Denis Peirce: Steelhead on the Feather River |

Denis Peirce: Steelhead on the Feather River

Denis Peirce

It is steelhead spawning season at the Feather River Hatchery in Oroville. Steelhead are the anadromous rainbow trout that migrate to the salt water and return to freshwater to spawn. The Sacramento Valley “steelhead” have been tracked and most of them do not get to the ocean. It is thought that they will travel to the Delta and throughout the valley river system without actually getting to the coast. I have heard the theory that the trigger for rainbows to head to the ocean, is warm river temperatures. With the building of the dams which release cold water year round, there is not a need to head out to sea. What ever the reason, these fish wander all through the valley water ways and return to spawn in the upper rivers as winter comes on.

The first “strays” began arriving at the hatchery in November. These were promptly returned to the river because steelhead do not do well in the holding tanks designed for salmon.

The bulk of the steelhead run arrives between mid December and late January. This year the hatchery crew began their weekly spawning on the last day of December and have been spawning about 200 fish per week through the month of January. This past Wednesday there were only 80 fish ready. The hatchery staff expects next week to be the last spawning day of the season with approximately 100 fish to be processed.

The fish count to date going through the hatchery has been 768 males and 669 females. With next weeks addition, the years total will be well over 1,500 individuals ranking this year near the top for total returns, a good year for steelhead on the Feather.

Since the reopening of the river above the Hwy 70 Bridge on January 1, the fishing has been good with 200 upstream migrants per week coming through and half that number heading downstream post spawn.

The average Feather River steelhead is 3 to 6 pounds, 16 to 20 inches. Each year there are a few “bruisers” that are much bigger. This year the staff has seen about two dozen fish that were in excess of 10 pounds.

Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after reproducing, most live to swim another year. Once spawned at the hatchery the females are released back into the river below the hatchery. The males have a different release location. They are separated into wild and hatchery origin fish, hatchery have had their adipose fin clipped. The wild fish are trucked down river to Boyd’s Pump below Yuba City and the hatchery males are released into the Thermolito After Bay for anglers to pursue. The ratio of wild to hatchery males is about 1:3 which means there will be more than 500 adult males released into the After Bay this year.

The Feather River Hatchery has an annual goal of producing 450,000 juvenile steelhead. For the steelhead born a year ago this goal was exceeded by an estimated 90,000 fish. Most of the surplus fish will be sent to the After Bay.

Of interest to anglers, beyond the upper river and After Bay fisheries, is the release of last years brood of juvenile steelhead into the Feather River. These juveniles are only 5 to 7 inches long, not of interest to us yet. The planting of these in the river attracts striped bass and it is the kick off to the river striper action. I don’t know how the stripers figure it out, but they are present when the hatchery truck shows up at the ramp. This can be some of the fastest action of the year on stripers. The plant will begin on February 10 and continue through the week until the hatchery is empty, about four days.

The annual juvenile salmon release is scheduled for April. This past fall’s salmon run was very good also. The hatchery achieved their goal of 6,000,000 fall run and 2,000,000 spring run salmon. Of these, 5,000,000 fall run fish will be trucked to the Carquinez Strait where the saltwater of the bay meets the freshwater of the Delta. The goal of the trucking program is to cut down on losses in the river. The plan is for the remaining 1,000,000 fall run and 2,000,000 spring run fish to be put into the river, probably at Boyd’s Pump.

The recent wet winters are a major factor in the strong runs of salmon and steelhead these last few years. I hope we get more of the same in the next couple of months. In the mean time get down to the Feather for some striper action in a couple of weeks.

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

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