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Big Plugs are the Secret for Slow Water

Issue: October 2014

Kings don’t have to be huge to eat a jumbo plug. This 14-pound chinook had no trouble attacking this T60 FlatFish!

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.

The massive T60 dwarfs a K14 here, which shows you how much more surface area you get when using a big plug in slow water.



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

California: Land of Exotics

Issue: September 2014

Few anglers know that catfish, another species that has legions of followers in California, is an import.

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.

Largemouth Bass  
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
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.

Striped Bass
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.

American Shad
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.

Lake Trout
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.

So much a part of California’s fishing heritage, most folks don’t even realize that bass like this one caught at Lake Shasta by none other than Nick Amato are not native to the state.

Catfish
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.

Kokanee Salmon
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.

Panfish
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.

Locals Only
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!

The California Drought: Just How Bad is It?

Issue: August 2014

Will the drought dry up California’s salmon & steelhead runs?

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.

The Effects
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.

This fall, California Salmon are going to be low and warm.

The Future
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…

First Dry-Fly Stelie

Issue: June 2014

The steelhead was nowhere as large as the one that I had seen a few minutes earlier, but it was my first ever taken on a dry and I’ll never forget it. Okay, so it took some serious dumb luck and lousy eyesight to make it all happen, but I’ll take it.

To many, the idea of catching a steelhead on a dry fly is the pinnacle of all coldwater fishing. One of North America’s top gamefish…taken on a wad of feathers and glue…on the surface—it just doesn’t get a whole lot better than that! But it doesn’t happen every day. In fact, some steelheaders dedicate their entire lives to the pursuit and never get the satisfaction of watching a big sea-going rainbow come up and take the fly.

Since I don’t fly-fish for steelhead very often, I’m almost ashamed to say that I have had the pleasure of catching one on a dry. And it was kind of a fun story…

The tale took place many moons ago in Oregon with the fine editor of this publication and our mutual pal Big Fred Contaoi and it was one of those days that just seemed like a fairy tale. The three of us hooked close to 40 steelhead on small nymphs under indicators, and the day was highlighted by some crazy moments like a triple header on flies and when I hooked three steelhead on three consecutive casts—three separate times!

It was one of those amazing, magical days when you feel like you can do no wrong and the hours just whiz by. Right before dark Nick asked me if I’d like to try to catch a steelie on a dry. He said he had a special flat where it was a possibility and I just immediately knew that it was going to happen.

So, we waded out to the sweet spot and he pointed to a rock near the far bank where Nick said steelies sometimes held. As I plopped the first cast out into the run, he warned me to not set the hook if a fish hit the fly…until I felt the weight as it was on the way back down to the bottom with it.

“Dude…I guide topwater striper trips for about 6 months a year and it’s the same concept,” I said. “Plus, I’ve caught a zillion stream trout on dries. Don’t worry about me…”

Well, none of that prepared me for what happened when I saw a three-foot-long rosy-cheeked leviathan slowly rise to the surface. It calmly sucked my fly down and then it seemed like it took forever for that freckled green back to disappear beneath the water.

Of course I panicked and jerked the fly right away from him! I must have been such a pitiful sight…standing there in the failing light of the canyon, a bewildered look on my face and about 10 loose coils of fly line draped around my shoulders and neck.

“Get yourself together, man, and make another cast before it’s too dark,” said Fred.

“It actually worked out perfectly. Since I never saw the fish rise to the fly, I had no cause to set the hook. By the time I realized it, the fly was stuck squarely in the steelie’s jaw and the fight was on. Dummy-proof dry-fly fishing…I love it!”

“You’ve got this…you topwater ‘pro’,” Nick added with more than a hint of good-natured sarcasm.

I snapped back to reality, freed myself of fly line and plucked the fly out of my hat, where it had come to rest after the quick-draw incident.

With shaking hands and a lot less confidence than I’d had just a moment earlier, I chucked the fly back out where it hit the water—not with the faintest of sound but instead with a big, fat splat. Perhaps not the most elegant of presentations but she was riding high and drifting into the general vicinity of the boulder where the fish had just shown itself.

Nothing.

A few more casts produced the same result and Nick said we’d better start hiking for the car.

But first, I had to make the obligatory last cast.

