Denis Peirce: Looking for a bite, despite drought and ‘the Blob’
Each winter, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council releases a Salmon Abundance Survey for the Pacific Coast. The forecast for this year was good.
The numbers of salmon estimated in the Eastern Pacific looked promising. The prospects for a good salmon season allowed for the fishing seasons to remain substantially unchanged from 2014.
The fishing results to date have been disappointing.
The Sacramento River system opened to salmon fishing last week. The best results on the opener came from the upper end of the Feather River, between Gridley and Oroville.
There are two main determinations to salmon fishing: are the fish here and what is the water temperature? There were some fish in the Feather and there were good water temps at the upper end.
The first day of the season the Afterbay Hole produced some fish and then the catch rate dropped off dramatically.
My read on the situation is that the tail end of the spring salmon run was in the upper river where the water was in the low 60s. The boat and angling pressure pushed them up into the Low Flow section above the After Bay where salmon fishing is prohibited.
The low flow has been flowing at 2,000 cubic feet per second this summer. In years past, the flow was 750 cfs with the balance of the water coming from the warmer After Bay.
This season the cooler flows have been increased resulting in better water conditions for salmon in the upper river.
The Sacramento River has a similar temperature regime with cold water below the dams that warms as it flows down the valley. To have a shot at the salmon, you go up river until you find cooler water.
Beyond temperature, the other factor is fish coming in from the salt water which is the issue currently. Seasonally we are in between the spring and fall salmon runs. Late July is not a prime river salmon month.
The fall run is usually strong from mid August through September.
The salmon abundance survey estimates the quantity of salmon but it does not indicate where they are. The ocean salmon season has been disappointing so far this year.
There are scattered reports of good fishing but overall the fish are difficult to find.
During the month of July, Bodega Bay is considered “Salmon Central” for the north coast. The big schools of fish are not there.
Standard procedure for area boats is to search for salmon early in the day and then switch to bottom fish to bring home limits.
The culprit seems to be “The Blob.” This is the nickname of a mass of warm water that has stacked up against the West Coast. It currently extends from Alaska to Baja.
It is a layer of warm water up to 300 feet thick. Warm water species normally found well to the south are currently found off Oregon and Washington. This has moved the colder water fish out of their normal haunts. Have they moved out or have they moved deep? It is hard to tell.
The Blob is not totally dominant. Wind and upwelling can break it up locally. This has happened recently off Cape Mendocino. The water temp dropped from the low 60s to the mid 50s and the bite was on for a couple of days.
It is my opinion that the Blob and the drought are connected. Which is a cause and which is the effect? I don’t know.
The Blob was in place off Southern California this past winter. The tuna fishing there was epic. Weather scientists opined that the lack of winter storms did not break up the warm surface layer from the previous summer and it has grown since.
Where does that leave the salmon angler? In the short to medium term, we need the conditions to change to bring the fish in.
All we can do is wait and see. If we take a much longer term outlook maybe things can work out for the best.
In the thousands of years that salmon have been returning to spawn in California, there have to have been droughts much worse and longer duration than our current one.
During those times there were no dams to provide cool water to the rivers in the summer. I have heard stories of the Sacramento River before Shasta Dam. In late summer you could easily walk across it, without a drought.
What would the river have been like with a more severe drought than what we have? In those conditions, what would salmon have done to survive? My guess is that they would not swim up a river with no water.
Could it be possible that they stayed out in the cold water beyond the Blob of their time? Will they wait for this Blob to break up with a wet winter before returning? I do not know the answers; I only have questions. I do have a belief that nature has found ways to keep things going through wet times and dry. It will be interesting to see how things work out.
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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