Striper Trolling in the Delta

Presented by Sal DiMercurio

(55 years of trolling experience).

My personal best is a striper of 52.8 lbs, and 3 fish between 45 and 47 lbs, also 7 fish between 40 – 45 lbs. God only knows how many between 30 – 40 lbs. and literally hundreds over 20 lbs. and in the teens.

Trolling and consistently catching Stripers on the delta is not a matter of being lucky.
There’s no such thing as being “consistently lucky”, you either know how, or you don’t.
It’s knowing where to fish, when to fish, what to use, and presenting it properly. That’s what I’m going to tell you about here.

I’m a dead serious, gung ho, fisherman, and I go fishing to catch and fight fish, not just to get out of the house. I’ve taken many people fishing who just say, “I enjoy getting out and don’t care if I catch fish.” If you say that there’s a good chance I won’t take you again. I’m there for one reason, and only one reason, and that’s to have something rip line off my reel and get my blood flowing. When I’m fishing, I’m on a mission with tunnel vision, and that mission is find ’em, hook ’em, fight ’em, and either release ’em, or keep them. If the weather is nice and the birds are flying and chirping, that’s just a bonus, but the mission is to catch fish. I don’t tolerate mistakes well at all. Especially breaking a line on a fish, or not giving 100% to the effort.

I believe in running a very tight ship, and doing it my way, and if you’re not up to it, please don’t ask to fish with me. I’ve NEVER broken a line on a fish in over 50 years! Ok, now that you know I can be a SOB as the Captain, let’s try and learn something.

First let’s cover equipment and how to use it.

Sonar

Your sonar is the most important tool on the boat. Your sonar “MUST” be equipped. with a speed paddle wheel, to give you mph or knots speed over the top of the water, NOT gps speed that measures the speed over the bottom of the river or ocean, because we’re fishing in current, or tidal flow, or horizontal movement of the water, and all we want is our speed over the top of it, not the ground under us.

Optimum trolling speed for Stripers is between 1.8 and 2.8 mph, preferably 2.2-2.4 mph on your sonar speed read out. You must know how to use it, and know exactly what you’re looking for. On most sonars your zoom mode is where you need to be while looking for Striped Bass. Some units, such as the Furuno LS6100, can just be left on automatic without zoom, because the unit adjusts very well on its own, and the fish show very well, as long as your gain and sensitivity are adjusted correctly. On most sonars, there’s a power mode and a sensitivity mode and both are adjustable. When trolling in deeper water, such as 25′, the unit most be turned up higher in power and sensitivity, than if trolling in shallower water such as 8 to 13″.

Find the depth you’re going to be fishing in, and adjust the power mode so you don’t get a double reading from having too much power applied, then suppress (adjust) the sensitivity all the way down (no static or fish), this will eliminate any static and even the fish you’re looking for (kind of like reducing the static on your vhf radio), then slowly increase the sensitivity until there’s slight static on the screen, and the bottom and fish will read clearly. Be careful it is not so suppressed that it is to the point of nothing being able to show on the screen, because just like a vhf radio with it’s squelch on maximum, you won’t hear a word..

Do not pay any attention to arches or blips that are 5 or more feet off the bottom.
The reason is: the only fish you want to look for are right on the bottom, as these are the ones that will take your lure long before any suspended fish. Some sonar’s show fish as arches, others show fish as blips, mine show as blips on 200 khz.

If your sonar has 2 khz settings such as 50 khz and 200 khz, use only the 200 khz in water less then 100 ft. If your sonar is on fish symbol (shows little fish instead of an arch or blip), take that mode out and do NOT ever use it again, because it has many errors and shows clouds of drifting sand or mud as being fish, grass as being fish, and even thermoclines (change of temp) as being fish, also you will see rip tides as being fish and it will even show you a school of bluefin tuna or albacore in your driveway in front of your house, so get rid of that mode ASAP and forget it’s even there, because it’s useless. The targets you’re looking for will be right on the bottom, some will show a slight clearance between them and the bottom, some will show as small humps on the bottom. It’s important to remember spots that consistently have humps or blips, but do not produce fish, as these are just humps in the bottom and not to be mistaken as fish every time you go there, BUT, if there’s new humps or blips, these are most likely just what you are looking for, so remember these permanent humps and bumps in EVERY spot you troll over, so you don’t mistake them for fish the next time you troll there.

