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Written By: David Hammond, March 12, 2012
Fall has arrived, it's time to dust off those rods, oil up those reels, retie leaders, and sharpen hooks. After a brief summer vacation in the salt of the ocean and bay, Northern California top sport fish, the striped bass, is back in the Delta.
As a full time guide in these waters, I always look forward to this time of the year. Yes, the king salmon fishing out of Bodega Bay and San Francisco has been awesome, albacore are within 25 miles of Fort Bragg, sturgeon are beginning to stack off Pittsburg, but now my stripers have come back home. Let's go get 'em!
I'm going to give you an inside look at how I approach a day chasing stripers, trolling in the Delta. This is not the only way...it's my way, with the knowledge I've gained from over 30 years of fishing these waters. There are many variables when fishing the Delta such as tides, weather, water conditions, locations, and techniques. Remember, you can go to all the seminars and read all the articles you want, when it comes down to it, nothing replaces TIME ON THE WATER. So get out there, either with a guide or on your own, and put some time in.
The fall is a great time to utilize the technique of trolling. The nasty Delta winds of the summer begin to fade allowing easier travel and greater range. On some days, I might log over 100 miles running tides and locating fish! The water temperature is well above the 56 degree cutoff point for trolling, usually starting in the 70's and slowly dropping through the 60's as fall matures, making the stripers very aggressive. Also, during this season water clarity is great, allowing debris-free lure presentation while giving the striper increased range for the hit. While the weather is usually very nice this time of year, remember, any change in barometric pressure can put stripers on lockjaw. Consistent weather for about 3 days in a row produces the best bite.
The single most important information when setting up a day of trolling on the Delta is the tide. I use a TideLog tide book because it has pictures of the tides, which makes it easy to see how the day lays out. Look for smaller tides of 3 feet, or less, water movement and look for the flood tide for the day. A smaller and flood tide typically has a larger "bite window", and the water tends to be clearer. The "bite window" is the part of the tide when the fish are most actively feeding. This is typically the last and first hour of the tide, but it can be the whole tide when both a small tide and a flood tide are in combination.
When tides aren't optimal, gas up the boat and put on some miles. This is called "running the tides", and with beautiful fall weather, it's easy. Remember, the next tide is approaching from the Golden Gate, so use that to your advantage. For instance, if you have a flood tide that starts at 10am in Rio Vista, but you're launching the boat at 7am and don't want to troll in water that is unlikely to produce, make a 45 minute run to the lower Delta ( somewhere like Collinsville or Broad Slough) where that flood tide will already be starting. Troll those areas and work your way back up river , following that same tide but now in the opposite direction. Hit all your favorite spots as you move with the tide. This is the most effective way to fish the Delta, always utilizing the best tides, or parts of the tides, throughout the day.
In the fall, stripers are returning from the bay, so spend more of your day in the lower Delta. Locate areas that provide some sort of cover for this aggressive ambush predator. The more obvious spots include tule lines, weed lines, sandbars, shoals, uneven bottoms, points, rock walls, pilings, and docks. The not so obvious spots are those created by tides and weather and are continually changing throughout the day. Examples of these are your current breaks (areas where tidal current is interrupted or where two currents meet), wind-blown shoreline or structure, and the water's color line (where muddy and clear water meet). As you spend more time on the Delta, you will begin to pick up on these subtle but important nuances.
If you don't already own one, be sure to purchase a quality delta map, one that shows bottom contours and structure. Spend some time looking for areas to target on your next trip. When you find these areas mark them using a highlighter pen. Team this information with the that from your Tidelog and come up with a game plan for your day of trolling. The most successful anglers always have multiple game plans ready before their boat even touches the water. At the end of the day, make notes of all that happened both good and bad. These notes should include things such as date, tide, weather, location, water temperature, water clarity, total fish count (both shakers and keepers). Over time, you will see patterns that can help you on future trips.
