As I turned my Starcraft from the dock and into a narrow cut, a wash of gold and violet was breaking over the eastern Delta, painting a velvet backdrop for the silhouettes of roosting egrets. Tule rushes and scattered cottonwoods dotted the rock-lined levees. Lilly pads and rafts of water hyacinth slipped silently past the hull, bobbing gently in its wake. Dense tule fog only added intrigue and mystery to the watery wonderland before us -- the Sacramento River Delta.
|Nick Curcione and I agreed: this immense labyrinth of rivers, sloughs,
cuts, channels and lakes (called tracts locally) suggested so many other places we had
been, and fishing experiences we shared. This Delta backcountry, with 1,000 miles of
navigable waterways was a blend: A little Florida everglades, Flamingo backcountry,
Louisiana Bayous and the jungle rivers of Central America. Surrounded though it is by the
urban sprawl of San Francisco to the west, Sacramento to the north, and Stockton to the
east, this wilderness had a good feeling about it, like it had been frozen in time.
We were nearing the spot where, at the age of fifteen, I had caught my first striper on a fly, so I had come full-circle. Following that initial encounter, however, I had confined my fly fishing for stripers to San Francisco bay. Thirty-five years had passed since that first fish. For all practical purposes, this was a brand new experience for both Nick and me - an adventure that seemed akin to travelling to some exotic angling destination. We both just knew we were in for a great day of fly-rodding.
Continuing slowly up the cut, we passed the covered boatslips of the Holland Riverside Marina before entering "Holland Cut," a four mile long channel that runs almost as straight as a plumb line. As we headed north, a 15 to 20-foot high, rock-lined levee paralleled our course on our port side, while dozens of tule-lined islands and banks, with occasional cuts through them, bordered our starboard side. The cut was perhaps 100 yards wide at its broadest point, and since the tule fog had been pushed right to the surface, we had to be extremely careful not just to watch for other craft, but also to avoid venturing into an unnamed channel or slough leading nowhere.
It was October and friends Jay Remley and Dave Burns had offered to show Nick and me the Delta, and we had readily accepted. Jay was already into the bass at his first stop as Dave lead me up the cut, careful to keep the levee wall in sight and to avoid the private docks that protruded into the slough. It seemed like an eternity but we finally reached our destination - the confluence of Holland Cut and Sandmound Slough.
Sandmound Slough boarders the southern edge of a large lake called Frank's Tract. Frank's Tract had been farm land, a man-made island reclaimed from the fertile delta bottom, but a break many years ago in the levy wall surrounding the island allowed the San Joaquin River to retake the island. A large tract of water was formed that averages 7 to 10 feet in depth, and is encircled with channels, cuts and rivers that average around 25 feet in depth. Frank's tract has a circumference of about 10 miles, and the tract is graced with extremely productive weedy flats, bars, tule islands, and a long rock-lined levee wall - all the places striped bass love to call their dining room.
At the juncture of the two channels, I called Jay on my marine radio to ask for some advice on where to begin. Jay had the most experience in Frank's Trac, having fished the region for over six years: he knew what he was doing.
"We have an in-coming tide this morning," advised Jay. "It'll be high around noon. Run about a half mile up Sandmound Slough and then work your way back toward Holland Cut. Use the current to your advantage so your electric motor battery will last longer. This area is good for 30 or 40 minutes just at dawn," he continued. "We'll fish here for a while and then we'll move inside the Tract to try the "West Flats."
"Sounds like a plan to me . . . check and thanks," I replied.
The idea was to motor slowly and quietly along the rock-lined levy wall at a distance of 60 or 70 feet, dropping our flies just as close to the rocks as possible: I mean within fractions of an inch! The stripers were keying on bait that hung extremely tight to the wall: a variety of critters ranging from crayfish to threadfin shad, carp minnows, Blackfish minnows, Sacramento perch, and salmon fry just to name a few. Most of the strikes would occur within the first few feet of the retrieve - from the instant the bug first moved, to within the next five or six pulls. Some of the takes were actually visible once the sun was high enough to see into the water. Not all the takes were close-in, however. Many would come 30 or 40 feet out and deep. Sometimes a striper would even blow up on the fly just as you were roll-casting it to the surface. Extremely exhilarating!
Taking Jay's advise, I motored up the slough about a half mile, stopping where a slight bend in the levee formed a small depression in the bank. A clump of bamboo hung slightly out over the water and here and there I could see fish boiling the surface along the shoreline. The unmistakable sight of busting stripers gave me an instant adrenaline rush.
Both Nick and I were using shooting heads with Amnesia (mono) shooting line: the best rig for any situation that calls for repeated blind casting. Since extreme accuracy was required, one might assume that a full-length fly line would be the best choice. Not true! You can be just as deadly accurate with a shooting head when casting to targets within 60 to 80 feet, as you can with any other line. The trick is not to completely release the shooting line after the delivery stop, as you might when casting for distance only. Instead allow the shooting line to run freely through your slightly-opened palm, without relinquishing contact with the line. It's a simple matter then, simply to clamp down on the shooting line, stopping and turning the fly over, dropping it exactly where you want it - in this case, right at the base of the rocks. For blind casting to fish foraging over vast, shallow, weedy flats, or in deep channels - nothing beats a shooting head.
