Six a.m. on the Mokelumne River. The sun has yet to rise over the meandering waterways of Northern California's Delta country. Clyde Wands has driven 50-some miles south from Sacramento, winding across a maze of levees and sloughs with his 17-foot boat hitched to his Ford pickup. Backing down the marina ramp, he prepares to launch the Old Fisherman onto the river's south fork. It's cold, but Wands doesn't care. Now in his mid-70s, he's out on these waters nearly every single day, even when wintertime temperatures occasionally fall below freezing.
"There's a thousand miles of this Delta, and in 50 years I haven't fished all of it yet," Wands says.
"Down on the Sacramento, the wind's probably blowing 20 or 25," Wands estimates, "so we'll take our chances for a hot bite in here today."
The hot bite Wands is pursuing — and has since he was a boy growing up on the Chesapeake Bay — is striped bass. Stripers have been an iconic fish on the East Coast since the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims about their sweet-tasting flesh, and they were introduced to San Francisco Bay in 1879 after being shipped cross-country from New Jersey on the early transcontinental railroad.
Today, an estimated 300,000 recreational anglers pursue them in California. These stripers don't get quite as large as their Atlantic counterparts — although 60-plus-pounders have been taken — and because they will eat almost any smaller fish in their path, they have been accused of depleting native Delta species. But for anglers, their fighting mobility and wily ways are legendary.
"Somehow they know where every snag in the river is," Wands says.
Wands is considered the inventor of the Delta's shallow trolling method. His rods are rigged with good-sized artificial lures, a white Bomber and a rainbow-colored Rebel. He cruises past a series of houseboats in the direction of the San Joaquin about 10 miles south. On the narrow Mokelumne, a white egret and later a blue heron flush along the banks at his approach.
Nearing Beaver Slough, Wands sprays the lures with a canned substance labeled BANG — "it smells like a shad" — and starts spooling the lines out.
"See, stripers don't want to be fighting that current out in the middle, they like to corner their baitfish against the banks," he continues. "I like to be in right around 7 feet deep — and as close to the weed line as I can get without hangin' up on it."
When precisely 225 feet of each reel's line is behind the boat, Wands sets the clickers and places the rods back in their holders. Standing at the wheel, he checks his depth-finder and heads downriver at 1,125 RPMs. "Watch that rod tip for a bump," he instructs.
Wands, whose biggest striper was a 38-pounder, is still hoping to crack the elusive 40-pound barrier. But he's not as sanguine about that possibility as he used to be.
"There aren't that many big fish anymore," he adds. "If I get one over 20 pounds, that's a good day for me. I pretty much catch 'em and release 'em."
During the halcyon days of the 1960s, the Delta striper population was estimated at between 2.3 million and 3 million fish. The latest figures released by the California Department of Fish and Game calculated an adult population of around 1.5 million, but officials admit this may be higher than the reality. Perhaps because of a dearth of large female spawners, the 2004 abundance survey of first-year juveniles reached its lowest level since record-keeping began 45 years ago. Populations of threadfin shad, an important part of the striper diet, have also plummeted in the last three years.
This is a particularly slow morning. So far, all Wands has pulled in are weeds. He enters Hog Slough, slightly out of the wind.
"I hate to take a skunk," he says, mindful that on his best day, he once hooked 35 stripers by noon.
"Lloyd, don't you run over my line!" he yells over to Lloyd Larson, a retired salesman fishing nearby. Wands has been tutoring him in trolling. "Where are they, Lloyd?"
State regulations allow keeping two stripers a day bigger than 18 inches and, as Larson's small boat moves slowly downriver, he suddenly manages to bring in a nice-sized fish, in the 10- to 12-pound range.
"Hey Lloyd, rookie no more! Is that my lure you're using? I'd congratulate you but, you know, even a blind sow finds an acorn now and then. Geez, get outta the rocks, Lloyd!"
Striped bass rule California's largest rivers, where anglers and scientists ponder a sudden shift in a fragile ecosystem.
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