Last year, I was able to pull off the improbable trifecta of catching all three targeted species in the Rio Vista Bass Derby. Stripers, sturgeon, and salmon all in one weekend.
This year’s derby featured inconsistent fishing. My fishing partner Jason Carlisle and I were only able to land two of the three species. We didn’t win any prizes in the derby, but we did come away with some fish stories and photos to last a lifetime.
On the first of three days of fishing the derby, we started out soaking bait for stripers on the Sacramento River near the town of Collinsville. At daybreak, the incoming tide was starting to trickle upstream, just fast enough to keep the anchored boat straight. Jason cast his rod, and it immediately got slammed by a five pound striper.
Although a five pounder is great eating size, we wanted a fish as close as possible to 31.5 inches, the derby target length. The angler with the striper closest to target without going over wins first prize. So back to the water it went, along with another five pounder Jason caught on his next cast.
We thought we were onto the striper Mother Lode, but the bite turned off, and we struggled for the rest of the day. We tried sturgeon fishing for a while, but the jumping sturgeon only taunted us. No bites appeared on any of our rods, no matter how hard we stared.
After switching back to striper fishing, I landed an eight pounder that was 26.5 inches in length. I knew it was too short to win anything, but I kept it for tacos since we didn’t have any fish in the box, and we were about to leave anyway.
We were packing up to leave at sunset, and the outgoing tide was just about slack. My rod got hit…and then nothing. I kept an eye on it. A few seconds later it got hit again, and bent down to the water. “Fish on!” I relayed, and Jason got the net ready.
The fish swam out to the side of the boat, then went straight down, peeling line in the process. I muscled it up, but it kept making runs any time I made progress. I kept saying, “Taking line, taking line” to let Jason know the seriousness of the situation.
“It towed us sideways” Jason remarked. I looked and noticed that in the waning tide, the fish had pulled the anchored boat in a semi-circle from our original position. My heart was racing. Was this the derby winning fish?
After about a five minute battle, the hook pulled free, and I was left to wonder about the one that got away. After a bitter ending to the day, we planned to change gears and fish for salmon on the following morning.
To say that we had a non-stellar day of salmon fishing on the second day of the derby would be an understatement. The result of trolling in the Sacramento Area all day? One four pound salmon landed by Jason. Despite another slow day of fishing, the beauty of the Rio Vista Bass Derby is that it gives you three days to fish. There’s always a chance for some last-minute glory.
On the third and final day of fishing, Jason and I decided to go back to the Collinsville area to hopefully redeem ourselves by striper fishing. I do a lot of game planning around the tides before any trip to the delta.
The previous trip had shown me that the fish were on a really tide-dependent bite. The hour before and after the slack tide was the only time we had any success hooking keepers. Therefore, I knew that we really had to make the morning tide change count.
We started soaking bait, and right away we had stripers coming to the boat. Jason’s rod was on fire once again, and he released three striped bass on consecutive casts. On his next cast, the same rod pegged down to the water, and he had his fourth striper of the morning hooked up.
This fish ran out to the starboard side of the boat, so I cleared my rods and grabbed the net. After making some nice runs, Jason eased the fish to the surface and we got a glimpse of it through the murky waters.
“Nice one” I said, and we both started thinking it could be the golden 31.5 incher for the derby. After the fish made one last blistering run, I was finally able to net it. Once we had the fish in the boat, we got some perspective on the size.
“Upper teens” I remarked, thinking the fish could be 17, 18, 19 pounds or more. The tape measure read 36 inches to the fork in the tail, and 37.5 inches to the tip of the tail. Too big for the derby target length, but a trophy fish none the less.
I didn’t want to weigh the fish suspended by the lower jaw, since this is not supposed to be good for their survival. Instead, we used a length to weight chart we found on the web. It said the average weight for a 37 inch striper is 20.7 pounds, so we estimated its weight at 21 pounds.
After some quick photos, we revived and released the large healthy fish. The rest of the fish we landed that day were all in the four to eight pound range. After catching nine keepers, we got off the water at noon with four in the box, but no fish to enter into the derby.
Although Jason and I didn’t come away with any derby victories, the experience of chasing three species of large gamefish in the California Delta was rewarding in its own right. The ‘one that got away’ story will keep me busy until next year’s derby.