These lakes are among the best for catching big spotted bass in the Golden State.
By Cal Kellogg
A revolution has taken place on California’s bass fishing waters. It started back in 1974 when the first Alabama spotted bass were stocked at a handful of Golden State impoundments.
I’m a California native and I just turned 50. As I grew up, California was known as a largemouth and smallmouth state. By the early 80s SoCal anglers were on the hunt for a new world record largemouth, chasing Florida strain specimens that were growing to epic proportions dining on planted trout in south state reservoirs.
Up north we certainly had our share of largemouths in both lakes and the California Delta, but truth be told we were mainly interested in smallmouths that dominated lakes like Shasta, Trinity, Folsom, Berryessa and Oroville. But then things started to change. Anglers started catching these new “spotted” bass at some of their favorite smallmouth destinations. At first you’d hear about a spot caught here and there, mixed in with the smallies.
By the 90s it was apparent that a shift was under way. At some lakes like Oroville, the smallmouths seemed to be pushed aside by the spots and burgeoning populations of small to medium size spotted bass started to dominate the catches. At other lakes like Berryessa, Folsom and Shasta, smallmouth bass fisheries remained intact, yet spots became more and more common in the catches.
Having resided in the Gold Country foothills for over 20 years I’ve witnessed the expansion of spotted bass first hand. For example, the North Fork of the American River was once the exclusive domain of smallmouth bass as recently as 10 years ago, yet when I fished the river last summer I caught more spots than smallmouths. Based on the fish I saw swimming in the clear pools I’d estimate that spots outnumber smallmouths by a ratio of about 3 to 1. These spots originated in Folsom Lake and have steadily worked their way up river.
Drive up Interstate 80 a few miles from the town of Auburn and you come to Rollins Lake. Once known as a lake that produced lots of smallish smallmouths it has transformed into a spotted bass fishery. Spots now outpace smallmouths in catches by a ratio of at least 3 to 1.
The average size of the spots, say 1.5 to 2 pounds, has eclipsed the average size that the smallmouth historically attained. It is my assertion that we’ve yet to see Rollins Lake’s spots top out in terms of size. I believe that what Golden State anglers saw happen at Yuba County’s Bullards Bar Reservoir is happening at Rollins Lake, but on a smaller scale.
We’ll talk more about Bullards in a bit, but in a nutshell, Bullards Bar was long known as a producer of small smallmouths seldom toping 14 inches, along with the occasional largemouth. The largemouths tended to be small by California standards, topping out at around 8 pounds. At some point spots got into the mix at Bullards.
First they seemed to displace the smallmouth population, and then they started growing really large feeding on the lake’s robust population of kokanee salmon. Some anglers lament the introduction of spots into California waters because they have had an undeniable impact on our beloved smallmouths. Yet, in terms of both the number of fish available and the trophy potential they now offer at a number of notable lakes, the net result of introducing spots to California waters seems positive.
In a moment, we’ll explore some of the Golden State’s best spotted bass destinations. But before we do let’s take a look at why spots have been so successful in our waters. First, spots seem to feed more than either smallmouths or largemouths when the water drops into the lower 50s. This means they keep on consuming and growing when the competing bass are somewhat dormant. Second, our canyon reservoirs are prone to spring drawdowns.
Not only do spots spawn colder than largemouths and smallmouths, they also spawn deeper. This means that they often spawn before the competition. And since they nest deeper their beds often remain in the water when largemouth and smallmouth beds are high and dry. Finally, spots are much more willing to suspend as compared to the other black bass species. The shad, smelt, kokanee and trout that make up much of the forage in our lakes suspend.
Fish like spotted bass that are willing to move offshore and suspend around the forage have a big advantage over fish that don’t. I do a good deal of trout and salmon trolling using downriggers, and it’s common to hook quality spots well offshore suspended around bait over very deep water. Once in a great while I’ll hook a smallmouth on the troll. Rarely if ever do I pull up a largemouth, but on any given day a half dozen or dozen spots ranging from 10 inches to 3 pounds will whack my baitfish imitating spoons and hoochies.
In February 2017, Nick Dulleck of San Jose caught and released a lunker spotted bass weighing 11 pounds, 4-ounces at Bullards Bar Reservoir on the Yuba River. Recently certified as a world record by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the monster eclipsed the spotted bass of 10.8 pounds caught by Cody Meyer in December 2016. Meyer’s fish was also caught at California’s big spotted bass factory, Bulllards Bar Reservoir. Dulleck’s big fish came on a Dirty Jigs Finesse Football Jig with a Yamamoto Double Tail, used with a baitcasting rod.
Why is Bullards Bar kicking out massive world class spots? The consensus seems to be that the lake’s bass are feeding heavily on juvenile trout and kokanee. The big bass boom at the lake really got started back in 2009 when anglers started picking up spots over 5. Then we saw fish of 6, 7 and 8 pounds, and the upward trend continues. While Dulleck got his big fish on a jig, the dominant forage of the lake’s biggest fish is small 6- to 8- inch kokanee salmon.
