Year-round habitat for striped bass and sturgeon

BY BUD NEVILLE/WON Staff WriterPublished: Dec 19, 2008


With over 100 miles of shoreline, the big body of water generally called “Suisun Bay” is the brackish environment between the California delta and the saltier waters of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays.  Since it’s on the way to the spawning grounds for all of the Sacramento River’s anadromous fishes, these species all spend at least a little time in Suisun Bay.  In addition, these waters provide year-round habitat for striped bass and sturgeon, with juvenile stripers abundant in the northern deltas of Honker and Grizzly Bays.

The big fishing draws in Suisun Bay are the sturgeon and striped bass.  Both species can be found year-round in the bay, though certain times of the year offer better chances at both kinds.  The winter months is the top season for sturgeon, while the stripers tend to move through the system in the biggest numbers in the early to mid-fall season.

Since the sturgeon is a bottom feeder that finds food by scent, water clarity is unimportant.  When the rainfall is measured in inches and the water flows chocolate brown is a great time to fish for sturgeon.  Theories of why the sturgeon go on the bite during the peak runoff periods vary from a scarcity of foods for them to the fact that all the fresh water puts a damper on the “bait stealers.”  Bullheads, crabs, small stripers and kingfish all will compete for a shrimp baited hook, but some of these are thinned out by heavy freshwater runoff.  Another big factor in sturgeon success is the fast flowing tides, which seem to keep the bait stealers hunkered down.

One of the top sturgeon spots in the Suisun system is the famous and highly visible Mothball Fleet.  Several rows of retired Navy ships are anchored east of the Martinez/Benicia Bridge, and for some reason, the ships are sturgeon magnets.  You can’t, by navigation regulations, get too close to the ships.  Many anglers anchor below and besides the fleet and find sturgeon success there.

In the early 2000s an unwanted visitor arrived in the Suisun Bay ecosystem.  The mitten crab seems able to find a sturgeon bait in seconds, and will clean a hook in no time.  A sturgeon doesn’t by habit eat bare hooks, so the angler must check his bait often. In response to the bait eating crabs, sturgeon anglers have been experimenting with different baits like the lamprey eel and squid.  Both are tough enough to withstand some time in the ring with a hungry mitten crab, which allows the angler to spend more time fishing and less time re-baiting.

Another bait that sticks around for awhile despite the crabs is the bullhead.  The true name for the bullhead is sculpin, and there are different species in the system, but one thing that all bullheads have in common is their ability to tempt a big striped bass.  The bullhead is rigged on a special long shanked hook, and is allowed to spin in the current behind a slip sinker rig. Most of the stripers one will catch while fishing with bullheads are quality fish, 10 pounds or so.  This is also one of the best ways to catch a lunker over 20 pounds.

In addition to all the fishing possibilities, Suisun Bay offers some good waterfowling, and Grizzly Island State Wildlife area hosts some of the state’s largest tule elk.  There are pheasant clubs and wild pheasant hunting opportunities, and some of the most exclusive duck hunting clubs in the state have been located here since the market gunning days. Ironically, Grizzly Island SWA is one of the state’s largest type A hunting areas, offering opportunities for unattached waterfowlers for just a few bucks on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays throughout the duck season.  One of the top producing wildlife areas in the state is Joice Island, which is administered by the Grizzly SWA folks.  There are even wild pig hunting opportunities for the public at Joice Island. These areas also offer rabbit hunting during the season.

Most of the hunting occurs in the northern sections of the bay, where networks of sloughs interconnect and feed Grizzly and Honker Bays.  These sloughs also offer some opportunities at catfish, sunfish and black bass, though saltwater intrusion keeps these species at bay during dry years.

There are several boat launches around the Suisun system, but the most often used are in Benicia, Martinez and West Pittsburg at Bay Point.  There is also a launch ramp way up in the Grizzly Bay delta near Suisun City that accesses the north end, but you better have a shallow draft boat during the low tides here.  Each of these seemingly strategically placed ramps offer close access to different parts of Suisun Bay, and most anglers pick their boat ramp depending on where they plan to fish for the day.


SIZE/LOCATION: The Suisun Bay system is that body of water between the delta and San Pablo Bay. The lines are indistinct, and the 2 northern “lobes” of the water called Honker Bay and Grizzly Bay are both considered a part of “Suisun Bay.”  The shoreline is easily over 100 miles long.

GAMEFISH SPECIES: Striped bass, sturgeon, and salmon, with catfish and some black bass in the freshwater sloughs north of Grizzly Bay.

GAME SPECIES: Waterfowl, rabbits, tule elk, pigs and pheasants.

FACILITIES: Suisun Bay is surrounded by towns that offer access via launch ramp plus public fishing areas to the water.  The most used launch ramps are the ones at Bay Point (West Pittsburg) Benicia and Martinez.

MORE INFO: Benicia Bait and Tackle (707) 745-4921, Martinez Bait and Tackle (925) 229-9421.  Hunting: Grizzly Island State Wildlife Area (707) 425-3828. Sportfishing boats: Morning Star  (707) 745-1431, Happy Hooker  (707) 773-4156, Flash Fishing (510) 881-0858,  Lucky Strike Fishing Charters (707) 585-8050, California Dawn (510) 417 5557

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