Fishing in California affords anglers the opportunity to catch dozens of different species; both saltwater and freshwater. A year-round growing season, in most areas of the state, and a plethora of coastline keeps anglers in the midst of good fishing all year.
While trout stocking numbers should continue to fluctuate and regulations will impact saltwater anglers, there’s no alarming ecological signs that California’s fisheries should change much. The only species that remains in question is the state’s salmon run, which many fear will produce another dismal season.
Nonetheless, millions of trout will be stocked, a world-record bass could be caught, San Diego has the potential to kick out a record blue catfish, higher-than-average water levels hint at good all-around seasons and the rule of thumb holds true: California’s fisheries are set for another banner year. While there are thousands of waters to conquer, here’s a list of some of the best.
Smith River Steelhead
The mecca of steelhead fishing in the Golden State, the majestic Smith River has peaked in January the last few years and remains the most legitimate place to have a chance at breaking the state record for steelhead. The Smith harbors hatchery and wild fish and doesn’t blow out as often as the nearby Eel, Chetco, Mattole and Mad Rivers.
Plunkers can do well from the bank, but the surest way to catch a 10- to 20-pound steelie is to hire a guide and drift from The Forks on down the main stem through Jed Smith State Park. Side drifting cured roe or pulling Hot Shots is standard.
Otay Reservoir Blue Catfish
San Vicente Reservoir was the best blue catfish fishery in California; that is until it was closed for dam enhancement. Now closed for years to come, the focus shifts to Lower Otay Reservoir, where encounters with catfish greater than 100 pounds are available.
Hunting these monsters isn’t for everyone though, says catfish guru Ronson “Catmando” Smothers, who paces anglers with notable catches often during the winter months when the cats move shallow to feed. Smothers reminds anglers that this isn’t high-action fishing, but perhaps a sit-and-wait game, where casting out a single mackerel in Harvey’s Arm might require several hours of patience for a bite. The reward? A chance at catfish that the DFG admits can be greater than 115 pounds.
For a decade now, guide Danny Layne has preached Tulloch’s winter rainbow fishery — but few have taken notice. However, 5-pound rainbows in the Motherlode is something anglers shouldn’t overlook. Layne drags Needlefish and rolls shad in the top 10 feet of water to tackle this winter fishery. Catching a limit of 3- to 6-pound rainbows isn’t out of the ordinary, he says.
San Diego’s Humboldt Squid
One of the most exotic species available to California anglers, the Humboldt squid are on the menu in January when anglers can head out of San Diego at night to chase the world’s largest squid. Anglers can enjoy battles with squid up to five feet long.
Lake Casitas Bass
Casitas likely is no longer a prime candidate to pump out a world record bass, but it remains one of the best spots to catch bass greater than 10 pounds. Early spring is a great time to catch big bass, likely because they are getting ready to spawn and still maintaining their weight. Come loaded with an array of surface running and diving swimbaits.
Don Pedro Landlocked – King Salmon
In the last half-decade a poor king salmon run allowed Don Pedro’s landlocked Chinook salmon to shine. Available all year with downriggers, Monte Smith, of Gold Country Sport Fishing, says March is ideal because the kings are concentrated in Pedro’s main channel and in front of the dam, and are eager to pounce on trolled shad, minnow imitations and spoons. With fish breaching 12 pounds, it can rival catching a real king.
Clear Lake Bass
Hands down, Clear Lake is one of the top bass fisheries in the country. It can be awesome in April when bass are spawning. Sight fishing with a white jig, 3- or 4-inch tube or chartreuse lizard is standard, but bass pros like Gary Dobyns often cast Senkos into flats this time of year. Dobyns recommends Soda Bay and Buckingham by Anderson Island, where the water is always clear.
Lake Earl Cutthroat
Lake Earl is one of the largest freshwater lagoons on the West Coast. It’s also arguably the best sea-run cutthroat fishery. Guide Mick Thomas of Lunker Fish Trips rows anglers to the edge of the tule line for cutts up to 10 pounds. Arrive early. Come late May, the fishery is plagued by weeds, which clog casting lanes.
Lake Tahoe Browns
Tahoe does offer the most consistent fishery in the state for 5- to 10-pound browns. Arrive in May when a wintry mix of snow and wind meet spring’s bluebird days. The unstable weather keeps browns in the shallows and at the mercy of trollers.
There’s dozens of miles of great water to troll, but guide Mike Nielsen recommends sandy beaches and rocky points, particularly King’s Beach, Dollar Point, Meeks Bay, Cave Rock and Sand Harbor. Working the surface with krill-scented Rapalas, Rebels, Bombers and Krocodiles brings a chance of good brown trout fishing, with a few lake trout mixed in.
Crowley Lake Rainbows
Arguably the most consistent trout fishery in California during the spring, Crowley can be fished by more than 10,000 anglers on opening weekend, but the crowds die down in May. Tossing lures, trolling and soaking bait almost guarantees limits in most of the lakes bays and off points.
New Hogan Stripers
Come June, almost every striper in New Hogan Reservoir has left The Narrows and is now tightly schooled in the main body. The stripers are here to ambush massive balls of shad and anglers trolling cut shad and anchovies can find limits of 3- to 7-pound stripers.
Trinity Lake Smallmouth And Largemouth
Due to its elevation, Trinity’s bass spawn much later that the rest of the state’s bass. Arriving in June permits a chance at hooking a trophy smallmouth and largemouth. Concentrating on the flats and tailings on the north end and flipping a Senko, jig or 6-inch plastic worm results in consistent hookups with both species and could land a state record smallie.
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