Issue: March 2015
The tackle blew me away. The reels these guys were using looked like they were designed for bluefin, not salmon. The hooks were big enough to hang a deer off of and the line was stout enough to pull a truck out of the mud. The rods were so thick and heavy they looked better suited to a billiards hall than a fishing boat. And then there were those gloriously massive Spin-N-Glos that were the size of dog toys and the equally impressive balls of eggs.
Coming from the Lower 48 and seeing these tools for catching Kenai River chinook for the first time was an awesome moment for me. At 22, I’d caught plenty of kings in the Sacramento River and tributaries, but I was clearly in a different world now. All I knew was that I was extremely excited—and just a tad nervous—to see what sort of beasts required such heavy artillery to subdue.
My guide for the day was Joe Aley of Alaska Midnight Sun Adventures. I’m not sure whatever happened to Joe, but I’ll always be grateful for the day he took me on my first Kenai adventure.
It was just the two of us and Joe explained that the fishing had been tough. The crew he’d just fished had caught something like 2 fish in 5 days. He also told me that the tide was still several hours away from being prime, so we’d probably have to just grind it out until the turn.
I didn’t care. I was so stoked to be on the mythical river and see all of her sights and sounds. It was like walking out onto the mound at Yankee Stadium and I could feel the electricity. Joe headed downstream to the first spot and rigged me up with a fist-sized glob of red roe, the biggest Spin-N-Glo on Planet Earth and a Jet Diver large enough to drag a human to the bottom.
My guide instructed to me to test the drag before I dropped the rig into the water. The big Calcutta was buttoned down so tight that I couldn’t pull line off with my hand.
“Perfect!” he said. “Now, set the rig into the drink, let it back 45 feet and put the rod in the holder.”
At that point, I asked Joe if I could hold the rod. Before he could give me the “you’ll set the hook too quickly” speech, I told him I fished a ton of divers back home and was well-versed in the wait-to-set game.
“Trust me, I’m pretty good at this part,” I said. “And you are completely absolved of all responsibility. If I miss a bite, it’s totally my fault and I will put the rod in the holder the rest of the day.”
To his credit, Joe let me hold the rod…which I know from experience is very hard to do as a guide. He just made me swear that I’d give it a “three alligator count” before I set the hook.
As I clicked the marlin reel into free spool and let my gear back for the first drift, I popped my feet up on the gunwale and settled in for a relaxing day on the Kenai. Who cared if the fishing wasn’t any good? I was going to enjoy the sunshine, the conversation and fact that I was on one of the rivers of my dreams.
At 45 feet, I threw the reel into gear and the diver caught the ripping emerald current and dove for the bottom. What happened next is a bit of a blur.
My bait had been in the water a grand total of 12 seconds when my rod slammed down like a passing boat had picked up my line in its prop. Now that boat was speeding like a big rig with no brakes towards Cook Inlet.
Only it wasn’t a boat.
Some unseen leviathan was ripping line off that impossibly tight drag like it was nothing. It had all happened so fast—and with the subtlety of getting smacked across the face with a wet spatula on a cold winter day.
Luckily I was momentarily stunned—that kept instinct from kicking in and me from setting the hook prematurely. My brain was foggy and I could hear Joe yelling something but it wasn’t clear. It was as if I had some of those earmuffs on you wear when you’re mowing the lawn.
Things were happening fast…and oddly enough…very slowly too.
Halfway through my third reptile count, I closed my eyes and executed the biggest haymaker hook-set of my life. For an instant, nothing happened and I suddenly wanted to puke. But then the rod tip snapped to the water, almost dragging my delirious self with it.
The fight was on…only I don’t remember any of it. None of the runs, the headshakes, the net sliding under it. Nothing, nada.
My next memory is of the fish lying dead on the floor of the boat and me wanting to lie down with it and hug it. For a kid who’d caught his share of dark, inland chinook up to maybe 30 pounds, this animal was something so totally different.
