Delta Basics Part I: San Francisco Bay
As the West Coast stronghold of striped bass, the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento River Delta form a vast playground for fly anglers. In summer, it’s time to hit the bay.
It’s 6:15 a.m., and I’m already tight to my third linesider of the morning. A sizable school of stripers has taken up residence between the abutments of the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, and I have them all to myself on this early Wednesday morning. In fact, there is not another boat in sight. On the bridge above, commuters sip their Starbucks on the morning crawl into the city. They have no idea I’m even here. But a trucker with a better vantage point gives me a honk and a thumbs-up as I pull a respectable seven-pound bass into the boat. There is only one more hour left of incoming water, so I release the fish and get right back to casting before the tide and the bite die. Several more stripers take the ruse before it’s time for me to make the run back across San Francisco Bay and join the ranks of morning commuters. But catching five fish between three and eight pounds is not a bad way to start the day in the shadow of 6.5 million people.
So, stripers are an East Coast fish, right? I thought the same thing after moving to San Francisco from northern New England nearly a decade ago. Fortunately, the opportunities I soon discovered with Left Coast stripers were beyond my expectations.
Originally, there were no striped bass in California, but their history in the Golden State dates back to the late 1870s. In fact, one of the first acts of the newly created U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was to capture 133 bass from the Navesink River in New Jersey and transport them by train in wooden barrels and milk cans across the continent to San Francisco Bay. A few years later the service made a second introduction, and in all, only 435 striped bass yearlings were transplanted. But the East Coast bass quickly made themselves at home. From those meager beginnings the population skyrocketed, and by the turn of the century, there were established populations from Monterey to Coos Bay, Oregon. Even now this introduction ranks as one of the most successful fish stocking efforts ever.
Today the primary West Coast population of striped bass is located in and around San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Estuary known locally as the Delta. Although they are all part of one massive system, these are distinctly different fisheries, so we will look at them separately. Part one of this series will explore the spring, summer, and early fall fishery in San Francisco Bay. In part two, we will be trailering up and heading to the Sacramento River Delta for the fall and winter runs.
Seasons of the Striper
Though we lack the sheer number of fish there are back East, there is not a month of the year when one can’t fling flies at stripers within an hour and a half of downtown San Francisco. This is the big bonus to chasing stripers on the Left Coast. Over half that time good fishing can be had within sight of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. This is a legitimate 12-month fishery. Stripers have adapted to California’s temperate climate and have no need to migrate hundreds of miles up and down the coast in search of ideal water conditions. They are able to live their entire life just moving within the Bay-Delta ecosystem. That said, you can’t just show up at the same point day after day and expect to find them. The Delta contains more than 1,000 miles of navigable waterways. That’s potentially 2,000 miles of shoreline! Add to that another 550 square miles of assorted rocky walls, islands, shoals, and flats of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, and you have your work cut out for you.
Understanding a little about West Coast striper behavior is the key to knowing where and when to find them.
The short answer to the “when” is that they are in the bay from March until November, but it’s really not that simple. If I had a better grasp on how they moved years ago, I could have saved myself a lot of unproductive trips. There are really three distinct runs in the bay on which to focus your efforts. The spring, the post-spawn, and the fall. Many years we can have great fishing in March and early April. This is primarily flats fishing for schoolie-size bass, but with warm, windless days and lighter rods it can be a great way to start the season.
Around mid-May the stripers start returning from their spawning grounds up in the Sacramento River and set up camp on the islands and flats throughout the bay. This is prime time for big bass, especially if you focus on deeper structure. It is also about the time the famous San Francisco Bay fog and afternoon winds arrive, making most fly-fishing outings a morning affair. This will last until around the Fourth of July weekend, when many of the fish will either move out to the beaches to the north and south of the Golden Gate or they will hold in the deep underwater structure out of the range of the fly angler. They can still be found, just normally not in the numbers available during the peak runs.
Sometime in early September the fall run will kick in to high gear. If you are looking for great weather and numbers of fish, this is the time of year to experience the Bay. You can find fish almost anywhere from the Golden Gate Bridge all the way back to the Hamilton Flats area and Rodeo in San Pablo Bay. The run continues to build through October as fish move in from the Pacific. Known locally as the World Series striper bite, there is often a week or two in late October where there is exceptional fishing throughout the bay. As quickly as it began, the fish disappear from the Bay as they head for their winter waters in the Delta.
Stripers, whether in the east or the west, inherently like to wander in search of food and ideal habitat. Find moving water and some type of edge and you will almost always find stripers. For the fly angler this means either the flats or some kind of structure where stripers can wait and ambush their prey.
Flats: By nature, San Francisco Bay is a fairly shallow body of water. There are large, well-known flats, such as San Quentin, the Brickyard, Richardson Bay, Paradise, and China Camp. Fish can be scattered throughout these areas, but you want to concentrate on specific locations that will hold them. The best spots usually have a current break, a rocky shoreline, or a weed edge. Always be on the lookout for diving birds, which is a sure sign bass are around. The key is to cover lots of water and focus your efforts on the last few hours of the incoming water and the beginning of the outgoing tide. This is when the fish will be on the move and the water is cleanest. When stripers are on the flats they are there for a reason, and they will normally be in a feeding mood.
