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By Mark Wilson

Fall and winter bait fishing for stripers are my favorite times to fish in the delta. It is just around the corner and I'm starting to think about it already. It seems that in the early and late fall (Indian Summer) the weather is normally good. Cool mornings and balmy days prevail with no wind or just a light breeze. During the winter, in between storms, the weather is pretty good. It can be cold and foggy, but will be comfortable by mid day. If it is going to be windy and/or rainy, I look for protected areas where I can get a wind break. Fall and winter bait fishing is a time to relax and catch stripers.

There are many different techniques to catch stripers. You may troll, spoon, cast jigs and rattle traps, and cast top water lures to catch a striper. When using artificial lures, you will be chasing all over looking for a school of stripers. This type of fishing gets pretty hectic and covers miles of waterways.

I'm going to talk about bait fishing. You can use live bait such as mudsuckers, bullheads, jumbo minnows, squawfish, and others. Sardines, anchovies and threadfin shad are successful dead baits to catch stripers in the delta. This striper technique is going to be about bait fishing with shad.

First of all, I like to reserve the shad bait at least a day in advance. There are several bait shops in the delta, from Isleton and Rio Vista to Lodi and Stockton, who will reserve shad bait for you. I like to buy fresh shad whenever possible, but frozen shad will work almost as well. Shad is available from most delta bait shops on a daily basis, but can become scarce during full moons, because the shad go deep and are harder to net, and late in the winter months, when the commercial "shadders" start backing off their jobs.

I try to buy at least one pound of shad per person fishing. Sometimes I will buy more, if available, and depending upon the Chinese Mitten Crabs in the area. Shad are fragile and susceptible to warm temperatures. Keep your shad on ice or in ice water (floated) as these methods will keep it fresher throughout the day. I like to use shad in the 3" to 4" size range. I chop up the smaller shad and use it for chum. The large oversized shad will work also, if the stripers want the larger baits, or it becomes chum also (chumming is legal on the Sacramento River downstream of the Interstate 80 Bridge and on the San Joaquin River downstream of the Interstate 5 Bridge).

The stripers I am targeting with shad baits are in the keeper size to 10-12 pound range (action fish). Larger fish and shakers will take the bait occasionally, and so will an incidental sturgeon. I "butterfly" the shad by filleting the bait from the tail partway to the head, stopping just behind the gills. I start a 7/0 octopus hook about 1/4" from the tail, near the backbone, on the skin side, and pull the hook and leader all the way through. Then, I insert the hook just behind the forward folded flap of the fillet, near the backbone, and insert the hook into the head, exposing the barb of the hook. Now I finish the bait with a half hitch around the tail. The bait is ready for fishing. And, change you bait frequently, every 15 minutes to half an hour, or especially after you have had a bite of some kind.


Attractants can be used on your shad bait too. Try various scents/flavors of attractants. But for obvious reasons, one that will work well, is a shad scented attractant. An anise scent attractant would be my second choice.

I use a good quality line and leader in 15# - 20# test. Leaders should be around 3' in length with a swivel on one end and a 6/0 to 7/0 hook on the other end. I prefer to use level wind conventional reels, capable of handling 150 - 250 yards on line. Spinning reels can be used also, and a bait runner type spinning reel is a real good choice. I like 7' to 8' rods, which are fairly soft in the tip section, have a good strong butt section, and is capable of handling the 15# - 20# test lines. I personally use graphite rods, but fiberglass rods are ok too. I use sinkers from 1 ounce to 4 ounce depending upon water depth and tidal flow.

I personally like to fish shallow water on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. I fish from the Rio Vista Bridge downstream to Collinsville on the Sacramento River. I fish from the Santa Clara Shoals downstream to the Antioch Bridge on the San Joaquin River. There are many shallow areas to fish from 5' to 18' of water. I sometimes fish in the deeper water, up to 35' deep.

Look for shoals and flats. Use a map of the area you wish to fish showing bottom contours. I like to fish the sides and edges of the shoals where they start dropping off to deeper water.

I use my depth finder in locating fish. You don't need to see big schools of stripers. When bait fishing for stripers, all you need to see is some fish, and you know they are in the area. The fish can be laying in shallow water one time and deeper water another time.

Tides are important. You need to "pattern" the striper bite. Sometimes they bite on the incoming or on the outgoing tide. Sometimes they bite at the beginning, the ending, or during the hard flow of the tides. Check with your local bait shops and other fishermen for the latest information. The tides flow harder during the full and dark of the moon. On the first and third quarters of the moon, the tides are less strong. During the fall and winter months the striper usually travels with the current. They are not on their spawning run upstream. The are just cruising around looking for something to eat.

When still fishing with bait for stripers I vary my technique between two methods. Sometimes I put the rod in a rod holder, with the reel in free spool, with the "clicker" on. Other times I balance the rod in front of me on anything that will hold my rod (transom of the boat, balance beam, bait box, tackle box, etc.). If the wind is blowing pretty stiff, or if I am not paying attention to my rod for some reason, I use the free spool method. If I am not occupied with cutting bait, making leaders, etc. then I will balance the rod.

The striper bite can be very aggressive early in the fall season when the water is warmer (70 down to 60 degrees). During the early part of the fall season the striper can really run off with your bait. As the water starts getting colder (60 down to 45 degrees), towards and into winter, the bite will become more lethargic and subtle. I look for a little tap or bounce, then comes the lean or "take down". Then, I reach out following the bite down, and when the rod loads, I set the hook. If the fish is rattling or vibrating the bait aggressively, it probably is a small striper or squawfish.

Note: A Chinese Mitten Crab can be a menace. They can take your bait, and they sometimes look like a striper or sturgeon bite. If your bait comes in all mangled and you have not noticed a bite, it probably was a crab messing with it. The crabs get aggressive during the slower parts of the tides. If the crab is consistently taking your bait every few minutes, you probably will have to move to another location a mile or so up or down the river. Sometimes you can move a few hundred yards one way or another to get away from the crabs. I watch my rod diligently. You'll get to recognize a crab bite. When the rod tip moves, ever so slightly, from a crab bite, I pick up the rod and reel in a few feet of line. Sometimes, even, I reel in and cast to another spot.

Stripers are in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River delta system throughout the fall and winter months, prior to the start of their spring spawning run. They return from their summer beach and bay habitats to go into a "holding" pattern in the delta and upper bays. This is when the striper concentrations are at the greatest level in the delta. The fall and winter months is the time for shad bait. Anchor your boat, cast out a shad, relax and watch for that striper bite. The next bite could be a big one.


      Good Luck,     Mark Wilson

         Practice catch and release!



More Fishin' Articles

1. Mark's Tip on "Summer Sturgeon"

2. Farm Pond Fishing

Bait fishing for Fall/Winter Stripers


Fishing Knots

California Marine
    Sport Fish