American River Steelhead Opener Yielded Few Fish

There couldn’t be a bigger difference between January 2017 and January 2018 on the American River below Nimbus Dam. Last winter, high flows ranging from 15,000 cfs to 80,000 cfs were raging down the river as record snow and rain hit the river watershed.

This year, on January 1, the Bureau of Reclamation was beginning to ramp down flows from 3,500 cfs to 2,000 cfs after we experienced one of the driest Decembers on record.

By the afternoon of January 1, very few anglers were left fishing the river because of the slow steelhead action.

A crowd of over 50 anglers lined the river below Nimbus Hatchery and at Sailor Bar on the opener this year, arriving in the early morning hours to get their spots on the river.

Dale Isidro of Santa Cruz thought it was going to be a great day when he caught and released a 4 lb. hatchery steelhead while fishing a 2/5 oz. Little Cleo on his third cast below the hatchery. “I missed one other fish and got no other bites,” said Isidro.

His fishing partner, Armin Sladwick of Santa Cruz, also was excited when he hooked and released a 4 lb. wild steelhead on his fourth cast while shore fishing with salmon roe below the hatchery.

“I though the fish was much bigger by the way it fought,” he stated. “I saw another angler land an 8 . steelhead and that was the last steelhead I saw landed, although some fly fishermen hooked and lost s few steelhead.”

Sniffer staffer Roland Aspiras reported “dead slow” fishing on the opener below the hatchery.

“I hooked two steelhead and landed one,” said Aspiras. “I saw only one other hookup in my immediate vicinity.

Anglers patiently wait for a steelhead bite on the American River on January 1.

Rodney Fagundes of Sacramento and I fished in his drift boat below the hatchery, but we didn’t get any bites on any of the baits we used, including Wee Warts, Hot Shots, Little Cleos, shrimp and roe. Isidro and Sladwick joined us in the boat later that morning, but they didn’t hook any fish either while fishing with us.

J.D. Richey of Richey’s Sport Fishing also reported tough fishing – and was thankful he got one steelhead in the boat opening day.

“We had been doing much better in the past few weeks in the lower section of the river,” stated Richey. “There must have been at least a few fish caught on the opener, but the only one that we were aware of came on our boat.”

“We saw three sea lions in the upper river near Sailor Bar. We also saw almost no spawning salmon or salmon carcasses as during a normal year, the river smells from all of the rotting carcasses. The weather was far too good, and there were plenty of fishermen out trying,” he summed up.

During 2014, the Bureau of Reclamation conducted a one year experiment by releasing 150,000 Coleman National Fish Hatchery-strain steelhead into the river.

“This was not done to supplement the American River run, but was a study to find a potential replacement for the current strain of steelhead,” said Gary Novak, hatchery manager. “They were looking for an appropriate replacement for the current Eel River strain. We wanted to see if these fish would come back if we raised them at the hatchery. Currently, we have no plans of spawning these fish to replace the current strain of steelhead.”

Last year, a good number of Coleman hatchery fish returned to the hatchery, but this year only one has been reported to date at the facility.

The day after the opener, I went to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery to check out the steelhead spawning. The facility that day trapped 36 males and 40 females, an improvement over last year when just 19 males and 8 females were counted in the trap.

This year to date the hatchery has trapped 76 male adult steelhead and 92 female adult steelhead and 8 half pounder males and 8 half pounder females. They also released 8 wild

Dave Gault caught and released this husky American River steelhead while fishing the lower river on December 28.

male adult steelhead and 3 wild adult females, along with 3 wild half pounder males and 2 wild half pounder females.

That makes for a total of 196 steelhead trapped at the facility this year to date. That’s a lot better than the 158 fish trapped all season in 2014, the poorest steelhead year on record, but way below the 2,000 to 4,000 steelhead that have returned to the hatchery in banner years.

The salmon season ended on the American River on December 31, but few anglers were targeting Chinooks in the last month of the season and had already switched over to steelhead.

The salmon run on the American “wasn’t very good” in the fall of 2017, said Novak.

“We reached our goal for eggs,” said Novak, “but we never saw the big ribbons of fish below hatchery that we see normally. Nine thousand fish is about normal for the river.”

