Fishing the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta (Best Tips)

Sharing is caring!

The Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta is truly a fishing destination like no other. A vast inland river delta and estuary, it encompasses nearly 200 islands and more than 1,100 miles of waterways. 

Often referred to as the California Delta, and known among locals simply as “the Delta,” this is without a doubt one of California’s finest fishing waters. 

Centered around the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers—along with numerous smaller tributaries—the Delta is where many different waters meet before ultimately flowing into San Francisco Bay, and on through to the Pacific.

Salmon and stripers both make annual spawning runs into the California Delta. Giant catfish and sturgeon haunt its depths. Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass have all been introduced in the Delta, and all three species have come to thrive here. 

With so many options, there are great fishing opportunities in the California Delta year-round. 

But the Delta can also be intimidating to newcomers.

It’s a twisting labyrinth of rivers, channels and sloughs, and finding fish is only half as challenging as finding your way through the maze that is the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta.

Here’s what you need to know to start catching the Delta’s most prized game fish species.

Striped Bass

Striped bass are not native to California.

They’re an East Coast fish, but the California Delta and San Francisco Bay bear a strong resemblance to native habitats like the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

When stripers were introduced to California in the late 1800s, they took off immediately. 

Today, they’re an essential part of the food chain in the Delta, and one of the most sought-after fish by anglers. The Delta offers incredible numbers of 10- to 15-pound stripers, as well as occasional giants up to 50 pounds. 

Most of the local stripers spend their summers in the ocean or in San Francisco Bay.

They re-enter the Delta during September and October, and some of the first places they’re caught are in the lower reaches of the Delta around the Pittsburgh and Antioch area, including Sherman Lake and Montezuma Slough.

These fish spread out more in winter, which can make them challenging to find, but the biggest winter stripers often hunt in shallow water while most of the smaller and medium-sized fish hold in 15 to 30 feet of water. 

Spring offers arguably the best striped bass fishing of the year, as stripers make their way farther into the upper reaches of the Delta to spawn.  April and May is prime time to catch incredible numbers of striped bass.

Some of the best areas are far up the Sacramento River around Colusa and Knights Landing, but you can catch stripers in virtually all parts of the delta when they’re on their way upstream in early spring, and when they’re headed back downstream in late spring.

Baits including sardines and shad are the favorite choice of many anglers. Use medium-heavy tackle and focus on current breaks and the edges of channels.

Keeping bait near bottom is often a key to success, so have a variety of sinkers handy to adjust the weight depending on the strength of the current. 

A wide range of minnow-imitating lures are also effective, including spoons, crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jigs. Many local anglers locate stripers in the delta by trolling various combinations of natural baits and lures.

Find all of the best striped bass fishing spots in California.

Black Bass

The California Delta is home to all three major species of black bass—largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and spotted bass—and is one of the best destinations in the state if you’re looking to catch all three species.

Largemouth bass are the most widespread of the three, and also the biggest. But spotted bass have become increasingly common in recent years, and smallmouths offer exciting fishing opportunities when the bite is on.

Largemouth Bass

The Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta supports an incredible largemouth bass population, with great numbers of medium-sized fish as well as a genuine shot at catching a 15-pounder.

The California Delta is simply one of the best largemouth bass fisheries in Northern California

There’s great bass fishing here any time from March through November, but spring is prime time. On a good day, it can feel like you can throw anything from your tackle box and catch largemouths. 

Targeting shoreline weeds—especially tules, which grow abundantly along many of the Delta’s banks—is usually a safe bet. Slow roll spinnerbaits along the outer edges of the tules, or flip soft plastics into likely-looking spots. 

Largemouth bass often seek shelter under docks too, and may be found in the eddies below any break in the current. Tossing a jig under a dock or just above a swirling eddy is often a sure way to get a strike. 

One thing to keep in mind is that the California Delta is strongly influenced by the tides. Patterns shift as the water rises and falls. The farther upstresam you go, the less significant the influence of the tides are. 

A favorite tactic among locals familiar with bass’ movements is to cast along the edges of tule beds at high tide, and then switch to targeting bass under mats of floating vegetation at low tide. 

Largemouths inhabit areas throughout the entire Delta, which makes it hard to narrow down the best places to fish.

You can literally catch bass almost anywhere, but the central part of the Delta around Antioch, Stockton and Tracy is a great place to start. There’s a lot of prime bass water here.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass don’t typically reach trophy proportions in the California Delta.

But when you consider how few great smallmouth waters there are in California, the prospect of chasing river-dwelling bronzebacks in the 1- to 2-pound range doesn’t sound half bad. 

Keep in mind that a smallmouth bass that’s lived its whole life in moving water is, pound for pound, about the hardest-fighting fish there is. 

The best smallmouth fishing is in the northern part of the Delta, which is to say the Sacramento River and the creeks and channels that flow into it.

