging, simply because of the river’s sheer size.

But there’s excellent fly fishing on the river’s smaller tributaries, and with abundant hatches of mayflies, caddis and stoneflies every summer, there are plenty of opportunities to match the hatch. 

The upper Sacramento River is a much smaller stream, and there’s good fly fishing water up there as well, both for wild rainbows and stocked trout, some of which are planted directly in the river and others that make their way up from Lake Shasta, which is among California’s best rainbow trout lakes. There are some brown trout in spots as well.

You’ll find more well-defined trout habitat in this upper 40-mile stretch, including an abundance of riffles, runs, pools, pocket water and undercut banks.

The Upper Sacramento River resembles a mountain stream more than a mighty river, and the best fly-fishing here is generally in July and August.

Check out our fly fishing guide to Upper Sacramento River trout fishing.

We also have an overview of trout fishing how-to tips and techniques you might find helpful in upping your trout game.

Striped Bass Fishing

An angler takes a selfie photograph holding a large striped bass.
Photo courtesy of Rick Sanchez

Striped bass were first introduced to Coastal California waters from the East Coast in 1879.

Within 10 years, they had become so common that they were being sold in San Francisco fish markets, and they still represent a major year-round fishery in the Bay Area. 

Most California stripers inhabit San Francisco Bay and nearby ocean waters for much of the year.

However, the adult bass make an annual spawning run through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and up into the Sacramento River every spring, making the river one of the best places in California for striped bass fishing

When they do, they’re a favorite among local anglers. The first of the spawning stripers start to migrate upstream in March, and the fishing reaches fever pitch from April through June.

By late summer, most of the stripers still in the Sacramento River are on their way back downstream.

Some—about a third—spawn in the Delta, while the rest continue on upstream.

Compared to salmon and steelhead, stripers don’t tend to travel quite as far. Most of the best striped bass fishing in the Sacramento River is in the stretch between the city of Sacramento and Princeton.

Both the American River and the Feather River meet the Sacramento in this section, and a significant portion of the striped bass migrate up these large tributaries.

The deep holes at the mouths of both rivers are favorite striper fishing spots, especially for trolling.

There are several great access areas for striper fishing in the city of Sacramento, including Miller Regional Park, Matsui Waterfront Park and Discovery Park.

Colusa Levee Scenic Park and Colusa-Sacramento River State Recreation Area offer excellent access farther upriver.

Generally speaking, those who fish from a boat tend to fare better for stripers than those who fish from shore. Many cast or troll with minnow-imitating plugs like Rapalas and Heddon Spooks, while others rely on more natural offerings. 

Herring, anchovies and shad are all known to draw strikes from hungry stripers, and freshwater anglers use them either as whole baitfish or as cut bait. Drifting techniques are popular.

Stripers will strike baits near the surface, especially in the morning and evening, but during midday it’s often best to use a bit of weight to keep your bait closer to the bottom.

Many bank and shore anglers also use live baitfish, along with other natural baits like clams, shrimp and pile worms.

Most of the stripers caught in the Sacramento River weigh 3 to 5 pounds, but there are also enough 10 to 20 pounders to go around. Big stripers usually prowl deep water, while the smaller fish are more likely to school up in the shallows.

Sturgeon Fishing

White sturgeon are the dinosaurs of the Sacramento River. These giants have prowled West Coast waters for millions of years, and are the largest freshwater fish in North America.

The Sacramento is one of just three major river systems that host the majority of spawning white sturgeon on the West Coast. The others are the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington and the Frasier River in British Columbia.

Sturgeon are capable of living for over 100 years and reaching weights in excess of 1,500 pounds.

Today, white sturgeon over 100 pounds are something of a rarity, but anglers on the Sacramento River have a real shot at tangling with 50-pound fish. A 230-pound monster was caught in the Sacramento River in 2020.

Sturgeon inhabit the Sacramento River and Delta year-round, but they do make an annual upstream spawning run in spring, and the peak of the sturgeon season roughly corresponds to the striper season.

Your best shot at catching one is between March and June, though plenty have been caught throughout late summer and into fall.

In fact, striper anglers sometimes find themselves battling a hefty sturgeon by mistake, as they’re prone to taking similar natural baits.

Cut baits like shad and anchovies often tempt sturgeon, though anglers who specifically target sturgeon often use lamprey eels and shrimp. Sturgeon have been known to strike salmon roe or even nightcrawlers, as well.

The best tactic is to allow your bait to drift through deep holes. Sturgeon forage along the bottom for the most part, so use enough weight to keep your bait on or near the bottom.

Need more sturgeon fishing tips? Read our simple how-to guide to West Coast sturgeon fishing, including best baits.

