OFF THE HOOK: Then and now – Fishing at Lake Berryessa
The salmonid fishery at Lake Berryessa, located on Putah Creek in Napa County, has changed dramatically over the past two decades.
On one of the last times I fished with the late Claude Davis at "Mr. Markley Cove" in August 1990, we bagged two quick limits of rainbow trout in the 12- to 16-inch range while trolling nightcrawlers on downriggers in his boat. I then went over to the Markley Cove docks and picked up over 30 crappie while fishing Mini Jigs in the manner I was taught by Davis.
At that time, rainbows were the only salmonid, other than an occasional wild brown, found in the lake. The fishery was managed by the DFG as a "put and grow" one, but the fish rarely went over 2 pounds. The Department stocked large numbers of rainbows every April in one or two big plants, rather than planting catchables regularly as is done in many reservoirs.
Twenty-two years later, Berryessa has become a trophy king salmon, kokanee salmon and rainbow trout fishery. The current fishery is a result of yearly plants of fingerling, kokanee and kings by the DFG in cooperation with CIFFI, as well as the CIFFI/Markley trout pen-rearing project.
"Berryessa has been transformed from a 12-inch planter fishery to a low elevation trophy trout and salmon fishery," said Sep Hendrickson, executive director of the CIFFI. "When you fish Berryessa now you have a good chance of hooking rainbows in the 21⁄2- to 3-pound range, kokanee in the 21⁄2- to 3-pound range and kings up to 6 pounds."
Jason Tidwell, the first place winner of the CIFFI Derby at Berryessa on August 25, can attest to the quality fishery available at the lake now. Tidwell landed two big kokanee, one measuring 191⁄2 inches long and weighing 2.8 pounds, and the other going 191⁄2 inches and 2.4 pounds. The two fish weighed a total of 72.1 ounces.
"I caught the two winners while trolling with Uncle Larry's copper bar spinners and purple hoochies, tipped with white corn scented with Smelly Jelly Kokanee Feast, behind 7-inch dodgers at 95 to 115 feet near the dam," he said.
He was fishing with his buddies, experienced kokanee anglers Mark Damron and Brett Balla, in his boat. The fishing was relatively tough, with Tidwell landing four kokanee, Damron boating three fish and Balla bagging two.
"The fish I took during the derby were actually on the small side," Tidwell noted. "I've caught kokes weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces and 2 pounds, 14 ounces so far this summer. However, I haven't boated a 3-pounder yet this season."
"Berryessa is an amazing kokanee, landlocked king and rainbow trout fishery," Tidwell emphasized. "Twenty years ago, all we caught was trout."
Other anglers also boasted big kokanee in the event. John Eagleton took second place with two fish weighing 71.7 ounces Mike Giovachinii placed third with 70.6 ounces, John Beugue took fourth with 69.8 ounces and Eddie Trujillo took fifth with 65.9 ounces.
The youth kokanee winners were (1) Nate Lenard Jr. 58.1; (2) Autumn Bundy 29.4; and (3) Ty Collins 20.6.
Mike Giovachini won the big king pot with 55.7 ounces, winning $240. Brian Mathison took the big trout pot with 37.4, winning $215. Finally, Nate Lenard, Sr. won the blind bogey with 21.6 ounces, taking home $265.
Rich Crispi of TW Guide Service confirmed, "It has been a great year at Berryessa; our biggest king was 4 pounds 7 ounces and measured 231⁄2 inches; our largest kokanee to 20.8 inches and 2 pounds, 11 ounces; and the top rainbow was 31⁄2 pounds and 20 inches."
If Claude Davis had lived to see the thriving fishery, he would have been very impressed, both by the size and numbers of kings, kokanee and rainbows. All three species have plenty of forage to feed upon, including threadfin shad and plankton.
The DFG now plants fingerling chinooks and kokanee every year, although the numbers varying year to year. They stocked 55,052 kings in 2009, 163,991 fingerlings in 2010, 100,045 fingerlings in 2011 and 118,999 in 2012. The DFG stocked 50,126 kokanee in 2009, 102,606 in 2010, 87,436 in 2011 and 68,986 in 2012.
One of the reasons for the improved rainbow fishery is the pen fishery at Markley Cove. It raises the fish from a catchable size to 2-1⁄2 to 3 pounds. The DFG delivers anywhere from 800 to 1500 pounds of triploid trout to the pens in the fall to be released in the spring.
While Berryessa is known for its outstanding trout and salmon fishing, it also supports a popular largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass fishery, channel catfish, bluegill, and my favorite, black crappie.
In the eighties and early 1990s, I spent many hours fishing for crappie with Claude Davis at the docks at Markley Cove in the fall and in the coves in the spring. It was some of the most productive and memorable fishing I've ever experienced.