Bass Fishing, Bass Lures, Bass Boats, Russ Bassdozer

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The Dozer on the Delta

By Russ Bassdozer

This April, I fished Central Florida's Stick Marsh for bass. In May, I worked Northern California's Delta five days with friends Mark Mendez, Alton Forthe and Long Nguyen, principals of U.S. Angler's Choice, the world's largest team fishing tournament organization. I pre-fished one day with Alton, one with Long, two with Mark. We pitched, flipped and dipped the tule berms for twenty to thirty-five bass every day. It all led up to the fifth day when we held a miniature two boat tournament. I drew Long as my partner versus Mark and Alton. Our best five during the mini-tournament weighed 17 lbs 7 oz.  I'm telling you exactly how we did it Delta Style if you follow me to...

California's Delta is a sprawling mass of rivers, sloughs and cuts - about 1,000 miles of navigable waterways fed by five major rivers including the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River. Click here to view a sprawling California Delta map page.

The Delta was simply a wide open expansive freshwater estuary until the late 1800's  But beginning then and through the 1900's farmers dredged canals and constructed levee walls, impounding and draining fertile agricultural islands nestled behind the thick mud levee walls they armored in riprap rock. Overall some fifty fertile man-made agricultural islands were constructed and drained. The farm islands, often called tracts, sit below sea level on the other side of the levees we were fishing. The stout levees hold the Delta water back from flooding these island farms which were once the estuary bottom.

We mostly fished the southern section of the Delta along the Middle River, Victoria Canal, Woodward Canal and a railroad canal. The stout earthen levee walls sport an outer shell of heavy riprap stones to protect the levees against erosion. Every several hundred yards along the rock walls, tule berms rooted in peat intruded into the canals. These tule berms on rock walls were the key to most of the bass we caught for five days.

Not every tule berm held bass. Three out of every four berms were just not productive. As we worked down the long walls of berms, we'd keep tabs of which one or two berms produced bass. Usually, if a berm held one bass, it held many. But the majority of berms, although they looked identical, were unproductive as we fished through them. Who knows why? After fishing through eight to ten berms in a row, we'd often motor back to re-fish the one or two berms that held bass ~ and catch a second helping of several more bass on the second pass through the productive berms.

The tule is a beautiful, perfectly smooth-skinned stalk of tall bulrush native to northern California estuary lowlands. Many Delta tule berms were already higher than ten feet tall in early May, and grow much taller later in the season. Because of the perfectly smooth hard skin, tules are ideal for pitching and flipping with minimal hang-ups.

Other berms of tall grasses lined the banks too. Vast weed beds of abrasive line-cutting phragmites, dense walls of tall woody bamboo grass berms. Some banks were overhung with woody brush and tree tangles. However the bass we caught were mostly only in tule berms having rock walls behind them. The prime producers, the best tule beds had outer matted grass beds running the length of the berms, with about a three to six foot wide channel about three to six feet deep between the tule berms and the outer grass beds. These channels were kept open by the moving tide flowing slowly between the grass beds and the tules. However, the sections we fished had more of an up and down tidal effect rather than a back and forth effect. Still, the wind and tide induced currents were enough to keep the channels open between the tule berms and the outer grass beds. These tule berms on rock walls with channels running lengthwise between the tules and the outer grass beds were the key to most of the bass we caught for five days.

During the five days, the Delta held a brown dirt stain. Darker in some places, lighter in other areas, but always brown dirt color. Alton, Long and Mark mainly fished wacky weightless five-inch 9-series Senkos. In the very darkest brown water, they opted for darker 051, 021 or 213 shades. Where the brown stain was lighter, more naturals were used like 208, 914 and 916. As for myself, for five days I threw two lures only, and essentially only one color. I never needed to try another lure. The bass were on these baits for five days:

1.) First, a six-inch 9L weightless wacky-rig Senko (color 236) on a 3/0 Gamakatsu wire guard hook when the water was high and/or the wind was low.

The 9L Senko and 236 color were recommended by Team Yamamoto pro Andy "Cooch" Cuccia, The 236 color matched the brown dirt stain of the Delta water. In deep holes and high water and/or when the wind was moving the boat slowly enough to take advantage of its slow horizontal fall, the weightless wacky 9L was the ticket. Rigged wacky, the 9L Senko weighs 1/2 oz weightless and wriggles down naturally into the open holes between the tules rather than plunging down nose first as with an added weight.

2.) Second, a seven-inch 7X Texas-rigged Cut Tail (a non-stock color quite similar to 236) weighted with 1/8 to 5/16 bullet sinkers when the water was low and/or the wind was high.