At present, it’s legal to keep one sturgeon per day on the Sacramento River, and no more than three per year. The slot limit is 40 to 60 inches; any fish smaller or larger must be released.

Shad Fishing

Shad offer a huge fishing opportunity on the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

And we’re not talking about the threadfin shad anglers often use as bait. We’re talking about American shad, which reach sizes of 2 to 6 pounds and put up a memorable fight on light tackle.

Much like striped bass, American shad are imports from the East Coast, but they have come to thrive in California’s coastal waterways, especially San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Every year, they invade the Sacramento River in vast numbers, pushing upriver on an epic spawning run and clearly landing the big river near the top of the best American shad fishing rivers in California

To catch the shad action at its peak, head to the Sacramento River in April or May. In major tributaries like the American and Feather Rivers, the action is slightly later, peaking from May into early June. 

The best fishing spots move as the season progresses.

In mid-April, any shore access site in the Sacramento area can be great for shad. By the time May rolls around, the best fishing shifts upriver toward Chico, Red Bluff and Woodson Bridge.

It’s possible to catch 50 shad or more in a day when the action is going strong, with most fish measuring 12 to 16 inches and weighing a pound or two. They travel in schools, and typically work their way upstream looking for the warmest water.

Shad also favor the clearest water they can find, which can be a crucial detail for anglers in search of these fish. When it rains and the Sacramento River gets muddy, it triggers shad to move upriver in search of clearer conditions. 

Shad feed on plankton primarily, and the most effective lures tend to be small jigs that vaguely resemble the tiny creatures they feed on.

Dart-head and curly-tail jigs in white and chartreuse usually do the trick. Jig heads between 1/16 and 1/32 ounce. are best, but you may need to go slightly heavier in strong current.

We have plenty more American shad fishing tips and techniques for you.

Other Fish Species

The fish species that call the Sacramento River home are too numerous to list. It’s safe to say that if it swims anywhere in California, there’s a good chance you’ll find it somewhere along the Sacramento River.

While these fish may not be quite as common as the ones mentioned above, the following gamefish also offer exciting angling opportunities on the Sacramento and its tributaries. 

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass exist throughout the Sacramento River, but they are most common in its smaller tributaries, and in Shasta Lake, which is without a doubt also one of the best smallmouth fishing lakes in California

If smallies are what you’re after, the best place to catch them is in the upper Sacramento River, just above where it feeds into Lake Shasta.

This area offers an abundance of the rocky habitat smallmouths favor, and you can catch a lot of them on jigs, soft plastic baits and minnow-imitating crankbaits. 

In the Lower Sacramento River, there’s a chance of finding smallmouths along any rocky structure in relatively shallow water. Bridge abutments, rip-rap banks, old piers and wing dams all have potential. 

Summer is the best time to catch smallmouths on the Sacramento River, as low water levels make them easier to find.

Low water can also force bass out of smaller tributaries and into the main river, so the mouth of any creek is always worth a few casts in summer.

The areas around Pine Creek and Big Chico Creek have a good reputation for smallmouths.

Largemouth Bass

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is easily among the best largemouth bass fishing destinations in Northern California, and really anywhere in the state.

In the main Sacramento River, largemouths are only moderately abundant, but you can still catch a few if you know where to look. There are some solid largemouths weighing well over 5 pounds in the river.

Largemouth bass like warm water, and they don’t care much for strong current. They’ll choose slack water wherever they can find it, and in the Sacramento River the best place to catch largemouths is in backwaters and sloughs. 

Any spot that has aquatic vegetation and relatively still or slow-moving water offers an opportunity.

Largemouths feed on crayfish, frogs and any baitfish they can get their mouths around, so a wide range of bass fishing tactics that imitate those prey species can be productive. 

Look for submerged timber, overhanging trees and weed beds, and cast around the edges with spinnerbaits or soft plastics. There can be a great topwater bite in early morning and late evening as well.

Catfish

There are plenty of catfish in the Sacramento River system, with channel catfish being the most sought-after by anglers.

These bottom feeders thrive in a wide range of conditions, and are caught everywhere from the deep-water ship channel to relatively shallow sloughs and backwaters.

The best time to catch channel cats in the Sacramento River is after dark during the summer months, when they are most likely to feed in shallow water.

Smelly, natural baits like chicken livers, cut shad, anchovies, clams and shrimp are popular.

It’s fairly common for striped bass anglers to catch catfish by mistake (and vice versa). Keep your bait on or near the bottom for catfish.

Many local anglers use a bell or a glow stick attached to their line to help them detect bites in the dark.

For other fishing techniques and tips to catch more catfish, read our simple guide.

Also, you’ll find the Delta and other awesome spots in our Best Catfish Fishing Lakes and Rivers in California.

