Last year was a banner year for fishing across most of Southern California, and I made sure I sampled a good portion of the lakes. I hope you did, too. Many of the lakes put out nice double-digit bass as well as a ton of fish between 4 and 6 pounds.
It seemed like every time I read the outcome of a tournament the weight was up in the 20 to 30 pound range. Big-bass hunters scored well, too, last season, posting up a lot of fish that weighed more than 10 pounds.
If there is a down side to all this, it is the dropping water levels at a number of impoundments. Last winter was a dry one. Between water authorities shifting water around from lake to lake and the hot weather drying them up, lakes across the state are definitely suffering. I talked to Larry Bottroff, former City of San Diego biologist and expert on black bass.
Bottroff said that rain will be our only savior over the next couple years. As the waters drop, the fishing will be good as the bass concentrate in the various lakes. But, when the lakes waters turn over and the cold water rises to the surface, there will be bait die-offs and fish die-offs that will change the entire fisheries. Fish will shrink in size. Bottroff told me of a 13 pounder that only weighed 8.5 pounds when re-shocked this year.
Bottroff hated to be the bearer of bad news, but we need the rain and we need it fast or we will be starting all over again with the greatness of some of our fisheries.
Rising waters help with the spawn of both bait and bass and that will hopefully keep the food supply up. Usually, the fish are fighting for the food, and the stronger survive.
If rains come, it will definitely help all of California with low water issues, and of course, improve bass fishing conditions for anglers.
Starting about as far south as you can go bass fishing in Southern California is Lake Otay. This lake, as predicted, put out some giant bass in the spring of 2014. It started with a numbers game as the males roamed the shoreline looking for nesting areas. These fish ate everything you could throw at them, from plastics to crankbaits. Larger females were taken on imitation trout baits thrown out just a tad deeper and worked parallel to shore.
Later in the summer, as weeds grew up and water dropped down, anglers went to soft jerkbaits and small swimbaits over the grass. As the weeds reached the surface, frogging was a good choice for some nice fish. Otay put out a number of double-digit fish this year and should do well again in 2015. Winter rains will only help. Tournament anglers had some great bags in the 20 to 30 pound range as well. The fishing here should follow the same pattern as last year.
Next on my list is one of the hottest lakes in Southern California for the last several years, El Capitan. The water is dropping here too, but the fish keep biting.
2014 was another banner year for this lake. It produced a lot of double-digit fish, with a ton in the 4 to 6 pound range. This lake was also one of the lakes I mentioned above with tournament sacks of bass going 20 to 30 pounds. Everyone from tournament fishermen to trophy hunters to weekend warriors had the time of their life.
This year should follow suit, with springtime bringing a lot of males charging the bank. Trout baits attracted the larger females. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits as well as plastics should do well the first few months of the season. A number of anglers like to throw the umbrella rigs with small shad-type plastics on them. Topwater should take over in the summer as the bass school up. Weeds are on top by then, and there should be some frogging action again as well.
I do have to mention there was a tragic boat accident on this lake in 2014. Two young anglers lost their lives when another boat came around a blind corner and hit the boat they were fishing from. In years where the water level is dropping and changing lakes, anglers need to be careful and especially cautious of the ever-changing shoreline.
We can’t have a story about great bass fishing without mentioning Barrett Lake. This pay to play impoundment was still the leader in high fish creel numbers last year, and this year should be no different. If you’ve been here before expect the lake to fish the same, just smaller. It is about two-thirds its normal size, but the fish are healthy still and ready to eat anything you throw at them. Most of the area the lake lost is very shallow, even when the lake is more full.
Springtime should bring a wide- open spinnerbait and reaction bait bite with almost any plastic doing well here. A couple fishermen are still going to average 50 to 60 fish a day. Last year, a lot of fish ranging from 4 to 6 pounds showed up during the summer months.
Simple drop-shot worms, more complex Mattlures bluegill lures and many other bait and lure selections work well here. Yamamoto Senkos and Ikas have always been a favorite for bass here as well as cranks, soft jerkbaits to hard jerkbaits and jigs every month the lake is open.
For more information about Barrett, visit here.
Traveling to the east, nestled in the foothills of San Diego County, is Lake Cuyamaca. This lake is the place to go for a getaway camping and fishing trip. Pine trees surround the lake, and wildlife abounds here. There is every type of amenity from campground to log cabins, depending on how much you want to rough it. It’s right down the road from the old mining town of Julian, which is a great place to take the family for a visit after fishing.