I know the above paragraph is not an easy thing to do, but I do it (That’s what makes you a cut above the rest of the fishermen). If I can do it, certainly you can do it if you want to be successful time after time, while others say there’s no fish.

Rods and Lines

It is very important to use a very limber rod, such as a 10 – 20 lb fast tip rod with 17 – 20 lb test mono line and 15 or 20 lb test flourocarbon leaders. Use quality small, but h3, swivel snaps that attach to your lures that are h3 enough so as not to open when a fish is on.

I use lighter leaders then I do line, and the reason is, if I snag, I only loose that one lure, not the whole rig. I prefer mono over braid while trolling stripers, because I do want the line to catch water and create resistance to pull my line farther back away from the boat than 20lb Spectra which doesn’t have the resistance, so my lures don’t go down too close to the boat. I prefer at least 125 – 135 ft of line behind the boat, while trolling in 10 – 13 ft of water.

I sometimes use an 8 to 12 lb blank with 12 lb test mono depending on where I’m fishing. The reason for using such a limber rod and line is, a Stripers head is almost pure bone, with little to no flesh at all on the outside of it’s head, and very little more on the inside. A stiff rod will not bend enough, fast enough, when a fish hits, and the hooks won’t hold, even with a very loose drag. A limber rod always has a bend in it and when a fish hits, it doesn’t allow any slack at all, just a nice soft steady pressure as long as it’s bent. And it bends if the fish shakes it’s head or makes a powerful run, and you don’t have to worry about slack on the down stroke because there’s always still bend in the limber rod. A stiff rod will allow slack no matter how fast you reel, or how high you hold it, especially on the down stroke.

Drag Setting

It is so important to use a very loose drag {like 3 lb pull} for the same reason you’re using a limber rod, and never, ever, touch the drag while fighting a fish or you will break your line, or rip the lure out of the fishes mouth, or off the outside of it’s face, or even straighten the hooks. (I’ve seen that happen time and time again, with people who don’t know what their doing). Believe me, loose drags catch a hell of a lot more stripers than tight drags.

If my lures are in the water, and the boat is in gear, and if I can just start reeling and my lures come right in without either pumping the rod or tightening my drag, that tells me my drag is too tight and I’ll back it off a hair, and that’s where I have the best results when fighting a fish. Don’t worry about being spooled, because most reels hold approximately 900 ft of line and you will not have to worry about fighting the current or an anchor line because your drifting with the current, and it’s just you against the fish, and the odds are with you if you follow this advice.

When you get a good fish on, have the rest of the crew bring their rods in right away and put the engine in neutral, and let the person who has the fish on enjoy the fight without having to climb over someone who insists on leaving their line in the water without a fish on, or fight a boat that’s still in gear. Believe me it’s a lot more fun and you will loose far less fish then you would by leaving the engine in gear and the other rods still in the water.
I set my drag BEFORE my lures even touch the water, and NEVER touch it again while a fish is on, or you’re gonna’ go home fishless from the delta, kind’a like sleepless in Seattle.

Reels

I prefer a Daiwa SG27LC line counter 4.1 retrieve while trolling for Stripers or Salmon, (the LC 47 is too fast of a retrieve at 5.1 and to heavy). It’s so very, very important to know exactly how much line you’re running behind the boat, because this tells you exactly how deep your lures are running, that is why I insist on a line counter reel.
For instance, if you’re trolling in 10 ft of water, and have 95 ft of line out, and your lure is running at 9 ft deep, then you move into deeper water like 15 ft of water, don’t expect to catch anything if you don’t adjust the line out to run deeper. Here you would be going from 95 ft out to 135 – 145 ft out so those lures get down to the magic 1 ft off the bottom. Most deep running Rebels and Bombers run very close to 1 ft deep for every 10 ft of line that’s out, so 100 ft of line trolled at 2.2 mph with a single deep running Rebel or Bomber and a ΒΌ oz. jig should be very close to running at 10 ft deep. If you’re running your lures too shallow, or too high off the bottom you won’t even catch a cold let alone a fish.

