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The California Delta experience

by Tom Jones

History of the Delta

What is today called The San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta, The California Delta, or simply The Delta, is the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and hundreds of criss-crossing sloughs. The Delta was originally a flooded Central Valley created by the overflowing of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. Early Delta farmers realized that the resulting peat deposits provided very fertile soil and they attempted to build crude levies to create islands of farm land and to provide irrigation.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad resulted in a surplus of Chinese labor and many of these folks arrived in the Delta area to help build levies. Their manual labor was later replaced by the clamshell dredge which could build the levies much faster and cheaper.

Early Delta travellers were explorers and trappers, followed later by gold miners and prospectors. The Delta waterways also provided a ready means of transporting produce from the many farms.

Delta uses

The 1200 miles of waterways created by the rivers and sloughs of the Delta provide many opportunities for commercial and recreational uses. Some of these are discussed in more detail below.

Commercial shipping

Commercial ships still make their way up into the Delta from San Francisco Bay, bound for the Port of Stockton via the San Joaquin River and the Stockton deep water channel, and bound for Sacramento via the Sacramento River and the Sacramento deep water channel. Shiploads of automobiles from Japan are offloaded lower down the river at Benicia.

Numerous tug boats work the Delta, often pushing or towing barges used to transport rock for shoring up the levies.

Perdioically you'll see pipe-laying boats working in the rivers. If you come across them by boat, be sure to slow down and pass on the side indicated by the large sign on the boat. If you're unsure, call the captain of the boat via VHF radio and he'll give you instructions.

Recreational Boating

The Delta is home to many thousands of recreational boats moored at marinas and yacht clubs. Many boats are also trailered to the Delta for a day or weekend of boating. The Delta offers many quiet places to drop anchor or tie up to a tree. Numerous sloughs provide great venues for waterskiers, with some waterski clubs having their own competition courses.

There are dozens of marinas and yacht clubs around the Delta that provide long term berthing for boats that are always moored in the water. Many of these facilities also provide guest berthing for an overnight or weekend stay.

If you trailer a boat, there are boat launching facilities at many of the marinas and some campgrounds, in addition to numerous public launch ramps.

Warning: The combination of current, tide and Delta winds can catch swimmers and boaters unawares. Do not enter the water, either swimming or on a vessel, without wearing an appropriate USCG-approved life preserver.

Delta Landmarks

There are numerous Delta landmarks, including:

  • Mount Diablo with its twin peaks can be seen from almost anywhere on the Delta.

  • Old Town Sacramento is a favorite attraction for visitors by road or water. Numerous shops and old buildings line the boardwalk and the California state railroad museum is located here.

  • The Delta King, an old sternwheeler that once plied Delta waters, is now permanently berthed on the Sacramento river at Old Town. It functions today as a hotel and has a restaurant, bar and theater.

  • Locke, a small town on the east Bank of the Sacramento River near Walnut Grove, was previously home to some of the Chinese families who built the original Delta levies. Today the town has a gambling museum and small stores. Al the Wop's is a well known restaurant and bar. Locke has also become a favorite stop for bikers travelling the adjacent Highway 160 levy road.

  • Rio Vista, located on the west bank of the Sacramento River, is home to Hap's Bait, a small museum and Foster's Bighorn. Old man Foster was a game hunter who travelled the world, returning with the heads of numerous animals which now line the bar and the restaurant. The Delta Marina and RV resort at Rio Vista is a popular RVing and boating destination. At the south end of town is the US Coast Guard station.

  • Brannan Island state park, located between the Sacramento River and Three Mile Slough, is a popular location for RVers, boaters and fishermen. The park, which has several launch ramps and a number of guest berths for smaller boats, sits alongside Highway 160 and has easy access by road.

  • Moore's Riverboat, a popular dining location, on the Mokelumne River near its confluence with the San Joaquin River. The original riverboat was moved to Bethel Island to become the clubhouse for the San Joaquin Yacht Club a number of years ago. The current riverboat started life as the Catfish Cafe on the San Joaquin River at Stockton and can be accessed by road or water.

  • Tower Park marina and RV resort, on Little Potato Slough at Terminous, is easy to spot with its water tower. This was once the main point of departure for barges transporting produce from surrounding farms. The numerous boat sheds retain their original identity with the respective name of the crop that was warehoused there. In addition to the marina, Tower Park has a large campground and a trailer village. Access by road is via Highway 12 between Lodi and Rio Vista.

