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This year's windy forecast calls for a lot of salmon

Tom Stienstra  April 1, 2007, San Francisco Chronicle

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This year's windy forecast calls for a lot of salmon
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03/29/2007 This year's salmon season has the chance to be a triple jackpot. But the problem with jackpots is that they can take a fortune to hit.

Anglers will get their first glimpse of the potential treasures next Saturday when the salmon season opens for the Golden Gate Fleet out of harbors on San Francisco Bay, as well as for boats out of Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay and Monterey Bay.

Here's what's in store:

-- Jackpot 1: 500,000 salmon from the Sacramento River are projected to roam the Bay Area coast this summer and be available to catch.

-- Jackpot 2: Another 515,000 salmon from the Klamath will be roaming off Northern California, the best projected season for the Klamath in years, with enough fish straying south to provide a significant bounce.

-- Jackpot 3: Last year's record 1.7 million year-class of three-year-old salmon for the Bay Area coast had a terrible return due to poor feed and ocean conditions. Many believe these fish simply stayed offshore, chasing sardines, rather than return to spawn. So the wildcard is that another 750,000 salmon, perhaps even more, could return this year to the Bay Area coast this year as big 4-year-olds, the 20- to 40-pounders that jackpots are made of.

The final result: These fish from different schools or year-classes could mix and create hordes of salmon and provide bonanza-type fishing, absolute wide-open sieges of big fish. But remember, even when the odds are right, jackpots take plenty of luck to hit.

Last year held great promise with the high salmon forecast, but it turned into an overall dud. Spring storms and rough seas kept boats tied up many days in April, May and early June. Schools of feed/baitfish were generally sparse until early summer, and the southerly wind flow and water temperatures of 58 to 59 degrees were far too warm to hold the fish in the area. As a side note, conditions were terrible all the way up to Alaska last year and just about everybody on the Pacific Coast reported generally poor salmon fishing.

This year is a whole new ballgame. There's already been phases of strong north winds, which creates upwelling and starts the marine food chain. That is because winds out of the northwest divert surface currents roughly 90 degrees, and in turn, deep, cold nutrient-rich water then rises to the surface. Extensive upwelling creates some of the richest marine waters in the world off the Bay Area coast.

That is why the water is 52 degrees right now, full of plankton, anchovies and sardines (though krill are again few). Over the past 25 years, cold water full of food has resulted in our best salmon catches, so the table is set.

The resurgence of sardine is an unknown variable. "The sardines have the potential to change the behavior of salmon," said Craig Stone, owner of Emeryville Sportfishing Center. "Instead of staying in local waters and chasing anchovies around, the salmon can stay offshore, because supposedly, sardine is their favorite food. It's possible that's what happened last year, the salmon went offshore for sardines. So there could be holdovers this year, absolutely."

If the wind is down next Saturday morning, it's likely there will be thousands of anglers on the water, all hoping to hit the jackpot. Over the years, when conditions are optimal, as now, salmon tend to congregate in a few predictable spots in early April:

-- Golden Gate Fleet: Vicinity of S Buoy (if the wind is down), with the nearby option of hitting 10 miles off Pedro Point at Pacifica; Duxbury (if the wind is up).

-- Half Moon Bay: Pedro Point and S Buoy (if the wind is down); Deep Reef and Martin's Beach (if the wind is up).

-- Bodega Bay: Point Reyes to the south, the mouth of Salmon Creek to the north (if the wind is down); Whistle Buoy or three miles off Tomales Point (if wind is up).

Keep tuned to Channel 67 on VHF marine radios, where information is exchanged on catch locations. Most everybody will troll, not drift mooch, on the opener in order to fish the largest amount of water in smallest amount of time.

This year's rules are simpler than in the past. Last year's ridiculous 3-mile limit for the opener (which accomplished nothing) is out. This year you can fish wherever your heart takes you, with a two-fish limit, 20-inch size minimum. No more than two single point barbless hooks can be used, which has been standard for years. Another plus is that the season will run continuously this year, April 7 through Nov. 11, with no closed dates.

Most trips on party boats will cost in the $85 range this year, with space still available on boats for next weekend. It will cost about $1,800 this year to charter a 50-footer for a weekend date (about $1,500 for a weekday), comfortable for 20 anglers, and acceptable for more.

Rafting the Upper Sacramento River at flood stage and other great paddle adventures are featured on "The Great Outdoors With Tom Stienstra" today at 10 a.m. on KBCW-44 (Bay Area Cable 12).

Fishing report hotline: (510) 654-6696. Party boat charters: Wacky Jacky Sportfishing, S.F., (415) 586-9800; Lovely Martha, S.F., (650) 871-1691; Caruso's, Sausalito, (415) 332-1015; Salty Lady, Sausalito, (415) 348-2107; Berkeley Marina Sportfishing Center, (510) 849-2727; Emeryville Sportfishing Center, (510) 654-6040; Huck Finn Sportfishing, Princeton/Half Moon Bay, (650) 726-7133; Riptide, Princeton, 1-888-747-8433.

Tackle/fishing info: Hi's Tackle, S.F., (415) 221-3825; Gus' Discount Tackle, S.F., (415) 752-6197; coastsidefishingclub.com.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

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