The big hen wasn’t missing a single scale; she had a perfect snow belly and an incredibly beautiful purple back. Joe said somewhat nonchalantly that she probably weighed somewhere in the high 40’s or maybe low 50’s. I couldn’t stop staring. Never had I imagined a fish so big and bright before—and she outweighed the largest hen I’d ever seen by about 20 pounds!
“I don’t wanna burst your bubble, but that’s simply a nice fish around here, not a big one,” Joe said. “When we go back to the dock, nobody’s gonna take a second look. It would be kinda like you taking a 25-pounder to the dock in Sacramento. Guys are gonna say ‘nice fish’ but that’s about it.”
And he was right. At our onshore photo session, I was walking on air, grinning ear to ear. Every time somebody walked by, I’d try to make eye contact to make sure they saw my trophy. No a single person gave my fish a passing glance.
It was then and there that I fell in love with the Kenai River. If a guy could have a gorgeous, huge salmon like the one I had hanging and not get the time of day from other people, I wanted to see what would get their attention!
Sadly, the Kenai has fallen on some tougher times since that day, but it’s still the river of dreams for me. Anytime you drop a bait or lure into that amazingly green water, there’s a chance at something spectacular!
Issue: February 2015
So, what is it about the Nightmare color in steelhead worms, jigs and tubes? It’s funky looking…no question about it. Quite frankly, it’s a color pattern I would never in a million years have thought about—nor did I have any confidence in it for a long time. The Nightmare is just too odd: red, white and black. Steelheaders are so conditioned that pinks and oranges are our friends—and this color scheme is so outside that “norm” that it’s hard to take it seriously.
But trust me when I say that the Nightmare color pattern is aptly named—it is one heck of a steelhead producer and should be in everyone’s arsenal.
When it comes to breaking down why critters with pea-sized brains do the things they do, it’s sometimes better to just accept the facts and move on without over-analyzing the situation. But in this case, I just can’t let it go. For some reason, the steelhead’s affinity for red, black and white has my left-brain working on overdrive (which, after the college party years is running low on disk space).
So, I decided to write this column in a chronological fashion. First off, I figured I’d give you my sorry, weak theories on why the Nightmare might work and then, after that I’d call some experts and get their two cents worth. For what it’s worth, here we go….
Okay, here’s my best guess: The black and red portion of the Nightmare kinda makes sense to me. I guess you can say it’s a little more natural—even sorta “buggy” looking. Less intrusive than a lot of the fluorescent colors we fish, it may be able to “sneak up” on wary fish better than the bright stuff—especially in low, clear or pressured waters—yet still provide enough attraction to get fish to bite it. Kinda makes sense, right?
The white part, however, has me stumped. The only thing I can come up with is that it provides contrast when used in concert with the other two colors.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Time to get on the phone and ask around…
First, I called the very guy who I feel has caught more steelhead on jigs than anyone I know: our very own Nick Amato. He’s also the person who helped me catch my first steelhead on a jig a million years ago.
“Geez, I donno why they like the Nightmare color,” said Nick. “I guess it kinda looks like a bug and has some natural color shades. Plus, you have the contrast in there…but who knows really why they bite it?”
My next call was to Jimmy Davis, owner of Mad River Manufacturing. He’s pumped out a bazillion Nightmare worms from his facility and I figured maybe some of his many customers might have shed some light on the subject.
“I’m not totally sure, but the Nightmare sure seems to get their attention,” he said. “I guess it’s the contrast for one. And maybe the more natural colors.”
I then dialed up Ryan Bullock a Washington State steelhead guide.
“Contrast would be my guess,” he said.
At that point, I was sensing a pattern, but had one more call to make. I rang up Bob Kratzer, Owner of Angler’s Guide Service on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He fishes a ton of worms and jigs each year and is a big fan of the Nightmare. He’d surely have a good theory, right?
“Ha, ha, ha! I’ve got no idea why they eat that thing,” he said. “But it’s crazy how much they love the Nightmare. It’s gotta be the contrast and the color is more natural looking than bright pink.”
Bob also noted that a couple of his customers over the years have reported seeing natural worms in the gravel that wiggled away before being apprehended—worms that had a similar red hue to that of the Nightmare. So, there may be something to that but Bob’s never seen one himself.
After my phone work, I was feeling better that maybe my personal theories weren’t so hair-brained after all. The contrast and toned-down coloration was certainly a common theme. And that makes sense too when you consider that the consensus from my impromptu panel of experts was that the Nightmare is at its fishy best in low and clear water conditions.
But the bottom line is nobody really knows for sure why steelhead are drawn to this color pattern. One thing’s for certain, however: steelhead love a good Nightmare!
Issue: January 2015
Before I started guiding in 1998, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. After all, my buddies and I typically did very well on the chinook and steelhead in our backyard stream, the American River in Northern California.
But in that first season of professional fishing, it quickly became obvious that I really had no clue what I was doing. I was not only surprised by my lack of knowledge, but also scared to death of it. I mean, here I was starting this new career…yet apparently, I was in way over my head.
It dawned on me soon thereafter that in my pre-guiding, fun-fishing period, we usually cherry-picked the best days. My friends and I would hit the river when it was in perfect shape, at the peak of the run and on a quiet weekday—and would go play golf or something else when the conditions weren’t right. Of course as a guide, you have to be able to produce when things are less than perfect—when the river’s on the rise and full of leaves; when there are a million boats and the water is low and clear; when the dreaded North wind is blowing, and so on…
Suddenly, I realized that there was so much to learn!
Now, let’s fast forward to the present day, seventeen years later. In the nearly two decades since I ran my first trip, I am light years ahead of that guy who started with a 16-foot Clacka and a dream. But despite the tens of thousands of hours on the water, I feel like there’s still so much to learn.
I recently had a guy in my boat who was sure that I knew everything there was to know about fishing since it’s what I’ve done for a living for so long. I couldn’t help but laugh and told him that the more I learn about fish and their habits, the less I feel I know. It’s kind of like one of those Bloomin’ Onions at Outback Steakhouse…the more layers you peel back, the more you find on the inside.
More Questions than Answers!
But isn’t that one of the really amazingly cool aspects of our sport? You can never know it all and there’s always room to learn and grow as an angler. You start with getting the basics down, then you start zeroing in on the smaller details. Next you narrow your focus again and learn about the tiny factors that can influence your success (or not). And with every new level of knowledge you reach, you’ll find more questions that have to be answered.
One of the things I tell young anglers and would-be guides: Spend less time on message boards and social media bragging and instead just be a sponge. Listen. Talk to old-timers. Talk to guides. Talk to the guys at the local tackle shop. Read. Read some more. Do research. Learn everything you can about your favorite species and the places they call home.
Do less talking and more listening at the boat ramp or gravel bar too. Pay attention to what others are saying—there are nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned out there and most anglers like to talk. Some of my favorite little tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way came from chats with anglers on the water. Maybe it’s something big like an egg cure or a hot lure, but more often than not you’ll get something smaller from these streamside interactions with other fisher folk: A new way to rig the hooks on your plugs, a better braid knot, a way to keep sand shrimp fresher longer, etc. Trust me, all these little things add up over time!
Don’t ever let yourself believe that you have something completely wired or dialed in…because you don’t. Fish can and will humble you. I’ve found that those tough days can actually have a silver lining, though. They force me to carefully analyze what went wrong and learn from my mistakes so I make sure it doesn’t happen again (though it probably will…we are talking about fish after all!).
Knowledge in this game is powerful and the more open you are to taking in new stuff, the better you will become. And the better you get at this sport the more you will realize that there are more questions than answers!