The red and yellow Chernobyl Ant hit the water and I squinted hard to see it in the low light as it drifted. As I strained to watch it swim through the drift, I was surprised to feel a heavy headshake on the end of the rod. The weird thing was I could still see the fly yet my rod was bucking wildly, the pressure coming from a point well downstream of my position.

It took a moment to process all that was happening and then it hit me: I had lost track of my fly and was instead watching a bubble drifting along. Meanwhile, my offering was actually about 10 feet further downstream than I thought and, in the meantime, had been slurped down by a steelhead while I was looking elsewhere.

It actually worked out perfectly. Since I never saw the fish rise to the fly, I had no cause to set the hook. By the time I realized it, the fly was stuck squarely in the steelie’s jaw and the fight was on. Dummy-proof dry-fly fishing…I love it!

The steelhead was nowhere as large as the one that I had seen a few minutes earlier, but it was my first ever taken on a dry and I’ll never forget it. Okay, so it took some serious dumb luck and lousy eyesight to make it all happen, but I’ll take it. And that fish was made even more special by the fact that it was the cherry on top of a day that will forever live as one of my favorites of all time. Great fishing and great friends…and a dry-fly steelhead…are you kidding me??

To this day, that fly lives on the wall next to my office computer and I can’t help but smile every time I look at it.

Basic Springer Tips

Issue: May 2014

Sometimes the trick to springers is using smaller lures.

Springers! This time of year it’s hard for me to think about anything besides these chrome bullets that are making their way up rivers all up and down the West Coast right now. My feelings for these amazing fish are incredibly strong. The word “passion” just doesn’t even do it justice—it’s more like extreme, over-the-top, out of control addiction. And I know you know what I’m talking about here!

So, to help me feel a little better about sitting in front of this computer today, I’m going to at least think about springer fishing and throw out a few basic concepts. Hopefully, these will help those of you out there who haven’t yet had an encounter with one of the most bad-arse fish that swims. A word of caution: be prepared to get absolutely hooked!

Fish Early
Springers can be moody buggers so your best chance to get at them is right at first light. When the sun gets high and there’s lots of light penetration in the water, fishing typically grinds to a halt. On clear streams, I’m usually thinking about wrapping things up no later than 10 a.m. Now, if you are fishing really deep water or on a river that has lots of color, the bite window stays open longer. That is also true on cloudy/foggy days. Basically: the darker the day, the better.

Fish Green

I’m not totally sure how to explain it, but springers seem to have a soft spot in their hearts for green. Yes, the traditional chartreuse that we use on plugs and spinners for fall chinook works, but I have more confidence when springer fishing when I also have some darker green mixed in too. Most of the spinners and plugs I use have dark green, chartreuse and gold in combination. A close second is chartreuse and metallic blue.

I also keep those principles at the forefront of my mind when choosing flasher and herring brine colors for springer trolling.

Now, color schemes for lures and baits vary from river to river and everybody has their local favorite, but the above combos will definitely get you in the ballgame.

There aren’t too many fish that can put a smile on your face like springers do!

Fish the Inside of Bends
When they hit the lower end of a river system, spring chinook are on a mission to get up to their summering grounds well upstream. As quickly as possible. So that means when they are down low, they don’t spend much time holding. Instead, springers pretty much put their heads down and start marching upriver. They will cut the corners of a river and rest very infrequently (until they get up closer to where they are going).

While trolling is the way to go on a massive river like the Columbia, springer anglers on smaller streams tend to anchor up. What you’re trying to do here is figure out a travel lane and then post on up that spot and put some lures in their paths. On rivers like the Klamath and Rogue, for example, the best places to drop the pick are in 3 to 6 feet of water on the inside of river bends. Try to get your gear right in on the seam where the fast water of the main river transitions into the slow stuff on the inside.

When anchored on a spot like that, you’ll usually have to use heavier lead on the outside rods and lighter sinkers on the ones positioned on the soft side.

Fish Low
Unless I’m targeting springers in the upper sections of a river, where they stack up in deep holes, I like to fish as low in a system as I can—as close to the tide as possible. The fish usually come in on the flood in big wads and are at their most concentrated then. As they move upriver, they start to string out and the groups of fish will be fewer and farther between. That’s not to say you can’t catch them but the gaps between pulses are going to be longer.