As a general rule, the farther into the upper reaches of the Delta you go, the better your prospects are for smallmouths.

Upstream from Rio Vista is prime smallmouth water. The shorelines of most of the channels in this area are lined with riprap, and bass often hold tight to the rocks.

Casting with a few feet of a riprap bank is your surest bet. 

When the smallmouth bite is on, as it often is from June through August, you can catch 20 or more in a day, often with a few spotted bass thrown in.

Soft plastics of all kinds seem to work on smallies in the delta, and they often attack crawfish-patterned crankbaits with reckless abandon.

There’s a solid topwater bite on poppers and walking lures too, especially toward sundown.

Like smallmouth bass fishing? Here are the best places in California to catch them

Spotted Bass

Spotted bass are more recent additions to the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta.

Much like smallmouths, they tend to favor the Sacramento River arm, especially its upper reaches where the water is cooler and more richly oxygenated. 

Spots often share habitat with smallmouths, and it’s common to catch a mixed bag of both species.

But spotted bass are drawn to a wider range of cover, from rocks and drop-offs to weeds and brush, while smallies firmly favor rocky areas.

Spotted bass are also more likely to abandon structure and prowl open waters. They bite readily, and tend to be more active on colder conditions than either largemouth or smallmouth bass. 

In the Delta, many anglers see spotted bass as an alternative on days when other bass don’t seem to be biting.

Crankbaits, jigs and soft plastics can all be effective, and the Sacramento River arm of the Delta has a growing population of spots in the 2- to 3-pound range.

Find the best spotted bass lakes in California.

How to Catch More Bass

Learn about the best techniques and tips for bass fishing, no matter whether you hope to catch largemouth, smallmouth or spotted bass.

Salmon

Chinook salmon spend most of their lives in the ocean. But every year, they make their way through San Francisco Bay, into the Delta, and up the Sacramento River and it’s tributaries to spawn.

Some call them king salmon, and after battling one you’ll understand why they deserve their royal title. California’s state record Chinook salmon, caught in the Sacramento River in 1979, weighed 88 pounds. 

The timing of the salmon run varies every year, and local anglers keep watchful eye on the whereabouts of the salmon as they begin making their way upstream.

Actually, there are multiple salmon runs throughout the year, but the fall run is by far the most prolific.

For the most part, the fall salmon run occurs between August and November. 

Where the best fishing is depends on how far upstream the salmon have progressed, but it’s worth keeping in mind that all salmon aren’t on quite the same schedule.

By the peak of the fall run, kings will be in various stages throughout the Delta and the Sacramento River system. 

In late summer, Suisun Bay and the Lower Delta are the best places to target salmon. Many anglers pursue them by trolling flasher rigs with spoons, spinners, plugs and hoochies. 

As the salmon make their way up through the Delta, bank and pier fishermen have a solid chance to connect with big kings.

Casting with large spinners from shore is productive from the Pittsburgh and Antioch areas upstream to Rio Vista and beyond.

Trolling is popular up in the main Sacramento River too, but anchor fishing—anchoring above a prime spot and letting your bait drift downstream—is also a great tactic.

Fly fishing is also popular as salmon make their way farther upriver.

For most salmon fishermen in the Delta, sturdy baitcasting rods and reels are the tools of choice. A relatively long rod (at least 8 feet) is important to give you the leverage to fight hefty king salmon.

Choose a rod with solid backbone and a flexible tip, and spool your reel with at least 20-pound line. There’s always a chance of hooking up with salmon weighing 30 pounds or more.

Pick up some great salmon-fishing techniques.

Also, learn about the Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California.

Catfish

Catfish are some of the most abundant fish in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, and some of the easiest to catch.

The Delta is home to channel catfish, white catfish and bullheads, as well as some giant blue catfish. 

Catfish are more likely to be in shallow water in springtime, making this a favorite time among shore fishermen. Summer can be productive too, especially at night. 

Any smelly, natural bait can tempt catfish.

Fresh or frozen baitfish like shad, anchovies and sardines are especially popular. Locals cut them into sizable chunks and fish them on a large hook near the bottom. 

You can find catfish almost anywhere in the Delta, which is why we also feature it on our rundown of best catfish fishing spots in California. The wide-open waters of Frank’s Tract and Sherman Lake offer great fishing, and almost any most channels and sloughs are great in springtime.

We’ll tell you about the best baits, tackle and tips for catching more catfish.

Panfish

Several species that are loosely referred to as “panfish” inhabit the California Delta. They include bluegill, redear sunfish, crappie and warmouth.

Bluegill and sunfish are some of the most abundant fish in the California Delta.

You can find them in weedy areas, around brushy cover and under boat docks all over the Delta, and they bite easily when you fish with live worms and other natural baits.

Get more bluegill and sunfish fishing tips to success.

Crappie can be harder to pin down, but they’re out there.

