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2018 AOTY/DOTY Entry

Topic: San Joaquin River Hidden Jewel  (Read 1230 times)

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  • View Profile http://www.paddleandflies.com
  • Location: The center of california
  • Date Registered: Dec 2004
  • Posts: 424
Fresno's hidden jewel
Increased water flow, DFG restocking open up fishing opportunities on San Joaquin River.
By Marek Warszawski / The Fresno Bee
10/11/06 05:03:10

FRIANT — Bright sunshine and brilliant blue sky reflect off the San Joaquin River as Rickey Noel Mitchell (Paddle and Flies) gently pushes his kayak into the placid water.

It's 9 a.m. on a weekday morning and except for a handful of fishermen casting from shore, Lost Lake Park is deserted.

Bank fishing has little appeal for Mitchell, and so does fishing from fancy bass boats. Instead, the 25-year Fresno resident fishes almost exclusively from kayaks, small human-powered watercraft propelled by a double-bladed paddle.

When he isn't working as an instructional aide for Fresno Unified School District, Mitchell moonlights as a kayak fishing guide, exposing clients to the nooks and crannies of local reservoirs and rivers.

"They're kind of like a magic carpet; kayaks enable you to go on all waters, including places where other boats can't go," Mitchell says. "They're economical and environmentally friendly, and you can load one on top of the car by yourself."

Accompanying Mitchell on a recent 8.25-mile paddle from Lost Lake Park to Fort Washington Beach are myself and fellow kayak fishing enthusiast Jim Meier of Clovis. ( Rockfish) Riding shotgun between Meier's legs is Sam, his small black beagle-cocker spaniel mix.

"I do all the work," Meier says with a smile. "She just goes along for the ride."

Mitchell and I both pilot polyethylene sit-on-top kayaks, which have the seat and leg areas contoured into the deck. Meier uses a more traditional sit-inside model.

Veteran anglers, such as Buck Deaner of Fishermans Warehouse, call the San Joaquin "the best-kept secret in Fresno." But because of limited access, the best way to experience the river is to float down it on a kayak or canoe.

"The San Joaquin is a hidden jewel," Mitchell says. "If it weren't for a kayak, I never would've discovered this river."

The San Joaquin has been all over the media thanks to the recent settlement between farmers and environmentalists to release more water in the river channel and restore long-dead salmon runs by 2013.

But here's another news flash: There's plenty of water (353 cubic feet per second on Monday from Friant Dam) and fish in the river right now.

Thanks to constant stocking by the Department of Fish and Game, rainbow trout inhabit most of the ripples and deep pools below Friant Dam. Farther downstream, bass and bluegill can be found in algae-covered ponds that were once empty gravel pits.

"There are some vicious fish out there," Meier says.

The action actually is quite sluggish until we get a couple miles downstream of Lost Lake Park and its boulders spray-painted with graffiti. Fly-fishing with a glow bug below a small rapid, Meier hooks a nice 12-inch rainbow.

A little ways downstream, Meier spots several large fish holding between the steep riverbank and a clump of logs. I cast a silver Blue Fox Foxtail lure into the area and immediately get a hit.

Fifteen thrilling seconds later, I reel in an even larger rainbow that Mitchell excitedly captures with a net. It measures 17 inches and weighs about 3 pounds.

While I assume the fish is a recent plant from the DFG's trophy trout program, Mitchell and Meier disagree, believing it has been in the river for more than a year.

"That's a heckuva ( I said hell of a fish)," Mitchell says as I release it back into the water.

Because of its slow flows and small rapids, the San Joaquin is a suitable river for beginners. By keeping the boat in the middle of the channel and avoiding obvious boulders and trees called "strainers" that grow along the banks, even first-time paddlers can have an enjoyable time.

In many sections, the river seems more like a canal. It was in these slow sections, paddling steadily, that I begin to imagine what this waterway could look like in 10 years.

Stimulated by higher-than-normal flows from consecutive heavy winters, the riparian habitat along the river appears healthier. Willows and cottonwoods grow in abundance along its banks. With more water, perhaps valley oaks and sycamores can make a comeback, too.

And then there are the fish. While most of the attention is focused on salmon — and rightly so — anglers should be equally excited about the striped bass and other species that will inhabit the river once it permanently re-connects with the Delta.

"I'm anticipating the river corridor is going to look healthier and there will be an increase in the the variety of life that the river will support," says Dave Koehler, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

Public access remains an issue. Simply put, there isn't enough of it — even though many parcels along the river have been paid for by public funds.

Officials promise access will improve once they figure out (I'm told) how to raise funds to provide proper stewardship for the lands.

But for now, the best way to enjoy the San Joaquin River is from the seat of a kayak.

It won't be Fresno's hidden jewel much longer. It will just be a jewel.   

