Once you really get into fishing, catching a giant sturgeon eventually becomes one of those “bucket list” items.
California’s deltas and river systems offer some pretty great opportunities for anglers to check this holdover from the dinosaur age off their lists.
The West Coast’s most common sturgeon, the white sturgeon, is also the biggest fish caught in freshwater in the entire country.
When anglers talk about “double digits” in fishing for bass or steelhead or trout, we’re often talking about pounds; with white sturgeon, we’re measuring in feet.
Sturgeon are actually able to live in both saltwater and freshwater.
The Sacramento and San Joaquin river system is one of just three major spawning areas on the entire West Coast for white sturgeon, which need big, cold freshwater rivers to reproduce.
These long-lived fish often move in and out of their home system to feed in other areas along the coast, including coastal estuaries elsewhere in California.
The two other major white sturgeon breeding grounds are the Columbia River system in Oregon and Washington and the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Spending the day targeting sturgeon can be epic. It can also be frustratingly slow if you don’t find them. Be prepared for a quiet day, and you might get surprised with incredible action. But bring snacks.
As discussed more below, be aware of current regulations before heading out.
This is because there are pretty tight rules around sturgeon due to their slow reproductive process and population declines in many watersheds up and down the Pacific Coast.
A typical female won’t reach maturity until around 25 years old, while males mature closer to 15.
How to Catch Sturgeon
Sturgeon feed on the bottom. You’ll want to get the bait down to them, which means using just enough weight to hold the bait down, but not too much that it hinders the natural flow of the bait.
Use heavy line, heavy leader and a rod and reel that can handle a fish that occasionally reaches the 10-foot range.
The official white sturgeon record in California is 468 pounds, landed in 1983. The unofficial record is from the 1880s, and it took a team of horses to land and allegedly weighed 1,500 pounds.
Your typical salmon rod isn’t going to handle that.
Fresh fish make excellent bait, including the American shad that run up several California streams (including the Sacramento River and tributaries) each spring.
Other common local baits include other types of whole or cut fish baits, nightcrawlers, salmon roe, shrimp and more.
Fresh bait is better than frozen, but they will pick up a thawed piece of that’s what you have to offer.
For their size, sturgeon often bite very gently, so it’s pretty easy to miss the bite for a newer angler using a heavy rod.
White sturgeon often hang out in brackish waters where the freshwater of rivers mixes with the saltier bays, and the best season to find them in many locations is the beginning of winter to early summer.
They’ll often be concentrated in deep water, but sturgeon also will move into shallower flats to feed.
For a more detailed look at the best techniques and baits, read our simple guide to West Coast sturgeon fishing.
Sturgeon Fishing Rules
You can keep up to three sturgeon per year, and need to have the proper tags for them, so check California Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations.
There are closure areas and other rules to consider on a case by case basis.
Our most recent update showed that white sturgeon may be harvested between the sizes of 40 and 60 inches from the nose to the fork in the tail.
Larger and smaller sturgeon must immediately be released unharmed.
The California regulations also state that “Anglers must use a single, barbless hook, may not use gaffs or snares, and must not remove any fish greater than 68 inches from the water.”
Where to Catch Sturgeon
California’s major sturgeon fishing is found in the broader San Francisco Bay system, including its various saltwater areas and tributary rivers including the Sacramento.
Other parts of California may have sturgeon, but make sure you follow the rules.
Here’s a look at the very best of the Golden State’s sturgeon fishing areas.
San Joaquin Delta
The answer to the question of where best to fish for sturgeon in California might be as simple as: the Delta.
Okay, sure. But what part? The Delta is enormous, so let’s break that down a bit.
There are several popular areas to target, from San Pablo Bay and the West Delta areas to the Sacramento Valley. Each section has its merit. From the San Francisco Bay area through the Sacramento River, there are sturgeon everywhere.
If you want a broader look at fishing opportunities in this area, including stripers, bass, salmon, shad and more, read our complete guide over at Fishing the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta.
San Francisco Bay
Several piers around the bay offer great access to sturgeon fishing. Point Pinole Pier in Richmond has good to excellent sturgeon fishing in March and April.
The Richmond Bridge area has some good areas to target from a boat if pier fishing isn’t your preferred approach.
