As the angling action heats up, put these locations on your list for California smallmouth bass.
By Cal Kellogg
Originally, smallmouth bass were only found in the upper Midwest, thriving near the headwaters of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and throughout the Great Lakes. These days, smallmouths are found in nearly every state.
In terms of habitat, smallmouth bass require clear to lightly stained water, cool temperatures, high levels of dissolved oxygen and ample forage in the form of aquatic insects, crawfish and/or baitfish.
Here in California, our history of damming rivers and creating reservoirs created smallmouth habitat that had never existed before. Not only were the Golden State’s rock-lined canyon reservoirs ideal smallmouth habitat, but the cool “tailwater” rivers below the dams also provided an extensive habitat for robust populations of smallmouth bass to develop.
By the 1950s, California was a “smallmouth” state. Sure, we had populations of largemouth bass, mainly northern strain bass, but it was smallmouths that were most widely distributed. Anglers appreciated the way smallmouths blitzed plugs in the spring and summer and they loved the penchant the bass had for going airborne repeatedly when hooked.
The period from the end of WW II to the beginning of the ’80s was really the golden era of smallmouth bass action in California. Since the late ’70s our smallmouth fishing has steadily declined at most locations due to the introduction of spotted bass. Spotted bass compete with smallmouths for habitat, are more effective spawners and can tolerate colder water.
Cold water tolerance means that spotted bass have a longer feeding season than smallmouths do, and this enables them to grow larger faster. Lakes like Shasta, Oroville and Folsom that were once known as smallmouth factories are now recognized as spotted bass lakes. Sure, smallmouth bass still exist in all these lakes, but on any given cast you are much more likely to hook a spot than a smallie.
There are still waters that produce big numbers of small- to medium-size bass, and there are other destinations that consistently kick out hefty smallmouths that range from 3 pounds up to 5 pounds or more. And there are also some sleeper spots that give up fair numbers of smallish bass and the occasional trophy caliber bruiser.
If you’re interested in prospecting for some Golden State bronze this summer, keep on reading because I’m going to outline some of the state’s best smallmouth fisheries. I’ll also touch on some overlooked and sleeper destinations.
No discussion of California smallmouth fishing is complete without a mention of Trinity Lake. Located in far northern California near Weaverville, the lake had the distinction of producing a state-record smallmouth bass in 1976 at just over 9 pounds. The Trinity Lake record bass stood as the state record until a 9.83-pound fish came out of Pardee in 2007.
Today Trinity is a much different fishery then it was in 1976. While big numbers of smallmouth and northern strain largemouths can be found at the lake, the really massive smallmouths the lake once produced are gone. Fish in the 2- to 4-pound class are common, 5-pounders are considered big and every now and then someone tangles with a smallie topping 6 pounds.
Over the years DFW shock testing at the lake has revealed a healthy fishery with a near 50/50 mix of smallmouth and largemouth bass. Both species are present across multiple year classes, indicating that spawning takes place consistently and that the survival rate of young bass is adequate.
Trinity is a large lake with 26 square miles of water and more than 140 miles of shoreline. Bass are located throughout the lake, but you’ll find the best bass action by zeroing in on the lake’s many rock piles. These piles are actually tailing piles created by Gold Rush era miners a generation before Trinity Lake was formed.
Trinity’s smallmouths typically wrap up the spawn in mid to late June most years. The spawn is the prime time of the year for roping a big fish. Once the spawn winds down, the lake’s biggest bass typically retreat into deep water where they stick tight to rocky structure.
Hooking good size bass in the summer requires a measure of patience. The top producing baits during the summer both in terms of numbers of fish and big fish are crawfish imitating spider grubs rigged on darter heads and deep diving crawfish pattern crankbaits. Spend some time working these baits along the shoulders of rock piles and you’ll hook bass!
If the bass are playing hard to get, nothing gets them going as well as a watermelon or motor oil colored 4- inch wacky-rigged Senko deadsticked on rod rigged with 8-pound fluorocarbon line.
Given Trinity’s clear waters and the aggressive nature of smallmouths, topwater opportunities exist all summer long, but the strike window is small. The best times are the first 20 minutes of morning light and the last 20 minutes of evening light. During these periods smallmouths will rocket up to meet a popper or small walking bait.
CATCH RIVER SMALLMOUTHS
Now and then a river feeding a reservoir will produce a big 5- or 6-pound smallie. In most cases these are fish that have made a seasonal migration into the river from the reservoir below. Depending on conditions, bass may only stay in the river for days or they may stick around for weeks. The favored bait among many hardcore river smallmouth anglers is a 3-inch baitfish pattern floating Rapala because of the versatility the bait offers. When twitched slowly they make great surface lures, but they can also be cranked down, ripped and bounced off rocks. Early and late in the day is the best time to be out on the river since this is when the river run bass are most willing to cruise and chase forage.
