Fly Fishing for Largemouth Bass on the California Delta
This July, I traveled to fly fish on the California Delta. I was looking for big bass to eat top water flies, and what I found was a bass fishing Shangri La. Did you know there are more bass tournaments on the Delta than any other body of water on the globe? With over 1,200 fishable miles of water, the Delta is a giant tidal estuary upstream and inland of San Francisco Bay offering amazing opportunities for largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass. It’s such a giant fishery, I personally never saw any other fisherman on the water while I was fishing.
What I love about the Delta is it is one of the top largemouth fisheries in North America, and one of the top striped bass fisheries on the west coast. There are a ton of different species to fish for, and there is never a bad time to fish the delta. I think it’s the best fishery in California. With so much water to explore and the puzzling science of tides to contend with, the Delta can be a challenge and a joy to fish. It isn’t easy, but it’s highly rewarding. If you’ve ever fished the Delta, you already know how special and diverse this fishery truly is. If you haven’t, it’s definitely one that’s worth checking out. Some liken the delta to entering the big leagues of bass fisheries. It is said that there are more bass over ten pounds weighed in at delta tournaments on a regular basis than any other fishery in the country.
Historically, the delta was a giant marshland populated with grizzly bears stalking elk, steelhead and salmon. Once the gold rush was over in the late 1800s, the delta was channelized for flood protection and agriculture, which in turn exposed some of the most fertile farmland on the planet….often referred to as the “Farm to fork” land. Now, every channel, shipping canal, slough and flooded island is teeming with big fish, and some of the best bass habitat in the world.
There are some key elements to consider when it comes to a prosperous day on the delta: Tides, wind, and structure. Get these three things right and you will likely find some good bass fishing.
Learn to fish the tides: Anglers that are new to the delta really struggle with the concept of tidal fishing. A handy app is available on iPhone called FishHead. It helps with figuring out what stage the tide is at. To break it down simply, each day on the delta there are usually two full tidal swings, which means the tide will flood and ebb twice in a period of 24 hours. To anglers and fish, this means that key fish holding habitat is likely to be either flooded or exposed depending on the tide stage. In general, fish become more active when the tide is either rising or falling and tend to hunker down at the “dead” periods of high or low tide. Rising tide will usually cause fish to move up into flooded cover and shallow water, and when the tide falls the fish will move with it into deeper water or the edges of shallow cover. Anglers that learn to read the tides and predict the behavior of the fish will always out fish those who overlook this important aspect of delta fishing. One of the most vital things to remember when reading tide charts is that the delta is huge! Make sure you find a reading from a station close to where you will be fishing or it could be off by hours.
Structure: The delta is jam packed with ideal bass habitat, so much that it can be intimidating to anglers who have never fished here. Miles upon miles of rock wall levees, tulle berms, weed beds, lay down logs, and docks all hold fish. It is best to let the tides dictate the depth of water you plan on fishing, and then try some different types of cover to locate fish and establish a pattern. One rule of thumb that tournament bass fishermen adhere to which produced well for us was locating isolated cover and fishing it thoroughly. Rather than casting all day over long stretches of thick weeds or fishing vast rip rap walls (both of which are abundant in the delta), we looked for small, isolated weed beds next to deep channels, pockets along the bank where the rip rap was exposed, and points of islands where two channels intersected. These areas seemed to really concentrate big fish.
No piece of cover is too small to hold fish. Little isolated weed clumps sometimes hold huge bass. We caught the largest fish of the trip in a place like this. It was the very end of a long day and as we made our way back to the launch we decided to make a final stop at the point of an island with a deep channel on either side. The tide was rising, and at the far end of the point in the deep water you could just barely see a single strand of weeds breaking the surface. Slowly inching a top water frog over that one strand of weeds produced an exhilarating strike from a truly enormous delta largemouth. Never overlook isolated cover, especially when there is deep water nearby.
Shallow to top water:
Many fly fishing anglers who fish the delta like to target striped bass, and consider the largemouth bass a “by-catch”. They fish water depths of eight feet and over as their starting depth and work deeper from there. These folks are missing out on some of the most exciting fishing this area has to offer.
Some of the largest delta bass can be found in less than four feet of water. Fly Fishing a top water frog pattern is ideal for this water. Casting weedless (with weed guard) frogs over weed mats will stir up fish to pound top water flies from under the thick greenery. A big bass exploding through 3 inches of solid weeds to inhale a fly is a sight that can make even the most seasoned fly fishermen giddy. Traditional bass bugs, foam poppers, divers, gurglers, and many other flies all have their place here, provided they are tied with a heavy weed guard! At times, the best place to catch these bass is right in the middle of the thickest weed mats and gnarliest snags. Just make sure your tackle is up to it. 7-9 weight fast action rods and 20lb tippet are the rule here when battling big, feisty largemouth in heavy weeds.
Casting: Work on your casting with heavy weight forward fly lines. In a lot of trout environments you can be an amazing angler and never cast more than 30 feet. That’s not the case in the Delta. Being proficient at distance is one of the keys to fishing this water and of course, accurate presentations are a must. Learning to cast to small targets at distances from 30 to 60 feet will help you place your fly accurately into pockets along the weeds. Mastering a sidearm cast will allow you to throw your fly up under boat docks and flooded trees along the bank where the big bass lurk. Make sure you practice casting in the wind as well!
A note on wind: When the “delta breeze” comes up in the afternoon it can really get howling, which is why the delta is also known worldwide as a Mecca for kite boarders and windsurfers. Many anglers choose to fish mornings and evenings when the wind is light. Make sure you plan accordingly. When the big winds pick up in the afternoon a long run back to the boat launch can become very dangerous.
I find it hard to compare the delta to other great bass fisheries because it really is so distinctive. Estuaries, tides, the size of fish, and the unique opportunity to fish for them in shallow, heavy cover really make the delta a bucket list destination. You can bet that I will be back for another shot at a double digit largemouth on the fly rod!
Top fly gear for delta largemouth: 7-9wt Thomas and Thomas Fly Rod rod with fast action tip.
Floating line with short front taper to cast heavy flies with ease.
7 1/2 ft tapered knottless leader in 16-20lb test.
Good top water fly’s include: Goodale – Frog-Leg Diver / swimming frog, Charlie Bisharats Pole Dancer Fly. Large popping bass bugs, gurglers, Dahlberg divers. All fly’s de-barbed and tied with extra heavy weed guards.