Saturday’s salmon fishing opener: What you need to know

By Tom Stienstra
March 30, 2017
The opening of salmon season is Saturday, with forecasts for fish and weather that make opening day — and the upcoming season — a huge mystery across the Pacific. It’s not lost on many that the opener is on April Fool’s Day.

What is a sure thing is that the season will open Saturday with a two-fish limit, 24-inch minimum. It will stay that way at least through April 30, a date set a year ago.

How many salmon are out there? Where are they? What about the weather and sea conditions? What does the rest of the season look like? How much will fishing trips cost?

The answers to those questions are now emerging, provided by Hall of Fame skipper Roger Thomas of the Salty Lady out of Sausalito, and scientists with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and Department of Fish and Wildlife:

How many salmon are out there?
In a good year, biologists would forecast about 1 million salmon in the ocean along the Bay Area coast, according to numbers provided by the council. This year, they estimate about 230,000. In the past three years, the forecast numbers of adult salmon have been 652,000 (for 2015), 299,600 (for 2016) and 230,700 (for 2017). You see a trend? To rate ocean abundance and validate the forecasts, in a good year, sport anglers would catch about 400,000 salmon and the commercial fleet more than 500,000. Last year, sport anglers caught only 36,000 salmon and the commercial fleet 56,000. This year is forecast to be worse.

Where are they?
It might be like the old shell game out there, but the No. 1 span of water for most is offshore at the 40-fathom line, outside of N Buoy, Thomas said. Whale watching boats have verified large schools of anchovies and water temperatures at 52 to 55 degrees, both good signs. On the other hand, krill are scarce, and are not expected to reach abundance as food for salmon until the annual big winds out of the northwest arrive, which produces upwelling, in late spring.

Where aren’t they?
Over the years, the best bite for the opener has been in Monterey Bay, where 4,000 to 5,000 salmon would be caught over the opening weekend. Last year, the opener was a drought out of Monterey, and in the months that followed, only about 1,000 salmon were caught for the entire year from Pigeon Point (near Pescadero) on south through Monterey Bay to the Mexican border. Most remain doubtful until verifiable catch numbers are reported.

What about the weather and sea conditions?
The best weather in weeks is forecast for the coast on Saturday, mid-70s in San Francisco and no chance of rain in the long-range outlook until late next week. Monitor National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio for weather buoy updates. A calm day on the briny green Saturday would seem like a miracle after the past winter. The storms that hit the Bay Area coast this winter have kept the sea turbulent, often with big swells pushed by wind. This past week, wind has been as high as 20 to 30 knots with 10-foot seas.

What does the rest of the season look like?
The season is open through April 30. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council will then set this year’s seasons and regulations at hearings April 6-11 in Sacramento. The council will consider several proposals designed to minimize impact on Klamath River salmon (which rarely stray south of Fort Bragg) and the endangered winter-run salmon from the Sacramento River (which are most vulnerable in the spring off the coast before migrating through the bay to upriver spawning areas). The option that seems most likely is that the fishing will be shut down from May 1 to June 15 to protect the winter-run, followed by a season for the more abundant fall-run fish now in the ocean. But far more drastic closures, or none at all, could also be the outcome.

How much will it cost?
The average cost of boarding a party boat for salmon fishing will range from $115 to $130, more in some cases for six-pack trips or charters. “Costs are up dramatically,” Thomas said, based on overhead for fuel, insurance, and any repairs. Salmon trips will be offered out of San Francisco, Sausalito, San Rafael, Berkeley, Emeryville, Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay, Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and Monterey.

Technique:
When schools of fish are not tightly schooled, the best success comes for those who troll, not mooch, to cover the maximum amount of water in the minimum amount of time. Most party boats will troll with each rod having a single anchovy, taken down 30 to 50 feet with a lead ball sinker in a release; when the fish strikes, the sinker drops off and you fight only the fish. Private boaters often use downriggers, on which the fishing line is set in a release that resembles a clothespin; that release is clipped in a separate wire line with a weight. When a fish bites, it is pulled out of the clip and you fight only the fish, not the weight.

Saving the day:
The consensus is that amid drought in 2014, this year’s salmon season was saved when 12 million juvenile salmon from Coleman National Fish Hatchery in the north state were trucked to the bay and then released in pulses from submerged net pens. On their own, only 5 percent of the fish, about 6 inches long, were predicted to survive a maze of pumps, water diversions, reverse flows in delta channels, high water temperatures, low water quality and predation to make it to the bay. A consortium of agencies and organizations, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Golden Gate Salmon Association, were credited for the plan. “If it wasn’t for the trucking, we wouldn’t have a season this year,” Thomas said.

Tom Stienstra is the outdoors writer for The Chronicle. His outdoors report can be heard Saturdays on KCBS (740 and 106.9) at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 12:35 p.m. Email: tstienstra@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @StienstraTom

If you want to go

Salmon opener: The salmon season opens Saturday for the Golden Gate Fleet at San Francisco Bay ports, plus out of Bodega Bay, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and Monterey.

Limits: Two-fish limit, 24-inch minimum size.

Fishing license: Buy your California fishing license prior to a trip; (800) 565-1458, or www.ca.wildlifelicense.com/internetsales.

Sea conditions: Pillar Point Harbor, (650) 726-6070, extension 2.

Tackle: Gus’ Discount Fishing Tackle, San Francisco, (415) 752-6197, www.gusdiscounttackle.com; Hi’s Tackle Box, (650) 588-1200, South San Francisco, www.histackleboxshop.com.

Boats/selected harbors

San Francisco: Wacky Jacky Sportfishing, (415) 586-9800, www.wackyjackysportfishing.com.
Sausalito: Salty Lady, (415) 674-3474, www.saltylady.com.
Berkeley: Berkeley Charter Boats, (510) 849-3333, www.berkeleycharterboats.com.
Emeryville: Emeryville Sportfishing Center, (800) 575-9944, emeryvillesportfishing.com.
San Rafael: Executive Fishing Charters, San Rafael, (415) 460-9773.
Half Moon Bay: Queen of Hearts, (510) 581-2628, www.fishingboat.com.
Bodega Bay: Bodega Bay Sportfishing, (707) 875-3344, www.bodegabaysportfishing.com.