The following appears in the October issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
OROVILLE—To be honest, I wasn’t quite prepared for this.
Not that it disappointed or discouraged me; in fact, the atmosphere on the Feather River below the Thermalito Afterbay, which, according to the California Department of Water Resources, “diverts water in Thermalito Power Canal for power generation at Thermalito Pumping Generating Plant and creates a tailwater pool for Hyatt Powerplant,” was memorable.
It also was the place to be for king salmon anglers. Lots and lots of them.
WHEN WE GATHERED IN nearby Gridley, fishing guide Manuel Saldana Jr. of MSJ Guide Service (530-301-7455;
msjguideservice.com) gave our group a game plan and pep talk. We’d drag fresh roe with heavy weights, and because many of the kings were rapidly swimming through most of the Feather’s productive holes, most of the anglers were congregating in the faster-moving waters of the afterbay, just a few miles downstream from the Oroville Dam.
But because this late September Saturday was also opening day of deer season in nearby zones, perhaps the fishing pressure wouldn’t be as heavy as it could be.
No such luck. When we reached the boat ramp before 6 a.m., there was already a line of trucks and boat trailers waiting to launch. With a nice, warm day forecast, the chill we were feeling would get a boost from some sunshine as the dark sky slowly lightened up.
It wasn’t far from the launch to the afterbay, where quite a scene unfolded. At one point, we counted 15 boats navigating in and out of the whitewater.
“The current reminds me of a washing machine because it has a circular rotation in certain areas,” Saldana said.
And on either side of the river stood the “bankers” who were wading and casting just a few feet from each other. Even before we baited the Cousins Tackle rods, I expected chaos.
Only the band Stealers Wheel (“Stuck in the Middle with You”) could describe the scene best: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right …”
I’LL SAY THIS ABOUT fishing in the rushing waters below the afterbay: there were salmon there. Sara Martin, who fished with us along with her husband Ross, got in on the action right away and got into two kings – though one was tail-hooked and the other hooked in the middle – and found out how difficult it is to reel in a Chinook in a strong current. But it’s also where you’ll have a decent shot at a fish.
“The water released (from the afterbay) has been and is still about 7,000 cubic feet per second, and it’s been that way for most of our season,” Saldana said. “With that much water being released the water temperature has been 58 degrees, which is good for salmon; the colder, the better.”
This a prime spot for kings to congregate (fishing will close in this section of the Feather around the middle of October). When water is flowing out it creates a strong current in a small area, and the Chinook tend to swim into the current. That gives anglers a good opportunity to hook into one within a small area of water.
Thus, this was fast-paced, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it action. Boats move in a circular motion – clockwise – and upon reaching the fastest-flowing water Saldana would give us the command: “Let ’em down.” We’d let out line until hitting bottom, then reel up a couple cranks. Our window per drift was about 45 seconds, after which Saldana would shout “Reel up!” to allow the next boatload of anglers a chance to get their lines in the water.
For most of the morning, I felt a couple strikes but nothing more, and my spot in the bow of the boat was the wettest place to be, soaking my socks all the way through as the Feather splashed my feet relentlessly.
In between the flotilla of boats taking their turns to drop lines, I was fascinated watching all the anglers wading the river. The term combat fishing was apropos. I wondered how that many people could coexist and not drive each other crazy with crossed lines and casts in such tight spaces.
But somehow, when salmon were hooked, everyone seemed to be on the same page (it’s still a dangerous place to be; others in the boat who fish these waters far more than I do have witnessed heated “disagreements” and shared a harrowing story of an unfortunate chap who suffered a cracked skull from a heavy sinker while standing behind a caster).
Eventually, Saldana suggested we head downstream to try our luck in calmer and a little less crowded waters.
“Let’s get away from the craziness,” he said.
WE FOUND OUR HAPPY PLACE, far away from the frenzy we’d just experienced. A popular spot on the Feather called “Charlie” (Saldana said it’s named after an old-timer who fished there often) was just what we needed. Though a couple other boats had the same idea we did, it was fun to just drop down to the bottom and lazily fish with roe again, this time using more of a hanging technique.
“I really like Charlie’s because it’s a nice deep hole – approximately 28 to 30 feet – with a good amount of current,” Saldana said. “The salmon like to stay in there for awhile before making a run up to the next deepest hole they can find to rest again.”
We had little time to breathe, let alone talk, earlier in the day. Now we were able to swap stories about our favorite comedians, Saldana was able to call and comfort his teen daughter after their home’s alarm system accidentally was triggered, and we had some fun conversations with a guy who was piloting perhaps the coolest craft on the river, a unique floating device with a small outboard motor but mostly powered by his flippers for easy navigating.
He also played a role in our fishing highlight of the day. Ross noticed one of the flippers had slipped off our new friend’s feet and floated towards our boat. Deckhand Justin Leonard reached out with the net to retrieve it when we noticed one of our rods bending violently. Ross grabbed it and soon reeled home a chrome-bright Chinook, around 12 to 15 pounds.
“Your missing flipper was our good luck charm,” Leonard joked to the solo boater.
We might not have been reeling in a bunch of kings, but it was a beautiful day, the conditions were great and the company friendly. But it was time to speed up the pace again. Saldana suggested we give the Thermalito Afterbay area another go.
I was eager. “Let’s take the descent back into the madness.”
FINALLY, IT WAS MY turn after returning to this hot mess. I had been bitten a few times in the morning and once fishing in Charlie’s hole, but nothing of note. When I finally set the hook on a fish and the fight began, I understood what Sara had encountered earlier.
My salmon was giving me the business, taking advantage of the currents to make me work. Leonard convinced me the fish had wedged itself down below where a major rockpile exists. The king eventually wriggled free, and essentially my day was over.
But we had one more surprise waiting for us among the mass of humanity fishing this same stretch of water. Ross attempted to reel in another king, and it was his turn to get into the ring and spar with it and the Feather’s swirling waters.
And we’d have our first encounter with fellow anglers. Saldana maneuvered the boat carefully to avoid the fleet. But the salmon headed toward the guys wading in the shallows. Earlier, we talked about instances when kings hooked offshore got tangled with the lines of the shore fishermen. Leonard did what he could to defuse any boiling tempers when he asked if he could cut the snagged line towards the bank. There was some protesting but with so much fishing pressure, it’s all about compromise. And though we lost another fish, Leonard salvaged the other man’s sinker and leader for a happier ending.
At that point, Saldana made the executive decision to retreat back to the boat launch and call it a day. “Enough of the craziness,” he said with a laugh.
It was a little overwhelming, but I want to go back and try again. Sometimes, a little chaos can be fun. CS