When trolling for stripers in deeper water ( 12' to 18'), use your sonar and look for fish at or near the bottom. These are the fish that are FEEDING. Typically, the fish you see suspended are just traveling, not at all interested in biting your lure. Run the lures as close to bottom as possible without snagging up. Using a line counter reel, start by putting out 65' to 75' of line and watch. I like to see the lures "digging" every so often just to make sure they are in the strike zone. The correct speed is somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 mph. Vary your speed and see what the stripers like, then stick with it.
Targeting stripers in the shallow waters, between 6 and 8 feet, involves a whole new level of attention and skill. When trolling at speeds between 4 and 5 MPH, things happen fast. When locating fish, the sonar many times, is worthless. With a cone angle (sonar) of 30 degrees you just can't see that much in shallow water. This means you must really work these areas over. Make several passes, in both directions, while trying to keep your lures in the strike zone of 6 to 8 feet. Stay out of NO MAN'S LAND, which is water depths over 10 feet where you are unlikely to hookup. This can best be attained by using your main motor and giving the smaller kicker a break. Using the big motor gives you more control to follow the bottom contour more accurately and it gives you the horses you need to get out of dangerous positions. Drop your lures back between 135 to 150 feet, making sure to stagger your spread of lures so they won't tangle. This gives the stripers time to recover from you running over them. Also, be sure to run a light to medium drag, so you don't rip the lure from the fish at these speeds.
The advantage of shallow water trolling over deep is you can cover a lot of fishy water fast. With thousands of miles of water in the delta, this is huge. This is why I would have to say it is my favorite technique for putting stripers in the box.
Stripers are a schooling fish, so once you find them, stay on them. If there aren't any other boats around, take your time and pace the fish. Give them time in between hookups to regroup. By doing this, you can dramatically extend that bite. On occasion I've had stripers stay wide open for hours, using this technique.
Gear, tackle, and rigging are also important. One of the most critical elements of trolling stripers is presentation and action, action, action. I use the Lamiglas Classic Glass rod, 8'2", rated at 10 to 20lbs. because it is all fiberglass and will show you the lure action like none other. Also, the bend of the rod allows for better hookups and is more forgiving when fighting big stripers. I team this with a Shimano Tekota 500 LC. This reel is top of the line and will hold more than enough 30lb. Power Pro to land any fish out there. The LC stands for line counter which is critical for proper presentation and accuracy in approach. For the leader, I run a 3 feet of P-Line 30lb. mono with a, top of the line, swivel and duo-lock snap from makers Sampo or Rosco. This setup gives you a great balance of a soft rod with the strength of the reel spooled with no stretch braid. It puts fish in the box!
When it comes to lures, you might be surprised how few lures I use on a average day. Most all advertised striper lures will catch fish, but what I look for in a lure is whether it is durable and consistent. That's why I use Yozuri and Bomber lures for all my trolling. The specific Yozuri is the 5.25" floating in both shallow(6'-8') and deep diving(12'-16'), for the Bomber it's the Long A-16A for shallow(6' to 8') and the B25A for deep(16' to 18'). The best colors patterns are chartreuse/silver, red/white, and rainbow. Remember to always replace the hooks and split rings. I prefer Owner 4X trebles (ST-66TN) and split rings from Worth in size no. 5.
While the stock hooks work just fine for 90+ percent of the fish you catch, they won't for that fish of a lifetime. In addition to these changes, I add a trick worm to the tail treble hook. Be sure to put it on the center most of the three hooks, threading it on only a quarter inch or so. Remember to always make sure your lures are running straight with a tight wiggle. Watch the lure beside the boat at trolling speed before dropping them back into position.
In closing, remember a few things. First, conserve all our fisheries. Only take what you will eat, then catch and release the rest. Second, when you are trolling, it's just like driving in a car, stay to the right when approaching another boat. Finally, take a kid fishing! We have to get the next generation involved. Otherwise, in the not so distant future there won't be a Delta to fish in!
If you’d like to spend a day on the water chasing stripers or sturgeon with Captain David Hammond of Delta Pro Fishing give him a call at (916) 479-3492.
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