The Pleasant Valleys Road Bridge over Lake Solano, a still-water section of Putah Creek above the Solano Diversion Dam, used to be a popular spot where anglers from throughout the area would congregate to catch rainbow trout on a variety of offerings. But the bridge is nearly deserted now any day you cross it.
On weekends, families, including many farmworkers from the Winters area, would spread throughout the river and accesses on the creek, to catch trout. The Department of Fish and Wildlife planted the lake with lots of rainbow and brown trout for decades, providing a good put-and-take fishery. Many of the fish would grow to become big, fat holdovers.
The creek below Monticello Dam, the dam that forms Lake Berryessa, has constant temperatures of 50-55 degrees because the creek draws from the cold depths of the lake’s water, creating a classic “tail water” fishery.
However, the popularity of the fishery in declined dramatically after rainbow and brown trout plants ceased in both the creek and lake in 2008. Although the popular planted trout fishery is no longer, the creek has been reborn as a trophy trout fishery and there is now a wild, self-sustaining rainbow population in the creek and lake.
The California Fish and Game Commission, responding to a request by Putah Creek Trout, other angling groups, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, designated the fishery as a trophy “Wild Trout” stream in December 2014.
CDFW stopped stocking Putah Creek and Lake Solano with catchable trout when the Department was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity and other NGOs in regards to effects of its fish stocking on ESA and CESA listed species, according to Stephanie Hogan with the DFW Heritage & Wild Trout Program.
“Hatchery trout impacts on sensitive native species include predation, competition, and changes to ecological relationships. Interbreeding with native trout could alter genetic composition of wild populations such as hatchery fish breeding with Central Valley steelhead,” she said.
Since the Department stopped stocking, the Department and Putah Creek Trout have been monitoring the wild trout fishery and angler use on an annual basis. Along with this, they have successfully completed numerous habitat restoration projects, increased outreach to anglers, and have an ongoing research study to track localized movements of trout within the system.
“Our efforts have shown an increase in the wild trout fishery, particularly an increase in smaller size classes, which is indicative of a healthy spawning population,” she said. “Putah Creek is a productive fishery with some of the highest observed growth rates in the state, which lends itself well to having some very large, 18-plus inch trout in the system.”
Steve Karr, Executive Director of Putah Creek Trout, said the number of trout has quadruped in the 4 miles of creek below Monticello Dam since they began their surveys.
“The average size of fish in the creek now is under 10 inches, but there is a good population of 12 to 18 inch fish. The trophy fish over 20 inches are about 10 percent of the fishery,” he said.
He said the number of fish spawning on redds (nests) in the creek has also risen dramatically. “We saw 89 adult fish spawning on redds the first year, 150 the next year and then 400 last year,” Karr noted.
However, there is limited spawning gravel on the creek, so his group and the agency are working to improve spawning habitat. The habitat restoration efforts on Putah Creek are designed to improve habitat to increase salmonid populations both above and below the Solano Diversion Dam, according to Hogan.
“Efforts above the Lake Solano diversion will aid wild trout populations that support the newly designated Wild Trout Water Fishery,” she said. “Restoration effort below the diversion dam will improve habitat for both anadromous salmonids (Central Valley steelhead and Chinook salmon) as well as resident trout.”
Hogan said the dams are the main issue because they are fish passage barriers and reduce the frequency of high-flow events that deliver spawning gravels and scour gravels to free them of sediment. The Department recommended to the Fish and Game Commission that Putah Creek be designated as ”Wild Trout Water” because it is a popular fishery that provides anglers with a unique opportunity to catch trophy-sized trout.
“These fish are wild and self-sustaining and Putah Creek receives quite a bit of angling pressure,” Hogan said. “By including it in the Wild Trout Program, it will be actively monitored and managed to ensure the self-sustaining fishery is maintained concurrent with the angling pressure it receives. Along with the designation comes the requirement to create a Fishery Management Plan and this will outline recommendations on how best to monitor and maintain it for future generations of wild trout anglers.”
