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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
As I sit here writing this column, the 60th Annual Rio Vista Striper Derby is less than a month away. The Rio Vista Derby is the premier event for west coast striper anglers and serves to mark the beginning of the fall striper season in the beautiful California Delta.
Last week I made my first exploratory striper foray into delta waters. The trip took place on September 7, when Fish Sniffer Advertising Director Paul Kneeland, Gene Rush and I teamed up with the delta’s premier troller, Mark Wilson. Mark is an exceptional angler and despite strong winds we landed 17 keeper bass up to 17 pounds, demonstrating that at least part of the fall run has arrived in the Sacramento River.
Just about everyone that reads the Fish Sniffer regularly knows that I am and avid striper angler and I especially enjoy bait fishing. There is a long standing debate whether trolling, casting or soaking bait produces more stripers over the course of the year. In terms of total numbers I believe that bait fishing has the edge, but when the water is clear and the temperature is in the 60’s it is tough for bait anglers to keep up with trollers and pluggers.
Clear water allows the bass the use all their senses to locate a moving lure and the warm water allows the bass to move easily making them active and aggressive.
For a long time the Rio Vista Bass Derby was won by the angler that brought in the biggest striper. These days the rules have been changed and anglers try to come closest to a set length that is determined on the morning of the event’s first day of competition. This format favors anglers that have the ability to catch and release as many fish as possible as they search for one that comes closest to the magic length.
Provided rain doesn’t move into northern California and muddy delta waters, which is extremely unlikely, trollers and pluggers should have the edge during the derby because they have the ability to catch more fish faster than the bait guys.
With this in mind this is a great time to learn or at least review the basics of trolling and plugging for delta linesides. Now if I had to choose between trolling and plugging and excitement was the criteria, I’d choose plugging every time, yet if over all productivity and consistency was the measure trolling would get the nod. This being the case let’s get started by considering trolling.
In days gone by, the typical delta troller used a short stiff “meat stick” rod teamed with heavy 25 to 30 pound monofilament. This rig was tipped with a spreader rig. A large minnow plug was rigged on the top of the spreader and a leadhead jig worked off the bottom of the spreader.
Now while this tackle arrangement was certainly effective, it greatly muffled the fight of all but the largest bass. Today light rods, braided lines and single lures are in vogue. Not only are these rigs effective, but they make the fishing fun even if the bass are not huge. My favorite trolling rig consists of an 8 foot Lamiglas X 80 HC rod topped with an Abu Garcia Big Game 7000 reel spooled with 65 pound braided line. This is the same rig I use for bait fishing. The line I use is on the heavy end of the spectrum. Most delta trollers prefer to go with 30 pound braid, but since I use the same rig for both trolling and bait fishing, I go heavier.
Stripers might hit a variety of different trolled lures, yet you can limit your lure selection to two different models without hurting your success rate. For shallow work in water that is 6 to 9 feet deep, Bomber Long A’s are the way to go. At times when it is necessary to work deeper water, say from 12 to 16 feet deep a deep diving Yo-Zuri Crystal minnow is the choice of most anglers. Deep diving Rebels will also work, but the knock on Rebels is that they often don’t run true out of the box and it is up to you to upgrade the poor quality hooks.
Yo-Zuris run true and come with strong high quality hooks. In terms of color you’ll want plugs in red head/white body, rainbow trout and chartreuse initially. You can add more colors as you gain more experience, but in reality these tried and true colors will catch fish 90% of the time.
A unique aspect of delta trolling is the addition of a 6 inch plastic worm to the back of your minnow plugs. The worm most often used is a white Trick Worm, but other brands and colors of worms will work. The worm adds vibration, action and size to your plug.
So how do you use these lures and tackle to troll up a mess of stripers? Well let’s begin by looking at a couple common mistakes anglers make. First of all most anglers that are new to trolling delta waters tend to work water that is too deep and they usually troll too slowly.
Stripers are aggressive hunters that actively patrol shoreline structure in search of prey. When you begin a day of trolling you want to start out working shallow water tight to weed beds, tules, rip rap, snags and irrigations pipes. Ideally you want to seek out water that is about 8 feet deep.
For this shallow water work your trolling speed and the distance you put the plug behind the boat is critical. You want to be moving between 3.5 and 5 miles per hour and you want the lure 140 feet behind the boat. This combination of speed and backdrop will put a Bomber Long A just above the bottom in 8 feet of water.
If you fail to hook up in shallow water or are marking fish in deeper water, it is time to switch over to a deep running Yo-Zuri. For this work you’ll want to shorten your line to about 100 feet and slow your speed to about 3 miles per hour. Stripers will still hit a fast moving plug in deep water, but the large lip and action of deep divers doesn’t allow them to run well at higher speeds. well to running at higher speeds.
Anytime you can catch stripers while trolling shallow water along the bank, plugging becomes a viable option. During the daylight hours the best strategy is to go with subsurface lures. Proven favorites are Rat-L-Traps, bucktail jigs like P-Line Pulse Raisers and small swimbaits like Berkley Pogys. These baits can be thrown with either spinning tackle or bait casting gear. I prefer a 7’6” Lamiglas XFT 764 rod toped with an Abu Garcia Revo STX low profile baitcaster spooled with 50 pound Spiderwire Ultracast line.
With these subsurface lures you want make casts toward the bank, exploring features such as pockets in tules or weeds, fallen trees, rip rap points and irrigation pipes that are discharging water. When retrieving these lures don’t do anything fancy just cast them out and reel them in. When plugging with a Rat-L-Trap, the strike will usually be hard. When using bucktails or small plastic swimbaits the typical bite starts with a series of grabs and taps. When you feel that just keep the lure moving and let the bass load the rod before hammering the hook home.
I believe the most exciting fishing available to Norcal freshwater anglers comes in the form of tempting stripers with surface lures. This shallow water action takes place during the low light periods of dawn and dusk as well as on overcast days. Big swimbaits like River2Sea King Kongs, walking baits like River2Sea Rovers and Zara Spooks and Pencil Poppers will all draw savage surface explosions from hunting stripers.
When working the surface you’ve got to stay focused. Strikes might not come right away, but since the bass that hit on top are generally large you want to be ready. Stripers very often miss the first time they come up and slash at a surface plug. You never want to set the hook on the splash. KEEP WORKING THE PLUG UNTIL YOU FEEL THE FISH!
This point can’t be over stressed. When a big bass erupts behind your plug, the reaction of most anglers is to either rare back and set the hook before the bass has the bait or to freeze and stop the bait dead in the water. Both of these reactions will result in a missed opportunity. If you focus on keeping the bait moving no matter what you see, you’ll feel the strike and you’ll set the hook instinctively.
Well I’ve just barely scratched the surface of the fabulous sport of tempting stripers with lures and I’m already out of space. You’ve got enough information to get started. The rest of your instruction needs to come out in the classroom that we call the California Delta!
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