Central Valley Trout Hotspots

These valley reservoirs and rivers might be terrible at other times of year. But in springtime, they can pump out lots of fat rainbows. (March 2008).

Photo by Chris Shaffer.

March can be deceptive. Following days of sweltering heat, winter storms can push through the state and drop several feet of snow, blocking passage to mountain lakes and reservoirs.

Fortunately, there are viable alternatives in the foothills and the Lower San Joaquin Valley.

Central California isn't overwhelmed with extensive trout fisheries as Northern California is. Nor are its reservoirs stocked as frequently as Southern California's. But between The Grapevine and Stockton, a handful of trout fisheries flourish in early spring. Fish them in March and April, but flee in May -- by late spring, the trout will succumb to extreme heat.

Here are our top five best trout fisheries for bank-anglers, trollers and float-tubers in the Golden State.

THE LOWER KERN RIVER

In the Kern River drainage, the Upper Kern River receives all the attention, more plants of fish and greater pressure than its smaller neighbor, the Lower Kern River, which flows from Lake Isabella through the Lower Kern River Canyon. But in March, the Lower Kern often out-fishes the upper section.

The Lower Kern benefits from controlled flows. In late winter and early spring, the faucet is turned off, and flows are at a minimum. Actually, this is a plus. As May, June and July arrive to melt snow in the Kern River drainage, the upper section runs out of control. As it fills up Lake Isabella, flows are increased on the lower river to meet agricultural needs downriver.

During this period, flows on the lower river can be treacherous, and trout fishing is all but impossible. It's common to see full trees floating downriver and hear massive boulders crashing against each other.

Fortunately, that isn't the case in March and April.

"It just depends on our winter," said Ken Walton of Bob's Bait Bucket in Bakersfield, "but in March, April and May, fishing can be great."

Walton said that runoff probably won't occur until May and June, "but during February and March, the lower river is always good."

The Lower Kern benefits from extensive planting. There's no shortage of trout available in early spring, following weekly plants from the state Department of Fish and Game. Most of those don't pass a pound and a half, but limits of half-pound and pound-size rainbows are common.

"They do a lot of planting at that time of year," said Walton. "Plus the flow is low enough that fishing is still excellent. There are a lot of holes in that area, and it's not that far to get to. You can get to a good spot in 25 minutes from Bakersfield."

The short drive saves money, time and gas. And the mouth of the Upper Kern is 45 minutes past the better fishing spots on the Lower Kern.

The other variable is weather. March nights are below freezing, especially on the Upper Kern. Early in the day, trout tend to have lockjaw. The lower section is much warmer, and trout are more active.

There's no shortage of access on the Lower Kern. Upper and Lower Richbar, Burrell (the turnoff to go into Sandy Flats Campground -- which isn't open for camping in the winter, but anglers can park and walk in), and Hobo are the best drive-to options. If you don't mind walking, try Democrat Beach.

"There's fish everywhere," said Walton. "Anywhere along the lower river will be good."

Most of the fish you'll find in the lower river are all planted fish, he said. Every once in a while, you'll run into a holdover, but it won't be like the fish you'd catch on the upper river. But limits are common.

For decades, success on the Lower Kern was dominated by natural baits. Manufactured baits have never gotten established here.

In the spring, anglers can find trout huddled in pools, holes, runs and pocket water. It's still a little early to be searching riffles and tail-outs.

KINGS RIVER

BELOW PINE FLAT

The Kings River below Pine Flat Reservoir, unlike most classic tailwater fisheries, doesn't have an extensive population of large wild trout. Nor is it overwhelmed by flyfishermen. But in the hot and arid Central Valley, this section of the Kings is popular with anglers looking to cash in on the sometimes-weekly trout plants from the Department of Fish and Game.

Due to its proximity to Fresno, the San Joaquin Fish Hatchery plants here. During peak usage, it's not uncommon for the stocking truck to show up twice a week. The fishery tends to be most impressive from Pine Flat Dam to Avocado Lake -- a stretch with plenty of public access.

The Lower Kings is planted on a regular basis, so it's a popular area.

"But the disadvantage is a lot of hooligans are out there in certain areas," said Merritt Gilbert of Valley Rod and Gun in Clovis. "A lot of that is a fly-fishing area. The fly-fishing is good for our area, but not great compared to the rest of the state."

As a whole, this stretch of the Kings River is dominated by bait- and spin-anglers. Fly-anglers occupy that small portion of the system near riffles. The bait guys work the entire stretch of stocked water. Gilbert said that a lot of guys use Kastmasters, Rooster Tails, Mepps, Super Duper, night crawlers and salmon eggs.

"You're going to have to work fairly hard unless you fish it right around a plant, and then you can limit out in 45 minutes or less," he said.

"But a good fisherman can catch a limit in four to five hours if there wasn't a plant that day."

The draw to the Lower Kings is Fish and Game's broodfish program, unusual for easily accessible rivers.

During the winter and spring, hundreds of 3- to 6-pound 'bows are stocked, giving anglers an opportunity to catch something other than half-pound planters.

Being successful on the Kings is no major challenge. With easy access, three spots you shouldn't overlook are Winton Recreation Area, Choinumni Recreation Area and above the bridge just below Pine Flat Dam.

Targeting pools and runs through these sections will put you in position to tag easy limits.

LAKE SUCCESS

Lake Success can be the best -- or the worst -- trout fishery in the Central Valley. Lately, it's been among the worst because it's basically an irrigation reservoir, and managers tend to suck it dry almost annually.

In fall of 2007, Success was only 4 percent of full. To help you envision that more vividly, at full pool it offers 82,300 acre-feet of storage. The number had dwindled to 3,374 and was falling.

