October 01, 2022
By Mike Costello
The early morning air felt and smelled “fishy” as I navigated my skiff through a narrow tule channel flooding into a tiny, shallow lake. Just a few days before the full moon, it was a typical Indian Summer morning in late September, where 50-degree mornings gave way to afternoons in the mid-80s. My electric motor helped us approach in stealth mode toward the huge V-wakes and tails we could see pushing 30 yards in front of us. Silence is not only appreciated, it is necessary when a wolf pack of trophy stripers is feeding in skinny water.
My two anglers simultaneously launched 6-inch Rattle Clouser flies from both ends of the boat. As soon as the flies hit the surface, they were instantly devoured in what can only be described as an underwater explosion—depth charges from below that tightened the fly lines like piano wire. The linesiders plowed through the shallows with everyone aboard cheering and hollering like kids visiting Disneyland for the first time.
Five minutes later, the first fish approached the boat, a gorgeous 19-pound specimen. It was a picture-worthy fish, but not that day because the other fish was clearly much bigger and demanded our full attention. After what seemed like an eternity (actual time about 15 minutes), a 4-foot slab approached the boat, its large eye glaring down at the foreign object impaled in its lip. One more violent head shake and the fly gently disengaged. We watched the great beast swim apathetically away into the murky water.
The first line-ripping, head-snapping, bulldog pull from a striped bass became my Kryptonite—I instantly became addicted to the pursuit of these wonderful creatures. Over the last three decades, I have hunted these migratory eating machines more than 225 days a year on the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.
Striped bass travel back and forth from salt water to fresh water annually, and they handle water temperatures from 78 degrees down to 38 degrees F. These trophy-class stripers can live as long as 30 years, and in the Delta fish upwards of 70 pounds have been caught by conventional anglers, while fish over 50 pounds have been taken on a fly. Fly fishers regularly take stripers of 30 and 40 pounds.
California stripers typically spend the summer in and around San Francisco Bay and along the nearby Pacific Ocean coastline. When fall approaches, they travel into the western part of the Delta, and by the end of November, they are throughout all the Delta. Quite often they spend the entire winter in the Delta, and then as spring approaches they head up the rivers where they spawn.
Striped bass need water in the range of 60 to 65 degrees in order for their eggs to hatch. Most Delta stripers spawn in the Sacramento River, up near the town of Colusa, approximately 65 miles upriver of the city of Sacramento. During drought years, they spawn farther down in the Delta system, and during high-water years they go higher up in the system. Once the spawn is complete—typically by March, April, and May—most of the stripers make their way back down the rivers and out into San Francisco Bay. Not all stripers go back to the ocean in the summer. Some schools of fish stay in the Delta throughout the entire summer.
The Delta has many public access points, and you can walk along many of the levees, but steep, unstable, rocky banks make fly fishing from shore difficult. Personal watercraft such as fishing kayaks, as well as pontoon boats and float tubes, can be productive in some places, but fast river currents, tidal flows, and wind can often pose problems with navigation. For boat anglers, the two most important accessories are an electric trolling motor, and a good fish and depth finder with GPS capabilities.
For Delta striped bass, I use 7- through 10-weight, 9-foot saltwater rods and large-arbor reels with at least 150 yards of backing. Over the years, my clients and I have had some 30- and 40-pound linesiders that freight-trained 175 yards of fly line and backing from the reel in a matter of seconds.
Perhaps the biggest contribution to targeting striped bass in the Delta over the last decade has come in the form of fly lines. Before 2008, I generally carried a fast-sinking line for fishing deep, and a floating line for topwater. But these days I have more tools to match changing conditions, bait populations, and water depths. My arsenal now contains a fast-sinking T-14 custom sinking tip, a Type VI sinking line, a Type III sink, an intermediate line, and a floating line. Sinking tips with floating running lines can also be extremely productive.
