Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Year-Round Wild Trout on the Pit River

This article was originally printed in the January/February 2009 issue of California Fly Fisher magazine.

Year-Round Wild Trout On the Pit River
by Andrew Harris

            Due to a recent change in fishing regulations, we can now pursue the Pit River’s wild rainbows all year long below Lake Britton dam. Most anglers who have fished the Pit River will agree that it’s one of the most difficult rivers to wade in our beloved Golden State. The bottom is made up of large slippery boulders and is very uneven. The water is not very clear, making visibility a challenge. The banks are a mixture of boulders, blackberry bushes, poison oak, and grassy tussocks. The river has broken hundreds of rods and devoured countless nets, wading staffs, and fly boxes. It’s literally a bruiser, leaving its mark on your knees, shins and ankles. Some Pit River regulars (you know who you are) have even gone so far as too wear soccer shin guards underneath their waders. The Pit has humbled many proud men who thought they didn’t need a wading staff.
A nice stretch of pocket water on Pit 3.
Andrew Harris photo.
              While the Pit River rightly deserves its reputation for being hard to wade, I will argue that it’s an easy river to fish. That’s right: easy to fish. That’s the reason the Pit River is a bread and butter guide destination for me and for other guides in the intermountain region. Once you get to the spot you want to fish, it’s just about the easiest place to catch a quality wild trout in California. As long as I have clients who are moderately physically fit, I know I can get them into lots of great wild rainbows on the Pit River.

The Pit By The Numbers
For those not familiar with the Pit River, the river is divided into numbered sections corresponding to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) hydroelectric projects. Starting at Lake Britton dam near Burney is Pit 3, which extends downstream to the Pit 3 Powerhouse. Immediately below that is the Pit 4 dam, and Pit 4 is the stretch of river between Pit 4 dam and Pit 4 Powerhouse. Then comes Pit 5, which flows through the small settlement of Big Bend. Pit 3, 4, and 5 used to be open only during the traditional trout season, but no longer. As of this year, the fish in these stretches are fair game any day of the year, though new winter regulations require barbless hooks and there’s a zero-fish limit.
Crayfish are abundant on
the Pit.  Andrew Harris
Fishing techniques – winter or summer - are simple on the Pit. Trout hold in obvious pockets in the fast-moving stretches of the river. With the turbulent nature of the river and the green tinge to the water, it’s easy to get within a rod’s length of a fish without spooking it. Anglers who are successful on the Pit fish a very short line and do not try to fish more than one pocket at a time. They use their wading staffs to get close to each pocket before fishing it, and rarely cast more than fifteen feet of line, including their leader. You have to fish the Pit River on its own terms. Anglers who try to make long casts, long drifts, and lots of mends are routinely frustrated by the multitude of currents and boulders.
Since you can get close to the fish, all short-line techniques work well here, including indicator nymphing, high-sticking, Czech nymphing, and short-line dry fly fishing. With an indicator rig, you position yourself straight across from a good looking pocket and about 7-10 feet away. Cast (actually lob) a nymph and a couple of BB shot underneath an indicator above the spot and let it drift through. Set the hook downstream and low if your indicator goes under, sideways, or does anything strange. Fish on! You can even high-stick a crayfish pattern or woolly bugger through the pockets. I have watched countless fishing clients who have never fly fished before catch a wild trout on their first cast this way on the Pit.

Coping With Winter On The Pit
Best times to fish the Pit during the winter months are November and December and again in March and April. These months see more bug activity and warmer water temperatures.  Look for October Caddis in November and December and early stoneflies in March and April.  Small baetis (blue wing olive) mayflies hatch throughout the winter, also.  Trout get less active as the water temperatures decrease, so the coldest days of January and February probably won’t be the best days to fish the Pit River.  As for time of day, fishing is better once the air and water temperatures warm up, so afternoon is often the best time to be on the water with a fly rod. You might also try to fish some slower water that normally wouldn’t be productive during the summer. When the weather is warm, fish move out of the slower water and seek highly oxygenated water in the pockets. They won’t need to do that in the winter, so you can expect to find some fish in the slower runs and glides.
This big bow ate a large stimulator
dry during the spring stonefly hatch.
Andrew Harris photo.
            Another major adjustment to make when fishing the Pit River in the winter is to work with higher flows. Tributary streams will be swollen after big storms and once the snow begins to melt. There is only one big tributary stream in Pit 3, but Pit 4 and Pit 5 have several. They can bolster the flow enough where fishing the main river downstream of them will be difficult at times. The main river may even spill over the spillways at the dams after a really large storm, making the river totally unfishable.  Assuming the dams are not spilling, the best chance for finding fishable water will be between each dam and the first tributary stream. (Please keep in mind that all tributary streams are closed during the winter, and some are closed year round.)

