It is mid-winter and time for the annual change out of steelhead in the Feather River Hatchery. Last year's bumper crop of steelhead are ready to leave in order to make way for this year's spawn.
A year ago in this column I wrote about the incredible surge of steelhead returning to the hatchery coincidental with the wet winter. Mother nature does have a way of balancing things out. She has been at this for a long, long time.
I am always in awe of the fact that following the poor spawning returns during the worst of the drought, there came a six fold increase of spawning fish for the drought ending winter of 2016-17. It appears to be coincidence because I do not comprehend any mechanism that could be referred to as cause and effect. This has occurred before, which convinces me that it is cause and effect. Since I don't understand, I will just push the accept button and move on.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
The timing of the plant is determined by fish size. The unit of measure used by the department is fish per pound. When the juveniles reach four per pound (8-9 inches) they are deemed ready to take on the striper gauntlet and whatever else awaits them in the wild. I wish there was a way to coordinate higher river flows with this fish release.
The balance of the 700,000 total production will end up in the Thermolito Afterbay. It has been a number of years since the Afterbay received any steelhead. The policy has been the river plant has to exceed 400,000 fish before there will be any allotted to the Afterbay. This is the first year since the drought that there has been sufficient production. This year's steelhead crop is close to an all time high for the Feather River Hatchery.
The Department of Fish & Wildlife began planting the Afterbay in January with fish 11 per pound. They planted at the three ramps to disperse the fish which will reach the one pound mark by this coming fall.
In speaking with Penny Cramshaw, operations manager at the hatchery, she said the carrying capacity of the Afterbay is 240,000 steelhead. This body of water has such a prolific food chain that the fish that survive will reach the one pound mark this fall. Cramshaw mentioned tagging fish to monitor growth rates.
The best they recorded was a one year old fish planted at four per pound that weighed in at three pounds one year later.
The Afterbay has a healthy bass population that will get much healthier with the introduction of 200,000 edible size fish. In the short run the fishing opportunity will be for bass angling here.
The plants at Boyd's Pump have been an annual occurrence for decades and the stripers have come to expect it. Again, I don't understand how, but the stripers know and are in the Feather when the plants occur. It is the first really good river striper bite of the year. Nature relies on numbers for species to survive. My take on the plant next week is that there will be more steelhead in the river than the stripers can eat.
NAVIGATING THE RIVERS
I spoke with Bob Boucke, Johnson's Bait & Tackle, about boat access on the river. He has a deep draft boat and only goes up river from Boyd's Pump at the current flow of 3300 cubic feet per second.
Last year's high water moved a lot of sand bars around and you have to be careful where you go. Heading up river there is a three foot deep channel 30 feet out from the bank on the west side, just up from the ramp. Above there is a lot of deep water up to the Shanghai Bend Rapids. Down river there are extensive shallows making navigation a problem. Maybe canoe or kayak floats down to the Star Bend ramp is an answer. The Star Bend ramp also has sand bars that make it difficult for prop boats.
Shore angling is another possibility. I recall my first striper trip 35 years ago below the Shanghai Bend Rapids. The memory that comes to mind is seeing an eight inch steelhead come out of the water mid-river.
The fish was tail walking across the surface at high speed until he lost his momentum. As he started to drop back down into the water there was a huge swish and he disappeared into the mouth of a striper. You want to be fishing with an eight inch trout imitation.
Coming up in April will be the annual juvenile salmon plant. This year, thanks to the efforts of the Nor Cal Guides Association, salmon production was raised from 7,000,000 to 9,000,000 fish at the hatchery in Oroville.
This year the plan is to plant 1,000,000 in the Feather River and to truck seven million to San Pablo Bay and an additional one million will be planted at Fort Baker near the Golden Gate Bridge. These fish will be 45 to the pound.
In nature salmon hatch out of the gravel and get headed down stream with the spring snow melt. In contrast steelhead spend much of their first year in the river growing before heading to the salt.
Starting next week the striper season will kick off in earnest on the Feather River. With this weather it will be rather spring like. Save a steelhead, go striper fishing.
Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union's Outdoors section and is host of "The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report," which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at http://www.trollingflies.com.