This, the year 2012, was slated to be the year of the salmon in Northern California.
The ocean surveys of last winter predicted huge numbers of salmon returning to the Sacramento Valley rivers as well as the Klamath/Trinity system. We saw good numbers of returning fish in August and September but not up to expectations.
The last best chance for the big numbers was the full moon on Sept. 29. Salmon tend to move out of the salt and into the rivers on the big tides associated with full moons and new moons. The full moon of September did not disappoint.
By Oct. 4, there was a significant increase in salmon spotted moving up the Lower Yuba, and the “egg bite” for steelhead/rainbow trout was on.
On the Feather River near Oroville, guide Craig Bentley remarked that he could not remember seeing this many fish in the system.
The Lower Yuba River is closed to salmon fishing as it is a wild spawning river with no hatchery. The significance of the salmon run is the steelhead/rainbow trout fishing.
When the salmon arrive to spawn, every critter in the environment focuses on “salmon caviar.” Trout, suckers, crawdads and water fowl will try to get a meal. It is when the salmon first get into spawning that the trout feed with abandon, and the fishing can be excellent.
Chinook salmon or king salmon literally are the kings of the river. They are bigger and more aggressive than other fish and will drive off other species.
A number of years ago, fishing with a guide on the Trinity, we were fishing a hole below a heavy set of rapids. He remarked that the first hole below the rapids was a salmon hole, and if you want to target steelhead, you go to the second hole. The salmon would not tolerate other fish in their location.
This week, I took a drive down the south side of the Lower Yuba on the gravel road that starts at the Highway 20 bridge. There are salmon actively digging redds in many locations.
The prime spawning beds are at the tail outs of slow pools, immediately above fast, choppy surfaced riffles. If you can get a vantage point above the water, you can see through the surface glare and watch the activity.
The bottom of the river tends to be a mossy green-brown color, and when the salmon dig their redds, they expose clean light colored gravel. The bright spots are the salmon redds.
The large, dark fish you will see are salmon. The steelhead/trout are much harder to see. The trout are camouflaged well, and often all you can see is the shadow they cast on the bottom.
The trout position themselves below the redds, and as the salmon dig in the gravel, eggs get loose and insects are dislodged. This creates a buffet line of sorts, and the trout will feed recklessly. Trout will dart up in the redds to steal eggs and have been known to ram the bellies of female salmon to force eggs out.
The salmon are constantly driving the other fish off. This scenario makes for a lot of commotion in the shallows.
The angler’s strategy is to cast egg and insect imitations near these locations and drift them down to the waiting trout that can be anywhere from mixed in with the salmon to throughout the riffles below.
If you hit it right, this can be some of the best fishing of the year on the Lower Yuba. The temptation is to wade out in the shallows among the redds to get an accurate cast to the trout.
If you do, the bright sand you are walking on has salmon eggs below and you may be crushing hundreds of eggs with your weight. I have found that longer casts and wading below the redds can be just as effective.
The ideal way to fish this is from a boat. This gives you access to both sides of the river and keeps you off the redds.
If you are interested in a float trip on the Yuba, contact local guide Clay Hash (flyfishingtraditions.com) or the Reel Anglers Fly Shop in Grass Valley.
The salmon spawn peaks at Halloween most years but continues through November with scattered salmon still around until the end of the year.
Even if fishing is not your sport, it is worth an afternoon to drive down to the Lower Yuba and watch. You will not be disappointed.
Denis Peirce writes a weekly fishing column for The Union and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6 to 7 p.m. Fridays and 5 to 6 a.m. Saturdays at 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at www.timeflies.com.