Delta blues

(Lawrence K. Ho / LAT)
Special to The Times

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.

Here, the state’s two largest river systems — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — merge with saltwater at the northern arm of San Francisco Bay to create the biggest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

“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!”

In the struggle to net the fish with one hand while holding the rod in the other, Larson’s boat is precariously close to running aground.

A coyote along a nearby bank seems to be enjoying the show. Then one of Wands’ rods leans hard into the wind. As he grabs it, the drag on the other reel begins to sing. It’s a double hook-up. Within two minutes, Wands has netted and set free a small striper. However, all the line on the second reel is starting to disappear.

“Wrapped around your motor, Lloyd!” Wands shouts again. He’s slightly agitated; the line on his reel has almost run out. With the Old Fisherman throttled into reverse — seeking to steer clear of the willow-shrouded shoreline and almost 50 feet beyond Larson — Wands is bent almost in two over the side, holding onto his rod.

“Cut the line, Lloyd, or I’m gonna lose the rod!” Wands exclaims finally. Just in the nick, Lloyd does.

“Well,” Wands shrugs, “I warned you these stripers like to find snags.”

Maybe it’s just a matter of time. Over 7 1/2 hours covering 20 miles of the Mokelumne, on the incoming tide Wands and Larson catch and let go three decent-sized stripers. Delta time, they say, is simply different.

“Takes us two hours to watch ’60 Minutes,’ ” one local fisherman informs. “And about 20 minutes to cook Minute Rice,” says another.

A fluid environment

“There are a lot of moods to the Delta,” Bill Jennings is saying. “When the mist comes in, it can be almost ethereal. Sunsets are unbelievable, the magentas and purples. Other times, it’s sheer chaos out here with water skiers and pleasure boats. As more and more people come in, the Delta’s losing some of its frontier feeling. But the Delta and the Bay are still the right and left ventricles of California’s entire circulatory system.”

Jennings is a white-bearded 62-year-old Southerner who came here in 1981 to open a tobacco and fly-fishing shop. Now working as a steward of the Delta, he is a full-time Deltakeeper, a chapter of Baykeeper. The grass-roots organization is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international coalition founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that now numbers more than 130 groups. The Delta region is renowned not only for its wildlife but also as the source of drinking water for 23 million Californians.

We’re cruising down the San Joaquin River in Jennings’ catamaran, one of three boats he uses to patrol the Delta for violators of pollution laws, which local citizens are allowed to do under the Clean Water Act.

“All the pelagic species and their native food chains are way down,” says Jennings, who also chairs the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “The Delta is dying — a death of a thousand cuts.”

As we head through the port of Stockton, past the tankers and industrial plants, Jennings lists several of the cuts: toxic chemicals from urban and agricultural runoff, invasive species arriving on the ballast water of ships and altering the food chain, and the shipment of fresh water southward through an elaborate network of dams and pumps to support agribusinesses and municipal drinking water supplies.

Because striped bass are anadromous — spending parts of their adult life in saltwater, but born and returning to spawn in tidal freshwater — spawning success depends upon the amount of freshwater that flows through their habitat. Water diversions have increased from about 2 million acre-feet annually in the 1960s to higher than 6 million acre-feet a year in the 2000s.

“When you start taking that amount of water, there’s going to be a decline in the fishery,” says Marty Gingras, senior biologist supervisor with the Department of Fish and Game. Gingras cites, for example, the effect on the bottom of the food chain: phytoplankton that require five days for their life cycle, when the water is only there for four days. Not to mention the millions of striper eggs and larvae sucked into the exports pumps and aqueducts, which inadvertently “fertilize the fields,” as Jennings puts it.

In a long-standing dispute between fishery managers and water agencies over how much diversion the Delta can withstand, stripers were until recently the “poster fish” — touted by fishermen and state officials as the Delta’s most popular and important piscine resident. In recent years, however, their voracious feeding reputation has found them being vilified for allegedly preying on native fish such as Chinook salmon, now designated as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Stripers may still be important to the economy (striper sports fishermen spend close to $25 million a year in the Bay-Delta on goods and services), but as an introduced predator, they are seen as the enemy of an already beleaguered ecosystem. The Striped Bass Stamp, purchased by fishermen to help fund fisheries’ management and restoration, has been replaced by a Bay-Delta Enhancement Stamp. The stocking of stripers salvaged from the pumps as juveniles, to be raised in pens and then released again into the wild, once a common practice, is now prohibited.

Dan Odenweller, recently retired after 36 years as a Fish and Game and federal fisheries biologist, wondered at one scientific workshop “when stripers are going to be eligible for a green card.” With the focus on the listed threatened species — Chinooks and Delta smelt — “it’s not politically correct anymore to be in favor of striped bass,” according to Odenweller.

Although the Central Valley Improvement Act calls for development of a plan to double the populations of certain anadromous species — including striped bass — he points out that they continue to be ignored. “I think it’s fair to say that stripers have been scapegoated by, among others, the water development community — and certain scientists with a vested interest in native species preservation.”

So are stripers really devouring too many salmon? At the Clifton Court Forebay, a small reservoir into which water flows en route to the pumping stations, the bass assuredly do congregate to feast on hatchery-raised salmon being released there. White catfish, however, are a more numerous predator in that vicinity. Up north by Redding, rainbow trout, steelhead and Sacramento pike are all formidable salmon foragers. “Any salmon that gets far enough downriver for a striper to eat it,” as one fisherman notes, “has had to run the gantlet of those three fish.”

