In the quest to catch fish a good place to start is to identify the food source. From there you want to identify where it is located and how to imitate it.
The primary baitfish in our local lakes is the Japanese Pond Smelt. It was introduced into California in the late 1950s to provide a food source for rainbow trout in the reservoirs that were being built in that era. The problem with reservoirs is the fluctuating water levels preclude the establishment of weed beds and the resulting food chain. Two of the most important food sources in our artificial lakes are the incoming streams and the sunlight driven plankton bloom. The streams are limited in their food production and trout don’t do well directly converting plankton to food. The solution was to introduce a bait fish that would convert the plankton into trout food.
The original plan was to introduce the native delta smelt into the impoundments. For some unknown reason, this was not successful. The plan “B” was to introduce non-native species to fill the niche. The Department of Fish and Game tried shad and the pond smelt. It was thought that the Japanese and the Californian smelt were the same species, but this turned out not to be the case.
After more than a decade in a few smaller California test lakes, a population of smelt was transplanted from Lake Shastina to Lake Almanor. Somewhere in this time frame, pond smelt were introduced to Lake Spaulding on the South Yuba River.
During the ensuing years of study a number of attributes of the smelt were realized. Japanese pond smelt are wanderers, migrating downstream over time, and they out-compete other species that rely on their same food source. It is now the policy of the DF&G not to plant kokanee into lakes with smelt populations. Spaulding is a prime example of this. When sportsmen’s groups requested that kokanee be planted in Spaulding, the DF&G determined this was not a viable project due to the established smelt population. Instead of kokanee (sockeye salmon), king salmon were placed in the lake to feed on the smelt.
The migrating instincts of the pond smelt were proven at Lake Oroville. Almanor is higher up the Feather River system, and the smelt population started in the 1970s blossomed and migrated down the river. Oroville was a “shad lake” up through the early 1980s. Since then, the shad have disappeared, and the smelt schools at times can be as large as a garage.
The same migration pattern developed below Spaulding. Both Scotts Flat and Rollins Lakes now host substantial pond smelt populations. Water from Spaulding also finds its way to Folsom Lake. I have heard that Folsom which used to be a shad lake is now predominantly a pond smelt reservoir. Farther downstream the Japanese pond smelt has become established in the delta as well.
The exception to this migration seems to be Englebright. I have not heard any angler mention pond smelt at this lake which is below Spaulding on the South Yuba. If anyone has seen them here I would like to hear from you.
The point of this article is not whether non-native smelt are good or bad. Rather, given the fact that they are here, how can this help us catch fish. The axiom “Find the food and you will find the fish” comes to mind.
Smelt like cold water if it is available. You are most likely to find them in deep water during the warm weather months. Their food source is plankton that is driven by sunlight, which is most prolific in the top 25 feet of the water column. It is my supposition that the smelt may come up at night in the summer to feed on plankton. During the cold weather months I have seen smelt individuals along the shoreline in Oroville. Smelt will spawn in the lake shallows when the temps break up through the 40-degree mark. At Lake Almanor (elevation 4,000 feet) this occurs in March, and you will find many anglers trolling with pond smelt imitations, working the shallows. Guide Brian Roccucci (bigdaddyfishing.com) targets the 10-foot-depth contour where it is close to the shore and has rock on the bottom about the size of basketballs. He is pursuing brown trout that come in close to feed on the spawning smelt. It is not unknown for anglers to pick up rainbows, salmon or smallmouth bass at the same time.
The next question is how do you imitate a pond smelt. These fish are torpedo shaped and range in size from an inch up to 4 inches. The most notable feature is their coloration. They have a distinct ultra violet/blue hue to their shiny sides. If you can spot a school near the surface and if they spook, you will notice this color flash as they turn to swim away. Among the popular lures are various spoons in chrome and blue. In soft plastic baits the Berkeley Power Minnow comes in iridescent blue which is a very realistic representation of the local smelt. Robo Worms makes a “Margarita Mutilator” that features a blue stripe and is quite effective. Other worm colors including “Morning Dawn” and “Warmouth” do well in pond smelt waters.
Lucky Craft lures makes a “Staysee Ghost Minnow” rip bait that I have done well with. For trollers, the Arctic Fox Trolling Flies in Pond Smelt are good producers.
Your choice of lure will depend on whether you are fishing from shore, casting from a boat or trolling. Will a blue smelt imitation always produce in local lakes? No, nothing always works. But if I am fishing Scott’s Flat, Rollins, Oroville or Spaulding I will have these in my box.
Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at www.fineflies.com.