Searching for Fishing Solitude in Northern California

Reasons people have for needing to escape the rat race are endless, but the fact remains that we all do. Because of the solitary nature of fly fishing perhaps we understand this better than most. California is well known for its huge metropolitan areas because, after all, 36 million people have to live somewhere. Outside of these urban centers there is some of the most appealing, empty wilderness on earth and a lot of great fishing.

When I first read Robert Traver’s words, “… because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness,” from his classic “Testament of a Fisherman” was immersed in the morass of humanity that is Southern California. In a cagey career move, I had recently left my beloved Southern Wisconsin spring creeks in pursuit of economic opportunity, and those words hinted at the void I was feeling, but could not yet express.

I eventually left Southern California and have spent many years since pursuing “solitude without loneliness.” Not only has this yielded my own list of special places, some of which I can write about and others not; but also a few insights into getting away from it all. While I’m aware of many incredible spots all over California, many of my favorite places for both solitude and good fishing are in Northern California. But the fact is, you can’t just charge out there looking for solitude without knowing a few things.

Rules and Tools

If you get this part wrong, they may carve “Cause of Death… Stupidity” onto your tombstone. When going remote it pays to consider the basic list of most likely dangers. These include the potential perils of overexertion, sunstroke, dehydration, broken bones, drowning, rattlesnakes, bears, poison oak and of course, getting lost.

First, never head out to remote places without someone knowing about where you are and when you plan to be back. Be darned sure of your physical abilities before you take on more than you should. Once you’ve got these bases covered, let your search for wild places begin.

The Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer for Northern California is an excellent resource for finding out-of-the-way places, and my wife is constantly chiding me for reading it in bed as if it were a novel. Mine is battered and worn and held together with red duct tape. Tightly placed contour lines along the stream indicate steep changes in altitude and things like cliffs you may wish to avoid, or not. Areas showing blue lines (rivers) with few roads are pages of particular interest. I’ve been known to sit for prolonged periods wearing a bright headlamp and going over areas with a magnifying glass wrapped in concentration. –Probably looks pretty strange, but like Dr. Seuss says Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

The same thing holds true for the California Sportfishing Regulations booklet. You can learn all sorts of things about fisheries by reading it. Streams with special regulations should be of particular interest, and many have stretches well away from the road. Also keep note of streams with ongoing restoration work being accomplished by California Department of Fish & Game or California Trout. Some of these streams have remote stretches, and fishing is likely to be on the upswing.

Probably the easiest way to find breathing room while fishing is to find a remote stretch of a long river far away from access points. If you are willing to hike, the Upper Sac and Pit Rivers offer plenty of water away from easy access. The more difficult a place is to get to, the less likely anyone else will be there.

Getting Started

There is some terrific remote water in stretches of the Pit River that offer valuable lessons for finding other waters just as remote. Looking at a good topo map, identify sections of river away from access roads. Plot your best way in and out. Look for ridgelines in Pit 3 and 4 offering the most reasonable access, and there are paths to follow on many of these. Without a good strategy you might find yourself facing hardships like getting lost, cliffs, blackberry vines or poison oak.

It’s a good idea to “mark” the place you first enter a stream in case you may need to hike out by the same route. This becomes necessary if features of the landscape make progress up or downstream impossible, or just plain nuts. Stack up some stones in a visible place, or arrange branches in a tepee or some other obvious shape you aren’t likely to miss.

If you choose a different route out in unfamiliar territory, be very sure you are heading toward some road or other known landmark. I once tried what I thought was a “shortcut” out of an area below Pit 5 Dam, but the access road I was heading for had turned away from the river and I never found it. Being lost in the woods alone for several hours offers a great lesson in what never to do again.

The middle section of the Upper Sac between Pollard Flat and Sims is a great place to find solitude, and there’s the added bonus of knowing the river is close to both a major freeway and railroad line. Just beware that the river curves around a number of times and these landmarks are not always to the west of the river.

By virtue of the clearer water, Upper Sac fish tend to be spookier than on the Pit, but you can find as much blissful solitude as you want while fishing for them. While I refuse to be too specific, there is some tremendous fishing to be found on the Upper Sac by those willing to swim across to the other side in the deeper areas. Start early in the day and just force yourself to hike the railroad tracks for at least thirty minutes before doing any fishing.

Keswick Reservoir just below Shasta Dam is a favorite remote fishery of mine. I first found it through simple deduction. How could a body of water fed by the Upper Sac, McCloud and Pit Rivers not have trout in it? There is virtually no bank access here, so plan on fishing from a float tube or pontoon boat. There is access by driving across Shasta Dam, or by coming up from the bottom through the Shasta-Chappie OHV Area. If you’re lucky you may see a few folks hiking the river trail, but no one else will be fishing.

Taking it Up a Notch

California is packed with streams that may intersect various roads, but the bulk of the water may be a hike-in proposition. If streams are close to dwellings, there is potential for trespassing on private property, which ought to be avoided. In remote terrain, the only way out of a stream may be the same as the way you got in. In other words, make sure you have enough daylight and energy reserves to re-trace your steps.