As the wind gusted the boat down the berm banks, the drift could quickly become too fast for the slow weightless fall of the 9L Senko to be effective. At times we zipped along barely being able to keep the bait in a spot more than several seconds. And in low water, the bass were pulled back deeper inside the tule berms, hunkered under floating mats of dead straw. The weightless wacky Senko was ineffective to break through the floating straw at low water, but just perched atop the flotsam. Yet the 7X Cut Tail Texas-rigged with a light bullet sinker on its nose (from 1/8 to 5/16 oz based on wind speed) slipped down between the straws easily. Each evening, I pre-tied a few of what I call "Texas Twist" rigs for the next day, using an 80 lb test SPRO swivel, 12 inches of 20 lb test fluorocarbon leader line, tungsten bullet sinker, rattling red beads and 4/0 Gamakatsu 50-series hooks. This style hook excels in heavy cover. Perhaps a screw-in Florida sinker may have worked as well or better, but I did not try it. I felt the Texas twist rig preserved some of the free-falling action of an unweighted Cut Tail. It kept the sinker sliding a foot away from the bait. On bottom contact, the weight would bury itself in the bottom grass, but the Cut Tail would come to rest attractively atop the grass without being pulled down inside the grass as with a screw-in Florida rig.

At first, one may be a little skeptical of the extra added length of the 7X Cut Tail, but the size doesn't deter bass one bit. Although seven inches, the 7X Cut Tail compares closely in shape to the standard 5" Senko. The extra length is deceptive as it is only longer in the very slender cut tail.

With either weightless wacky Senkos or Texas-rigged Cut Tails, if you simply pitched to open water in front of the tules, the bait would pendulum fall too far out from the cover to be effective during these five days on the Delta. It helped to pitch the bait so it draped over one or two stalks back into any spot. In this way, the bait would swing back into the thick cover where bass whacked it.

The hard-packed dense clumps of tules were higher percentage spots for this trip. Loosely-packed tule clumps or spread-out tule beds did not seem to harbor hardly as many bass as did the densest, hardest-packed tule clumps in the berm.

As we fished together and our time together drew to an end, huge seals swam crisscrossing patterns in the slough channels at sundown, seeking to intercept salmon or striped bass they'd bite then head-toss up into the air to keep their meal from swimming too far away between bites. As we drifted down the berms, pudgy brown beavers tanned like Delta kings on straw beds they fashioned in the tules, us flipping and pitching Cut Tails all around the unfazed fellows' lairs, and raccoons light-toed trails barely wide enough for them to travel the shoreline edge in the overhanging underbrush of the place the northern California bassmen call their Delta home.

Trip Checklist ~ WHAT WE USED
1 Pitching & Flipping Rod ~ 16 to 25 lb test fluorocarbon baitcasting
9-series Senkos ~ 9L-series Senkos ~ 7X-series Cut Tails

021 Black w/blue
051 Black w/red
208 Watermelon w/black & red
213 June bug purple w/emerald
236 Root beer w/green & copper
914 Watermelon amber w/black tail coreshot
916 Watermelon w/purple & copper (7X field test)

1 Frog Rod ~ 65 lb test Power Pro braided line
Snag Proof Tournament Frog

White with hand-drawn black belly markings

Terminal Tackle

3/0 Gamakatsu straight shank wireguard worm hooks
4/0 Gamakatsu 50-series offset round bend worm hooks
1/8 to 5/16 oz tungsten Texas bullet sinkers
SPRO 80 lb swivels, 6 mm red rattling beads, 20 lb fluorocarbon leader line

A solid Snag Proof frog bite developed during the hotter windless afternoon moments. In high school many of us may have dissected frogs in bio lab class, but Delta frog doctors perform advanced procedures to surgically alter their frogs. We now end this odyssey on the Delta as frog-doctor Long Nguyen documents the steps necessary to operate.

Dissecting a Delta Frog by Long Nguyen

We've all dissected frogs in biology lab in high school. Most of us may never doctor another frog again, unless of course that frog is a Snag Proof tournament frog commonly used on the Delta. Read on as frog doctor Long Nguyen explains some of the surgical procedures to make a good frog even better.

Snag Proof Tournament frogs work great right out of the package, but if you make a few changes, they'll work even better, says Long. Popular thinking a few years back was the notion you had to have matted vegetation plus sweltering heat in summer in order to catch bass using the tournament frog. True, you can have torchin' top water action when the weeds mat over and the sun blisters, but then you'd be missing out on the effectiveness of the frog in open water outside the summer months...such as right now!

The modifications I do to my frog enable me to walk my frog like a Zara Spook. Best of all, I can reach for the frog in small open water areas where a Zara Spook or buzzbait is ineffective, such as a small open water pocket up against shore behind a weed bed or in super shallow water.

