California smallmouth bass hold our esteem and fire up our imaginations.
When it comes to California bass fishing, you have a much better chance of catching a largemouth or spot on any given cast than a smallmouth.
Largemouth fisheries easily outnumber smallmouth fisheries. And California smallmouth bass rivers and reservoirs are methodically being taken over by spotted bass. Spots displace and out-compete smallmouths pretty much anywhere they live. They cross-breed with smallmouths and dilute the gene pool. And spots love current and have zero problem setting up shop in rivers that were once the exclusive domain of smallies.
I don’t frustrate myself by thinking of lakes or rivers where I can exclusively hook smallmouths. Instead, I think in terms of waters that consistently produce big quality smallmouths mixed in amid spots and largemouths, which can often carry the bulk of the action.
Spotted bass, of course, hold their own typically in large numbers — and an ever-growing number at that — as they systematically spread across the state. Yet, it’s California smallmouth bass that holds our esteem and fire up our imaginations.
At one time, California was a state where smallmouth bass were loved by anglers who targeted them in both reservoir and rivers. We loved the way they struck, the way they jumped and the way they look: tiger-striped and bronzed … and that angry eye!
We’re still blessed with outstanding smallmouth fishing here in the Golden State; it’s just not a slam dunk like it used to be. Back in the ’70s, if you were bass fishing in California north of Clear Lake or at elevations in the Sierra foothills, you likely targeted smallmouths. These days — with a few notable exceptions, such as Lake Almanor — there are few lakes or rivers where you can go and specifically target smallmouths. Even Lake Almanor holds a sleeper population of northern-strain largemouths that show in local catches every now and then.
California Smallmouth Bass Hotspots
Folsom Lake is one of Northern California’s most fascinating destinations. The lake is just minutes away from Sacramento as the Sierra foothills begin to rise and is regularly hammered by legions of anglers and recreation watercraft enthusiasts. Nonetheless, it is capable of providing top-notch fishing for quality bass.
When it’s full, Folsom features about 11,000 surface acres, 75 miles of shoreline and two extensive river arms. Its reputation supports a love-hate relationship with its anglers. Bass anglers who spend time to learn the lake’s secrets are often rewarded with fantastic fishing action. Casual, visiting anglers who often don’t do their homework, especially those visiting during the summer, leave the lake wondering if there are any bass in the lake. Many vow never to return.
Not me. One breezy summer afternoon at Folsom Lake, I remember my fishing buddy Mark Fong hollering, “Wolf pack!” as he walked his Zara Spook back toward the boat with a bevy of bass on its tail. I was already watching, saw a splash, and spotted a half-dozen smallmouth bass in the 2- to 4-pound class swarming beneath it. The Spook was nearly to the boat when one of the smaller fish finally pounced on it. Mark had his hands full battling the bad-tempered bronzeback on 4 feet of line.
From the post-spawn period through summer and into fall, you can get crazy-aggressive smallmouth action at Folsom on fish that top out at 5 pounds. And these big smallmouths are often swimming side by side with big spots. Sometimes, aggressive feeding action takes place right on the surface; other times, it occurs off submerged structure. But whether deep or shallow, the fishing action is triggered by the presence of pond smelt or threadfin shad.
Surface chop is often a green light for deep-holding bass to move up to the surface where they try to crowd bait up against structure that is adjacent to deep water. That’s the sort of situation Mark and I found ourselves in. An hour earlier there had been few bass in the shallows, but as soon as the afternoon breeze kicked up the bass materialized, and we spanked them!
If you find smallmouths and spots blitzing bait on medium-deep structure, burn vibrating crankbaits through the zone; bass often stack up quickly. If the fish are deeper yet, bust out those jigging spoons. If you’ve never “spooned” for bass, you’ve been missing out. When the conditions are right on Folsom’s granite drops, you can pick up a bass practically on every drop and most of the fish will be smallies and spots that weigh 2 1/2 to 4 pounds and maybe more. When spooning up those bait-gobbling, deep-water bass, don’t be surprised when the water temperature is right if you pick up a big rainbow trout or king salmon that will blitz bait side-by-side with the bass.
If you hit Folsom on a day when the bass are not aggressively chasing bait, soft-plastics will save the day. My personal favorite is a 4-inch Senko worm, whacky-rigged and dead-sticked off structure that drops into deep water. Other anglers rely on drop-shot rigs and 4-inch finesse worms worked on split-shot rigs. Baitfish color patterns typically work well for these lures, but there are days when dark patterns out-perform the light-colored stuff.
