Denis Peirce: Boon-doggin’ the Feather
All of the elements for a good fall salmon run are in place. The summer ocean season has produced good numbers of fish. The Feather River is flowing at 8,000 cfs compared to a more common 3,000 cfs. I have often said “If you add water you will get fish.” The recent hot weather had the river at 65 degrees in the Gridley area. The cooling trend of the last week dropped the temp to 60 degrees in the high flow section of the Oroville Wild Life Area. Tomorrow’s full moon should send a wave of salmon out of the salt into the valley rivers.
The reality on the water though has shown a lack of salmon in the Feather River system. The After Bay Hole in September should have anglers shoulder to shoulder around its perimeter. There can be a dozen or more boats jockeying for position in the flow and more boats working the river for miles down river. This scenario has not developed yet this year. A week ago, guide Brett Brady counted only one bank angler and two boats fishing “The Hole” as he headed down river. The boats were gone when he came back to the launch ramp.
I had the occasion to fish with Brett (www.fishbarebones.com) and two other anglers this past Tuesday on the Feather. Guide trips begin at the crack of dawn as a line of boats await legal fishing time. Tuesday the line was only eight boats. In past years the line would extend a hundred yards or more with dozens of boats. There is a lot of competition for the front few slots to get on the water first.
Brett does not bother with the “first” competition and he had some interesting commentary on the different tactics the guides have. At these high current flows there is a very limited spot to safely fish the Afterbay Hole. There were two guides (first in line) who get into that spot and dominate it until their clients get their fish. Another guide specializes in anchoring in the run below The Hole and sets out plugs. The other boats spread out downstream fishing a variety of methods.
Brett Brady has been fishing salmon on the Feather for 45 years and has been refining his techniques to put salmon in the boat even when there are very few fish in the system. Brett prefers to “Boon-dog” roe. Boon-doggin’ is drifting the boat sideways on the current. The anglers sit on the upstream side of the boat with their rods pulling a slinky weight, 4’ leader, and a small ball of roe behind the boat. They drive the boat up to the top of a run and then drift through the holding water.
Brett was not in a hurry to be first on the water because he has found the roe bite is best once daylight has arrived. We started a quarter mile below the Hole and fished a mile and a half of river. We made half a dozen runs before we had the first take down, a fish that escaped to swim another day. By my count Brett would fish a run 3 to 5 times before moving on to another.
We were fishing by 6:30 a.m. and off the water by 11:30 a.m., five hours for six salmon in the boat, a two fish limit for three anglers. Based on other boat scores, a very successful day on the water.
I had a chance to talk with Brett at the end of the day and he filled me in on some of the tactics he used to produce limits on a slow day. He pointed out how most boats moved quickly to the deep holes and parked on them to get “the best spots.” We fished out of sight of other boats. We usually had a bend in the river or island between us and the other boats. We were apparently the only boat on the river. In part this was a function of few boats on the water as well as Brett’s technique.
We targeted runs of water below riffles, sometimes fishing the seam between fast and slow water as well as the faster-deeper water. Typically we were in water 4’ to 10’ deep. Brett was trying to find the pattern of where the salmon were holding this day. As an angler concentrating on your rod and line it is easy to miss the trial and error process the boat operator is going through looking for the day’s pattern.
The big revelation, Brett explained to me, was that he cures his own roe. He does not have one formula, he has at least four cures that he produces and has on the boat on any given day. The first runs of the day that did not produce fish were on his first choice of roe cures. The first take down and subsequent fish came after a change in “flavor.” When there are thousands of fish in the system, the catching is easier on many different methods. When the run is slow you have to get it just right to put fish in the box.
Another hint Brett let out was how tough he cures his roe. Uncured roe is gooey and loose, hard to keep on the hook. Curing roe, firms it up and can make it “rubbery” as well as adding color. The tougher the cure, the less milking or giving off scent the roes does. On the scale of tough vs. milky, Brett is on the milky side of the equation. The cost to this choice is that his roe does not last much longer than one pass. He goes through a lot of valuable roe. The positive is that salmon are very scent conscious, milky roe gets more bites. Brett insists that only he touches the roe. Clients can only hold the line, well above the hook.
Throughout our day on the water, Brett was maneuvering the boat, re-baiting hooks, netting fish and coaching rod handling when fighting a salmon. He never stopped. A far different scenario than an anglers dream of becoming a guide and getting paid to spend your days out on the water fishing.
After a day “Boon-doggin” with Brett Brady, I learned a lot. My biggest take away was how much I did not know about salmon fishing especially when the bite is tough.
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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