by Dan Blanton
Ask any tournament largemouth bass fisherman if he or she has ever heard about the California Delta, and odds are you'll get a 100% "yes" response. Ask the same question to a bunch of black bass fly-rodders and the same odds are that a majority of them would say they haven't heard of the delta, or know very little about it. Too bad. The California Delta is one of the most productive largemouth bass fisheries in the world. It is where tournament champion, Dee Thomas pioneered what is referred to by conventional bass anglers as "Flippin," one of the most used, and deadly techniques for taking old bucket mouth. The California Delta is also where dozens upon dozens of bass tournaments are held each year, many of them national events, worth big bucks.
Now all this isn't to entice you to become a Flippin devotee or a tournament basser - heaven forbid! I mention it only to point out that if you like fly fishing for largemouth bass and don't know about the delta, you are missing out on a great opportunity - big time. It is, indeed, quite possible for knowledgeable fly-rodders to stick from 10 to 20 or more blacks a day, ranging in size from under a pound to more than eight, on all manner of flies from poppers to striper-sized streamers and bucktails. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I've been there casting for striped bass, a couple of dozen or more largemouth bass have fallen victim to my flies as incidental catches. And, when specifically targeting delta blacks, the reverse has occurred. It's almost a no-lose situation.
"Yeah, right!", you say. What about all those 100-mile-an-hour bass boats with crazies at the wheel, churning the delta to a froth, though? Who wants to fly-fish in that environment? Well, the delta encompasses 1,000 miles of navigable water ways - most of which are teeming with both stripers and largemouth bass - an area so vast it can effectively swallow up an armada of tournament bass boats. Fish this backcountry during the week and the entire question becomes moot. By all standards, the place becomes deserted during the regular work week; and, it is not all that crowded on weekends.
Given the size of this watery wonderland, where does one begin? Well, if you threw a dart at a delta chart, while blindfolded, just about any place struck would probably be close to good water. There's Franks Tract, Mildred Island, Sherman Lake, Big Break and literally hundreds of sloughs, cuts and channels ranging all the way from Pittsburg to Stockton, not to mention rivers like the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and the Mokelume - the enormity of it all can become almost mind-boggling.
To narrow it down for starters, though, I'd personally select Frank's Tract, which is often called the "Lake of the Delta". Frank's tract, the largest delta lake, is the hub of this vast system of waterways, and from there you could range out to dozens of other productive areas if you wanted to. The beauty of the 'Tract is, that you really don't have to go anywhere else to catch all the largemouth on fly you wanted. You could spend days tossing flies on Frank's Tract, Little Frank's Tract and the myriad connecting sloughs, cuts and channels, without flailing the same water twice. Of course you need a sea-worthy power boat for this fishing, ranging from 10 to 18 feet in length, equipped with an auxiliary electric motor; but don't even think about using a float tube - unless you have suicidal tendencies. The water here is just too big, too rough at times and the currents too strong for safe tubing.
In addition to great fly fishing potential, the 'Tract offers the angler other amenities: good launching facilities, camping, dining and boat rentals. There is even fly fishing guide service for both stripers and black bass; and the area is only an hour-and-a-half or less drive from the greater San Francisco bay area.
Now that you know where to go, what about when? Actually, you can take delta largemouth on flies just about year-round, with certain months producing better than others, with weather (wind) sometimes being a major factor.
Spring is an excellent time to chase backcountry big mouths but late summer, fall and early winter is better. Let me explain: During spring (March, April and May), fly fishing for blacks can be excellent just before and during the spawning period. Most of the fish will be on or close to the nest, however, and since the delta has more water in it during this time than at any other, bass will be farther back into the cover, making it more difficult to reach them with flies. In the spring of 1995, for example, we had more water at low tide than we would normally have at full flood during late summer and fall. And, another important factor which is actually a deterrent to spring fishing, is the incessant wind - it always seems to blow, making it much more difficult to fly-fish, although it can still be done, since there are many protected areas, particularly in the sloughs and cuts. You need to pick your days during spring.
Late summer, fall and early winter fishing is better in all terms: there is not as much water, the winds are generally nil, and these current-orientated largemouths are keying on threadfin shad, the predominate forage fish, which means they'll be extremely aggressive, moving farther to intercept a well-designed fly. September, October and November are my absolute favorite months but December can produce very well, depending upon weather. What about summer?
