In search of land locked King Salmon
If you are a fishing guide in our area you are probably on the striper bite currently in progress on the Feather River. But as in all things fishing you need to have a back-up plan in case the river conditions change and the bite turns off.
A week ago I went fishing with Brett Brady (www.fishbarebones.com) on a scouting trip to Lake Oroville. The goal of the trip was to look for the land-locked king salmon that are planted in the lake. Brett had not been on the lake since it was 200 feet lower late last fall. The third member of our party was Ron Hufford, a tackle manufacturer from Nevada City.
Each fall Oroville is planted with hatchery king salmon from the Feather River Hatchery below the dam. They are the same fish that are put into the river headed for the ocean. These juvenile salmon are planted once the lake cools off in the fall. Their primary forage is pond smelt. These smelt are plentiful in the lake and can support growth rates of up to an inch per month for these salmon.
A couple of years ago after the problems arose at Oroville Dam, the salmon fishing in the lake “went in the tank.” The speculation was that the salmon and/or their food went over the dam and that age class was very difficult to find. The 2018 salmon year was normal and our trip was intended to find where they are and get an idea of how big.
We met at 5:30 a.m. in Grass Valley and were on the ramp launching by 7 a.m. It was an overcast day with a light breeze. The water temp was 55 degrees, perfect conditions for finding salmon in shallow water.
Of particular interest to me was looking for salmon close to shore feeding on pond smelt. I knew that the smelt spawned in the shallows during March in Lake Almanor at 4,500 feet. I have not had any definitive word when this occurred in Lake Oroville. I had received reports from bass anglers who were catching salmon incidental to bass fishing along the bank in March. Did the smelt spawn simultaneously at the different elevation? This was a chance to find out with an experienced Oroville salmon guide.
From the Bidwell ramp our first destination was the dam. The rock face of the dam holds minnows and in the right temperatures salmon can be found there. Currently there is a buoy line across the lake a mile out from the dam. There is a park ranger manning a boat there to prevent access to the dam area. The ranger said there were plans to open the area and the dam boat launch ramp this summer.
We started fishing along the north bank headed away from the dam. We were trolling the 15-to-30 foot contour line. As we crossed over a small ridge descending into the lake, Brett noticed a good fish on the electronics in 10 feet of water. As his spoon, 100 feet behind the boat, crossed the ridge line he hooked up. When landed it was a 20 inch brown trout. This is the first brown I have ever seen come out of Lake Oroville. Brett said he had one in the boat about three years before, but they were quite rare. The location of this brown, on a point, is classic. Guides who target browns in Lake Shasta work this type of terrain regularly.
As we headed into the main body of the lake we headed north into Potter’s Ravine. We saw some surface activity and picked up our first salmon of the day. Since this was a scouting trip we moved from place to place around the edges of the main body of the lake.
In conversations with Brett he explained some of his strategies for targeting king salmon in Oroville. The prime locations are on the down wind shores of the lake, where he can find shallow flats or benches that drop off rapidly into deep water. A shore that has been down wind for a day or two is very good. A shore that gets a daily wind either morning or afternoon also fits the condition. The wind moves water onto the shore and bait fish often end up there. The salmon learn where the concentrations of bait are and will come up out of the depths to feed. It is the break where the shelf drops rapidly into deep water that the king salmon hunt for food.
The wild card in this scenario is the constantly changing lake level. In wet periods Oroville can come up more than 10 feet in a week. In irrigation season the lake can fall three or four feet in a week. It is years of guiding on the lake that make the difference whether you find fish or not. We worked over a number of locations that fit the description of prime spots. We did not hit fish on each stop that day.
The second lesson I learned, or rather re-learned was that on Lake Oroville size matters. I started out pulling flies three-and-a-half inches long in pond smelt colors and got no attention from the fish. Brett and Ron Hufford were running spoons about two inches long that picked up a couple of kings. When Ron switched to Micro Hootchies about an inch-and-a-quarter long he started to get a lot of fish. Brett followed suit and started hooking up. I was the last one to down size and switched to a fly that length, finally landing my first salmon. I wrote an article on fishing Lake Oroville in August 2016 (www.trollingflies.com/blog-lake-oroville-trolling ) that concluded with the same realization, that size does matter on Oroville.
At the end of the day when cleaning the fish, an examination of the stomach contents revealed pond smelt in the inch-and-a-quarter range. My thesis that the smelt in Oroville spawn in March like they do in Almanor, is flawed. How could smelt spawned in March be over an inch long in the first week of April? How could the smelt in August of 2016 be the same length? Were the bait fish I am looking at really smelt? The answer to this conundrum lies in more days on the water at Lake Oroville. I will see you out there.
I think you could go out onto Lake Oroville and catch land locked salmon with the info presented here. It would not happen in one trip but you can be successful. If you want a head start on the learning curve you would be well served to take a trip with Brett Brady. Ask him some intelligent questions and watch closely what he does. He knows how to catch kings from Lake Oroville.
Ron Hufford’s web site is rbtackle.com.
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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