By Chip O’Brien
The security guard handed my driver’s license back and announced something into the burly walkie-talkie hoisted from his belt. There was a metallic clang somewhere, followed by a rasping sound like someone dragging a logging chain across a rough slab of concrete. The barrier in front of my vehicle slowly melted away, disappearing beneath the hard surface of California’s largest dam, Shasta. The guard waved me on with a stern reminder not to stop on the dam. While this may sound more like entering a maximum security prison, I’m about to fish California’s most unusual wild trout fishery.
Named for Lord Keswick of London who ran a mining operation here a century ago, Keswick Reservoir is the nine miles of water between Northern California’s Shasta and Keswick Dams, just north of Redding. Hardly a “new” fly fishing destination, it has been around since the 1960s when Keswick Dam was completed. It looks like a river at the top, a lake at the bottom, and fishes like a spring creek. But the magic of Keswick is that, in a state with a population over 36 million, it’s typically devoid of people. It gets virtually no fishing pressure at all; zero, zip, nada.
The obvious question is why do anglers routinely ignore a centrally-located wild trout fishery documented to contain fish in the double-digit range? What’s the catch? Well, probably not a darned thing if you try to fish Keswick in traditional ways, and that’s usually the problem.
If you approach Keswick like other places, you’re likely to join the legions of anglers who try it once and write it off as not worth the effort. Keswick is an “afterbay” reservoir, which means it was designed to moderate conditions in Shasta Lake above, and the Sacramento River below. It wasn’t designed as a destination itself, but apparently no one told that to the fish. They’ve adapted nicely to the constantly-changing conditions and learned to thrive by eating tiny midges almost continually. When the level or speed of the current changes, the fish just move to another comfortable spot and resume feeding. These peculiar conditions dictate a singular approach to successful fishing here. Anglers have to be willing to think outside the box; maybe walk a little on the wild side. But first, just for fun, how would you fish it? At times, grenades come to mind.
Picture a long, deep spring creek flowing through thick, chocking underbrush and plenty of blackberry vines, poison oak and the odd rattlesnake. Sandwiched as it is between two dams, Keswick has almost no bank access. The upper reservoir is at least seven miles from the nearest boat launch ramp, and there are plenty of ominous, house-sized boulders looming above and just beneath the water, some positioned perfectly to tear the bottom off a fast-moving boat.
Most of the fish congregate in the faster-moving water near the top of the reservoir where the speed of the current may fluctuate from fast to slow and back again at any time. The depth of the water may also change while you’re fishing, rising or falling as much as six vertical feet either de-watering the hole you were just fishing, or creating new places to explore. The water is extremely clear and very cold.
There are virtually no mayflies or caddisflies at Keswick. Tiny midges (Diptera) are the staple of the fish’s diet, and Keswick’s are almost microscopic. Strangely, people fishing from boats rarely catch fish here, and dry flies don’t work at all. Anglers fishing woolly buggers and leech patterns on sinking lines will take fish, but experienced Keswick anglers consider this a secondary technique. There are a lot of easier places to fish in the area, but regulars will tell you there’s no other place quite like it.
There are huge wild trout here that have seen very few flies. While I’ve hooked a number of fish at Keswick that I just couldn’t land, the best fish I’ve brought to hand was a robust 26-incher. The average rainbow here runs at least 16 inches. There’s an 18-pound Keswick rainbow hanging on an office wall in Redding.
Weird, but Successful
I’m always amused when I describe the fishing here, because so many anglers want to argue with me about it. You’d think I was suggesting using worms or chumming with canned corn.
Keswick, at least the upper beat close to Shasta Dam, is best fished from a float tube. What works best is launching a tube in the slowly-moving current, fishing your way downstream with nymphs and floating strike indicators, then locating one of the paths leading up to the old railroad bed and hiking back to your vehicle. Some of the best fishing is often in small, intimate rock gardens where the current sets up seams and feeding lanes. It’s easy to tuck a float tube behind a rock and fish off to either side, blissfully protected from the current. There is no access on the east side of the reservoir, and the old railroad bed on the western side has been turned into a first-rate hiking and biking trail with no motorized vehicles allowed.
Float tubing in moving water seems like a totally crazy thing to do, but the success of it here is undeniable. Some anglers get a little nervous about tubing in moving water and may even experience some initial moments of vertigo, but this soon passes and they realize that whatever happens to the water level or speed, there’s really nothing dangerous about it. In fact, it’s great fun.
When changes in water speed or depth occur at Keswick, they happen so slowly it may take an hour to notice something is different. Even at its very fastest, Keswick’s current is like a big, slow spring creek, and there is no whitewater. The fastest water usually slides down the middle of the reservoir, and that’s not where the fish are anyway. The fish munch midges along the edges and in the shallower bays.
