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North State Bass Outlook

North State Bass Outlook

Bass haven't become our No. 1 warmwater sport fish by chance, and you can get in on all the action this year at these 14 northern California destinations.

By Brian Sak

Largemouth and smallmouth bass were brought to the Golden State in the 1870s to supplement declining native freshwater sport fish populations. The goal of fisheries managers was to transplant a species that would survive the West's changing environment and to be worthy of anglers' time. Although early biologists knew little about black bass, questioning whether the species would survive in California waters, their increasing popularity in the East pushed officials to introduce them here.

Western fisheries managers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries couldn't have dreamed of the success that largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass (introduced in 1933) would experience. How these fish have prospered in a variety of waters correlates directly to their acceptance by anglers.

Today, most of California's low-elevation freshwaters are inhabited by at least one species of the black bass family. The combination of successful introductions and struggles with native fishes have made bass the second most popular freshwater sport fish in the state behind trout.

There is no reason to believe that trend will change this year or anytime in the foreseeable future. Whether you're looking for numbers of fish, the trophy of a lifetime, or a little of both, you can get in on the fun at any of these exceptional north state bass waters.

Santa Margarita Lake (San Luis Obispo County): Water contact recreation is prohibited (no swimmers, skiers and personal watercraft allowed) at this relatively small coastal drinking water reservoir, a boon to anglers looking for a tranquil setting in which to wet a line. And with seven miles of accessible shoreline, Santa Margarita is suited to bank-bound anglers as well as boaters.

Although largemouths averaging 2 to 3 pounds are the draw here, fish in the low teens are not uncommon. Spinnerbaits, jigs and soft plastics take most of the bass throughout the year at popular locations such as the Narrows and Jackass Bay. Fish frog imitations over weedbeds for explosive strikes in the summer.


Known for producing high numbers of relatively small spotted bass, Shasta Lake also grows a few lunker spots, as tournament pro Skeet Reese demonstrates. Photo by Brian Sak

Trophy hunters should stick to oversized trout-pattern swimbaits, and be on the water soon after a load of hatchery rainbows are dumped in the lake. Santa Margarita is open daily, from sunrise to sunset, but closes on Christmas day.

For information, contact San Luis Obispo County Parks at 805-788-2397.

Lake Nacimiento (Monterey County): Known to locals as "Naci," this lake features quality largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass fisheries. With a few small adjustments, you can catch all three from the same area. Target largemouths in the spring by pitching reaction baits or jigs to wood and brush in the shallows. Spots are your best bet through the summer. Fish small plastics parallel to rock walls, steep points and deep ledges. You'll catch smallies during fall and winter with anything that looks and acts like a crawdad. Prepare for huge crowds should you decide to head here in the summer.

For information, contact the Nacimiento Ranger Station at 805-238-2376.

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Contra Costa, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties): Year after year the Delta receives top billing in terms of the overall numbers of largemouth bass and the number of trophies caught by north state anglers, and you can expect the same this year. This must-fish destination, however, is a complex maze of waterways, and although every inch of the system looks like it holds fish, that's simply not the case.

Learn the Delta by picking one area that has historically produced bass, then concentrate on that location until you figure out what's going on. Big Break, Holland Tract and Mildred Island are great places to begin.

These waters are productive 12 months of the year, and a variety of techniques take bass. Try cranking crawdad pattern plugs parallel to riprap banks, weaving spinnerbaits through sparse tules, and pitching soft plastics to holes in weedbeds. One word of caution: The Delta can be dangerous, especially during summer, so stay alert and know you and your boat's capabilities.

For information, contact Fisherman's Warehouse at 209-239-2248.

Lake Berryessa (Napa County): This lake's proximity to the Bay Area attracts a variety of water enthusiasts, but don't let the crowds scare you away. There are good populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass here, along with plenty of quiet coves to hide from the masses.

Fish early and late for Berryessa's biggest bass, targeting largemouths in shallow water cover. Smallies and spots prefer relatively deeper water, typically holding off rocky points or over submerged island tops. Popular offerings for all three include spinnerbaits, crankbaits and soft plastics.

