At Lake Berryessa, fishing pressure is never really a problem. However, anglers who arrive after a handful of bass tournaments are held in January, February and early March — and before mid-June when the lake gets gobbled up by water-skiers, wake boarders and boaters — can experience the best bass fishing Northern California offers.
Scott Green should know. As one of the most respected bass anglers in California and also the manager of Outdoor Pro Shop in Rohnert Park, Green has spent countless hours on Berryessa. That is, countless hours catching dozens of bass without competing with other boats or anglers.
Gary Dobyns, a national bass fishing icon and the all-time leading money winner in the West, has had similar experiences. “Berryessa is an awesome fishery, but a lot of guys don’t fish it because they just don’t have time to. Most guys are practicing for tournaments on Clear Lake, Shasta, Oroville and the Delta,” he said. “But it’s one heck of a fishery.”
Berryessa is one of Northern Cal’s last waters where anglers have a legitimate shot at catching spotted, largemouth and smallmouth bass in the same day — or on consecutive casts. Next to Trinity and Almanor, it’s one of the top three smallmouth waters in the north of the state.
However, its claim to fame is that it also harbors trophy bass of all kinds: smallmouth, largemouth and spots.
“It’s an awesome lake with huge fish. It’s got giants. There are bass in there up to 17 pounds,” Dobyns added. “There are a lot of fish there, and it doesn’t get much pressure. It’s a fun place to go.”
Bass anglers have always looked at Berryessa as a secondary fishery. Nonetheless, it has a stable population of largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass. All species flourish together, yet aside from trout and kokanee anglers, Berryessa doesn’t get much in the way of fishing pressure.
“I don’t know what it is, but I guess if they don’t give away boats on a lake, no one pays attention to it,” Green said. “And they don’t give away many boats there.”
The lack of tournaments is blamed on poor facilities. Not poor for boaters and anglers, but rather for the facilities necessary to serve a main event.
“There are no local communities to host it, but it would be a great place to have Pro Ams,” Green said. “There’s no way Lake Berryessa is going to put out the money for that to happen, though.”
But while many anglers avoid the lake due to the lack of professional and amateur bass tournaments being held there, that can be a great thing for non-tournament, weekend anglers. Berryessa is one of the few lakes in Northern California where you can pretty much be guaranteed that if you fish in May and June, you’ll be able to leave with a grand slam — that is, catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Unlike at Oroville, you aren’t going to catch limits of dinks, either.
Berryessa is 26 miles long, three miles wide and offers more than 165 miles of shoreline. It’s also situated just east of the Napa Valley, 70 miles northeast of San Francisco and 40 miles west of Sacramento, making it an easy day trip for Bay Area residents and those who reside in the Sacramento and Stockton areas.
It’s the perfect destination for anglers looking to fish recreation-style by soaking bait. Hands down, Berryessa has all the ingredients necessary to harbor an extensive population of bass. The lake has juvenile and adult rainbow trout, kokanee and Chinook, crawdads, minnows and other baitfish. There’s plenty of forage.
In the springtime, the great thing about Berryessa is that 90 percent of the bass are in 15 feet of water or less. It’s the perfect time of year for anglers to enjoy shallow-water bass fishing, while not having to battle crowds. It’s also the easiest time of year to catch bass.
“For numbers, the springtime is a great time of year to fish Berryessa,” Green added. “The numbers of smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass an angler can catch is impressive. It’s pretty easy to catch fish here in the spring.”
Berryessa can be described as one large body of water with several aspects. There’s a deep end near the dam, with steep, nearly vertical walls as shorelines. The midsection offers banks complete with rolling hills, flats and varying contour. The end opposite the dam has flats, creek arms, channels and lots of points.
HITTING THE SPAWNS
May can be an interesting month. What bass will be doing depends on recent weather patterns. How quickly spring arrives determines when largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass head into pre-spawn mode and when they spawn. On an average year, you’ll have some pre-spawners, spawners and post-spawners in May.