The lake won't rise until spring runoff shows -- or if the Tule River drainage receives enough rain to push levels higher. Flows will rise in the winter, but don't tend to become too extreme until snowmelt begins in March. Fortunately, even a small pool at the dam will pave the way for Fish and Game to unload trout into the pitiful water levels that fishermen complain are mismanaged annually.

Unless Mother Nature pummels the region with rain, the launch ramps will likely be hanging out on dry land. Don't let that discourage you. We're in the business of catching trout, right? Trout fishing will be exceptional as long as the lake remains close to minimum pool.

Why? Because they have nowhere to go.

Lake Success can be an excellent seasonal trout fishery. Spring is best. Summer can be horrible as water-skiers turn the lake into a highway. For now, Lake Success will be a quiet fishing lake, one that can be tackled by trout-anglers lining the shorelines and soaking bait.

It doesn't matter what that bait is: eggs, worms, dough baits, crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms -- heck, these are stocked trout and they'll eat anything. It's best to buy a second rod stamp, soak bait on one rod and use the other to cast Cripplures, Thomas Buoyants, Krocodiles, Panther Martins, Rooster Tails or Mepps. They could get you a limit in a short time anywhere in front of Highway 190.

An incentive to fishing Success comes with the quality of trout planted. Normally, nothing smaller than 12 inches is stocked, although a few 10- and 11-inchers might slip into the stocking truck.

As a rule 12- to 14-inch fish are standard, which beats most of the trout stocked in local parks and streams in the foothills.

BUENA VISTA LAKE

The Central Valley isn't well known for its excellent trout fisheries on the valley floor. Nevertheless, Buena Vista is one of the few reservoirs that offer anglers a chance to fish for trout without having to drive into the foothills.

Buena Vista doesn't support trout throughout the year. The trout season is short-lived, running from November through April. By late May, 100-degree-plus days and a lake that averages roughly nine feet deep spells death to most of the trout. By early summer, they are all gone.

Fortunately, a strong winter stocking schedule enables Buena Vista to shine as a quality winter trout spot.

Few dinkers are planted. Most run 1 to 2 pounds, yet many trophy trout are planted. Each year, a few fish heavier than 20 pounds are planted.

The downfall is the quality of rainbows. Since they are farm-raised and must huddle in ponds with thousands of other trout, their colors are bland. Scales tend to be flaky, and half-tails are normal. On the other hand, most anglers simply want to catch trout -- and they can achieve that here.

It doesn't take a genius to fish at Buena Vista. All the trout are stocked into 86-acre Lake Evans, the smaller of the two waters inside the Buena Vista Recreation Area. Trolling and shoreline-fishing are effective, but keep in mind this lake is small -- extremely small. There's an island in the middle of the lake, and no point is deeper than 16 feet.

Another thing to consider is the amount of water between the island and the shore. In most spots, you could cast a night crawler and hit the island: There aren't many areas for the trout to hide. Buena Vista is an easy place to fish.

A 5-mph speed limit keeps the lake quiet. But trolling can be effective. If you opt to troll, plan to run short lines and shallow-running lures. When lures are run more than 50 feet behind the boat, most likely you'll get a tangle with someone else's line.

A Needlefish or something lightweight is best.

There are no hotspots. Try to cover as much water as possible. Circle the island in search of active trout.

From the bank, this is a bait-dunker lake. Anglers cast out worms, dough baits, salmon eggs and crickets. Because there's so much fishing pressure in a small general area, using scent is a must. Garlic, crawdad, anise, krill and other scents should help increase your catch rates.

On a side note, in order to pay for the trout, anglers are charged a day-use and fishing fee. This is one of the few waters in the Central Valley that forces anglers to pay to fish in addition to having a license.

But a large number of trophy fish are stocked, and most anglers have no problem paying the fee.

LOS BANOS RESERVOIR

Even in the Central Valley, there are a few spots that anglers overlook. One of the best is Los Banos Reservoir. Often overshadowed by nearby San Luis Reservoir, Los Banos is located on the western edge of the Central Valley and doubles as a good spot for catfish, trout, panfish and largemouth.

Los Banos isn't a prolific trout fishery, but it does give anglers the opportunity to chase trout in an environment that isn't overwhelmed by other anglers.

Fish and Game releases more than 10,000 half-pound rainbows, nearly half of which are a foot or longer.

Try not to get too excited, though -- trophy fish aren't in the cards. A 2-pound rainbow is big here.

The reservoir isn't huge, but it's large enough for anglers to troll. You can be successful in small car-top boats or larger vessels like you'd see trolling for kokanee in Don Pedro and New Melones reservoirs.

Downriggers aren't necessary, although they can be helpful at times. Trout can be found in two portions of the water column: near the surface and down 10 to 20 feet.

Trollers don't need to run long lines, but because pressure will be low, it's an option. The key is to run lures off the tips of points, through coves and around the dam and steep-walled areas. Trout remain in these areas through spring and don't go too deep until extreme heat arrives.

There's no need to run large baits. These trout are mostly 10 to 12 inches, so small spoons, broken-back minnow imitations and flasher-and-crawler combos are most effective.

Los Banos is a great float-tube lake

in the spring. Anglers can work the area close to the launch ramp, yet be out of reach from where the shore-anglers are fishing.

Shoreline anglers have an easy go of it here. In fact, there's no reason to stray far from the launch ramp. With trout stocked twice a month, there are always some hanging out near the launch ramp. Fishing the vicinity of this area can almost guarantee a limit, if you have a few hours to spare.

I'd recommend getting a second rod stamp here as well. Then you could inflate a night crawler or use a marshmallow to float a natural salmon egg off the bottom while casting spoons and spinners towards rising trout.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing Central California. His books can be purchased online at the Web site www.fishingcalifornia.net

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