— Cal Kellogg
Pardee Lake, located in central California, is small by California standards. But its waters are clear, cool and deep. Between 2005 and 2007 the lake, which boasts both smallmouth bass and northern strain largemouths, produced a handful of smallmouth bass over 8 pounds.
Pardee’s spate of big fish culminated in 2007 with the new state record for smallmouth bass. At that time, there was lots of speculation that Pardee would produce a world-record size bass, but that never came to fruition. And monster smallies beyond 7 pounds seem to have become a thing of the past.
Pardee is a forage rich lake with aggressive kokanee and trout stocking programs as well as boasting massive numbers of crawfish. The existence of kokanee is widely believed to be responsible for lake’s record size smallmouths. While no 8-plus pounders have been landed in recent years, smallmouths in the 3- to 5-pound class are common, and fish over 6 are possible.
By the time spring gives way to summer the bass spawn is over at Pardee. During the post spawn period the bass spend most of their time holding in deep water offshore, but early and late in the day they will move up toward the bank to feed. At these times trout pattern swimbaits, and wake baits can be deadly.
When fishing the midday hours, focus your efforts on dragging worms and grubs and exploring offshore structure with deep diving crankbaits worked on light line.
NORTH FORK AMERICAN
East of the State Capital in Sacramento, smallmouth bass fishing is found on the North and South Forks of the American River. However, the North Fork fishery is the more extensive of the two. Excellent fishing on the North Fork can be had from Folsom Lake to near the town of Colfax some 16 miles upriver. This stretch of river falls within the Auburn State Recreation Area. Nearly all of it can be accessed by foot and bike trails. Bass fishing on the American gets started in early May and continues through October.
Upstream from Folsom, the river changes character several times, and the trails accessing the river vary from easy to challenging. From the lake to the confluence with the Middle Fork three and a half miles upstream, the river runs big with long, deep pools interrupted by heavy rapids. Each season this stretch yields the largest number of big bass and is best worked with gear. I like a long 7-foot stick, matched with 6- or 8-pound monofilament.
Typically, river bass are very aggressive feeders and aren’t highly selective. Proven baits include 3-inch floating minnow plugs, 2- and 3-inch crankbaits in crawfish finishes, 3-inch root beer or smoke colored tube baits, and yellow 1/4-ounce Rooster Tail spinners.
At the confluence, bass anglers will want to focus on the North Fork. The Middle Fork, known, as the “cold fork,” is better suited to trout fishing. About one mile upstream from the confluence on the North Fork stands Clementine Dam. The area from the dam to about a half-mile downstream is very productive for bass in the 12- to 14-inch range.
Infographic by Ryan Kirby
GLIDE TECHNIQUE FOR SMALLMOUTH BASS
Tie on a VMC Gliding Jig or other jig and slide on a 3-inch trailer. Cast as far as you can, and let the jig glide to the bottom. Snap it up off the bottom, and let it glide back down again. Mix that action up with some swimming close to the bottom. It’s extremely effective.
THE SACRAMENTO RIVER
AND ITS TRIBUTARIES
The lower Sacramento River runs from its confluence with Suisun Bay near the city of Pittsburg all the way up to Keswick Dam in Redding. Along the way there are areas of the river that offer up outstanding smallmouth fishing.
For numbers of fish that run 10 inches to 4 pounds the Sacramento River proper above the city of Rio Vista and the side sloughs that join the main river in that area offer outstanding action.
To find smallmouths in the river and adjoining sloughs all you need to do is locate stretches of riprapped bank. If the bank has overhanging vegetation and trees, so much the better. If you find a riprapped shoreline that has a bend in it that creates a gentle eddy or a calm flat out of the current, you may have stumbled on a real hotspot.
The vast majority of the time when targeting smallmouths in this part of the river you’ll be fishing tight to the shoreline with reaction baits in the form of topwater poppers and compact tight wiggling crankbaits in crawfish colors. For topwater, poppers get the nod over walking baits because poppers can be fished to stay in the near shore strike zone longer than a constantly moving walking bait.
A lot of people consider the smallmouth action available in the Sacramento Delta to be overlooked and little known. If that’s true the smallie fishing that exists much farther north is virtually unknown, despite the fact that some monster fish are in the mix.
Far up the valley, the stretch of the Sacramento and its tributaries from below Woodson Bridge up river past Red Bluff to nearly Redding is a virtually unexplored trophy smallmouth fishery.
This part of the Sacramento is best known for the late summer and fall salmon fishing it offers. I know there are big bass there, because I’ve seen photos of broad shouldered 4- to 6- pounders. Most of the photos I’ve seen have come my way from salmon and trout guides that hooked the aggressive bass accidently while back trolling plugs.
I wish I could tell you more about this fishery beyond the fact that it supports big fish. The river is packed with minnows, salmon smolts and trout, so that should give you a clue. Beyond that try to find those rocky slack water rocky areas. Find the habitat, find the forage and you’ll find the smallmouths. If you get lucky you might just find that elusive 6-pounder.