Every fall striped bass move from the saltwater of the the San Francisco Bay up into the freshwater of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. To an outsider, a map of the Delta might look like a nightmarish web of channels, streams and sloughs where someone’s less likely to get into stripers and more likely to just get lost.
But to a veteran of those waterways like guide and author JD Richey, all that water is a blessing.
“The beauty of it is there’s about a thousand miles of waterway that almost every inch of it has striped bass in it,” Richey said in a phone interview while on his way to the water. “You can always find some water to yourself.”
And all that water allows for a nearly endless array of techniques for catching Delta stripers. Some anglers troll while others sit anchored over bait like cut sardine. Richey prefers a more aggressive approach, particularly casting topwater lures. But casters aren’t limited to topwater options: Crankbaits, rip baits, jigs and spoons are all on the menu, too.
“What’s really interesting is you can do all of that in one day,” Richey said.
While some striper fisheries are all about chasing visible boils as the bass crowd schools of baitfish to the surface and crash them, striper fishing in the Delta requires going in blind. In those cases, it helps to have a feel for the fish’s habitats. For example, the stripers tend to spend time in deeper waters where they’re safe from predators like sea lions, Richey said.
“And then they’ll make these quick, viking-like raids up into the shallows to feed,” he said. “And then they get out of there real quick.”
Anglers in the Delta will also have tides to contend with, and how those cycles affect the fishing will depend on the spot. Stripers might set up behind a particular shallow drop-off and wait for incoming tide flows to start shuttling in food. But that same spot might not have the right conditions during outgoing tides. But the rule of thumb, Richey says, is that fish are most active during tidal exchange.
“The slack tide is the time to take a bite out of your sandwich and chill out for a minute because they usually don’t bite that well,” he said.
Delta stripers aren’t huge, with fish averaging 4 to 6 pounds. A few 50-pound isn are generally caught each year, but those are growing more rare, Richey said. Striper fishing can also produce a few surprises, as they’re far from the only species swimming in the Delta. Richey has picked up a few stray salmon there recently, something of an irony since he had switched to targeting Delta stripers after salmon fishing elsewhere had gone cold. The system of waterways is also one of the West’s best black bass fisheries. Guide trip clients will occasionally hook a 5- or 6-pound largemouth without even targeting them, Richey said. They’ve even picked up sturgeon while jigging spoons.
“The Delta’s full of critters, so you never know,” he said.