This is the fifth and final story in a five-part series of a road trip taking us into Northern California from San Diego County. We visited San Francisco, Sausalito, Fairfield, Benicia, Suisan City, Suisan Bay, Napa, and the Delta. We went to Pier 39 in San Francisco, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge twice, saw the hundreds of houseboats in Sausalito, toured the Jelly Belly factory, fished on the delta, rode on two ferry boats, crossed over four large bridges, and many small draw bridges, saw autumn colors, saw the last of our naval ghost fleet, and viewed the gorgeous vineyards in Napa… all in five and a half days.
The California Delta
A while back, I was given an article from someone who thought it might be interesting to post on my Staycations California page. It was a story about how California landed three of the best family fishing spots in the U.S. from the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. That seemed like quite an accomplishment considering all of the lakes, streams, rivers, and ocean fronts throughout the U.S. One of the areas they mentioned was part of the California Delta which is located in the central part of the state. I had never heard of the California Delta so it piqued my interest. Most people I spoke to had never heard about it either except for some of my northern California friends.
This is exactly the type of thing that I wanted to feature on Staycations California. Our goal is to experience places outside of the normal, away from the obvious, and locations most people don’t know about or even think about visiting.
Staycationer JoJo is the angler out of the group and a newbie at fishing so it didn’t take much to convince her to go. It might be a harder sell for some of my other friends though. I handle the photography so I always want to go to interesting places to satisfy my hobby as well as stimulate my mind for writing about it later. So the planning and research began, California Delta here we come.
The California Delta is 1,000 miles of recreational waterways where six rivers cascade from the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range into the central valley and eventually make their way to San Francisco Bay. The Delta features multiple waterways or rivers that bend and rest up against historical rural towns or Gold Rush villages where history is deep. In the Delta, the largest town is Walnut Grove with a population of about 1,500 so this is an extremely rural and sparsely populated area. There are 57 islands large and small, ferry boats, drawbridges, sloughs, and over 30 small marinas. Abandoned buildings and boarded up neighborhoods give you a glimpse of the past while over 100 launch ramps along the waterways keep it all alive for boating and fishing.
Going across the Sacramento River on a ferry boat
Our actual Delta portion of our trip officially started in Pittsburg, California…yes Pittsburg. I also saw signs for Staten Island, and the Chicago Port. I had to remind myself that I was still in California.
Pittsburg is a city of about 65,000 and sits in the outer portion of the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay.
Our first stop was the McAvoy Yacht Harbor to ask about places to fish in the area. This rustic marina sat next to an old abandoned building and had the ambiance I was hoping to see. I don’t always need shinny new boats sitting in pristine harbors, sometimes I want to see warn out and old, something that tells a story.
There was a dock that was already occupied by a family of anglers, a launch ramp, and a tackle store. Staycationer JoJo checked out the tackle shop to ask about places to fish and then came back with, “He said you can go over there or over there,” as she pointed in each direction. Not much to go on. I guess that is the way of the delta, fish where you can and where you want.
About a couple miles away was another marina but this time it had a more modern look with nicer and newer looking boats.
There was a small jetty and we walked over and asked the guys that were fishing if they knew where we could throw out our lines. They pointed to a small empty pier that sat about a hundred feet away. We questioned them again because we were surprised that nobody was on it fishing. Did the locals know something we didn’t?
We wandered over to the mini pier and set up chairs and our gear. What a perfect spot! The bay was beautiful against this sunny day and on the other side were vibrant green hills, a few farm houses, and dozens, if not hundreds of wind turbines. To our left was the marina and to the right some kind of refinery that when I asked the locals what it was, nobody seemed to know.
We threw out our line and within minutes a fish was caught, a Striper. Not a bad size either. He easily came off the line and immediately thrown back. Another fish was caught and within minutes after that, one more, then another, and another. It was non-stop for almost three hours! If we weren’t catching fish, we were getting strikes and nibbles. It was almost too much…almost. The two fishermen on the jetty gave their approval by calling over to us and hooting with their thumbs up.
Non stop fishing with small and large fish. Here a medium sized
I couldn’t understand why they weren’t running over to the pier after seeing how many we were catching. I mean some of them were nice sized fish, at least to us.
A half an hour later I found out why.
These boys weren’t messing around with our little minnows, no; they were going for the mack daddies!
I looked over to see this huge fish hoisted up for all to see by our fisherman buddies from the jetty. It was at least a four-foot-long sturgeon! I hooted back at them and returned the favor of the thumbs up sign. Wow! That showed me what is swimming around in the Delta along with many other species of fish, including trout and bass. No wonder it got top three.
We went back to fishing for our now mini daddies but I just wanted to chill out, so I sat back in my comfy chair and enjoyed the view. This looked so different from the coast where we live. First off, in Southern California there wouldn’t be that much open land. As a lone sailboat glided by, I couldn’t help but being impressed by the scene before me.
With only a couple hours left of sun, we headed east to explore deep into the Delta farther. I actually wanted more time but that fishing dock took up most of the day. Not complaining at all though.
Next, we traveled over the San Joaquin River on the Antioch Bridge. Add this to the list of large and impressive bridges that we either drove on or saw from a distance on our trip.
As is the case in a few towns, Antioch also mixes industry and agriculture with its fields of green and refineries living cohesively together. Spread out in the distance were the ever present white windmills that loomed over the valley with their blades either in motion or completely still.
