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On-the-Spot_ Barge Hole Salmon Opener

WON On-the-Spot: Sacramento River Barge Hole opener hit-or-miss

BY PAT YOUNG/WON Staff WriterPublished: Aug 08, 2019

BALLS FERRY —The hiaghly anticipated Sacramento River salmon fishing season opener on Aug. 1 above Red Bluff was the usual madhouse at the popular Barge Hole located at the mouth of Battle Creek.

Hundreds of thousands of chinook salmon raised at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek are released in the Sacramento River and after 2 to 4 years in the Pacific Ocean make the journey upriver to their “home water,” making the area the focal point for most of the salmon fishermen in the upper Sacramento Valley. With warm water temperatures in the lower reaches of the river, guides and local anglers were all looking for a great opening morning, as the fish had pushed quickly upstream to cooler water in the northern reaches.

sac_about50boatsABOUT 50 BOATS plied the Barge Hole on the Aug. 1 opener, and this is only 13 of them, so you can imagine how crowded it was. It was slower than last year, probably due to warmer water temperatures downriver, holding up the salmon. PHOTO BY PAT YOUNG

This writer was invited to experience opening morning by Matt Alleva of Matty’s Guide Service of Cottonwood and we met at Rooster’s Landing at Balls Ferry. When I got to Balls Ferry before 4:00 a.m. and found the place jammed with vehicles and boats waiting to use the single lane ramp, I knew that all the stories I had heard about opening morning were true. I had a hard time finding a place to park my car and there were only a handful of parking spots left for truck/trailers in the lot.

Before it was all over, boaters were parking 1/4-mile or so away on the road north of the landing. Matt called me just as I parked and got out of my car, announcing that he was in the long line of boaters parked on the bridge over the river waiting to launch. Our party included Alleva’s wife Ashely, 3 friends from Cottonwood, and fellow WON Staff Writer and guide Billy Driessen. After launching, we headed downriver toward the Barge Hole, but stopped short to rig tackle and let the fish rest instead of running all over the top of them before legal fishing time. As we eased into the formidable fleet of 50 boats crammed into the Barge Hole, I could easily see that tales of boats bumping into each other and fishing gear getting tangled up between anglers of other boats were all true.

Alleva set up in the lower third of the Barge Hole and we dropped a mix of plugs and roe to the bottom and waited for a take down. The first fish I recorded caught was aboard Kirk Portocarrero’s big tiller rig loaded with 8 anglers. Daniel Day landed a nice 25-pound chromer after a long, spirited fight. It seemed that as soon as there was a bit of a sunrise, the bite started to come on and between 5:55 and 6:15 I saw another 4 nice fish landed among the 20 or so boats just in our part of the Barge Hole. As advertised, boats were bumping into one another like a day at the amusement park bumper car ride, and fishing gear was tangled up, with folks fighting each other as if they were hooked up to a fish only to discover they weren’t. Alleva said he usually expected to see 25 fish caught by the time we had only counted 5 or 6, so the bite was a lot slower than we had hoped for.

BREE TEAGUE OF Anderson caught this chrome bright king salmon at the Barge Hole on opening morning while fishing with guide Matt Alleva’s boat. PHOTO BY PAT YOUNG

We spent the morning playing bumper boats and I couldn’t help but notice that the boats positioned along the east side of the hole just outside a ledge appeared to hooking up much more often than any others jockeying around the hole. Scott Kenyon’s boat was doing the best of all I saw and by the time we had our first fish, his clients had 6 or 7—all on roe. Anglers using the big sardine wrapped Kwikfish seemed to get tangled up a lot and roe was a better option to avoid problems. Jon Kenyon’s Fish-On Guide Service boat had a big load and Bree Teague of Anderson landed a nice fish while Chris Chavez on our boat put us on the scoreboard with a bright 18 pounder. All the fish I saw were dime bright and very strong fighters, making it hard to land the fish in such a crowd if nearby anglers didn’t reel in to avoid getting tangled up. At 8:15. Ashley Alleva hooked up and was a victim of such a tangle with a boat we were so close to they were actually able to hand me their rod so I could try to get Ashely’s fish free of the tangle — too late, it was gone!

By 8:30, there were only 40 boats in the Barge Hole and fishing remained hit-or-miss. It was starting to get hot with the forecast calling for temps pushing the triple digit mark. Robert Weese at NORCALSALMONGUIDE.COM had a light load of 3 and when I talked to him later in the morning, they had 5 fish and were fighting their 7th by the time were picking up to leave in the early afternoon. At 9:50, the crowd had thinned down to 30 boats and bumper incidents were fewer and less damaging. The bite was still slower than expected, but those boats able to stay in the east side slot were getting closer to limits while most were struggling.

When Alleva decided to pull the plug on the day’s fishing, we headed back to the ramp and waited our turn to put the boat on the trailer. As expected, we were greeted by a crew of DFW biologists doing a catch survey and they took our fish up to their table for measuring and weighing. After we pulled out and said out goodbyes, I walked back to the DFW check station to talk to the crew. James Lyons from the Red Bluff office reported that they had seen very few 2-year fish, jacks, and said the jack count was used as a predictor of the following year’s return of mature fish. Last year there were a LOT of jacks checked and this season was predicted to be very good.

If the current wide-open salmon fishing success in the ocean is any indication of what’s coming up for the river in September and October, this season should be one for the record book. Lyons said that since this was so early in the river salmon season, the sparse showing of jacks for the opener wasn’t too critical—it was the total for the whole season that would be the best predictor of the 2020 season. DFW made a run in their boat to check on the boat traffic on the river and said they counted 40-plus boats in the Barge Hole that had 180 anglers aboard. The high boat they had checked by the I time I was done with my meeting was 10 fish—limits for all. I talked to James Stone, owner of Elite Sportsmen Guide Service and Executive Director of the Northern California Guides and Sportsman’s Association, and he mentioned that the fish count by DFW when he checked out was 55 salmon.

Fishing wasn’t as good for the opener as many guides had seen in the past, but the DFW was looking forward to big returns with the ocean seemingly full of big beautiful kings. The bigger returns, according to DFW, will be seen in September and October, so if you want to partake in what should be fantastic Sacramento River salmon fishing, check out the guides in WON and book a trip for later this season.

CHRIS CHAVEZ OF Cottonwood landed the only fish on Matt Alleva’s boat, although they lost another one due to a tangle from another boat. PHOTO BY PAT YOUNG

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