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The Reel Life: Clear Lake Hitch, a key source of food for birds and fish, is on the decline

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Found only in Northern California's Clear Lake and its tributaries, the Clear Lake Hitch isn't your average-sized minnow. It weighs in at almost one pound.

Hitch migrate each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries of Clear Lake to spawn before they return to the lake. Millions of Hitch once clogged the lake's tributaries during spectacular spawning runs, and these biologically significant masses were a vital part of the lake's ecosystem, an important food source for numerous birds, other fish and wildlife. Hitch were once so plentiful that they were a staple food for the Pomo tribes of the Clear Lake region.

Clear Lake Hitch have declined precipitously in abundance as the ecology of their namesake lake has been altered and degraded. By the time regular surveys of spawning began, Hitch abundance had plummeted a hundredfold. Now only a few thousand Hitch make the annual spawning run.

The fish once spawned in every tributary to Clear Lake, but now are able to spawn in significant numbers in only two streams in the Big Valley drainage south of Clear Lake — Kelsey and Adobe creeks. Clear Lake Hitch have declined due to the loss of spawning habitat and nursery areas, migration barriers that block passage to spawning grounds, alteration of creek habitat, in-channel mining, temporary road-building through channels, water pumping, predation by and competition from introduced invasive fish, and the impacts of pollutants.

Oceans and bays

When the bottom fishing boats can reach the Farallon Islands, they are finding limit action for rockfish with an occasional ling cod in the mix. Most boats continue to pursue the unbelievable halibut bite in the bay. The ocean salmon season will reopen June 23.

Lakes and rivers

The Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that Lake Tahoe’s native fish are making a return this summer.

The Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex in Gardnerville, Nev. began stocking the lake with 100,000 catchable Lahontan cutthroat trout on June 1 and will continue stocking throughout the summer as conditions allow.

The reintroduction of Lahontan cutthroat trout has biological and recreational importance as well as significant cultural value to the Washoe Tribe. As the original stewards of Lahontan cutthroat trout, the Washoe Tribe has been an important stakeholder and partner since the beginning of reintroduction in the Tahoe Basin. The tribe has always been supportive of the restoration projects within Washoe ancestral lands.

The fish will be stocked at various publicly accessible locations in both the California and Nevada portions of the lake. Approximately 20% of the trout will be tagged to help biologists evaluate the success of the stocking effort along with the growth, survival and distribution of the fish.

Lahontan cutthroat trout have been stocked intermittently in Lake Tahoe since 2011, although in smaller numbers. They are the only trout native to the Tahoe Basin and the largest cutthroat trout species in the world. The fish being stocked are the Pilot Peak strain of the species, which is known for its fast growth rate and achieving exceptional size. The Pilot Peak strain is also found in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, which attracts anglers from around the world hoping to catch one of the lake’s giant Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Lahontan cutthroat trout are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Their original listing in 1970 predates the modern act itself, which was passed in 1973. The native trout eventually disappeared from Lake Tahoe due to overfishing, damage to spawning tributaries caused by pollution, logging, water diversions, and the introduction of nonnative species. Federal and state efforts are underway throughout the fish’s native range in California and Nevada to restore the species and its habitat.

While this summer’s stocking may improve future restoration efforts, it is an initiative to expand recreational trout fishing opportunities for the public, enhance the near-shore fishery, and to foster an appreciation for this iconic native species.

Salmon mooching

In California “salmon mooching” has become a lost art. This technique was a very effective way to catch salmon in the ocean. The advantages were larger fish, peaceful fishing (no motor running) and lighter gear. The set-up was a double hook rig, a 4-foot leader, and a two-ounce banana sinker with a frozen anchovy. In 1997, the California Fish and Game mandated the use of circle hooks to help with the mortality of undersized salmon. With the new hooks, the success rate plummeted and most of the fleet abandoned this method. Bite Me Charters out of San Rafael will run mooching trips later in the season when the fish are more concentrated. If you are patient, this is still a fun and successful way to catch salmon.

GSSA fundraiser

The Golden State Salmon Association is California’s leading voice for salmon protection and restoration — particularly in the Bay-Delta ecosystem, which produces most of the salmon caught in the state. The association represents the entire California salmon community, including commercial and recreational fishermen, charter boat skippers, inland river guides, restaurants, fishing manufacturers and retailers, and tribal members.

The fundraiser was held at Friedman Event Center in Santa Rosa. Pam and Mark Smithers of St. Helena purchased a table in support of GSSA and I was invited to attend. The dinner attracted close to 400 guests who enjoyed an open bar with a chicken and rib dinner. A raffle and auction were held to benefit salmon through GSSA. I was lucky enough to win a scoop of bait from J & P bait in San Francisco (goldenstatesalmon.org).

Brent Randol can be reached at brentrandol@comcast.net or 707-481-3319.

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