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Denis Peirce: Steelhead of a lifetime on the Yuba

Guide Jon Baiocchi with a 32 inch Yuba River steelhead he caught and released.
Provided photo

The allure of western Nevada County for the angler is the wide variety of fish species we have within a couple hours drive. Yes, there is better bass fishing in Florida, better sturgeon on the Columbia River, better trout fishing in Montana, better stripers on the East Coast, better steelhead in British Columbia and better salmon and halibut in Alaska, the list goes on. Each of these examples has one or two species but none has the variety that we have here. In any given month there is a place and species to fish for within a reasonable drive.

The jig head nymph Jon tied that caught Jon's life time best on the Yuba River.
Provided photo

The “better” comment about other locations can be interpreted to mean size. But we can produce some good sized fish as well. Size is a function of genetics, good water and food supply. Get this mix right and some notable fish can be grown.

February 28, the largest steelhead I am aware of, was caught and released on the lower Yuba River.

A normal fish on the lower Yuba runs from 12 to 16 inches with fish getting close to 20 inches being a notable catch. Local guide Jon Baiocchi was fishing on his day off. He describes the location as a long hike out from the Sycamore Ranch area. He and a partner had fished through a deep slot three times, picking up some modest sized fish. Jon went back up and fished down through it one more time. The hit on his fly was more of a pause than a hard strike. Once the fish figured out that the stonefly nymph was not what she thought it was, the strong head shakes told Jon that the fish was big.

Jon had been fishing light weight fly gear, a 4 wt rod. It took what seemed like 15 minutes to land the fish, netting it with the help of his friend. After removing the hook it jumped out of the too small net twice, each time Jon was able to get it back. It taped out at 32 inches long. For California this is a salmon scale fish, not steelhead. The fish was a post spawn “down-streamer,” heading back to parts unknown. It was a fin clipped fish indicating hatchery origin. The speculation is that it might have been an American River steelhead. An educated guess puts the weight near 10 pounds.

What I found notable about this fish was the size of its tail. The tail is a definite indicator of a fish’s size regardless of camera angles and poses. Some of the old time Penn Valley residents may remember Hauser Hardware next to the firehouse. Nailed to the wall over the door to the office was a collection of dried steelhead tails from fish Mr. Hauser had caught through the years on the Yuba River. There were close to a dozen of them, all similar to the tail on Jon’s fish. This trophy collection was assembled back when fishing night crawlers and keeping steelhead were legal on the Yuba in the 1950s and 60s.

For some reason this winter there has been an unusually high number of fin clipped hatchery fish as well as a high number of 20 to 24 inch steelhead in the Yuba. The closest hatchery is in Oroville.

Jon’s fish proves that you can catch a trophy steelhead without a trip to British Columbia, although you will put years or decades into the quest.

Now that the equinox has come and gone spring bass fishing is on the upswing. A week ago a 13 pound largemouth bass was caught on Comanche Lake in the foothills south of Sacramento. Closer to home Tom Moreno says the fishing on his pond at 1500′ elevation, has decidedly improved . He noted that the results seemed to change with the weather. As the storm front was approaching a week ago there were three to four pound bass on the bite. These were fish with heavy bellies indicating pre-spawn females. These were caught with Senco’s in deep water. After the storm moved out on Monday, it was smaller males in the 12 to 14 inch range that were biting. Was this cause and effect? There is no telling. It is just another interesting data point for anglers to ponder when spring fishing for foothill bass.

The striper run this year has been a major disappointment to date. The fall and winter fishing in the Delta was not good. Good striper anglers, who know the Delta, were able to put a few fish in the boat but it was not a good winter for stripers. This poor showing is continuing in the rivers. There are reports of some striped bass making their way up the Sacramento River heading for the Colusa, but the numbers are very low for the end of March. The normal progression is for schools of smaller males heading up river at the beginning of March followed in late March – early April by the big females. To date we are looking at a poor striped bass run this year.

What has been a surprise is the current migration of spring run salmon on the Sacramento River. The river salmon season is closed to protect the salmon run but the quantity of fish is way above expectations. Some anglers have caught salmon incidental to striper fish. The predictions for the salmon run this year called for a poor return but this spring run is a welcome surprise.

The weather looks to be turning warm, time to get out on the water!

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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