Fish Wrap: Sturgeon biting in San Pablo Bay as big tides roll in

By Alastair Bland, IJ correspondent

The sky is as gray as the bay is brown, and a day on the water in December means gloves, a heavy jacket and a wool beanie. But then, that’s how fishermen dress in the summer, too — so not much has changed, perhaps, since the June solstice.

Except that now is about the best time of the year to catch white sturgeon. In general, rain-muddied waters combined with giant tides stir up the fish’s appetites while flushing bait-stealing sharks and rays out of the upstream end of the estuary. During the huge tide swings that flooded much of coastal Marin County last week, sturgeon fishing in San Pablo Bay went from good to excellent.

“Sunday was a banner day,” said Keith Fraser, owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop in San Rafael. Many fish were caught that day mostly on ghost shrimp, and one boat with four fishermen, he says, caught and released four legal-sized fish and two that measured longer than the 60-inch maximum size limit.

San Rafael angler Sean Daugherty was out that day, too. Fishing with two friends, he caught five sturgeon in San Pablo Bay using shrimp for bait. He went again on Monday and caught three more.

Nearly all boats are catching striped bass, too — some of them quite large. A party boat called Soul Man recently caught four two-fish limits of bass, with four of the fish weighing between 15 and 22 pounds, according to Fraser.

The next great tides for sturgeon fishing come in the five days immediately after Christmas, when we can expect more coastal flooding.

“And if you can’t catch a sturgeon then, I recommend you take up bungee jumping,” Fraser quipped.

If you have trouble catching salmon in the next few years, consider writing a letter to Dianne Feinstein. The senator recently wrote up legislative language that overrides legal protections for Central Valley salmon and inserted it into a national water bill that the Senate approved last week. If President Obama signs the bill, California’s farmers will see improved reliability of water supplies at the direct expense of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the fish that live there.

John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said the bill will allow increased pumping of Delta water precisely when fish need that water the most — periods of high flow following large rain events.

“The baby salmon rely on those fast river flows to carry them out to sea, and if those flows are diverted, the fish die,” McManus said.

To help get the doctored-up bill approved by her fellow lawmakers, Feinstein grossly overstated the number of California farms that have gone bankrupt in recent years during a Dec. 9 speech, according to a story published in the Sacramento Bee.

That Feinstein has betrayed California’s salmon to assist the farming industry isn’t exactly a surprise. She is reportedly a close friend of billionaire farm owner Stewart Resnick, who has increased his obscene wealth by growing pistachios, pomegranates and citrus fruit in the western San Joaquin Valley, a region with virtually no water of its own. In 2009, Resnick sent Feinstein a letter complaining about environmental protections that restricted how much water he could secure to irrigate his orchards. In what appeared like a personal favor to her friend, Feinstein promptly urged fishery agencies to reexamine the scientific guidelines by which they had established Delta water pumping limits.

Feinstein has argued that farmers need assistance. Some individuals surely do, but this doesn’t mean they have more right to the water that native fishes require to survive. Moreover, California’s agriculture industry as a whole needs no help at all. The state’s farmers sold $56 billion in goods in 2014—an all-time record. Sales declined to $47 billion in 2015, a drop due largely to a decrease in dairy prices, not production declines. In fact, production of almonds, the most valuable plant crop in the state, is exploding. Bearing acreage is at more than 900,000 and still growing rapidly.

In the meantime, commercial fishermen have had to scratch a living out of a struggling fishery, robbed of the water and the river habitat essential for the salmon’s inland life stages. If a Democrat can be so uncharacteristically indifferent to California’s salmon heritage, there may be no telling what the incoming Republican president will have in store for our rivers and our fish.

Alastair Bland is a Bay Area fisherman. Send him stories, photos or video to or call the IJ sports desk at 382-7206.