Northwest Fly Fishing

In Pursuit of the Delta Grand Slam
By Greg Vinci

When it comes to fishing, Northern California is unique. Few other regions offer such a diverse array of fish species available to anglers year-round. Some of NorCal’s fish are anadromous natives—salmon and steelhead—while others are anadromous transplants, such as striped bass and shad. Many freshwater nonnative species now thrive in Northern California, including both largemouth and smallmouth bass. While salmon and steelhead are available to anglers during spawning runs, which span several months, fly fishers can target stripers, smallies, and largemouth bass any month of the year somewhere in California because the region has so many excellent fisheries.
  But there’s one fishery where all three bass species thrive and where fly anglers might very well catch all three in a single day: the Sacramento River Delta. Catching stripers, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass all on the same day means you’ve accomplished the Delta Grand Slam.
  The Sacramento Delta—formally called the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, or California Delta—is located just northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area and west of the city of Stockton. The namesake Sacramento River enters the delta from the north, while the San Joaquin River arrives from the south and the Mokelumne River feeds in from the east.This vast delta, covering about 1,100 square miles, gathers all the waters that drain the mountains surrounding the Sacramento Valley and northern San Joaquin Valley. Once the rivers reach relatively flat terrain, they fan out into a spider web of channels that eventually coalesce and flow into San Francisco Bay. 
  In the delta, the water warms to the point that is perfect for most bass species. Stripers and largemouth are widespread. Adult striped bass, being migratory, are transient, so you may or may not find them in certain areas during particular times of the year, but juvenile stripers, up to 20 inches in length, inhabit most of the delta and the cooler waters that feed the delta. Smallmouth bass, on the other hand, prefer areas of slightly colder water, primarily meaning the north half of the delta that is fed by the Sacramento River, so that is the region where anglers can try for a Delta Grand Slam.
  Many fly anglers, especially because most of us gravitate to cold-water species, overlook the fact that warm-water species are widespread and abundant, particularly in the delta, which is less than an hour from the Bay Area, as well as the cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Modesto. Though perhaps off the radar of many anglers, the delta’s largemouth bass fishery has certainly not escaped the notice of those using conventional tackle. The delta hosts numerous professional bass fishing tournaments each year; even the prestigious Bassmaster Elite Series Tournament has been held on the delta three times in recent years. In fact, the heaviest bass in the history of the Bassmaster Tournament series—Mark Tyler’s 14-pound, 9-ounce monster—came from the delta in 1999.
  Being primarily a cold-water angler myself, I have largely ignored warm-water fishing ever since I began fly fishing some 30 years ago. Back in my spin-fishing days, however, I devoted much of my time to targeting stripers and other warm-water fish, but once I got a taste of wading cold mountain streams, trying to make a perfect cast, and setting the hook on a rising trout, I forgot how much fun bass fishing is.
  One afternoon while at a book signing at Kiene’s American Fly Fishing Company in Sacramento, I was amused to observe a young father chasing his three-year-old son throughout the store trying to keep the child’s hands off the brightly-colored fly-tying materials and strike indicators that hung on racks at his eye level. We struck up a conversation and he introduced himself and handed me his business card. I noticed two things: he was a fishing guide and the word “captain” preceeded his name, Bryce Tedford.I’d not heard of him before—as I said, I ran in trout circles—but he explained that he guided exclusively on the Sacramento Delta and then went on to explain his specialty, taking clients out for a Delta Grand Slam.
  I knew about the so-called Sierra Grand Slam—the feat of catching a rainbow, brown, golden, and brook trout all in one day—but I’d never considered the idea of a warm-water slam. Tedford invited me to come down and fish the delta with him in hopes of scoring a Grand Slam. I thanked him for the offer, knowing that 90 percent of my fishing plans tend to go awry, and we parted ways.