“Certainly a lot of striped bass in the right place at the right time will do some damage,” adds Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at UC Davis. “But in dietary studies, baby salmon are not found in their stomachs in huge numbers consistently.” As Wands summed it up, “Look, stripers and salmon lived alongside each other for over 100 years, and both of ‘em survived just fine. Now they’re all of a sudden the villain? Makes no sense to me.”

What makes greater sense, according to Deltakeeper Jennings, is the fact “that we’re altering the Delta’s hydrology without understanding the implications.”

“Striped bass are being demonized to explain away part of the Delta’s decline,” he says.

Still the big fish

About 30 miles northwest of Jennings’ domain, the Delta’s other major tributary — the Sacramento — flows past the small town of Rio Vista. This is the site of the oldest fishing derby on the West Coast, the annual mid-October Bass Festival that began in 1953. It’s 7 a.m. as Whitey Rasmussen and Jack Dinubilo launch the 24-foot Cuda from Brannan Island.

Rasmussen is state board chairman of the California Striped Bass Assn., founded in 1974. Like Wands, he’s been fishing the Delta for 50 years, and his biggest striper is a 38-pounder. But these days, he’s more likely to be lobbying at water agency meetings in Sacramento than out on the rivers.

A study released last fall by the organization revealed that annual water exports from the Delta result “in the loss of over 50% of larval and juvenile striped bass from the Delta.” Although the latest restoration plans call for improved screens to protect fish from entrainment by the pumps, water agencies say these are too costly to implement.

Rasmussen’s fishing partner, Dinubilo, has caught more big stripers than anyone Rasmussen knows. He’s a painting contractor, born and raised in Stockton, who fishes year-round: “Fog, rain, doesn’t matter,” Dinubilo says. The year he received the bass association’s award for biggest catch, a 30-pounder, he took his wife along for her only outing of the season — and she brought in a striper at 30 1/4 . “Oh, Whitey gave me the worst time!” Dinubilo recalls.

Rasmussen is originally from Kansas, where he landed his first fish when he was 3 — “big old carp, I was just starting to talk, yelling ‘fishie flop, fishie flop!’ After that, I got some pretty good whippings [for fishing] when I was supposed to be home pickin’ potatoes.” Following a stint in the Navy, he discovered the Delta and stripers in 1955. He hasn’t left since.

The wind is too strong out toward Decker Island, so Rasmussen and Dinubilo head upriver past tall eucalyptus to just beyond the Rio Vista Bridge, one of many drawbridges designed by the architect of the Golden Gate, Joseph Strauss. With the rolling Montezuma Hills silhouetted behind them, they drop anchor at the third pylon over from the west bank, where Whitey senses stripers are likely to be passing through.

Theirs is a very different stratagem than Wands’ trolling method. Each carefully wraps a different bait around their hook, Rasmussen trying frozen “bullheads” (sculpin) and Dinubilo using fresh shad minnows. Their meticulous rigging of the bait is very much an art form in itself, then their lines slide off the back of the boat and their sinkers take them to the bottom some 26 feet down. After that, it’s a matter of knowing exactly when to set the hook.

“A lot of it is patience, and trying to think like a fish,” Rasmussen says. “Lotta times, stripers will play with the bait for 20 minutes. He’s gotta be able to take off with it, and not know he’s also got a hook in his mouth.” Usually, he adds, you can pick up more fish by trolling, but bigger fish using bait.

Around mid-morning, Rasmussen decides to switch to shad, successful for Dinubilo in bringing two stripers to the boat before releasing them. It’s not long before he’s eyeing the rod tip like a hawk. The bumps are all but imperceptible. Rasmussen quietly lifts the rod out of its holder, backs up and waits. Minutes go by. Then, with a quick sweep of the wrist, he sets the hook. He is reeling frantically, trying to keep up with the fish as it swims toward the boat. “Stripers can turn on a dime,” he says.

Dinubilo stands ready with the net. And there it is — the seven charcoal-colored stripes along the iridescent blue-green body, the torpedo shape, the large and slightly forked tail, the cylindrical beauty that is a striped bass. After the fish is in the boat, Dinubilo must move quickly with a pair of pliers to remove the hook and return it to the water. A shimmer of a rainbow, the striper swims free again.

Rasmussen and Dinubilo would like to see the minimum size of stripers that fishermen are allowed to keep raised from 18 to 20 or even 25 inches, to give more of the fish at least one spawning opportunity. They’re also pressing the Fish and Game to close the river’s primary spawning grounds around Colusa to any fishing during the spring run. Given the uncertainties surrounding freshwater flow and other environmental factors, they believe fishermen must make some sacrifices.

Whitey’s outstretched index finger points to the other side of the bridge. “Look at the size of that striper he’s got in his mouth!”

It’s a sea lion. This time of year, these mammals catch the striper females coming upriver, rip open their bellies, and eat the roe. Yet the sea lion’s presence also drives more fish toward the boat and, shortly, Rasmussen and Dinubilo have a double hook-up on their hands.

“He’s takin’ line, look at him go!” Rasmussen exclaims. Weighing in at more than 8 pounds (and measuring 29 inches), this one he envisions baking tonight seasoned in wine sauce, butter and lemon.

A passing truck honks congratulations from the bridge. They haul anchor on the Cuda and, as intensifying winds send whitecaps foaming along the river, turn toward home. “The days are gone when you’d see acres of stripers on the surface chasing anchovies,” Rasmussen says. “But here in the Delta, they’re still the king. And some of us are determined to keep it that way.”


Dick Russell is the author of “Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia” and the forthcoming “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.”