Ditch Bass

by Bob Feld

Over 20,000 miles of the best and most accessible bass fishing in California is not found in reservoirs, rivers, the delta or in farm ponds. It's neither remote nor difficult to fish. Where to you find it? You know it already. You pass it anytime you head for the Sierras for trout, into the foothills for bass or hunt up and down the Central valley.

You can bet that, if I still lived in California, I wouldn't be in a hurry to share the water. However, now that we've moved to Idaho it seems fair to point out a few spots for those left behind. Once thing is certain. Ditch bass offer more and better fall and spring bass action than all but a few prime lakes.

Remember all those large and small ditches along freeways, highways and lanes all over the Central Valley? They hold bass. Most provide a fertile habitat with a relatively stable water level which encourages the growth of shore cover that shades and cools big bass. Most enjoy public bank access. Some offer more and bigger bass to those who float their slow moving waters. In addition to bass, a few even add salmon in season, but you can usually count on a mix of sunfish, bluegills, crappie and catfish.

In the rich agricultural lands of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley, thousands of miles of ditches run along raised roads and drain fields back into the river. More miles of ditches drain bypasses within an hour of Sacramento, Stockton or Manteca. Since these areas often flood in winter, such ditches restock each year and may contain steelhead, striped bass, sturgeon or salmon.

The best known ditch bass spots north of Sacramento are in the Sutter, Yolo and Tisdale Bypasses. These areas often flood in winter, so they act as giant fish traps as floodwaters drain fish into sometimes landlocked ditches and canals. Lesser known unnamed ditches along two lane blacktop all over Yolo, Sacramento, Sutter, and Solano Counties produce bass too.

In the Yolo Bypass you can find excellent action off Interstate 80 in the canal just west of the dike which protects West Sacramento. Other prime areas extend along the dike of the Sacramento River on both sides of Interstate 5. Highway 16 connects these two areas and passes over the Sacramento Bypass just north of Highway 880.

In the Sutter Bypass, prime fishing starts just north of Highway 20. Two separate ditches run along each side of this fine bypass. Levee roads are usually open and bank fishing is most popular here for panfish and bass. However, the best fishing is only available to boaters who can reach overgrown bank sections and access ponds off the canals.

To the south, these ditches form the rough boundaries of the Sutter National Wildlife Area which, like other Wildlife Areas, is open for fishing outside of waterfowl season. Just a flycast wide, these two canals drain south. The Yuba City side canal gets more pressure and seems to offer more fish. In the spring the outflow of the O'Bannion Powerhouse where O'Bannion Road -- east from Highway 99 -- hits the levee is the hotspot for small bass. Later in the season the "fishhook" of ponds just north and east of the Powerhouse offer panfish and bass.

Locals like Craig Ferrari launch canoes at the Powerhouse and fish all the way downstream to Highway 113. Craig notes, "We get good bass on towpath plugs at dusk and use jigs and worms the rest of the day. It's possible to fish even farther downstream with minimal portages when water levels are typical.

However, we more often fished the Tisdale Weir, a lateral channel which runs west from just south of the Wildlife Area to the Sacramento River. This heavily wooded area holds fine black bass and, during duck season, offers fine jump shooting as well as the chance to shoot doves and pheasants. 

To the North, Gray Lodge Waterfowl Management Area collects Oroville and Chico bass buffs. Canals feed and drain marshes which hold ducks during the winter. Most banks are open and have low shrubs so the area suits those who like to fish from the bank. The best canals run toward Butte Creek. You can also find bass in two or three feet of water in shallow waterfowl ponds. The fishing access area well past the headquarters building shown on the area map deserves a look too. Delevan, Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges have canals worth a cast on their boundaries too.

Another fine set of seven or eight miles of ditches laces the east side of the Oroville Wildlife Area near Palermo and Oroville. Only a few run close to the levee top access road. The best lurk inland behind locked white bar gates. Shore fishing is good in a few spots, but light belly boats or canoes you can carry or drag across the often narrow land between these long ditches offer much improved access and larger fish. Most bass here run a pound to three pounds, but much larger fish hit often. This is an excellent hot weather choice with shaded waters somewhat cooled by percolation from the nearby Feather River.

East of the Sacramento River a number of fine ditches run along and cross Highway 45, Grimes-Arbuckle and Slough Road near Williams and Arbuckle. Permission to fish isn't hard to get and canal top dirt roads offer good access. Locals say the Colusa Basin Drainage Canal holds bass and panfish too. With so much good fishing closer to home we didn't fish that side of the valley often. Good pheasant hunting and decent jump shooting for ducks is available in a co-op or on private land.

Sacramento residents aren't without nearby ditches either. Several fine ditches cross Levee Road north of Highway 880. Head north and you reach Cross Canal which dumps back into the Sacramento River just downstream from Verona.

East of the Sacramento River south of Davis, canals along the Yolo Bypass between the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Canal and the Solano County border hold fish. Ditches near the Putah Creek Sinks hide fish. Add the hundreds of miles of canals inside delta islands and you realize nobody can fish more than a small fraction of the ditch bass spots in California.

Some of the finest bass come from suburban ditches most pass on their way to remote fishing. How many times do we read about teenagers dericking big bass from small local spots.? A more systematic approach to locating ditch bass starts with a county map of the nearest area which promises action. For example, my favorite spots are all within a 25 mile diameter half circle centered on Marysville west of the Feather River, which I could reach in an hour. Load your car with bass gear and a boat or bass tube and you can portage into prime spots near home which most miss.

To start, split your time. Fish from dawn to eight in the morning. Then drive secondary roads to find quality ditches with shore cover and deep holes under pumps or at ditch intersections. Stop and take a test cast or two at prime spots. Who can pass those up at any time of day? If you fish late, spend your first evening hour looking. Then fish until it's very dark. Don't get locked into a couple of spots. Things can change with different water levels.

Use a thermometer to find water in the 70 degree range which means active bass. But don't give up on these areas until you try them early or late in the day. Ask permission to fish where ditches cross private property. Buy farm-fresh produce at local stands and ask for the names of farmers who might allow you to fish. Offer to share your cleaned catch with your host.

After you scout spots and get the permissions, you can enjoy prime morning or evening fishing any day. I often left home at four in the morning, fished from sunup to seven, and was home in time to get the day's work out. Ditch bassing still isn't crowded and I haven't seen a water-skier yet. I have seen, and carefully noted ducks, doves, pheasants and even a few quail. So I know which co-op to join or preserve to hunt. Even more important, responsible fishing lets us show the farmer we can be trusted to hunt without risk of injury to his stock, land or family at the same time we enjoy some of the best bass and panfish action in California. Can't beat that!