Now that the Sentinel photographer blew the lid off my closely guarded secret, Kirk Mathews will finally get his wish. Kirk has always ragged on me to write about the San Lorenzo Steelhead opener, but as you all know, there is an unwritten code of secrecy among the brotherhood of the river and the local San Lorenzo mafia would have my hide if a brigade of fly flingers was to all of a sudden invade the estuary as a result of my loose lips. Well, now it seems to be a moot point, thanks to my good friend John Race and a sneaky Sentinel photographer with a telephoto lens. So, as long as the cat is out of the bag, I might as well give you the full scoop. Tuesday, December 1st was opening day of steelhead season on the San Lorenzo. Not too many of the club members get too excited about the opener, possibly because there is usually too little water and not enough fish in the river to be of much concern. But for me, opening day on the San Lorenzo has become a tradition that goes back almost 50 years. For as long as I can remember my buddy John and I have been there at the crack of dawn every opener with optimistic expectations and more often than not it has paid off. Most of the time we're happy with a handful of egg eaters in the 2-3 lb range but there have been times when we were pleasantly surprised with double digit chromers straight out of the salt. This year, however, we were hoping that those three little blasts of rain in November had been enough to move some half pounders up into the Paradise Park area.
We were on the river at O dark thirty and as the light of day broke, I had the sinking feeling that we had really made the wrong call. The water level was excruciatingly low, even in the deepest holes and even the smolts were few and far between. We made a couple of phone calls to our local steelhead network and soon found out that nobody else had located any fish either. We all decided that we would meet down at the estuary to see if we could spot any fish down at the mouth. The opener is sort of like a family reunion. The comradery of seeing all your old fishing buddies that you may have not seen since last season is part of what makes opening day special. We were all hanging out on the rail of the river walkway above the Riverside Bridge swapping stories and scanning the river for fish.
An hour and half later the tide had dropped out and the sun had penetrated the water nicely, affording perfect spotting conditions. That was when we noticed a suspicious dark mass in the water about mid-river that seemed to be moving ever so slightly. When the first fish turned sideways and sent a silver telltale flash skyward, Yosh and his son, Ryan, were the first ones off the walkway and down on the river. Ryan had crossed the Riverside and was on the opposite bank and Yosh was right underneath us. John and I were spotting for them, pointing out the schools' location, which was really hard to determine from the water level. Ryan made a perfect cast from the opposite bank and his offering landed right in the middle of the dark mass and the school bolted and scattered. Obviously these fish were extremely sketchy but regrouped again farther downstream. John and I ran the walkway down towards the bridge and were pointing out silver flashes in the water but this time we instructed the boys to cast upstream of them and let their baits drift down into them. Yosh's cast drifted perfectly into the school and we could see several fish turning and flashing right underneath his bobber. He was right in the middle of so many fish that I thought that he might accidentally snag one and yet no hook ups. Ryan's bobber finally caught up with the outside edge of the school but he wasn't getting bit either. They both switched up baits several times and with our help from above made perfect presentations by letting their bobbers slide into the school from upstream. Still no takes. It has been my experience in the past that when you get a school of that size of fresh fish in the estuary, they usually get pretty grabby but these guys either had a bad case of lock jaw or maybe they weren't steelhead after all. In 2013 when we seined the estuary, we netted up 8 or so schoolie stripers in one of our sets and recently I had heard a rumor that there had been a large school of stripers that had entered the river this fall chasing schools of bait. If these fish were in fact stripers, that might account for why some of the best steelhead fishermen on the San Lorenzo had beat the water all afternoon and failed to hook a fish. They could have been throwing steelhead baits at stripers instead.