Bass won’t go more then 3 – 4 ft at the most to take the lure. You will get the best results by running your lures 1 ft off the bottom, because it puts the lure right in front of the fishes eyes and generally just over its head, and you’re tempting the hell out of that fish to strike at the lures from pure reflex alone. There is no need to set the hook after a fish strikes and is on, because you chance that fish being just skin hooked and you will rip the hooks out, the same as would happen if you tighten your drag. I hear people say, “Oh, if I get a fish on, I point the tip of the rod straight at the fish”. If you do that on my boat, you will be looking for a life preserver because I’ll throw you overboard. When you get a fish (salmon included) on and it’s running, you point that rod straight up and let the rod do the fighting, NOT the reel, or again, you just very well may go home fishless from the delta or ocean. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important to do this, I figure if I repeat it enough, you will remember it.

If you’re running too deep (under the fish) they can’t see down, (under them, their eyes are on top of their head) they can only see up, or to the front or sides, but not down. Again, you may not even catch a cold, but maybe some clams if you are trolling too deep.

Lures

I use many different types and many different colors of lures with scents, or a thin piece of squid attached to one of the hooks for scent. Stripers love scent and the three best scents I’ve found are garlic, shad, and just plain Italian dressing that you buy in the supermarket for your salad, hold off on the fresh ground pepper. I’ve found that putting a real small piece of sponge, or tiny strip of pork rind soaked in any of the scents above, and attaching that rind or sponge to either or both of the lures, really makes a difference.

All lures, even of the same make and model, do not run the same. Some lures will run on their side, others will want to dart off to the side, and some run straight. Only the Rebel has a small adjustment. By loosening that very tiny screw at the base of the bill on the bottom of the lure, and tweeking the bill just a hair, it will give a totally different action and will make that lure run totally different.

My preference in lures are deep diving broken back Rebels, deep diving Bombers (deep diving Bombers are not made in broken back), Rattle Traps, Kastmasters, Creek Chub pike minnow, in red white or frog color, Charlie baits, Storm baits, assorted swimbaits and jigs of many shapes, weights, and colors, with added tails, hootchies, and different creatures from your local sports store’s Black Bass section that work very well for stripers when attached to the hook on the lead head jig. The deep diving Rebels and Bombers are designed to run best between 9 to 12 ft deep.

Note: If my lures came from the factory with saltwater hooks such as galvanized or aluminum, I change them to fresh water Owner hooks because they are the sharpest of them all (also the most expensive), and will hold even if it only penetrates an 1/8 of a inch as long as there’s tension on the line. There will be tension if you use a limber rod and loose drag, but any hook will pull out if your drag is too tight or your rod is too stiff.

The optimum trolling depth is between 8 and 16 ft of water, using just a wiggle type lure such as a deep running Rebel on the long leader and a 1/4oz “Hyper Striper (used to be called a Stump Jumper). When trolling in deeper water such as 16 – 27 ft, you must use a heavier lead head jig to 2oz and add another 2 or 4 oz sinker to the snap where the line attaches to the spreader, for a total of 6 oz in order to get down to where the fish are.

The only fish you’re looking for, are sitting RIGHT ON THE BOTTOM, so pay big time attention to your sonar. When I’m trolling, my face is shoved into the sonar screen 125% of the time, because if you’re looking around at the birds and clouds instead of the sonar you won’t see that fish or snag, or the change in depth, and you will either snag up, or run your lures far too high above the fish you’re trying to catch because you’re not paying attention. So stick your face in front of that sonar and leave it there, or again, go fishless.