The delta is a multiple-use recreational area: fishermen, water foul hunters and water sports devotees all use it. Summer is the prime period for the latter, which are a Nemesis to black bass anglers because they like to terrorize the same water we frequent, and though immense, the delta hasn't an appetite large enough to swallow the hordes of water-skiers and jet-skiers that swarm to the region when temperatures sore into the 80's; and, you guessed it - the damned wind still blows then.
Tackle for delta blacks should be, in my view, the same as you would use for striper fly fishing - steelhead-sized, 8- to 9-weight outfits - for a variety of reasons. First and foremost the size of the most productive flies are quite large when compared to flies that are used elsewhere. The same patterns used to entice stripers are the ones used to nail Mr. big mouth, and the heavier lines that balance these rods carry large flies more efficiently. Secondly, as already stated, striped bass share the same waters as black bass, feed on the same things, and some of them exceed 20 pounds, a few reaching into the 50's. You want a rod with some beef to handle one of these outsized critters should you be lucky enough to stick one. And finally, repeated casting is a lot easier with rods of this stature, particularly if the wind is up; and, you may have to horse a big fish from structure.
Reels should hold ample backing and have a good drag system, despite the fact that you'll probably hand-strip most of the largemouth to the boat, even the larger ones. Again, a good drag and backing are just insurance should a fish with shoulders nail your fly.
Delta largemouth bass habitat (structure) is considerably varied but your selection of fly line types can be much narrower in order to properly cover it. You could use a WF floater for popper work and a dense sink-tip (sometimes I use a floating shooting head with a short 5- to 10-foot lead tip) for manipulating diving bugs and heavy streamers close to tule structure or rock walls. Or, when it comes to sinking lines, you could do like me, and use a lead-tipped (10 feet of lead looped to a 20-foot head), High-speed, Hi-D, shooting head, looped to 100 feet of 30-pound-test, Amnesia monofilament shooting line, for all of my subsurface work. With this set-up, I can toss the largest flies with ease, regardless of whether I need a short cast or a long one, or whether I'm blanketing still, shallow areas, or searching deep, fast currents.
Leaders should always be less than seven feet, test 15-pounds or greater, and be armed with a short bite/abrasion leader of around 30-pound-test mono to provide abrasion protection and to allow a loop knot to be used to attach the fly, enhancing action.
Delta black bass fodder includes such things as: Threadfin shad; American shad minnows; carp minnows; Squaw fish; Sacramento Black fish; a variety of panfish; Lamprey eels and crawfish among others. Accordingly, you'll need a variety of flies to cover the bases and, there are lots of good ones to choose from.
The predominate forage fish during prime time, however, is the Threadfin shad, and you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better producing moniker than my Flashtail Whistler - delta blacks just love them! In fact, a friend of mine fishing with a tournament-circuit Bass Pro, once landed 17 largemouth on what I call my SPS (shad/perch simulator) Flashtail Whistler, before the pro landed a single bass using all of his best conventional lures. Drove the pro nuts and he insisted Gary tie him up a bunch of Whistlers. Other top-notch patterns include: Blanton's Sar-Mul-Mac, 3/0, sardine and anchovy pattern; Clouser minnow, 3/0, gray and white; Lefty's Deceivers, 1/0 to 3/0,various colors; Blanton's Bay-delta Eelet, 3/0; Whitlock's eel-worm, 2 to 2/0; Whitlock's hair jigs 2 to 2/0, various colors and Whitlock's sheep-shad, 2 to 2/0, just to name a few of the best. All of these patterns can be fished without a weed guard, but it's best if they have one for obvious reasons.
The most productive structure holding delta blacks include: tule-birm points near cuts; rock-lined levee walls; the new sea wall at Frank's Tract; tree stumps and other dead-fall; irrigation pipes; tule banks near weed beds; offshore grass beds near cuts; and old docks and pilings. All of these areas hold largemouth bass at one time or another, some of which produce better during peak current flow, particularly on the ebb, which draws the bass out of dense cover.
Take tule points for example: delta bass are extremely current orientated and take advantage of strong flows which sweep helpless baitfish to them. Accordingly black bass often stage near a tule point where strong currents flow through a cut. Hugging the tules and facing the current they ambush baitfish being swept into the cut. Cast your flies up-current, close to the tule bank and swim them down stream into the faces of waiting bass. Want to know which tule points and cuts are best? Just keep an eye on the tournament pros and mark the tule points and banks they fish on your chart. It won't take you long to learn all of their secret spots.