Opening day, falling on a Tuesday, gave us the opportunity to fish two days back to back to see if we could solve this mystery. Loomis met me early Wednesday morning at the Buckeye Hole and we spent the better part of the morning scanning the river up and down to no avail. We didn't see any sign of the school anywhere and around 10:00 Tim decided to bail but before he did, I hit him up for one of the striper flies I had tied for him for the forebay, just in case. I stuck it out for another hour and a half waiting for the tide to drop out to about the same height as the day before when we had spotted the fish but there was still no sign of the school. I was just about ready to pull the plug myself when my buddy, Jaia, showed up with his little 4 year old boy and he assured me that he was positive those fish had to be stripers. He had been one of the guys who had fished all afternoon over those fish and had never even got a scratch. We both walked up and down the river hoping to spot the school but his little guy got antsy and Jaia headed back up to his car, which was parked on the Laurel St. Extension by the Stadium. Several minutes later I heard him hollering my name and I saw him pointing emphatically down at the river. I high tailed it up there and sure enough there was the dark mass hovering just downstream from the instream structure log in the bend of the river. "What are you waiting for?" he exclaimed, "Those are definitely stripers. Go get your fly rod and get after it". So I ran all the way back to my car, which was down by the Riverside Bridge, rigged up my 6 wt. with a sink tip line and the San Luis smelt that Loomis had left me and sprinted back up river only to find Jaia getting in his car to leave. "A diving bird just dove through the middle of the school and scattered it. They're gone." He informed me with a disappointed look. As I tried to catch my breath, I looked down over the rail and, sure enough, the school was no longer there. Knowing that they couldn't have gone that far in that short of time, I started to make my way slowly back down river towards the Riverside Bridge. I had only moved about 30 feet down river from where we had spotted the fish earlier and there they were, tucked up in the shadows of the willows close to the bank on my side of the river. I knew the only way that I could get a cast off to them from my side was to get up above them and cast downstream from the instream structure log at the bend of the river. I hustled up the walkway and around the rail and got into position just in front of the log. As long as the school stayed tucked up against the bank and downstream of me, I had enough room to make a decent back cast, otherwise I would have to navigate a nasty willow patch and a cement wall. My first two casts were terrible but on my third, I just kissed the outside edge of the school, made two strips and wham! Fish on! From the bend in my 6 wt. and the first couple of runs, I knew this was a fairly good fish. It took me quite a while to even see color but after I got it to the surface I had no problem landing it from where I was standing. Normally I don't kill many stripers but this one was obviously legal size and certainly didn't belong in the San Lorenzo so after a few pictures, I conked the fish and hung it in a willow branch on the bank behind me. When I returned to the river for a second round, I noticed that the commotion of me hooking the last fish had spooked the school and it had now moved up river and was directly out in front of me, which, as I have mentioned before, made back casting a bitch. After hooking the willows twice behind me, I knew there was only one way I was going to reach that school. I quickly grabbed my fish, ran up to the river walkway and down 3rd Street, dumped my fish off in my the car, crossed the Riverside Bridge and ran the levee all the way up to the skateboard park and dropped in on the opposite side of the river. Now I had all the room in the world to make the back cast I needed but I knew I would have to be in super stealth mode so I wouldn't spook the fish with the wake of my wading. My guess was that the reason these fish were so spooky was that they had been terrorized by seals under cover of darkness and interpreted any wake with their lateral line as a possible pinniped attack, so I kept my distance, waded very slowly and made the long cast from the opposite bank. I was trying to keep my casts on the perimeter of the school so as not to spook them but it was really hard to determine the position of the school from my low vantage point. Then I heard an old familiar voice call out to me from up on the walkway on the opposite side of the river. "Hey, I'll spot for you." It was my old buddy, John Race, who had just gotten off work and had swung by the river to see if anything was going on. With his direction, I made about 5 more casts and was into another fish. By the way it fought, I could tell that this was definitely a smaller fish. Not having a measuring device and guessing this fish to be just shy of the legal limit, I released it back into the river and as I did, I wondered how many smolt steelhead this fish would consume before it headed back out to sea. John assured me that when I had hooked the last fish that the school had scattered once again. He headed off down the walkway to see if he could locate the fish and to grab his rod and join me on the other side of the river. This must've been when he conferred with the Sentinel photographer because he didn't show up on my side of the river for quite some time and from that point on the school seemed to be in perpetual panic mode. It kept moving up and down the river never holding in one spot long enough to get a good cast off to it. We chased it for another 45 minutes with no results and decided to call it a day. I know this is somewhat of a long story to document the take of only two fish but hey, how often do you get a chance to target stripers on the San Lorenzo? By the time the newspaper printed the picture on Saturday, everybody and his brother was down there with their striper gear trying to find the fish. The funny thing is, nobody has seen neither hide nor hair of the school since the day the Sentinel guy took the picture. My guess is that the school may have gone back out to the ocean but you never know. The fact that I even got a shot at them at all just goes to show you, even a blind squirrel gets an acorn every once in a while.
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