Fishing the Delta


Landen Spencer

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Fish On! Sacramento Delta Fishing


     The California Delta or the San Joaquin River Delta is an expansive inland river system and estuary in Northern California spanning over 1,100 square miles and home to over 500,000 total residents. The Delta was formed by the raising of sea level following glaciation and river sediment building up creating small landmasses. Home to majority agriculture and farming, it has become a recreational haven. The California Delta is home to 100’s of different species and has made a name for itself as one of the best freshwater/brackish fishing destinations in and around the country. The California Delta holds over 100 marinas and boat launches, as well as 25 yacht clubs. The delta is home to over 500 plants an animal species which is one of the largest estuaries in western North America. It is home to approximately 22 different species of fish including multiple Pacific Salmon species, Black and Striped Bass, American Shad, and White Sturgeon. Over 2/3 of California Salmon pass through the Delta each year. The Delta is also home to multiple endangered species like the Delta Smelt and Tule Elk. Continuation of agricultural efforts and farming have affected the layout of levies as well as the habitat for many species. Due to the wide variety of inhabitants, Delta soil is considered some of the strongest and most fertile ground for farming. Eighty-five percent of the rice grown in the U.S. is from the Sacramento Delta valley, making it one of the largest rice economies around the world.

Fish Species:

·       Catfish (Bullhead, Channel, White)                       Yellow Perch

·       Crappie/Bluegill                                                      Steelhead     

·       Striped Bass                                                             Goldfish

·       White Sturgeon                                                        Delta Smelt

·       Trout                                                                        Mosquito Fish

·       Salmon (King/Coho)                                               Green Sturgeon

·       Black Bass                                                               Crayfish

·       American Shad                                                         Freshwater Shellfish


·       Mackerel                                                               Shrimp (Grass/Ghost)

·       Sardines                                                                 Bloodworms                                        

·       Squid                                                                     Crayfish

·       Plastics                                                                  Mudsuckers

·       Live Worms                                                          Minnows/Anchovies

Targeted Species:

The California Delta has become a recreationist and sports fishing dream. Home to over 22 different fish species, the Delta has become one of the country’s top sports fishing destinations. With its huge area spanning over 1,100 square miles, you’ll be provided with the privacy you want without losing your fishing spot. In addition to fishing alone, there are over 15 different outfitters in and around the delta happy to put you on fish. There are also over 50 bait shops surrounding the area where tackle and gear can be purchased. Store owners will be able to provide updated fishing reports on specific locations and bait to use. Below I’m going to breakdown several of my favorite species of fish that inhabit the Delta to provide you with a better understanding of the fish and how to be a successful angler. These are all great eating fish, so don’t be afraid of keeping some and providing a create a tasty meal for the family.

White Sturgeon:

File:White Sturgeon - Acipenser tranmontanus Joseph R. Tomelleri ...White Sturgeon are native to the West coast of North America, where they may be found in coastal waters from Mexico to Alaska. Although occasionally found in the ocean, they primarily reside in large rivers and their associated estuaries, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California. White Sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America. There are historical records of fish as large as 18 ft, although it is now rare to encounter fish larger than 6.5 ft in Californian waters. The average White Sturgeon captured in the Delta in recent years is approximately 109 cm or roughly under 4 feet. White Sturgeon are long-lived. According to California Fish and Wildlife, the oldest fish on record was 103 years old at the time of capture, but most fish in the Delta are now believed to be less than 20 years old. Males may spawn every two years, whereas females spawn every 2-4 years. Adults migrate from the estuary into the river in winter, spawn from February to June, and return to the Delta after spawning. The primary spawning habitat of Sacramento-San Joaquin White Sturgeon is a short reach of the middle Sacramento River, making it vulnerable to climate change or habitat loss. Other factors that threaten White Sturgeon include contaminants from pollution and runoff and poaching and illegal fishing for meat and eggs. The California White Sturgeon is not listed on any state or federal list but is considered a species of concern. Due to where the fish is categorized, there are steep fishing regulations compared to other local species. The daily bag limit for White sturgeon is one per an angler a day, 3 per year. The fish must be between 40-60 inches fork length to keep. Any sturgeon over 68in fork length may not be removed from the water or it would be prosecuted for a criminal act. When it comes to catching these beasts, the bait must be specific. Ghost and grass shrimp are usually considered best, but sturgeon will also bite on shad minnows and crayfish. For tackle, A medium to a heavyweight rod with a sensitive tip and conventional baitcasting reel is probably most common, though many people use spinning reels. Use a 30 to 50-pound test line with wire leaders and single or double hooks and sliding sinker setup. They strike hard! When it comes to where and when, the best season to fish for them is usually from the beginning of winter when the water starts to get muddy and looks like chocolate syrup, until early summer.  When fishing on the Sacramento delta side, areas like Decker Islands entrance to Three miles Slough, off the old dairy farm, Rio Vista, Knights Landing, and the deep-water channel are all places you can frequently find sturgeon. San Pablo, Suisun Bays, and the Mothball Fleet are prime areas where the water turns brackish. When it comes to a specific location, I’ve had the best luck in water from 14 to 80 feet deep, usually deep holes are best. Always remember when fishing for White Sturgeon, barbless hooks are always mandatory.

