Denis Peirce: Summer is salmon season
As we head into the warmest month of the year the best fishing is for salmon. We might associate summer vacations with trout fishing in the Sierra but salmon is the better bet. The really good trout fishing is in the cool weather months and it is salmon in its various types that are good right now. A check on where fishing guides are working is a good indication of the best fishery at this time.
The most consistent fishery in our lakes is kokanee. Kokanee is a landlocked sockeye salmon. The kokanee don’t achieve the size of ocean run sockeye but as they approach the fall spawn they are at their peak size.
Another landlocked salmon is the Chinook or king. A portion of the salmon smolts from the Feather River Hatchery are planted in lakes like Oroville and Shasta. These are tough fish to target at this time of the year they are as much as 100’ down in the cold water depths. But the oldest age classes in the lake can break the 5 pound mark which is a good catch on inland lakes.
The main salmon fisheries are the ocean and the recently opened season in the Sacramento Valley. In the last few years the salmon cycle has turned up and we have had good fishing off the coast and strong returns to the valley rivers.
For the saltwater anglers there has been consistently good action off the coast. If you follow the scores from the charter boats they have streaks of excellent fishing with early limits on the boats followed by days with more modest results but they are consistently returning with salmon on the boat. As a general statement, as the schools of fish finish feeding off shore and stage for the run up the Sacramento Valley rivers, they are in range of the boats from Bodega Bay down through Santa Cruz.
For foothill angler the most popular and affordable king salmon fishery is in the Sacramento and Feather Rivers. There are two main runs of salmon on these rivers, spring and fall. The spring run fish come in during the snowmelt season. Prior to dams being built they used to migrate into the high country. This is why there is a “Salmon Creek” above Sierra City on the North Yuba. The “springers” would stay in the deep holes until the fall spawning time.
The fall run can begin as early as mid July but the first week of August through early October is the prime time. The peak numbers come on in the month of September.
Since the advent of dams the spring run fish are much fewer than the fall run. The river regulations open the season in mid July to protect the springers who arrive mostly in May and June. This year there were over 2700 springers counted at the Feather River Hatchery which is about average. When these fish come through the hatchery they are tagged and returned to the river to await the fall spawn. During the hatchery process, springers are spawned separately to maintain them as a separate strain of fish.
This season’s river fishing has been normal. At the opener there are fish taken in the upper stretches of the Sacramento and Feather Rivers. It is my speculation that these are spring run fish that were holding in those areas that had cool enough water.
After this initial flurry of activity the catching slows down until the first week of August. This is when the first schools of fall run fish can be expected to arrive. Each year has different timing and these dates are approximate.
The key to river salmon fishing is the water temperature. Imagine being a salmon living in 55 degree water for the last three years and swimming into the Delta with water as warm as 80 degrees. All you would want to do is swim upstream as fast as you could, looking for cool water. The number where they will feel comfortable enough to bite is 65 degrees. From there, cooler is still better.
The water released from the bottom of Shasta and Oroville is cold and it warms as it flows downstream. On the Sacramento River at Red Bluff, the water currently ranges from 55 to 59 over the course of a day. By the time it reaches Verona near the Sacramento Airport it is in the middle 70 degree range. The majority of the good salmon fishing will take place from Corning north until we get cool weather in the fall. One exception to this is the mouth of the American River in the city of Sacramento. The American can flow cool and get the salmon to pause there in the warm weather months.
The Feather River has the same warming water conditions. The water coming from the base of the dam is cold. But the flows from the Afterbay Dam are intentionally warmed. The water at Gridley a dozen miles downstream currently dips to 65 degrees at dawn but rises to 70 degrees late in the day. The dawn bite is the best bet.
These temperature numbers are current and can rise significantly as we go through heat spells, or if the river flows are raised or cut.
During the next couple of months the salmon fishing will continue to get better. Success for the angler is a combination of being on the river as a run comes through and finding the cooler water where the fish will bite. You can not catch them from your couch, get out on the river! Good luck.
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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