  • Mandeville Tip, on the San Joaquin River between light 57G and 3G, is best known for the huge annual 4th of July fireworks display sponsored by Hilton Hotels. Some 3,000-4,000 boats can be seen moored at or near Mandeville on the week of the 4th. The Hilton family maintains a holiday home there on the river bank and bring in a huge barge and a crew to set off the fireworks. Hilton family and friends are shuttled in by helicopter for the event.

  • Lost Isle, located on the San Joaquin River at light 24R, is a magnet for weekend party goers. The island, accessible only by water, has guest berths for visiting boats in addition to a beach where some folks drop anchor.

  • Frank's Tract is a large body of water bounded by False River, Old River and Sand Mound Slough. The tract was flooded many years ago and is a popular location for fishermen and duck hunters. Nearby Bethel Island has a number of marinas, restaurants and RV parks.
  • The Sugar Barge marina and RV park on Bethel Island. Adjacent to the marina is a very nice RV park. Access by water is via Sand Mound Slough and access by road is across the Bethel Island bridge.
  • Antioch Bridge, a towering structure, carries Highway 160 across the San Joaquin River.

Delta draw bridges

Draw bridges are ubiquitous around the Delta. They carry trains, highways, and levy roads. Some open to allow boats through while others are fixed. Know the height of your boat from the waterline to its highest point and look for bridge clearances posted near most bridges. Some bridges that open are tended 24 hours while others are tended for limited hours &/or on limited days. Most tended bridge operators monitor VHF channel 9 and will open with a polite request. Others will open with one long and one short blast of the horn. Note that bridge operators expect you to lower your antenna if your boat can pass with it in the lowered position.

Bridges vary in size and design. Some lift vertically, some rotate horizontally, some are hinged and at least one slides open horizontally. But they all have a charm of their own and there's something gratifying about having a bridge open to allow you to pass. Most bridge operators are friendly folks, so please treat them with respect when requesting an opening.

  • Rio Vista bridge carries highway 12 that runs between Lodi and Fairfield. The bridge lifts vertically and, as you can by its towers, can give a lot of headroom.

  • Three Mile Slough Bridge, another vertical lift bridge, carries Highway 160 across Three Mile Slough near Brannan Island.

  • Orwood Railroad Bridge, a hinged bridge with a huge concrete counterweight, carries the railroad across Old river.

  • Bacon Island Bridge, which rotates to open, carries a levy road between Bacon Island and Lower Jones Tract.

  • Zuckerman Bridge, located near Tiki Lagun, carries a levy road between Henning Tract and Roberts Island. This bridge slides horizontally to open.

  • Connection Slough Bridge, which rotates to open, carries a levy road between Bacon Island and Mandeville Island.

Navigating Delta waterways

Newcomers to the Delta can easily get lost among the labyrinth of sloughs and even long-time Delta users can become disoriented. It is strongly recommended that you obtain navigation charts and a GPS receiver/chartplotter before venturing onto Delta waters.

The main shipping channels are clearly marked with navigation buoys, many of which are lit. Remember the simple rule Red, Right, Returning, which simply means that, when you're in a navigation channel, the red buoys/lights will be on your right (starboard) side as you travel upriver. Similarly, red buoys/lights will be on your right as you enter a port or marina that has a marked channel. However, even the navigation buoys can be a little confusing when two or more channels converge.

Outside of the navigation channels, there are very few navigation aids on the Delta beyond an occasional sign. Some folks rely on landmarks such as the ones mentioned above, but landmarks alone do not provide any depth or tidal information. Shipping channels are dredged to roughly 40-50 feet, although some will be considerably deeper. Outside of these, water depth can fall off dramatically. Depth in the shallowest non-channel areas might be as little as 1 foot or as much as 80 feet. So you clearly need navigation charts &/or a GPS chartplotter to help avoid running aground.

There are numerous hazards to navigation, some natural and some man-made. Wooden or metal pilings from old docks often lay just beneath the surface, usually along the edges of sloughs. Trees, logs and large chunks of lumber float down the rivers and sloughs, but will often float back up again when the tide reverses. Watch for berms that extend below the surface and for occasional wing dams. Water hyacinth floats on the surface and can sometimes stretch across a navigation channel. Don't be tempted to plough through this stuff as it may have lumber trapped in its midst.

Anchoring in the Delta

This is the subject of much debate, but I'll share my own experience and biases.

Most of the Delta has a muddy bottom, so it makes sense that an anchor designed for holding in mud is best. To this end, the Bruce anchor is far superior to any other anchor for holding in mud. In the unlikely event that a Bruce becomes dislodged, the claim is that it will reset itself within two shank lengths.

Some areas of the Delta, especially near the levies, have a lot of sub-surface weed. The Bruce anchor cannot penetrate weed and so is virtually useless in those conditions. The best alternative is the CQR Plough anchor, followed by the Delta anchor. Both anchors will penetrate weed and both have good holding in mud, although not as good as the Bruce.

The standard issue anchor with many new boats is the Danforth, largely because of its low cost. This anchor was developed for landing craft running, for example, onto a beach. The Danforth anchor would be deployed over the stern of the boat as the bow was aimed directly into the beach. But few people anchor in this configuration in the Delta. If you have one of these anchors on your boat, my advice would be to throw or give it away and get one of the alternatives discussed above.

One thing that affects the efficiency of an anchor is having at least some chain as part of the rode. Personally, I prefer all chain, but having 15-20 feet of chain next to the anchor will make a huge difference over an all rope rode.

A favorite method of many Delta boaters is to tie the bow of the boat to a tree and deploy a stern anchor. This works quite well, but remember that the boat is broadside to the current, so make sure the stern anchor is set well.


The Delta is home to many species of fish including sturgeon, striped bass, black bass, catfish, bluegill, crappie, shad, crawdads and salmon returning to the Sacramento River to spawn. Seasons vary by species, but there's good fishing to be had on the Delta almost year round. You can fish from shore or by boat.

There are a number of bait shops on or near the Delta. Of note are:

  • Hap's Bait, near the Sacramento River at Rio Vista.
  • Island Bait & Tackle on Highway 4, about a mile west of I-5. However, this bait shop opens and closes at the whim of owners of the gas station property on which it stands.
  • Hook, Line & Sinker on Highway 4 in Oakley.
  • Bait shop on Highway 4 near the intersection with Highway 160.
  • The Martinez marina has a bait shop that caters to fishing in the lower Delta and is a good source for grass shrimp when in search of sturgeon.
  • The Antioch marina has a bait shop.

RVing on the Delta

There are numerous campgrounds on the Delta with easy access to the water and local tourist places. They provide an ideal opprotunity to combine RVing with boating, fishing and other watersports, all in one location.

Check the Places to stay section of our library for a file listing RV parks on the California Delta.

Delta ferries

Scattered around the Delta are small ferries that transport people and cars between islands. Beware that some ferries operate on a cable and you should watch for signs warning you of this in addition to a flashing light on a ferry that is in transit. Other ferries operate without a cable.

  • Holland Cut Ferry operates between Holland Tract and Quimby Island.

  • False River Ferry operates between Jersey Island and Webb Tract.

Homes on the water

There are several communities on the water in the Delta, but none as large as Discovery Bay. A local real estate agent's slogan Live where you play captures the essence of this community.

Delta events

There are numerous Delta events held throughout the year, including:

  • January: The Frozen Bun Run, a waterski event held New Year's day out of The Rusty Porthole on Bethel Island.
  • February: Chinese New Year celebration at Isleton's Chinatown.
  • March: Saint Paddy's Day party at Tower Park Resort.
  • April: Opening Day parades, held by various yacht clubs; Asparagus festival at the Stockton waterfront.
  • May: Discovery Bay boat show; Delta Fest & boat show at Tower Park; Sacramento Jazz Festival held on the Memorial Day weekend.
  • June: Crawdad Festival at Isleton.
  • July: Hilton fireworks display at Madeville Tip; Cornfest at Brentwood.
  • August: Catfish Jubilee at Walnut Grove.
  • October: Bass derby out of Rio Vista; Numerous Halloween parties at various watering holes.
  • November: Fishing derby - Thanksgiving week - out of Bethel Island.
  • December: Lighted boat parades, held by various yacht clubs.