Nick was using a lead core head and I used a #4 Hi-speed, Hi-D. Both were 30 feet in length, and both of us were using black and grizzly Flash-tail Whistlers. No one needed to tell me about productive striper flies. Nick was into a fish on the first cast: a schoolie of about two pounds that blasted his fly almost the second it splatted into the water. I followed with one of similar size and those were followed by others that ranged to about six pounds. Action was fast and furious for about thirty minutes until the sun broke over the levee bank and boat traffic increased until I thought I was fishing on highway 101! Sandmound Slough is one of the major waterways servicing several popular marinas. We ended up with a total of 11 fish in the half hour it took to work our way back to the intersection of Holland Cut and Sandmound Slough.
These Delta stripers were strong, hard-hitting fish more like San Francisco bay fish - and not at all like their softer, weaker, stillwater cousins, found in San Luis Reservoir and other freshwater impoundments. They were a blast to catch on 8-weight rods.
The bite had also slowed up for Jay who had been fishing an area farther up the slough. Dave Burns and his crew seemed to be doing alright somewhere between the two of us. Jay suggested that we follow him into Frank's track to what he called the "West Flat". The flat extended about three quarters of a mile and was bordered by a bank of tules nearly its entire length. The average depth we fished was from three to six feet. On the opposite side of the tule bank was a slough that bordered Bethel Island and several homes with private docks lined the waterfront.
Dense patches of aquatic weeds grew from the tule bank out toward the open water of the tract, attracting both bait and stripers. Jay suggested that we distance ourselves a good cast away from the weedline, and use the electric motor to push the boat slowly along the entire length of the flat, casting in opposite directions until we located a school of stripers.
We started at the north end of the flat, giving Jay a 100-yard head start. We were in about six feet of water and while Nick fired his lead core toward the deeper, open water, I tossed my Yellow Whistler Grizzly toward the weed line. Action was slow at first with just a fish or two coming to the boat during the first 15 minutes. Jay had stopped his drift, though, having apparently located a good school of fish. "You guys better get over here. Fast!," Boomed Jay's voice over the radio. "I've got a bunch of bass terrorizing Threadfin shad in this open area between the weeds."
Even on high my electric motor seemed agonizingly slow... Once there though, Nick and I were into double hook-ups constantly. Stripers were inhaling the fly on the sink, blasting it on the first pull, on the fourth, the fifth, halfway in, at the rod tip, and one actually took the fly as it was being lifted from the water. It reminded me of the "Good Old Days" on San Francisco Bay. Nick thought he had died an gone to heaven. Jay just grinned with approval as he drifted away from the action, content to have put his friends onto fish.
I normally don't count fish, but I wanted to get a feeling for the potential of this fishery. At the conclusionof 20 minutes of fast action, we had boated 16 more bass from 12 inches to 10 pounds. That totaled 27 stripers and it wasn't even noon, yet. Jay had fared just as well, as had Dave, whose biggest bass was 12 pounds. Not too shabby, considering this striper fishery is just a shadow of its former glory before the massive water exportation into the Central Valley.
From the West Flat we moved out of Frank's tract into a slough called Fisherman's Cut which runs due north off of the False River which fringes the north end of the tract. As before, we worked about a half mile of rocky shore, taking another eight bass under four pounds, but the tide had slackened, fully high at 12 noon. The fish had gone off the bite and it was time for lunch.
When the tide started rolling again, Jay suggested we try a spot he hadn't yet tested: a long rockwall (actually the western levee of Mandeville Island), that borders the eastern side of Frank's tract. We just call it the "East Wall". A week earlier, a friend of Jay's had boated several good stripers to twenty pounds using bucktail jigs.
Jay took the first half of the wall and we fished the last half, working along its length, running with the tide. I can't begin to describe the action we had during the next three hours, except to say that by quitting time Nick and I had run the tally up to 70 stripers and seven large mouthbass - with the biggest largemouth going to six pounds.
Most of the stripers ranged between ten and 17 inches, but at least 20 were keepers (over 18 inches), weighing three to six pounds. We both landed fish topping ten pounds. This is not to say that lunker stripers can't be taken on the fly. There are plenty of large fish poking around the Delta, including Frank's Tract. In fact, Dave Burns took a 20-pounder in December of 1991. Most ofthe really big bass are taken at night by bait anglers, however, and I plan on giving those big nighttime bruisers a try on fly this coming season.
Nick's two largest fish of the day were a ten and12-pounder; and my largest was a 14-pounder that took the fly a foot away from the rocks. It was the last fish of the day and the strike was absolutely spectacular! The fish came at the fly from the side in full broadside view. We could see every detail as the big bass engulfed my White Whistler R.G. Flash tail in a thrashing boil of white water.
"Jesus! Nick exclaimed. "Did you see that! What a grab! It looked like a tarpon taking a fly on the flats! What a grab!" What a way to end a great day fly fishing with an old friend, one of the best fly fishermen I know, who took the lion's share of the larger fish this day.
When the Delta is on, it can be a trully amazing fishery. My records show that after my visit with Nick, the Delta gave up at least 27 and and as many as 94 stripers each day I fished in the following weeks. Busting schools of stripers continued to appear on the flats feeding voraciously on the Threadfin shad, and we continued to catch them on a variety of flash tail Whistlers. That autumn's fast fishing only ended in early December when the first serious cold front coupled with heavy rains chilled and muddied the water.
The Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta offers the serious fly fisher one of the greatest angling experiences imaginable. This vast wildlife refuge harbors not only striped bass, largemouth bass, crappie, Sacramento perch and King salmon, all of which will readily eat flies, but also hosts myriad species of shore birds and waterfowl - egrets, Great Blue heron, geese, ducks, swans and many others. Foxes, muskrats, raccoons, weasels, and other critters call the levees, sloughs and islands home too. It's a wondrous place that will leave you with a good feeling after a day in California's back country, catching stripers on a fly.