A Trio Of Sierra Trout Lakes

French Meadows Reservoir, Hell Hole Reservoir and Stumpy Meadows Reservoir are prime trout lakes that despite their proximity to one another fish altogether differently.

Jim English caught this quality brown trout at French Meadows Reservoir while fishing worms from the south shoreline.
Photo by Cal Kellogg

Dawn broke cold and gray. The low mantle of clouds threatened snow. It was April but it felt more like October. I hadn't fished French Meadows since the previous fall, before snow blocked the access road. Anxious to get started I launched my boat in record time and headed for Anderson Dam. I planned to begin trolling on the north end of the dam where a stream flows into the lake.

Closing on the creek I saw a fish break the surface as it chased minnows. My pulse quickened. Without wasting time I killed the gas motor, switched to the electric trolling motor and put two rods in the water. The first sported a silver and black No. 9 Rapala, the second a smoke-colored 3-inch grub.

The rods were in their holders about a minute when the Rapala got hammered. I grabbed the rod and felt the head shaking of a quality trout. A split second later a chrome-bright rainbow rocketed to the surface for the first of three rapid jumps. Initially I thought it was the fish I was fighting but about the time the rainbow threw the hook it dawned on me that the jumping trout was actually on my second rod. Even if you don't land both fish a double hook up is still a fine way to start the day!

Four hours later I was back in my camp eating chili with Willie Nelson -- well, Willie was on the radio -- and had four husky 'bows in my cooler. It had been another great morning of trout fishing beyond the Foresthill Divide.

If you want to catch trout and plenty of them, Northern California is a great place to live. At the mention of trout fishing places like Shasta, Almanor, Eagle, Whiskeytown and Davis immediately jump to mind. These familiar lakes represent the jewels in Northern California's trout fishing crown. While I enjoy fishing these notable waters, I also get great satisfaction targeting lesser-known lakes that offer top-notch action but in a more serene atmosphere.

Six years ago I stumbled upon a trio of high country trout lakes -- French Meadows Reservoir, Hell Hole Reservoir and Stumpy Meadows Reservoir -- that are definitely off the beaten path. East of Auburn, all three are outstanding trout fisheries nestled in the granite-studded beauty of the western Sierra Nevada. Even though these lakes are situated reasonably near one another, they each offer a unique angling experience.

FRENCH MEADOWS RESERVIOR

French Meadows has the attributes to delight any trout fanatic. In fact, knowledgeable anglers consider French Meadows among the top trout lakes in the Sierra.

The lake is situated at 5,200 feet, in a timbered valley on the headwaters of the American River's Middle Fork. By high country standards, French Meadows is large with 1,900 surface acres and more than 8 miles of shoreline.

At first glance French Meadows provides few obvious clues for the first-time angler. The lake is oblong in shape with no prominent points, peninsulas or other obvious structure. A closer look reveals plentiful habit, big numbers of trout and forage aplenty.

The lake's central feature is its submerged river channel. The depth here averages about 100 feet and affords the trout deep-water sanctuary. From the deep-water channel the bottom rises quickly at first and then more gradually, resulting in large flats ranging from 10 to 50 feet in depth. The lake bottom is composed of small- to medium-sized rock and is punctuated by tree stumps and boulders, which provide the trout cover and shade.

Annually the DFG stocks French Meadows with 9,700 catchable rainbows and 1,200 browns in the foot-long class. Combine these planters with a strong resident population of holdovers from previous years and you've got the makings of something special. The lake's rainbows average 12 to 22 inches while browns range beyond 6 pounds.

The quality of a trout fishery is dictated in large part by the quality of forage it eats. Look beneath the surface of a great trout fishery and you'll find a diverse and plentiful prey base. Pond smelt, crawfish, sculpins, juvenile trout, caddis flies and other invertebrates fuel French Meadows' trout fishery. Pond smelt represent the lake's primary forage,, with crawfish running a strong second. Caddis hatches occur on most evenings from summer through early fall. On windless evenings the hatching caddis can provide fly anglers with good surface action.

French Meadows trout aren't picky in terms of what they will strike. It's one of those lakes where rudimentary trolling and bait fishing tactics consistently produce quality fish. For me the lake is a "slump breaker" because it's a place where I catch fish on about 95 percent of my trips. The fishing at French Meadows can be great from early spring, when access roads open, until late fall, when the roads are blocked by snow. I've heard stories about people snowmobiling into the lake during early winter. As the story goes these guys have great luck tossing big plugs for large browns near the dam. This is an adventure I would like to try.