Fish Tuna
Springers are very scent conscious and you’ll always do better by lathering your gear in some sort of fish “sauce.” As with lure color, there are lots of local variations here but one of the more common themes with springers is tuna. Tuna wraps on plugs, tuna liquid squirted on spinners and tuna mixed into spawn sacs with eggs. On Northern California’s Trinity River, straight tuna balls (wrapped in Moline bags) have been a spring salmon staple for eons. When using tuna from a can, be sure to buy the oil-packed variety!

In addition to tuna, I like anise but again, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Fish Soft
I generally use rods with softer tips when fishing springers than I do for fall fish. Spring chinook have a way of violently mashing lure or bait and I feel that extra “give” in the tip section helps keep fish from pulling off on the strike and initial run. Of course, you’ll still need lots of backbone in the lower two-thirds of your stick so you can tame one of these wild, crazy beasts.

Fish Small
When things get tough for springers, try scaling down the size of your gear. I’ve caught tons of spring salmon on small plugs and spinners intended for steelhead—so many in fact, that I’ve got an entire section in my box set aside for small lures. By downsizing, you can sometimes get fish with lockjaw to bite again.

Meet the Striper: The West’s “Other” Anadromous Species

Issue: April 2014

Noted Oregon salmon and steelhead guide, Kevin Lund (left), came to Nor Cal last year for his first striper experience and had a ball.

You guys know me—I’m as kooky for salmon and steelhead as anyone. But living down here in Northern California, I also have a real soft spot for the “other” anadromous fish of the West Coast: The striped bass.

This time around, I figured I’d mix things up and introduce you to the iconic fish that’s as synonymous with river fishing in my area as salmon and steelies are. I originally got thinking about doing a little piece on stripers here in STS after taking several of my Pacific Northwest buddies out for them.

None of them had ever caught stripers before but had always been intrigued by these exotics of the Sacramento-San Joaquin system. After fishing for—and catching—stripers all my Northern buddies instantly fell in love with the things. To a man, they’ve all said they wished they had some stripers to catch closer to home.

From a fishing standpoint, there’s really nothing not to like. Striped bass can get massive (fish over 40 pounds are caught each year and 50-to 60-pounders show up now and then), though the average “schoolie” size is more like 4 to 7 pounds. They’re also often a numbers fish—I’ve had more 75- to 100-striper days over the years than I can even remember, and I’m not happy on my guide trips unless my clients catch at least 20 to 30 of them. I can’t say that very often about salmon and steelhead!

Another attractive attribute of the striper is they pull hard. They’re not much for jumping but they are strong fighters capable of long—and surprisingly quick—runs.

Stripers are also available year-round, which is cool. Most spend their summers roaming the saltwater of the San Francisco Bay region, while others trickle on down the coast and provide cool surf-fishing opportunities for anglers from San Francisco to Monterey. In fall, the fish move into the vast California Delta, where they over-winter.

Come spring, the fish start heading up pretty much every river in the Central Valley—the Sacramento, American, Feather, Yuba, San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Merced, Cosumnes and Stanislaus—to spawn. Depending on the river, stripers will hang around until early summer, while others post up in freshwater through the fall. By June or July, good numbers of fish have usually migrated back to the salt.

And then there’s the eating part. Many of my clients prefer striper to halibut when it comes to table fare. Yes, they’re that good! The flesh is light and firm and extremely versatile (stripers make awesome fish tacos, by the way!).

The really great thing about stripers, however, is that there are so many ways to target them. The striper’s willingness to explode on surface lures makes them one of my favorite fish to catch but they’re also a ball on swimbaits, plugs, spoons and flies too. Some folks do nothing but troll for them while others are dyed-in-the-wool soakers of cut bait. I know guys who only want to spoon for stripers while others prefer to drift live minnows.

Though they are apex predators and eat seemingly everything in sight, stripers are not always easy to catch. For all their reckless feeding habits, striped bass are by far the most skittish, nervous fish I guide for. They are super spooky and can drive you absolutely nuts with their ability to disappear, en masse, in the blink of an eye. Of course, that’s also what makes chasing them fun!