Planning Your Trip

On a river that spans 400 miles and harbors an incredible variety of fish species, it’s safe to say that anglers have a lot of options. Choosing when and where to fish largely depends on what you intend to catch.

The river flows right through Redding and Sacramento as well as a host of smaller communities, and much of the river is just minutes from I-5, which runs more-or-less parallel to the Sacramento River for most of its course. 

Where to Fish the Sacramento River

There are hundreds of places to wet a line or launch a boat along the Sacramento River, far too many for an exhaustive list.

That being said, what follows is a list of some of the best and most popular access sites, listed in order starting at the lowest end of the river: 

  • Brennan Island State Recreation Area: Located just upriver from where the Sacramento River meets the San Joaquin River to form the California Delta, Brennan Island State Recreation Area is home to a popular boat launch site and campground. There’s great bass fishing in the area.
     
  • Clarksburg Boat Launch: The Clarksburg Boat Launch offers basic boat launch facilities, along with shore fishing access and walking trails just south of the community of Clarksburg. 
     
  • Miller Regional Park: A large park in the heart of Sacramento, Miller Regional Park offers excellent shore fishing access as well as a full-service marina. It’s a popular early-season salmon spot.
     
  • Mill Street Pier: The Mill Street Pier is a popular public fishing pier in West Sacramento, across the river from Sacramento.
     
  • Matsui Waterfront Park: Part of an extensive network of connected parks and trails along the riverside in the city of Sacramento, Matsui Waterfront Park is a good shore fishing spot, popular among salmon and striped bass anglers.  
     
  • Discovery Park: Arguably the best fishing spot within the Sacramento city limits, Discovery Park is located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. It provides extensive shore fishing access to both rivers, along with excellent boat launch facilities.
     
  • Verona Marina: The Feather River merges with the Sacramento just outside Verona. Verona Marina offers launch facilities, boat rentals and campgrounds at the spot where the two rivers meet. 
     
  • Knights Landing Boat Launch: The Knights Landing Boat Launch is located at the confluence of the Sacramento River and Sycamore Slough in the town of Knights Landing. Limited shore fishing access is also available.
     
  • Tisdale Boat Launch: The Sutter County-operated Tisdale Boat Launch is a good place to launch for striper or shad fishing, located at the Tisdale Weir. 
     
  • Colusa-Sacramento River State Recreation Area: A large park with campgrounds and boat launch facilities, Colusa-Sacramento River State Recreation Area also offers ample bank access, and is popular for stripers and shad as well as salmon.
     
  • Ord Bend Park and Boat Launch: Excellent fishing access for shad, salmon and steelhead is available at Glenn County’s Ord Bend Park and Boat Launch, as well as an affordable public launch site. 
     
  • Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park: Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park offers excellent river fishing access for a variety of species, as well as access to Pine Creek and Big Chico Creek, which are known for smallmouth bass. It’s a popular kayak launch site, and offers launch facilities for larger craft as well. 
     
  • Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area: Located along a lovely bend in the river, Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area is a great spot to catch salmon and steelhead as they make their way upstream.
     
  • Red Bluff River Park: Offering bank fishing access in the city of the same name, Red Bluff River Park marks the beginning of some of the Sacramento River’s best salmon and steelhead water.
     
  • Balls Ferry Boat Ramp: This popular launch ramp in Cottonwood is just a few miles upriver from the famous Barge Hole. In addition to launch facilities, Balls Ferry Boat Ramp also offers limited shore fishing access.
     
  • Anderson River Park: With an abundance of accessible shoreline, Anderson River Park in the city of Anderson is often shoulder-to-shoulder with anglers during the height of the salmon and steelhead season.
     
  • South Bonnyview Boat Launch: Located on the southern outskirts of Redding, South Bonnyview Boat Launch is a popular spot to launch for float trips down to Anderson River Park. 
     
  • Caldwell Park: A large open green space in the heart of Redding, Caldwell Park offers ample fishing access just a few miles downstream from the Keswick Dam. 
     
  • Sacramento River Trail: Stretching along the riverbank from Redding up to the Keswick Dam, the Sacramento River Trail has several trailheads offering access to the river on foot or by bike.
     
  • Sugarloaf Public Launch Ramp: One of many launch sites on Shasta Lake, Sugarloaf Public Launch Ramp is located on the Sacramento River Arm of the lake, not far from where the Upper Sacramento River enters the reservoir. It’s a great launch site for bass and stocked trout fishing.
     
  • Pollard Gulch River Access: Located within Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Pollard Gulch River Access is a great spot for fly fishing on the Upper Sacramento River, above Lake Shasta.
     
  • Sims Flat Campground: The Forest Service-operated Sims Flat Campground is a beautiful rustic campground overlooking the Upper Sacramento River. There is excellent fly fishing in the area.