The Bite Goes On

The much-anticipated opening of the California recreational ocean salmon fishing season in Bodega Bay on April 5 started strong but petered out late last week, an unwelcome trend for anglers that continued through the weekend.

Captain Rick Powers runs two boats out of Bodega Bay. He said fishing aboard his 65-foot open boat the New Sea Angler was red-hot all week after the season started until it went cold Friday.

As the saying goes, that’s why they call it “fishing” and not “catching.”

Posted fishing reports from early in the week spoke of a steady pull of king salmon for anglers, and Powers says the online reports coming out of the Bodega grounds prompted boats from Berkeley and Sausalito to make the long trip north to get in on the action. Before the bite crapped out, many of his anglers, Powers says, went home with their bag limit of two king salmon, some in the 20-pound-plus class. On slow days, he supplemented the scant salmon catch for his fares with an offering of Dungeness plucked from his crab pots.

To hear Powers tell it, the 2014 king salmon season started where last season left off.

Powers says that in a half-century fishing North Bay waters, he had never seen a king salmon season like the one enjoyed by local anglers last year. The 60-year-old captain started his career working as a deckhand on San Francisco open boats when he was nine years old. In all that time, he says, “I never experienced the grade, the quality and the size of the salmon.”

Last year’s bite gave him reason to be “very optimistic about this season.”

The 2014 season opener marks something of a watershed year for North Bay anglers and fisheries. This is the tenth year of an intensive restoration program to help save coho salmon from extinction in California. Powers says he starts seeing coho in May and June when he’s trolling for salmon—and stresses that any that are caught are released under state law.

The state has ramped up drought-remediation efforts that may have side benefits of helping restore salmon stocks, and especially the coho, which tend to favor smaller and more environmentally sensitive creeks over larger rivers when it’s time to spawn.

A 2012 state initiative called the Coho Help Act is now underway; it set out to “make it easier for landowners to do good things for the coho,” says Brian Stranko, water program director for the Nature Conservancy of California.

The Coho Help Act pays landowners up to $100,000 to fix up their piece of the creek to make it more amenable to the coho, either by removing impediments or water diversions, or by returning a creek to a more natural state by adding (or not removing) wood debris from the water.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2014–15 budget would spend
$113 million on statewide fisheries-restoration programs. A similar proposal from his 2012–13 budget was whittled to $95 million by the time the budget was passed. Another $22 million is included in the proposed 2014–15 budget for an inland hatcheries fund.

For the first time, the state proposed funding a $1.5 million program this year to investigate and enforce marijuana-cultivation water diversions, a growing problem in the state and one that directly affects the coho’s chances of a lasting rebound. The fishery is hovering around 1 percent of its historical numbers in California—a figure that has yet to budge upward despite the various efforts underway.

California enjoys an unusual degree of cooperation among the various players invested in fisheries management: regulators, environmentalists, commercial and recreational anglers, ranchers and farmers. “Everyone sees themselves as being part of the solution for cohos,” says Stranko. “There was a time when everyone was at loggerheads.”

One unaddressed area of concern for Stranko is coho salmon “bycatch,” which refers to fish that are not targeted but wind up on the hook or in the net anyway. The commercial ocean salmon season opens May 1, just around the time Powers says he starts to see off-limits coho hit his baits.

“We do not want to see a coho bycatch problem or mortalities in coho because of the bycatch,” says Stranko. “But the problem is, we don’t have a lot of information on how many coho get caught in bycatch. So it’s hard to say whether it’s a big problem or a little problem.”