5 Top California Trout Destinations
February 12, 2018
The fishing outlook is promising, and these California trout destinations have been producing great angling action.
A short two years ago, there was a cloud of gloom hanging over California trout anglers. Sure, the fishing was good, but we were in the teeth of a horrible four-year drought. California streams were running extremely low and our lakes were drying up. It was bad.
What a difference a good soaking winter makes. The 2017 trout season started with full lakes and reservoirs and streams that were raging.
Early on, all that water was a mixed blessing. Our lakes were full of food and off color, and the trout were scattered at most locations. Streams were flowing so briskly that they were largely unfishable.
Conditions didn't really become fishable until May, but when they did Golden State anglers enjoyed epic action at scores of destinations north to south. While trout fishing was very good overall, some waters shined. And visiting trouters enjoyed exceptional results.
Using last year's success as an indication of what's in store this season let's start in the north and work our way down the state, taking a look at a few destinations that are sure to offer lights out action this spring and summer.
1. LAKE ALMANOR
Tucked away near the headwaters of the Feather River in Northern California's Plumas County is Lake Almanor, one of the state's most exciting and challenging trout fishing destinations.
Situated at 4,500 feet in a conifer-studded valley and framed by views of Lassen Peak, Almanor provides a vivid contrast to the state's foothill reservoirs, most of which are surround by rolling hills punctuated by heavy brush and squat oaks.
Almanor is home to monster trout. Anglers routinely boat browns that run 4 to 9 pounds and rainbows that average 3 and range up to 6, yet I'm not about to sugar coat the prospects that confront visiting trout anglers at Almanor.
Compared to other trout lake's in the NorCal region, such as Shasta to the west and Eagle Lake to the east, the fishing at Almanor is often tough. It's not a place you go and expect to reel in a limit of pan-size 'bows, despite the fact that the lake is full of trout. Almanor is a place you hit when you want to catch a few big beautiful browns and rainbows.
The factors responsible for Almanor's incredible trout population are the same factors that make the lake challenging to fish. At the heart of the fishery is the lake's cold, forage rich water. The North Fork and Hamilton Branch of the Feather River represent Almanor's primary tributaries. Almanor's consistently cool water temperatures allow its trout to spread out and remain spread out for much of the year. This means that many times the trout aren't concentrated like they are at other fisheries.
The forage base at Almanor is robust. The lake is home to clouds of pond smelt. And, since the lake is relatively shallow and nutrient rich, there are tons of aquatic insects for the trout to snack on, including massive inch-long hexagenia mayfly nymphs.
In a nutshell, the first hurdle for aspiring Almanor trouters is finding fish. The second hurdle is convincing fish that are surround by a constant buffet of forage to grab the offering at the end of your line. Yet, when you crack the case the rewards are often fabulous.
I've fished Almanor many times over the past 30 years, and I only remember getting a limit of trout a few times. However, I've landed a few fish on every visit, and rarely do I land anything that weighs less than 3 pounds.
In the spring, there are a few proven approaches to hooking up. If you are interested in hooking a big brown in the 4- to 7-pound class and perhaps a bonus smallmouth or two that can range up to 5, speed troll the shallows with 3- to 4-inch minnow plugs. Keep the plugs well back of the boat and stay on the move, covering maximum ground. Rainbow trout and black over silver are the most consistently successful plug finishes.
For rainbows, you can move offshore and work the bottom in water that ranges from 15- to 30-feet deep. The 'bows will respond to small briskly trolled spoons, but overall slow trolling either threaded worms or threaded 3-inch Gulp! or PowerBait minnows teamed with a small dodger is the money presentation.
Shore anglers enjoy some pretty solid action at Almanor in April and May while soaking salmon eggs on the bottom, floating inflated worms off the bottom or drifting worms or crickets suspended beneath slip bobbers.
2. PYRAMID LAKE
Moving south and east, we come to an epic destination that is a favorite among California trout anglers, despite the fact that it isn't located in California.
Pyramid Lake covers 125,000 acres, making it one of the largest natural lakes in the state of Nevada. The scenery is spectacular, and the color of Pyramid Lake changes from shades of blue or gray, depending on the skies above.
The Pyramid Lake fishery showcases the famous Lahontan cutthroat trout that average 5 pounds and top out at over 30. At Pyramid, double-digit trout are common, and to be considered "big" a Pyramid cutthroat needs to go 15 plus. Fishermen from around the world have fished the lake in hopes of catching trophy trout.
"In the spring, I really prefer to fish Pyramid with a spinning or fly rod from the bank," advised local expert Mike McNeilly. "Your best bet will be to toss spoons like 3/4-ounce Kastmasters off deep drop-offs like Blockhouse Beach, Wino Beach, or Spider Point. The fishing will be slow, but don't let that dissuade you. There will be a surprising number of big fish dragged onto the sand at Blockhouse by intrepid spoon flingers," he noted.
