Seeing Stripes in Northern California

Seeing Stripes in Northern California

Angling for striped bass in the rivers and bays of the Left Coast

  • By: Mark Tompkins
We softly launch Dave Howard's drift boat at dawn into the quiet American River. Loose cobbles squinch beneath our feet as we shove off and roll into the boat over cool aluminum gunwales. The first rays of sun catch momentarily in drops of water falling from Dave's oars between strokes. Slowly, we make our way downstream with only the gentle dipping of oars to break the morning silence. "Stand by to stand by," Dave whispers as he eases us into a deep run he calls the Thousand-Yard Drift. A beaver slaps its tail at our arrival and dives below the flat surface of the long run.Then, not a minute later, silvery showers of tiny baitfish erupt from the clear green water pursued by the wakes and frothy gulps of what must be some very large, and very fast, fish… Two hundred and fifty roaring mechanical horses launch Keith Bryan's gleaming white bass boat over the smooth brown water at a face-flattening velocity. We hang on tight, always on the lookout for the wakes of the big fishing boats, especially the wakes from those beasts known by small-craft skippers as "Delta Destroyers." At the speed we're traveling even a dying ripple from a destroyer can rattle a filling loose. We weave through a maze of tule-lined channels to a spot where the retreating tide funnels through a narrow cut between two small islands. Keith throttles back and the boat settles into the water like a tired stallion reined out of a full sprint. We don't even have time to unlatch our stowed rods before the fish show themselves. Just 30 feet off our bow a pack of hungry predators crashes the surface and scatters terrified prey in every direction… These are scenes from two trips to catch different species on different water, right? Maybe even in different states? No. Both of them played out in California on connected bodies of water with fly fishers chasing the very same species: the striped bass. The locations: the American River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, each of which offers two totally unique striped bass fly-fishing experiences. In general, striper fishing in Northern California happens in water that flows downhill (the rivers), and water that gets pushed and pulled by the tides (the San Francisco Bay and the Sacremento-Joaquin Delta). Stripers here can be found at almost any time of year cruising the Bay, ranging through the Delta, and navigating the valley rivers. However, there are certainly times during the year when the fishing heats up in each of these areas. The action in the rivers definitely picks up in the spring and summer, while the Delta bite is best in the fall and early winter. Stripers hang in the Bay all year round, but the best time for big-fish action is in summer and fall. Also throw in sweeping Bay vistas of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, the endless surprise of the winding Delta, the serene solitude of the Valley rivers, and some might even say that chasing the line-sided bass in the Golden State is better than pursuing them in their home waters back East. Fish Out of Water? Striped bass were introduced to the San Francisco Bay in 1879, so there's not an angler alive who has fished California waters prior to their arrival. The original transplant was so successful that a commercial industry sprang up to take advantage of the productivity of the imported species. The commercial fishing operations were shut down in the 1930's to enhance the recreational fishery, and over the past 70 years the striped bass have gained persistent followings of both supporters and detractors, and two vocal groups regularly face off on the future of striped bass in California. Their debate revolves around two simple facts. Fact #1: Striped bass are fantastic sportfish-they hit like hammers and run like hell. Fact #2: Striped bass eat small fish-and juvenile salmon and steelhead are small fish. With the discovery that native chinook salmon and steelhead populations are threatened in waters inhabited by striped bass, environmental groups began to question the striper management policy in Northern California. At the same time, guides and anglers who had fished for stripers all their lives worked to preserve the recreational industry that surrounds the now resident alien. To say there is no simple solution to this problem would be a monumental understatement. However, management agencies and scientists are already hard at work looking for the best solution. In the meantime, fly anglers in California will continue to have the opportunity to cast to marauding schools of line-sides in settings unmatched anywhere in the world. The American River Keith Bryan and I exchange an excited glance as we watch a rowdy school of stripers pound fleeing baitfish from one end of the Thousand-Yard Drift to the other. Our guide Dave Howard-an American River striper expert and producer of the recently released Strippin' for Stripers video-has seen it all before. He urges us to stay calm as we float through the entire drift without even wetting a line. The surface frenzy ends as quickly as it began when we reach the midpoint of the drift. A family of lazy ducks replaces the splashing fish and Dave takes advantage of the momentary peace to explain his preferred American River striper fly-fishing tactics: "You have to get down to these fish most of the time," Dave says before instructing us to tie bright Clouser Minnows onto two of the sinking rigs. Our striped bass arsenal is a quiver of shiny 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-weight rods rigged with both sinking and floating lines. The stripers in the Valley rivers often hit the surface early and late in the day but, just like trout, they feed mainly beneath the surface, especially once the sun hits the water. Fishing the surface action is pretty straightforward: If you find bass actively feeding on top and you cast a reasonable baitfish imitation into the activity, chances are you'll get a strike. The American River runs clear, and the stripers prefer to keep a low profile in the deep pools during most of the day. Angling for the fish in the deep is a different ballgame than chasing their wakes on the surface. The stripers in the deep pools can be pretty finicky and anglers must be willing to