Striped Bass:

File:Striped bass morone saxatilis fish.jpg - Wikimedia Commons Considered the delta’s most well-known sport fish, the Stripper is known for its hard fights and tasty meat. Originally introduced to the west coast in the late 1800s, the Striped bass has since flourished in the California Delta ecosystem. By the early 1900s, the striped bass was being caught in sufficient numbers that a commercial fishery began. The commercial fishery was later determined to be detrimental to the maintenance of a strong recreational sport fishery and 30 years later Striped Bass were classified as game fish ending all commercial fishing. Most Pacific stripers spend summers feeding on anchovies in the ocean along the Pacific Coast. Many wander along the coast from California to Oregon until spring when spawning brings them back to the delta and surrounding waterways. Along the California Coast, most stripers re-enter the San Francisco Bay in fall and winter and locations throughout the Bay and delta system. In spring the stripers head up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to spawn. They travel as much as 124 miles upstream in the Sacramento River and reach into the Feather River. In the California delta region, the water is majority brackish where the river and bay waters mix. Striped bass lingers there, adjusting to the difference in salinity before they transit up the rivers to spawn, and again when they return to the Bay. Due to Strippers being considered an invasive species, the introduction has been controversial due to the destruction of Delta Smelt and Salmon reproduction. When it comes to fishing for them, similar to sturgeon, Striped Bass enjoy smelly live fish like Anchovies, threadfin shad, and sardines. Other baits like bloodworms, grass and ghost shrimp, mudsuckers, sculpins, and crayfish are commonly used. When attaching the bait to the hook, use nylon thread (magic thread) to secure it to the hook. This decreases the chance of throwing off your bait during casting or smaller fish from eating it off of your hook. Anglers also use plastic tackle like 3 to 7-inch Rebels and Rapalas. The line should be moderately medium to heavy, anywhere from 10-30lbs test. The spring spawning run up the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers is probably the best season in the Delta, but the fall run is also a heavy producer of huge sized fish. The fall and spring run almost seem to collide, creating good fishing from September to June, and resident stripers are caught during the summer. Anywhere around the Delta, you can find Striped Bass located. Specific areas like the deep-water channel, Knights Landing and Rio Vista are all hot locations throughout the fishing year. Back sloughs located around Stockton and highway 12 are always money spots as well. The daily bag limit is 2 per day in possession with fish having to exceed 18inches.

Chinook Salmon:

