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Winter Bass Fishing on the California Delta

Winter time does not usually come to mind when an angler thinks about a fun-filled, quality day on the water fishing for bass.  Typically its spring, summer or fall that calls to us and makes us kiss our loved ones goodbye for the day, hook the boat and trailer up to the tow rig and head for the water before the sun rises.  Well I am here to tell you that you may be missing out on some great trips if you are not fishing the California Delta occasionally during the winter months.

I have been fortunate enough to have fished “the river” for the last 25 years and have learned quite a bit about this vast body of water that can be so confusing–not only to those visiting for the first time, but for some that have fished it frequently as well.  Much of what I have learned has come from many difficult days on the water as well as some successful ones.  But all of my experiences have enabled me to make the most of my time on the Delta when the colder months arrive and all the pleasure boaters call it quits until warmer days return.

What follows are some tips and advice that I hope will lead you to have more productive and enjoyable days on the California Delta during the winter months while honing your angling skills.

Be Prepared:

Weather is ever-changing during this time of year.  You definitely need a good set of rain gear and have it in the boat at all times.  Make sure you dress in layers because Delta weather can change dramatically throughout the course of a day. It can be freezing cold first thing in the morning and get fairly warm as the day progresses. Keeping yourself dry and warm is very important not just for comfort but for safety sake as well.  Your body does not react the same if it is cold and I have seen many trips meant to be fun turn into miserable experiences because an individual did not dress appropriately.

Another thing you need to be aware of is fog. In the wintertime fog can be extremely heavy on the Delta.  If you encounter a day of fog on the Delta it is always better to err on the side of safety.  Always have your running lights on, and do not attempt to run in thick fog.  Many guys feel they know the Delta really well but heavy fog can easily make an individual lose their sense of direction.  It is very easy to get turned around when it is foggy, increasing the possibility of running up on obstructions and damaging your gear, or worse, injuring someone.  It is not worth it and I do not recommend running in the fog.  My suggestion would be to launch close to where you are going to fish, drop the trolling motor and just start fishing.  By staying close to the bank you will know where you are at all times and you will be away from the running lanes that other boats may be attempting to use.  The best advice I can give for fog ridden days is if you question whether it is safe or not, keep the boat on the trailer and either launch after the fog lifts or another day.  Safety first!

Locating Fish:

There are three things I look for when locating fish this time of year.  First, look for areas where the current doesn’t have a great deal of impact, such as dead-end sloughs or places where water moves slowly regardless of tides.  This time of year bass are going to be lethargic and will be found in areas where they don’t have to fight the current.  Once I find these areas, I start looking for outside weed lines in 6′ to 15′ of water. This seems to be the depth range that I most consistently find wintertime bass.  The last thing I look for is bait.  You always want to have bait present in the area, so if you can find a 10′ weed line in slow-moving water with baitfish present, you’re on a good spot!  Fish it slowly and thoroughly as the bass will be present.

Water Temperature:

Water temperatures are a good indicator of whether bass will be in a winter pattern or not.  However, rather than saying the fish will be solid into a winter pattern at a set temperature, I look for stability.  When temperatures first begin to fall the bite can be the best of the year as bass feed getting ready to settle into their winter patterns.  Once the water temperature drops and stays that way for a long period of time, then I know those fish are going to be set in their winter patterns. To me, it doesn’t matter if the water temp is 42 or 50 degrees; I’m looking for water that has remained at a steady temperature level for a long period of time after falling.

Getting Fish in the Boat:

This time of year, there are typically three things that I do to catch fish.  In order to locate the bass the first thing I do is pick up a crankbait and cover water.  I use a 7′ Dobyns rod with a 6.1:1 ratio reel spooled with 12-15lb P-Line CX Premium line. I’ll usually use a vibrating crankbait of some kind to cover water in areas I believe the fish are using. Once I get bit I pick up one of two rods: A flippin’ stick or a drop-shot rod.   My flippin’ rod of choice is a Dobyns Champion 766 and I spool my reel with 25lb. P-Line CX Premium line. My go-to bait will be a 3/8oz. Gann’s Flippin’ jig with a Zoom trailer.  I work that 6-15′ range in the area where I have been bit.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll go to my drop shot rod.  My drop shot tackle is a little different from what most people are used to.  I use either a Dobyns Champion 703c or a Dobyns Champion 764c and pair these with P-Line 12lb. test fluorocarbon.  I use either a 1/4 or 3/8 oz. sinker and 12-18″ above that, I’ll put a 1/0 hook with a 6″ Robo Worm.  I like to use natural colors like browns and greens.  I work this bait in that 6-15′ range as well.

The Exception:

There is one weather situation that will change the way I fish during the winter.  On a sunny day, when the tide is moving from low tide to high tide, the fish move shallow where the water is covering the sun-baked rocks. As the water rises it will warm due to those sun-baked rip-rap walls.  Bass sometimes move into this warmer layer to feed and I have often caught my largest bass of the winter by throwing a fat shallow diving crankbait or flippin a jig to the rip-rap banks behind weed lines.

In order to be successful on the Delta in the winter, just remember the bass are going to be schooled up this time of year.  You could go 3-4 hours during the day without getting bit.  You have to keep your confidence up–and keep looking for those fish. When you do find them, you are likely going to catch more than one fish if you slow down and pick the area apart.

If you add these approaches to your winter fishing you will realize more success and have more reasons to get on the Delta during the colder months of the year.