"Last spring the key was to toss the spoon as far as I could, wait for it to hit the bottom, and then give it a good rip followed by a fall," McNeilly continued. "This stop and go retrieve worked very well to entice these trout that are well known for following without biting. Most of them probably hit the spoon as it would flutter and fall, and as I started to reel I'd feel them and slam the hook home," observed McNeilly.
"If you want to troll Pyramid, the day in and day out best way to catch a trout at Pyramid Lake is dragging a U-20 Flatfish right on the bottom. That plug needs to be digging in the mud and banging off rocks for maximum success," McNeilly advised.
3. NEW MELONES RESERVOIR
Many anglers consider New Melones Reservoir, just outside Angels Camp, to be central California's premier trout fishery. The reservoir is a rainbow trout powerhouse, and it boots out some impressive browns, too. The average rainbow runs about 2 pounds, and fish in the 5- to 6-pound class are common. Browns in the 8- to 10-pound class show up every spring, and the lake record is over 13.
"Catching browns is not easy, since they are the hardest of all trout to hook. Though some are taken by anglers fishing nightcrawlers, PowerBait and other baits off the bank during the spring," advised expert trout enthusiast Carl Adams.
"Your best bet to hook browns is to troll closer to structure — they aren't pelagic like the rainbows are," explained Adams. Most of the browns are caught around the spillway or in Carson, Angels, Coyote and Mormon creeks, where there are standing trees in the water, he advised.
"Trollers that want to specifically target Melones browns should troll threadfin shad — "rolling shad" — or troll with jointed Rapalas in firetiger or shad patterns. The rainbow fishery at New Melones varies from year to year. It was incredible last year, and I expect it to be stellar again this spring and summer," said Adams.
When it comes to catching rainbows, both trollers and shore- anglers do very well at Melones, Adams noted.
"Most shore guys soak 'crawlers and PowerBait for their fish, but there are some dedicated pluggers that roam the shoreline tossing Rapalas, Kastmasters and Krocodiles," he noted. "They do a lot of hiking and catch a lot of rainbows to 5 pounds. And they'll land the occasional brown, too."
Trollers use their sonar to locate a concentration of marks and then target the depth just above the marks with shad-imitating spoons. Try to troll quickly, and only slow down if the fish don't respond to a quick presentation, advised Adams.
4. LOS VAQUEROS RESERVOIR
Take a westerly heading from New Melones and you come to Los Vaqueros Reservoir near the San Francisco Bay Area. Since Los Vaqueros Reservoir opened to fishing in September 2001, it has come to be known as one of the Bay Area's premier trout fisheries.
While trout plants at the lake vary from year to year, there is always a robust holdover population in place that make their living gobbling threadfin shad. Most years the lake receives anywhere from 12,000 to 24,000 planter rainbows.
"Los Vaqueros is a true cold-water fishery," noted outdoor writer and trout fishing authority Dan Bacher."Trout can be planted at the lake throughout the year, and survivability is very good since the surface temperature rarely goes over 69 degrees."
Shore-fishermen located the trout in the South Cove near the marina, off the piers, off Oak Point and along the rock wall. The top enticers are Panther Martins and Kastmasters right after a plant and PowerBait, Power Eggs, nightcrawlers and salmon eggs the rest of the time. Trollers fishing lures and nightcrawlers behind dodgers from rental boats also take quality rainbows.
5. CROWLEY LAKE
One of the jewels of SoCal trout fishing is the Eastern Sierra's Crowley Lake. Crowley is simply an amazing fishery. It ranks amongst any of the Golden State's best holdover rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout factories, with double-digit trophies being landed and often released regularly.
Trollers score with a long list of standard trout lures at Crowley, including Rapalas, Needlefish, Thomas Buoyants and Tasmanian Devils.
Mike McNeilly typically fishes Crowley a few times per year, and here's what he had to say about lure selection: "The hero of my tackle box has been the Kokanee Killer, Sting King or Apex.Troll one of those babies around and it will get bit, and it may even be a nice one. My buddies and I have caught a few trout over 4 pounds on them."
"Fly-anglers thrive at Crowley," noted expert fly-angler and guide Tom Loe of Sierra Drifters Guide Service.
"The key to Crowley Lake's unsurpassed trout growth rate is its fantastic chironomid population. Crowley's trout forage on these year- round. Learn how to present and imitate the chironomids here, and you can have epic fly-fishing at times," Loe advised.
"Float tubing is very popular here, but you must keep an eye on the strong winds, which come up suddenly and without warning. Be careful, and wear a personal flotation device at all times if you tube this lake. The mudflats around the lakes border can be treacherous," cautioned Loe.
Now that we've covered a few of the top destinations for trout anglers in the months to come, it's time for you to get out and explore one of these great angling options or another near you.