Our good friends Kirby and Sam came up to visit for the opening weekend of Striped Bass speafishing in the Sacramento River Valley District…and to have a look around the Sierra Nevada mountain range for morel mushrooms (Morchella elata and M. angusticeps).
I had spent the previous evening rigging up my speargun. The bungies needed mending and I had to replace the shooting line. It had been a while since the trusty hunting tool had been in its intended element— Water.
It was good to see the guys again. Both of them, along with my wife and myself were all Humboldt State University Alumn. We had some really good memories from behind the Redwood Curtain to share over a beer or two.
One of the best things about good foragers is that they also often come bearing gifts… and this crew brought some real gems! They bestowed upon us some sizable chunks of white seabass, yellowtail, California halibut, cabrilla, and even some smoked landlocked salmon. Our freezer was now sufficiently stocked and we were all smiles. It had been over a year since the last time we all got to hang out and so of course we had plenty of foraging stories to swap. Sam told us of adventures fishing on the rough and frigid waters of the Bearing Sea in Alaska and Kirby related his latest battle wrestling his wounded 60lbs white seabass away from a 12 ft. long sevengill shark (Notorynchus cepedianus) as the sun set on their kelp bed over a mile's swim from shore.
About that time my brother-in-law, Jesse, stepped in, also bearing gifts. He had brought a flat of assorted homebrew including Irish stouts, doppelbocks, a Belgian quad, and more. While the dogs played, we hatched our plan for the following day’s adventure and enjoyed Jesse's hand-crafted beer.
We were on the water by 9am. Not one of us had dove this river before but we had heard rumors of productivity and decent visibility. You see, the Sacramento River Valley District has been open to spearfishing for several invasive species for years now. Some divers actually took advantage of that opportunity and hunted these waters for carp and giant goldfish. But last year they opened the river to another invasive species (a very tasty one)—the Striped Bass.
Even though this was done because striped bass have been decimating native juvenile salmonid (Oncorhynchus mykiss, Oncorhynchus kisutch) and delta smelt populations (Hypomesus transpacificus), opening the river to allow spearos to thin the schools really caused an uproar. It was unfortunate, but some hook and line anglers turned violent and started threatening the safety of divers who dared come after these fish. We are subsistence foragers, we mean no disrespect, but if it is legal, and we can help keep our waters healthy, and help our native species have a fighting chance in the meantime, then we will be there! So now you have some context as to the waters we were jumping into.
When we entered the river it was surreal. It was as if you mixed the scenery from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with an old pirate swashbuckler film. The river had the feel of an economically depressed waterway of the Deep South, and yet the ubiquitous half-sunken boats made me think we should all be armed with swards or cannons. I half expected to see a sign painted on the bridge reading “Pirates, Ye be warned!”
We dove hard all day and had a lot of laughs in between. Yet not a striped bass was seen. We heard they were still holding up at the river mouth and would not enter until a little later in the season. We did encounter a huge bull sea lion (Zalophus californianus) though! That was strange as we were miles upstream from any salt water. He seemed to be "happy as a clam" as he was diving over and over likely well-fed on all of the fish we did not see.
After a time we switched our focus. We were headed back downstream and planned to stop at a spot our buddy Carter had found…oh yeah, Carter met us by Kayak mid-way up the river. When we got to the spot we anchored and dropped down to the silt bottom. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There were more signal crawfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) than I have ever seen! We casually snatched up about 100 in a half hour for appetizers for the next two nights and left at least as many still there on the bottom in that little spot.
We shot a little video while we were there as well.
When we got back we had a crawdad boil that night.
The next day I had to grade mid-term exams and papers but Sam and Kirby headed deep into the mountains and found a treasure trove of Morels!
That night we started with crawdad cakes, and then had a main course of white seabass fillets with a morel cream sauce and herb potatoes.
Not too bad at all!
Keep the old ways alive!