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Gold Standard

Some Gold Country bass pros prefer the post-spawn to any other phase. And they know the tricks to get the lunkers to bite at Don Pedro, New Melones, Camanche and McClure. (May 2009)

The secret is out -- not all bass fishing seasons were created equal (although something tells me you already knew that).

The Zara Spook is a popular lure for post-spawn bass fishing in the foothills. Drag it through baitfish on the surface. Bass cannot resist it. Photo courtesy of John Chiarpotti.
Photo courtesy of John Chiarpotti.

For most of us anglers, the No. 1 time to chase smallies, spots and largemouths is spring, the pre-spawn in particular. That's when the big girls head to the bank, and we try to be there waiting for them, with our dreams of multiple bass over 6 pounds.

The spawn can also be a blast, especially if you happen to be skilled at sight-fishing. After that, the summer peak can be dynamite, and autumn can be a lunker-fest. But from late spring on, it seems that as the days heat up, the bite slows down.

On the lakes that are scattered in the Sierra foothills, however, it's a different story.

In fact, if you talk to those in the know, you may well find the post-spawn to be their favorite time to be on the water. The fish run big. More often than not, the topwater bite is electrifying.

Take friends who are lukewarm to bassin' to one of these lakes on a warm May afternoon, and they may have an unforgettable day watching their Zara Spooks "catch air" under ballistic assaults by fired-up spots and smallies. Add to that the scenic beauty of late spring, and you have all the makings of a memory that can last a lifetime.


California Game & Fish interviewed some of the Gold Country's best-known fishermen for this article to help you fish the post-spawn like a pro.

  • Dave Rush is a highly-respected pro who built his reputation on the waters of the foothills.
  • John Chiarpotti has 30 years' experience as a tournament angler and guide, the last 15 of which have been spent on these lakes.
  • Cody Meyer, the 25-year-old native of Grass Valley, has finished second in the FLW Stren Western Division points race for the last two years running.

We think you'll enjoy reading their perspectives on why late spring can be so good on these Sierra-fed waters, and we'll follow that up with a brief breakdown of four of the best -- Don Pedro, New Melones, Camanche and McClure.

How good is foothill fishing after the spawn? "I wish I could fish an endless May and June," said Johnny Chiarpotti of Sonora. "Earlier in the spring, all of your fishing is predicated by the weather."

In his view, angling is far more consistent once the bass have concluded their reproductive rituals. "The best fishing in the foothills is after a big snowmelt, when they're running lots of water through the dams," the guide said. "The top 15 feet of the water column has all the fish, since it's much warmer than the water beneath it."

By a wide margin, the top choice for getting bit during the post-spawn is topwater, with Zara Spooks taking the honors for most favored bait.

Why are these walk-the-dog style lures so popular?

"After the spawn, bass are guarding fry," said Palermo angler Dave Rush. "Topwaters resemble bluegills, which prey on fry, and bass rush out to hit them."

With almost two decades of guiding experience on these lakes, Chiarpotti echoes a similar theory on May and June fishing. (Continued)

"My favorite way to catch postspawn bass is with Super Spooks," he said. "I'll even throw them in the middle of the day. The fry come up to warm themselves, the Spook comes through them, and the adults come up to kill it."

As for color choices, Chiarpotti favors Florida bass, while Rush likes baby bass patterns, along with bluegill and firetiger.

Aside from the Heddon Spook, Chiarpotti vouches for Lucky Craft Sammys and Reaction Innovations Vixens. He also offered anglers an important bit of advice: "Keep walking the dog after a missed bite. Bass will often come up and hit your topwater again."

In addition, he recommended that anglers set the hook by sweeping their rods to their sides rather than over their heads. "If you make these fish jump, you'll lose a good share of them."

Cody Meyer had advice on where to find these fish on any given highland reservoir. Look for shade lines or pockets along bluff walls or even mud lines generated by ski boat wakes, said Meyer.

Currently residing in Redding, Meyer spent his formative years fishing California's highland impoundments. He comments that he always starts off with a topwater on post-spawn mornings, retrieving his Spook at a steady pace on 15-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game monofilament. Meyer notes that once morning's low-light conditions have given way to bright sun, the topwater bite typically dies, although it can still be found in shady areas.

Other than bright chrome Spooks, the rear trebles of which Meyer adorns with feathers, he also finds Ricos and Pop-Rs to be effective. Choosing shades of white or Tennessee shad, Meyer throws them out, pops them, and then brings them in with a slow retrieve, allowing time for the rings to disappear before popping them again.

According to Johnny Chiarpotti, anglers also shouldn't overlook the classic No. 11 Floating Rapala. This minnow-style bait will still attract a good number of bites when gently twitched on the surface.

Whenever Chiarpotti throws Spooks, he has another bait rigged up and ready to go -- the venerable Yamamoto Senko.

"I'm always ready to throw these. If a bass misses a topwater, it will still think it has injured it and will jump on a Senko."

"Johnny C" most often opts for 5-inch models in green pumpkin, motor oil with red flake or clear with gold and black flake. Typically, he Texas-rigs them with a 3/0 EWG hook.

In addition to watermelon Senkos, Dave Rush likes Slug-Gos and Flukes in blue-pearl hologram. Whatever his choice of weightless plastic, the winner of nine boats wants some white in his bait so he can more easily see it, and react quickly when a bass swoops in and engulfs it.

For fishing these soft jerkbaits in water with 5 feet or more visibility, Rush goes with fluorocarbon of 8- to 10-pound-test, while in dirty water, he likes 12-pound monofilament.

"You can get away with lighter line during this time of year," he said. "The fish don't have the endurance and muscle after the spawn. You're usually getting reaction strikes, and often they're barely hooked. One thing you don't want to do is try to horse them in."

Like the others, Meyer is a Senko advocate, wacky-rigging 5-inchers in natural shad patterns around submerged trees and shade pockets. Over the last year, he's also become a fan of flick-shakin'. With a 5.8-inch Jackall flick-shake worm in green pumpkin pepper or watermelon candy, Meyer casts it wacky-style on a 1/8-ounce tungsten jighead, also made by Jackall. He lets the worm fall on a slack line, shakes it, then lets it continue to descend, adding that he'll know he's bit when his line starts to load up.

Meyer said bass at this time of year will usually be on the outside of everything.

"Any kind of vertical structure is good," he said. "They suspend a lot, and you can find them beside or under floating docks or even houseboats."

Noting that he catches post-spawn fish in a variety of areas -- including trees and bridge pilings -- Chiarpotti emphasizes that location choices should be reasonably close to spawning grounds. He observes that highland bass eat a fair number of crayfish in late spring, and as a result, you'll often find him casting a Carolina rig if the topwater or Senko bites aren't red-hot.

When he uses Baby Brush Hogs in green pumpkin or watermelon purple, he rigs them on 12-pound fluorocarbon with no leader, opting for a Carolina-keeper as his weight stopper.

Most anglers use 3/4- or 1-ounce weights, but Chiarpotti uses a 1/4-ounce cylindrical tungsten one, occasionally going as high as 3/8-ounce.

"You get hung up a lot more with the big weights," a significant factor on these rocky reservoirs, he said.

Dave Rush, too, doesn't try to limit his bass to a strict topwater and weightless worm diet when pursuing them in May and June.

"I like 3- and 4-inch grubs in hologram and watermelon red," he said.

During a typical retrieve, he lets the grub sink, raises his rod tip, swims it along, and then lets it sink again.

"I like to reel grubs up to fry, then work them very slowly, and bass will come up and hit them," said Rush. "Remember, once bass are done guarding their fry, they start eating them. Also, fry tend to be in the first couple feet of the water column over depths of 5 to 15 feet."

As a result, Rush doesn't rely on drop-shotting as much at this time of year. He said that technique tends to go below the active biters.

Working his way toward the main lake from the backs of coves, Rush is able to zero-in on the preferred locations of post-spawners, and he uses this information as his starting point for finding bass on subsequent trips to the lake.

As spring gives way to summer, highland bass typically follow a seasonal migration to the main lake body, where they'll remain until they return to the creek arms in the fall to chase shad.

Another presentation Rush likes is with the often-overlooked tube. "I rig them on darter or tube heads, with the lead buried inside the hollow body," he said. "I like to use as light a weight as I can get away with, usually 1/16- to 1/32-ounce."

Choosing the same colors as with grubs, he notes that bass are attracted to the gentle, spiral fall of a lightly weighted tube. And when in doubt, "you can always tie on a split-shot and a 4-inch worm in oxblood or green weenie and catch fish," he said.

Lake Don Pedro
This reservoir sits due east of Modesto and only 39 miles from Stockton. It's rapidly gaining a reputation for trophy fish. Spring tournaments see multiple 10-pound-plus bass make it to the scales. Anglers have figured out that its lunkers have an appetite for trout-imitating swimbaits.

At full pool, the impoundment covers 13,000 surface acres. It's also less than two hours from the gates of Yosemite National Park, and in fact, its waters are fed by the legendary Tuolumne River, which flows from the high country.

As a result, a trip to Don Pedro can be turned into a combination fishing-sightseeing vacation for the entire family. With two full-service marinas, 550 campsites and 160 miles of shoreline, Don Pedro offers plenty of recreational opportunities.

Chiarpotti notes that most of Don Pedro's bass fishing revolves around largemouth bass, although there are lots of smallies, too.

"I'll usually catch five largemouths to every one smallmouth," he said.

Chiarpotti fishes both ends of the lake, and looks for post-spawners on the lake's steep, rocky banks near spawning areas.

Another important feature is Don Pedro's standing timber. "It has a lot of trees sticking up, and you can catch a lot of bass by working topwaters through them," said Chiarpotti.

Dave Rush favors Pedro's Moccasin Creek arm. He, too, likes to fish its standing timber. He also notes that, as with many foothill lakes, areas with large boulders can produce excellent post-spawn action.

New Melones
At 12,500 acres and with 100 miles of shoreline, New Melones stands as the fifth largest reservoir in California. Situated about 40 miles east of Stockton off Highway 49 and near the Gold Rush town of Sonora, New Melones is also only about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Pinecrest Lake, a popular vacation destination in the Sierras, as well as the mountainous Emigrant Wilderness.

Like Don Pedro, New Melones is known for its standing timber and brushpiles.

Chiarpotti is a fan of its brushy areas, as well as the steep bluff walls of the river area and the points and submerged islands of the main lake. In addition, the guide notes, although its largemouths aren't typically as plentiful and large as those found at Don Pedro, anglers will usually find more willing biters. You'll also find pot-bellied spotted bass topping 7 pounds.

Northeast of Lodi and just off Highway 12 sits Camanche Reservoir. Like Don Pedro and New Melones, it has plenty of standing timber on its 7,770 acres. Its convenient location makes it a popular angling and water skiing destination (which isn't all bad -- remember those mudlines.)

Chiarpotti recommends beginning your search on Camanche along its rocky structures and riprap banks. Submerged islands can also be highly productive for the lake's bass, which are

primarily spots and Florida-strain largemouths, with a few smallmouths scattered among them.

Fed by the crystal waters of Yosemite National Park's Merced River, Lake McClure lies east of Modesto and just to the southeast of Don Pedro Reservoir off highways 132 and 49. Of these four lakes, McClure is the premier spotted bass fishery, which means plenty of willing biters. And at more than 7,000 acres and with more than 26 miles of shoreline, there are plenty of places to look for these feisty creatures.

"It's a great topwater lake," said Chiarpotti. "And darter heads also work well." He recommended that anglers focus on the lake's classic spotted bass structure, which includes points and pockets. Also, be on the lookout for mudlines. These water color changes can be key fish-holding "breaks."

Speaking of breaks, this is just one of many you may find yourself enjoying when you pay a visit to California's foothill lakes during May and June. Great weather. Beautiful scenery. Plenty of bass that want to meet and greet your offerings, especially topwaters

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