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Trolling for Salmon on the California Delta

Chinook salmon make their way up the California Delta in large numbers between August and November of each year.  They eventually spawn in the upper regions of the Sacramento, American, Feather, Mokelumne and Cosumnes Rivers.  A great way to target these large game fish is by trolling.

The methods I'm going to cover here apply to the deep, slow moving water in the lower end of the river systems.  Different methods are used in the shallow, rocky, fast moving sections found farther upstream.

On this page I'm going to share some of my own personal methods.  This isn't the only way to fish, so keep in mind that using other methods will also catch fish.  Following the techniques from this site will give you a head start towards dialing in your own fishing methods.

Practice catch and release, and good luck!
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Tackle Jump to the top of this page

Rod

You'll want to use limber salmon or steelhead medium heavy rod rated for 10-30 lb test.  They usually run eight to ten feet in length.  A fairly soft tip is needed to detect the action of your lure.  The long limber rods are needed to help absorb the head shakes of salmon once you hook them.

Reel

Any mid sized casting reel will work just fine.  Spinning reels can be hard to use because it will be difficult to feel the bottom when letting out your line.  I like to use Abu-Garcia Ambassedeur model 6500 reels.

If you use rod holder, you will want to use a reel with a clicker for that you can hear the line peel out when a fish is hooked.

Abu-Garcia Reel

Main Line

For my main line, I like to use 20 pound test Maxima Ultragreen monofilament.  The nice thing about monofilament line is that is stretches.  This will help to absorb the violent head shakes that salmon produce.  If you use braided line, be sure to use a long limber rod that will help to absorb the shaking action of a fighting salmon. Maxima Ultragreen Line

Net

Use the biggest net you can find with at least a three foot diameter and a long handle for reaching out for fish going crazy at the boat.

Setup

Most people use a 'V' shaped metal wire called a spreader to separate their lures and sinkers.  The advantage to using a spreader is that keeps the lure up in the strike zone while the sinker remains at the bottom.

On the top end of the spreader I tie a 4 foot long 20 pound test leader to my lure.

On the bottom end of the spreader I typically use about an 18" leader tied to a trolling sinker.  I use a light line like 10-12 pound test on this leader in case I get snagged.  That way, the bottom leader breaks and I still get my spreader and spinner back.

Salmon Trolling Setup

Boat Jump to the top of this page

Any boat that you can troll with will work.  You will need to go slow, so you might have to put buckets behind your boat to slow down.

At a minimum you will want to use a depth finder.  A better option will be a sonar unit.  Although salmon are hard to detect in the ocean, they are easy to see in the river.  Keep in mind that it is much easier to mark fish going downstream than it is going against the current.

Location Jump to the top of this page

There are countless areas of the delta that are good for trolling.  They stretch from Suisun Bay all the way up past Sacramento.

Some Popular Locations

  • The Rio Vista area of the Sacramento River

  • In front of Viera's Resort on the Sacramento River below Isleton

  • The Walnut Grove area on the Sacramento River

  • The stretch of the Sacramento River between Freeport and Discovery Park

  • The South Fork of the Mokelumne River

Lures  Jump to the top of this page

Spinners

I like the double-bladed Silvertrons the best.  Spinners are easier to troll than plugs because getting the right speed for a plug can be tricky.  Troll spinners downstream at about 3.5 to 3.7 GPS speed.  Use four ounce sinkers - you want that sinker to be bouncing the bottom every once in a while.  If you see a snag on your sonar speed up to raise the lures above the obstacle.  Use a small duo-lock snap to attach your spinner to the leader.

Try using chartreuse or red blades during low light or overcast conditions.  If you use scent, only put it on the insides of the blades.  The blades are made of real silver, so just use some Twinkle silver polish (True Value) to keep them up to shine when they get tarnished.

Silvertron spinners come in one or two-blade models.  I like to use chartreuse in the morning and then switch to silver/chartreuse once the sun comes up.  Try different color combinations until you find what they are biting on any given day.  You can find Silvertron lures in most local bait or tackle stores, or order them online from Fisherman's Warehouse.

