California's Overlooked Bass Fishing
Get away, off the beaten path, and explore the bass fishing you are missing across the Golden State.
California has some great bass fisheries across the state, and I know many bass anglers wish there were more lakes in the Golden State like the hundreds, in some cases, thousands of lakes scattered across Southern states.
Still, California is dotted with a lot of small reservoirs that hold nice bass. We just need to get away, off the beaten path, and explore them to understand what kind of bass fishing we might be missing. When we do, we can discover great fishing sites for the bass angler in every one of us.
One of the most beautiful of the San Diego county lakes, Lake Cuyamaca is nestled in the pine trees of the foothills at the town of Julia, an old gold town, located about an hour or so outside San Diego. Cuyamaca features beautiful scenery, wildlife and camping amenities, and it holds some giant largemouth bass.
The lake record stands at a tad more than 14 pounds, caught in 1996 by Jeff Phillips. Big-bass hunters talk of larger fish that have been released after a quick picture and some admiration of the catch. In spring, watch Cuyamaca to produce plenty of 8- to 10-pound largemouths.
As with any California lake, the water level here rises and falls. Check it before you make the trip. Yet, no matter the level, Cuyamaca always seems to produce some really nice bass in the spring, summer and fall. Drop-shot plastics along the south side of Fletcher Island starting at Heron Point. The south part of the lake is traditionally the bass haven and spawning area. It can get weedy, so frogs and flukes will keep you, for the most part, out of the weeds. Trout are planted here, too. Put in some time with, for example, a 7-inch Huddleston Trout swimbait, and you could score your personal best largemouth.
Lakes Nacimiento and San Antonio
At the southern end of Monterey County, lakes Nacimiento and San Antonio lay just a few miles apart as the crow flies and are an easy, short drive away from each other if you want to plan a multi-lake weekend or longer vacation on these sister lakes.
Lake Nacimiento is the big sister — 18 miles long and boasting about 165 miles of shoreline when full. San Antonio, the little sister, is just 8 miles long. Both lakes can fluctuate a lot with rain and drought, but even when they are “down,” they are not “out.” Both lakes are known for great catches of numbers of bass.
Nacimiento has put out some nice bass over the years, seeing largemouths that weight just a hair under 10 pounds, with lake record reported to be 9 pounds 14 ounces. Its best smallmouth tipped the scale at 4 pounds,10 ounces. Spotted bass are in the “nice” size range, too, with a 6-pound-2-ounce fish leading the way. Nacimiento is a lake where you can pull up on a point and catch 50-plus fish one after another. If you catch a few, give that area a few more casts as well as surrounding points.
All the bass on Nacimiento frequent the hundreds of coves around the lake throughout the year. Main-lake points can be good for larger fish. Drop-shot fishing soft-plastics in shad colors can be good year ‘round. Look to Snake Creek for good action. Bomber’s Fat Free crankbaits in crawdad patterns can also find fish fast. If the lake is up, the fish love the shoreline sticks, and spinnerbaits will do well. Later in summer and fall the topwater bite turns along The Narrows. Find them with poppers, like the classic Pop R from Rebel and with buzzbaits.
Little sister, San Antonio Lake, can be a fun numbers lake, as well, with less fishing pressure on it than the larger Nacimiento. This lake holds largemouths to up to the lake record of 9 pounds, 4 ounces and smallmouths to 3 pounds, 14 ounces. Camping can be fun and there is plenty of wildlife to observe. It is a quiet getaway for most of the anglers who frequent it.
The bass love soft-plastics here, and fishing is similar to Nacimiento. Drop-shot plastics on the smaller size, like French fry lures (that imitate insect larvae or egg clusters in 2- to 6-inch lengths) or 3 1/2- to 4-inch, shad-colored worms. Split-shotting creature baits in crawdad colors will have you catching one after another. Try a Yamamoto grub on a 1/4-ounce darter-head jig and you may take a giant out of the school. The main-lake points around Cemetery Cove and the rocky gravely shorelines of the north end of the lake are best for bass. Summer brings topwater action to the north shoreline, and just about anything works when the fish are feeding. You may even want to break out the fly rod with a popper for fun.
LAKES ALMANOR AND BUTT VALLEY RESERVOIR
A little farther north, in central California, another sibling set of lakes offer largemouths and smallmouths, but it’s the smallmouths that keep things most interesting. Big brother, Lake Almanor, and its little brother, Butt Valley Reservoir, are located about two hours southeast of Redding or due east an hour and a half from Red Bluff. The lakes are nestled in Lassen National Forest, where the scenery is beautiful, and wildlife abounds.
Lake Almanor is the big brother — about eight times the size of Butt Valley Reservoir. It holds largemouths and smallmouths, although the catch here is 90 percent smallmouths. That is the exciting draw for anglers to this lake. You can fish all day and catch 100 smallmouths at times. They average about 1 to 2 pounds, but there are plenty of 2- to 4-pounders, and 4- to 6-pounders are the norm at times.
Springtime brings Almanor’s bass into the shallows to spawn. It’s not uncommon to find a hoard of fish around the lake’s southern shorelines. Fishing beds is up to you, I won’t debate it, but you may want to drop back off the bank a bit and throw jigs, either classic pig-n-jig combos or Yamamoto Hula Grub jigs, for a chance at one of the 4- to 5-pounders that tend to hang out a tad deeper.
Summer and fall bring good fishing to the west side of Almanor’s peninsula shoreline. Bass will not only eat soft-plastics, such as split-shot and drop-shot worms. As they key more on the lake smelt bait balls, they will start to hit topwater baits, such as buzzbaits and the classic Pop R. Even fly-fishermen can get in on the fun, as the smallmouth start hitting mayflies that land on the surface during “the hatch.”
Little brother, Butt Valley Reservoir, lies just south of Lake Almanor. Only a short drive away, the lake is often overlooked by anglers and gets little attention, but it packs a big punch. The scenery is great, and you can really get away from it all. As everyone else is fishing at Lake Almanor, anglers on Butt Valley will be pulling in smallmouths that average 1 to 2 pounds, and a lot of 3- to 5-pounders will also be netted. If you know what a smallmouth like that feels like on the end of a rod, you’ll head on up.
All the same tricks work here. Start at Butt Valley’s north end in the spring and work your way as the summer progresses along the west side of the lake, using drop-shot and split-shot plastic worms. Jigs work great here in any crawdad patterns, along with crankbaits in the same red or green patterns. Summer and fall brings some topwater action along the shore south of Cool Springs Campground, but you can do well anywhere on this lake. It’s a numbers lake also, joining Lake Almanor to pack a great one-two punch.
Still heading north, Whiskeytown Lake stretches into the mountains west of Redding and just south of two other great northern California lakes, Lake Shasta and Trinity Lake. Often overlooked because of those powerhouse bass fisheries, Whiskeytown gets little pressure from bass anglers. Its very clear water will test you, but once you get on the fish you will have a great time. It holds spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass, and, they all get big in this lake. Big fish hunters can be tight lipped, but there are pictures of 8- to 10-pound largemouth bass from this lake.
Spring will bring all those bass to the banks, and as soon as the water gets right, they will lock onto beds. Fishing various soft-plastics on drop-shot and split-shot rigs will do well. Yamamoto Senkos always seem to do well here, too, along with various Yamamoto grubs. Throw them under fallen trees or near docks. Stay back off the bank as far as you can cast to avoid spooking the bass. Fish the lures all the way back to the boat to chance scoring a larger fish, which tend to hang out a little deeper.
Whiskeytown’s north end and its western shoreline near Brandy Creek and Dry Creek is full of coves to explore and get lost in. Summer and fall will bring some topwater action. Small poppers, walking topwater baits, and buzzbaits will do well in the early morning during low-light conditions. The rising sun and clear water will send the fish down. The spotted bass and smallmouths will be on rocky points, so you can return to various plastics. The lake can be a fun place to camp and explore.
YOU JUST MIGHT TAG A TRUE TROPHY
One other thing to remember about many of these lakes is, they also hold trout and salmon. Throwing trout-imitating swimbaits could score you a real trophy. And when you’re out there off the beaten path, landing a double-digit bass of any species is above and beyond what many anglers expect from lakes they’re not familiar with. Those trips are satisfying enough just with the numbers of bass you can catch on overlooked waters, but the beautiful, get-away fishing sites and vacations these lakes can give you is one more trophy to claim.