Northern California Bass Fishing Forecast

Ish Monroe has been on a good run lately.

The Bassmaster Elite Angler is No. 20 in the Bassmaster standings and ranked No. 48 in the world. He has knocked down Top 10 finishes in several major tournaments over the past year, capped by a wire-to-wire victory at the 2011 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open last September at Lake Oneida, near Syracuse, New York.

I caught up with the affable pro recently for an interview and learned that no matter how good you are and where you fish, there's no place quite like northern California for bassin' action.

While the tournament circuit takes him a long way from his home in the Modesto area, Monroe makes no bones about why he continues to live in the Central Valley of California.

"Northern California bass fishing is phenomenal," said Monroe. "We have all three species — largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass — and I can catch them 12 months of the year. There are about 20 lakes within a three-hour radius of my home where, on any given day, I can catch a 20-pound limit or have a chance at a state record.

"The diversity of bass fishing here is incredible. There's the shallow water of Clear Lake and the Delta or you can go deep at Shasta, McClure, Don Pedro or Oroville. Turbid water, clear water; it's all available, and I truly believe that all the time I spend fishing in California makes me a better angler. In other parts of the country you may have one type of fishing. Alabama bass fishing is Alabama bass fishing. The beauty of northern California is that we have it all right here, so close."

Monroe expects 2012 to offer incredible fishing in most of the region's bass waters due to back-to-back high water years in 2010 and 2011.

"When we get these kinds of water years — when Clear Lake floods and the reservoirs fill up — we always get good spawns. It puts nutrients in the water and the baitfish populations explode, and that produces lots of fish, and some really big fish. There were 25-pound limits of spotted bass coming out of Shasta last year, which is just amazing."

Monroe's read on the whole chain of ecological events is well-supported by bass biology and California water facts.

A series of wet years following a prolonged drought creates the perfect storm for super-charged productivity in the reservoirs of northern California — and that is exactly what happened.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, Lake Shasta was at 61 percent of its capacity on June 1, 2008 and then was at 99 percent and 98 percent capacity, respectively, the last two years on that same date. The drought produced rings of vegetation along the shoreline that have been submerged and transformed into excellent habitat for bass, kicking into gear what seasoned anglers refer to as the turning over of a reservoir.

It is shaping up to be a great year for NorCal anglers. Here's what to expect in some of the most promising waters, ranging from world-renowned lakes to small-water sleepers. This rundown devotes particular attention to the granddaddy of northern California bass waters — Clear Lake — due to the extraordinary size of fish it is currently producing. Don't miss it in 2012!

SACRAMENTO VALLEY REGION

Clear Lake may be the best big-fish bass lake in the country right now. The 2011 tournaments produced staggering results: It typically took 45 pounds (for 10 fish) to get in the real money and numerous tournament anglers produced a four-pound average and went home without a check! While that might be a bit frustrating for the ardent tournament angler, it makes for a wonderful place for a parent to take their children on a sunny spring or summer morning. The odds of a kid hooking a 4- to 6-pound largemouth may never be better than at Clear Lake from now through September.

According to local fishing expert Terry Knight, Clear Lake hosts about 45-50 major bass tournaments each year. Knight closely examines the results of each tournament. The average fish weighed in over the last year is about 3.4 pounds, a remarkable average for any lake that receives much fishing pressure. The ecological changes taking place at Clear Lake following the last two years of high water should spur that trend further upward in 2012.

"The character of Clear Lake has changed the last couple of years with tremendous aquatic vegetation growth," said Knight, long-time outdoor columnist for the Record Bee newspaper in Lakeport, avid angler, and acute observer of the trends in Clear Lake as a bass fishery. "We had great spawns the last two years and there are lots of small bass, but the real draw is the number of 4- to 6-pound fish we had last year. They'll be even bigger this year. We were missing that age class of 8- to 10-pound fish but may have it again pretty soon."

Knight explains that while the overall population size is still down a bit from years past when a recreational angler could easily catch 25-plus fish in a day, anglers with a reasonable understanding of the lake should be able to catch 15-20 fish a day this year.

Swimbaits and frogs can be deadly at times, as are crankbaits and other topwater lures. The water has been crystal clear in recent years, a situation conducive to sight-fishing when the females are on the nest. Go with a small grub or lizard on a jig-head so you can see the fish pick it up. Drop-shotting around the docks can also be very effective, particularly for inexperienced anglers. I have had great days throwing grubs, Senkos, and small plastics around rockpiles and submerged islands. My brother and I caught a 7.25- and 6.5-pounder, respectively, in the same day a few years ago by working plastics slowly around rocks on the north end of the lake. Lastly, an essential Clear Lake bait is the Lucky Craft LV500 lipless crankbait, which is best fished using the "yo-yo" retrieve of letting it fall and then giving a sharp jerk. It will likely be the most reliable Clear Lake bait again in 2012.

Lake Shasta, long the mainstay of spotted bass fishing in the north of the state, is also poised for a spectacular 2012. The spot fishing was outstanding last spring, with tons of fish in the 13- to 14-inch range and a good number of 3- to 4-pound spots showing up in tournaments this time of year. The reservoir filled up in 2010 and 2011, and appears headed for a similar condition in 2012.

"There will be a good topwater bite in April and May," said Tony Messer of Phil's Propeller Shop in Redding. "The spots are averaging about a pound and a half, but there are plenty of spots in that larger size-class."

Shasta has become California's consummate spotted bass fishery due to a respectable average size of the fish, staggering numbers (it is not uncommon to catch 50-100 fish in a day when things are right), and the lake's consistency. Plastics are the bread-and-butter for most Shasta anglers due to the clear water and abundance of long, sloping shorelines with minimal cover. However, swimbaits, small cranks, topwater lures and even frogs can be effective when the water is high and fish have access to flooded willows in the backs of coves.

Lake Oroville is a productive lake with an excellent population of spotted bass. With its 12- to 15-inch slot limit, it offers lots of action on most days. The fish can be finicky in the winter and sometimes during post-spawn, but overall it is a great place to wear out your arm hauling in chunky spots all day. Plastics, swimbaits and topwater lures are generally the top baits.

"Oroville is a great place to catch a 5-pound spotted bass," says Glenn Lockhart, 2011 Anglers Choice Pro/Am Pro Angler of the Year. "I've had some incredible days when the spots are suspended over deep water off points. Swimbaits can be very effective in those situations, but I also throw small tubes on 6-pound test line a lot."

The sleeper for the Sacramento Valley region is Indian Valley Reservoir, located off Highway 20 on the way up to Clear Lake, which has a fantastic population of largemouth and smallmouth bass. It is tailor-made for small aluminum boats, kayaks and even float tubes. It's located in a lovely spot in the coastal foothills and has a nice campground. So if big-water bassin' isn't your game, throw the 12-foot aluminum on the car top and take your camping gear for a great spring weekend of fishing.

THE MOTHERLODE

The foothill reservoirs of the gold country have all benefitted significantly from the massive Sierra snowpack and run-off the last two springs. The key to fishing these reservoirs is to recognize that each lake is slowly evolving toward a spotted bass and/or smallmouth fishery but that good largemouth fishing still exists in places.

The most recent shift has been that that spotted bass have taken hold in New Melones, a reservoir that was primarily a largemouth lake as recently as 8-10 years ago. As such, it is important to adapt by using techniques and baits that are effective at, say, Shasta or Oroville. It is a fertile lake and still contains some monster largemouths, so will offer a unique opportunity for largemouths and spots over the next few years. Likewise, Don Pedro is not the exclusive largemouth lake that it was 15 years ago, but you can still catch some big bucketmouths by working the backs of coves and secondary points with worms, jigs, swimbaits and cranks. McClure has long since transitioned to a spotted bass fishery. While McClure spots aren't as big as in other lakes, the incredible numbers make up for it.

Two sleeper lakes in this region are Lake Pardee and Lake Tulloch. Smallmouths are the prime draw at both lakes, but both also have largemouths and spots. The state record smallmouth, a 9.13-pounder, came out of Pardee. Monroe noted that he had some tremendous frog fishing at Tulloch last fall.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

One of the premier big bass waters in the country, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta offers an endless array of opportunities for legendary largemouth fishing. There were many instances of Delta tournaments producing five-fish limits of 25-30 pounds a day during 2011, and a three-pound average is commonplace for the average angler.

According to Monroe, who spends a lot of time there using his trademark frog — the Snag Proof Ish's Phat Frog — the Delta is a remarkable fishery.

"I've really been throttling them on my frog in the Delta," said Monroe. "Using some of these new techniques like punching (using a weight to get the frog through thick weed mats), I've had lots of 30-50 fish days on the Delta lately."

Other good bets in the region include Pine Flat and Millerton, long known as spotted bass strongholds. Keep an eye on Pine Flat over the next couple of years because it was a sustained drought followed by a wet cycle that produced some amazing spotted bass fishing in the 1990s. In fact, the state record, a 10.4-pound spotted bass, came out of Pine Flat in 2001. Millerton isn't known for big bass, but it can be a great place to get your line stretched by lots of spots this spring.

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