Managing Cal Delta Waterflow

By David A. Brown

We hear the phrase “Go with the Flow” and we envision a lackadaisical existence devoid of purpose. But take that cliché to the California Delta and you’ll be right on track to mastering this labyrinthine network of canals, sloughs and major rivers; possibly to the point of unlocking its amazing largemouth bass treasure.

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This massive Central Valley drainage covers some 1,100 square miles of waterways, all feeding into the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. With abundant habitat including tule berms, submerged vegetation, weed mats (hyacinth, pennywort, primrose, etc.), riprap and shallow wood, the Delta offers fish and fishermen tremendous diversity.

FLW Tour pro Jimmy Reese knows well this angling wonderland’s potential, but he also knows that the Delta plays by different rules. With its major rivers flowing into Suison Bay, which links via the Carquinez Strait to San Francisco Bay, the Delta feels the effects of Pacific tides. Though not as dramatic as the coastal water dynamics, inland tidal influence is no less powerful.

“It can be feast or famine, however, you just have to learn to adapt,” Reese said. “Water movement definitely triggers the bite, but if you know they’re there, you can still catch them; it’s just a different presentation. Maybe they’re not exactly where they need to be to be super active, so you just have to look a little harder.”

image courtesy of FLWFISHING.com

image courtesy of FLWFISHING.com

Undeniably, daily ebb and flow positions fish and forage, while often influencing navigational access. Generally, incoming water grants fish greater access to shallow cover while falling tides pull them outward. Also, outgoing water is typically cleaner, as it’s filtered by shallow vegetation. Cleaner water tends to congregate baitfish and bass are keen to exploit such gatherings.

Moving water, either direction, positions fish in predictable ambush spots where food comes to them. You can certainly catch fish on slow tides and even slack water, but lacking the instinctive motivation of nature’s food delivery, the bite will typically prove tough. Compare this to peak flow periods when tournament anglers often report catching all of their weight in 30 minutes.

WORK WITH THE WATER

There’s no one-size-fits-all for Delta tides, but replicable principles are worth noting. To that end, Reese addresses the late-spring to early summer period with his go-to’s for various stages of the tide.

Incoming

When a tide’s rising, Reese inspects interior ponds and looks for little current breaks. The mouths or openings are the main spots and opportunity level varies with pond size.

“Some might have 1-2, some might have 10-12 openings,” Reese said. “These are good staging areas for the fish to feed as the water’s coming in. As water gets higher, you can venture onto the shallower flats within the pond.”

Reese said it’s hard to beat a wacky- or Texas-rigged Senko for this scenario, but he also likes his reaction baits — especially as the fish spread out with the rising water and become more active. Spinnerbaits with perch or shad color Senkos or bladed jigs with Zako trailers deliver plenty of incoming tide action.

High Tide

At the top of the incoming cycle, Reese spends more time on flats with a rattlebait and a spinnerbait, but his primary pursuit is flipping. Pulling up close to hyacinth mats, dense grass edges, tule rafts, etc., and sending a Flappin’ Hog through the canopy can be one of the most productive high-tide presentations.

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“They’re not as spooky when the water’s higher, so that’s generally when I like to go in and flip way back inside that stuff,” Reese said. “Those fish might already be spawning in there, but they’re spooky at low tide, even though you can’t see them. They’re more accessible on high tide.”

Reese keeps a couple of Flappin’ Hog rigs handy for this high-tide work. First, a 1/2-ounce weight for tules, grass and lighter stuff. For heavier cover, he’ll use a 1 1/4-ounce weight to punch into the shadow realm. For both uses, he likes watermelon red flake, watermelon red/black flake and watermelon purple/black flake.

Outgoing

This is the stage when the magic happens, but Reese is quick to point out that it’s no gimme. Things happen quickly, so stake out those strategic feeding areas and stay active.

“When the tide first changes and starts heading out, you want to be throwing a squarebill, bladed jig or swim jig on current breaks like tule points,” Reese said. “After that, I like to get on those flats, current breaks and eddies and throw a black buzzbait with a Smoky Joe color D-Shad trailer or a frog.

“Prespawn and postpawn fish will be on the points and spawning fish will be on the flats. When you come over the tops of holes in the vegetation, they’ll come up and hammer it.”

An hour or two into the falling tide, Reese will be flipping for fish that are moving toward the vegetation’s outer edges. As the water gets skinny, he said, you have to adjust outward toward the channels for deeper cover.

Low Tide

With shallow cover drained, the fish have no option but to pile into predicable adjacent depths. The distances can be significant in large open areas like Big Break, Frank’s Tract, Mandeville and the big rivers; but in canals and sloughs, the fish won’t go far.

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“Dragging that Senko around is tough to beat,” Reese said of his low-tide strategy. “You can pitch it into pockets and into holes in the tules and other vegetation. You’re just covering water.

“When that tide gets out to a certain point, those fish get really active. It’s a magical time when you see bait flickering and dragonflies start flying close to the water. About three hours into the tide, things start adjusting and you want to be in your favorite areas.

“You have a 45-minute window to get it done without the fish starting to get spooky. That’s why you have people following the tides; you find that magical window and you just follow it.”

Now, if the magnificent California Delta has a downside, it’s simply its own vastness. Where to start is the common dilemma, but Reese makes it simple: Just start.

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“With over 1,000 miles of waterways, you can definitely get lost and you can definitely get spun out,” he said. “There are fish throughout the water system and you can figure out a pattern within two miles. Pick a pond, pick a couple of sloughs, fish them thoroughly, figure out what stage they’re in — prespawn, spawn or postspawn — and then you’ll find the better times to fish throughout the tide.

“Certain times of year, there are certain areas of the Delta that can be better than others. If you can just learn a couple of sloughs and one of the ponds, that’s going to help you go somewhere else and replicate what you need to do.”