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The mysterious disappearance of Shanghai Falls

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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About a mile below the mouth of the Yuba River, just downstream from Yuba City, the normally mellow and flat Feather River changes dramatically. Suddenly the straight course of the river takes a big sweeping turn to the west and then cuts hard back to the east. There, at Shanghai Bend, a reef-like shelf of clay — which creates a horseshoe shaped falls — briefly replaces the sandy bed of the river. The cataract has been a popular fishing spot for generations of anglers who fished just above and below the drop for American shad, Chinook, salmon and striped bass. The pull of Shanghai Falls has also lured legions of non-anglers to the banks of the Feather. A falls in the heart of the board-flat Sacramento Valley is unique and lots of folks like to sit and watch the river flow over the 3- to 5-foot drop (depending on the flows). The big sandy beach just above the rapid is also a popular summer swimming spot. But the falls are gone now. It seems inconceivable, but Shanghai Falls collapsed recently. Apparently, the clay shelf had been slowly deteriorating over time and, eventually, just eroded and gave way. Normally, a rapid or waterfall disappears only when a dam is built below it and the rising water of a reservoir covers it… but this is the first I’ve heard of one just wearing out! The collapse seems like just a natural progression but some folks are blaming the way the Feather’s water is managed. Local anglers say that a sudden drop in the river’s flow allowed the clay to dry out and then that was followed by a burst of high water, which did the falls in. I’m not sure about any of that but I bet there will be some forthcoming investigations into the cause of the demise of Shanghai Falls. The chute I have not had a chance to get up there yet to see it yet, but as I understand it, there’s simply a steep chute where the horseshoe used to be. While many anglers are sick about the situation, feeling the loss of an epic fishing spot, I’m not sure all is lost from an angling honey hole standpoint. Even if the clay shelf completely caved off, there’s still plenty of that material in that area and it will still be the only section of whitewater between the Bay and the Outlet Hole. Fish will continue to congregate there… but maybe not for as long as they used to. On the positive side of things, fans of Yuba River shad fishing should have fish in their creek every season. On low water years, the shad couldn’t make it above the falls and into the Yuba, so that will likely change. Striped bass will also have easier passage, as will sturgeon (fish like salmon and steelhead made the leap even in low water situations). It will definitely be interesting to see what the aftermath of the “Fall of Shanghai” brings. The loss will sting for quite some time, but we anglers are a resourceful lot and I’m sure we’ll have all the new nooks and crannies in Shanghai Chute figured out in no time. I never spent tons of time up at Shanghai Falls. I’ve caught my share of salmon, stripers and shad there, but it was never one of my go-to spots. It could get loaded up with garbage and some unsavory characters from time to time, so I didn’t hang around there much. Still, it’s still hard to believe the falls are gone. I feel for those folks who had a real connection to the spot and I’m disappointed that future generations won’t get a chance to see it. J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate whose outdoors pieces have been published nationally. Find him online at www.fishwithjd.com.