When I first started fishing the Delta back in 1996, the hottest flies were the classics: Lefty’s Deceiver, Clouser’s Deep Minnow, and Dan Blanton’s Flashtail Whistler in the typical colors of red and white, chartreuse and white, and gray and white. Although we still fish many of these original patterns, my fly boxes have had quite the makeover over the last 24 years. As schools of threadfin shad have declined in this ecosystem, the stripers have sought out many other forms of food to satisfy their ravenous appetites. Crayfish, Sacramento splittail, Sacramento pikeminnow, tui chubs, redear sunfish, and even largemouth bass are all on the striper smörgåsbord.
More subtle colors such as brown over white, and olive over white are used today to better match what the stripers are feeding on. One of my favorite patterns is black over chartreuse, with a little purple splashed in the middle, especially in water less than 8 feet deep where the predatory fish might be hunting.
I tie most of my flies on 60-degree-bend jig hooks, allowing the fly to ride hook up while retrieving. One requirement in more than 90 percent of my striper flies is a rattle. The only time I don’t fish a rattle fly is when I target stripers in clear water, and the bait is less than 3 inches long. Almost all of my 20-, 30-, and 40-pound stripers have come on 5- to 7-inch flies with rattles.
Topwater flies for stripers have also experienced a reboot. Crease Flies, Bubble Heads, and Gurglers are still extremely effective when encountering fish herding threadfin shad or other bait-balls to the surface. But when it comes to enticing a Morone saxatilis to randomly toilet flush a foreign object, Charlie Bisharat’s Pole Dancer is my fly of choice when I’m hunting for a trophy. “Walking the dog,” left and then right, this fly becomes a wounded baitfish, bringing stripers to the surface in heart-stopping eruptions.
Over the last three decades, I have been forced to make adjustments in all the waters I fish, and nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the Delta. As recently as ten years ago, most of my success came by fishing the flooded lakes and dead-end sloughs that make up a large portion of the waterway. The flooded lakes of Franks Tract and Mildred Island were staples in my daily hunt for fish. Sycamore, Hog, Beaver, and Snodgrass sloughs consistently gave up double-digit linesiders, and the water in and around Discovery Bay held huge schools of stripers from fall through spring. To put it simply, striped bass were everywhere, especially in the peak of the fall season.
The Delta today is still the same incredible fishery that I fell in love with many years ago, it just requires a little more persistence, knowledge, and imagination to be successful. Huge schools of stripers feeding in one area for a number of days may not be the norm anymore, but excellent fishing for big fish still exists.
Perhaps the biggest change in fishing the Delta is that the fish seem to prefer the main river channels now. Most of my fishing is concentrated along the Sacramento and San Joaquin River channels. Fishing specific tidal flows is a key component in finding fish. Certain shoals produce better at the beginning of flood tide, while other spots—particularly some weed edges—produce best on falling tides. Because I typically target areas where water movement is crucial, many of these high-percentage spots might only have feeding fish for small windows. I definitely use more fuel on my guided trips today than I did a decade ago. I am constantly chasing that perfect tide for each specific spot, even if that means navigating 80 miles or more in a day.
The Delta network of waterways primarily consists of man-made levees that were built during the late 1800s and early 1900s to provide flood control and farming opportunity for the Sacramento area and the Central Valley. Fed by the Sacramento River drainages to the north, and the San Joaquin River drainages to the south, the Delta is a myriad of river channels, dead-end sloughs, and flooded islands. This vast estuary covers over 1,200 miles with around 800 miles of navigable waterways before it encounters Suisun Bay, San Pablo Bay, San Francisco Bay, and eventually the Pacific Ocean. Native gamefish such as king salmon, Pacific steelhead, and sturgeon have all flourished in this brackish water since the beginning of time.
After the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, other gamefish were introduced into this nutrient-rich environment. By the beginning of the 20th century, striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, American shad, bluegill, redear sunfish, crappies, channel catfish, and common carp were all thriving in the Delta, right alongside the Delta’s other native gamefish.
There is excellent fly fishing in the California Delta every month of the year. You can target largemouth and smallmouth bass with surface poppers along weed edges and rock walls with surface poppers, sight-fish for giant carp on shallow flats, and some days a 3-weight fly rod and Woolly Bugger is the best way to enjoy some chunky panfish. When the fall run of king salmon enters the Delta in September and October, fly fishers have the opportunity for a Delta slam: stripers, largemouth or smallmouth, and salmon all in the same day.