Chinook salmon - Wikipedia  The Chinook Salmon, also known as King Salmon, is the largest species of pacific salmon. Chinook is anadromous fish native to the North Pacific Ocean and the river systems of western North America, ranging from California to Alaska. Salmon populations have been threatened in the area and some even reached the endangered species list. However, through state regulation, many of the populations have improved in recent years. There are several good salmon fisheries in the delta including the American River, Mokelumne River, and the Sacramento River. Chinook may spend anywhere from one to eight years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn. The salmon undergo radical changes as they prepare for spawning. Chinook Salmon lose the silvery blue they had as ocean fish, and their color darkens, sometimes with a radical change to red. Male salmon may form k9 like teeth and hook jaws during the change from salt to fresh water. Chinook spawns in larger and deeper waters than other salmon species and can be found on the spawning nest from September to December. The female salmon may lay her eggs in four to five nesting pockets. After laying eggs, females guard the nest against four to 25 days before dying, while males seek additional mates. When your fishing for them, the late fall run of king salmon in the delta is known for its huge king salmon, typically 40, 50, or 60 pounds and more. 70 pounds and up is entirely possible with the late fall run, with the California record reaching 88lbs. While the late fall run does not have as many fish as the earlier fall run, what it loses in quantity, it makes up for in quality. This is when the true trophy king salmon are most often caught. People have used a variety of different lures to catch these fish. I’ve had the best luck with Kwikfish size 14, something that is majority silver. I’ve also wrapped the lure with sardines with magic thread to add additional smells. I’ve also had good luck using spoons and spinners. Trolling around 3mps up or downstream is what you’re looking for. When these fish hit it’s like snagging a log. You can catch king salmon during the designated spring and fall season. The fall season holds better quality and quantity in fish. Areas from the Mothball Fleet to Discovery Park can be hot for salmon fishing. Try Rio Vista or the Clarksburg Flats, this is where I’ve had the best luck over the past few years. Tackle can be medium, 15-25lbs test line is average when it comes to salmon fishing in the delta. No metal liter is required when targeting King Salmon. The Delta tends to be shallow in most areas, so trolling anywhere from 10-20 feet in depth is preferred. Once you find a school, you may just have the best 30 minutes of fishing you’ve ever had.


Catfish (Channel, White, Bullhead):

Channel catfish  The California Delta is known for its Catfish. Nearly any slough or river system holds vast quantities of these fish. Due to the vast quantity of them, Catfish don’t have a daily bag limit or size limit. So, you can keep all fish you may bag, anytime in the year. Summer is the peak season for catfish in the region. Preparation is vital to success so have a 15-20-pound test line with sliding weights, anywhere from 2-4oz to combat the current. As far as bait goes, there’s a long list of things that work, but they may also attract other fish as well, like striped bass. The best baits for catfish include anchovies, bloodworms, chicken liver, clams, dough baits, nightcrawlers, sardines, stink baits, and turkey livers. The best areas to look for catfish vary in depth from 3 to twenty feet with the deeper waters more productive in the winter. Some example areas include 3mile Slough, 7mile Slough, Middle River, Miner Sloughs, Old River, and Sherman Lake. The best strategy is to try a spot for around 30 minutes and then move on to another nearby area. If you find that your bait keeps falling off or smaller fish have removed it from the hook repeatedly, use nylon magic thread to secure the bait to hook. Fishing for any of the 3 catfish species is very relaxing. Kick back in a lounge chair and have a beer. This is bait fishing, its slow but the upside is HUGE!


Delta Smelt:

File:Hypomesus transpacificus.jpg - Wikimedia Commons  For our last fish, I chose the Delta Smelt. The Delta Smelt is an endangered slender-bodied smelt, about 2 to 3 inches long. This is not a sports fish, but I felt it was important to educate anglers on how severe the situation the Delta Smelt is facing. Because of its one-year lifecycle, it is very susceptible to changes in the environmental conditions of its native habitat. Scientists monitor the Delta Smelt population closely because they are a good indicator of the overall health of the Delta ecosystem. The Delta Smelt is an important part of the food chain that many other species rely upon. If the Delta Smelt becomes extinct, this may create a snowball effect for other species. Other popular fish species populations may decline along with it. Efforts to protect the endangered fish from further decline have focused on limiting or modifying the large-scale pumping activities of state and federal water projects like the Delta Tunnel Project. Which will dramatically change over 100 square miles of Delta habitat if passed through the state. The delta smelt is preyed upon by larger fish, especially striped and largemouth bassHistorically, delta smelt was relatively abundant in the upper Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, with populations declining dramatically in the 1980s. They were listed as threatened by both federal and state governments in 1993. Delta smelt are threatened with extinction due to altercations to their ecosystem, including urbanization, non-native species, contaminants, and the creation of levees around the California Delta. California Fish and Wildlife has increased efforts to save the Delta Smelt from extinction. Periodic fish counts, farm-raised Smelts, and frequent fish surveys have all been implemented for over 15 years. All California Delta anglers should without hesitation contact California Fish, Wildlife, and Parks if Delta Smelt are found with information on size and location.


Wtitten By: Landen Spencer


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