“The neat thing is at Berryessa, you have a million fish spawning in the main lake, and then you go up to the creeks and there are even more,” Green added.
While many anglers believe it’s too early for a reaction bite, Berryessa can yield a fantastic topwater bite in May. Although Dobyns employs other methods, topwater is the mainstay for Green. Those who join in the know of this topwater bite employ shad-pattern Super Spooks, Ricos, Lucky Craft Gun Fish in American Shad and Pop-Rs. For the most part, first thing in the morning is best. Green says the first two hours is ideal and that during that time span, it’s not uncommon to land 20 to 30 fish.
“You can throw reaction baits all day. And if you ever do get an overcast day, you can get them to bite all day,” Green added. “When you throw a Spook you can get a big largemouth or a spot. You never know what you’re going to catch. It’s likely that in May you’ll have smallmouth on post-spawn, big largemouth on beds and there will be a lot of topwater smallmouth fishing in the main lake. I’d look for general sloping points and big flat points with deepwater access.”
As for the spawning bass, Dobyns believes that many of the bass will be through with the ritual sometime in May.
“It’s going to be tapering off. The major spawn on Berryessa is the month of April, but there are still plenty of spawners into May. The big fish will be done, though. The big fish seem to spawn earlier in that lake,” he added. “There’s so mu
ch of a crossover that you’ll really be able to find all three of them on beds in May.”
Smallies, Dobyns says, are the most active when on beds.
“The smallies are way more aggressive and far easier to catch on beds. They are just far more protective,” he added. “Your spotted bass are going to spawn deeper. It’s nothing for them to spawn in 15 to 20 feet of water. Largemouth are funny. They may spawn shallower or down to 10 feet.”
WHERE TO FISH
Anglers looking to target largemouth will notice that most can be found at depths of just three to four feet; 10 feet will be the deepest you find largemouths on beds. The spots and smallies aren’t as particular; they’ll spawn just about everywhere. While largemouths will be back in coves and in flat, grassy areas, the spots and smallies may be on points.
“My favorite way to fish Berryessa in May is fishing a lot of Flukes and Senkos around laydowns. You catch a lot of fish and a lot of big fish,” explained Dobyns.
Learning how to fish each portion of Berryessa is a sure way to increase catch rates. When anglers pay attention to detail, their success can skyrocket. Few anglers target the dam and The Narrows. However, this section can be extremely productive even when most anglers are concentrating on shallow, spawning bass. All three species can be found in this area, but spotted bass are the most concentrated group because of the steeper, rockier and deeper terrain.
“In May, when I’m trying to catch good fish, I like the laydowns. There are a lot of trees that have slid down into the water. Every single laydown has fish on it,” Dobyns added.
When you approach laydowns, throw a 5- or 6-inch green pumpkin or watermelon Senko, but any similar bait will be effective when fishing on points. Small jigs, tubes and Robo worms are all popular tools in the spring.
“I wouldn’t fish overly deep near the dam,” said Dobyns. “I’d fish really shallow, no more than 15 or 20 feet.”
This area is also a prime location to throw crawdad crankbaits. A medium diving 5- to 8-foot Rapala Fat Wrap or a Storm Wiggle Wart is ideal.
“The benefit of throwing a crankbait is that everyone in the world can do it, and you catch a lot of fish. There are a lot of straight walls so you can cover a lot of water with a crankbait,” added Dobyns.
Many bass pros look down on bait anglers. However, bait can be the best tool necessary to have a banner day at Berryessa. Dobyns was taught this lesson by an old friend here more than a decade ago. Tossing a jig, Dobyns struggled to catch more than a bass or two while his fishing partner caught and released dozens of bass with live crawdads.
“I got the lesson on live bait that day that I’ll always remember. If you want to take some medium-sized crawdads, you can go to any point on The Narrows and catch a boatload of fish,” said Dobyns. “To say he kicked my a** would be the understatement of the century. All he had to do was throw the crawdad out there and reel it in. It’s a great crawdad fishery. But you better bring a ton of crawdads, or you’re going to run out.”
