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The 'other' delta

8/17/2005

You tend to find the most fish and wildlife when there is a confluence of food, water and cover suitable to the needs of the critters.

When you find one of those special magic places where it all comes together, a lot of folks will keep a secret. Today I'm going to tell you about one of my favorite special places.

When in March 1772 Spanish explorers Pedro Fages and Fray Juan Crespi climbed to the top of half-mile-high Mount Diablo, just east of San Francisco Bay, and looked eastward, they must have felt that they hit the wildlife jackpot, for they beheld what appeared to be a massive, shallow, inland lake teeming with fish and game.

Decades later mountain man Jedediah Smith explored the area, confirming that the "lake" was actually a sprawling delta formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, carrying waters originating from the snow pack of the Sierra Mountains on the way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

The Mississippi Delta may be bigger, but the Sacramento Delta ain't no slouch … and it's just as pretty and well-populated with tasty wild critters to catch.

In fact, the two are so alike that more times than you might think the California Delta has passed for it's Mississippi relative in many movies and on TV, including "Huckleberry Finn," "Cool Hand Luke," "Steamboat Round The Bend" and "Delta Fever."

More than a century ago, farmers aided by Chinese laborers who worked on the transcontinental railroad began erecting a system of levees to reclaim the fertile river bottoms of the Sacramento Delta for farmland. Wisely, they left plenty of open sloughs and marshes, as well as navigable channels that until WW II were navigated by paddle-wheel steamboats.

Today, the Sacramento Delta has 1,000 miles of navigable waterways, 55 levee-protected islands (many of which are private duck clubs) and some 600,000 acres of rich, below-sea-level farmland that grows dozens of crops ranging from vegetables to wine grapes and fruit trees, as well as extraordinarily rich wildlife areas, such as Grizzly Island, which has a herd of huntable tule elk.

The Delta once provided the lion's share of fresh fish for northern California. But to save the recreational fishery, commercial fishing in the Delta has been banned, except for crawfish, which are as big and tasty as any that the Mississippi delta can brew up.

In fact, commercial crawdad fishermen harvest a half-million pounds a year of the little freshwater lobsters, and there is still more than enough left over for recreational fishermen.

As you might imagine, the fertile Sacramento Delta is a sportsmen's paradise.

The chinook salmon run up the Sacramento River side is one of the largest in the United States. Monster sturgeon, stripers, catfish, largemouth bass and panfish flourish in the labyrinth of sloughs, channels, cuts and marshes. And did I mention ducks and geese?

Cruising the Delta, even in the spring, mallards, gadwall and white-fronted geese are constantly passing overhead. In the fall ducks, geese, and shorebirds are everywhere in the wet areas, and pheasants are thick in the farmlands.

It's little wonder that Clark Gable, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and President Herbert Hoover were avid members of duck clubs in the Delta.

Each locale develops its own vernacular. For reasons that no one seems to know, Delta locals refer to exploring the tules as "gunkholing."

If you want to disappear into a wetland extraordinaire, there are numerous marinas and ramps so you can gunkhole with your own boat. You may also rent a speedboat or a fishing boat. The best way to go gunkholing, however, is via houseboat. A number of Delta marinas have houseboats for rent that hold up to 50 people and come equipped with barbecue grills and plush sleeping quarters.

Regardless of your craft, you could easily spend weeks exploring the maize of Delta waterways; visiting old historic towns like Locke, the only rural community in the country built and occupied by Chinese; watching otter and beaver playing along the banks; and fishing.

I will not guarantee success; the fish are abundant but they have their moods. But if you like crawdads, the one sure way to bag your own grub is to drop some baited traps overboard at night and the next day reap a harvest of crayfish.

It's true that the Mississippi Delta is known as a place to go to hear the blues. But, on the Sac Delta every Sunday starting at 4 p.m., you can hear the best blues jam in northern California at Moore's Riverboat Marina in Isleton, which is a real hopping town when the annual Crawdad Festival is underway.

It may be smaller, but there are two advantages about the Sacramento Delta that give the mighty Mississippi something to be jealous about:

One is that while you might take a wrong channel, you will never get too disoriented in the Sacramento Delta, because always, to the south, there is Mount Diablo. Ain't no mountains in Mississippi.

And, two, there also aren't any alligators or water moccasins in the Sacramento Delta.

Plus, for variety, every once in a while a humpback whale decides that he's going to look for a shortcut east. Remember Humphrey the humpback whale that made it up into the San Joaquin River in 1985?

In all fairness, however, there is one California critter that sometimes can be a real pest to fishermen in the Sac Delta — the sea lion.

When the massive chinook salmon run starts up the Sacramento River, sometimes these eating machines follow the salmon right up the river.

I well remember my son hooking a huge, silvery chinook salmon a couple of years ago. The fish broke water and we were cheering as it jumped. This bruiser must have gone 40 pounds and my son had him coming right to the boat.

All of a sudden these two chocolate-brown torpedoes surfaced. We sped up the boat and everyone started yelling and making noise, but nothing would break their concentration on the prize. For one brief moment his rod bent almost double, then the line snapped. My son reeled in a broken line while we watched these two sea lions fight over the salmon.

Lady luck blessed us that day. We soon caught another salmon, so we bagged a great memory, as well as a fish dinner. Isn't that the best trophy of all?

OK, I let you in on one of my real secret places. Now, you owe me.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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