In the south bay, target the Alameda Rock Wall area. There can be some giants here in the winter through spring, and you may also bring in a California halibut or two for your efforts.
The old Dumbarton Bridge has the Dumbarton pier, which offers excellent sturgeon fishing from early winter through late spring.
Know that the Dumbarton area has an extremely strong current, so more weight is needed to keep your bait down.
Eckley Pier in the Crockett/Port Costa/West Delta area has access to deeper waters, which improves the odds of catching sturgeon.
The main coastal channel runs close to the pier, making it fairly easy to get to the deeper waters.
Martinez Pier has excellent sturgeon fishing.
Target them off the end of this pier, where you can cast into deeper water that holds sturgeon. That fact may mean it gets pretty busy at the tip, while other parts of the pier might be empty.
The West Delta, along with other sturgeon fishing spots, at times of the year also produce some of the best striped bass fishing in California.
San Pablo Bay
San Pablo Bay is home to the “Sturgeon Triangle.”
The broader area is between imaginary lines drawn between China Camp, Buoy 5, and the Pumphouse. Target the southwestern point of the triangle for your best chances.
Along the northwest side of the bay by Petaluma Point can be very productive for smaller sturgeon. There is a possibility to get an in-the-slot fish or two here, but mainly smaller, younger sturgeon are in this area.
Nestled between San Pablo Bay and Suisun Bay is Carquinez Strait and the Mare Island Rock Wall.
Along the straight, you’ll cross over a few holes that may have sturgeon, but as you approach the Mare Island Rock Wall, your chances improve.
Mothball Fleet has a nice ring to it. There’s got to be something going on in a place called Mothball Fleet. It’s where outdated and retired military ships have been sent to spend their final days before being scrapped entirely.
Though a much smaller fleet than it used to be, it still serves to mark the epic sturgeon grounds found nearby.
Spend some time learning the area, and you’ll discover sturgeon.
However, keep some distance away from the fleet. They can shift, which leads to a giant military ship sinking your tiny (in comparison) fishing boat.
Sand bars also permeate the area. It’s best to anchor out of range of the fleet and fish the deeper areas around them.
There are several good to great areas on the Sacramento to try.
The Decker Island area at the entrance to Three Mile Slough is a great area to target mid-winter through spring.
There are several sturgeon holes throughout the area. Just keep your eye on your electronics, and you’ll find them.
The Powerlines area at the west end of Decker Island is a great spot for lunkers. There are two large powerlines crossing the river at the end of the island with corresponding deeper holes across the entire bottom of the river.
The section of the river from Grimes to Knights Landing should be on your list, especially in lower water conditions. Above Colusa, navigation can be sketchy during lower water.
Cache Slough in the Sacramento River Delta is consistently rated as an excellent area for sturgeon. It’s a great place to try when moving up from Three Mile Slough on your way upriver.
Sturgeon congregate in the river above the Feather River confluence and spawn above Colusa. Check water conditions before attempting to access that area.
Note that the river is closed to sturgeon fishing in a long reach of river from Keswick Dam near Redding downriver more than 100 river miles to the Highway 162 bridge near Butte City.
Butte City is roughly 20 miles north of Colusa and approximately 80 miles from Sacramento.
California Coast Sturgeon
Sturgeon will swim down from the Sacramento River and out of San Francisco Bay and make a right turn up the coast.
However, note that the state regulations prohibit you from keeping any sturgeon caught in the CDFW’s North Coast management district of Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and Siskiyou counties.
Humboldt Bay is one of the main attractions for feeding sturgeon up in this area.
Catch-and-release fishing is possible for both the more common white sturgeon as well as one of California’s best populations of green sturgeon, which are protected from harvest statewide.
Sturgeon will sometimes be found off from the oyster farms and occasionally caught off fishing piers.
Also note that sturgeon will turn into the Russian, Klamath, Trinity and Eel rivers in smaller numbers, more likely to feed as little evidence exists of sustained spawning taking place.
While there aren’t always a lot of them, there can be some big sturgeon in in the lowest reaches all of these rivers. At some point a monster may very well suck up a slow-moving salmon bait or scented lure, resulting in a wild battle.