Denis Peirce: Next year’s salmon numbers look promising
The salmon stocks off our coast are not one big school of fish rather it is a collection of many different groups that return to different rivers at different times of the year.
We live on the edge of the Sacramento Valley and our focus is the Sacramento and Feather River runs. There is a run to the south of us on the Mokelumne River that has been making a remarkable recovery from a very low point a few years back.
I first became aware of the salmon run on the Mokelumne River over 10 years ago. I wanted to learn where and how to fish for stripers on the Delta.
A friend recommended going south of Sacramento on I-5 to the Walnut Grove off ramp near Galt and launch at Wimpies Marina. It is on the Mokelumne river and it can be good striper water at times. That trip the only fish landed was a nice but dark salmon.
On the hunt for stripers
Two years ago in October I wanted to fish for stripers in the Delta and Wimpies was my first choice for where to put in. I showed up mid-morning and there was not one place to park. Every conceivable turnout had a boat and trailer jammed in.
I checked with the staff at Wimpies and was told that October was the month for the salmon run on the Mokelumne. The salmon were fresh from the ocean and the bite was on. Farther to the north on the Feather and the Sacramento rivers the best time for fresh fish was August and September. The angling pressure follows the good fishing.
The Mokelumne has not always been a go-to river for salmon fishing. In fact, in the early 1990s it was in poor shape.
The rebound in the salmon returns of the last 20 years stems from a 1998 agreement between the Department of Fish & Wildlife and East Bay Municipal Utility District. The agreement focused on water operations, including managing cold water in Camanche and Pardee reservoirs to maintain good spawning conditions and releasing pulse flows to attract salmon to the hatchery. There is an ongoing tagging program to monitor the results.
Another aspect of the success is the transporting of the juvenile salmon by barge through the Delta to boost survival rates.
A positive impact
The success of the Mokelumne River Hatchery program has been remarkable. In 2017 there was a record return of 19,954 salmon which is double the 20 year average of 9,541 fish. As of Nov. 28 of this year there have been 14,800 returning compared to last year’s 16,500 as of the same date.
What is surprising is the impact of the Mokelumne fish on salt water salmon angling off the coast. Based on tagging data this year, 35 percent of sportsman caught salmon and 20 percent of commercial catch from the California coast are from the Mokelumne River hatchery. This river is among the smallest tributaries to the Delta but it produces a tremendous amount of our fish.
The outlook for steelhead is also quite promising. We are at the beginning of the seasonal hatchery return but expectations are for returns approaching the 600 fish record from last year. Compared with the long term average of 160 steelhead we appear to be at a cyclical peak but the improved water management is a major factor.
In comparison the Feather River had a good season in 2018. The adult salmon hatchery return was close to 30,000 fish which is double the 15,000 from 2017. The count of returning “jacks” was 12,000 this year an increase over the 8,000 from last year.
The steelhead numbers for the January 2019 spawn look promising. The Feather River Hatchery does not start holding steelhead in the tanks until mid December. Those that come to the hatchery early, are returned to the river.
So far, this year the hatchery personnel have returned 400 to 500 steelhead. If these were all unique fish, it would be sufficient to produce the 450,000 steelhead goal for this facility, without the fish that arrive in late December and into January.
The Feather River contribution to the salt water salmon catch is typically about 60 percent of the take. The Coleman Hatchery for Sacramento River fish produces the greatest quantity of fish but its salmon are not a proportional amount of the ocean catch.
Next year in October, when the salmon on the Feather are getting dark, head south to the Mokelumne River. The river is deep enough for prop boats and there are a lot of salmon to be caught.
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 http://www.trollingflies.com.
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