Issue: December 2014
Take a very close look at that ugly infected finger…my finger…in the above photo. Nasty, right? Well, that thing ended up getting worse before it got better, and at one point, I had red veins going up my arm and there was concern that I could lose the digit, my arm…or even my life! The crazy thing is this whole situation started as a tiny, seemingly innocuous line cut-—and then things went haywire.
My spooky run-in with a serious infection far from medical attention has inspired me to share what I learned from the experience. Hopefully, you can avoid going down the same path with some simple preventative steps.
So, let me back up here. Last summer, I was guiding on Alaska’s Togiak River, where the coho fishing was nothing short of sublime. Of course, when you’re dealing with dozens and dozens of fish per day, line burns from grabbing leaders and unhooking salmon beside the boat are part of the game. Trust me, your fingers also suffer plenty of nicks from fish teeth, gill rakers and hook points too.
It was the same deal over on the nearby Nushagak River, where I previously guided for seven seasons: Dealing with tons of kings, your hands and, especially, fingers get pretty beat up.
Line burns are the worst. They’re like paper cuts on steroids and when you have a bunch of them on your fingers, they can make tying knots and other basic fishing tasks difficult. So, for eons, I’ve been dousing my cuts with hydrogen peroxide and then covering them with liquid bandage.
That program has worked for decades and I have never once had a cut that got infected. In fact, I have joked many times over the years that I’m a blood brother with the salmon, often inadvertently mixing their blood with mine—and then rinsing in river water.
Well, back in Togiak, my system failed me. Over the course of a couple days, a nearly microscopic line cut turned into that grotesquely swollen (and extremely painful) finger in the photo. The next day, it was purple and a day later, I had red lines going up my arm—a sign of very dangerous blood poisoning.
The incident forced me home early and cost me a week of work—but luckily that was all it cost me. Left unchecked, an infection like that can result in lost limbs or even death.
I was put on a daily dose close to 4,000 mg worth of antibiotics and had three different varieties pumping through me for 10 days. We caught it in time and the drugs did their thing but it was a rugged week and I felt like crud with all that stuff inside me—but I survived.
So, I learned a few things from all of this and will share them with you here.
First off, don’t ever use that paint-on liquid bandage stuff! What ended up happening was I sealed some bacteria inside my hand when I used it. Apparently, I didn’t get all the “bad guys” out with the peroxide, and by painting over the cut, there was no way for my body to flush it out. A salmon stream has tons of bacteria in it—from rotting fish carcasses, animal poop and the like—and when you don’t give it a way to get out of your system, bad things can happen fast!
And speaking of hydrogen peroxide, the nurse who worked on me told me to stop using it as a wound flush. Apparently, that burn you feel when you pour it on a cut—which I always thought was the telltale sign that it was working—is actually the peroxide eating your tissue! No bueno!
When you do get a minor fishing cut, the best thing to do is soak it in a bowl or cup of warm Epsom salt water. The bacteria can’t live in the salt and the warm water helps send white blood cells to the injury and help it heal. The warmth also localizes the infection.
After a soaking, apply some antiseptic cream to the cut and cover it with a loose bandage.
If you develop an infection, pay close attention to it and watch for red streaks. If you see streaks, the infection growing or you feel sick and run a fever of about 100.5, it’s time to get to a doctor immediately!
Infections are no joke and it was a real eye opener for me to watch a seemingly innocuous little cut progress rapidly to a potential life-threatening situation.
To help reduce the risk of line burns and small cuts, try wearing rubber (nitrile) gloves. When fishing in the heat, however, that’s not an option. So when going “commando” with bare hands, you can also try covering your potential hot spots with tape or, better yet, go with Fishermen’s Stretch Wrap (available at Fishermen’s Marine and Outdoor).
Issue: October 2014
We all know the spot—that big, deep slow pool that holds tons of kings but is hard to fish. The current is too lethargic to back-bounce and way too deep for flat-lining; Bobber fishing with eggs is okay, but it takes forever to get your gear through the run—and the slow water gives the smolt and trout too much time to find your bait.
