Six years ago, Antioch-based fishing guide Jay Sorensen had all the salmon he could want. He brought happy clients back to shore with the limit of chinook salmon after just an hour or two of trolling the rivers and channels of the Delta.
This fall, the guide of 40 years could not catch a single fish for his clients, though he spent entire days on the water and searched far up the Sacramento River.
Sorensen and other local guides say this kind of fruitless, frustrating trip has become the norm as California's historically bountiful salmon run, which once surged by the millions up the Sacramento River to their spawning grounds, has dwindled to a level that some advocates say might warrant protection as an endangered species.
As a result, recreational salmon fishermen and the industry they once supported have all but disappeared in the Delta.
Oakley bait-and-tackle shop owner Gene Buchholz used to be among the many East Contra Costa sportsmen who eagerly awaited the annual return of the fall-run salmon and always caught the legal limit of two fish a day.
"When that season came up, it was a very big deal," he said. "You would almost have to pick a number to troll for them."
Buchholz noticed a gradual slowdown in the salmon run over the past decade, but the real change came after the state implemented a total ban on salmon trolling in 2008 amid an unprecedented population decline.
"It was like somebody flipped a light switch," Buchholz said.
Fishing aficionados once came from all over California and neighboring states to troll the bucolic Delta for salmon. Sportsmen say the ocean dweller packs more fight than other Delta fish and are heavier. They also have the special allure of a delicacy available just one month out of the year.
"It's a hard-fighting fish," Sorensen said. "They're just heavy-bodied and meaty."
Delta-hooked salmon also differ in quality from their ocean-caught counterparts. Salmon swim against the current toward their spawning ground at the end their life cycle, and their impending death affects their meat. Jack Chapman, who keeps a boat in Antioch, calls them "smokers."
Hopes were high this fall when the state opened the Delta for salmon fishing for the first time in three years, but the season never offered the consistent catch many had counted on. Meanwhile, guides and tackle-shop owners have felt the pinch, and some have gone out of business.
"The salmon were in the Delta system long before anyone else was," Buchholz said. "You've got people who make a living off them here the same way you might have people making a living off party boats in the Bay Area."
Buchholz estimates that the decline in salmon sport fishing costs him more than $200,000 annually in lost equipment sales. Shops that specialize in live bait instead of the lures used to catch salmon, on the other hand, have seen a surge in sales, according to Audie Urbano, of Hap's Bait & Tackle in Rio Vista.
In a report issued this spring, the Business Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific estimated that the closure of recreational salmon fishing cost California 826 jobs and $70 million annually. The estimate did not break out river versus ocean fishing.
While locals lament the state of salmon fishing, few seem willing to give up on the long-term prospects of the sport here.
Salmon are a resilient species, and returns this year have been the strongest in a couple of years, leading to optimism that anglers may soon get a longer fishing season.
Chapman, at least, has reason to celebrate the reopening of the run this year.
After hours of searching the Sacramento River with two others in October, his party finally snagged two 40-pound fish.
"We should've got more," he said. "But we were happy because we did as well or better as anyone else on the river."
Contact Hannah Dreier at 925-779-7174. Follow her at Twitter.com/hdreier