Stripers are awesome!

History!


The first striped bass came to California in 1879, when 132 juveniles safely traveled by rail from the Navesink River in New Jersey and were released near Martinez.

The State Fish and Game Commission brought in another batch of 300 stripers that were released into lower Suisun Bay in 1882, and the rest is history. Within just a few years, a serious sport fishery was developing and by 1889, there was a commercial market for striped bass. A mere 10 years later, the commercial net catch alone was averaging well over a million pounds of striper a year!

In 1935, California outlawed commercial striper fishing in favor of the sport fishery. Fishery managers raised stripers in captivity and planted them in state waters until about 10 years ago.

But controversy has been a-brewing lately. Reacting to our epic salmon collapse from 2007 to 2010, some fisheries managers and politicians have been calling for the eradication of striped bass in California. They say that, as an invasive apex predator, the striper is having too much of an affect on native fish species like salmon and steelhead.

Recently, there have been anti-striper laws introduced to the state legislature—most notably Assembly Member Jean Fuller’s (R-Bakersfield) 2011 bill that would have basically declared war on striped bass had it passed. The water mongers in Southern California even sued the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to lift all angling restrictions on stripers in an effort to trim the herd.

In each case, the State’s anglers rose in unison and defeated the opposition, but with corporate water politics involved, the stripers will never be safe.

The irony of it all is that the very people who are fighting to rid the state of striped bass are already doing a really good job of it with their massive water exports from the Delta. The salmon decline, along with the demise of striped bass, sturgeon, Delta smelt and others, are all right in line with record amounts of water being pumped out of the system. It’s not hard to figure out who the real culprits are!

But enough of politics—they bum me out. I think I’m going to grab some poppers and head for the Delta. A little striper “topwater therapy” will do me wonders!

If you would like to come down and do a guided striper trip with me this season, or just see the latest fish pics, hit my guide website: www.thesportfisher.com

How Drought Will Affect California Salmon & Steelhead

Issue: March 2014

Dramatic example of California’s drought issues. Folsom Reservoir, the source for the lower American River, is at an all-time low!

As I write this near the beginning of February, portions of the West Coast have been parched for months. California, in particular, is suffering through what could be an historic drought.

Reservoir levels are abysmally low and rivers are nearly dry. The Governor in January declared a state of emergency and, as of this writing, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife is considering sweeping fishing closures to protect steelhead and salmon.

These are dark, dire times for the fish of California and all we can do is hope for some sort of miracle late-season monsoon. I read in the paper the other day that it’s probably going to take 14 inches of rain just to get the ground saturated at this point.

So, as far as anadramous fishes go, what can we expect?

Well, there’s quite a bit of bad news--which is especially upsetting considering we have seen our salmon runs rebound nicely the past couple seasons and steelhead numbers also looking pretty good. Just when things were looking up…

De-Watered Redds

There was an excellent chinook salmon spawn in the upper reaches of the Sacramento, Feather, American and Yuba rivers. Not long after those redds had been covered up with gravel, however, reservoir releases dropped dramatically, leaving a large percentage of them high and dry. So, our naturally reproduced salmon numbers look like they will be dreadfully low three years from now.

Sacramento River flows are at the lowest legal limit, which has left salmon redds high and dry. It’s feared that 50% of the spawn will be lost.



Difficult Outmigration

With river levels down to or near the lowest allowed by law, the out-migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead will suffer heavy losses this spring. That goes for the lucky few that wiggle out of the gravel and the massive hatchery plants. The young fish will encounter the usual suspects--predatory birds and fish--but without a good flush of water, they’ll be easy marks. Strong outflow also helps fish negotiate the maze that is the Delta…this year, you can bet a good chunk of smolt will end up getting lost--and sucked up by ag diversions.

While some of the state’s hatcheries are considering trucking the young hatchery fish down past some of the toughest hazard zones, Federal managers at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery decided to let their fish run the gauntlet. Concerned more with reducing straying than actually getting live fish back to the river, they ignored all the evidence that suggests that they could lose well over 50 percent of their fish in the first 50 miles below the hatchery! Your tax dollars at work, folks!

