Boom Or Bust? What To Expect For Sac River Fall-Run Kings

Photos by Tight Lines Guide Service

The following appears in the September issue of California Sportsman:

By Chris Cocoles

He’s heard this song and dance routine before – just last summer, in fact – to wait before tipping the band.

For guides like James Netzel, the buzz that the fall-run Chinook salmon season will be outstanding in the Sacramento and surrounding Central Valley rivers is being met with tempered expectations this fall.

In an Aug. 24 report, Keith Fraser of San Rafael’s Loch Lomond Live Bait House (415-456-0321) told theSan Francisco Chronicle that a “traffic jam of fish” could be headed from the Pacific through San Francisco Bay and into the freshwater Delta and its river drainages in September, October and early November during the fall run of kings.

Indeed, charter boats have been slamming salmon off the coast. The problem is, some of the same predictions were made around the same time in 2019 about that year’s salmon run. That’s why Netzel is a bit cautious going into the peak of the run, when water temperatures drop.

“You can’t judge the rivers by the ocean anymore. They’re releasing millions and millions of salmon smolts in the ocean rather than the rivers,” says Netzel, who operates Tight Lines Guide Service (888-975-0990; “So a lot of those fish don’t ever make it back upriver.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife projected a fall run of over 473,000 Sacramento River kings, up almost 100,000 from the 2019 forecast. That bodes well, but Netzel knows to be wary of what was still expected to be a good number of salmon in the Sacramento, Feather and American Rivers the previous fall.

“Last year a lot of guides were saying it was going to be the best in 20 years. It was the worst in 20 years,” Netzel says bluntly. “I want the business, but I also want to be honest. Last year it flat- out sucked. … I was plenty busy last year and people were upset at times.”

Still, Netzel uses the term “cautiously optimistic” when analyzing what his clients could expect when he starts getting out on the Sac River later this month and into October and beyond.


As with almost everyone, COVID-19 has affected Netzel’s guiding business. In the past, his spacious 23-foot Rogue Jet Chinook boat would take multiple groups on charters. Now he’s limiting his bookings to one group, and his commitment to taking older anglers who are veterans has taken a hit with their reluctance to fish during the pandemic.

Still, earlier in the summer when he fished for kokanee at Stampede and Boca Reservoirs around Tahoe, Netzel had good business – though understandably down a bit from 2019 – and expects to be busy with salmon trips in the coming months.

“People are tired of being (sheltered in place) in their houses,” he says.

When he does get charters, he’ll stay close to his Sacramento base. Rather than head upriver, Netzel likes to target the stretch of the Sac from the Tower Bridge in the heart of the city downstream to the Yolo County community of Clarksburg.

“It’s fishing that an average person can go into an aluminum boat and do,” Netzel says of that stretch of the river. “Whereas you go up north, you have to have jet boats and (fish with) roe and really know what you’re doing in reading the river. It’s really safe where we fish and I know it really well. I’ve fished that area my whole life.”


The Sacramento’s deep water means trolling is the name of the game, and Netzel has stuck with his tried-and- true method of fishing Brad’s Cut Plugs with flashers, a technique that Netzel says he was the first to start using in his area, which has led to more guides fishing that way around the metro area of the state capital.

“Once you learn how to do it, it’s almost idiot-proof. There’s very little tweaking that you need to do,” he says

of the setup using a hinged lure with a bait chamber and which he adds makes it easier to land a fish but a little more difficult to hook when feeling a strike.

So while last year was so disappointing, Netzel’s boat still usually returned to the launch with three keeper salmon and after about a half-dozen hookups, so the hope is for a more productive autumn. That’s what the predictions suggest.

“It can’t be any worse than last year,” he says. CS