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California Delta prime for largemouth, striped

The sun was getting low in the distance over Frank's Tract, a lake-size body of water connected to the San Joaquin River in the midst of the California Delta.

"Time to catch a big guy," said Bobby Barrack.

We'd been catching largemouths throughout the day, our best being in the 8-pound class. That's plenty big to most people, but not to Barrack, who has caught many 10- to 12-pounders in the Delta, and who was thinking bigger still, as in striped bass.

The tide had recently turned and we'd already caught a few small stripers by the tip of one current-washed tule island.

We dashed about a mile ahead, slowing down and easing up to a cut between tule islands. The current was moving well there, and we both cast topwater plugs toward the seam separating the edge of the current and still water behind the islands.

A few casts later, Barrack's slow-walking plug disappeared in a mild strike that belied the size of the taker.

There was just 10 feet of water under us, so the fish couldn't go very far vertically. At first it streaked away, but Barrack's drag and a well-bent rod slowed it down.

We then spent a good deal of time drifting and hanging onto the fish, which stubbornly bulldogged under the boat, aided by a quickening tide.

When the striper finally tired and came to the surface, I slipped grippers on its jaw and hoisted a long, chunky 24-pounder over the gunwale.

It looked beautiful in the glow of the waning sunlight, and put a better-than-expected exclamation point to a fine day.

About the California Delta

The complex waterway known as the California Delta in northern California is perhaps the most significant recreational playground on the West Coast.

Formed primarily by the flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the Delta encompasses 738,000 acres of land and water in six counties. It carries 47 percent of California's runoff water, which empties into San Francisco Bay.

More than 1,000 miles of navigable waterway, with countless sloughs, make the Delta prime for largemouth bass.

Most of the places fished here are very shallow and packed with aquatic plants, particularly tules, hyacinths and hydrilla.

This results in a great environment for bass and a challenge for bass fishing. If anything, by summertime there is so much good-looking water that the problem is narrowing it all down.

The overall bass fishery is excellent and includes many 5-pound largemouths, a good number to 8 pounds and some to more than 10 pounds.

In 2003, a 17-pounder was caught, making that the second such giant bass in two years. A number of 15-pounders have been taken, as well.

The big fish are Florida-strain largemouths, which were stocked by the state.

Bass are caught all season long, but the pre-spawn period of February and March is when many of the monsters have been caught.

Tides and current are important elements of Delta fishing.

The speed of current has a lot to do with where bass will be located in or near sloughs, eddies, tules, sandbars and other backwaters; the better activity often occurs after a tide change.

Working irregular spots (points, openings, outcroppings and the like) along the bank is a successful strategy, and the top lures preferred by many anglers here are weightless worms, weedless frogs and walking plugs.

Winter can produce some good striped bass action, including surface fishing; and there's little non-fishing boat traffic at that time.

Fishing also is good at times for catfish and crappie, while salmon, steelhead, shad and sturgeon migrate through, as well.

The California Delta is east-northeast of San Francisco, extending from Pittsburg on the west to Stockton on the east and north to Sacramento.

Game-fish profile

Species: Crappie, lack (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

Other names: Speckled perch, calico bass, speckled bass, strawberry bass, Oswego bass, sac-a-lait.

Identification: The black crappie and the white crappie are very similar in color — a silvery olive to bronze with dark spots. On the black crappie, however, the spots are irregularly arranged, instead of in seven or eight vertical bands as on the white crappie.

Both species are laterally compressed and deep bodied, though the black crappie is somewhat deeper in body and has a large mouth, which resembles the maw of a largemouth bass.

The black crappie also has distinct depressions in its forehead and large dorsal and anal fins of almost identical size. The gill cover also comes to a sharp point, instead of ending in an earlike flap.

The best way to differentiate the two species of crappie is by counting the dorsal fin spines, since the black crappie usually has seven or eight, while the white crappie has six. The breeding male does not change color noticeably as it does in the white crappie species.

Size and age: With lengths of up to 13 inches, the black crappie can weigh up to 5 pounds but usually is less than 2 pounds and commonly is caught at a pound or less in size. It is thought to live to 10 years. The all-tackle world record is a 4½-pounder taken in Virginia in 1981.

Distribution: Black crappie have been so widely introduced in North America that the native range is uncertain, though it appears to start at the Atlantic slope from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf slope west to Texas and the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins from Quebec to Manitoba, south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Habitat: Black crappie prefer cooler, deeper, clearer waters with more abundant aquatic vegetation than the waters of the white crappie. This includes still backwater lakes, sloughs, creeks, streams, lakes and ponds. They form schools so that when an angler comes across one fish, others are likely to be around.

Life history and behavior: Spawning occurs in early spring and summer in 62- to 68-degree water and takes place over gravel areas or other soft material, with fish nesting in colonies. The males excavate nests and the females lay eggs in sometimes several of these.

Food and feeding habits: Black crappie tend to feed early in the morning on zooplankton, crustaceans, insects, fish, insect larvae, young shad, minnows and small sunfish.

Small minnows form a large part of the diet of adults. In southern reservoirs, gizzard or threadfin shad are major forage; in northern states, insects are more dominant.

For more fish species information, see Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia, available through www.kenschultz.com.