The water levels may be a concern for the upcoming king salmon season, but veteran Yuba City/Marysville guide Manuel Saldana Jr. of MSJ Guide Service told me felt good about a good season on his home rivers, the Feather and Sacramento. The latter seems like more a sure bet with the smaller Feather River taking more of a brunt of the state’s drought woes. The inland river fishing for kings opens this Thursday, July 16, and the following report appears in the July issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
Yes, California is in a drought. Yes, the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, two prime king salmon waterways, have been affected by the conditions. No, some Central Valley fishing guides aren’t in a panic over it.
The season for fall Chinook begins on July 16, and a run of about 652,000 kings are expected into the Sacramento River. Of course, water levels in both the Sacramento and Saldana’s preferred fishery, the Feather, is always a topic of discussion as California’s ongoing drought saga heads into another summer and fall of king salmon fishing.
“It’s still good,” Saldana says of the pending conditions. “Everyone’s nervous. There’s one thing that we tell people about salmon, ‘They will come up (the rivers).’ Even if there is really shallow water, and they won’t just stay out there. They proved it last year when I was navigating in half the water and these salmon had enough water to get through. They will come up in the Feather and the Sacramento.”
Saldana will improvise if need be and travel further north as the salmon heading back from the ocean seek out cooler water. He emphasized that while another species he targets regularly, Delta striped bass, will turn around and head back after they spawn, the kings are, of course, on a one-way trip from saltwater to freshwater.
“Salmon go in one direction: up. And that’s it. They don’t hit a place like Colusa and say, ‘We’re going to spawn and come back.’ Fall and winter fish – they just keep heading up and spawn and die.”
But the big X-factor – as it usually is with kings – is what the water temperatures will be like as summer progresses. And this is a drought-related concern, though not the crisis that it could be made out to be. Last year, the Feather’s temps got a little higher than most guides would like.
“But as soon as that water got into the 50s, at 57, 58, it got better and better and better,” Saldana says. “They just started jumping into the nets. I went on that run in mid-October and into November.”
What a successful season can boil down to, Saldana says, is being open to changing your approach on a year-to-year basis. Scents and techniques that worked one season may not be the flavor of the month with lower and warmer water.
“You had to be a little more stealthy. The water was lower; the salmon could see you and feel the boat. So you really had to change your tactics and key in on certain points in the river,” Saldana says. “I’ve seen them when I’ve been side-drifting and it’s super shallow; they go right around you. We were using that technique in the Feather and we just had to change it up. You just have to look at your area, the river and its structures and figure out where they’re going to be and where your opportunities will be best.”
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Saldana has been fishing these waters for a while now, and he expects the 2015 run to have a similar pattern as last year: a late push of kings. A surge hit the Feather River, providing a lot of fish caught well into November.
In a normal year, the Feather gets fished first with the likelihood that some remaining springers will get caught, before he moves to
“I saw some fish in the Feather and went to scout it out a little bit and said, ‘They’re here and there are more coming.’ So I just stuck to it and started working at it,” Saldana says. “Then all of a sudden I got in a FlatFish bite and the water temperature dropped. I had enough water to navigate. And they just kept coming. I have the exact same feeling we’re going to do it again.”
So what about the early part of the season? In July and August, he’ll likely fish around Chico in the Sacramento River, and around the July 16 opener, he plans to fish the Feather River’s Thermalito Afterbay outlet below Oroville Dam in search of springers.
Those first couple days can be the best in that setting since there’s been no fishing pressure “until the fish get wise,” he says.
Just don’t expect to be pulling in limits after a short time on either of the rivers.
“In July and August, fish will start trickling up. Early in the year, what happens is you might not get as big a quantity of fish, but you’ll get the quality on early trips,” Saldana says. “A lot of times you’ll get what we call the little silver bullets; those early ones are nice and clean. Later on, you’ll get more numbers.”
EARLY AND LATE TACTICS
When Saldana fishes the rivers early before the sun comes up, he’ll go with an old king salmon staple of back-bouncing sardine-wrapped FlatFish. But when the sun comes up, he’ll switch to roe, either back-bouncing it vertically in holes, boondogging it, or a newer technique of using a bobber and spinning the roe.
“You get less hangups when bobber fishing,” Saldana says. “It allows you to kind of stay off the fish instead of going over them.”
When fishing more of the evening hours, roe is used first and then he’ll switch to his FlatFish setups.
Whatever the tactics, Saldana figures the run will get better later. And he urges to not get too stressed out about the fear of empty rivers void of prized kings.
“That’s one thing about those fish; they will come up and do their thing,” Saldana says. “If you give them a little bit of water, they’ll get through … The only way the salmon are not going to be there is, literally, if there is no water, virtually none.”