She said that there have been no genetic studies of the trout conducted that she is aware of, but the fish in Putah Creek above the Diversion Dam are considered a coastal rainbow trout. The three most-common species in the creek are coastal rainbow trout, three-spine stickleback and sculpin, all of which are native. No brown trout have been detected in the surveys.
“Sculpin are very well-camouflaged in the substrate but if you were to go to the lower portion of Putah Creek near Lake Solano, you can see thousands of three-spine stickleback darting around in the slower water; it is quite cool,” she said.
Other native species include pike minnow, western mosquitofish and Sacramento suckers. A few non-native bluegills have also been captured in the lower portion of the creek, according to Hogan.
In tribute to the restoration efforts on the creek, over 100 salmon were reported in the lower creek in the fall of 2014. I asked her why the numbers in the creek have gone up in a year when the numbers of salmon in other Central Valley rivers dropped from the two previous years.
“It is likely that most of these salmon are strays from other Central Valley streams,” said Hogan. “Along with habitat restoration, required water releases by the Solano County Water Agency may have improved conditions for salmon in recent years. During this drought winter releases may have attracted more salmon upstream.”
Below the Solano Diversion Dam, anglers can find a sleeper fishery for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, carp, sunfish, channel catfish and some rainbow trout in the the upper, cooler reaches. However, most of the access is on private land.
Karr noted that Putah Creek is unique is being the only designated trophy “wild trout” fishery on the west of the Sacramento Valley and is the closest one to Bay Area anglers.
“The fishery was in really bad shape after the trout plants stopped,” Karr said. “Now the fishery is rebounding and I’m proud our group has been able to work with the CDFW in a cooperative program to restore the fishery.”
For more information about Putah Creek Trout, go to http://www.putahcreektrout.org.
Putah Creek Council, a group dedicated to the protection and enhancement of Putah Creek and its tributaries through advocacy, education and community-based stewardship, conducts tree, shrub and planting along the creek and Lake Solano. For more information, go to http://www.putahcreekcouncil.org. Lake Solano/Putah Creek Facts:
Season: Putah Creek is open to trout fishing year round. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used. There is a zero limit on trout,
Lake Solano from the Solano Diversion dam to the Island Split is open year round also, but anglers aren’t restricted to artificial lures with barbless hooks. There is a five fish limit on trout, but catch and release is highly advisable since the neither the lake or creek are no longer planted with trout any more.
Lake Solano County Park: A destination point for outdoor enthusiasts since its creation in 1973, Lake Solano Park caters especially to anglers, boaters, campers, swimmers, sunbathers and picnickers. The lake is 1.5 miles long and has a capacity of 750 acre feet of water. Owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Solano has been administered as a recreational area by the County of Solano since 1971. More than 200,000 visitors a year enjoy a wealth of recreational activities both on and off the water.
Campground: The County operates a campground with 90 campsites, of which 40 have water and electric hookups. There are restrooms which have flush toilets, sinks and hot showers.
Day Use Facilities: The day use area has picnic sites, group picnic facilities, and a free boat launch for non-powered vessels, parking, restrooms and a public telephone. The picnic area is located directly east of the campground. Paddle boat and canoe rentals are available on the weekends. To contact Lake Solano Park call 530-795-2990.
Yolo County Putah Creek Fishing Access. Five access points are provided for fishing along the creek as its winds it way along Highway 128 from below Monticello Dam to the Pleasant Valley Road Bridge. The access offers picnic tables, barbecues, parking and sanitary facilities.
Guide Service: Craig Bonovich, Bono’s Putah Creek Flyfishing Guide Service, (800) 480-5285 or (707) 480-3809, wwwputahcreekflyfishing.com. He guides for wild rainbow trout in Putah Creek from March 1 through October 31.To protect spawning trout, he doesn’t fish from November 1 through the end of February. New Zealand
Mudsnails: For tips on preventing the spread of this invasive species, go to: http://www.putahcreektrout.org/mudsnails/index.html