thoroughly work the deep water for shots at fish. The big Clousers tied to our sinking lines are an attempt to "match the minnow." "The stripers are chowing on small fish below us right now," Dave explains, "and these Clousers will give them a target that is probably similar to what they are eating." So we start with large minnow imitations and then switch to progressively smaller flies until we get the stripers' attention. Not a bad operating procedure for striper fishing in any Valley river. Virtually any baitfish imitation could be substituted for our Clousers; Deceivers and Dan Blanton's Flashtail Whistler flies are popular California striper selections. The protocol in the Thousand-Yard Drift goes something like this: Paddle to the head of the run, cast across the run and mend line to sink the fly deep, strip the fly all the way back to the boat, repeat through the entire drift. It's what Dave Howard calls "strippin' for stripers," and it will work for stripers in deep water in most rivers. Keith and I take turns casting off the bow while Dave shuttles us through the length of the Thousand-Yard Drift more than a few times. Finally, after five or six passes, something strong slams Keith's Clouser. "Strip strike!" Dave shouts, and Keith is on to a striper from the deep. Like most stripers, this one runs hard and puts a deep bend in Keith's 8-weight rod. Keith finally brings the six-pound striper to hand and we all agree it was worth the effort. The American River is a great place to start searching for stripers in California. Access to the river is excellent and anglers can cover a good amount of water on foot. However, since the bass tend to move quite a bit once they are in the river, it certainly helps to have some kind of watercraft to track them down. Fishing with a guide is probably the best way to get out in a boat if you don't have one of your own. Plus, just one guided trip will scoot any angler way up the striped bass learning curve. The Delta&Bay Back on the Delta, Keith and I scramble for our rods. The feeding frenzy and recent adrenaline-soaked ride through the Delta has us hopping around the boat like monkeys on speed. Keith fires a bright Flashtail Whistler into the frothing water and strips it back to the boat without success. "Fly must be too big," I offer as I launch a much smaller Clouser into the madness. The thing sinks about an inch before a striper sucks it down and takes off for the Bay. I haul the small fish in quickly, eager to cast to a larger one. Seabirds wheel overhead and pinpoint the center of the school for us. Keith tracks the school with his trolling motor and we hook and land several more fish before they leave the surface just as the sun dips below the horizon. There's no doubt that the striper game in the Delta is different than the one played upstream in the rivers. Down in the Delta anglers must pay attention to a wide range of environmental variables including tides and water clarity, as well as big boats. When storm flows turn the Delta a thick muddy brown, getting stripers to find flies can be frustrating. It's definitely a good idea to check water conditions with a marina before making a run to the Delta. With reasonable water clarity, the tide becomes the most important variable in the striped bass angling equation-stripers follow the massive schools of baitfish that ride the tides in search of food. In order to successfully catch bass in the Delta, one must understand the dynamic interaction of striped bass and tidal fluctuations. On incoming tides, Delta stripers chase baitfish into the shallows where the little fish head to feed. On outgoing tides the wily stripers hang in the deep drop-offs like lions at a waterhole and wait for the baitfish to get forced back out of the shallows by receding water levels. At half-tide the bass hang in areas of deeper water waiting for the pull of the moon to give them the advantage over the baitfish once again. It is possible to fish the Delta without a motorized boat. A kickboat or small pram is enough to get to some of the productive water. And there are even spots where casting from shore can bring fish. But the experience improves dramatically with the ability to quickly follow feeding birds and changing tides, as you can with a boat. And there are plenty of places to get hold of a suitable watercraft. Local saltwater fly-fishing legend Dan Blanton runs a well-respected Internet bulletin board (www.danblanton.com/bulletin) where virtually any question about fishing for striped bass in the Delta and other California waters (including where to rent a boat or find a guide) will be answered reliably within a few hours. The boundary between the Delta and the San Francisco Bay is somewhat blurry, and the fly-fishing in the Bay is really quite similar to the fishing in the Delta. The tides still call the shots. Birds still give away the locations of fish. Stripers still chase bait. But out in the Bay the stripers tend to congregate around structure like islands and old pilings where the tidal flows concentrate and make feeding easier. As Keith races the fading Delta light back to the boat ramp, I try to decide what kind of California striper fishing I like best: the long drifts on the quiet rivers, or the explosive fishing out in the Delta and Bay. I laugh at the comical water-walking coots as an infinite flock of the birds parts in front of our speeding bow. The silly scene helps me realize that there's something unique about catching stripers in every kind of California water, and I don't think any one is better than the others. I guess the short answer is that the best kind of striper fishing in Northern California is whatever kind you happen to be doing! In addition to the American River, the Delta and San Francisco Bay, California fly anglers can chase the great East Coast bass from countless beaches, riprap walls, and jetties in the Bay-Delta region, and in the lower reaches of several other rivers in the Central Valley including the Stanislaus, Merced, and Mokelumne. Oddly enough, the decidedly Pacific Bay-Delta waters and the rivers that feed them are home to striped bass fly fishing that is every bit as good as the original Atlantic variety. Resources First Fish: 510-526-1937; www.FirstFish.com Sugar Barge Marina: 800-799-4100; www.sugarbarge.com Mike Bias: 916-421-4991; www.setsetset.com Dan Blanton: 408-778-0602; www.danblanton.com