The Kings Hold Court In Delta, Metro Sacramento Area

Photos by Cal Kellogg

The following appears in the September issue of California Sportsman:

By Cal Kellogg

It’s well known that during the fall months, the upper reaches of the lower Sacramento River from Woodson Bridge northward plays host to epic salmon fishing. But one thing a lot of us tend to forget is that before the fish reach these much-heralded upriver haunts, they must pass through the Delta and Sacramento Metro area.

For knowledgeable anglers, the section of the Sacramento River extending from just above Rio Vista upriver to the mouth of the American River offers a great opportunity for trollers to hook big, hard-fighting king salmon.

Of course, to hook salmon there must be salmon present, and in some years low salmon numbers can be the biggest obstacle for anglers to overcome, but this season things are looking exceptionally good.


The ocean fishing beyond the Golden Gate has been very good, with big numbers of kings showing. When the fall run starts many of those fish are going to surge up the Sacramento, past the state capital to Red Bluff and beyond.

The season opened on July 16 and some early fish to 37 pounds were caught between Rio Vista and Sacramento, but the bulk of the kings won’t start showing until September, with hopefully good action continuing right up to closing day on December 16.


Occasionally, a guy tossing lures for black bass or stripers will hook a king in the Delta or Sacramento area, but you can’t hang your hat on such an accident happening to you. The most consistent approach for enticing kings in these waters is trolling. I’m going to describe three basic rigs; however, before I get into the rigs let’s think about tackle.

Salmon are big, hard-fighting fish with a relatively soft mouth. For this reason, a fairly long 7- to 8-foot rod with a soft tip is a good choice. Graphite rods will work, but fiberglass sticks are even better because they are more forgiving. The soft tip plays a dual role. On one hand it cushions the fight of the salmon, keeping them from ripping out hooks, but it also allows you to monitor the function of the lure to ensure that it is working properly and hasn’t picked up debris.

The rod should be topped with a quality levelwind baitcaster spooled with 50- to 65-pound braided line. While not 100-percent necessary, a linecounter reel is a good choice.

On the business end of your rig, everything runs off a three-way swivel system. To start rigging, take your main line and attach it to your swivel. On the lower eye of that swivel attach a 12- to 18-inch dropper made of 12-pound mono and tip it with a snap. That’s where your sinker will attach, and since the dropper is lighter than the rest of the setup, it will break off should the rig snag while fighting a fish. Attach a 4- to 5-foot 25-pound- test mono leader to the remaining eye of the three-way that will ultimately be tipped with your lure.

You don’t need fluorocarbon. Salmon aren’t line-shy and standard mono offers extra stretch, which is nice to have when a big king power dives or gives you a series of violent headshakes.

Big spinners are a great option when you’re hunting Sacramento River salmon. They are simple to fish and offer consistent results. (CAL KELLOGG)


The best overall lure and the simplest to use is a large spinner. Silvertrons or Mepps Flying Cs are local favorites, but other brands work well too.

It seems everyone has their favorite color when it comes to spinners. Proven producers include hot pink with a silver or glow blade, chartreuse with a silver blade or orange with a silver or orange glow blade.

Another lure that can pay dividends is a FlatFish or Kwikfish. You can use a monster-sized plug like a T-55 FlatFish, but many anglers like to downsize to something that is in the 3- to 4-inch range. The best color is chrome with chartreuse trim, but hot pink and orange models work at times too.


Using elastic thread, you’ll want to wrap the belly of the plug with a strip of sardine, the meat stripped from a crawfish tail, or a combo of both. If you’ve never wrapped a plug, it takes a bit of practice, but when the lure works properly beside the boat, you’ll know you’ve done the job correctly.

The final setup that can work well, especially upriver in the Sacramento Metro area, is a rolling plug like a Brad’s Cut Plug, a Yakima SpinFish or an old-school plug-cut herring. These baits are typically teamed with a large inline flasher.

When using this setup, the same three-way swivel and dropper is deployed, but the leader is a little different. First attach 36 inches of 25-pound leader to the three-way and attach your flasher to that. Then off the back of the flasher, knot on another 36 to 40 inches of leader and tip it with your bait.

