Salmon Spawning In American River Above Folsom Lake


Posted on 03 December 2010

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By Dan Bacher

Defying the opinion of so-called “experts” who said it couldn’t happen, landlocked chinook salmon are now successfully spawning in the South Fork of the American River above Folsom Lake.

This is good news for those working to reintroduce ocean-going salmon and steelhead in the tributaries of Central Valley rivers above dams because for years biologists believed that landlocked king salmon couldn’t spawn successfully above reservoirs. Self sustaining populations of king salmon are also found in the Great Lakes and Lake Don Pedro.

The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) hasn’t planted king salmon in Folsom Lake since 2006, but that hasn’t stopped anglers from catching good numbers of landlocked chinooks, the progeny of natural spawning, over the past two years. The DFG this fall has documented, through electro-shocking and snorkel surveys in the South Fork of the American, natural spawning by Folsom Lake chinooks.

The DFG first planted fingerling king salmon from the American River in Folsom in 1997, creating a popular landlocked salmon fishery for urban shore and bank anglers. The DFG last stocked king salmon, 117,800 fish, in Folsom in 2006.

The Department of Fish and Game discontinued the plants over concerns about a fish disease, IHN, infecting the fish in Nimbus Fish Hatchery below the dam. Jay Rowan, DFG reservoir biologist, said the hatchery would again plant the kings when the fish are certified disease-free.

The salmon fishery busted loose in 1998 and 1999 as the kings grew quickly, often at a rate of around 1 inch per month, as they fed on the reservoir’s abundant populations of Japanese pond smelt and threadfin shad. Bank anglers and boaters have reported catching many quality salmon, including fish in the 4 to 8 pound range, since then.

The successful natural spawning of chinooks has surprised both anglers and the DFG. Joe Johnson, a senior DFG environmental scientist who led a snorkel survey on the South Fork three miles above the Salmon Falls Bridge on October 4, was impressed by the number of salmon he saw spawning.

“The 8 of us saw between 50 and 75 salmon,” said Johnson. “There were 1 to 6 fish in every major pool. We also saw big, toad rainbows that we estimated to be 5 to 6 pounds.”

Besides the spawning salmon and large rainbows, the survey crew also saw a large brown trout, a few smallmouth bass and over 200 smaller rainbows, including fish in the 12 to 18 inch range. Most of the salmon they saw were in the 16 to 18 inch class.

On October 21, a crew of 3 DFG staff surveyed a 3 mile stretch of South Fork below the Lotus Bridge. “We saw over 20 chinooks, including one over 24 inches,” said Jay Rowan. “We also saw 30 browns up to 6 pounds and a few hundred rainbows.”

The DFG also conducted electro-shocking surveys on the North Fork and the South Fork in September. They didn’t see any salmon on the North Fork, probably because the water was too warm at the time, but the DFG crew witnessed half dozen chinooks to 18 inches and 10 to 15 quality rainbows in the riffle just above the lake. Whether the salmon fishery will be able to sustain itself without plants to supplement the fishery is yet to be known.

“We found it interesting last year when anglers began catching fish in the 12 to 14 inch range, even though the lake hadn’t been planted since 2006,” said Rowan. “These fish could only come from natural spawning.”

“This is kind of surprising because we didn’t see a whole lot of prime habitat on the South Fork when we surveyed it. We haven’t surveyed the North or Middle Fork yet, although we plan to. Apparently the fish had optimum water for spawning conditions,” he explained.

“However, I don’t know whether natural spawning will be able to sustain the fishery in the future,” Rowan added.

The federal biological opinion released by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2009 emphasized the importance of restoring wild, self sustaining populations of salmon and steelhead above dams where feasible. The opinion pinpointed the McCloud River above Shasta Dam, the North, Middle and South Forks and the American and the Stanislaus River above New Melones Dam as good candidates for reintroduction once viable plans to provide passage for adult fish upriver and juveniles downriver to the ocean are developed.

The Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe is currently trying to get the federal government to support their plan to reintroduce winter-run chinook salmon to the McCloud above Shasta. This spring 30 members of the Tribe went to New Zealand to conduct joint ceremonies with the Maori people in an effort to bring back the eggs from the original strain of winter run chinook salmon, now thriving in the Rakaira and other rivers, to reintroduce to the McCloud. The New Zealand government and Maori nation have agreed to provide the eggs.

The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), the Tsi Akim Maidu Tribe and other organizations have also been working to reintroduce chinook salmon and steelhead to the Yuba River and its tributaries above Englebright Dam. The Tribe has since 2006 held a “Calling Back the Salmon” ceremony on the river every October as part of its “Indigenous Peoples Day” celebration in the Nevada City area. SYRCL and Friends of the River are currently engaged in litigation arguing that wild populations of spring-run chinook, steelhead and green sturgeon are in jeopardy of extinction and that modifying the federal dams on the Yuba, and expanding spawning and rearing habitat, are necessary for the recovery of these fish.

Now the potential of restoring ocean-going chinook salmon to the American River forks above Folsom becomes a much more viable possibility, since the salmon are already spawning there. What is needed is a concerted effort by the state and federal governments, in cooperation with Indian Tribes, fishermen, environmentalists, water districts, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the public, to study innovative, viable ways to provide fish passage over the dam for adult salmon migrating upriver and young salmon migrating downriver to the ocean.

Wouldn’t it be great to see wild salmon and steelhead once again returning from the ocean to spawn in the North, Middle and South Forks of the American as they did for thousands of years before Folsom Dam was built?

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Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as "The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen."