No fish story

Dan Bacher

Photo By Bob Sparre, Rocky River Guide service

The Fish Sniffer calls itself the “No. 1 newspaper in the West dedicated entirely to fishermen.” That’s no fish story—every two weeks, the Elk Grove-based publication informs anglers in Oregon, Nevada and California where the fish are biting and what they’re biting on with a thoroughness that puts other fishing guides to shame.

Managing Editor Dan Bacher has a lot to do with the newspaper’s success. The Sacramento native has channeled a lifelong love for fishing into a full-fledged career as both journalist and environmental activist. Upon joining the Sniffer staff in 1983, he quickly discovered that anglers and environmentalists share many of the same values and concerns, a subject he writes about frequently in the Sniffer. These days, you’re just as likely to find him attending a local public-policy meeting as fishing some remote, rustic stream.

Now in its 26th year, The Fish Sniffer has become an indispensable item in every Californian’s tackle box. By the way, that’s Bacher there in the photo, holding up a 20-pound striper he caught on the Feather River last May. Make no mistake; that fish is for real, and so is Dan Bacher.

How’d the name Fish Sniffer come about?

The Fish Sniffer started in 1982, when the late Hal Bonslett and his wife, Winnie, decided to start a paper. They were living in Woodland at the time. It was called the Great Central Valley Fish Sniffer. The reason why they named it that was they had a dog, a Welsh corgi named Pippit, that every time they got a fish in the boat, the dog would go after the fish and sniff it. Some people have a hunting dog; they had a fishing dog. So, they decided to call the paper The Fish Sniffer.

How long have you been fishing?

Since I was a little tiny kid. I grew up in Sacramento. I used to fish the American River a lot, for steelhead, but we called them trout at that time. In the summer, we’d fish for striped bass. The first place I ever caught a fish was the north fork of the American River. I caught a little trout, and I kept it. I didn’t want to clean it. I let it dry out in the sun, and I showed it to all of my friends. It wasn’t very big, but it was a trout, and I was pretty stoked about it.

How has local fishing changed since you were a kid?

One change occurred after the water project [the California State Water Project, which exports water from the Sacramento Delta to Southern California] started. You didn’t see as many young striped bass. In the mid-1960s, small striped bass were everywhere in the system. You couldn’t keep your bait in the water for catfish or something else because there were so many stripers. When I fished in the 1980s, those numbers had declined. They had really started ramping up the water project by then.

How did anglers respond to the striper decline?

We started the striped-bass pen-rearing project, where we kept young fish from getting sucked up into the water project’s pumps, raising them to larger size so they were able to avoid predators. It was very successful. The best fishing that I’ve ever seen in the Delta was from 1995 to 2002. People always say how good it was in the 1960s, but I was here in the 1960s, and it was much better in recent years.

The Delta fisheries remain threatened. Why?

There are three causes for concern: No. 1, increases in water exports; No. 2, increases in exotic species like the Asian clam; No. 3, toxics, pesticides and different compounds that accumulate into a sort of witch’s brew.

What’s your stance on catch-and-release fishing?

I support sustainable fishing and common sense. I’m not a catch-and-release fanatic, but it’s important as a management tool. My basic principle is if somebody isn’t going to eat a fish, they should release it. For some fish, catch-and-release is mandatory, such as for wild trout—I supported that. Some people do only catch-and-release. That’s their choice, but I like to eat fish, particularly rock fish.

Do fish have rights?

Fish aren’t Republicans. They’re not Democrats. They’re not Greens. They’re not Independents. They can’t vote. But under California’s constitution, people are guaranteed the right to fish for them. That’s why the greatest allies of the fish are the commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen, who have seen firsthand what’s happening to our fisheries.

What’s Sacramento’s best-kept fishing secret?

Lake Natoma [east on Highway 50, left at the Hazel Avenue exit]. It’s right in the middle of the city, and it has the biggest trout in the state. Natoma puts out huge fish. Two state records have been set there; the current state record for rainbow trout, 27-and-a-half pounds, was set in that lake last October. Another guy, a kid, caught a monster 23-pounder back in 2001. If you really want to catch a big fish, fish Lake Natoma.