You don’t just go through an area just one time, that you know holds fish, or has in the past, and if you don’t hook up you go away. That area must be worked over and over again, until you’re sure there’s nothing there, or the fish just aren’t ready to hit, or you might have the wrong color or lure type on, so you should try changing lures or even trolling faster or slower, or taking the engine out of gear just for about 3 – 4 seconds and many times a fish will hit as soon as you put it back in gear, or as the lures are falling before you put it back in gear. I’ve made many, many passes in an area that I know holds or has held fish, or should hold fish, before getting them to hit. Have patience and work the area thoroughly, before moving to another.

When you see birds diving and getting something off the water, they’re telling you there’s bait there, and usually where there’s bait, there’s fish feeding on them from below, and pushing the bait up, kinda like where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I generally start looking, or fishing, an area while going “with the current”, as you can cover far more area in less time, then can while bucking a h3 running current. In some of the places I troll going with the current and only taking maybe 15 – 20 minutes to cover that area, then to turn around and cover it going against the current takes 40 minutes to check it out. Also check these areas going across the current to, because the fish could be in a different depth than you’re looking if you stay in just one depth and going in a straight line.

Stripers love structure such as humps, bumps, snags, rocks, stumps, valleys, logs, that are on the bottom, and around corners where the current doesn’t run, but still runs just a foot or so around that corner, and places where the current isn’t moving real fast, but they can see just above or only a couple feet away, where the current is moving and pulling bait by them while they are resting and hiding out of the current, or behind, inside or below, some sort of protection, or hiding place. They are basically a lazy fish, or a very smart fish, most likely both.

A Trolling Spreader

A trolling spreader is like a metal coat hanger that’s been straighten and then twisted in the middle with a snap swivel attached to the twist in the middle and 2 leaders, 1 on each end of the spreader, tied or snapped to an eye that’s been twisted into each end of the spreader. One leader is about 18″ long and the other about 24 – 30″ long on each end, with a swivel snap to attach your lure or jig. They’re sold at most bait shops for only a couple bucks, or can be made from welding rod or metal coat hangers.

Ok, let’s find some Stripers and fish for them. Don’t waste your time trying to get just one fish on the screen to hit, as it could be a loner sturgeon or carp (they usually show up on the screen much larger), look for more then one or a school. Normally when you pass over 3 or more fish in a group, they seem to hit better because I think they are afraid the others will take the bait before they do.

Stripers love to be on, or behind, or on the sides of sandbars, not usually in front of a sandbar where the current is ripping. Start in 8 to 14ft of water and zigzag in and out from 8 to 14 ft, until you see a hump, bump or blip, (this is very important) that usually has just a hair of clearance below it, between the bottom and the object itself, or an arch. Now comes the science of this fishery. You’re going to need to run your lures just above the fishes head in a nice smooth motion, or darn near put it in it’s mouth. So make the pass over the fish, letting out line until you know for sure your lures are 1 foot exactly above the bottom.

If they don’t hit, turn around and do it again and again, and again, or pump your rod up and allow the lures to drop on the down stroke of the rod to imitate a fish that fluttered, sped up, slowed down and is dropping. Or take the engine out of gear as your lures are right on top of the fish, and usually when you put it back in gear you have a fish on, just change the pace from what you have been doing and not getting hits.

Constantly pumping your rod slowly back to you, and letting it back down a bit faster, will get more hits then just leaving it in the same place, because it constantly changes the action of the lures, instead of just running at a certain tempo in a constant rhythm. In an area that’s very flat with very few humps or valleys that exceed 1 or 2 ft, you can put your rod in a holder, but you won’t be able to slowly pump it, and in most cases it will still catch fish. Other wise, if the bottom is not a level run and fluctuates more then 1 foot, you must hold the rod and continually adjust line in or out, to maintain that magic one foot off the bottom.