You try casting spinners, plugs, spoons and jigs but you just can’t get down to the fish and you are at wit’s end…but those fish keep rolling and showing themselves. What to do?
Bust out the heavy artillery, that’s what!
Water like this is the perfect spot to bring out the big heavies—jumbo plugs like K16 Kwifish, Brad’s KF16’s, T-55 FlatFish…and my all-time favorite, the T-60 Flatfish.
I know…it seems a little weird at first to put massive lures down in such calm water. It’s almost like driving a Nitro-burning, double blown 18-wheeler through a hospital zone, but it works!
In super-slow spots, you need a lure with lots of surface area to catch enough current to work back—and wobble. That’s exactly where the big boys mentioned above shine. The buoyancy of these lures is also a bonus because you’ll sometimes need an ounce or more to get them down to where they need to be. Attach an ounce of lead to a smaller plug in a pondwater hole and it will go straight to the bottom and sit there without getting back out away from the boat.
And therein lies the secret to this method. You have to be able to match the plug and weight to the depth of the hole and the speed of the current. Get it right and the plug will work down and away from you. Too much sinker will cause the lure to simply go straight down. Too little and the plug won’t get down at all. Over time, you’ll be able to pretty accurately eyeball a spot and know exactly which sinker to run. Initially, however, it’s a trial and error game.
Once you find the right plug/sinker combination, set up at the top end of the hole. In super slow water, oars or an electric motor will give you a stealthy approach and also enable you to make very slight speed adjustments. I’ll have clients let out their gear very slowly—and this is where the process can be a bit tedious. But it’s the only way to make the whole thing work. I’ll have them let out about 10 feet of line at a time and then put their thumb down on the spool. This allows the current to sweep the plug downstream. When they feel the thump of the plug, I’ll have them let out another 10 feet and do the same.
As the lures approach the depth at which I think the salmon may be holding, I’ll have the clients lock their reels into gear and hold steady at that depth for a while. Remember, kings holding in deep, slow pools are often suspended, so you don’t want to rush straight down to the bottom without fishing the whole water column first. If we don’t get bit, I’ll instruct them to drop down a little more and hold—until we find where the fish are hanging. Don’t worry if your rod tip is barley thumping—the faintest of wobbles in these spots will get the job done. And that’s where FlatFish like the T-55 and T-60 really shine. They are lighter than other brands and have a different shaped bill, which allows them to have more action in the slowest of water. K16’s and KF 16’s work great when there’s a touch more current, but FlatFish are the kings of the slow stuff.
And the salmon don’t have to be huge to eat these massive lures. I routinely fish them on streams where the kings average 10 to 15 pounds. I think that when those big plugs get down in the fish’s kitchen and start that slow, seductive thump, it’s hard for kings not to try to pulverize ‘em.
That may be the coolest aspect of this whole technique: When a king decides to smash a jumbo plug in slow water, it can be an amazingly violent attack. You may get a quick “warning shot” when a king comes up and nudges the lure with his nose or tail and then the rod usually slams down as if it were attached to a 500-pound anchor. The slow water bite is epic!
Obviously, your best bet is to have the rod in the holder, but I usually go against tradition with this method and have my guys hold the rods because I want them to be able to let line out from time to time. That does create a problem, however, as aggressive bites are hard to refrain from jerking back on prematurely. But with some teaching, patience and repetition, I can usually get them on board with the program.
When holding the rod, one thing I always prep guys on is to be careful that the fish doesn’t slam the rod onto the gunwale. The strikes are so crazy that sometimes rods get broken…you have been warned!
So, next time you come across that big, deep frog-water hole that’s full of fish you’ve got a way to catch them. Give the big plugs a try this season.
To learn more, check out my new eBook: Plug Fishing for River Salmon, available at Amazon, iTunes, Nook or in PDF format at my website: www.fishwthjd.com
Issue: September 2014
Salmon and steelhead continuously amaze me with their collective resiliency. In a state like California, where water is used for everything but fish, urban sprawl keeps…well…sprawling and the rivers are far removed from their original states, these fish continue to survive against amazingly long odds.