Silvertron Spinner

Plugs

The most popular plugs for trolling are Kwikfish and Flatfish.  Use the smaller sized plugs, equivalent to the K-14 Kwikfish.  Use a one inch long by 1/2 inch wide sardine wrap centered to the bottom of the plug.  Troll downstream at about 2.2 to 2.5 GPS speed.  You have to play with the speed until you get the correct rhythm going.  Use three ounce sinkers to keep your weight bouncing the bottom.  Use a large duo-lock snap to attach your plug to the leader.

If you see a snag on your sonar slow down and raise the rods to get the lures past the obstacle.  Silver with a chartreuse head or tail is the most popular plug colors.

Technique Jump to the top of this page

Direction

You will almost always want to troll downstream (or with the current in the delta where there are tides).  You will cover more ground, and the in-your-face presentation seems to make the fish more aggressive.  The only exception to this is when fish are holding in deep holes.  It is sometimes possible to get these fish to strike by slowly trolling plugs upstream.

Depth

The best depth for me over the years has been in the 16 to 19 foot range.  I believe that for some reason salmon like to travel in this depth range.  You will often mark salmon in deeper holes, but getting them to strike is difficult.  I believe that these are resting fish which are less likely to be in the mood to chase a lure.

Let out about 60 feet of line on the back rods and forty feet on the side rods.  It is very important that you get the lure into the correct depth so that  you stay in the strike zone.  If you see other people catching fish and you aren't getting any strikes, you are probably fishing too far off of the bottom.  You want your lure 2-4 feet off the bottom at all times.

The Salmon Strike

Sometimes the lure just stops like you hooked a log.  At other times, the salmon will slam the lure hard.  In either case, be sure to give it a really hard hook set.  If you use a rod holder, the fish will basically hook itself.  I personally like to hold the rod when possible.

Fish On

Immediately take the rod out of the holder and give several strong hook sets to each side in a sweeping motion.  Don't set the hook straight up.  Salmon have tough narrow mouths, and your goal will be to imbed the barb into the mouth on whichever side it is hooked.

Once you have the fish on, move out towards the middle of the river.  This gets you away from snags along the river edges and also moves you out of the way of other trollers.  Put the motor in neutral and fight the fish. 

If you decide to keep the fish, knock it out with a club.  Bleed the fish by cutting the gills.  This will remove unwanted blood from the meat and roe.  Now put it on ice for the remainder of the trip.  Following these simple steps will ensure that you will have good quality meat and roe.

If you decide to practice catch and release, don't fight the fish too long.  Salmon and steelhead build up lactic acid which can kill them in a long battle.  If I plan on practicing catch and release, I purposely use heavier gear and hooks so that I can get the fish in quickly.  Try to keep the fish in the water at all times and always revive the fish by moving it back and forth in the water until it swims off.

Here is a good link for catch and release guidelines:
http://www.alaskafishing.com/ezlimit/catch_release_done_right.html

Bite Window Jump to the top of this page

Late morning and late afternoons seem to be the best times to catch salmon.  I've found that between 8:00 am and 10:00 am is a good time to find a bite window.  Another good time to fish is between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm.

The tides also play a role in finding aggressive salmon.  In the lower section of the delta (below Walnut Grove), folks seem to do better trolling with the incoming tide.  Above Walnut Grove, the outgoing tides seem to make fish more active and prone to biting.  The times around tide changes also seem to be good times to catch fish.  High tide and the beginning of the outgoing tide is usually the best time to fish during normal flows.  If the water releases are high the low tide and the beginning of the incoming tide is good since it fights the fast current.

Times that salmon will bite are very unpredictable.  They tend to bite during stretches that last about 20 minutes.  Salmon will bite like crazy for about 20 minutes, and then without warning will stop biting all together.  You need to take advantage of the times when they are biting!  After the bite shuts off it can take several hours before the fish start biting again.

Tips Jump to the top of this page

  • Try varying your speed if you don't get any strikes
  • If you see a sea lion move to another location.
  • Donít cut off other anglers
  • Use the same weights and lures on every rod. You canít troll Kwikfish and Silvertrons at the same time because they run at different speeds.
  • Use scents to mask your human odors.  The amino acid L-Lysine that is found on your hands is also produced by salmon predators like sea lions.  Salmon are going to shy away from anything that reminds them of a predator.  This is why I always wash my hand with scent-free sportsman's soap before handling my tackle.  It's the little things that can make the difference between a good outing and getting skunked.