Let’s look at colors to use and how to rig your lures on the spreader.You always put your lead head jigs ( jigs with rubber or hair like tails, 1/4 to 2-1/2oz) on the short leader of the spreader, and your Rebel type lures (wiggle type) on the long leader, never 2 wiggle type Rebel, Rattle trap, or Bomber lures on both leaders, because they will tangle so bad you will never get them apart. You can also run 2 lead head jigs, of different colors or types, without a wiggle type lure with very good success. If trolling in shallow water, (under 8 ft) obviously you must use a shallow running wiggle type lure, and a very light lead head jig, such as a 1/4oz jig, or no jig at all just a wiggle type shallow running lure. It’s just the opposite while trolling deeper water, such as 15′- 22′ of water would require about a 1-1/2oz – 2oz lead head jig, a deep diver type wiggling lure and even another 2 or 4oz sinker attached to the snap that is tied to your line at the very top of the trolling spreader. Just make sure they run 1 ft above the bottom.

Lure Colors

Rule of thumb recommended by the manufacturers of certain lures, is usually on a bright day use dark lures such as a Rebel, Bomber, or Rattle Trap that’s painted in dark purple, black, brown, deep blue, green, deep gold etc, and on a dull or darker day, use bright lures such as chartreuse, white, silver, yellow, light blue, or light gold, don’t underestimate the gold tones and bright chartreuse because they can be killers. There is always the exception, as I’ve also gone against rule of thumb thinking and used bright lures on bright days and really knocked em dead, so don’t always do as the manufacturer says.

During the upcoming Spring run, according to my records fish should be here (Antioch bridge) March 20th.

During the Spring run I some times use modified Rebel and Bomber type lures, by removing the last hook, putting on a hootchy at the tail end of the lure, putting the hook back on and adding a very skinny 10″ worm in White, yellow, pink or red, sprayed with a scent such as shad oil, or bang in shad flavor.

My trolling area starts at the Benicia bridge to Stockton or Rio Vista., so there’s litterally hundreds of square miles to troll, as long as there’s a sandbar or an area that the current runs by, but affords a hiding place with little or no current for the fish to hide. That’s where you want to fish. Do NOT waste your time trolling in the middle of the shipping channel for stripers, because you just won’t have much (if any) success, because the fish like the slower moving shallower waters next to the tules or behind a sandbar. During the upcoming spring run, I normally haunt the San Joaquin river from the Antioch bridge, up river to the Venice island sounding board, including false river, 99% of the time, with the outgoing tide. There are very few places on the San Joaquin river that produce with the incoming tide.

Also try the shore that’s straight across from the entrance to Sherman lake on the Sacramento river, “up river” towards Rio Vista,and under the power lines on the Rio Vista side of the channel, or along the North side of Decker island, or just above the three mile slough bridge on the Sacramento on the east shore with the incoming tide. During the fall run I also fish these same places. West island, right in front of Antioch, is good on the North side of the island (kind of snaggy) with the outgoing tide, in 12 feet of water in May, and also on the South side, but the South side is all very shallow so you must fish about 400 yards South of west island where the sandbar drops off into the South channel just down river from the Antioch PG&E plant on the ebb only. From the Antioch bridge to the east, there are literally hundreds of sandbars and they all hold fish at one time of the tide or another. Remember, outgoing tide is best at 99% of these places, with only a couple places producing on the incoming.

When trolling above the Antioch bridge if you haven’t been there before I h3ly suggest you buy the best map of the river you can find. The reason is there are sandbars absolutely everywhere, and the water depth can go from 30′ to 1′ in just a matter of yards, so stay between the buoys while traveling. The mouth of false river (west end, both sides) can be excellent with the outgoing tide. A guy on my boat in the late 60s, caught a 63.8oz striper right there and 3 weeks later, someone got a 63.13oz in the same place, and I took a 52.8lber out of there in the late 70s.

The South side of False River is where I’ve caught 5 fish over 40 lbs., but the bottom is mud and if you even touch the bottom for a second, your lures will be filthy. Just NNW of the mouth of False River, across the channel, is light 27. From that light to the mouth of 3 mile slough is a very long sandbar that can kick out some monster fish during April and May, with the outgoing. The big females usually hit that bar around mid April and all through May. When you get to the mouth of 3 mile slough (South end), look to the ESE and you will see the NW end of Bradford Island. There is a tulle burm that runs almost all along the North end of that island. With the incoming tide (one of the very few places that produces on the incoming) troll as close to the tulles as possible, but be aware, there’s a few snags, but this place can be red hot wide open trolling.

