Salmon Fishing Delta Style

Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Species: River Salmon

Salmon Fishing Delta Style

We all know that during the late summer and fall, the upper reaches of the lower Sacramento River and the American River play host to pretty good salmon fishing, but one thing a lot of us tend to forget is that before the fish reach these much heralded up river haunts they must pass through Suisun Bay and the lower Delta. For anglers with the know how Suisun Bay and the Delta offer great opportunities for both trollers and bank to hook big hard fighting king salmon.

For bank anglers the Benicia area offers the best chance for success. The bite can erupt pretty much anywhere along the shoreline, so it pays to check with bait shops and other sources to find out where the fish are being caught on the day you head out. Having said that places like 1st Street, Dillon Point and the State Park produce kings every year.

Targeting Benicia kings from the bank is simple, but it isn’t easy. The simple part is the tackle. All you need is a long 8 to 9 foot spinning rod matched with a reel that will hold 200 yards of 15 to 25 pound test monofilament. Tip your main line with a snap swivel and snap on a large spinner such as a Mepps, Silvertron or one of the outstanding models produced by Bob Sparre.

Once you arrive at an area where salmon are being caught, stake out a comfortable location and start casting. Cast the spinner up current, count in down so it is near the bottom and slow roll it back. You’ll have no problem distinguishing the strike. When something grabs the lure so hard it almost separates you from the rod, you’ll know that a salmon has come calling.

The hard aspect of the Benicia fishery is having the stamina and determination to stick it out long enough to actually get a strike. Suisun Bay is a big place and you’ll be covering a miniscule amount of water. Add to that the fact that most of the salmon that see your spinner won’t react to it and you start to grasp why a king hooked from the Benicia shoreline is truly a fish of a thousand casts. Yet for anglers willing to invest the time, this is one of least expensive, least complicated ways to put a salmon in the smoker.

Moving up river, we come to the Delta proper. For our purposes we’ll focus on the water from Rio Vista up to Walnut Grove, but action takes place both above and below this stretch of water and in other locations such as the Mokelumne River.

Every once in a while a guy tossing lures for black bass or stripers will hook a king in these waters, but you can’t hang your hat on such an accident happening to you. The tried and true approach for hooking kings in the Delta is trolling. I’m going to describe three basic rigs. One is the best, one is pretty good and one is purely theoretical. However before I get into these rigs I’ll speak a bit about tackle.

Salmon are big hard fighting fish with a relatively soft mouth. For this reason a fairly long 7 to 8 foot rod with a soft tip is a good choice. Graphite rods will work, but fiberglass sticks are even better because they are more forgiving. The soft tip plays a duel role. On one hand it cushions the fight of the salmon, keeping them from ripping out hooks, but it also allows you to monitor the function of the lure to ensure that it is working properly and hasn’t picked up debris.

The rod should be topped with a quality level wind baitcaster. For many if not most applications I’m a big fan of braided line, but when it comes to Delta salmon trolling you’ll be best served by spooling up with mono in the 15 to 20 pound range. Mono in this range is plenty strong, even for the biggest salmon and unlike braid it provides stretch. Unlike a striper salmon do a lot of head shaking during the fight. The stretch of mono provides a cushion during bouts of head shaking, but if you were using braid there is a good chance the fish could jar the hook loose.

On the business end of your rig everything runs off a three way system. To start rigging take your main line and attach it to a three way swivel. On the lower eye of that swivel attach an 18 inch dropper made of 10 or 12 pound mono and tip it with a snap. That’s where your sinker will attach. To the remaining eye of the three way attach a 4 to 5 foot 25 pound test mono leader that will ultimately be tipped with your lure.

The best lure is a large spinner such as a Silvertron or a Bob Sparre spinner. It seems every one has their favorite color when it comes to spinners. Proven producers include hot pink with a silver or glow blade, chartreuse with a silver blade or orange with a silver or orange glow blade.

Another lure that can pay dividends is a Flatfish or Kwikfish. As a general rule you don’t want to use a monster size lure like a T-55, instead downsize to something that is in the 3 to 4 inch range. The best color is chrome with a chartreuse butt, but hot pink and orange models work at times too.

Using miracle thread you’ll want to wrap the belly of the bait with a strip of sardine or the meat striped from a crawfish tail. If you’ve never wrapped a lure before it takes a bit of practice, but when the lure works properly beside the boat you’ll know you’ve done the job correctly.

The only other thing you’ll need in terms of terminal tackle is a selection of torpedo weights ranging from 2 to 6 ounces.

In terms of accessories you’ll want to have some bait scent on hand. Anise is a good choice as is garlic. A lot of guys wear rubber gloves when rigging up. They believe that the more human scent you keep off your lures the better. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I’d wear gloves just the same, since its better to be safe than sorry!

One aspect a lot of guys overlook until the moment of truth is a landing net. It takes a big net to land a big king. I’ve got the biggest net I could find and I use it on both salmon and sturgeon.

Okay let’s put these rigs into the water and troll. Sinker selection is based on the amount of flow, but let’s say the flow is average so you start out with a 3 ounce sinker snapped on a rig armed with either a plug or spinner. To catch salmon while trolling the Delta you want your lure near the bottom, so with the boat moving no faster than 1.5 miles per hour lower your rig slowly down until you feel the sinker hit the bottom and then bring it up one turn of the reel. With the lure near the bottom, put the rod in a hold with the drag set fairly loose and the clicker engaged.

You should be able to see the rhythmic action of your lure on the rod tip. As you troll keep an eye on both the rod tip and the depth finder. If the water gets deeper let out more line, if it gets shallower retrieve line. If the rod tip stops working pull in the lure and make sure it hasn’t fouled debris. Your line should enter the water at a steep angle. If too much line is scoping out behind the boat, that means you need a heavier sinker.

Salmon will hit a lure moving with or against the current. Naturally when trolling against the current the boat can move slower and the lure will still work well. When moving with the current you need to be moving faster than the surrounding water for the lure to work. Having said that you don’t want to go over 1.5 mph, the real key in dialing in the correct speed is watching how your lures are working on the rod tip. You want them working, but you don’t want them going crazy.

Some salmon strikes are savage, while others are more subtle with the rod just gradually loading up as if you’ve hooked a large piece of debris. The most important thing is to stay cool and not jerk the rod out of the holder until the rod is really doubled over or the fish begins head shaking which is signaled by a series of sharp jabs that typically yank the tip down a foot or more several times in quick succession. At this point the salmon is hooked. Slip the rod out of the holder and fight your fish.

Early I mentioned a rig that was purely theoretical. To clarify I should say that the rig isn’t theoretical since it really does exist. The theoretical part is whether or not the rig will work in the Delta.

A few weeks ago I salmon fished the Willamette River in northern Oregon. The way the river ebbed and flowed it reminded me a lot of the Sacramento River in the Walnut Grove area. To target the salmon we used three way rigs identical to the ones I’ve described, but on the leader instead of a plug or spinner we ran a Fish Flash inline flasher with a plug cut herring trailing about 30 inches behind it. Fish Flash flashers are made of plastic and create little drag while putting out a large amount of vibration and flash.

I haven’t seen this rig used in the Delta, but they swear by it on the Willamette. I’m really curious whether it would work on the Sacramento if you replaced the herring with a plug cut or rotator rigged anchovy. It’s worth a try and you’ll definitely be showing the fish something they haven’t seen. The results of such experiments are usually pretty black and white…You’ll either be a zero or a hero!

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