When the pleasure boaters disappear and the migratory Sandhill cranes arrive just after Labor Day, I know that something special is just around the corner. I can almost envision those packs of hungry fish leaving San Fransisco Bay and making their way up through San Pablo Bay and into the Suisun Marsh. The summer west winds coming off the Pacific Ocean begin to diminish, and water temperatures typically drop into the mid-60s.
From mid-September through early December the striper window for fly fishers is wide open. Forster’s terns can often be seen diving on bait—the same bait that is being pushed to surface by foraging stripers. Great blue herons, great egrets, and snowy egrets line up along the rock levees, also waiting for juicy morsels to satisfy their own appetites. Everything is alive and thriving.
Depending on the tide and wind conditions, in the early fall I generally try to fish the water west of the Highway 160 bridge. The areas around Broad Slough and West Island can be very productive, as can the weed channels inside the Sherman Lake area. During very calm conditions I venture over into Honker Bay, and the Suisun Marsh, where the natural tule islands present numerous shallow-water opportunities. It is out in this brackish water—where the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River join together—that stripers often hang close to that mix of fresh and salt water.
As we get into those phenomenal October and November months, I spend a lot of time in the central Delta, from the mouth of the Mokelumne River down the San Joaquin River to the Big Break area. During this time I scout for large schools of ravenous stripers devouring baitfish along weed beds and flats from the last three hours of the falling tide into the first hour of the incoming tide. This time of year can also be a great time to fish the north Delta above the Highway 12 bridge, on both the Sacramento and Mokelumne rivers. Stripers are constantly on the move, looking for food, so as a fly fisher you have to become the hunter in order to achieve success.
What does the future hold for the California Delta? I always like to look back to the late 1990s, during my first few years of experiencing this remarkable fishery. In those days, California Fish and Game, now known as California Fish and Wildlife, required a striper stamp for fishing for stripers in the Delta. The purpose of that stamp was to maintain a healthy adult striper population of somewhere around 2 million fish by planting juvenile stripers. During that time I was also guiding 70 to 80 days a year on the Lower Sacramento River near Redding, California for trout and steelhead.
My overall opinion back then was that stripers—as well as the hundreds of thousands of spawning king salmon—were doing extremely well in this vast ecosystem. Both species were healthy, thriving, and coexisting just like they had since 1879 when striped bass were first introduced. As water exports from the Delta increased in the early 2000s for farming and municipalities, the Delta fishery begin to suffer. Both king salmon and striped bass numbers plummeted, as did a host of smaller baitfish that depended on water quality in the Delta.
Increasing pesticides and herbicides associated with agricultural runoff, as well invasive aquatic plant species, also negatively affected the Delta. This decline especially did not go well for striped bass because certain groups supporting water diversions began implying that the decline in native fish populations were directly related to predation by stripers.
I find it ironic that striped bass have lived in this ecosystem for 140 years alongside king salmon and other native species, and now they have targets on their backs. Fortunately, people like Dan Blanton help give striped bass a voice in the Delta. His Striperfest fundraising event has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to enhance and support our striped bass fishery.
I truly believe if the California Department of Fish and Wildlife ever committed to managing the striper fishery so that large spawning fish were protected on their spawning migrations, we would see improvements immediately. As fly fishers, we always work toward improving a fishery . . . as it stands now, this incredible estuary already offers some of the best big-fish opportunities in the United States.
Local guides; regional fly shops like Lost Coast Outfitters, Fly Fishing Specialties, and Kiene’s Fly Shop; and the Nor-Cal Guides & Sportsmen’s Association (NCGASA) are all working to protect and enhance the Delta through public education against water exports, and by fighting proposed regulations intended to eliminate gamefish like largemouth and striped bass. We should all applaud their efforts to protect this incredible fishery for future generations.
Capt. Mike Costello (captainmikecostello.com) started as a trout guide on Colorado’s Fryingpan River, and has been living and guiding on the Sacramento Delta for more than 25 years.