Central Valley rivers see abundant steelhead returns this year

Steelhead at Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River in the Sacramento metropolitan area. Photo by Dan Bacher. | 





By Dan Bacher | 

California’s Central Valley rivers have seen what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has described as “incredibly strong” steelhead returns this year.

This is in contrast to the record low fall-run Chinook salmon returns on the mainstem Sacramento River that have led to another year of severely limited salmon fishing opportunities or closures.

A new record for the number of steelhead returning to the Mokelumne River was set this year. A total of 1,749 steelhead, including 968 adults and 781 fish under 18 inches, have come back to the system this season, reported William Smith, manager of the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery.

The previous record for total steelhead was in 2018 when the hatchery reported 530 adults and 638 juveniles, a total of 1168 fish. However, there was another year when the total number of adults was over 700 fish.

The majority of steelhead are in the 18 to 24 inch range, with a few larger fish mixed in. One of the steelhead returning this year weighed 13-1/2 pounds, but it was apparently from Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River, said Smith.   

 A total of 210,000 yearling steelhead are being released into the system this year, according to Smith. The hatchery has taken close to 770,000 steelhead eggs this season. 

Smith attributes the record steelhead run to the big water years in 2023 and 2024 to date, along with the CDFW and EBMUD’s analysis of genetic studies and release strategies to improve the fish population.

The record steelhead run follows a record salmon run. A total of 28,614 fall-run Chinook salmon returned to the Mokelumne River in 2023 — 5,700 of those fish were grilse (two-year-olds) and the rest were adults, said EBMUD Manager of Fisheries and Wildlife Michelle Workman.  

However, the Mokelumne River is a tributary of the San Joaquin River, not the Sacramento River, so it isn’t included in the Sacramento River ocean abundance estimates developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service that are the basis for determining ocean and river salmon fisheries in California every year.

The Mokelumne provided anglers with some solid steelhead fishing this year. Samuel Boyd Yoro of Watsonville and his nephew Bodhi had a great trip steelhead fishing on the Mokelumne below Camanche Dam in February.

“Bodhi caught and released his very first chrome-bright steelhead,” said Yoro. “His Mokelumne River hatchery fish fought a solid bout, jumping and flipping out, but obviously not able to spit the hook out of its mouth.

Other Central Valley rivers saw robust steelhead runs also, according to CDFW data.

The Feather River Fish Hatchery exceeded its 2023 total of some 1,200 steelhead on the very first day it opened its fish ladder in January, wrapping up the spawning season with 2,277 returning fish.

The Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River, home to both Central Valley steelhead and a larger coastal strain of Eel River steelhead introduced decades ago, saw 3,178 steelhead return to the hatchery in 2024. That is one of its highest totals in many years, according to CDFW staff.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has produced three options for ocean salmon seasons beginning May 16, 2024, CDFW reported. Two of the three alternatives would authorize short ocean salmon season dates and establish small harvest limits for commercial and sport fishing off California in 2024. The third alternative would close the ocean fisheries off California for a second consecutive year.  

The 2024 stock abundance forecast for Sacramento River Fall Chinook, usually the most abundant stock in the ocean fishery, is only 213,600 adults. Abundance of Klamath River Fall Chinook is forecast at 180,700 adults. For more information, go to: wildlife.ca.gov/...




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