The Stanislaus River is a pent-up angling explosion waiting to happen come January when it opens up after months of closure. Anglers go after steelhead and salmon. And the fishing can be fast and very rewarding to those who get out on the river during this prime time. Lots of wild fish in the 10- to 14-inch category are the reward on the lower Stanislaus. Red is the color of the day for flies. They seem to imitate some of the food of these fish, and so the color triggers strikes. Lots of midges and small worms are part of the diet here. This is excellent fishing on a famous river, and it is highly popular this time of year.
Other Options: Tulloch Reservoir harbors loads of rainbow trout that bite well during January. There are also kokanee salmon and smallmouths in this lake.
Lower Yuba River Rainbows
The key here is the skwala stonefly hatch. It’s a meaty insect, which the trout dine on ravenously. The 21-mile stretch flows out of Englebright Lake. It is very nice trout water with lots of pools and wide riffles interspersed along the river. Any flies that imitate the stonefly are worth a try this time of year. Some of the darker color offerings work well, as do a rather boring olive color of fly. The Lower Yuba can be fished quite well from shore. And it is also an excellent float. Even in this cooler season, trout sometimes rise to dry flies. The warm days make ideal fishing with this classic angling style.
Other Options: The Humboldt squid just might be in the waters off Orange County. They are very unpredictable as to when or even if they will show up. But if they are here, it creates enough of a sensation to make the local newspapers.
Northern California Surfperch
These feisty little fish fill in between some of the major seasons and make excellent sport and fast action when a school comes along. Fly-fishing will work for these fish. Anything that is orange color is a good bet here because the surfperch feed heavily on mole crabs. This is an abundant food for surfperch, and other species.
A big surfperch will hit the 2-pound range. But there are quite a few that are smaller. The fishing can be fast and chaotic as the fish feed in the murky shallow water inhabited by the crabs, frantically eating and devouring everything. So, presentation and delicacy aren’t necessarily needed here, which makes the fish perfect for those starting out in the surf.
Other Options: Lake Casitas has a reputation for harboring some of the biggest bass in California. Nearby Castaic Lake is also excellent.
The halibut start showing up about now, and Ponto is one of the top locations for fishing for them. It makes an excellent place for shore fishermen. Lots of fish are caught, and most range from 12 to 20 inches and must be released. But they are growing. And a few come along that are more than 22 inches in length and may be kept. Good baits here include sardines, anchovies and smelts. Best of all is live bait, especially a smelt. A second choice would be frozen anchovies. The baits are fished on the bottom, which is the natural lair of halibut.
Other Options: Lake Buena Vista is home to some trophy trout. And later on, when the water warms, it is home to some really large catfish.
Diamond Valley Largemouths
Many consider this one of the up-and-coming largemouth fisheries in California. But in reality, it has already arrived. The lake has excellent largemouth fishing, and it will probably get better. Diamond Valley has lots of very big bass, and spring is a good time to pick some of those up. One reason is their diet. They’ve been eating stocked trout. It’s a high-protein food supply, in a prey that isn’t all that adept at escaping the maw of big, wild and savage largemouth bass. In early spring and later on just prior to winter, anglers work the deep ledges that are all over this lake. Crankbaits work well. And the colors of these lures are often very bright and loud. The general rule is delicate presentation and bold color.
Other Options: All up and down the coast of California this time of year anglers are picking up jacksmelt. They’re everywhere. They’re eager. And they’re being caught.
Southern California Sharks
Mostly anglers are after the leopard sharks and shovelnose sharks that are near shore feeding. The peak catching time by far is at high tide as the water rises higher and higher, flooding the beach. That exposes lots of tasty critters that become available to the predator species, of which sharks are of course a classic member.
The sand crabs and sand worms are food for sharks, as well as a lot of other fish that can also be picked up at this time. Frozen anchovies are often considered the very best bait, but they don’t stay on the hook long. Often anchovies must be replaced every 10 minutes or so. Squid will stay on the hook much longer, but isn’t considered as affective at catching fish.
Other Options: Grunion run off the shallow beaches of San Diego and elsewhere. The run is emblematic of the California beach lifestyle. Be sure to check regulations for areas and times where it’s legal to catch these fish. Also check with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for expected runs.
Lake Wohlford Channel Cats
The channel cat is somewhat of an ignored fish in a state where there are so many glamour fish from freshwater mountain streams to salty ocean shores. But this survivor of the fish world does quite well in Lake Wohlford and can be caught in good numbers. Some of them get up to 15 pounds. Many more are 2 or 3 pounds, which is the perfect size for eating. These fish will devour about anything, but some of the best baits include nightcrawlers, minnows, chicken livers, shrimp, various dough and stink baits. They have a very wide variety of tastes when it comes to feeding. The key to catching channel cats here as elsewhere it to concentrate on the hot months. They are warmwater fish that love hot weather and hot water. It’s when they feed. Right now is the time. And Lake Wohlford is full of cats.
