The Fish Sniffer - Low Water Conditions Challenged Anglers On American Steelhead Opener
Low Water Conditions Challenged Anglers On American Steelhead Opener

Written By: Dan Bacher, January 21, 2014
Species: Steelhead River Salmon
Location: American River - Lower,

Low Water Conditions Challenged Anglers On American Steelhead Opener

Regardless of how tough conditions are on a lake, stream, bay or section of ocean, there always seems to at least one angler who reports having a great day of fishing against all odds.

That was the case on opening day, January 1, on the upper section of the American River around 11 a.m. when Jarrod Rounsaville hooked a beautiful steelhead while fishing roe at Sailor Bar below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. After a hard fight, he slid the 10 pounder up on the gravel and I got some photos of him holding it.

It was a robust hatchery fish that he kept and put on a stringer. After I left, he caught another beautiful hatchery fish that he kept, leaving the river with a limit of fish on a tough day that most anglers didn’t even report getting a bite.

During the two hours I was there, I saw four fish hooked up out of the many dozens of anglers lining the river on both the hatchery and Sailor Bar sides of the river. I talked with one of the best steelhead anglers on the river, who reported two bites, landing one steelhead all morning.

While Rounsaville had a great day of fishing, Rodney Fagundes and I had a very bad opening day. We were planning to go fishing together, as we do on most openers, in his drift boat below the hatchery.  I had a bad virus and tried to get a hold of Fagundes to cancel out on the trip so I could sleep in.

I finally got ahold of him the next morning at 5:30 a.m. and he reported that his good friend, Kenny Kamanian of Modesto, who fished right next to me in the boat on opening day 2013, had passed away a few days before. Fagundes had just found out about Kamanian's death  – and was in no condition to go fishing that morning.  

Cameron Beck of American River Charters reported catching one 7 pound hatchery steelhead and two juveniles on opening day. He pulled Wee Warts and Brad’s Killer Fish from below the hatchery down to Sunrise. 

One his best day since the opener, he landed three steelhead 6 to 9 pounds while back trolling Brad’s Killerfish and Wee Warts. On another day, his anglers hooked five and landed one adult and one juvenile half pounders on roe and plugs in the Sunrise area. "Given the lack of water, we did pretty well,” said Beck.  

After opening day, the fishing conditions only became worse, due to the reduction of reduced releases from Nimbus Dam to the lowest levels in over two decades.

Beginning January 7, the Bureau of Reclamation reduced flows in the lower American River from 1,100 cubic feet per second to 800 cfs, then gradually to 500 cfs by January 10.   

The reason?“With the extended dry runoff conditions, flow reductions are needed to protect steelhead that will be spawning in the river in January and February,” said Shana Kaplan, Reclamation spokesman. “Flows need to be lowered now to a rate that can be sustained into spring with the limited storage available behind Folsom Dam.”

Folsom Reservoir storage was at the time at 178,000 acre-feet, only 42 percent of the historical 15-year average. Kaplan said the decision to reduce releases was made following a meeting on January 3 of the American River Group, consisting of representatives from multiple fishery agencies and Reclamation (meetings are open to local environmental interests and water agencies). 

“At the meeting, the group reviewed Reclamation’s proposal to reduce flows, provided input, and concurred with the plan as one of the steps needed to manage the American River basin’s increasingly limited water supplies,” she said. 

“Reclamation has been working with watershed interests for the past five months to devise strategies in the event that dry conditions continue through WY 2014,” she noted. “The plan to reduce flows is part of a larger effort to manage the region’s water supplies during the continuing dry conditions."

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, responded, "If they had to cut the flow, now is a good time to do it between the salmon and steelhead spawning seasons.”

However, Jennings emphasized that the current low level of Folsom, Shasta and Oroville reservoirs is due to poor water management by the state and federal water governments, who continued shipping massive quantities of water south of the Delta when they knew that we were in  a big drought. 

“There are 5-1/2 times the water rights claims as there are available water," said Jennings. "This is a recipe for disaster for salmon, steelhead and other fish. This is all part of a broad systematic collapse of the ecosystem since the State Water Project began exports in 1967."

 

Fishing Groups Call For Emergency Closure

The low water conditions on the American have spurred the Sierra Salmon Alliance to call on state officials to enact an emergency closure on the river to protect the remaining salmon redds and wild or river spawned steelhead. 

“On behalf of our salmon brothers and sisters, Native Valley Tribes and future salmonid harvesters. the Sierra Salmon Alliance is requesting the emergency closure of the American River from Hazel Avenue Bridge to Ancil Hoffman Park to protect remaining salmon (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha) redds and wild or river spawned steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss ),” said Tyrone Gorre, co founder of the group.

This section of river was closed from 1994 to 1999 to protect steelhead as part of an effort by the Save the American River Association, United Anglers, American River Guides Association and other groups to restore wild steelhead populations to the river. 

“Drift boats, motorized boats and wading fishermen will destroy any potential for a successful wild spawn,” he said. “Previous years provided this same area in a fishing closure to protect steelhead under the Endangered Species Act. Time is of great importance and we ask that the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Commission to act  with swift and productive action.”

He added, “As a guide, I make most of my living from this river, but I know this is the right thing to do.”

The NCCFFF (Federation of Fly Fishers Northern California Council) has also asked the Department of Fish and Wildlife to recommend an emergency closure on the American River from Ancil Hoffman Park to Nimbus Dam while the flows are below 800 cfs. “We’re asking for the closure to protecting the remaining wild stocks of salmon and steelhead in the river,” said Lowell Ashbaugh, Vice-President of Conservation.

The Fish and Game Commission would have to determine whether the closure was warranted following a recommendation from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The DFW has made no recommendation on this issue yet.

Below is the letter from the NCCFF:

January 9, 2014 

Charleton H. Bonham, Director 

Department of Fish and Wildlife 

1416 9th Street, 12th Floor 

Sacramento, CA 95814 

Dear Director Bonham, 

I am writing on behalf of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers to request that you take emergency action to protect the fishery on the American River. Specifically, I request you initiate an immediate Emergency Closure of the Lower American River from Nimbus Dam to Ancil Hoffman Park. This stretch of the river holds spawning salmon and/or steelhead and/or their redds and young. 

It’s apparent that the recent reduction in flows below 1100 cfs on the Lower American River has exposed salmon redds that will surely result in the death of young salmon. Additional deaths have the potential to severely harm the fall-run Chinook population. The endangered American River Steelhead are just beginning to enter the system and are also vulnerable at these low flows. Closure to fishing during these low flows will prevent anglers from walking over the remaining redds and will protect wild spawners from illegal snagging. 

As a fly fisher and a representative of a fly fishing organization I am loathe to recommend closure of any fishery, but the long-term health of these listed salmon and steelhead stocks takes precedence over short-term angling desires. I urge you to place emergency restrictions on fishing while the flows remain below 800 cfs. 

Immediate action is needed because flows in the American will be reduced to 500 cfs by Saturday, January 11. Knowledgeable members of our organization can be available to discuss details of this proposed closure at your convenience. If you choose to move forward, and believe it will be helpful, we can assist the Department's efforts by recruiting volunteers to help mark closed areas.You can reach me at 530-758-6722 or at ashbaugh.lowell@gmail.com. 

Sincerely, 

Lowell L. Ashbaugh 

Conservation VP, NCCFFF 

cc: Sonke Mastrup, Executive Director, California Fish and Game Commission 

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