The reservoir's large expanses of shallow to mid-depth water and abundant forage encourage the trout to spread out. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the most productive areas. In general, the lake's rainbows concentrate near the river channel, dam and areas with current. In my experience the lake's rainbows like to stay over deep water even though they may be feeding just under the surface.

The lake's rainbows feed largely on baitfish and I choose my lures accordingly. Spoons, grubs, plugs, and flies that imitate baitfish in the 1- to 3-inch range work well. I like to begin with natural colors before breaking out the bright stuff. Worm and flasher combos as well as lone threaded worms also take their share of fish. Most of the year you can catch fish by top-lining, which trolling without the use of weights. During the height of summer it's wise to bring a leadcore outfit or downrigger for exploring deeper water.

French Meadows' browns spend much of their time lurking around stump-dotted flats, often coming near the shoreline. The browns prey heavily on baitfish, however they also consume a lot of crawfish. This is especially true of the lake's larger browns.

Auburn: Gateway To Recreation

Founded in 1849, the foothill community of Auburn served as a hub for mining activity. Today the town serves as a gateway for fishing, hunting, rafting, mountain bike riding and hiking opportunities. Of interest to anglers are the excellent year round trout fishing opportunities the area offers.

In addition to French Meadows, Hell Hole and Stumpy Meadows reservoirs, other trout waters can be found here West of Folsom Lake, treat yourself to great winter and early spring fishing for holdover rainbows and king salmon. Just off interstate 80 about 15 miles east of Auburn lies Rollins Lake and its strong population of rainbows and browns. Fishing for them is best between October and June when they can be found in shallow water.

Continue driving east to Donner Lake, which has mackinaw, browns, rainbows and kokanee salmon. The lake is known for magnum mackinaw exceeding 20 pounds, and some of the lake's holdover browns and rainbows also grow to trophy size. For a chance at big trout visit the lake from fall through spring. During the summer Donner offers good kokanee action.

For fly-anglers there's good stream fishing during summer and fall. Just south of Auburn, the Middle Fork of the American River has a resident population of wild rainbows. Most of the fish are pan-sized, but fish to 3 pounds are caught periodically. The Middle Fork offers several points of public access from Auburn to its head waters at French Meadows Reservoir.

The Bear River flows out of Rollins Lake and is home to rainbow and brown trout. Evening hatches occur summer through fall and provide good dry-fly action. My personal best Bear River trout is 3-pound brown that took a No. 14 black Hare's Ear nymph.

For information on Auburn area fishing, call Will Fish Tackle in Auburn, 530-887-0839. -- Calvin Kellogg

 

Fast-trolling minnow plugs is the preferred method for targeting the reservoir's browns. I've found Rapala minnows in sizes 7, 9 and 11 to be effective. Rainbow trout, brown trout, silver and black, and fire tiger represent my favorite finishes. These lures should be trolled between 3mph and 5mph, at least 200 feet behind the boat.

Bait fishing and bank fishing can be very rewarding at French Meadows. Earlier I mentioned that the lake's rainbows stay near the river channel. Rest assured enough of them stray onto the shoreline flats to keep bank anglers smiling. Add to these wayward 'bows the hefty browns that haunt the shoreline and it becomes clear that you don't need a boat to enjoy success. Most standard fare -- worms, crickets, mealworms, salmon eggs and dough baits -- will produce. My favorite bait is a lively night crawler fished suspended under a slip bobber or inflated and floated off the bottom on a slip sinker rig.

French Meadows Reservoir is 58 miles east of Auburn. It has two boat ramps and excellent camping facilities. For directions, general information and maps call the Foresthill office of the Tahoe National Forest, 530-367-2224.

HELL HOLE RESERVIOR

Rugged, majestic and awe-inspiring describe Hell Hole Reservoir. Hell Hole encompasses 1,300 surface acres and is formed in a granite valley at 4,700 feet by the pristine waters of the Rubicon River, which flows out of the Desolation Wilderness.

Hell Hole is a deep reservoir that plays host to brown and rainbow trout, mackinaw and kokanee salmon. Aside from its beauty and solitude, the big draws at Hell Hole are the lake's king-sized browns and mackinaw (lake trout). Fish in the 5- to 8-pound-class are reasonably common, and 10-pounders are possible. Hell Hole's trout aren't the free strikers you'll find at French Meadows but they make up for it in size. On the other hand, the lake's kokanee usually provide quick action and make for great dinners back in camp.

