Steelhead fishing on the upper section of the American River opened on January 1 with clear and cold water conditions and chilly weather, tough conditions for the often elusive fish. It wasn’t the worst opener I’ve ever encountered, but it wasn’t a stellar opener like the one in 2002 where just about everybody I talked to caught steelhead.
The American is my home river, the urban gem of a stream where I first started fishing for anadromous fish. I have spent many thousands of hours over the years fishing for the river’s steelhead, salmon, shad and striped bass. I caught my first-ever steelhead, salmon, shad and striper while fishing its clear and sometimes crowded waters in the late sixties and seventies.
The section that opened on New Year’s Day is from the U.S. Geological Survey gauging station cable crossing about 300 yards downstream from the Nimbus Hatchery fish rack site to the SMUD power line crossing at the southwest boundary of Ancil Hoffman Park.
Fishing on the opener was tough for most anglers. Bruno Novi of Roseville landed a bright 27 inch steelhead while using a homemade fly below the hatchery on opening day. He was the only angler I saw catch a fish during my venture to the river below the hatchery on January 1.
A number of anglers in drift boats launched at Sailor Bar on the opener, but likewise reported tough fishing like the shore anglers.
“We hooked and lost two small steelhead while using Little Cleos on the opener, but we didn’t land any steelies,” said Jerry Lampkin of TNG Motor Sports Guide Service, who fished the stretch from Sailor Bar to Sunrise with two anglers. “We saw a total of 6 steelhead landed by shore anglers and boaters during our drift. Most were hooked by fly fishermen.”
Roland Aspiras, former Fish Sniffer staffer, also reported slow fishing. “I lost a fish possibly in the teens. There was not much other action. The results I heard were mixed. It seems spoons were producing some good results; one friend reported landing two fish.”
In a big change from previous openers, the entire section of river from the Nimbus Dam to the gauging cable was closed. Rodney Fagundes and I had many memorable experiences of catching hard fighting steelhead from his drift boat in the short stretch between a sign below the hatchery to the cable, but those days are now over.
The CDFW closed the section of river below Nimbus Dam to the cable crossing to prepare for the implementation of the Nimbus Fish Hatchery Weir Project, a join project by the Bureau of Reclamation and CDFW. The project, including a new fishway to allow the salmon and steelhead to go from the basin to the hatchery, is designed to improve the hatchery’s fish collecting operations, as well as to expand available salmon and steelhead spawning habitat and to avoid the often risky work required to install and remove the hatchery weir every year.
“The purpose is to create and maintain a reliable system of collecting adult fish for use in the Nimbus Fish hatchery (Hatchery). Secondary objectives are to minimize operation and maintenance costs, avoid reducing river flows, and improve safety,” according to the Bureau.
In a big contrast with January 1 of 2017, when high flows of 35,000 cfs to 80,000 cfs were raging down the river as record snow and rain hit the river watershed, this year the flows were low, cold and clear with releases of 1750 cfs below Nimbus Dam.
The good news is the hatchery staff is seeing decent numbers of steelhead this year, so fishing is expected to pick up when the region receives some storm inflows to add color to and warm up the water. The facility had trapped adult 447 Eel River-strain hatchery steelhead as of December 31, according to Paula Hoover at the hatchery.
“During our latest spawning session, we counted 56 new males and 32 new females,” she said. “We also released 2 Central Valley strain males and two Central Valley females.”
However, in banner years on the American, as many as 2000 fish have already been reported at the hatchery as of January. During the best years I’ve experienced on the American fishing, the hatchery has seen between 2500 and 4000 total steelhead all season.
The hatchery staff has taken 214,000 steelhead eggs to date. “We hope to take around a million eggs to make sure we meet our goal of producing 450,000 smolts,” said Gary Novak, hatchery manager.
During 2014, the Bureau of Reclamation conducted a one year experiment by releasing 150,000 tagged 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 Novak. “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.”
In 2017, a good number of those Coleman hatchery fish returned to the hatchery, but only one returned in 2018. However, a few Central Valley strain steelhead, believed to be from the Mokelumne or Coleman, have appeared at the hatchery this season.
The current steelhead run has an interesting history. The completion of Nimbus Dam in 1955 and Folsom Dam in 1956 prevented salmon and steelhead from reaching most of their historic spawning areas in the main river and the river’s north, middle and south forks and tributaries. The Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the dams, built and funds the Nimbus Fish Hatchery to mitigate for the loss of spawning habitat.
However, after just a few hundred of the original strain of American River steelhead returned to the hatchery each spring in the first few years after the dams were built, the CDFW decided to introduce Eel River strain steelhead from the Mad River Fish Hatchery to create a more substantial run of fish.
It is those Eel River-strain of steelhead that comprise the majority of steelhead in the river, although fishermen still believe there is a remnant run of American River steelhead that still returns in the spring from March through May to spawn.
The biggest trout or steelhead caught on the American was a 24 pounder caught and released by an angler fishing below the hatchery in February of 2002, but a few fish in the 19 to 20 pound lb. class were reported in the 1980s and 1990s. Most adult steelhead caught this time of year are in the 6 to 10 lb. range, though larger fish are hooked every year.
This winter’s promising steelhead run follows a tough salmon year. The salmon run this year was smaller than in most years, but the hatchery still ended up taking 8,465,329 eggs, more than enough to produce 4 million salmon smolts for release in the spring of 2019. The facility began trapping on November 5 and did their last spawn on December 13.
The hatchery trapped 1717 unmarked Chinook males, 1586 unmarked females, 976 unmarked jacks and 148 unmarked jills this fall. The facility also counted 599 marked males, 549 unmarked females, 410 marked jacks and 78 marked jills.
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 U.S. Geological Survey gauging station cable crossing about 300 yards downstream from the Nimbus Hatchery fish rack site 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 2018, 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: www.sacparks.net, 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; Sacramento Pro Tackle, (916) 925-0529.
Guided Fishing Trips: Jerry Lampkin, T.N.G. Motor Sports Guide Service, (530) 320-0994.