Other Options: Yellow perch are caught readily in Crowley Lake. This time of year they will be off an edge in deeper water. Minnows and worms always make good bait for these fish.
Klamath River King Salmon
Toward the end of summer the huge king salmon start making their way up the Klamath River. The effect this has on fishermen is to create a frenzy of fishing activity — and with good reason. Many of these fish come in at 10 to 30 pounds. As if that weren’t enough, anglers also pick up lots of steelhead here. Guides say there are many times when clients have fish on nearly all the time. And in the fast moving water, the kings and steelhead put up tremendous fights. This is not only some of the finest fishing to be found in California, but in North America. And in recent years the runs have been quite good. So good, the number of out-of-state anglers who come for this is large. It’s famous.
Other Options: The Mammoth Lakes of the Eastern Sierra range are at a peak time right now for trout. The waters here are very clear and demand a careful presentation. There is also some more remote backcountry trout fishing in the lakes in and near Upper Lakes Basin.
Southern Coast Rockfish
Black rockfish aren’t the most romantic species out there, but they are one of the more common. And in Southern California they can be caught quite readily this time of year.
Take their name literally, because the rockfish loves to hide out in the roughest, rockiest areas they can get their finned bodies into. Some grow to 10 pounds, but more run in the 6- to 8-pound range. Anglers can use bait or fly-fishing outfits. With flies, the guiding principal is the showier the better. This is a presentation meant for a true extrovert. The rockfish like lots of color and flash. So, don’t disappoint them. One note of caution, the spines of this fish are venomous, and being stuck by one is very painful. It can even affect the heart and require hospitalization if there are multiple punctures.
Other Options: This is one of the most beautiful times to go after trout in Yosemite National Park. But then, anytime is beautiful in this crown jewel of America’s national park system. Check park fishing regulations.
Lake Ming Largemouth Bass
Lake Ming near Bakersfield has lots of largemouth bass that aren’t all that easy to fish for during much of the summer because of the water skiers swarming the lake. But now the water has cooled. The water skiers are mostly somewhere else. And early mornings and late afternoons are classic largemouth fishing times during this early fall period.
Bass here feed mostly on shad and bluegill once they grow large enough to be meat-eaters. There are lots of 5-pounders in this lake. Moss is fairly prevalent at Ming, so shallow-water crankbaits are a good choice. Fishermen recommend a slow retrieve this time of year. A few trout are also planted in Lake Ming. This is one of those smaller and less famous fishing options that can be quite enjoyable, in an old-style fishing kind of way.
Other Options: The Trinity River steelhead is excellent fishing in world-renowned waters. Fly-fishing is the norm, and highly sporting. The river is a fantastic beauty with nearly all of it designated as a Wild and Scenic River.
Russian River Steelheads
The big steelheads move into the Russian River in a major way come late October and early November. The fishing is excellent, with fish weighing up to 14 pounds. And this is on top of the smaller-sized 4-pounders that entered into the river earlier in the autumn. You’ll want to make certain to check fishing regulations here because some tributaries feeding the river are off-limits to fishing. There are also barbless hook regs, as well as mandatory release for chinooks and cohos. The Russian offers good fishing from a boat, and also from the shore. So, anglers of all different styles can find a comfortable home here going after these healthy fish.
Other Options: Going after Cortez bonefish is unique in the San Diego area. These aren’t the same as the more famous bonefish of Florida. But that is good in a way, because they don’t receive the fishing pressure that the more famous bonefish get.
Dixon Lake Trout
Here lies one of the more beautiful lakes in the American West. Small, and with water extremely clear, it holds nice populations of trout and also reputedly the next world-record largemouth bass. A 25-pound bass was reportedly caught here — foul-hooked so it didn’t qualify as a record. This time of year, it’s the trout that are the center of most attention. The water clarity allows anglers to look down as far as 20 feet into the blue deep. Light line must be used.
The fish can be finicky. But it’s hard to beat the fishing experience set atop one of the more beautiful small lakes in California. This time of year there are fewer anglers. The surrounding mountains and crystalline waters create a good trip even if no fish are caught. But of course, this lake is good enough that fish are caught. Sometimes, lots of them.
Other Options: Steelhead lurk in the Sacramento River, ready to be enticed. The first half of December is usually better than the second half. Spin fishermen drift glow-bugs and roe, hitting the runs and riffles.