If you want to go big while fishing Bullards, tossing kokanee imitating swimbaits is the way to go. If the bass aren’t chasing, a clear or kokanee colored magnum Senko dropped wacky style can pay great dividends. Target the lake’s huge sloping points and don’t be afraid to go offshore.
If you mark kokanee schools there is a good chance that there will be some lunker size spots holding nearby. Bullards Bar is a large lake and there is plenty of ground to explore. The dam is 2,323 feet in length and has a height of 645 feet. When at full capacity the reservoir holds 996,103 acre feet of water earmarked for irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power production.
Let’s jump around the state a bit. Moving far to the south we come to Pine Flat, situated in the southern Sierras east of Fresno. The lake was formed in 1954 when the Kings River was impounded behind Pine Flat Dam. When full the lake is large, boasting a capacity approaching one million acre feet.
On the warmwater side, Pine Flat boasts the usual menu of smallmouths, largemouths, spots, bluegills, crappies, catfish and carp. In terms of coldwater species it holds brown trout, rainbows and kokanee.
The forage base includes threadfin shad and crawfish. However, in terms of bass, especially big ones, you can certainly add rainbows and kokanee. Pine Flat has long had a reputation for booting out trophy spots that eclipse the 5-pound mark.
Perhaps the most notable bass to come out of Pine Flat was the 10.27-pound spot that Bryan Shishido caught back in April of 2001. Shishido’s bass was eventually certified as the new world record spot at that time. It was the third record spot to come out of Pine Flat over the span of seven years. Shishido’s spot came on a clear Senko dropped on 8- pound test line. If you hit Pine Flat in search of a big spot, pay particular attention to the Sycamore Creek and Big Creek inlets in the Kings River Arm.
No tour of Golden State spotted bass lakes would be complete without a visit to Lake Shasta. Shasta is big, deep and features extensive river arms. Rocky structure is plentiful, and there are extensive areas of standing timber available in both the Squaw Creek and Pitt River Arms.
Compared to Pine Flat and Bullards, Shasta is more of a numbers lake when it comes to spots. On any given trip, you’ll boat big numbers of spots in the 1- to 3-pound class, with spots up to 7 pounds being caught nearly every year. With miles of water to roam and a robust population of threadfin shad, a lot of anglers wonder why the spots at Shasta have not attained sizes that challenge the world record.
While a world record could certainly be lurking in the lake’s backwaters, it’s fairly unlikely simply because the lake lacks a population of kokanee. Small kokanee represent jumbo baitfish for large spots that have no problem suspending over deep water in order to feed on them. If Shasta had a population of these diminutive salmon we’d likely see it produce double digit spots within a few years. Swimbaits will produce big spots in excess of 5 pounds at Shasta. Overall finesse worms, jigging spoons and spider grubs rigged on darter heads are the most consistent producers.
Lake Berryessa, situated in Napa County’s Vaca Mountains, is known as the Jewel of the Wine Country. A lot of north state bassers consider the lake California’s best bass lake. The lake record largemouth stands at more than 17 pounds, and double- digit Florida strain bass are common.
The smallmouth population within Berryessa remains robust in the wake of spot introduction, and spotted bass fishing can be awesome at the lake for fish that range up to and slightly beyond 5 pounds. While far from the state’s largest lake, Berryessa is big by almost any standard with a capacity of 20,000 acre feet and 165 miles of shoreline when full. The forage base for bass consists of threadfin shad, crawfish, trout and sunfish.
While the lake does feature kokanee, they don’t seem to play the critical role in big bass production that they do at other lakes. This may be because Berryessa’s ‘kokes tend to be larger and less numerous than they are at other destinations. Berryessa is one of those lakes that will produces a full menu of spots, largemouths and smallmouths on any given day using a variety of different offerings, including jigs, soft plastics, swimbaits and rip baits.
For our fifth and final spotted bass lake, I’m giving Folsom the nod over Oroville because Folsom consistently gives up larger spots. The average spot at Folsom runs about 2 pounds, and I’ve caught several over 5. With both shad and pond smelt available, soft plastics in the form of finesse worms and Senkos are king at this capital area fishery. In the fall look for the lake’s spots to stack up off main lake rock piles in water that ranges from 15 to 50 feet deep.
Drop- shotting worms is the method of choice for targeting these fish, but if you locate bait balls try dropping a jigging spoon. Jigging is a method that isn’t used enough. Spooning will produce not only big numbers of spots, but big spots as well at Folsom and other lakes. When schooling bass are near the surface, open water topwater fishing can produce great results as spots and smallmouth bass “wolf pack” on bait schools.