This year they counted 3,053 unmarked male adult chinooks and 3,582 unmarked female adult chinooks and 1,107 unmarked jacks and 286 unmarked jills.

They also trapped 842 marked males and 1,087 marked females, along with 484 marked jacks and 138 marked jills. These salmon included some Coleman-strain fish that strayed into the American River – the CDFW gave 2,000,0000 eggs to Coleman National Fish Hatchery to make up for their shortfall.

The hatchery collected 6,601,878 green eggs, over their goal of 9 million eggs to produced 4 million salmon smolts.

In addition to the Chinooks, the hatchery staff saw something that they haven’t seen before – two pink (humpback) salmon returned to the facility. “This is the first time ever in my 15 years that I’ve seen pinks,” said Novak. “Both were males and about 20 inches long.”

Steelhead like this beauty are released back into the American River by the CDFW staff after being spawned at Nimbus Fish Hatchery.

Pinks are occasionally caught by anglers on the river. I remember over 20 years ago when one guy walked into Fran & Eddy’s Sports Den in Rancho Cordova with two pink salmon that he had landed while fishing in Nimbus Basin.

However, the hatchery didn’t see any sockeye salmon like they saw in the hatchery weir over the past two years, nor did they see any chum salmon.

The pinks, sockeyes and chum salmon aren’t the most unusual fish every caught on the river. In the fall of 1977 during the height of that drought, one angler caught a 4-foot-long leopard shark while fishing for steelhead in Nimbus Basin, the Sacramento Bee reported at the time.

While steelhead and salmon numbers are below normal this season on the American River, it’s good to put things in perspective. Without the many fishery restoration efforts over the decades by the Save the American River Association, as well as those by the former United Anglers Association and American River Guides Association, there might be no salmon or steelhead left in the river now.

Let’s hope we get a wet January, February and March to draw more steelhead up the river – and provide abundant water of good rearing and spawning conditions for salmon and steelhead this spring, summer and fall.


Lower American River Facts

 Location: The 23 miles of the American River from Nimbus Dam to its junction to the mouth are located in the heart of the Sacramento metropolitan area. The entire river is accessible to bank anglers and boaters, since it is located in the beautiful American River Parkway.  The parkway is located in a protected greenbelt that cuts Sacramento County in half. It features a paved bicycle and running trail, many rest areas and access from most neighborhoods adjacent to the river parkway.

Fishing Season: The section from Discovery Park to the SMUD powerline at the Southwest Boundary of Ancil Hoffman Park, is open year round to fishing for all except for salmon. The river above the SMUD powerline to the Hazel Avenue Bridge is open to fishing to steelhead and other fishing other than salmon from January 1 through October 31.

The salmon fishing season is set at the Fish and Game Commission meeting every spring. In 2016, the salmon season ran from July 16 to December 31 except for the small section of river from the Jibboom Street Bridge to the mouth that closed on December 16. Review the California Fresh Water Sport Fishing Regulations Booklet for bag and possession limits, hook restrictions and additional restrictions:  

Day Use: The entrance fee for vehicles under 22 feet in length is $5.00, except on summer holiday weekends when the fee is $8.00. The fee for trailer or vehicle 22 or more feet in length is $10.00 except for summer holiday weekends when the fee is $13.00.

Annual Fees: Vehicle (private or commercial – $50.00

Motorized watercraft and trailer plus vehicle pass –  $100.00.

Boat launching: Concrete boat ramps are available at Discovery Park, Howe Avenue, Watt Avenue and Sunrise. Unimproved gravel launching is available at Gristmill, Ancil Hoffman, Rossmoor and other areas on the river. The fee for non-motorized watercraft is $3 (plus vehicle fee) and the fee for motorized watercraft is $5 (plus vehicle fee).

Park information:, Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks, Recreation and Open Space Administration, 3711 Branch Center Rod, Sacramento, CA. 95827. For General Parks, Golf and Rangers Information, call (916) 875-6961.

Fishing Information: Fisherman’s Warehouse, Sacramento, (916) 362-1200; Elkhorn Outdoor Sports, Rio Linda, (916) 991-5298; Broadway Bait Rod & Gun, Sacramento, (916) 448-6338.

Fishing Guides: Jerry Lampkin, T.N.G. Motor Sports Guide Service, (530) 320-0994