Some streams have various roads crossing over them, and there may be potential to do a shuttle, spotting cars at different access points and working up or downstream without covering the same ground twice. In these situations you may run into situations where you need to traverse obstacles like rock outcroppings in order to make your way up or downstream. Always be ready for these and realize this is the nature of exploring remote places.

Just because the nature of exploration is adventurous doesn’t mean you can throw safety out the window. It should be your first concern, even ahead of fishing. There is no shame in turning around if circumstances become unsafe. If you cherish going remote as much as I do, sooner or later you will have to turn around, maybe even before fishing. If you’re in the right company, this should not be a deterrent. In fact, I have friends who love to reminisce about all the times I’ve lead them on wild goose chases.

Scare Tactics

Long ago I learned to interpret hair-raising tales concerning pit vipers as a reliable indication of good fishing. Snake stories do an exceedingly good job of keeping anglers away from good fishing water, and I suspect this is an age-old tactic rooted deeply in human evolution. Statistically, you are about a million times more likely to die driving to and from remote places than by any dangers the wilderness might offer.

I always carry a wading staff, not just for time in the water, but the hike in and out as well. Pay close attention to where you are walking and avoid putting hands or feet into places you can’t see without giving them a strong tap-tap-tap with the wading staff first. Snakes may be on the trail or just off to either side. Thanks to their natural coloring, rattlesnakes can be very hard to spot. Make it a point to make a lot of noise, whistle or even sing a happy tune while walking in the woods. This will give any critters within earshot an opportunity to get out of your way.

Rattlesnakes do not always rattle, and unless they are coiled you are in little danger. Despite bad publicity, rattlesnakes are not aggressive and are among the most shy and passive creatures around. They do not want to bite you; but like I once learned hiking into a remote stretch of the Pit River, if you happen to step on one, they may try.

If hiking out in the dark after fishing is part of your plan, understand that black bears are active at night. If you make noise on the trail and use a bright headlamp, they are very likely to avoid you. Be careful not to surprise a bear or trap one in a place they have no escape from, except through you. I’ve encountered many bears over the years, and they seem to want even less to do with you than you do with them. Give them an easy out and they will usually take it. I’ve never had a problem, but caution is always a good idea.

The Right Stuff

Due to California’s moderate climate, much of the year you can hike into remote fisheries in a pair of shorts and wading boots leaving your waders at home. One fly box containing nymphs and a few dry flies is usually plenty. Add to this an extra leader, a few tippet spools, split shot, fly floatant, nippers, forceps, sunscreen and water. If I want to take fish pictures I bring a waterproof camera and an ultralight folding net. A pack rod that can be stowed in a day pack is also handy in case you need both hands to climb over a rocky point or swim to the other side of a stream. I try to eat a good meal before most day trips, and get by on just drinking plenty of water during the day. There are always snacks and plenty of drinking in water in my vehicle for after fishing.

Unless it’s a really hot day, I rely an old mountain climbing trick to avoid having to carry too much water. At least an hour before I begin the hike in, I start chugging as much water as I can hold. You may need to eliminate a few times during this process, but if you keep drinking all you can hold up until the hike begins, you can usually get by on one liter of water for the rest of the day. When in doubt, bring extra water.

Swimming is not generally considered a viable way to explore trout streams, but it’s always worked for me in waters too deep to wade. If a stream is narrow enough, toss your day pack across before beginning your swim. I usually swim across with my rod assembled so I avoid losing any of the pieces. Choose a spot where the current is as slow as possible, launch off and sidestroke to the other side. Be prepared for the sudden blast of freezing water that may take your breath away. Once on the other side, sit down and let the sunshine get you warm again. Be sure not to fish too late in the day if you need to swim back across to get back to your vehicle.

On Choosing a Partner

The first thing about solitude, and this is counter-intuitive, is that it is best shared. This has a lot to do with getting the most enjoyment from your adventure as well as basic safety. No doubt there are times in life when you may need absolute solitude or perhaps there is no worthy companion at hand.

The trick is, of course, to find the right companion to bring along, and some of this may have to happen through trial and error. My personal list of “red flags” suggest avoiding fishing partners who are political or religious zealots, habitually listen to talk radio or continually forward inane Internet content ad nausium. Finding friends with whom you can share forays into the wilderness is a valuable find.

Look for a partner who is in roughly the same physical condition as you are. If you’re heading for places requiring a long hike in and great changes in elevation, make sure you can both reasonably handle it. Even under the best of circumstances, accidents can happen and you may be called upon to render first aid or even help carry someone out of the wilderness.

I’m always looking for good, remote fishing, but there are times when I also need the benefits only solitude can bring. Just don’t be naïve about it. Life can be complicated, and time away from other people can be truly restorative. Once you’ve incorporated the rules of safety and common sense, remote places offer great opportunities to think or just “be” while surrounded by natural beauty.  Check out a few of the places mentioned here or, better yet, blaze your own trails.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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