Just East of that burm about 1 mile, is the Santa Clara Shoals. These shoals can hold hundreds of fish, usually all schooled up. I’ve had days there of 15 fish over 20 lbs catch and release. Try and stay in approximately 12 feet of water. East about a mile you will come to San Andreas Shoals. This place can really explode on the outgoing tide, both against the north side against the tulles and just about in the middle of the river, where the bar starts to drop off into the deep water shipping channel, stay close to 12 ft of water for best results.

About 1/2 mile farther up the river, towards Stockton, is the mouth of the Mokelume river, or Pirates lair, the fish can really pile up at the mouth of that river and inside towards the highway 12 bridge. If you don’t go into that river, stay on the San Joaquin (East side)and just about 1/3 of a mile to the SE you will come to Potato Slough and it can be red hot usually on the outgoing. Now just around that point is the Venice Island sounding board, (small bay) and this area is a place you never drive by without trying, because it can be absolutely world class on both tides if the fish are there. Now if you look to the NW you will see the east end of False River, and the opening to Franks Tract. False River can hold fish anywhere from one end to the other and it can be great trolling if you take your time and find them. The fish are usually very close to either side of the river, but not so much in the middle unless you find a school feeding on a school of shad, then it gets real crazy with fish hitting just about anything you put in the water.

Don’t even dream of fishing in water that’s 20ft or deeper without using enough weight to get to the bottom, because yourer just spinning your wheels dragging your lures through water where only suspended fish are.

The opening to Sherman lake and the sandbar that is just to the North of the opening on the Sacramento river are good on the top of the incoming and the first couple hours of the ebb.

I’ve taken so many people who just drop their line over, put their rod in a holder and don’t even look at their rod, just listening for their clicker and expecting all is well, but only to find they have been dragging bottom for the last 30 minutes and there’s so much mud, and grass on their lure they would never catch a fish, or maybe a they’ve got a clam or a nice snag that just cost them $10.00 for the lost setup.

I can’t stress how important it is, to constantly watch you rod tip for any change in vibration, (all wiggle type lures will vibrate the tip of your rod) or anything different then what it should be doing, because a grass or mud fouled lure will never catch a fish.
If you see your rod tip dipping and there’s no fish hitting it, you know you’re dragging bottom or there’s a tulle caught on the spreader. While trolling, be on constant watch for floating grass or weeds, because if you allow them to be caught by the line just a few feet below the tip of your rod, they will soon be caught at the spreader and a fish won’t go near it.

One of my very favorite lures is the deep running, broken back Rebel that’s painted Fluorescent Green with black vertical stripes, and a fluorescent orange bottom, with a 3 inch very skinny white worm like tail on the very last hook, another is the deep running Bomber in gold, black and bright orange.

Please under stand that I can’t give you GPS numbers of my favorite honey holes, because I don’t keep them on the river–just land marks and depth of water, and in most cases where I fish, there are many, many snags, and I’ve lost literally thousands of dollars worth of gear. I’ve learned exactly where they are, and if you’re following me you might just as well throw your tackle box over the side because it’s going to be empty from snagging up anyway. Also it would be like Ghetto Booty (Dan) or Bob giving up their favorite rockfish or ling GPS numbers or pinnacles.There are a few things in life that you just don’t share, like your own favorite honey holes.

I’ve given you all the combinations of correct speed, lure colors, lure types, length of line out, depth to fish at, what to look for, and presentation. These must all be used together in order for you to be successful. By not combining all of these factors into one smooth operation, you will be just another person who got lucky and caught 1 fish in the last 3 trips out, while I’ve caught and released and eaten in the same time period, maybe 30 fish. Put it all together and give it 100% effort and just smile when you come back to the launch ramp, and everyone runs over to your boat and goes, “WOW, where did you get ’em and what did you use?”