The Bass Slam Challenge
The following autumn, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Tedford. He renewed his invitation, suggesting we join up for a morning session on the delta. When the day arrived, my pal, Gary Eblen, and I made the one-hour drive south of Sacramento to meet Tedford at the Hog Island boat ramp on Steamboat Slough. At the parking area, we shouldered our gear and walked through the fog to the boat, which was already in the water and ready to go. 
  And quite a boat it was. Famed tournament bass angler Jimmy Houston would have admired it—a 19-foot Ranger bass boat packing a 150-horse Mercury outboard that was going to make the morning fun even if the fishing didn’t pan out. It brought back old memories of sitting before a television watching Houston at the wheel of his boat, speeding across a Southern lake to some secret lair of giant largemouth bass, with a blur of cyprus trees in the background and his bleach-blond mop of hair blowing in the wind. We hopped in the boat and took off.
  Indeed, the first order of business was to catch a largemouth bass. Tedford explained, “In summer, smallmouth and largemouth are far easier to catch than stripers. It’s all about time of year and water temperatures. Different times of year dictate which of three species are easiest to catch. That’s why the bass slam is a challenge—it’s generally easy to get one or two of the bass species, but catching all three can be challenging, depending on the season and water temperature.”
  Tedford maneuvered the boat next to some rocks and overhanging willows on the rip-rap-lined shore of a levee, and he and Eblen began casting to the rocks and strip-retrieving back to the boat. Eblen fished a chartreuse/white Gurgler, pulling it rapidly across the water. Tedford explained that the first two strips were the most important because the fish always hang out close to the rocks, which meant that was when you usually got the grab. He opted for a chartreuse/white Clouser Minnow. My job was to man the camera.
  Tedford couldn’t tempt a bass out of hiding with the Clouser, but occasionally we saw nervous water just below Eblen’s Gurgler, indicating a fish had at least approached the fly for a look. Tedford quietly eased the boat forward another 10 yards and Eblen continued to cast to within inches of the rocks. Suddenly, the water exploded at the end of Gary’s line as a chunky largemouth engulfed his fly. He quickly brought it to the boat where Tedford unhooked the fish.
  We continued working along the shoreline rocks, casting into structure and tules, where Eblen caught several more bass. The action was consistent if not fast; Tedford explained that on October mornings, the water remains rather cool for largemouths. The tide was rising during the mornings and Tedford assured us that fishing would improve on the ebb tide, when the fish move into the rocks to feed on crawfish. Considering the conditions, we were doing quite well. 
  We had one species down, the largemouth bass, and two to go. Tedford motored the boat to a similar location where he thought we might have a better chance for a smallmouth. During autumn, smallmouth and largemouth bass often inhabit the same areas, but smallmouth tend to be attracted to steeper rock walls than largemouth prefer. Tedford maneuvered the boat with the trolling motor within about 10 yards of a steep levee, and soon his line tightened on a feisty smallmouth that had hammered the Clouser. The day had just begun and already we had two of the three bass species. Now all we needed to do was find some stripers.


Two Down, One to Go
In the spring and fall, larger stripers that have spent the summer in salt water become more numerous as they arrive in the delta to enjoy the cool water. The delta is also a nursery for striped bass so in certain areas, you can find large schools of small fish that range in size from 12 to 20 inches in length.
  Adult stripers spend part of the year in salt water beyond the Golden Gate and then travel to fresh water in the spring to spawn in the lower Sacramento, American, Feather, Mokelumne, and San Joaquin Rivers. These fish broadcast spawn, meaning that rather than laying eggs in a nest on the bottom like black bass, they spawn on the surface of moderately moving water. The females emit their eggs and the males emit their sperm among the eggs. Fertilized eggs then float with the current to eventually hatch downstream in the slower-moving water of the rivers and in the delta. Juvenile stripers tend to school and when you find one, you will find many others.
  Tedford put the pedal to the metal, and we sped to another location a couple of miles upstream, passing several wrecked yachts and old fisherman’s shacks. He stopped the boat at a gap between two islands, actually the remnants of some blown-out levees; between them, the rising tide created a consistent current flowing over an uneven bottom with depressions where the fish could hold to ambush prey that floated by. Tedford explained that the key to fishing the delta is knowing the features of the river bottom at such holding areas.
  We all then began casting chartreuse/white Clousers upstream and letting them sink for about 10 seconds in water 10 to 15 feet deep. Then we retrieved the flies rapidly. Within just a few casts, we had all hooked schoolies—juvenile stripers of 10 to 15 inches or so. Big stripers, up to 30 or more pounds, often hang among the schoolies, so you never know if one of those behemoths will grab your streamer. After about an hour, we actually began to get a little bored as the fishing was so easy.
  The Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta comprises 700 miles of sloughs and channels where you can easily get lost if you are unfamiliar with the area. Of course, GPS can save the day for the inexperienced. Numerous boat launching facilities, some public and some private, serve anglers. The delta draws many anglers from out of the region, so the area is replete with all kinds of lodging options, including bed-and-breakfasts and historic hotels that sit right on the water. If you tire of catching fish, there are several interesting places to visit ranging from the 80-year-old Ryde Hotel that once was a clandestine rendezvous spot for Hollywood stars, to the Grand Island Mansion, the largest private estate in California. The historic town of Locke, built for Chinese laborers around the early 1900s, is kept in what is called a state of arrested decay, which means that as the wooden false-front buildings begin to deteriorate, they are repaired, but no attempt is made to restore them.
  Do your homework before you head for the delta. You’ll need a boat, especially to target stripers. Personal watercraft work in places, but don’t allow the easy mobility of a motorboat; nonetheless, some intrepid fly anglers successfully fish the delta by kayak. In many areas fishable by kayak, you need to carry the boat down a steep levee to launch. Pontoon-style craft, like kayaks, can be useful and allow you to explore the nooks and crannies of the shoreline, particularly if you are fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass among the rocks along the edges. Still, a motorized boat offers the major advantage of easy mobility, allowing you to move quickly between locations. To fish for stripers, you need a boat that can handle the strong currents of the deeper water. A trolling motor is necessary to maneuver the boat quietly in the back sloughs or along the edges of the river. Lastly, a fish finder is invaluable.
  If you haven’t tried warm-water fly fishing on a massive scale, add the delta to your bucket list. If you live outside the area, the fishing is good enough to plan an extended stay—50- to 100-fish days are certainly possible, and pursuing the Delta Grand Slam is an exciting way to explore this incredible fishery.


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