By Steve Thao
The San Joaquin River is California's second longest. It's also a river in recovery.
Construction of Friant Dam near Fresno in the 1940s dramatically altered the San Joaquin and killed its hearty runs of salmon and steelhead. Today, however, long-dead stretches of the river are coming back to life, and Chinook salmon are once again spawing near Fresno, thanks to the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.
Trout Unlimited is playing an important role in restoring the San Joaquin. We are educating the diverse angling community in the Fresno region about the restoration program and its many benefits for anglers -- in particular, the creation and improvement of off-channel fishing opportunities along the river as well as the return of salmon and steelhead.
We are also organizing events that connect people directly to the river, such as our Annual Fishing Derby in March and our Fall SalmonFest.
On a smaller scale, we are putting people actually on the water. Recently, for example, I organized a "fish-float" of the San Joaquin between Lost Lake and Fort Washington Beach -- in canoes.
The promise of virgin fishing grounds was too enticing to pass up for twenty four Fresno anglers -- even if they weren't old hands at canoeing.
The eight miles of river we floated get very little use and have poor access. Lack of easy access to some sections of the river is the primary reason many people living in this part of the Central Valley haven’t fully embraced the San Joaquin as the great recreational and fishing resource it is.
But savvy anglers know this segment of the San Joaquin offers good fishing for multiple species of bass, trout, and other fish.
We all met at 8 a.m. After a safety lesson and a canoeing primer, we headed to the river for some practice. The group was a nice mix of men and women, with two kids along as well.
I was in a canoe with 10-year-old Nathan and his 17-year-old uncle, Andrew. As our caravan of canoes slowly meandered down the river, we tossed swimbaits, crankbaits and soft plastic worms into the river. The day was a perfect 80 degrees, with warm sunshine and cool, clear water running beneath us.
I cast several times for Nathan and he ended up getting three bites. Unfortunately, he was not able to set the hook fast enough to bring in a fish.
We spied a few trout, many mudsuckers and a handful of bass, but no one was able to land a fish. The most exciting moment happened in one of the larger areas of open water, where a striped bass took angler Wang Fang’s white fluke. We all watched in anticipation as he battled the bass for several minutes. Suddenly, his 17-pound braided line snapped right in front of the canoe as three people witnessed the monster fish rise up to within four feet of him. Everyone agreed that the fish was as big as a large man’s thigh.
Helping anglers experience parts of the river they haven't seen before, or simply having a leisurely canoe ride on a pleasant day, helps make the San Joaquin River restoration seem a little more real, and helps people appreciate just how amazing this river truly is.
All photos courtesy of Thai Xiong.
Steve Thao is San Joaquin Valley Outreach Coordinator for Trout Unlimited.