What makes their ability to hang in there all the more improbable in the Golden State is the fact that there are a lot more fish species finning the waters these days than there were just 150 years ago. Now, native species like chinook, coho, steelhead and sturgeon are minorities. Yep, the fact is the majority of the freshwater sportfish aren’t native to the state.
Some exotics were experiments, others illegal introductions. People who had moved West and missed fishing for their favorite species brought in many varieties of gamefish from the East Coast or Great Lakes. Others still were moved into California to provide new fishing opportunities or to control baitfish populations.
It’s all pretty interesting stuff, so let’s take a look at some of California’s most beloved fish and trace their origins.
Per capita, probably the most popular fish in California, largemouth bass didn’t swim in the state’s waters until 1891. According to California Department of Fish & Game records, the initial largemouth were Northern-strain fish that originated from Quincy, Illinois and were released into Lake Cuyamaca in San Diego County.
The more popular and larger Florida-strain largemouth made their first appearance in 1959 and the rest, as they say, is history. Nobody could have imagined 50 years ago what an industry would spring up around those Floridas!
Smallies and Spotted Bass
Smallmouth bass were actually the first black bass to hit California, planted in the Napa River in 1874. Those first smallies made the trip West all the way from New York’s Lake Champlain. Alabama spotted bass (actually Northern spotted bass) came late to the party and were first introduced to the state in 1974.
Brown trout are true exotics that aren’t native to the United States, let alone California. The first successful introduction of brownies to the U.S. occurred in Michigan’s Pere Marquette River in 1883 with fish of German origin.
From there, they slowly made their way out West and records indicate that 1893 was the year brown trout first showed in California’s waters, though it is unclear in which watershed they were originally planted. In the ensuing years, browns have spread to just about every corner of the state and have been able to reach some pretty impressive sizes in their new digs—the state record is just south of 30 pounds.
Just as salmon are interwoven in the Pacific Northwest’s heritage, striped bass are very much near and dear to the hearts of folks living in the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay areas. In these parts, it feels like stripers have been around forever—but they, too, are a non-native invasive species.
According to Handbook of Freshwater Fishery Biology (Kenneth Dixon Carlander), 135 yearling striped bass from the Neversink River in New Jersey were dumped into the Sacramento River in 1879. Two years later, another 300 yearlings from Jersey’s Shrewsbury River were released into San Francisco Bay. Apparently, the stripers found California quite to their liking, and by 1900, a commercial fishery was established.
Today, fish from those original plants have been seen as far north as British Columbia, with spawning populations ranging from Central California up to the Umpqua River in Oregon.
As was the case with stripers, home-sick East Coasters transplanted their favorite food fish, the American shad, to the waters of the Golden State in 1871. According to The Ecology of Marine Fishes (Allen, Pondella, Horn), between 1871 and 1881, an additional 800,000 shad fry from New York State were shipped out to the West Coast and released into the Sacramento River, where they flourished.
The West Coast’s first commercial shad fishery kicked in in 1879 and now the fish have spread as far north as the Columbia River, which is now hosts the world’s largest run of American shad.
The lake trout or “mackinaw” is yet another in a long list of fish from the Great Lakes region that was brought out West. Lakers were initially introduced into Lake Tahoe in1886, and they, along with several other species of introduced fish, spelled the end for the basin’s native trout, the Lahontan cutthroat.
Macks require deep, cold lakes and have been planted in several throughout Northern California, including Donner, Fallen Leaf, Stampede, Sly Park, Oroville and others. The main fisheries occur these days on the first two.
Catfish made their first trip to California’s waters in 1874, when three bullhead species from the Mississippi River drainage were set free by the California Fish Commission in the San Joaquin River near Stockton.
In Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of California, Samuel M. McGinnis and Doris Alcorn state that it took only that one planting to get the fish established throughout the Central Valley, Klamath Basin, southern coastal streams and many other waters.
From there, several other varieties of cats were planted over the years, including channel, yellow, flathead and blue cats and they are, as a whole, doing extremely well now throughout the state—from stunted bullheads in High Sierra lakes to blues over 100 pounds in lowland reservoirs.
The catfish family’s great tolerance for low dissolved oxygen levels, warm water and high carbon dioxide levels allows them to thrive in many urban waters from which the native species have long since disappeared.
The landlocked little cousin of the sockeye salmon is currently enjoying a surge in popularity in California and is getting stocked into more waters each year. The koke’s rise to glory here comes from humble beginnings, however.
Kokanee were first brought to the state from Idaho in 1941 but didn’t really get a toehold until fry from British Columbia were let go in Lake Shasta in 1951. Now there are self-sustaining populations in several waters and groups like Project Kokanee and Kokanee Power raise money each year to raise and release them in lakes where spawning doesn’t occur.
Even the fish you probably cut your teeth on as a youngster aren’t California natives. Bluegill, black and white crappie, and several other varieties of panfish have been trickling in from their original homes in the southern and central portions of the country since at least 1891.
Other Notable Non-Natives
Some other gamefish that aren’t true Californians include brook trout, yellow perch, white bass, redear sunfish, green sunfish, carp and the (hopefully) recently eradicated northern pike.
So, which sportfish are native to the state? A good question, especially when you look at the above list of out-of-towners. In freshwater, the list is relatively short. King and coho salmon are indigenous—and there is research that suggests that isolated populations of pink and chum salmon also historically called Northern California home. In fact, to this day, there may even be a tiny remnant population of spawning pinks in the Garcia River. Rainbow trout, coastal cutthroat trout and steelhead are also original Golden State residents. And who could forget the golden trout?
While conventional wisdom says all char like brook trout and mackinaw are non-native, we actually had indigenous bull trout (Dolly Varden) in the McCoud River watershed until the 1970’s. Unfortunately, dams, water diversions, competition with exotics, habitat loss and all the other usual suspects caused California’s only native char to go extinct and efforts to reintroduce them from Oregon stocks have failed.
Green and white sturgeon are also on the list of locals, as are mountain whitefish, Sacramento perch and a whole host of others that don’t fall into the gamefish category.
The Effects of Invasive Species
The impact these introduced fishes have had on California’s natives is significant. From predation of native fry, to disease and displacement of indigenous species, the exotics have left their mark. And yet, despite all that we have done to try to eradicate salmon and steelhead, they continue to hang in there. Numbers are, of course, not what they once were but these amazingly adaptable fish are still here—and in many cases, they remain in California in fishable numbers.
Pretty amazing critters, if you ask me!
Issue: August 2014
As I write this in early summer, California is suffering through a horrific drought, the effects of which are already having massive impacts on our anadromous fish populations.
Just how bad is it? Well, according to research UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram conducted using the climactic data stored by old-growth tree rings, this is probably the most parched the state has been since the year 1580.
The past two winters in Northern California have been very dry but the problem has been exacerbated by poor water management, urban sprawl, water deliveries to the central and southern portions of the state and the fact the water agencies are somehow still beholden to water rights granted in the 1800’s.
At press time, Nor Cal rivers were running low and warm and reservoirs were at critically low levels. All of the Central Valley reservoirs (like Shasta, Oroville and Folsom) were well below 50 percent of capacity...and dropping rapidly. By fall, some lake elevations could hit dead pool. Up in the High Sierra, there was an abysmal snow pack so there will be no replenishment until October at the very earliest.
Low lake levels also mean a lack of cold water behind the dams. The unfortunate truth is the rivers will run hot this summer and fall—and that’s not good news for fish.