If smallmouths are your primary target on Folsom, look to the area of the North Fork of the American River above Rattlesnake Bar. I’ve also picked off multiple 4- and 5-pound smallies in Folsom’s main body. The second-largest smallmouth of my bass-fishing career weighed in at just more than 6 pounds. It was caught in the North Fork of the American upstream from the lake. The big fish grabbed a Rapala twitched along the surface in early June. The fish likely migrated into the river after spawning in the lake.
Wait just one second! Everybody knows the Delta is largemouth water! That’s where guys hunt double-digit Florida bass with swimbaits and frogs!
Indeed! The primary Sacramento River Delta is home to some epic largemouth bass, and that’s great news for the smallmouth enthusiasts among us, as anglers target the lower reaches for those big largemouths. But the upper reach of the Delta sees very light fishing pressure, and it is absolutely stuffed with smallmouth bass (and fun-sized largemouths and spots, too). By early summer, the fish concentrate on cover and become quite aggressive. The Sacramento River and the channels that flow into it above the city of Rio Vista routinely provide 25- to 50-bass days for anglers fishing in June, July and August. The mixed bass catch will hold individual fish that range up to 4 pounds, although the average smallmouth runs anywhere from 10 inches to 2 1/2 pounds.
Upstream from Rio Vista, all the channels of the Sacramento River are lined with riprap, and many of the sloughs feature overhanging trees. In most cases the bass will hold tight to the riprap, and the strike zone extends only a yard or two off the shoreline. The exceptions to this rule come in the form of flats created by the current in river bends and manmade features, like docks and moored houseboats that typically translate to suspended bass that suck-up tight into the shade beneath the boat or dock. Where flats lie, the bass will gladly spread out to hunt.
You can catch Delta bass on soft-plastics, but why would you when the reaction-bite is most exciting! My first-choice lure is a small popper, like a Rebel Pop R. Unlike a walking bait, the Pop R can “loiter” in the near-shore honey zone as it drifts with the current. A walking bait is in and out of the strike zone too quickly.
If you can’t get the bass to come to the surface, admittedly rare in the summer, break out your crawfish pattern crankbaits and go to work pitching, cranking and dissecting any features you might stumble upon. Hit every piling, extra-large rock, downed tree and abandoned wing dam. Not only do smallies, spots and largemouths flock to smallish crawdad crankbaits, but stripers will grab them too! It’s pretty exciting when an 8-pound striper grabs your Wiggle Wart and doubles over your spinning rod on a blistering run into deep water!
Lake Berryessa boasts strong populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass and is truly a bass anglers’ paradise. Most of the lake’s bass fall into the 10- to 14-inch range, but trophy largemouths can weigh into the teens. Spots and smallmouths can top 5 pounds.
Berryessa is a massive body of water, boasting 21,000 surface acres, 165 miles of shoreline, and a maximum depth of more than 240 feet when full, where it spreads out in the hills of Solano County about 50 miles north of the Bay Area. Because the lake is so large, I approach it as if it were three separate bodies of water: The Narrows, the main body and Putah Creek.
Spotted bass and smallmouths are the dominant species found in the The Narrows, although it’s not uncommon to find a sprinkling of largemouths there. One of the unique features of this area is the amount of downed timber found along the bank. The steep shoreline combines with spring rains to cause large sections of the hillsides to slide off into the lake, taking the surrounding brush and trees with it. It’s not uncommon for a trunk visible along the shore to have its upper branches resting in 15 or 18 feet of water. This sets up an ideal situation for working a surface lure, rip-bait, or spinnerbait over the top of fish suspended in tree limbs well below the surface.
Putah Creek lies on Berryessa’s northwest shoreline. Think of this rocky creek channel as smallmouth headquarters. It is one of the most popular areas of the lake among bass anglers.
Forage is abundant at Berryessa. Crawfish are probably the most popular forage item for the lake’s bass throughout the year, but the lake’s populations of pond smelt and threadfin shad should be considered, too, when you select your lures.
No discussion of California smallmouth bass fishing should pass without mention of Lake Almanor, located on the headwaters of the Feather River in Northern California’s Plumas County. Almanor plays host to a bustling population of bronzebacks that average 2 to 4 pounds in size and range beyond 5 pounds.
Situated at 4,500 feet in a conifer-studded valley and framed by northwest views of Mount Lassen, Almanor provides a vivid contrast to the state’s foothill and valley bass factories. With its mountain scenery, pristine water, heavy winter snows and trophy smallmouths, Almanor is about as close as a poor California boy like me is likely to come to a classic “North Country” bass lake.
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 ensures its smallmouths remain relatively shallow and accessible to anglers all summer.
By early June, Almanor’s smallmouths begin abandoning the shallow areas, where they spawned, in favor of deeper structure. Look for fish relating to rock piles and stumps in 10 to 25 feet of water, where they pass the time gobbling crawfish and pond smelt. These fish find 4-inch Senkos super attractive!