Fly Fishing the Sacramento Delta

Posted on January 26, 2013

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I actually had sold this as an article to Northwest Fly Fishing a few years back, but difficulties in communication prevented me from ever sending it in, and it has been lying fallow on my computer for so long I see they printed another article on the same topic by somebody else…At the time many magazines were switching from film to digital, so I would put a wide-angle lens on one camera and a zoom on the other, shoot ’til noon and switch. So, some of these photos are scanned slides.  I couldn’t even find the edited version or all of the photos, so I edited down a draft to remove a lot of the fishing and really just talk about the Delta itself, because if you’ve read one trip report, you’ve read them all. Besides, Jason posted a pretty thorough report on Washingtonflyfishing.com at the time that I couldn’t really add to.

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 Striper Thanksgiving

A few years ago (7 now!) I was down visiting my friend Lynda in San Francisco over Thanksgiving at the same time my friend Jason was there and he suggested we hook up with a guide (Kevin Doran from www.deltaadventures.com , but it looks like he may have sold it) and fish the Sacramento Delta.

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Unbelievably, I’d never even heard of the Delta.  It’s formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, carrying waters originating from the snow pack of the Sierra Mountains on the way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Nearly 50% of California’s freshwater supply comes through the Delta. Even though it’s a reverse delta, with many braids coming together to form one river, it’s so reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta that Hollywood has long used it for a substitute including such movies as Huckleberry Finn, Cool Hand Luke, Steamboat Round The Bend, and Delta Fever.

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The wild waterways were a major transportation system during the gold rush, with up to 30 steamboats plying them. From the 1860s to WWI Chinese laborers helped reclaim the bottom land by building an incredibly elaborate series of dikes so that people could farm sub-sea level. These dykes are in various stages of disrepair creating a series of flooded lakes that make great habitat for largemouth bass, introduced around the same time the terraforming was going on. Kevin showed us a picture of one he’d caught that was within ounces of the world record. It looked like a small Igloo cooler with fins on it, swear to Odin.

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I’ve never been in such a verdant environment. The Deleta now has 1,000 miles of navigable waterways, 55 levee-protected islands and some 750,000 acres of rich, below-sea-level farmland that grows dozens of crops ranging from vegetables to wine grapes and fruit trees. At one point we saw 11 otters swimming across the channel. Also the first time I’d ever seen a lesser blue heron. Makes sense, right? You’ve got a greater blue, you might as well have a lesser blue. That alone was worth the trip.

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And yet, it was a very strange place. Jet skiers and boaters, water ski jumps, hidden marinas complete with bayou bars, crumbling waterside mansions, derelict boats, and Mt. Diablo looming over all of it. Originally, there were over 30 fish species in the delta, including: threadfin shad, American shad, brown trout (sea-run), golden shiner, fathead minnow, goldfish, carp, brown bullhead, yellow bullhead, white catfish, channel catfish, blue catfish, rainwater killifish, mosquito fish, inland silverside, threespine stickleback, striped bass, bluegill, green sunfish, redear sunfish, warmouth, white crappie, black crappie, largemouth bass, small mouth bass, bigscale logperch, yellow perch, yellowfin goby, chameleon goby, white sturgeon, green sturgeon, rainbow trout (steelhead), Chinook salmon, striped bass, and even humpback whales.

It was also the major source of commercial fisheries for the state. Even though commercial fishing has been banned, the number of viable species is less than half of what it once was due to water diversion, pesticide pollution, and non-native species, including one of the most successful species, striped bass.

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We were there for the stripers. This is one of those complex stories of environmental success and failure. Yes, striped bass were here, averaging 4-6 pounds, with some 7-9 pounders, and fish ranging up to and above 30 pounds. But these are non-native fish, and if a non-native species is prospering, it can only do so at the detriment of a local species. Even the stripers are not doing as well as they once were, as the baitfish population they rely on is crashing (between 1999 and 2002 the Delta smelt population had dropped more than 80% percent), taking the stripers down with it and causing all kinds of debates of slot limits and other tactics to protect them.

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Author’s note: I haven’t followed the fate of the fisheries since I wrote this in 2007, but even on the East Coast, the once “successful” rebound of the striper sport fishery is currently under attack as the bait fish populations are decimated. The lower organisms on the food chain are always indicator species for the health of the environment.

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Unfortunately, I’d never really fished when I lived back East where stripers are native and I could’ve gone down to the beach and chase them in the waves. Once I figured that out, I put many miles on driving up and down the coast looking for them on vacation, but just hadn’t had any luck.

By nature, I think many fly fishermen would consider themselves conservationists. We are closely linked to our environs and the changes within it. The earliest people writing about the pursuit were talking catch-and-release almost 100 years ago, back when you could walk on fish the rivers were so full of them. (I have walked on alewives back east in the Lamprey river, it’s amazing.) As such, I find it hard, perhaps, to condone sport fishing for non-native species, at least without the goal of elimination (as we harvest hatchery steelhead out here). But we are also predators by nature, driven by our reptile brains, and dammit, I wanted to get my skunk off and catch one of these legendary fish. It would be nice to say now that I’ve researched this and understand it better, I probably wouldn’t fish for them again, but I don’t know. As rare as even native fish are, I struggle with fishing at all, but I still do. I have to tell you, just being on the Delta, or any river,  for a day is a pretty powerful argument, and I am weak of the flesh.

At any rate was time for professional help. So we hired Kevin and headed out.

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Jason and I got up early, met the guide in Stockton on a surprisingly cold morning, and motored out in the lifting fog. The guide set us up with a couple of 7 weights. We started fishing poppers but soon switched to 30′ lead core headers tied to mono. Kevin can drop the line in the water, wiggle out a few feet, haul and shoot into the back cast, haul into the forward cast, and shoot 70 feet – all without standing up.

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I was not so good. Jason had the front of the boat which left me casting cack-handed (right handed over my left shoulder so my forward cast is actually backhanded) in the back. Fortunately I’m pretty good at this, and it was fun to learn how to shoot line into the back cast. We fished these huge streamers that had some sort of weird ground effect, just before they hit the water they would get some sort of lift and “hop” another 10-15’ as the leader turned over for a nice 70′ cast. Those were the casts I managed not to truncate by standing on the line spooled on the deck.  We made so many casts with those heavy lines that the next day the back of my hand was completely swollen and you couldn’t even see the veins and tendons on it from stopping the rod.

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While Kevin said you can have 50 fish days, we didn’t. We covered a lot of water, and used the fish finder to find schools. When the bite was on, it was on. Our best fishing was cut short by another fisherman crossing our lines at top speed and putting the entire school down. We never did catch anything on the top.  In the end, I caught about 6 fish, the largest going 7 lbs, I think Jason caught one more, one of them a largemouth. And not one of them fought as well as a 12” trout. I’d get about 30 seconds out of them and they would roll over to get hauled up like a flounder. Not one jump. But like I said, we saw coyotes, birds, otters, raccoons, a bunch of great terrain. We fished until dark, switching to clear lenses in our shades to make the most of it and watched the sun set over Mt. Diablo.

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In the end, like on any good day on the water, the fish mattered the least of all, and it was another great day of thanks giving.

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