Riding with the warden

SN&R goes on a shift just as Sacramento’s spring salmon-poaching season heats up

Tag ’em and bag ’em: Game Warden Patrick Foy cracks down on salmon poachers.

Tag ’em and bag ’em: Game Warden Patrick Foy cracks down on salmon poachers.

Photo By larry dalton

To report poachers or polluters, call the California Department of Fish and Game tip line at (888) 334-2258.

One fish? Two fish? On the banks of the Sacramento River, beneath a chalky blue sky filled with geese, Game Warden Patrick Foy holds up one finger.

With Northern California’s salmon population plummeting in recent years, that one finger is significant. Salmon have been pushed to the edge of extinction thanks to dams, poor water quality and diversionary water pumps that also happen to hoover up fish. More under the radar, but equally harmful, is Foy’s target this evening, the Sacramento area’s thriving salmon poachers.

Foy—one of six local California Department of Fish and Game wardens—begins his shift at a Starbucks in suburban Elk Grove. An elderly couple, spotting the tip line on the back of Foy’s dusty green pickup, stop to say they saw drug dealing up the street. But that’s not Foy’s mandate—for now at any rate.

Instead, his truck radio crackles. “A man spotted with a crossbow hunting deer on the American River Parkway,” the dispatcher says.

Foy confirms and heads up Interstate 5 to Rancho Cordova.

Along the parkway, Foy bounces along rutted dirt roads in search of the crossbow hunter, believed to be in a gray Volkswagen with no plates. He comes across a broken fountain sending a geyser of water into the air and a few dog walkers, but nothing else. The dispatcher breaks through again. Another warden in West Sacramento needs backup for some possible poachers in Discovery Park. Salmon are Foy’s priority tonight, since it’s the busy spring poaching season, so he turns his truck around and roars west.

“It’s killing the future generations of salmon when you go after the juveniles,” Foy says as he rockets past downtown on I-80 heading for Discovery Park. Juvenile salmon are prized by poachers going after bigger catches, he explains. Considered excellent bait, the juvenile salmon help snag large female sturgeon, ideally with eggs. The eggs are then sold for the lucrative caviar market, including in places far away as Eastern Europe.

“You’ll find whole groups [of poachers] out at night along the banks looking for salmon with nets and using a spotlight [that the fish are drawn to],” Foy adds.

“A couple of weeks ago, I caught somebody with 44 juveniles. Once, a guy said he wasn’t using them as bait, but he still had two in his pockets.”

Foy rolls into Discovery Park. He parks the trucks near the boat ramp. Two young men, with tattoos up to their necks, are working their way through a case of beer.

“Aw, man, open container,” says one of the young men, but Foy doesn’t stop. That’s not his priority. With only a handful of wardens in the area, and each scheduling their own shifts, it is rare to be able to provide backup. And Discovery Park is a good place to do it.

“A lot of unsavory characters out here,” Foy says, moving past the tents and small cook fires of homeless individuals, one of whom wanders out with a plate of chips and salsa.

“I always forget stuff at the store,” the shirtless man says to no one in particular.

“I do that all the time, too, makes my wife crazy,” Foy agrees, hustling past. He scrambles up banks, over fallen trees and through bushes, stopping briefly to check on a group of anglers. But their bait is clean, and he cuts back through a burnt out campsite and past a deflated air mattress to a more level path away from the bank. Foy radios his partner, gets his bearings and runs back to the river in the twilight.

Six anglers are lined up on the bank; to the right the buildings and lights of downtown Sacramento are visible. At the far end of the beach, Foy’s partner Steve Johnson speaks to two of the fishermen.

Foy approaches the man and woman closest to him. The woman plays with a turtle next to a pile of fishing gear and a small plastic stool decorated with two cartoon elephants and the message “Love each other.” There is a 20-inch striped bass on the ground and two fishing lines out into the river.

Small fry: Poachers use young salmon to lure bigger fish.

Photo By AnnE Stokes

“Mind if I check your bait?” Foy asks the man, and then reels in a line.


There on the end of the line is a 4-inch silver juvenile salmon. Foy holds up his finger signaling one and Johnson walks over.

“Why did you lie to me?” Johnson asks the man. “You said you didn’t have anything.”

“I thought it was a pike minnow,” the fisherman says. “Hey, can we keep the turtle, is that legal?” his girlfriend asks.

“Sure, that’s fine,” Foy says. “You got any knives or guns on you?”—pretty much a given in hunting and fishing.

“I got a knife,” says the man.

Foy searches through the fishing debris and digs through Styrofoam cups filled with dirt and bloodworms but comes up empty.

“What about the other line?” Johnson asks, nodding to a second line in the water.

“It’s snagged,” Foy says.

“We’ll have to break it then,” Johnson says.

That line too is empty, and Foy finishes looking through some fishing nets.

Still ahead for him this evening are a spot check on a levee in south Sacramento, yielding a group of people standing in the moonlight in a circle chanting—preparing for the rapture, maybe?—and some kids pepper-spraying people in a quiet neighborhood in the Pocket. But for now he has to walk the girlfriend to her car (in case of those unsavory characters), walk the fisherman back to the boat ramp, write him a ticket, confiscate the fishing rod as evidence, bag the juvenile salmon (also as evidence) and check on the earlier open-container beer drinkers.

The beer drinkers are gone, so Foy writes up the ticket.

“It feels to be good proactive,” Johnson, standing nearby, says of the evening. “One hundred percent of the time, fishermen know you can’t use salmon as bait. You can’t live in California and fish and not know that.”

“I thought it was a pike minnow,” the busted angler tries again.

Foy hands him the ticket.

The charge: fishing for salmon out of season and using juvenile salmon as bait. The cost of the ticket is up to the judge.

The ticket is for just one fish, but as Northern California struggles to keep its salmon population afloat, it’s still a catch.