Posted by: 1000fish | December 27, 2021

Saying Goodbye to a Delta Legend

DATELINE: JUNE 22, 2020 – RIO VISTA, CALIFORNIA

I am a person of traditions, especially surrounding holidays, and one I could always count on was a phone call around 3pm every Christmas day. It was from a man with a white beard and burly build, and before you jump to conclusions, no, it was not Santa. (Please no spoiler alerts in the comments – my nephew reads this blog, and he is in that age range (22) where magic is still possible.)

The call was from a fishing guide and good friend, “Jolly Jay” Sorensen. We would chat as long as we could, touching base about the striper bite, which usually had petered out by Christmas, and the sturgeon, which were usually just starting. We hadn’t been fishing together in quite a few years – Jay had survived cancer and pretty much stayed home, but that call came in every Christmas afternoon like clockwork, even when Marta and I were in the Middle East, which made it something like 2 in the morning. I just answered the phone, had a nice chat with Jay, and went back to sleep. I don’t think he ever knew I was out of the country.

“Jolly Jay” Sorensen with a couple of friends.

Last Christmas was the first time in 23 years I didn’t get that call, and I have been struggling ever since to write a post that does some justice to Jolly Jay’s legacy. Jay was a 50+ year veteran Delta striped bass guide, pioneering conservationist, and purveyor of awful jokes (“Air used to be free at the gas station, now it’s $1.50. You know why?
Inflation.”)

Sadly, Jay passed away on June 22, 2020, at the age of 82. I had certainly fished the Delta before I met him, but I never caught much there until I got out with him. Striped bass and sturgeon are some of the best gamefish we have close to my home, and while you don’t read much about them here, because they are not new species, they have given me some of the most beloved fishing days in my life. It was always me and a buddy, up before dawn, drive an hour out into the Delta while the sun rose, with a trunk full of gear and a cooler full of fast food. (Our menu choices would get equal disapproval from my doctor, my dentist, and my urologist.) Jay would always greet us with a horrible joke. (“What rock group has four men that don’t sing? Mount Rushmore.”)

My first sturgeon with Jay, October 17, 1997.

This was so long ago I could tuck my shirt in.

We would be off to wherever the fishing was hot, and then set shad baits on the bottom. Bites could range from subtle taps in the colder months to blazing, bat ray-like runs when it was milder. And while we waited, the jokes, ranging from groan-worthy to outright ghastly, would continue. (“I only know 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know Y.”)

The rigging of the baits was a religious issue, and like many religious issues, there was no room for different (in other words, wrong) opinions. There was a right way to cut the shad, period. One of my favorite Jay rigs was “Jay’s Bouquet,” a mass of small shad used in the coldest conditions, but normally, it was the butterfly setup, which he believed turned just perfectly in the current. 

From a Montezuma slough striper trip, November 2000.

  

A classic late fall striper, November 2001.

My first trip with Jay was on February 1, 1997. I brought a Japanese co-worker, Takahiro Abe. Abe-san got a nice keeper sturgeon and I got a limit of striped bass, despite strong winds and rain, and it was obvious Jay knew the Delta better than just about anyone. The puns, however, did not translate well into Japanese, and I had to spend the whole drive home explaining the concept behind “Why do seagulls fly over the ocean?” “Because if they flew over the bay, we’d call them bagels.” 

Jolly Jay was an institution in the Sacramento River Delta – a walking history book who seemed to know the story behind every place name and hidden corner of the Delta. Frank’s Tract is just a place to most of us who fish the area, but to Jay, Frank was a person – a farmer who tried to keep levees built around his land who ultimately failed and left us with hundreds of acres of wonderful topwater fishing. More importantly, Jay knew where to find the fish – striped bass and sturgeon – no matter what the conditions threw at him.

There was also the matter of the blue jackets. In the 1970s, Jay founded the California Striped Bass Association (CSBA,) and while I knew this was a big deal, until I actually researched for this article, I had no idea that they pretty much single-handedly preserved the fishery against factors as diverse and pernicious as the state government of California, and, well, the state government of California.

I fished with Jay a total of 18 times over the years, tapering off as his health went downhill. I personally got 14 keeper sturgeon and 93 striped bass over five pounds with him, and looking back at my photo albums, I realized that Jay had guided me and some of my best friends. It’s great to go fishing with friends, but even better when you catch something. Jay always took care of that part.

With Scott “K-Man” Kisslinger, October 15, 1999. Scott actually caught something that wasn’t a bluegill, which is a tribute to Jay’s skill. I shall also never forget Scott sending an email asking if we could go for “strippers” with Jay. Scott is perhaps my most straight-laced and conservative friend, so I call that “the typo that keeps on giving.”

Jay with Chris Stickle on November 17, 2001. We had set up a fishing day for a departing (and not too missed) co-worker. The co-worker’s wife pulled him out of it at the last minute, so we brought their wedding photos instead.

December 13, 2002 – the only fish I could scrape up. That’s Dave Sharp in the background. Dave is another Delta guide that I have continued fishing with until the present day, and anything else I have learned about striper fishing, I learned from Dave.

Stripers with Scott Perry, November 20, 2010. I have known Scott for 30 years, and inexplicably, he still speaks to me.

Although the vast majority of fish I caught with Jay were striped bass and sturgeon, I did actually get three new species with him, all within a a few minutes of each other on November 29, 2008. Playing around with a sabiki in the harbor, I landed a golden shiner, a Mississippi silverside, and a redear sunfish before we even set sail. Jay understood the whole species hunting thing, and waited patiently while other harbor residents gave me bewildered glances.

Yes, we used this for bait.

My first redear. I thought it was a pretty big one at the time. I met the Arosteguis a few years later, and learned that Redear get much, much bigger than this.

The silverside.

The harbor cat, which had a taste for silversides, became my friend that day. The cleaning table was always a place for more jokes – (“I used to be addicted to the hokey pokey. Then I turned myself around.”)

On September 24 of this year, delayed over a year by the pandemic, a group of Jay’s family and friends gathered in Stockton to remember him. Dave Hurley, a well-known local outdoor writer, acted as host and emcee. 

Dave addresses the group. 

I have to love that picture of a young Jay Sorensen, which I did see eventually, but let’s face it, if Kate Upton was in this photo I’d still see the striper first.

Best cake EVER.

As much as I knew Jay from hours in the boat, it was fascinating to listen to his nephews and nieces talk about Jay when he wasn’t on the water. But as caring and dedicated as he was, the sense of humor was still the same. (“My wife is really mad at the fact that I have no sense of direction. So I packed up my stuff and right!”)

And I got to spend an evening hanging out with Dave Sharp. How cool is that?

The stories could have gone on all night – I even added a few – but eventually we had to part ways. I have left a lot of funerals over the years, and I always try to think of what lasting impression the person had left on me, or even on the world around them. For Jay’s lasting impact on all of us, I needed to only look as far as the dozens of blue CSBA jackets around the room. Jay had left the Delta a better place than when he found it all those years ago, and how many people can say that?

I stepped outside. The evening was cool, signaling that late summer was giving way to autumn, and that meant the stripers would be on their way up the Sacramento. This is one of my favorite fisheries and always will be, and I have Jay to thank for that. I said goodbye to Dave Sharp, and as I started the car, remembered one last joke from Jay.

“Not to brag, but I defeated our local chess champion in less than five moves. Finally, my karate lessons paid off.”

Steve

 


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