A Day Without Steelhead

January 1, 2015 was a sunny, cold and clear day on the American River below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. It was the traditional beginning of the steelhead season in the upper section of the river that winds through a 22-mile urban parkway, the jewel of the Sacramento Metropolitan Area.

There was just one thing missing – the fish.

By the time I arrived on the riverbank mid morning, most anglers had apparently already left the river in disgust and the two dozen who were left.

I walked along the river and talked to some of the fly and spin fishing enthusiasts that were casting their flies, lures and baits into  the American at this popular fishing spot. I did not talk to a single angler who caught a steelhead or even hooked a fish. The only fish that I saw on the riffles were spawned out Chinook salmon.

One angler came up to me and showed me a cell phone photo of a 30 inch steelhead that he caught downriver on Thanksgiving weekend in the section open year-round. That’s the closest I came to seeing a steelhead caught by an angler.

Even worse, I could see no steelhead in the fish ladder or the raceway. This is the first time I have ever seen this. Even in the most dismal of fishing seasons, you will at least see a few steelhead showing in the ladder and raceway.

I have gone out to either fish and/or report on most January 1 steelhead season openers on the upper section of the American River since 1976 – and this was the worst opener I have ever witnessed.

Steelhead OpenerOpening day on the American River, January 1, 2015. Photo: Dan Bacher.

Releases to the American River from Nimbus Dam continue to be 900 cfs, very low flows for January 1, but there have been other years with low water conditions on opening day.

This depressing scene contrasts with the opener of just two years ago when I fished with Rodney Fagundes and two friends in his drift boat and we hooked over a half dozen steelhead. We saw a number of shore anglers and other drift boaters hook big, beautiful steelhead.

On the following week, Rodney and I experienced one of our best days of fishing ever for big adult steelhead on the river when we hooked 15 and landed 9 steelhead to 12 pounds while using plugs and Little Cleo spoons.

This depressing scene also contrasts with the superb steelhead fishing many anglers experienced in 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011 and other years. During the better years, steelhead counts have reached 3,000 to 4,000 fish at the hatchery and large numbers of wild fish provided catch and release action on the river.

To say this opener was disappointing after I have spent so many thousands of hours fishing the American and going to meetings, rallies and events fighting to restore its steelhead and salmon fisheries is a great understatement.

The lack of fish and fishing success on opening day was forecasted by the poor numbers returning to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery as of Monday, December 29. Only 10 adult steelhead had been trapped by that date, the lowest number documented by that date prior to the opener.

By contrast, the hatchery had trapped 335 adult steelhead by that date last year, according to Gary Novak, hatchery manager.

“Maybe the steelhead will be late like the salmon were this fall,” said Novak. “That’s the only thing I can hope for now.”

Normally there are hundreds and some seasons thousands of steelhead showing at the facility at this time of year. Let’s hope we get some rain to prod some more fish to move up the river, but I figure that at least some of the American River steelhead may have been drawn upriver by the much higher flows of the lower Sacramento and Feather rivers over the past few weeks.

In contrast with the American, anglers reported decent numbers of steelhead on the Sacramento and Feather rivers before big storms blew the rivers out for a couple of weeks.

The American River offers anglers a unique chance to catch big, beautiful steelhead in the midst of a major metropolitan area. In fact, the American River steelhead may be the “fastest growing trout” in the world, according to Dr. Robert Titus, California Department of Fish and Wildlife senior environmental scientist. For a fascinating discussion of the temperature and flow requirements for American River steelhead, please read my article.

Nobody is quite sure of the exact cause for the abnormally low numbers of steelhead to date, but low flows and the current management regime on the river certainly contributed to it. I fear that the poor management of the American over the past few years by state and federal governments may have spurred this apparent decline in the steelhead population.

While the Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources systematically drained Trinity Lake on the Trinity River, Shasta Lake on the Sacramento River and Lake Oroville on the Feather River during 2013 a drought year to provide water to state and federal water contractors, they managed Folsom Lake the worst of all the reservoirs. The Bureau drained Folsom to only 17 percent of capacity, its lowest level since Folsom Dam was built, by January 2014.

This water in these northern California reservoirs was shipped to fill the Kern Water Bank and Southern California reservoirs, as well as to supply water to corporate agribusiness interests in the Westlands Water District and oil companies conducting fracking and steam injection operations in Kern County. Little carryover storage in the reservoirs was left in 2014 as the drought continued.

Dan Bacher can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.