I keep a clear distinction between doctoring my 1.) pre-summer frogs for open water and 2.) summer frogs for thick matted weeds. Typically, a modified "walking" frog for open water sits higher on the surface due to the lack of any additional weight, yet still enables me to make long distance casts directly over heavy cover and into open water pockets without fear of snags. On the other hand, a "mat" frog intended for thick matted summer grass is usually weighted down and includes rattles. The extra added weight and rattles help when you are pulling your bait across thick clogs of matted vegetation, the weight and rattles emit a huge presence in the thickly-matted summer grass.

Why the Frog?

But for now, before summer arrives, I reach for the frog where I want a topwater presentation, yet a traditional topwater bait like Zara Spook or buzzbait is ineffective due to sparse cover that would catch on the buzzbait or Spook but not on the frog. Here on the California Delta, I've caught frog fish in super shallow, weed filled water, just enough to cover their backs. In such situations, the frog makes the better presentation because of its resistance to snags, soft entry into the water, and a subtle action. Keep in mind that with a long distance cast, a frog plops, floats and can be played a long time bumping up against the weed edge. On the other hand, a buzzbait would crash, sink, require a few feet of line retrieve before it rises to the surface, and clog up against the weed edge. A Zara Spook would snag every weed between the boat and the distant open water pocket. Hence the effectiveness of the frog.

Frog Rod, Reel, Line

My frogging set-up is stout. Very. Typically, any stout casting rod matched with a reel capable of holding 100 yards of 65 lb test Power Pro will work for frog fishing. Some froggers make a distinction between an open water frog rod versus a mat frog rod. Ideally, an open water frog rod should be a little more forgiving to allow precision roll casting. It also allows the bait to be sucked into the fish's mouth easier, and a softer rod allows the frog to walk easier. However, the rod should immediately load into pure backbone to pull fish out of the nasty places.

As a compromise for both mats and open water frog fishing, I use a 5-power rod, a G. Loomis MBR 845 GL3 rod, a Shimano Curado 200 reel loaded with 65 lb Power Pro braided line. This particular setup allows me to make super long distance casts, yet still set the hook hard into bass embedded deep in weed cover with no line stretch. It's also relatively light, so I can fish this bait all day if necessary without fatigue.

Give Credit

I have to credit Snag Proof sponsored tournament pro Mark Naillon for showing me some of these modifications, along with froggin' expert and Snag Proof pro Bobby Barrack. Bobby made popular marking up the belly of the frog with the use of a black Sharpie Felt pen. I have followed suite as a student of their techniques, and have the utmost respect for these truly innovative frog fishing experts.

Tools of the Trade

My frog modifications are relatively simple and require the use of (1) scissors, (2) super glue, (3) black felt pen (4) Gamakatsu EWG replacement Double Hook and (5) a split ring. I have seen other anglers take it a few steps further by changing out the rubber legs for silicone skirts, longer rubber skirts, feathers, and even Senkos and single tail grubs as frog legs.

Trimming the Fat

Eighty-percent of the time I'm throwing a white frog, so my modifications revolve around this bait color. Adding a split ring to the nose helps the frog swing freely side-to-side while it is walking the surface. I've found this really helpful rather than tying directly onto the nose of the bait. Replacing the stock hooks with the Gamakatsu EWG Double Hook is also a requisite step. The Gamakatsu EWG replacement hook balances well with the bait and does not add too much additional weight which would affect the walking action.

But the single most important modification that impacts the action of the frog is to trim the rubber legs. The bait comes standard with 30 or so strands of rubber on each leg. With scissors, trim down to about 6 strands per side. By the time I'm done, the 6 remaining strands will be directly in the center of the rubber. In other words, I cut from the outside in, only leaving 6 strands in the center. I cut them as closely as possible to the frog body, taking extreme care not to cut more than 2 or 3 strands at a time.

Once I've cut down to 6 strands, I carefully take super glue and glue the face and sides of where the rubber was trimmed to the plastic of the frog using extreme caution. By gluing the base of the cut rubber legs, it keeps the rubber skirt from pulling out the other side. Use caution when applying the glue! I've accidentally glued the 6 strands together, and destroyed the bait. You need to keep the strands moving freely! Only glue the base of the rubber strands where you trimmed them, and not on the legs themselves. Hang the bait to dry, and you're set to go froggin' on the Delta. ~ Long Nguyen

Cooch's Fishing Guide Services

Captain Andy Cuccia ~ Tel. 925-609-5148

California Delta Guide Services

Captain Gary Dobyns ~ Tel. 530-671-1989

Angler's Cove Tackle Shop ~ Big Break Marina

Tel. 800-706-4880

Hook, Line & Sinker Tackle Shop

Gene Buchholz, Owner ~ Tel. 925-625-2441

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