There is a full-blown boat launch ramp off of Iron Mountain Road a mile above Keswick Dam, but boats contend with a host of problems. First, the boat launch is at least five miles below the middle of the reservoir where the good fishing begins. Motoring up the reservoir can be a fairly dangerous proposition due to the numerous house-sized boulders often just beneath the surface. I’ve seen expensive boats lodge themselves on these, and it isn’t pretty.
Even when boats make it through the boulder “mine field” and into the upper reservoir, it seems as though they rarely catch fish. I’m convinced this is due to the clarity of the water and the fish not liking the higher profiles of anglers sitting or standing in boats. A float tube positions you down close to the water’s surface, and even so, it’s rare to hook a trout less than thirty feet from your tube so you better be able to cast that far from a seated position. Not everyone can.
One key to success is to seek out slowly-moving water three to six feet deep. Despite constant fluctuation, that seems to be the zone preferred by feeding fish. A place that met that description yesterday may no longer fit the profile today. If it doesn’t, it’s usually best to pass it by. Finding that three to six foot deep slot means you’re often finding a protected place to position your tube, then fishing in toward the bank. Keswick has numerous bays where the slow current sets up an eddy with the water along the edges actually flowing upstream. Often you can position your tube in the center of the “lazy susan,” and hold and fish with minimal effort.
Keswick fish don’t see many anglers, so almost any general nymph pattern will catch fish. I like a #12 brown Birds Nest tied with a tungsten bead hung four to five feet beneath a small corky-style strike indicator on a 4X tippet. The bead allows you to avoid split shot and therefore some of the tangles you’re likely to get in a day of casting and fishing. Because these fish see so few flies, you don’t have to worry about matching the hatch.
While Keswick fish are not fussy about which nymph you use, they are very fussy about the quality of your drift. Think Henry’s Fork or Hat Creek. If you can’t manage a quality, drag-free drift from a float tube, plan on a day of casting practice rather than catching fish. Anglers with solid spring creek experience have an advantage here, but it does take a bit of practice to pull this off from a float tube that’s sometimes moving in a different direction than your strike indicator.
Keswick’s best fishing can be broken down into two different “beats.” The upper is immediately below Shasta Dam, and ends just above the old railroad tunnel mid-reservoir. The other is from Motion Creek, a major Keswick spawning tributary, down to the Chappie-Shasta OHV Area trail access.
Fishing the upper reservoir means driving over the top of Shasta Dam just west of Shasta Lake City. In the past, especially right after the 9/11 terrorist attack, anglers could only drive across the dam after successfully applying for a permit and undergoing a thorough criminal background check. Recently the permit requirement was dropped, but anglers are still required to present a current drivers license to dam security and potentially agree to a vehicle search. If you fish this area often, guards get to know you and the process seems somewhat less threatening. On the other hand, I think it also keeps the maddening hoards away from Keswick.
Once across the dam follow the road downhill until you arrive at the parking area next to the Off Highway Vehicle staging area. Just past the campground there is a small parking lot next to the reservoir with a few picnic tables. If you park here and hike upstream a couple of hundred feet, you will find a steep rocky path going down to the water. This is the best place to launch your tube, but be careful not to slip on the way down to the water. The footing can be treacherous.
Pontoon boats do not work well on upper Keswick because they are extremely difficult to put in and take out of the reservoir. The water is at least a hundred feet below the river trail and the paths down and up from the water are very steep, narrow and rocky. The last time a friend decided I was “full of it” on this point and insisted on bringing his pontoon boat on the upper beat, I was audience to some of the most creative and earnest profanity I’ve ever heard. He assured me he’d never do that again.
Launch in the small bay just above the parking lot and start kicking across. When you get to the “fastest” current out in the middle, you will find yourself drifting downstream at a brisk walking pace. Now is a great time not to freak out. You are completely safe and this is normal; at least Keswick normal. Relax and just (sorry) go with the flow. Sure, you will pass by some very sexy-looking trout water and you might not be able to fish it all, but there is no lack of good water here. Once comfortable, don’t hesitate to fish one side for a while, then cross over and fish the other.
Depending on how far downstream you drift while crossing over, try to identify the “target zone,” that slowly-moving water three to six feet deep. Regardless of frequent changes in current velocity and depth, Keswick trout seldom feed in water deeper or shallower than this. Once you become comfortable with this technique and land a few good trout, you can’t help but relax and notice the beauty of the place, which is further enhanced by usually having it all to yourself.