If you opt for the rolling plug, you’ll want to keep the internal scent chamber stuffed with canned tuna, so the plug has that real meat smell. If you’re running a herring, you don’t need to worry about scent since you’re running real bait.

Given a choice between a rolling plug or the rolling herring, I go with the herring since I believe the kings hold onto a real herring longer and take it deeper. The deeper you can get the bait back in a king’s mouth, the better your chance of landing the fish.

Properly wrapping a salmon plug with a sardine fillet takes a little practice. The key is testing the plug beside the boat before lowering it to the fish. If it’s swimming correctly, you’ve done a good job. (CAL KELLOGG)


The only other thing you’ll need in terms of terminal tackle is a selection of torpedo weights ranging from 2 to 6 ounces.

A lot of anglers wear rubber gloves when rigging up. They believe that the more human scent you keep off your lures, the better. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I wear gloves just the same, since it’s better to be safe than sorry!

One aspect a lot of guys overlook until the moment of truth is a landing net. It takes a big net to land a big king. I’ve got the biggest net I could find, and I use it on both salmon and sturgeon.


OK, let’s put these rigs into the water and troll. Sinker selection is based on the amount of flow, but let’s say the flow is average, so you start out with a 3-ounce sinker snapped on a rig armed with either a plug or spinner.

To catch salmon while trolling you want your lure near the bottom, so with the boat moving just fast enough to make the lure work, lower your rig slowly down until you feel the sinker

hit the bottom, then bring it up one turn of the reel. With the lure near the bottom, put the rod in a holder with the drag set fairly loose and the clicker engaged.

You should be able to see the rhythmic action of your lure on the rod tip. As you troll, keep an eye on both the rod tip and the depth finder. If the water gets deeper, let out more line; if it gets shallower, retrieve line. If the rod tip stops working, pull in the lure and make sure it hasn’t fouled debris. Your line should enter the water at a steep angle. If too much line is scoping out behind the boat, that means you need a heavier sinker.


Salmon will hit a lure moving with or against the current. Naturally when trolling against the current, the boat can move slower and the lure will still work well. When moving with the current you need to be moving faster than the surrounding water for the lure to work.

I don’t think any gamefish likes a lure coming up from behind them. Salmon face into the current, so I prefer to troll downstream while zigzagging. This will put the lure someplace in front of the fish as it approaches. In my opinion, this presentation is much less likely to spook the fish and much more likely to draw a strike.

Some salmon strikes are savage, while others are more subtle, with the rod just gradually loading up as if you’ve hooked a large piece of debris. The most important thing is to stay cool and not jerk the rod out of the holder until the rod is really doubled over, or if the fish begins head shaking, which is signaled by a series of sharp jabs that typically yank the tip down a foot or more several times in quick succession. At this point the salmon is hooked. Slip the rod out of the holder and fight your fish.

he prize, a big chrome-bright Sacramento River king, is something anglers look forward to in autumn, and despite many concerns about the overall health of salmon runs, this fall is showing promise for a good season. Scoring a fish like this requires proper technique and execution. (CAL KELLOGG)


In closing, let’s talk about how salmon are lost. Pulling the rod out of the holder before the fish really has the lure is a good way to turn a hookup into a miss.

Pulling the rod out of the holder, thumbing the reel and swinging back with a massive hookset is a wonderful way to rip the hooks out of the fish or break the line.

Once you’re locked up with a salmon, play the fish slowly and methodically. Forget all that pumping and fast reeling you see on TV. Instead, keep the tip of the rod up and never stop turning the reel, even if you aren’t gaining line. This method isn’t sexy, but it puts tired salmon into the net.

Finally, if you are fishing with a partner, remember that landing big fish is a team sport. If you are on net duty, keep the net out of the water. You don’t want the plug or sinker to snag the mesh. Never jab at the fish or attempt to net a king that has its head angled down.

If you are on the rod, stay calm. When the fish is worn out, guide it to the net, lift its head and lay it out, providing a nice easy target for the net man. CS