In fact, during the second week of June conditions were getting so dire that the Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River had to evacuate all fish from its raceways because of water temperatures that were forecasted to get up to 78 degrees. Hatchery rainbows were dumped in local lakes and ad-clipped steelhead were released 6 months early so that they’d have a chance to migrate out before they cooked.
So, what does all this mean to the salmon and steelhead of Northern California? Well, the immediate future isn’t super rosy—but there are some potential bright spots on the horizon. Here’s a look at the drought’s effects so far—and a glance to the future.
The first ill-effects of the water shortage were apparent late last fall as large areas of salmon redds were left high and dry in the Sacramento, Feather, American and Yuba rivers (and others). In some cases, it was estimated that 40-50 percent of natural spawn was lost.
In the winter, returning adult steelhead found extremely low water in all the rivers, which led to a lot of harvest by opportunistic poachers, particularly on the American until it closed via emergency order.
Then came the out-migration of juvenile wild-spawned chinook in the early spring. Due to the low flows, predator densities were much higher than normal and the tiny fish suffered heavy losses to all sorts of birds and fish.
The fall migration of adult fall-run chinook had yet to occur when I was writing this, but water temperatures in early June were already running 70-72 degrees on many salmon streams and were only going to climb through the summer. The Sacramento River System is forecasted to get a pretty good run of fish this year, but with these unfortunate water conditions, nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen when the kings come home.
One scenario that has crossed my mind is that, unless we get some unseasonably cool weather this summer and a few miracle rainstorms (yeah, right!), we could end up with a thermal barrier situation somewhere on the Sac. In other words, the river could end up being too warm to allow for chinook migration and the fish may just hold somewhere in the salt until conditions improve. Again, just speculation at this point, but I don’t think I’m talking too much out of school here.
While the situation is looking pretty bleak at the moment, there are a couple things out over the horizon that may just help.
First off, there is the potential for an absolutely massive return of kings three years from now. I’m talking about an all-time high, record-setting type of chinook run if the ball bounces our way and we get a couple lucky breaks. You see, with the low water conditions we had in the spring, state and federal hatcheries trucked and net-pen acclimated nearly all 30 million of the Central Valley’s chinook. That number is considerably higher than in normal years and should lead to lots more adult fish in 2017.
With survival rates of less than 1-percent when left to migrate on their own, studies have showed that trucking chinook smolt to the lower reaches of the system increases survival significantly. Then throw in the net-pen acclimation, which improves river-to-ocean survival by 400 percent, and you can see how the summer and fall of 2017 could be a banner one.
Of course, ocean feeding conditions need to be favorable for those fish to flourish and return as adults, but things are looking good off the California coast. The ocean has been full of krill, sardines and anchovies for the past few years so there is hope.
However, there is something else out there that could mess everything up—or bring relief. Scientists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have noticed signs of what could be a very large El Niño event brewing along the equator, which has a chance to bring much-needed rainfall to California next winter.
NOAA closely monitors a series of buoys which measure temperature, currents and winds in the equatorial band…and what forecasters are seeing at the moment is potentially huge. In the simplest of terms, an El Niño event is highlighted by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, which can dramatically affect weather worldwide.
In California, El Niños can sometimes lead to vast amounts of rainfall, which would obviously be a welcome respite after three consecutive years of drought. Scientists say that current conditions strongly resemble those observed in the lead-up to the powerful 1997-1998 El Niño event, which brought the West a lot of rain.
But things can change since it is so early in the season. And scientists also caution that there’s no guarantee that an El Niño winter will bring ample rainfall. We’re just going to have to wait and see…
Now, there is a downside to El Niño years too. They result in a rise in sea surface temperatures—which can cause drastic declines in ocean productivity in our region. Food chains are adversely affected and salmon and steelhead populations, in particular, can be hit hard.
So, phew, there you have the situation. Now, it’s just a matter of keeping one’s fingers crossed and waiting to see how it all plays out. Maybe do a rain dance while you’re at it. It can’t hurt…