Tough Spawn On The Coast

Things aren’t super rosy on the coastal streams, either. Lack of rain kept flows down the entire fall and in-bound adult chinook had very little water with which to deal. Conditions were so bad that I saw unspawned chinook salmon in the Eel River in January, milling around in shallow pools and waiting for the water to rise. The same thing occurred on the Mad River, where kings continued to wait to be able to spawn almost into February.

I’m not sure how long those fish can hold on. At some point, I have to believe that they’ll either just die or release their eggs randomly if the rivers don’t rise.

Closures Forthcoming?

I in no way have a crystal ball, but looking at the evidence, I’d have to say that we could easily see salmon fishing closures in both the ocean and freshwater again in 3 years. With dewatered redds and low survival of juveniles from river to the sea, it just doesn’t look good. Steelhead Sadly, the drought has continued into steelhead season and adult fish have been piled up into the lower sections of the rivers. Anglers pounded on them in the tidewater and lower riffles of many drainages, taking advantage of the kegged-up fish--which seems a bit shortsighted to me.

At presstime, steelhead numbers appear to be pretty solid on California’s northern coastal streams…if some rain does happen in the near future, those fish should be able to get upriver and get the job done. Of course, in-river rearing and redds left dry are also concerns in a year like this.

In the Sacramento Valley, a good run of steelhead showed up in the Feather River, only to have the water drop out on them. The same was true on the American, where flows were in the 5,000 cfs range in early January of 2013. This year, flows were down to 500 cfs and potentially going to 250 cfs. Sadly, there was much red stomping and snagging occurring as of late January in the river’s upper reaches.

Bummer too, considering we had an epic steelhead season here on my home stream last year. I was so looking forward to hooking big winter runs in my backyard this year, but cancelled my entire American River steelhead guiding season before it even started when I saw the water levels.

It’s a bit early to tell what the long-term effects on California’s steelhead will be because we still have some time left for the weather to change. I’m doing my best rain dance hoping for the skies to darken. In the meantime, it’s been a very strange 70 degrees all winter in Sacramento and I’m sure water rationing is coming.

I shudder at the thought of what will happen if we get a couple more rainless winters…old-timers talk about the drought of the mid 1970’s as being one of the things that changed California fisheries dramatically forever. Yikes!

Keep your fingers crossed and hope that the jet stream moves south!

Hooked!

Issue: February 2014

JD’s 7-year-old son Cooper got dad in the chin on the cast with a Little Cleo.

It’s gonna happen…I guarantee it. You put enough days in on the water and a hook is going to find its way into your skin. As a full-time guide and dad of a 7-year-old fishing fanatic, I’m in harm’s way more than most—but even weekend warriors are going to get spiked at some point.

It happens fast too. One minute you’re happily fishing and the next your day is potentially over because someone’s got a treble buried in their hand. Been there, done that!

In my experience, a lot of hooked situations occur when handling/unhooking fish. I once took a 3/0 siwash through the meat of my thumb when a salmon I was unhooking flopped…the back hook of a Kwikfish stuck me good and the fish (still hooked to the belly hook) was still wildly thrashing around on the deck! OUCH! When I worked on the Nushagak River in Alaska, every one of my guide buddies suffered a similar fate while releasing kings next to the boat.

Small steelies are the worst! Last fall, I was reaching down to unhook a feisty half-pounder hooked on a plug. As I was sliding my hand down the line towards the lure, I was thinking: “Hey dummy…use your pliers.” But, alas, I didn’t listen to my own advice and you can guess what happened next! I grabbed the plug, the fish went crazy and then, in a nanosecond, we became blood brothers!

Lack of rod awareness during the cast is also a major culprit. In fact, just the other day, I was fishing with my kid and he popped me right in the chin (see photo) with a Little Cleo on the cast. I’ve had clients catch themselves (and each other) in the back of the head or shoulder when casting. The scariest of which occurred while I was on a striper trip and my dudes were throwing 6-inch long surface poppers liberally festooned with large trebles. On guy wasn’t watching what he was doing and reached back to make a long cast but instead of going overhand, he got a little sidearm and on the follow-through, got his buddy right above the ear. The cast had so much force that the 3/0 treble traveled about 3 inches from the point of contact to the time it finally came to a stop, buried to the bend in the guy’s scalp!

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