Wildlife on the delta with industry looming in the background.
Now that we were over the bridge, we couldn’t see any water but soon saw a sign that read windsurfing rentals. As I turned toward the sign, I was rewarded with a complete water view and a paved road spanning miles and miles along the banks of the river. The scene on the other side was also of windmills, green hills, red farm houses, and blue skies. It was quite beautiful.
There were countless places to pull over and fish so we tried one last time before we headed back on the road. After that frenzied time on the dock, Staycationer JoJo got bored pretty quickly after only five minutes without a bite or nibble. That mini pier spoiled her.
Next we headed over to Rio Vista and eventually drove over the Three Mile Slough Bridge. Next to this smaller drawbridge sat an abandoned bait shop that was probably fully operational in the 50’s or 60’s. I imagined a couple of barefooted boys in crew cuts and cut-offs running toward the banks with their fishing poles in one hand and their recently purchased bait in the other. While in front of the bait shop, sat old-timers talking about fishing, smoking Camel cigarettes, and taking swigs from a weathered bottle of Coca Cola.
My reverie was interrupted by the motor of a passing by brand new SUV. Darn it, why couldn’t it be an old pick-up, I was having fun in this little dream of mine.
This is what I heard about this area, how old abandoned buildings brought back the past and of a simpler time.
In Rio Vista, a huge vertical lift drawbridge took us over the Sacramento River. When large ships are about to pass by, they call ahead and the bridge moves up and down instead of side to side to make room for safe passage. After we crossed over the bridge we saw a sign for a ferry boat and decided that we just had to experience this even if it was taking us back to where we just crossed over, or so I thought. The ferry had room for about 8 cars and is about a 4-5 minute trip to the other side. I pulled out my wallet to pay but nobody came by to collect, was it really free? It was actually free and a great experience as the sun was setting over the river making the water light up and the sky turn orange.
We were now on the other side so we kept driving east, and kept driving, and kept driving. Where were we? I had no idea as we drove over a desolate country road filled with orchards, rustic homes, and farmhouses. There was now a smaller waterway to our right and I wondered what happened to the larger Sacramento River that we crossed over on the ferry.
As it was now twilight, I saw no lights of a town, or anything to give me direction. We drove by tiny marinas, waterways lined with homes and docks, and more orchards. We wondered what they were growing and assumed that they were walnuts since we were close to the town of Walnut Grove. I loved every minute of the scenery and wasn’t one bit worried about being lost. However, there was one little problem, we were in the Delta with rivers and waterways everywhere and the only way across the water is over a bridge or a ferry boat. I could imagine being lost in this maze for days but that is the price you pay for going where the wind blows you, as is our motto at Staycations California.
Thankfully, we did eventually come across a smaller ferry boat and as I investigated it later, we must have been on Ryer Island that whole time and this was the Ryer Island Ferry. Not knowing where I was during that moment, I got in line for the short trip across anyway; maybe it would take me back to where I was originally. A car pulled up behind mine and I asked them how to get back to a main road so we can eventually meet Interstate 5. As it turned out, they were going to I-5 and we could follow them all the way.
Unlike the first ferry, this one was pulled by a cable across the waterway and once more it was free! I later found out that Caltrans runs these ferries 24 hours, 7 days a week. The ride was over way too soon as I was daydreaming yet again but this time imagining I was in the south on a bayou or deep in Dixie. This didn’t feel like California.
When we were all offloaded from of the ferry, I followed our escort car back to the freeway. I was both happy about this and unhappy at the same time. We drove through some towns that I would have liked to investigate and explore further but I didn’t want to lose our guide and it was rapidly getting dark.
As an example, the nearby city of Isleton with a whooping population of just over eight hundred people, is desolated as can be but comes alive during its annual Crawdad Festival which draws crowds of over 100,000. It would have been interesting to see this little city and how they could possible take on that many people at a time.
There were other small communities that were rich in history like Locke, Ryde, and Walnut Grove which are full of Japanese and Chinese culture from immigrants who settled there for the agriculture and remnants of that time can still be found. As I was trying to keep up with our lead car, I would try to turn my head side to side to take in all that I could while there was light.
There were sleepy little towns, with homey restaurants, hotels, old shops, tiny streets with aged homes, and of course your friendly neighborhood bar.
As twilight was turning to dark, I did my best to catch a glimpse of the personality of these towns while trying to keep my eye on the road and on our new found friend in the sedan ahead.
I saw the interstate looming and I knew the on-ramp would be approaching soon so I tooted my horn to give a thank you to the now departing sedan and entered the freeway heading south. It was time to say good bye to this web of waterways, small historical towns, rich history, and what seemed like a simpler way of life.
I couldn’t help but smile as that was a full day of sights that I never get to see! In such a short day, it felt more like a week in a different place and time. I can’t explain it better than this; the California Delta is just plain cool.
This ends a five-part series of my trip through the California Delta that started in San Francisco. It was five and a half days of pure exploration and eye candy. It was not your typical vacation in Hawaii or a cruise to the Caribbean but it was filled with sights, sounds, and tastes that we will always remember.
When a vacation is long over, memories are all we have left and in that regard, the California Delta delivered many great memories.
Story and photos: Debbie Colwell
Across the Sacramento River on a Ferry Boat