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When salmon swam in Sonoma

When spring was a much wetter season than it is today, and when there were far fewer houses and vineyards in the flat area now bound by Patten Street at the north and Fifth Street East, it was possible to wade in knee-deep water for more than a mile, including through the area where Prestwood School is today.

The nearly flat plain slopes slightly south toward the bay. Before it was developed it was laced with dozens of tiny winter streams and shallow pools supporting all manner of wildlife, including ducks, geese, pheasant and quail. The abundant water also induced the growth of vast, dense blackberry hedges providing great picking as the water receded and the berries ripened.

After dark, the cacophony of croaking from millions of frogs could be heard downtown. I heard stories of local farmers finding salmon and steelhead swimming in their flooded fields and using pitchforks to spear a few for dinner.

I was reminded of that tale and those incredible vernal pools filled with all manner of creatures recently while reading an article from California Trout about the Nigiri Project in the Central Valley. It was started for the purpose of saving the once-great king salmon runs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

It began as a five-acre experiment in the corner of a rice field on one ranch. The general idea was to replicate conditions that used to be common in the Valley before channels, dikes and levees were built so the land could be farmed. In those pre-farm days when the Chinook salmon run on those two Central Valley rivers was the largest in the world, baby salmon and steelhead would spend a healthy part of their early growth cycle in the relatively safe and nutritious flooded fields adjacent to the main river.

Today, only five percent of Central Valley floodplains remain intact, and three of the four native Chinook salmon are listed as threatened or endangered.

According to the CalTrout article, the idea of re-establishing flood plains for young fish is simple. “Sunlight makes sugar, sugar makes bugs, bugs ultimately make fish…We have lost 95% of our floodplains and wetlands, so why are we surprised that we have ended up with just 5% of our fish biomass?”

That comment got me thinking about the dramatic drop in salmon and steelhead runs in our own watershed, from abundant to almost nothing.

The Nigiri Project is not an attempt to turn farmed lands back into floodplains, but to integrate salmon-friendly flooded fields with the farming that exists there. It has worked well enough so far that the project will be expanded to other areas in the Central Valley.

Sonoma Valley’s situation is considerably different, but it does give me hope that one day, someone might come up with an idea that would bring our salmon and steelhead runs back to life. For more information go to caltrout.org.

Fisherman’s update

Speaking of salmon, the ocean season opens off the Sonoma coast on June 26 and runs through October. Now is the time to make reservations on a party boat if you want to catch your own fresh salmon.

Capt. Rick Powers of Bodega Bay Sportsfishing will be providing salmon, rockfish and lingcod combo trips. Currently, the rock and lingcod trips are bringing home full limits of rock cod plus one or two lingcod per angler, plus a few Dungeness crab. Call Rick at 875-3344 to reserve a space now for rockfish, and from June 26 on for salmon and rock fish.

Inside San Francisco Bay, the halibut fishing has been excellent. Keith Fraser of Loch Lomond Bait Shop in San Rafael said a 50-pound halibut was landed by a guy fishing with Loch Lomond live smelt off the Paradise Park Pier on the Marin Shoreline. Call Keith at (415) 456-0321 for the latest conditions and tips on where to fish.

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