March 12, 2018
California smallmouth bass fishing is among the nation's finest, and these locations are among the state's best.
California is home to giant largemouth bass, holding almost every position on the top 10 list, the world-record spotted bass, and the golden prize, smallmouth bass.
Now, there are a number of states where you can find all three, but nowhere will you have a chance of catching near-world-record bass of different species on the same trip.
Largemouth are a strong leader in the bass family, and so are the spotted bass of California. But the smallmouth are just something special, and they seem to be getting larger and stronger in California every year. They are truly California's gold.
The world-record smallmouth came from Tennessee's Dale Hollow reservoir and weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces. In California, we are now knocking on the door at 9.82 pounds, the California State record from Pardee Reservoir.
Many 8- to 10-pound fish have been taken over the years, and it's only a matter of time before a fish is taken that will challenge the world record. One thing about the smallmouth bass is that if you find one you usually find a bunch as they love to school up. The numbers game will keep you interested until that big bite.
No one knows exactly how the smallmouth bass made their way to the West. Some surmise that settlers brought them west as they made land grabs across the plains. However they got here originally, they have grown strong and have been transplanted to almost any lake or river that biologists thought they would take hold in. Most of the lakes that the bass survived in are in the foothills or mountains and have cooler weather and waters. This seems to be the prime habitat for their existence.
These bass, bronzebacks, greenies, golden bass, or smallies, or whatever nickname you call them fight, pound for pound, harder than any other bass.
They just seem to be all muscle and fight like little freight trains. They love to eat crawdads and jigs are a good place to start when fishing them.
If you can find out the color of the local crawdads, then you will be way ahead of the game. Match the hatch as they say. They do eat shad or shiners as well, so don't leave all your other lures at home, but there's nothing like a hard strike on a jig to let you know something just tried to kill it.
You can catch smallmouth all over California, but as I mentioned, they seem to best in the cooler waters of the northern California lakes. San Diego tried to plant smallmouth in a few of their lakes, but they just didn't take hold. Diamond Valley reservoir tried to plant them, but they have been slow to take hold, but a few are still caught every year. Experts don't feel strongly that they will survive. You just have to keep heading a little farther north to find a stronger population of these special bass.
And, as you keep heading north, there are numerous lakes that hold good populations of smallmouth that produce numbers of 1- to 2-pounders all day long, but I want to go over the ones that really put out larger fish for you. One great thing about those lakes is that they are in a part of California where the sites and views are worth the trip there alone. White capped mountains, redwoods, bear, deer and other wildlife. Let's jump all the way to the north and work our way back down south.
So, technically, Trinity Lake extends a little farther north than Lake Shasta in Northern California. And it holds a strong population of smallmouth bass. Once the California state-record holder with a 9.1 pounder, many serious smallmouth fishermen think this lake could regain the state title again or even the world record. The lake sits at about 70 percent full, but I'm writing this before winter rains may bring it up to a more normal range. This is a huge lake, so don't worry, there is plenty of shoreline to fish.
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Late winter and early spring can get the smallmouth moving, depending on water temperatures, looking for their spawning areas. You may have to fish a little deeper during this time. Look to sandy gravelly shorelines and fish adjacent rocky points with jigs.
Remember these fish love crawdads more than anything and a whole assortment of jigs will work throughout the spring. They will score the larger fish this lake is known for as well. It is fairly normal to catch 3- to 5-pounders here, and you always have that chance of a trophy smallmouth bass.
Spring into summer brings drop-shot or split-shot action on a variety of plastics. Creature baits to emulate the crawdads or shad-type baits on a drop-shot rig to emulate shad or other fishes fry. They will eat them all. If you need to, you can cover ground with a crankbait in crawdad patterns.
Make sure you reel it all the way to the bottom, bouncing of rocks and brush to attract strikes. Once you find the fish, usually you can hang in an area to score. Spinnerbaits will work well in the summer and into fall. Early morning topwater, yes topwater, for smallmouth in the early lowlight morning or evening hours is a blast.
I spoke with local fishing guide Randall Doyle about Trinity and asked him, without giving away his best spot, where is the strongest areas to fish. Doyle said: "Trinity Center area and the North End Flats are a couple great areas for larger smallmouth." Doyle went on to say, "Use your electronics and look for old creek channels. The bass like to slide up and down while in feeding mode." Find a school and you'll score!
Next on our list is Lake Shasta, due east of Trinity. This lake is sitting right on the Highway 5 and makes accessibility easy for camping out or staying at a hotel. One more thing to consider is a houseboat. This lake is also huge, and house boating can be great fun.
Just tow your bass boat behind it. Again, the sites are worth the trip, and maybe you can even experience both lakes on the same trip. Lake Shasta actually had to release water this past year, so you may find the water level higher than you have ever seen it before.
Springtime will bring a strong rush to the shoreline for smallmouth males running the bank looking for areas to spawn. This lake has a ton of tree stumps and roots along all shorelines along with gravel banks and rocky points. Once the smallmouth are in feeding mode, almost nothing will stop them here. Numbers are the norm, but there are larger fish here as well caught every year in the 4- to 6- pound range. And springtime is the time to catch them.
In the spring and summer, different jigs will do well here, along with drop-shot and split-shot plastics in both crawdad colors and shad colors. This lake does have trout, and sometimes the smallmouth will eat smaller trout swimbaits. Summer and fall can bring topwater action, but the smallmouth will be competing with the spotted and largemouth bass.
Slow rolling spinnerbaits across points can score, as well as running crawdad colored cranks down rocky points. Again, I asked guide Randall Doyle for his thoughts. Doyle mentioned, "I feel the Pit Arm area is going to be your best bet for good action and probably some larger smallmouth."
As we head south, there are other lakes that hold smallmouth. But remember, I wanted to let you in on the best for numbers, but also size. And as we fishermen know, size matters.
We make a leap farther south to Lake Almanor. This impoundment has a reputation of putting out a lot of mid-size fish in the 4- to 6-pound range, but also nice 2- to 3-pounders to keep you going all day. The lake is full and there are miles and miles of shoreline to fish here.
Now, Doyle's advice for me on this lake was, "Make every effort you can to travel to and fish this lake. It is the sleeper of the bunch. Hardly any people fishing smallmouth so there's no pressure and you can pull up on a spot and catch solid 3- to 5-pound fish and a lot of fish as well. One part of the lake for nice fish is the Airport area, but exploring can be half the fun."
You can locate fish quickly with spinnerbaits or crankbaits. If you catch one, worl plastic worms acrosss the area for more action.
Springtime can bring good jig fishing. As you head into summer split-shot fishing and drop-shot fishing will do really well. Later in summer and into fall you can score fish on various topwater baits. Hard and soft jerkbaits will do well most of the year too. There is every type of structure you can think of here.
Main lake rocky points, gravelly banks, submerged brush. This is a big lake and the wind can come up here with a vengeance, so pay attention and head back to the marina or launch before it gets out of control.
Finally, Pardee Lake, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is back to right around its regular water level and ready to fish. The lake has 40 miles of shoreline, with plenty of room for all.
It should be easy to find an area to get away to and enjoy this magnificent country. This lake is well known for its smallmouth population and currently holds the California state record at 9.82 pounds, just a couple pounds off the current world record. The regulars here feel this is the lake to break that world record.
There are a lot of giants caught here, but many big smallmouth hunters keep those catches to themselves, with maybe only a boasting picture on Facebook. The lake opens in February and stays open until November.
This lake has all the best surroundings you could need and a giant 10-lane launch ramp. The scenery is beautiful, and makes the entire experience worth the trip up. There is no water sports allowed here, so no jet-skiers or water-skiers to contend with.
Springtime will bring males rushing the banks for the spawn. Jigs do well this time of year as the fish want to bulk up. The River Arm seems to wake up first and can be good all year long when other areas fail. Spring, summer, or fall, split-shot or drop-shot plastic baits will do well in crawdad or shad colors.
Creature baits will also emulate crawdads well and may attract larger fish on a Carolina rig. Late summer and fall will bring some fish to the surface for topwater action. Soft and hard jerkbaits take fish this time of year as well.
So, there you have it. We've looked at some of the best smallmouth waters in California. Not too far of a drive from anywhere and all great vacation spots as well. Let your fingers do the walking, as all of the lakes have websites and camping websites that can help plan your trip. Pack up the entire family and head on out to one of these lakes, or even try to hit a couple in one trip if you can. You will not be disappointed.