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Salmon season now open
Hundreds — if not thousands — of fishermen clogged favored fishing holes along the Feather River on Monday for opening day of recreational salmon season on California rivers.
Using hired guides, driving their own boats or standing on shorelines in waders or flip-flops and shorts, they spun lines and sank lures in hopes of snagging their two-fish limit. Many were hungry to take part in what officials are saying is the first normal fall run of Chinook salmon since a drastic decline in population five years ago.
"This time of year is kind of like shaking dice — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it's always a win being on the river," said Yuba City guide Matt Herbert. "It's opening day, so you gotta go."
He and fellow guide Mark Rigsby left home around 3 a.m. to head north of Gridley, where the water was flowing high and cold and the fish were rumored to be stacked in the holes.
A sliver of crescent moon shone little light onto the river, so they carved a wake through the darkness with a spotlight to guide the way. Soon, a hint of still-distant sunrise began casting a silver sheen onto the water and the guides navigated to their favorite spot and cut the motor.
Because of river restrictions, those who opted to enter the water further north had to wait later to launch, but soon, headlights of trucks towing trailers began flashing onto the water.
"They're all parading in now. It looks like a Macy's sale," Herbert said.
Rigsby said he asked for Monday off from his regular job as a cardiology technician about three months ago to be free for season's opening.
"I've been itching for it," he said. "I'd catch a bunch during the off season when I was bass fishing. That made it even worse."
Herbert, a surveyor with Caltrans, would have called in sick Monday but knows everyone would figure out where he was.
"It's OK, with all the furlough and leave time, I can't think of a better way to spend it," he said.
Federal biologists estimate the Sacramento River fall Chinook population this year to be 819,400, one of the highest in recent years and exponentially more than the 2009 low of 44,000 salmon. Drastic declines in population led to an elimination of the 2008 and 2009 season so fishermen are happy to see such a resurgence.
"What people don't realize is the economic benefits," Rigsby said. "Every business benefits, hotels, restaurants, shopkeepers. Everyone gets a piece of the pie."
California's salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in annual economic activity.
By mid-morning Monday, boats were clustered near the outfall from the Thermalito Afterbay and dozens more fisherman hovered along the shoreline or waded in waist-deep to cast their lines.
"It looks like this all year long," Herbert said.
Without the reservoir, water levels this time of year would be low and warm — not at all conducive to salmon, Rigsby said. But conditions Monday were prime.
"From Yuba City to here, they are not stopping," he said. "They are on a mission, 10 to 20 miles a day."
Rigsby and Herbert opted to fish in quieter waters further downriver. Lures landed in the water with a satisfying plop, and the men let out line until they felt the gentle bump of the weight hitting bottom and continued flicking their rods to keep the lures moving.
A 14-pound hen was the first catch of the day on Rigsby and Herbert's boat, and she didn't give in easily, thrashing and fighting until she was dropped in the net. How much a fish will resist is never predictable, Rigsby said.
"Some of the small ones will beat you 'til there is no tomorrow and some big ones will roll right over and come in the boat," he said.
Recent years of poor fishing and elimination of entire seasons was a struggle, if not downright depressing, the men said. But starting last year, they could tell the salmon were rebounding, as one 19-fish day last September was followed by a 29-fish catch the next morning.
"The fishing was so good, you'd lose a fish and laugh about it because you'd catch another one," Rigsby said. "I hope it's gonna be like that this year."
A good start
Bob Boucke, board member of the Golden Gate Salmon Association and owner of Johnson Bait and Tackle in Yuba City, had planned to fish at Verona, near the mouth of the Feather River, but accepted a last-minute ocean invitation instead. He was happy he did, as the three in his group caught 15 fish.
"We just kept throwing them back until we got two big ones," he said. "We caught our limit of six salmon, most between 15 to 20 pounds."
He heard multiple reports of good fishing on the Feather River near the Afterbay outlet, however crowded, and strong reports on the Sacramento from Colusa to the Woodson Bridge. He was not sure yet how fishermen on the Feather near Yuba City fared but it's looks to be a great season, he said.
Boucke actually thinks the federal estimate of 819,000 salmon is far too low, since the formula the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses to predict populations generated such a high number of fish, it dropped its estimate by three-fourths. He credits the hard work of fishing advocates to increase restrictions on water diversions and clear in-river obstacles for spawning populations for restoring salmon numbers.
"We are gonna see some real big fish here later on this year, and it's gonna do nothing but get better and better," he said. "In August and September, if you can't catch a salmon, then something's wrong. You better come in and ask us how to do it."
Yuba City guide Scott Feist also made the trip toward Gridley for opening day, figuring it was where most fish would be stacked up. He only caught one but hooked six, and said he cannot wait for the season to progress.
"It's gonna be incredible, I know it is," he said.
Back on Herbert and Rigsby's boat, a 20-pound hen was the second and last salmon caught of the day. After another half hour with no bites, they decided to reel in their lines and head for shore.
"Like all good things, a day of fishing has to come to an end," Rigsby said.
"The good thing is, today is only the beginning," Herbert replied with a grin.
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.