Rolling out of bed at 4 a.m. is what it takes to be on the Feather River at sunrise in September. I had promised myself that after a summer of home-improvement projects, I would do some serious fishing in the fall. The salmon and steelhead are running and I have to do it now or pass on it for this year.
The most successful approach for catching salmon on the Feather is to commit to regular morning trips. Having another angler to join you ensures that you do get up two hours before dawn rather than going back to sleep. Being on the river repeatedly is the best way to be successful. The alternative is to hire someone who does this, a guide.
I had spent an hour the evening before locating my gear and putting fresh leaders on fly lines and re-spooling a spinning reel with new line. It is this ritual that gets you thinking of a plan — where you will be going specifically, how you will fish the spot and what tackle you need for the trip.
Up at 4 a.m., meeting Wilfried Wietstock at 4:50, puts me on the road by 5. This is what it takes to be at the Oroville Wildlife Area by 6 a.m., 55 miles from Penn Valley. The Wildlife Area is about 10 square miles along the river reserved for public access fishing and hunting. Depending on water flows the river can be fished effectively from shore with a wide variety of water types from which to choose.
The most productive spot on the river is the Afterbay Hole. It is the confluence of the water coming down the original river channel through town and water re-entering the river from the power generating Thermolito Complex. The hole is quite deep and the salmon hold there prior to going up the channel to the hatchery. There is a new Department of Fish and Game (DFG) rule in effect this season prohibiting fishing within 250 feet of the Afterbay dam structure. The base of the dam was the hot spot in seasons past, but now we are relegated to the less productive edges of the hole. The river channel above “The Hole” is open for steelhead but closed to salmon fishing.
For my first trip of the season, I chose to fish downriver from the Afterbay to avoid the potential crowds. Daily there is a “line” of anglers that forms on the rim of the hole. When fishing in such a line, everyone has to fish in a similar fashion to prevent tangles. I recommend watching these anglers before jumping into the line to get a feel for the protocol of how they fish. When the fishing is at its peak, the line can be elbow to elbow, and you need to be in sync.
The prime time for fishing, particularly in shallow water, is under low-light conditions. I was looking for access on the east shore with tall trees that would keep the sun off the water well after sunrise. There are a number of spots that fit this description with access off a good gravel road.
I had a line in the water by 6:15. We were fishing a run with a choppy surface and water 2- to 6-feet deep, ending with deeper holding water below. We tried drifting egg imitating beads and “swinging flies” on a sinking line.
Craig at Huntington Sports recommended red beads as first choice, orange as a second and roe as the third. His best success has been with two beads of different colors, hoping to increase the odds in the short time frame of the morning bite.
My choice of flies, if I want to target salmon, is anything in chartreuse. One common denominator for freshwater salmon is this color for plugs, spinners or flies. Salmon can be caught on other colors, but the most often-mentioned color is chartreuse. The most popular boat fishing salmon lure is a chrome Flatfish with a lip painted chartreuse. A second choice fly color is bright red/orange flies, such as a Polar Shrimp.
We fished continuously for the couple of hours of prime light conditions. Sometimes you can get discouraged without any action. On this day when I would begin to doubt, another salmon would splash on the surface within casting distance. We were casting over fish, but they were refusing our offerings.
One of the tough aspects of freshwater salmon fishing is the fact that salmon do not feed once they enter freshwater on their terminal spawning run. The theory is to get a reaction bite based on previous feeding behavior or an anger response.
Another approach is to imitate salmon eggs. These packets of protein are targeted by steelhead, suckers, crawdads and birds. Salmon are very protective off their roe and will take them in their mouths. Speculation is that during spawning, they will attempt to put loose eggs back into the gravel.
My first trip of the fall run resulted in a score of: Salmon 1 and Denis 0. I do take consolation from a DF&G statistic from the 2011 Sacramento Valley angler salmon survey. For every 100 angler hours on the river, seven salmon were landed. That is 14 hours fishing per fish landed.
My take on this survey is that I have not spent enough time on the water to have earned my first salmon of the season. I need to go again and again and…
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.
One of the tough aspects of freshwater salmon fishing is the fact that salmon do not feed once they enter freshwater on their terminal spawning run.