Structure: The undisputed epicenter of striper fishing in San Francisco Bay is an island called Red Rock. As its name suggests, it is literally a six-acre red rock that juts nearly 200 feet out of the middle of the bay. I have caught fish somewhere along this island at every point of every tide. If bass are in the bay, usually a few have taken up residence on the island. Along with many other anglers, it is also where I landed my first West Coast striper. This spot is a fish magnet for several reasons: It has good current, multiple rocky points, and underwater structure to create edges and deep water just offshore. In short, it offers everything that a striper wants. This is by no means a secret spot, but you can take what you learn from this location and adapt it to almost any of the other 10 islands in the bay.
There are many proven, well-known striper spots in San Francisco Bay, but they are certainly not the only places to find fish. Don’t become guilty of what I call “following the paper route” by hitting the same spots day after day, as everyone else does. Over the years this point has been made to me more than once, but there was one day that made a lasting impression. I was out hitting all of the usual spots to no avail. Around 8 a.m. I met up with a friend to find we only had a few small fish between us to show for the effort. My buddy decided to call it a day. Before heading in I made my way around a point to try one last spot. A place where I had never actually cast a fly. By noon I was heading in with sore wrists, torn-up thumbs, and a big grin. In four hours I had brought more than 50 fish to the boat, including some of my best fish of the season. I can’t emphasize it enough: Keep moving until you find them. Get a chart for San Francisco Bay, and you will find endless options. Keep exploring and stay flexible. The most rewarding spots are the ones you find on your own.
In terms of tackle, the same gear used for chasing stripers on the East Coast will suffice. Day in and day out there are two setups that are always on my boat. One for fishing the flats and one for the deeper water structure, such as the islands. An 8-weight rigged with a 300-grain integrated head or an intermediate line gets the majority of duty in water six feet or less. It amazes me how shallow stripers will prowl at certain times. In fact, the two largest stripers I took out of the bay last year came out of knee-deep water.
When fishing deeper structure, larger flies and fast-sinking lines become the rule. Any standard 9- or 10-weight will do, but this is where our setup differs from what is commonly used in the Northeast. Many of the area’s top anglers and guides employ a similar line system for fishing fast rips or places they need to get deep. There are quite a few fast-sinking fly lines on that market but none excel at getting down like a 30-foot shooting head made from Lead Core or Rio’s T-14. Attached to a monofilament running line of Amnesia or Rio Slick shooter, it drops to the bottom like a rock. The running line takes a little getting used to, but the added casting distance and ability to cut through currents are huge benefits. Bottom line, you’ll spend more time with your fly in the strike zone. During the fall run when the opportunity for busting fish presents itself, a floating line setup gets added to the mix as well are not at all leader shy. When you hook a monster and it drags you into the reef, you’ll be glad to be connected with the heavier tippet.
Flies and Techniques
West Coast stripers are generally aggressive, opportunistic feeders. Rarely do they get as selective as their eastern brethren. Compared with the plethora of sizes and shapes of bait in the east, sources of striper feed in the bay are relatively simple. Anchovies, shiner perch, and herrings make up the majority of their diet. These are all four- to six-inch baitfish with shiny sides and dark backs, so it makes fly selection pretty easy.
Fully tied Clousers or Deceiver-style baitfish patterns tied on 2/0 to 4/0 hooks will all get the job done. With stained water, flies that have presence and move water will catch their attention, as will those with a healthy dose of flash. Dan Blanton got it right when he developed the Whistler for these waters 40 years ago. Adapted with modern materials, this fly pattern is still one of the staples today. The old adage, “If it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use,” holds a lot of weight in my book. The vast majority of the time a chartreuse-and-white fly is on the end of my line. Other effective colors are blue and white, yellow and white, and red and white. I tend to favor brightly colored patterns except for low light and stained water, where all black is a striper killer everywhere.
More often than not, your retrieve has far more to do with success than your fly. It is important to experiment and find what they want. Some days a long strip followed by several short twitches will do the trick. Other days they want a long pause and drop. Letting a fly swing through a rip and just twitching it can be deadly, and the grab on a tight line can be heart-stopping. As a general rule, the warmer the water, the faster the retrieve. Think of it as teasing a cat with a piece of string, and keep mixing it up until you get bit. One thing is for sure: a steady, unanimated pull will get out fished day in and day out.
Now that you have the “keys to the car” it’s time to get out there. The only way to really learn a fishery is by spending time on the water. A lot of people are intimidated by the vastness of the bay. Focusing on seams and edges, mixing up your retrieves, and keeping on the move until you find the fish will unlock the secrets to an amazing fishery. It won’t take long to figure out why more than one East Coast transplant has made the San Francisco Bay their home.
Kevin Sloan is general manager of Guideline Eyegear and an avid fly angler for everything from trout to sailfish. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.