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The San Joaquin Delta, California, United States

Crisscrossing northern California from Sacramento to Stockton and spreading west to the Suisun Bay is the San Joaquin Delta, an angler’s paradise thousands of miles in size. Often hailed as the premier place to fish in California, the San Joaquin Delta has something for everyone. Striped Bass transit through the region in May and November each year as they migrate, but numerous other species call the delta region home and can be found year-round. These include bass (small and large mouth), bluegill, bullhead catfish, channel catfish, crappie, redear sunfish, salmon, shad, steelhead,  sturgeon, yellow perch, white catfish and numerous others.

Fish Species

Catfish

Three distinct catfish can be found in the San Joaquin Delta year-round; bullhead, channel, and white. Summer is the peak season for catfish in the region. Preparation is vital to success so have 15-20 pound test line. As far as bait goes, there’s a long list of things that work, but they may also attract other fish as well, like striped bass. The best baits for catfish include anchovies, bloodworms, chicken liver, clams, dough baits, nightcrawlers, sardines, stink baits, and turkey livers.

The best areas to look for catfish vary in depth from 3 to twenty feet with the deeper waters more productive in the winter. Some example areas include Franks Tract State Rec Area, Georgiana Slough, Middle River, Miner Sloughs, Old River, Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, Sevenmile, Sherman Lake, Threemile, and White Slough. The best strategy is to try a spot for around 30 minutes and then move on to another nearby area.

Bluegill

Bluegill stick to the quieter parts of the San Joaquin Delta so look for them where the water is slow and the weeds are thick. Smaller bluegill can be found under the cover of shade trees, docks and other shadow-casting objects. The larger ones prefer to hang out in deeper water during the day but can be found feeding in the shallows in the mornings or evenings.

Striped Bass

Striped Bass can be found in a wide range of areas in the delta. Some general areas include Franks Tract State Rec Area, Middle River, Old River, the San Andreas shoals on the San Joaquin, and White Slough. If fishing from shore also try the Mokelumne River from the San Joaquin to Hwy 12 and near the Cross Delta Channel.

There area also specific zones that many have had success with striped bass. If fishing from a boat try any of these areas:

  • Sherman Lake – water depth of 5 feet or less
  • Power lines on the Sacramento River – Best to try within 2 hours of incoming or outgoing tides (high/low)
  • Threemile Slough – where it meets the Sacramento River or the San Joaquin River
  • Decker Island – west side, north end near Threemile, and on the south side where the two forks of the Sacramento River meet.
  • Dairy on Brannan Island – About 1.5 miles north of Brannan Island State Rec Area entrance, across from Sandy Beach County Park. East side of the river about 50 yards offshore near where the river widens.

For bait, Striped Bass enjoy anchovies, bloodworms, crayfish, ghost shrimp, grass shrimp, mudsuckers, sardines, sculpins, shad, and threadfin. Cut bait should have the fresh side exposed and nylon netting can be used to keep the bait on the hook. Lures can also see success with some of the best being Rebels and Rapalas in 3 to 7 inch sizes. The line needs to be in the 10 to 30 pound test range.

Striped Bass run in spring and fall. Spring is spawning and the striped bass run up the main arteries of the Sacrament and San Joaquin rivers. The fall run is also good and one can find a lot of larger striped bass during the season. Fishing for striped bass is good from September through June as the two seasons run into each other.

Sturgeon

Sturgeon can be found in a range of areas in the San Joaquin Delta. Some of the best areas are the deepest ones, 14 to 80 feet in depth – the deeper, the better. These areas include the Isleton and Rio Vista bridges, the Sacramento River, Threemile Slough where it meets the Sacramento, and near the old dairy on Brannan Island. Larger areas include the Mothball Fleet, and the San Pablo and Suisun Bays. Less successful but still good fishing areas include the Cache Slough and near Liberty Island. The best time of year to fish for sturgeon in the region is winter as the water gets muddy through until the beginning of summer.

While white sturgeon can reach 12 to 20 feet and up to 1,300 pounds, but that’s uncommon. The best documented big white sturgeon was in 1983 and was 468 pounds. However, state regulations allow white sturgeon only between 40 and 60 inches in order to improve the severely depleted population. Green sturgeon are also a large fish with lengths between 4 and 7 feet and weights up to 350 pounds at maturity. However, their population has been decimated worse than their white sturgeon cousins.

Many sturgeon anglers are using sensitive-tipped heavier rods (medium to heavy) equipped with a conventional or bait casting reel. Some are using spinning reels but all are using a 30 to 50 pound line. Tackle setups include wire leaders, sliding sinkers with single or double hooks.

Salmon

Salmon populations have been threatened in the area and some even reached the endangered species list. However, through state regulation, many of the populations have improved in recent years. There are several good salmon fisheries in the delta including the American River, Mokelumne River and the Sacramento River on the southern end and upstream from the city of Sacramento.

American Shad

American shad are best found in spring, when they spawn, and peak from late April through early May. The best areas in the San Joaquin Delta for shad are on the American River, Mokelumne River and Sacramento River. For the Mokelumne River try above the New Hope Landing. Two areas on the Sacramento see the most success, near the Four Seasons Marina, and below the Freeport Bridge.

The most common tackle are shad jigs. They’re most commonly caught in the 1 to 3 pound range and will take a bit of work as they like to fight. Bump-netting is still used by some at night. It’s a lot of work as you’ll be hanging over the side of the boat with a cone-shaped net on the long pole, dragging it through the water. When it bumps into a fish, turn the net straight up and pull it out of the water. They say it’s not for the faint of heart, but one can net a good amount of shad in a short time.