Hell Hole has a self-sustaining mackinaw population and a good resident population of holdover browns. Annually, the DFG stocks the lake with 2,500 fingerling rainbows, 7,500 foot-long browns and 25,000 fingerling kokanee. These fingerling rainbows and kokanee provide easy prey for the lake's predatory mackinaw and browns.

The fishing at Hell Hole is largely a deep-water proposition. The lake is extremely clear and sunlight drives the fish deep. Periods of low light such as dawn, dusk and overcast days are prime fishing times. At these times the fish become active and move up in the water column to feed. Serious anglers wouldn't dream of fishing Hell Hole without a sonar unit and downrigger. The reservoir's browns and mackinaw relate strongly to structure. The ability to locate drop-offs, submerged points, rock humps and holding fish is of paramount importance.

For brown trout focus your efforts along submerged points and other nearshore structure from the surface down to 80 feet, depending on the season and light level. The No. 1 technique for the lake's browns is fast tolling 4- to 6-inch minnow plugs. Finishes that match the lake's fingerling rainbows and kokanee produce the most consistent action. For a slower presentation try a large Apex or Flatfish in the same color schemes.

If you mark fish but they refuse your trolled lures don't be afraid to try bait fishing. Note the trout's depth and show them a night crawler suspended under a slip bobber. This super stealthy approach has paid off for me many times.

Mackinaws approaching 20 pounds have been caught in Hell Hole. The reservoir's macks suspend in 60 to 100 feet of water near secondary points, vertical drop-offs and rock humps. They can be taken trolling or jigging. For trolling run large J Plugs, Apex, Flatfish and Rapalas 100 feet behind a downrigger. Sick with patterns that match the lake's juvenile rainbows and kokanee.

Jigging is an exciting hands-on approach to mackinaw fishing. Once mackinaws are located, position your boat so it will drift over the fish. Drop a Hopkins Spoon, Gibbs Minnow or large Kastmaster to a depth just above the fish and work it with two-foot sweeps of the rod tip. Strikes, ranging from a spongy feeling to a hard tug, usually come as the lure drops. Hell Hole's macks will be close to rocks. When you hook a fish use your trolling motor to move off the structure over open water while aggressively retrieving line to get the fish moving toward the boat.

Hell Hole is 69 miles east of Auburn. The reservoir offers a boat ramp and four campgrounds, including a boat-in camp. For directions, general information and maps, call the Eldorado National Forest office in Georgetown, 530-333-4312.

STUMPY MEADOWS RESERVOIR

Stumpy Meadows Reservoir, with only 330 surface acres and a 5mph speed limit, provides an intimate fishing experience. Situated at 4,400 feet, the lake has recently become home to a pair of bald eagles. If you're lucky you might see them diving for fish.

Stumpy has a good holdover population of rainbows and browns. Annually the DFG plants the reservoir with 10,000 catchable rainbows, 2,000 catchable browns and 10,000 brown trout fingerlings. Stumpy's trout run smaller than those at French Meadows and Hell Hole yet fish in the 4-pound range are common. Much larger browns cruise the lake and are occasionally caught. The mouth of Pilot Creek traditionally produces Stumpy's biggest browns.

Stumpy's trout can be taken

trolling or bait fishing. The reservoir's trout typically aren't too finicky. Among locals, the top offering at Stumpy is silver blades and 'crawlers trolled slowly. Other trolling baits that produce include Needlefish, Cripple Lures, Blue Fox spinners, minnow plugs and threaded night crawlers fished with only a single spit shot. On a decent day it isn't unusual to do battle with a half-dozen trout in the 12- to 20-inch class. This kind of action won't disappoint the most ardent trout angler.

Natural baits such as worms, mealworms and crickets produce the largest fish, although salmon eggs and dough baits tempt their share of rainbows. Good bait fishing results can be had from boat and bank alike. Baits can be fished off the bottom using sliding sinker rigs or suspended under a slip bobber. If the breeze cooperates a slip bobber allows you to cover lots of water by letting the bobber drift free with an open bail.

Stumpy Meadows Reservoir offers a boat ramp, picnic area and campground. For directions, general information and maps call the Eldorado National Forest office in Georgetown, 530-333-4312.

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