The river can be accessed from two directions. You can drive north on Highway 89 from Burney and take
Clark Creek Road
, which leads to the Pit 3 (Lake Britton) dam. If you cross the dam and stay left at the next intersection, you can drive all the way down to the Pit 5 dam and fish countless spots along the way. The other access is from Highway 299 between Redding and Burney. Take
Big Bend Road
, a windy 17 mile road that ends at Big Bend. From there you can take the Pit 5 Road to the bottom end of Pit 5, or fish near Big Bend, or go right on Hagen Flat Road to go to the upper end of Pit 5.  The most heavily fished parts of the Pit River are the areas right below Lake Britton Dam and the areas around Brush Bar on Pit 5. The middle reaches of Pit 5 and the lower half of Pit 4 are very lightly fished.

            There are some unwritten rules of Pit River etiquette that you need to understand and accept when fishing the Pit. The best places to fish on the Pit are long stretches of pocket water. From Lake Britton Dam down to Pit 5 there are dozens of these great spots, and there is a pull-out on the side of the road next to every one of them. Here is the rule: one car per pull-out. With so many great spots to fish, there is no reason to be fishing within sight of another group of anglers on the Pit River. I’ve done hundreds of guided trips on the Pit River and I’ve only been out a handful of times when every pull-out in Pit 3 had a vehicle in it. If this happens to you, no big deal – move down to Pit 4. If you can’t find a place on Pit 4 where there aren’t any people, you’re not looking hard enough. The same applies to Pit 5.  If all else fails, go find some other anglers. Talk to them and determine which direction they’re fishing. Most folks work their way upstream on the Pit, but not always. Ask if it’s okay for you to fish the water they’ve already been through.

            Pit River fish are not very picky when it comes to nymphs. Larger stonefly nymphs work well, and sometimes the fish like very small nymphs. Most beadhead nymphs size 12-16 will work. One of the best flies for the Pit is the Birds Nest, invented by the late Cal Bird and tied to perfection by Tom Peppas, longtime fishing guide and current manager of Clearwater Lodge on the Pit River. I like the Birds Nest in a size 14 in black or brown with a gold bead. In the winter months keep an eye out for hatches of baetis mayflies in the afternoons. A parachute Adams size 18-20 should do the trick.

Wading and Safety
            To stay safe and upright on the Pit River, you will need a wading staff.  The Simms wading staff costs $99 and is worth every penny.  It is the only collapsible staff I’ve seen that is easy to use, doesn’t jam, and sturdy enough for a large person to use.  Other good options include commercially available or home-made wooden staffs and old ski poles with the baskets removed.  Your staff should attached to you with a non-stretch lanyard just long enough for you to fully extend your arm with the staff in your hand.  The most critical element to using a wading staff is to actually use it.  Use it every time you move and plant it firmly to create a third point of contact.  Do not try to walk and fish at the same time, and always make sure your footing is secure before making your first cast in each spot.    

