The opening of the steelhead season in the upper section of the American River in Sacramento County was slow for most, but some experienced shore anglers fishing below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery found solid results on the opener.
As usual, a very large crowd of anglers showed up on the opener to get their chance at catching a big, bright steelhead. Many reported catching nothing, but some anglers did well.
Anthony Windom of Sacramento reported good fishing on opening morning, landing a beautiful 9 lb. buck as well losing other fish while fishing a jig.
“I saw a lot of people hook up this morning,” said Windom. “There were good numbers of fish showing in the river below the hatchery yesterday.”
Rod Durrett traveled from Placerville to catch a pretty 19 inch steelhead while using an orange bead under a float.
Art and Angela Maslyanka of Citrus Heights had a great morning fishing below the hatchery. Angela caught and released one 9 lb. steelhead and kept another one around 3 pounds while drifting beads under bobbers, while Art landed a bright 6 lb. steelhead.
“Besides the three fish landed by Art and Angela, I saw five other fish landed on the opener below the hatchery,” said Roland Aspiras, Fish Sniffer staffer. “I had one hook up myself, but lost it. I’d call it a fair opener.”
Boaters reported tough fishing from Sailor Bar to Sunrise. “We had one grab while pulling plugs and then nothing after that,” said Jerry Lampkin of TNG Motor Sports Guide Service. “I saw at least five fish landed while going downriver. The best action was reported by one fly fishermen that caught and released two adult steelhead. There were a lot more salmon in the river than we normally see this time of year.”
On December 31, Nimbus Fish Hatchery staff reported trapping 76 steelhead and spawned 9 pairs, the first spawn of the year, according to Gary Novak, hatchery manager. In contrast, last season the hatchery had trapped adult 447 Eel River-strain hatchery steelhead prior to the opener.
There have been some openers where no fish have been caught and others where big numbers of fish have been caught below the hatchery. The best opener I ever witnessed was in 2002, when most anglers I talked to caught their one fish limits. I fished for less than 30 minutes that morning, hooking a salmon and two steelhead, keeping one 10 lb. bright fish mid-morning after three other anglers let me fish their spot after each took home a quality steelhead.
The salmon were late this year, so that’s why roe imitations worked on the opener – and why anglers found slow Chinook fishing most of the fall. Most of the salmon run in 2019 arrived in the river in November and December.
“2019 was a good year to view salmon at the hatchery. In all, about 11,500 fish came up the ladder this fall,” according to Nimbus Fish Hatchery. “That is good news for the commercial ocean salmon fishery that relies on hatchery production for a large portion of its catch. “
“In-river, we saw a somewhat late but overall average spawning year. Hopefully colder water temperatures over the winter will provide the conditions needed for the incoming steelhead to spawn, hatch and grow in the coming months. Keep an eye out for steelhead in the river and ladder between now and the end of February,” according to the hatchery.
2019 was a banner year for steelhead on the American when the river was fishable. The facility trapped a total of 2912 steelhead, including 258 half pounders and 2754 adults, according to Novak.
“It was the second best year run over the past decade, only exceeded by the 3409 steelhead that we counted in 2018,” said Novak.
The hatchery staff took a total of 1,225,000 eggs in the winter of 2019 to produce their goal of 430,000 eggs.
In contrast, the hatchery saw a record low run during the peak of the drought in 2015, just 155 fish. The high flows during 2017 certainly helped get the fish down the river past predators and the Delta water pumping facilities.
Steelhead on the American have 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. The original run of steelhead didn’t even start appearing at the hatchery until March. The fish were spawned at the hatchery during the months of March, April and May.
It is the 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.
One guide, Barry Watson, used to target summer run steelhead on the American River and ran ads for those trips from 1985 to 1988. He would average 1 to 3 fish per trip, with the fish ranging from 2 to 3 pounds and going up to 8 pounds. One bright 8 lb. fish caught in April once adorned a Fish Sniffer cover.
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. There is a run of 2 to 8 lb. fish that moves up the river in March, with fishing sometime lasting into May just as the steelhead season.
For example, in 2001, I had one of one of my best spring shore fishing trips March 31 while wading at Rossmoor, landing 7 bright steelhead, keeping one beautiful adult fish. I have also caught steelhead on shad jigs in the spring. The late Randy Buffington used to find some of his best steelhead action in the lower river in September, catching them at times while drifting pike minnows for stripers.
There are plenty of half pounders – steelhead in the 12 to 18 inch range – in the river at this time. Doug MacPherson of Sacramento and other anglers reported catching and releasing steelhead in the 12 to 14 inch range while drifting nightcrawlers in the Riverbend Park Area before the opener of the upper river.
Let’s hope more adult steelhead move into the river in coming months so we can see a repeat of last year’s great action when the river was fishable.
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.