It was October 9 that Marek Warszawski, Jim Meier and Sam ( and of course myself got together to do a river trip. Marek and I had been talking about doing a kayak fishing trip for a while, When it finally happened it was to bring attention to the river to which I was in total agreement with. I was all for letting the people of the San Joaquin Valley know they have  a river worth caring about. Looking out over the fields of fruit orchards, farmlands or the land the gravel company now owns, as your driving down the Friant Road on your way to Millerton Lake or Table Rock Casino, you’d never know a river ran through all of that.
Going north on Highway 41 or 99 you can get a good look at the San Joaquin as you cross the bridges over the river. However if you wanted to do more than admire the river from a distance as I did years ago, the first thing that you learn is that excesses to the river are few. These days there is of course the Lost Lake Park area which is probably the largest area opened to the public. Fort Washington Beach which is eight miles down river. Fort Washington Beach is where the trips begins and ends. I meet my clients there we then drive to Lost Lake Park in my truck. Monday morning I met Jim and Sam at the beach, I’m still not sure who brought whom.
It was a good day to be on the river, and my first since the high waters of the previous winter had been slowed down to the 353 feet per second we would enjoy that day. Our little paddling caravan began it’s way down the San Joaquin 9:00 Monday Morning with me in the lead.
Although they’re not in the article I cut and pasted, there where photos of all of us in the paper including Sam. Who is welcome in my yak anytime, Sam not Jim. The only reason Jim got his picture in the paper was he was in the kayak with Sam. In all honesty I was glad to have Jim along because he’d been down the river since it had been down, and I was just a bit apprehensive about taking Marek down the river. When I ask him about his paddling experience he said he’d been in a kayak before but no matter what craft he was in, every time he went down the river he always round up in the water. Within a few minutes we came to our first rapids, now I’m not talking class three, but a mild two at best. At this time I would like to mention I was also trying out the new Liquid Logic Manta Ray--14 ft—kayak, which I pleased to say did very well on the river. I went through the first run just find, as did Sam and Jim followed by Marek.  I had Marek in a really stable yak, one of the original Wilderness Systems Rides.
   Marek’s paddling skills were decent and he was cautious as well, after seeing him work his way through the first run, I a lot less apprehensive.  The high waters had kept me off the river for months. Running at 353 feet per inch the river was gorgeous. I normally paddle down the river at 150 to 200, it was good be back on it at the strength it was running, today the San Joaquin was behaving like a real river.
We tried a few casts after the first run with no luck. We paddled on for another hour or so. For really good fishing 9:OO am is a late start, on this river the earlier the better.
There’s a blue wing olive hatch that happens up and down this river all year long, and I saw signs it was still happening even after the high waters. The olive hatch and others such as caddis, damselflies, and my favorite…the hexagenia are their strongest early morning and evenings, and I’ve seen these large golden mayflies as late as November. I hope to see these other hatches next time I’m on the river.
   We moved down river casting to pockets and riffles as we went. We also saw bird life in the form of egrets, red tail and at least one sharp shinned hawk as well as an assortment of ducks, grebes and of course common coots. As I look past the river towards the Bluffs on the Madera side of the river I notice there are more expensive homes on the bluffs above the San Joaquin then there was a year ago.
If you paddle down the river you’ll notice either private individuals own or the Department of Fish and Game or the San Joaquin River Parkway control the land along the river. They all have their reasons for protecting what they think is theirs, or what they simply think needs protecting, but good or bad…access to the river is still limited.
I’ve been down the river since the trip with Marek and saw even more signs posted.

 Marek Warszawski’s article was published October 11, 2006 I received Criticism in the form of phone calls through out the following week from land owners, but mostly from of all people…other fishermen. They said they didn’t appreciate the article because now everyone would know about the river.  I argued back that everyone should know about the river because the river belongs to everyone. One fact that I‘ve learned in my life is that people do not care about what they don’t know about. As stated in the article they are going to restore the salmon runs by 2013. Right now the public’s money is being spent to make it so, yet public access is limited and becoming even more so. People should be able to enjoy the San Joaquin River now not in 2013. Each new person that learns about the San Joaquin River is one more friend the river has.
It’s time for Fresno’s hidden jewel to shine for everyone.
Our river trip went as Marek said it did but…he left out the ending. As I recall it was about five o’clock pm as our little caravan paddled up to the spot on Fort Washington Beach, that I use as a take out point. At this particular time Sam’s and her first mate Jim were in the lead. Jim instructed us to follow him past my spot. We paddled on down to where the river to another spot where the river feeds the Fort Washington Beach pond. We paddled on across the pond and up to within twenty feet where Jim’s car was parked. Good ideal on Jim’s part. Although at this particular time I was sure Sam’s was the brains of that outfit. Now the bank that surrounds the pond in most areas is about a foot or more above the ponds water level. At this particular spot the water was maybe three feet deep right by the bank. Jim positioned the side of his Pongo right against the bank. Sam of course while somewhat quickly, made the most graceful of exits unfortunately she neglected to instruct her first mate on how to do his.  Jim rose up just a bit then laid across the side of his yak and the bank. He then rolled over on his back and managed to position himself to where he was lying stretched out spread eagle, one leg and arm over his yak and one leg and arm over the bank.
Now take the time for a moment if you will and try to form the image of Jim and his predicament in your mind. A moment maybe two was all Jim had before the distance between his yak and the bank from an eighth of an inch to three feet. Now…Jim and he’s a big fellow was now spread eagle just above the water, not far enough for a splash but close enough for a slurp…a big one, which Jim made when he could hold no loner cling to kayak or grass he just kind of sank beneath the water. At this time Marek and I were having a hard time staying upright in our yaks. Which is hard to do when you’re laughing hysterically.
Jim wasn’t down all that long after the slurp he made. It was only moments before He rose from up from the water, kind of like a phoenix from the flame… a really wet one. It was at this time that I realized how deep the water was, it came up to Jim’s hip. Sam was nowhere to be seen for most of this commotion. She returned just in time to witness the slurp and Jim rising up out of the water.
Sam just kind looked disgusted and turned around and walked away. I got the ideal this wasn’t the first time this has happened. I just love that dog.


Why Do I paddle a kayak instead of a float tube or a pontoon boat? I like seeing where I'm going not where I've been!
Paddle safe and wrap'em tight.
Rickey Noel Mitchell http://www.paddleandflies.com