FERC Relicensing Update: Challenges and Opportunities
            The change in fishing regulations isn’t the only big change happening on the Pit River these days. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted PG&E a new 36 year license to operate the Pit 3-4-5 project on July 2nd, 2007. The new license dictates big changes in the way the project is managed, including changes in water releases. These changes were the result of years of input and studies mandated by various state and federal agencies. Curtis Knight, Mt. Shasta area Program Chair for California Trout, helped me unravel some of the details of the new license.  The new FERC license can be viewed on the website.  Go to “E-Library”, then search for docket # “P-233” to get all documents related to this project.  Search for “P-233-081” to view the license.
Pit 3
            There will be many changes to the flow regime, but the biggest is new minimum streamflows. When the new flow regime is implemented, the lowest streamflow at any time of year will be 280cfs, almost double the current release of 150cfs. The Pit River will be very different at these flows. Small cascades that currently contain good pocket water may become too fast to fish. Conversely, many of the marginal spots that are currently too shallow and/or slow will turn into good spots to fish. Some of your favorite spots are going to be lost, but hopefully just as many new good spots will be created.
            Summer minimum streamflows for Pit 3, 4, and 5 will be 300, 375, and 400cfs respectively. Fall minimum streamflows will be 280 in Pit 3 and 350 in Pit 4 and 5. Flows during the winter depend on whether a spill occurs over the dams. Winter minimum streamflow ranges for Pit 3, 4, and 5 will be 300-450, 375-600, and 400-550cfs respectively. The new FERC license defines summer as April 21st through August 31st. Fall is defined as September 1st through November 30th, or anytime in November when a spill occurs over one of the dams.
            There are also provisions for spring “freshet” releases. These will occur every other year in March in the event that no spilling has occurred in the past two years.  These freshet flows will involve a ramped 21-day elevated flow release with at least two consecutive days of 1500cfs average flows. These freshet releases are intended to mimic the natural hydrograph, albeit to a limited extent.  Without interference from the dams, the Pit River would naturally rise during the winter and spring.  These higher flows help to distribute woody debris, wash out silt, and distribute gravel deposited at the mouths of tributary streams.  When the new FERC license comes into effect, the Pit River will experience elevated flows at least once every two years.
            There are also provisions for recreational whitewater flow releases. Starting in 2013, PG&E will be required to release 1200-1500cfs during one weekend in August and one weekend in September in Pit 5 only. These recreational releases will be monitored extensively and compared with baseline data collected between 2010 and 2013. The recreational flows will be re-evaluated after three seasons and it’s possible that changes will be prescribed in 2016.
            These new streamflow releases require extensive modification to the outlet structures on the Pit 3, 4, and 5 dams. FERC requires that the new minimum flows be implemented by July 2nd, 2010. I spoke with Jason Vann, PG&E’s License Coordinator for the Pit 3-4-5 project, who said PG&E is working very hard to meet that deadline. If you’re fishing the Pit in 2009 or the first half of 2010, you will probably notice construction in progress at these dams.

Fishing The New Flows
            Needless to say, with higher average flows, wading will become even more dangerous than it is now. There will be fewer places to cross the river. There will be more areas where you are forced to fish from the bank and will have to deal with overhanging vegetation blocking your cast. Slips and falls that would merely get you wet and embarrassed at 150cfs could threaten your life at 300cfs. The bottom line is to be careful! Fish with a buddy, carry and use a wading staff, and use common sense. When the new flows are implemented PG&E will begin posting live streamflow data on a website. It will be worthwhile checking flows when planning a trip, especially in the winter and spring when flows may be elevated.
How will the river fish at the new flows?  Several years ago I participated in a fishability study conducted by PG&E.  I got to fish Pit 3 at 400cfs, and Pit 4 at 300, 400, and 800cfs. Pit 3 was a nightmare at 400cfs. There was much less fishable water and it was quite honestly a terrifying river to fish at those flows. Hopefully 300cfs will be much better. Pit 4 fished great at 300cfs and there seemed to be much more fishable water. At 400cfs it still seemed better than at the current flows, but perhaps not quite as good as at 300cfs. At 800cfs it was a boating proposition. I floated the river in a pontoon boat and caught a few fish, but bank angling was nearly impossible and the amount of fishable water was severely diminished.
In my opinion, it would be a shame and a waste if the increased flows result in less fishable water on the Pit River. Dozens of anglers can currently enjoy the river all day long without even seeing one another. It would be unfortunate if the new flows result in fewer places to fish and therefore reduce the number of fishermen the river could accommodate. Keep in mind that without the dams the Pit River would never drop below 1800cfs and fishing as we know it would be out of the question.  The new flows could very well result in more and larger fish. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best!

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