THE SACRAMENTO AND FEATHER RIVERS ARE BOTH BEING CHALLENGED BY THE DROUGHT, BUT MORE KINGS ARE EXPECTED THIS MONTH By Chris Cocoles
In this drought, king salmon anglers on the Sacramento and Feather are doing what they can to adapt.
The Feather River, the major tributary to the Sacramento, is in far worse shape in terms of water flows than the latter. So as October
usually promises to be among the peak times to catch fall-run Chinook on these popular Northern California rivers, anglers should understand that some areas are simply less fishable than others given the conditions.
Hopes were raised in the Sacramento River Valley in mid-September when what can be thought of as a “cold front” – “at least compared to when it was 100-something degrees,” says guide Manuel Saldana Jr. – dropped some much-needed showers on the area.
“We had some water, believe it or not,” says Saldana, who operates MSJ Guide Service in the Yuba City/Marysville area (503-301-7455; msjguideservice.com). “Parts of the river further downstream near the Tisdale area, we’ve seen a 6- or 7-degree (change in water temperature). What was at about 68 is down to 61, which is really good. And further north, what used to be 62, we’re seeing a 4-degree drop. Being at 58 is real exciting.”
Cooler water should mean more migrating kings heading through the Golden Gate on the way to their spawning grounds. Saldana took a week off to go a wedding and take care of some other family business, but when he came back in September his trips were seeing more bites and fish landed, a trend he hopes continues this month.
“I’m expecting good things here,” Saldana says. “We’re getting a little bit of weather and it’s going to warm up a little bit. But our fingers are crossed that we’re going to get some cooler weather and a bunch of rain.”
Many of the fish seemed to be remaining in the cooler waters of San Francisco Bay, gorging on bait as the summer conditions remained hot and dry. Cooler water temperatures upstream past the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are supposed to draw those fish from the salt into the river systems.
While California’s weather patterns have been anything but normal for quite some time, in late September Saldana said, “I think we’re at the beginning of good things to happen here for the next (three to six weeks).”
TONE IT DOWN Saldana and other anglers have discovered that in low-water years, it’s important to make the right choices about where you start, like determining the deepest seams in the river, which are more likely to be home to congregations of salmon. Watch for water-level lines on the banks, but also be quiet and stealthy in the boat. That could include not running too fast over pockets of fish or blasting music on the radio.
“When there might be only a few salmon in the water, you have to be nice and quiet because they are spooky fish when they hear vibrations or music,” says Saldana, who will switch to his secondary motor when approaching a spot he likes.
What likely won’t change are the set-ups that usually catch these fish: back-bouncing sardine-wrapped FlatFish early and “dead-sticking” roe later in the day.
“We’re just sticking to the areas of the river I fish, like the Las Molinos area (north of Chico), and just dissecting it,” Saldana says. “We know these salmon are going to come up and keep going. When the water temperature downstream starts to go down, I can get closer to my areas, like Tisdale and Colusa, and I’ll continue fishing there.”
FEATHER A TOUGHER CALL The Feather remains a wild card and is in limbo.
“It’s starting to get towards its minimum,” Saldana says of the river, which is traditionally his favorite fishery for kings. “We’ll see how long it holds; later in the year, if we have 1,000 (cubic feet per second) or more, it would be nice. I can fish it but only in certain spots. You can’t fish all your normal local holes. There will be a few
places of opportunity, but (for now) the opportunities are more on the Sac. And that’s where you’ll find most of us up here right now.”
By the middle of October, the Feather could be back in play if water levels improve. Saldana will take a wait-and-see approach.
“These are the years where you sharpen your craft. Pay attention to all your details; here’s where you grow as an angler,” Saldana says.
“The time when it’s very, very hard, you learn.” CS