Crappie travel in large schools, so once you’ve found one, you’ve probably found hundreds. Backwater areas like Snodgrass Slough and Whiskey Slough can be productive, especially in spring.

Areas farther up the San Joaquin River are also favored spots for crappie. The 8-Mile Road Bridge just outside Stockton is a favorite shore fishing spot.

One of the keys to crappie fishing is typically to keep moving and cover water quickly until you find fish, and then stay put! Live minnows and a wide variety of small jigs are effective.

The evening hours tend to offer the best crappie bite. Some folks like to fish after dark, using lights to attract the minnows that crappie feed on.

We have the Delta as an honorable mention on our list of excellent crappie fishing spots in California

Sturgeon

Ancient, mysterious giants, sturgeon are the prehistoric beasts of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta.

White sturgeon are fairly common in the delta, and the more rare green sturgeon is around too (though the latter must be released immediately if caught).

Sturgeons’ size is legendary. Tales are told of a 1,500-pound white sturgeon that had to be hauled from the Sacramento River by a team of horses in the 1880s.

These days, any sturgeon that cracks 100 pounds is exceptional. White sturgeon in the Delta typically measure around 45 inches and tip the scale somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 pounds. 

Sturgeon often strike baitfish and minnows (alive or dead) near the bottom, and have a reputation for giving striper or catfish anglers a sudden surprise when they take baits intended for other fish.

Some anglers specifically target sturgeon using worms, salmon roe or shrimp. Locally caught American shad, which run into these same rivers, also can be great sturgeon bait.

Sturgeon inhabit the lowest parts of the Delta—Suisun Bay and San Pablo Bay—year-round, but they spawn in the upper reaches of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers between February and April. 

Usually the best times to catch them are December through March, as big sturgeon make their way upstream toward their spawning grounds. 

The stretch of the Sacramento River between Sandy Beach and Sherman Island is a popular spot for sturgeon fishing.

Montezuma Slough often gives up big fish, and deep holes between the mouth of Three Mile Slough and the Santa Clara Shoals are often productive as well.

Learn more about California’s best sturgeon fishing spots around the Delta and elsewhere.

Also: Catch more white sturgeon with these fishing techniques.

Planning Your Trip

One of the great things about the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta is that it’s a great multi-species fishery.

There’s always a chance that a 10-pound striper will clobber a crankbait thrown for smallmouths, or a monstrous sturgeon will make off with a minnow intended for catfish.

The point is, be ready for anything, and don’t be afraid to shift gears if the fish insist on it.

It’s also important to remember that it’s easy to get lost in the California Delta.

Make sure you have a good GPS or mapping unit on your boat, and consider going out with an experienced local guide if it’s your first time on the Delta.

Getting There

The California Delta encompasses a wide swath of land and water, covering about 1,150 square miles and parts of five counties. It’s huge. 

One way to look at the Delta is as a roughly triangular area. The northeastern corner is Sacramento (on the Sacramento River), the southeastern corner is Stockton (on the San Joaquin River), and the western tip is where the Delta empties into San Francisco Bay near Vallejo.

The central area of the California Delta, around the city of Antioch, is just about an hour’s drive from Sacramento, San Francisco and Stockton.

This makes it a popular destination not just for fishing but for water sports of all kinds.

Bank and Boat Access

The Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta is accessible through dozens of public parks, launch ramps, state fishing access sites and privately owned marinas.

Some of the best places to start exploring by bank or by boat include: 

Central Delta

Riverview Park in Pittsburgh offers good shore fishing access, and the nearby Pittsburgh Marina provides launch facilities as well as boat rentals and other services.

The Antioch Public Launch Ramp and Antioch Fishing Pier are also great options in the Antioch area.

Sacramento River

The Sherman Island Sacramento River Access Site is a good shore fishing spot right at the mouth of the Sacramento River.

A little farther upriver, Brannen Island State Recreation Area offers boat launch facilities as well as bank fishing.

Access is also available at several locations in the Rio Vista area, including Sandy Beach County Park, Rio Vista Riverbank Fishing Access and Cliffhouse Fishing Access.

San Joaquin River

Big Break Regional Shoreline is a popular spot for fishing, with a 100-foot fishing pier and a beach launch for canoes and kayaks.

Willow Berm Marina and New Anchor Marina both offer launch facilities and a variety of other services. 

Camping in the Delta

You can choose among several camping options in the California Delta. Sherman Island Regional Park and Sandy Beach County Park both offer campsites. 

Brennan Island State Recreation Area offers one of the most popular campgrounds, with more than 140 campsites for tents and RVs.

Brennan Island also is a good fishing spot and boat launch site, which makes it a good home base for exploring the Delta. 

Camping is also available at several privately owned campgrounds and RV parks, including Park Delta Bay, Rio Viento RV Park and Eddo’s Harbor & RV Park.