And, the fishing can be great here. Although it’s not a giant lake, there are giant bass that live here. Head Ranger Charlie Taylor said, “The rangers want you to have a great time, so you can depend on them to tell you where to fish and all the hot spots.”
I talked with big-bass hunter Kevin Mattson about the lake. He told me that if you put in the time, you should be rewarded with some very nice fish. Beautiful scenery and nature is the greatest backdrop to catching big bass.
Drop-shot worms work well here for the general population of bass during warmer weather. It can snow here in the winter and slow the bass way down. In the spring, which is a little later here because of the mountain locale, the larger bass get active and start chasing trout.
If you put in the time with some trout imitation lures, you may score that giant. Summer brings topwater action, and fall can also be a great time to catch the larger bass with swimbaits. For more information, visit here.
Diamond Valley Lake
Heading north toward Riverside County is Diamond Valley Lake. This giant lake, which is the largest in Southern California, has also felt the results of the drought, sitting at a little more than half full.
This lake is large, so it will be quite a while before lower water levels are any factor. In fact, the lower water levels have concentrated this lake’s healthy population of largemouth. Fishing last year was very good, and it should continue this year as well. It will definitely improve even more with winter rains.
Springtime can be a great time for everything from various plastics to jigs. The entire lake fishes well with plastics, and the face of the dam can be great for bouncing jigs down. As springtime progresses, spinnerbaits and crankbaits will score for you.
Entering the spawn, fish can be found shallow. But the fish here spawn a little deeper, at least the giants do. Summer will bring topwater fishing, and fall will have fish schooling up in wolf packs. Cranks will do the best.
In order to keep invasive quagga mussels from taking over, a strict boat check is needed to enter. Make sure if you are traveling to this lake that you open up all your bilge areas and let them dry completely out, including lowering your outboard so it dries as well. Any trickle of water will keep you from getting on. More information can be found here.
Lake Casitas has to be mentioned in this list of lakes to visit this year. Lake Casitas also has a very strict quagga mussel inspection program, but once you gain entrance to the lake you will not be disappointed. The lake is down to a little more than half full, but still fishes well. I talked to bass pro and radio host Stan Vanderburg, a regular here, about the fishing last year and this year.
Vanderburg told me the lake was great for those who find the bait and the fish. “It is taking 25 to 30 pounds to win a tournament here right now,” he said. “Even just fun fishing you can catch a bunch of nice fish.”
The lake should do just as well this year. Plastics can be effective in the spring, leading into spinnerbaits and cranks. Summer brings some topwater action, which continues into fall. If the water comes up here, expect great fishing. Check the lake rules here.
Next is Lake Cachuma, nestled in the foothills of northern Santa Barbara County. This lake is a great getaway for a vacation. The lake has smallmouth and largemouth bass, and both bite well in the spring and summer.
Usually, the smallmouths head to the banks first to spawn. They’ll bite plastics and jigs, with the largemouth bass following close behind. Drop-shot and split-shot plastics will score largemouth as well as smallmouth. Summer will bring topwater action, and crankbaits do well.
This lake is a numbers lake, and you will catch more 1 to 4 pound fish than giants, but it’s the all-around atmosphere that makes this a great place to visit. This lake also has a very strict quagga mussel waiting period of up to 30 days for boats, so you may have to rent one on the water to fish.
Kayaks get immediate entry with a special wash down from the boat dock staff. The water level in Cachuma also is down, but this lake fills fast with even a small rain. Additional information can be found here.
There are a lot of great lakes out there, and I have only gone over a few of the top picks. One thing to do is to explore new lakes and try new species. If you only have largemouth in the lakes by you, then explore those with smallmouth and spotted bass. These other species pull and fight like little freight trains. They tend school up more, and if you get on them you usually can catch a bunch. Plan a trip or vacation to a new lake. You can find everything you need to know online, including boat restrictions, water levels and launch conditions.
As I noted earlier, precipitation could have a big impact on the region’s fishing opportunities. Rain will help all the lakes and all of us anglers who use them. Try to make it to one of these hot lakes this year, or maybe even a few of them.
As we all know, California is in the middle of a terrible drought. You see pictures of lakes from all over California that are less than half full and wonder how long before those lakes shut down completely from fishing. It would be a sad situation since the Northern California lakes are some of the best I’ve ever fished.
I will be showing you some of the lakes that are hanging in there, no matter how low, are still doing well, and where you may want to head in 2015 to have fun and experience some of the great fishing Northern California has to offer.
I talked to biologist Larry Bottroff about the dropping water at a lot of California’s lakes, and he told me that for a few years, as the water drops, the fishing will be great as bass concentrate in the smaller-sized lakes and as the food chain diminishes.
But, he warned that if this situation goes too far into this cycle we will start seeing very small fish, with larger ones shrinking in size. A 12-pound fish may only weigh 8 after a couple years. Through earlier drought years we used to call them snake bass.
Biologists and meteorologists are hoping that the prediction of an El Nino super wet winter will come. It may mean you have to wear your rain gear a little more, especially in Northern California, but there isn’t a lake in the state that won’t benefit from rain right now. If the rains came as they predicted and you’re home reading this because it’s pouring outside, then rejoice, this spring will be a great one and the entire season should pick up for bass fishing.
One suggestion may be to visit all these lakes with your float tube or kayak. If the lake is open you can fish it. Low water may stop boaters from accessing the lake, but you will have it almost to yourself in a float tube or kayak.
There may be areas where boats can’t get to even though they are on the lake, and you can score when they can’t. Take every advantage you can.
Let’s look at some great lakes no matter the water level and pray for rain.
Lake Shasta is home to largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass. All of which are ready to pull on your line hard. The largemouth are the larger and a little harder to find, but there are nice hungry smallmouth and spotted bass as well here. Numbers will come with the spotted and smallmouth bass.
My experience up at Shasta has been that, once I find the spotted bass, sometimes I will stay on the same point catching one after another. As far as the smallmouth, the time of year will definitely play into the catching. One spring the smallmouth had started their rush to the bank to spawn, and every cast with a jig-n-pig was a fish. Even though I was covered with snow from a late storm we kept on catching them one after another.
Reaction baits will work well here too, but plastics are your best bet for the most action along with various jigs for the smallmouth. Drop-shot rigs will catch all, but the spotted bass will eat them up quickly. You may even, as I have, catch a giant trout on the drop-shot rig.
Fish here can be found from suspended under boat dock floats to main lake points and up many of the various creeks that flow into the lake, although some may be trickles of what they can be. The water is down, but his lake is not out of the competition for fishing fun in 2015.
The area around Lake Shasta can be a great vacation getaway with a lot of sites to visit. Fun for the entire family in some of California’s oldest towns. Houseboating, kayaking, hiking, biking, and sightseeing can keep everyone happy.
Heading east is a lake that has to be mentioned. Becoming more popular every year, Bullards Bar Reservoir is a rising star. This lake is almost a secret to most anglers. It holds largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. A favorite lake of Touring Bass Pro Skeet Reese, you can rent a houseboat here and make a vacation of it. Southern California big bass hunter and avid fisherman Kevin Mattson recently visited the lake and found the spotted bass fishing phenomenal.
The spotted bass population is strong here, and as with many Northern California lakes, the spotted bass are giant. Mattson tells me that 5- to 7-pound fish get ho-hummed here, and giants need to push 7 to 8 pounds or larger. Spring brings fish to the shallows, and jigs or grubs work well on outside points. Summer can bring a great topwater bite in the early morning and evening hours. Drop-shot plastics in shad patterns can fill out the day. This is definitely a lake off the beaten path to visit.
As we head into wine country we come to Clear Lake, just a stone’s throw from some famous wineries. This lake is located in old gold rush country as well, so there are a ton of sites and places to visit.
This lake can also be a great family vacation getaway. Right now this lake is also suffering from drought, but would fill fast with a good winter’s rain. Down about 10 feet vertically, there are a few launch ramps that are getting low and hard to launch from if not completely closed. You should let your fingers do some searching on the web for the available conditions at the time of your trip.
This is a 5-star fishery, so even if you have to rent a boat or use a car-topper, or use a float tube or kayak, just getting on this lake you should score well.
The lake is lined with docks, and the fish do hang out around them. Dock fishing with jigs or plastics is a great time. There are also rules around various parts of the lakes, and when the fish are up in them spawning the fishing can be out of this world.
Swimbaits can be a great in the spring as giant largemouth try to bulk up for the spawn. Crankbaits and rattle baits can do well ground to the bottom, and stirring up silt will attract the bass as they key on crawdads. Fishing here is great year round and will continue into the late fall depending on the weather.
Just south is the giant California Delta. This is a giant and complex area with waterways that go on forever. Make sure you at least have a map, although I suggest making sure your fish finder has a mapping unit. You can get turned around and lost here, so play it safe. You don’t have to worry about a shortage of water here.
This area boasts thousands of miles of bassy shoreline and every type of structure you can imagine. There are marinas with docks to fish. There are rocky shorelines and breakwaters, tules, trees, and derelict boats and barges. You do have to remember this is the backwaters of San Francisco bay, so there is tidal movement. But if the tide is moving the fish really bite here.
Plastics work well rigged all your favorite ways; crankbaits run down any of the rocky breakwaters; spinnerbaits run through new tule growth; buzzbaits and frogs run over matted weeds. There is nothing like the strike on a frog at the Delta. The bass will come right through the weeds for your frog. Largemouth, smallmouth and some spotted bass, make the delta their home but the first two rule here. There are so many places to enter the water and fish. Let your fingers do the typing, and search the Internet right before heading here for the hot area at that time.
To the southeast is Pine Flat Lake, home of the world-record spotted bass. I told you the spots were taking over and growing giant in Northern California! The lake is a little low, but 20 miles long and still fishing well. This is a lake of numbers but also a place you might be able to come close to that world record. Quality 6- to 8-pound spots are caught here every year.
The spots will eat anything you have in your largemouth arsenal. Drop-shot rigs will do especially well. Yamamoto Ikas and Senkos will score for you along the shoreline brush in spring, but will attract fish well year round. Summer brings topwater action along with reaction bait bites with crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits. This lake can be a fun getaway for the entire family.
To the southeast is Lopez Lake. This lake has largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. There is even a small population of walleye in this lake. The largemouth are still king here as the spots have not taken over this lake yet, but I’m sure they will try. The lake is sitting at about half full right now, but a good rain will raise it quickly. Fishing was great last year and should continue this year.
Plastics in the spring up tight to shoreline brush will find early spawners. Go a little deeper for larger females. All three bass will eat the same lures, so you never know what you’ll pull in, even that rare walleye as I mentioned. The largemouth do grow big here with a good number of 5- to 8-pound fish caught every season.
Topwater can be great fun in the summer and fall. All bass love the spinnerbait here, and cranking can be nonstop action when you find a school of spotted bass. It’s a fun place to visit for a vacation trip.
Next on my list are the sister lakes of Nacimiento and San Antonio. The drought has really affected these lakes, but hopefully that El Nino winter I talked about hit us hard and raised them both. They are both such great lakes to fish I had to add them anyway to this list of great places to fish this year. Even if you float tube or kayak them you should be met with great fishing.
Lake Nacimiento is way down, but not out. Once a great largemouth and smallmouth fishery, has now given way to their cousin the spotted bass. The spotted bass population in this lake is strong, and this very aggressive fish can be fooled on almost any lure. You will still catch largemouth and smallmouth, but count on a day of spotted bass when visiting here. This is a lake for catching and numbers.
The spots will follow the largemouth with their spawn, moving shallow and talking blades, cranks, along with topwater through spring and summer. Buzzbaits in the summer can be a ton of fun here. You can always find a school in rockier areas and on long main points. Plastics, especially drop-shot rigs will score well. As for size, 3- to 5-pound spots are not uncommon.
Another lake I want to mention is San Antonio Lake. Although low water conditions have affected this lake as well, I hope that the rains have helped this past winter that and as you read this the lake is thriving again. Still fishable from float tube and kayak at writing time of this article, the lake has a good population of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. It can also be a great camping destination.
At this lake, find the bait and you will find the bass. Drop-shot rigged shad-type plastics will score big time as well as small swimbaits like the Big Hammer 3.5-inch swimbait in shad colors. Later in the summer topwater can be fun and cranks, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits can do well along the shore.
There are so many other lakes to mention that can be great fishing action in Northern California, but the drought has taken some of them off the best fishing list for now. Locals will enjoy some lakes in float tubes and kayaks as water levels have dropped too low for boat launching.
I’m crossing my fingers the meteorologists were right and the El Nino winter we just had returned most of the lakes to their former glory. If we go much longer without water, the lakes will have to cycle through again to return to their greatness. Cross your fingers and pray for rain this spring too. Then get out and enjoy good fishing!