When fishing a crawdad, use a split shot placed roughly 18 inches from your hook. Hook it in the tail and cast it. Most likely, it won’t make it to the bottom without getting bit. Anglers also find success with minnows, but it’s tough to out-fish crawdads.
For fishermen working the main body of the lake, completely different tactics are effective.
“The main body is my favorite place to catch largemouths because there are a lot of flats and spawning areas,” Dobyns averred. “There are tons of coves and it’s shallow. There’s a lot of grass and willows and every time I catch a big fish, it’s on the main lake.”
The willows are spots you don’t want to overlook. Try throwing a Senko, let it sink to the bottom, and then pick it up and throw it on the other side of the willow. Continue doing this until you fish the entire willow tree. After flipping the Senko, pitch a 3/8-ounce brown jig around the willows. This will enable you to pick off any active fish in the vicinity.
“I’ll get into the coves to where I’m throwing a bait in six to 15 feet of water and I fan-cast a Senko into the pockets,” Dobyns added. “I let it freefall. There’s a ton of fish that have spawned that are hanging in a little deeper water. I’m not throwing to the bank, though; I’m fishing in that six to 15 feet of water.”
When many fish have finished spawning, it’s important to back off the bank in many situations. But when you’re set on catching big bass, few applications are more effective than tossing swimbaits.
“The No. 1 way to catch a big fish that time of year is to cast a swimbait,” said Dobyns. “I make multiple casts, but I don’t throw them to the bank. I want to fish them out off the bank a ways.”
On the other hand, casting swimbaits here is much different than the way Southern Californians fish them. At Berryessa, it’s more practical to toss 6- to 8-inch swimbaits rather than 10- to 12-inch models. A smaller bait lets you hook average bass and trophy bass. Any trout-pattern swimbait — a Castaic Soft Trout, Megabait Charlie, Optimum or Swim’n Joe — can be effective.
In addition to jigs, swimbaits, weightless bass and plastics, anglers can start catching reaction-bait fish as well. Crankbaits and Rat-L-Trap-like artificials are productive when fish head into post-spawn mode.
“The other good thing about the main lake is that because of all the flats, it has the perfect depth for throwing jerkbaits,” added Dobyns.
It’s a good idea to pitch shallow-running baits; you can catch bass in a few feet of water and down to six feet when working the flats. For best results, a stop-and-go retrieve works great. For anglers looking to fish points, baits like jigs, tubes and darterhead-rigged worms fished in the top 10 feet of water are ideal.
“The smallies school up so tight on those points, it’s not impossible to catch 20 on one point. But you won’t catch many big fish. I’d say most of them will be 13 inches,” Dobyns said. “Work the bait fast. Keep it hopping and swimming. That’s by far the best way to get bit. You don’t want to fish it slow. Make sure to fish it quick and you’ll get more bites.”
Many bass anglers look at the creek inlets as different than the main body, but the creeks can yield excellent results because of their topography and a lack of boat traffic. Putah and Pope creeks enter the lake over flats, rocky points and a lot of trees. Anglers can find success fishing the bases of the trees, rocks and willows with jigs. But make sure you have a weed guard.
“A lot of people don’t realize the fish spawn around those trees and limbs,” added Dobyns. “So you can pick spawners off them. I e
ither fish the rocks or the trees this time of year. I dodge a lot of the flat areas that time of year and go right to the rocks because for some reason, they tend to hold more bass than the flats.”
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Lake Berryessa contains high levels of mercury. Anglers are cautioned to eat only a certain number of its bass each year. Consult the California Department of Fish and Game’s freshwater fishing manual for specific dietary recommendations.
For fishing information on Lake Berryessa, call the Outdoor Pro Shop in Rohnert Park at (707) 588-8033.
(Editor’s Note: Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing Northern California. You can buy his books by going online to www.fishingcalifornia.net, or by calling  368-6516.)