By Chip O’Brien
You sometimes run into people with odd or unpronounceable names, and you think to yourself, “Now there’s a great candidate for a name change.” If you didn’t know that Shasta County’s Pit River was the easiest place to catch a wild trout in the North State, you might make the mistake of passing it by. What’s in a name, anyway? It works for Brad Pitt, right?
The longest tributary to Shasta Lake, the Pit River begins in a series of small forks in Lassen and Modoc Counties. It remains rather slow and sluggish until it passes through Fall River Mills and only really becomes trout habitat in the canyon above the Pit 1 Powerhouse. Those less concerned with catching fish see the river as a giant electricity-producing machine. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) owns and operates a series of powerhouses above and below Lake Britton, and anglers have come to use the numbers of these powerhouses to designate great Pit River places to fish.
If an angler said, “I’ll meet you at Rock Creek on Pit 3,” Pit River regulars understand that’s three miles below Lake Britton Dam where Rock Creek flows into the river. Pit 3 is the river from Lake Britton Dam downstream to the Pit 3 Powerhouse. Pit 4 is the river between Pit 4 Dam and the Pit 5 Dam. Pit 5 flows out below Pit 5 Dam, flows through Big Bend and on down to the Pit 5 Powerhouse. There are also plenty of trout in the river between the Pit 1 Powerhouse and Lake Britton, but this section of river fluctuates dramatically every day and can be dangerous.
Pit 3, 4 and 5 are hugely popular with anglers, and for good reason. The Pit’s rainbow trout are well known for being pugnacious fighters, especially in the river’s swifter currents. Fish grow to 20-inches and longer, but what older fish lack in length they usually make up for in girth. The average fish caught is close to 12-inches, but there is always the possibility of much larger fish, if you can land them.
The flows in all three sections were increased several years ago in an effort to give the fishery a boost, and it worked admirably. It also made it more challenging to wade the river, and anglers need to be careful before venturing forth and bring a wading staff. It’s not a good idea to fish the Pit by yourself, especially the remote sections.
Pit 3 is the only section limited to artificial lures or flies and barbless hooks only for the entire year. You can use bait in Pit 4 and 5 during the summer season (the last Saturday in April through November 15th) only. All three sections are open to fishing all year long.
The section below Lake Britton Dam is most popular because it’s the easiest to get to and easiest to wade. It’s unusual to see anyone but fly fishermen in this section, although lures with barbless hooks are also allowed. It’s legal to keep two fish over 18 inches in Pit 3, but most anglers who harvest fish concentrate on Pit 4 and Pit 5 where up to five fish may be taken.
You can park at Lake Britton Dam and there’s a heavy-duty metal staircase leading almost all of the way down to the river. After that, the road along the Pit does not descend to river level until you get to Rock Creek, three miles downstream. From Rock Creek all the way to the Pit 3 Powerhouse there are numerous turnouts and paths down to the river, each betraying a good place to fish.
The Pit River is far from unique in this, but there is plenty of poison oak along the river and many of the paths down to the river. If you know what it looks like it’s easy enough to avoid. If you don’t, Google it before you head out.
This is the most remote section of the Pit reserved for the hardiest of Active NorCalians. The section begins with a primitive campground with access just below the Pit 4 Dam. Soon the road along the river takes off uphill and the higher it raises, the longer will be the hike down and up again. On the other hand, areas far away form the road may only get fished once or twice a year.
If you seek remote fishing without the death march down and back from the road high above the river, a good compromise is Deep Creek Campground. As you drive downstream in the Pit 4 section, the road eventually goes across the Pit 5 Dam, which is the beginning of Pit 5. Just beyond (below) the dam on the left is a sign and dirt road leading to Deep Creek Campground square in the middle of Pit 4. The 6-mile drive in can get bumpy at times, but there’s no need for four-wheel drive. Most of the times I’ve been to the campground, I’ve had the place all to myself.
There is a great stretch of river below the Pit 5 Dam, but the only reasonable access is directly along the river. The reason I say this is because below Pit 5 Dam the access road takes a dramatic swing away from the river. The farther downstream you fish, the farther away from the road you go. Like other parts of the river, Pit 5 is tailor-made for the physically fit with a lot of scrambling around on big rocks. The largest Pit River rainbow I’ve landed came from below the Pit 5 Dam, which makes the physical price you pay more than worth it.
The middle section of Pit 5 is not known for terrific fishing, as the river makes its way through and below the town of Big Bend. There is access to some great fishing at the lower end of Pit 5, which offers more wilderness fishing on big water.
What’s in a name?
While the exact origin of the river’s name remains a bit vague, it is attributed to pits dug along game trails adjacent to the river dug by Native Peoples. These pits were mainly for trapping game said to approach fifteen feet deep. The openings were craftily covered over and hidden. Anything unlucky enough to plunge into one was met by a medley of sharpened deer and elk antlers at the bottom, the tips of which were sometimes sweetened with rattlesnake venom. The name likely came into use as each pioneer warned the next to watch out for those pits.
Had the modern mapmakers followed the rules, the river flowing through downtown Redding today would be called the Pit River. It is the longest tributary to Shasta Lake. (An old joke suggests they broke those rules because they didn’t want to name the state capital Pittville.)
Oh… but watch out for the rattlesnakes 😉