The upper beat has more current than the lower, but you get used to it. It also has more fish. If you find yourself wanting to get downstream in more of a hurry, just kick out to the middle and let the current take you for a ride. It feels a lot like one of those “moving sidewalks” typically found in airports and you may find yourself not wanting this to end. It’s a relaxing and scenic ride.
The first take-out spot is directly below the first building you see on the bluff above, which is part of Coram Guest Ranch. This is a fairly narrow path, but if you look for it it’s hard to miss. You can launch a tube, fish your way down to this spot and be out of the water in as little as two hours if you take out here. The hike back to your vehicle is about twenty minutes once you are up on the river trail.
If for some reason you float by this path, don’t worry about it. The second take-out is not far below tucked into a little bay. Look for a white sign on the trail up above, and the take-out spot is directly below. This is probably the most popular take-out on the upper beat, and it’s a 30-35 minute hike back once you’re on the trail.
There is one more take-out on the upper beat, and it’s just above the railroad tunnel which you can see from the reservoir. I rarely take out here, but the hike back can take 50 minutes to an hour. Between these three take-outs, you can fish just a short time or all day long and be assured you are not far from a take-out place. There is only one river trail next to the reservoir, so when you find it just hike upstream and you will eventually find your vehicle.
Middle Keswick begins at Motion Creek and ends around the Chappie-Shasta OHV parking area. The reversed of up above, here you start by hiking from your car up to Motion Creek and floating back to your vehicle. The hike takes 35-45 minutes to hike it, and Motion Creek is the only bridge you will see. There is a large gravel bar where the creek enters the reservoir. This is one of the few places on Keswick with decent bank access, and there are always trout lurking just offshore.
The lower beat may not have quite as many fish as up above, but the fishing’s still good, the current slower, and the fishing makes for a less physically-demanding day. In this middle section the river trail is close to the water level, so pontoon boats and float tubes work equally well.
Take Hwy. 299 west from the town of Redding. A mile out of town turn right on Iron Mountain Road. Pass by the Keswick boat launch ramp and the Spring Creek Powerhouse. Turn right on the gravel road marked Chappie-Shasta Off Highway Vehicle Area and head downhill toward the reservoir. The road gets steep in places, but if you take it slow four-wheel drive is not necessary. Soon the road will parallel the reservoir. Drive up as far as you can until the road is blocked by a big, yellow metal gate. Park here and hike up to Motion Creek.
The best place to take out in this area is a short way above the yellow gate. There is a small stream that flows into Keswick here and, like Motion Creek above, there’s a gravel bar where it enters the reservoir. It’s a good idea to take a look at the take-out so you recognize it before continuing up to Motion Creek.
I fish Keswick from a tube and my outfit is minimalistic. I like a fairly stiff nine foot five or six weight rod, a floating line and a reel with a smooth drag system. Leaders run eight to nine feet tapered to 4X fluorocarbon. Bring a few extra leaders, a box loaded with general nymph patterns and a spool of tippet material. Bring forceps, nippers, sunscreen, strike indicators, lunch and plenty of water. I typically take my waders off for the hike in or out, and stow a pair of sandals in my tube for hiking.
Small, corky-style strike indicators cast easily and don’t spook the fish. If you wait for your indicator to dip fully under water, you will miss a lot of fish. Some days the takes are so subtle that your indicator may just look sluggish, like maybe you picked up a weed on your hook. That may be exactly what happened, but if you don’t strike each and every time you will miss the ones that happen to be huge trout taking an exploratory nibble.
Keswick fishes best from March through June. March is still the “wet season,” but the fish don’t mind the rain and it seems to make the midges more active. March has produced a few thirty fish days for me. Some years have an abundance of really pleasant, sunny spring days, and the springtime fishing can be outstanding.
June is probably my favorite month to fish Keswick, unless it starts to get hot earlier than usual. The fishing is great and the reservoir is lined with scotch broom bushes which bloom yellow this time of the year. Their soft, sweet scent rides the breezes and give the impression the air is perfumed.
From the 4th of July well into October Northern California is typically blast-furnace hot. Fishing success takes a noticeable dip as daytime temperatures eclipse 110 degrees and higher. As long as you lather on the sunscreen and drink plenty of water, sitting in a tube on Keswick in the heat is much more pleasant than you would think, but the hike out in that heat is a bear.
November can produce some decent days, but the fishing is definitely slowing down. Even though there can be some beautiful weather in December through February, insect activity seems to be at its low ebb and the fishing all but shuts down during these months.
While gaining access to this fascinating fishery can seem like entering a penitentiary, it’s also just different enough, challenging enough and special enough to warrant some serious consideration about the merits of a life of crime.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine