Top Places for Bass Fishing in Northern California
April 04, 2014
Ah, Northern California! I get excited every time I plan a bass-fishing trip up north. I'm a Southern California fisherman by residence; a California fisherman in heart and soul. I love Northern California for the seasons, the beautiful scenery, and of course, the fishing. I'm excited by the fact that you can catch several subspecies of bass and enjoy a getaway vacation at the same time. You can pursue smallmouth that fight like little freight trains, spotted bass that seem to school in the hundreds as you just keep reeling them in, and the largemouth — the true lunker of all the subspecies.
Here's what to expect for bass fishing in Northern California.
Last year was a great year for fishing throughout California. It was a relatively warm winter, which kept bass biting throughout the year all over the state. I hope you took a chance and ventured off the beaten path and rewarded yourself with a bass-fishing vacation. It's funny how the state isn't really cut in perfect halves when it comes to Northern or Southern California. Let's start heading north out of classic Southern California and hit some lakes that I'm sure you will enjoy this year.
The first lake that comes to mind is a new one for my list, Lopez Lake. The lake is nestled in the beautiful foothills, about 10 miles east of Arroyo, California. This lake isn't a giant but boasts about 1,000 surface-acres. There are largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass and even a rare walleye in this lake as well as white bass and stripers. The spotted bass have not taken over this lake as they have in many other northern California impoundments, so largemouth is top of the list.
I talked to my friend and lure designer, Pete Wolf, who owns Big Hammer Baits. He fished Lopez in April 2013 and had a really fun time. Wolf said the largemouth were in prespawn with maybe a few early spawners present. He went on to say the largemouth were keyed on shad, so they threw his Big Hammer swimbaits in 3-inch size in various shad patterns. One of his favorite colors, Smally Chaser, was doing real well. They caught fish to 8 pounds and could have weighed a 30-pound-plus stringer if in a tourney.
The bass all become quite active by summer and the bag will increase in variety. The largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass will all eat drop-shot plastics, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and topwater. Remember don't forget the smaller swimbaits as well. Crashing fish in the summer can mean stripers, white bass, and even largemouth. Fishing can be good year-round, with water temps between 60 and 72 degrees for the best action. There is camping and hiking, as well as picnic areas and fun for the entire family.
Heading north and still in San Luis Obispo County is Lake Nacimiento. The lake is 16 miles long and has over 165 miles of coves and shoreline. This lake has excellent fishing for spotted bass and just seems to get better every year. The largemouth and smallmouth are decreasing in population at this lake, but you can still catch some nice ones. The largemouth record is 9 pounds, 14 ounces, and for spotted bass is 5 pounds, 8 ounces. White bass fishing can also be fun here. The lake has launch ramps, RV parks, campgrounds and hiking trails for fun.
Spring at this lake can bring wide-open fishing as the largemouth and spotted bass start their spawn about the same time. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits and various plastics thrown on whatever rig you like best will do well. Summer fishing brings topwater action that can last all day. Pop-R or Zara Spook-type baits will do well. Also a favorite of Wolf, he has told me of summer days with wide-open bites with buzzbaits calling the fish up to the surface. Look to rock areas and main lake points for more action.
Just up the road from Nacimiento is Lake San Antonio. This lake is about the same size at 17 miles long and holds largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as stripers. There are no spotted bass to wipe out the population of the other two species. The lake record for largemouth is 9 pounds, 4 ounces, but larger fish have been rumored to have been caught and not reported to lake staff.
This lake can also be good year-round. Late winter to early spring, throw jigs or creature baits for both largemouth and smallmouth. Look to rocky points or underwater rockpiles. Once spring arrives and water temperatures rise, the bass here rush the banks and almost anything plastic works well, with topwater starting earlier than on most lakes and going strong into the fall. Watch your graph closely for the underwater hills and mounds for larger largemouth, and rockpiles for smallmouth.
Just north is Pine Flat Lake. The lake is about the same size as well at 20 miles long and 5,790 surface-acres. As I mentioned, the spotted bass have started to take over a lot of the Northern California lakes and this one is no exception. Spotted bass usually mean a lot of numbers for fishermen and not size, but this lake holds the spotted bass world record of 10 pounds, 4 ounces, and one of the previous records at 9 pounds, 9 ounces. So, you have a chance at some nice size fish here as well as quantity. Six- to 8-pound spotted bass are caught every year at this lake.
The spots here eat everything, with springtime having the males make their way to the shallows. Finesse is best, with drop-shot rigs doing well. "Do nothing" baits, like the Yamamoto Senko, also do very well here around the shoreline stickups. Don't hesitate to use the 5-inch model in watermelon black flake or any in that color range. Ikas are also a good bait here as they emulate crawdads. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits will also produce well into the year, with topwater taking over in summer and fall. It's a great lake for all the family.
I know some of you love to smallmouth fish and the lake in California for you is Pardee Reservoir. Located about 30 miles east of Stockton, California, it has about 37 miles of shoreline and 2,257 surface-acres. Although a little smaller than the last three lakes I covered, this lake is known for it's smallmouth fishery. It holds the California state record at 9 pounds, 13 ounces, and has had many 5- to 8-pound fish caught there over the years.
There are no jet-skiers or water-skiers to bother you at this fishing getaway and there is all the structure you will need to score. The smallmouth love crawdads and jigs, and creature-type baits will do well, with drop-shot rigged plastics scoring around rocky or gravel shorelines. The smallmouth here even chase the trout around, so smaller trout swimbaits will work as well.
Moving west, we come to the California Delta. With thousands of miles of fishing shoreline, this delta area can be out of this world for largemouth and smallmouth fishing. With all the many water trails to follow, you can get lost here as a novice. No, I'm not kidding. Make sure you have a GPS or mapping unit on your boat, or at least a map of the Delta, available at most local tackle shops. Water movement or tidal movement also plays a factor here, for it is the backwaters of San Francisco Bay, so get a local tide calendar. Moving water stirs up the food chain, which means the bass will be feeding and more enticed to bite.
This area has every kind of fishing you could ever want to experience. Flipping tules, spinnerbaits run through new tule growth, white on white with even a white Colorado blade has always done well for me here. Jigs can be thrown almost anywhere. Throw to the stillwater or eddies behind different structure. Try crankbaits on rocky banks, and buzzbaits over shoreline weeds against some of the rocky dykes. The list goes on and on.
One of my favorite things to do here is to find a bunch of matted weed and throw frogs across it. The largemouth will explode up through it to score a meal! One trick for this is to wrap a little more lead around the hook inside the frog so it sits a little lower on the matte of weeds, making it easier for the bass to take.
The Stockton, California, area is pretty centrally located and lets you explore most of the delta, but there are many other launch ramps, so check out a map of your area. I could use this entire article to talk about all the fishing opportunities there, so let your fingers do the walking on your computer and search California Game and Fish Magazine for articles on the Delta. You should get different articles for the time of year. But, I'm telling you that you will be able to do every type of fishing you can imagine here.
As we head north through wine country we come to Clear Lake, just north of Napa Valley. It's hard to describe just how great this lake is. It has to be in the top two lakes, if not the number one lake, for bass fishing in California. The lake record is a whopping 17 pounds, 8 ounces, and double-digit fish here are almost common. It is also a numbers lake and these fish are quality as well, averaging about 1.5 to 2 pounds. My first experience on this lake was in a bass tournament. I had the big fish the first day, going 9 pounds, 15 ounces. The second day other contestants brought in a dozen larger fish! And, this was in September!
This lake has everything, from gravely shoreline to tules to docks and rocks. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jigs and various plastics thrown around docks or what's left of docks can score. Open shoreline can be worked with crankbaits and rattletraps. In the spring the swimbait bite can be out of this world with larger fish coming to the boat. Summer turns to topwater actions and fall can bring giants to the scales as well. Deep structure will hold them at that time of year. The next record largemouth may come from this lake.
Just to the northeast of Clear Lake is Lake Oroville. With over 167 miles of shoreline, you should have no trouble getting away from fishing pressure. The lake holds largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass with the spotted bass running the show here. There are big largemouth as the lake record of 14 pounds, 15, ounces shows. Even the record spotted bass is over 8 pounds. This lake is definitely a numbers lake as a past slot limit has keep 1.5 to 2 pound fish from being taken for several years.
I talked to my friend Chris Baugh who lives near the lake and he tells me it is going strong as ever. He likes to drop-shot this lake with various shad-colored plastics. Small swimbaits in shad pattern work as well. Crankbaits rank as a top bait with jerkbaits — hard and soft — also taking fish. Rock slides or rocky main lake points will get you into some non-stop action at times on this lake.
A lot of these lakes fish similarly and it's up to you to try out all of your favorite baits and colors. Don't forget that almost all of these lakes have trout in them as well and we all know how a big trout-imitation bait will score a giant bass if you put the time in throwing it. Almost all are open year-round, but a few may be affected by weather. If you hit them up in the spring, summer, or fall, you can't go wrong.
This year I brought in a few new waters and a couple of others I have mentioned in the past returned to my list. But Shasta, Trinity, Almanor, Berryessa, Pardee and Millerton are all still great getaways and fishing opportunities, as are many other smaller impoundments. California Game and Fish's website holds a plethora of information on California lakes as well, as does the rest of the web. Take a chance; take a fishing vacation, and visit one of these exciting lakes.
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