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Denis Peirce: Decline in steelhead expected

​Steelhead juveniles in raceway prior to transport to Feather River.
Photo by Denis Peirce |

Every year in early February, the fishing on the Feather River gets a big boost with the planting of juvenile steelhead.

This has been going on for more than four decades.

The stripers in the river delta system seem to have been conditioned with something akin to institutional memory.



The big stripers show up in the Yuba City area in late January. The best striper fishing can be had before the steelhead are planted, when food is not plentiful.

This year, the hatchery raised steelhead are suffering from the effects of a long drought.




During this dry spell, the runs have decreased and the quantity of fished raised in the hatchery has declined.

The production goal for steelhead to be released back into the Feather is set at 450,000 fish.

If this quota is met, up to 10,000 excess fish are planted in the After Bay.

This year, the total river plant is 331,941.

This precise number is available because these fish are fin clipped by a machine which also counts them.

As the fish are reared, any that expire are counted as they are removed from the raceways.

The under production for the 2015 age class is due to the shortage of spawning adults returning to the hatchery.

In January of 2015, there were only 366 adult steelhead spawned.

My “back of an envelope” math says that each adult can translate to about 1,000 babies.

This year we missed the goal by 25 percent. That is disappointing but not catastrophic.

The real problem comes a year from now.

The steelhead received at the hatchery for the January 2016 spawning was only 137 fish — and of these, only 115 were judged fit to use for spawning purposes.

We can be looking at a deficit below our planting goal as bad as 75 percent.

I received this data in a phone conversation with hatchery personnel. I asked if it was possible to bring in eggs from other systems to bring up the numbers for 2017 release.

The answer is no, due to ceratomyxa disease, also referred to as C-Shasta disease.

This is a naturally occurring disease in the Feather River system. The native population of steelhead are naturally resistant to it.

Bringing in non-resistant fish could cause a host of problems that would be much worse than a cyclical decline in steelhead numbers.

The DF&W has changed the planting for this year due to the lower numbers and current river conditions. In years past the juvenile fish have been planted at both the Boyd’s Pump and Live Oak boat launch ramps. A scouting trip in January ruled out the Live Oak option because of a lot of debris near the ramp which may have attracted significant numbers of fish to shelter in and around the structure.

The other concern was that the main river current was near the opposite bank. One of the aims of the plant is to put the steelhead directly into the main current to spread them out and to get them down river as rapidly as possible. Boyd’s Pump launch ramp, down river from Yuba City and the mouth of the Yuba River, has significantly more flow.

The second change was to compress the plants into three days, rather than spreading them throughout the month of February.

All of the juveniles were planted Feb. 4, 5, and 8th. The hope is this will result in a higher survival rate overall.

It is my opinion that the poor return of steelhead to the Feather system is due to the drought-induced low water as well as the “blob” of warm water that was off the coast of California.

My conversation with hatchery staff extended to the Fall salmon run as well. The 2015 Fall salmon run was unlike any other in the 24 year’s Penny has been employed at the hatchery. As fish come up the river into the hatchery channel in a normal year, they arrive at all hours of the day and night.

There are always fish to be seen at the ladder viewing area.

This past season, every morning the fish ladder was full of salmon. Once these were allowed into the holding area the fish ladder was empty.

It would remain devoid of fish until staff arrive the next morning when it would again have fish. This behavior lasted through the September — November spawning season.

It seems the salmon were only traveling by night. This is a phenomenon not seen before. Mother Nature has ways of taking care of herself.

The salmon spawning picture is much brighter than the steelhead. It takes roughly 8,000 adult salmon to produce a full compliment of hatchery fish.

In 2014, the return was 18,316 and last Fall there were 16,480 spawning adults returning. Both years had double the quantity needed for full hatchery production.

It is my hope that there are both salmon and steelhead who passed on this past season’s reproductive trip into the Sacramento Valley river systems and remained in the ocean.

It seems logical that if these fish have been surviving in California for thousands of drought and flood cycles they are equipped to endure the current one. I am anticipating a better return if we get enough water this year.

Anglers Notes: The best striper fishing will be from Shanghai Bend downriver. Due to water levels, there are at least two shallow sand bars above Boyd’s on the way up to the Shanghai Rapids.

There are holes in this stretch up to 20 feet deep. Down river there are also numerous shallow sand bars. Bob Bouke, Johnson’s Bait & Tackle, says a customer of his was able to make it from Verona at the mouth of the Feather all the way up to Boyd’s Pump in a jet boat. With a chuckle Bob said, “I’m not sure how he made it.” The point is that river navigation is not guaranteed.

If you are trying to “match the hatch” with striper lures, the steelhead are 6 to 8 inches long. They have black backs with silver/pearl sides and bellies. They do not have par marks or pink color.

The stripers are primarily large adults. Bob knows of 5 stripers landed in the 20 to 30 pound range. All of the fish he has heard of are 5 pounds and greater. This annual event rarely involves large numbers of “shakers”. With the planting already complete, the sooner you go the better your chances at a good striper.

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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