Rock walls are also great producers of big bass, which feed there on a variety of things from shad minnows to eels and crayfish. Position the boat a good cast away and drop the fly as close to the rocks as possible, beginning the retrieve immediately. Retrieve the fly five or six feet and if a strike isn't forthcoming, let it sink a few seconds and then pull it slowly back to the boat or let it swim with the current. Poppers need only be worked a few feet before being cast back to the rocks again. Use your electric motor to move the boat slowly with the tidal flow, searching the length of the wall or to hold your position if concentrations of fish are encountered.
Both largemouth and stripers feed along rock walls. Some good areas include the east rock wall of Frank's Track, Sandmound Slough levee rocks, and the entire rock-lined perimeter of Quimby Island, just to name a few in the Frank's Tract region. Concentrate on areas where currents flowing through a cut impact against the rock wall, where there are depressions or small coves in the wall or where cover such as cane, Pampas grass or over-hanging wild black berries are growing.
Always cast around tree stumps and deadfall; and, irrigation pipes actively pumping water back into the sloughs are always good bets for both blacks and stripers. Little Franks Tract, bordering the northwest end of Frank's Tract, is loaded with submerged trees, old stumps, grass beds, rock walls and several productive breaks in the old levee walls. Some of my biggest largemouth bass have come from there.
Offshore grass beds, during the fall months when Threadfin shad gang up for spawning, can be dynamite areas for schooling largemouth bass, particularly those beds located near cuts, not far from tule birms. I've scored 30 or more bass averaging better than three pounds each on Whistlers and Sar-Mul-Macs from such weed beds, while conventional bass anglers sticking to the tules went nearly fishless. Also, always keep a vigilant eye peeled for working birds and busting fish in the open areas of the lake, where both largemouth bass and stripers collectively terrorize schools of shad.
Whenever fishing an area as vast as the California delta, particularly one that is greatly influenced by tides, being observant and keeping good records is vital to consistent success. If you stick fish in a particular area, note the location, time-of-day, moon phase and tidal stage. Chances are, when conditions repeat, so will the torrid bite.
The California delta is a wondrous, wild place, frozen in time. It harbors a plethora of wildlife and abounds with an incredible variety of gamefish, of which the largemouth bass is probably the most popular - even more so than the gamey striper. It is certainly one of my favorite species, one I spend a great deal of time pursuing with long rods and Flashtail Whistlers.
Camping/launching/boat rental facilities
Russo's Marina and Campground
My home base while on Frank's Tract is Russo's Marina and camp ground, a family operated facility that's been around for decades. There is a full-service marina, excellent camping facilities with water and electric hook-ups only - no sewer! Rest rooms are kept spotless and have coin-operated showers; there is both covered and outside dry storage space available for both boats and trailers. Their boat launching service is great, but they do not launch the general public - campers only - that is unless you are a fly fisherman, particularly one belonging to a bay area club, in which case they'll launch your boat during the off-season, spring, fall and winter. Camping is $15.00 per night, including a launch and a tie-up. Launching only - $10.00. Russo's is closed on Tuesdays. Phone: (510) 684-0668 3995 Willow Rd @ Piper Rd Bethel Island, CA 94511.
Chuck's Bait & Tackle @ Russo's Marina
The folks at Russo's are delighted that fly fishermen have shown so much interest in the 'Tract and have bent over backwards to accommodate them. Ditto for Chuck Grandon, proprietor of Chuck's Bait & Tackle, located right on the docks at Russo's Marina. Chuck has stocked his shop with all the right stuff: Custom tied Flash Tail Whistlers and Sar-Mul-Macs by Jay Murakoshi (tied to my specs); rods, reels, shooting heads and shooting line - the works. He has ice, cold drinks, beer and wine, hot coffee and rolls when he opens at six a.m.; maps, tide schedules and just about anything else a visiting angler might need - including current information on water, weather and fishing conditions. Chuck can also connect you with a guide. He has completely outfitted two aluminum rental skiffs, set up for fly anglers; and because the nearest motels are 20 minutes away in Antiock, he has moved a very nicely appointed Prowler trailer onto the lot at Russo's that can sleep up to six anglers, which can be rented by the night or week. Give Chuck a call anytime for current information. Closed Tuesdays. Phone: (925) 684-0668
P.O. Box 720 Bethel Island, CA 94511
Rusty Porthole Restaurant
The Rusty Porthole Restaurant/cocktail lounge, located just a short walk from Russo's camp ground, right on the levee at Boyd's Harbor, is absolutely great! The food is excellent, the serice even better, and you can't beat the waterfront ambiance. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many folks boat to the Rusty Porthole; and I often come in for lunch, tying up at the dock when the tide goes slack around noon - you can't beat their Italian sausage sandwich!