For information, contact the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at 707-966-2111.

San Pablo Reservoir (Contra Costa County): Largemouths weighing in the high teens are caught every year at Pablo, but it takes patience and persistence to catch one of these monsters.

Bass get big here thanks to a steady diet of hatchery-raised trout. You'll have to cast 9- to 12-inch swimbaits that look like rainbows to have a shot at a trophy of your own. Surface, diving and sinking lures all work as long as you retrieve your offering slowly.

Try waters off the main recreation area and the boat ramp for starters. San Pablo closes every year in mid-November, reopening in mid-February.

For information, contact San Pablo Reservoir at 510-223-1661.

Don Pedro Reservoir (Tuolumne County): You shouldn't expect to catch dozens of bass on this massive body of water, but you can look forward to tying into some lunkers thanks to the introduction of Florida-strain largemouths in '82.

This is one of those lakes that is either on or off, so it's important to check catch reports before heading out the door. Anglers intimately familiar with Pedro agree that spring is the time to go.

With 160 miles of shoreline, it's tough to

know where to start fishing. Narrow your search for monster bass by sticking to Big, Rodgers and Woods creeks. Look for a reaction bite first with shad-pattern crankbaits, white spinnerbaits and gold ripbaits. If those don't work, pitch dark jigs to every piece of structure you find. When things get tough try 6-inch plastic worms, working from shallow to deep until you locate fish.

For information, contact the Don Pedro Recreation Area at 209-852-2396.

Lake Amador (Amador County): Amador, with only 14 miles of shoreline, is small in comparison to other Gold Country reservoirs, but holds its own when it comes to largemouth bass production. This lake pumps out an incredible number of 3-pound bass, with dozens of fish over 10 pounds caught every spring.

Try 6-inch plastic worms along rock walls and points in the Jackson Creek and Mountain Spring areas for starters. The size of Amador also makes it a great location for fishing at night; jump up to 8- or 10-inch curl-tail worms in black.

A final noteworthy detail is that the concessionaire here caters to anglers, not allowing water skiers and personal watercraft on the lake.

For information, contact the Lake Amador Resort and Marina at 209-274-4739.

Folsom Lake (Folsom, El Dorado, Placer and Sacramento counties): Only minutes away from the State Capital, this American River impoundment gets its share of pressure from a variety of recreational users. Lots of people, however, do not mean that you should avoid fishing Folsom. The key to catching largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass here is being on the water when others are off.

Fall through spring is the best time to go, and if you fish during summer, avoid crowds by fishing early and late. Most of Folsom's largemouths are taken from the South Fork with spinnerbaits, jigs and soft-plastics. If you're willing to sacrifice bites for a shot at one big bass, try casting swimbaits.

Target rocky points and ledges in the North Fork with small crawdad-pattern crankbaits and grubs for smallies. You'll catch spotted bass all over the lake by drop-shotting 4-inch plastic worms.

For information, contact the Folsom State Recreation Area at 916-988-0205.

Lake Oroville (Butte County): Although there are few guarantees when fishing, catching spotted bass at Oroville is pretty close to a sure thing. And it doesn't matter when you go or what part of the lake you target.

The key to success here is finding a rockpile, ledge or point with deep-water access on at least one side, and trying different depths until you locate fish. Topwater plugs and ripbaits take spots throughout spring, while dart-heading and drop-shotting 4-inch worms are the methods of choice the rest of the year. Use light-color soft plastics when casting to waters shallower than 30 feet and dark colors when fishing deeper. Note that there is a 12- to 15-inch slot limit here.

For information, contact the Oroville State Recreation Area at 530-538-2200.


Although their present north state distribution remains small compared to largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, striped bass provide lots of awe-inspiring action for California fishermen. Check the fishing regulations closely and then visit these four top-notch destinations.


California Delta -- Although striped bass swim the Delta's maze of waterways throughout the year, you're better off trolling broken-back plugs from March through May and October through November. For information, call Hook, Line & Sinker at 925-625-2441.


Feather River -- Spring-run stripers show in the lower Feather in April, but you'll catch more fish in this river drifting live bait in May. For information, call Huntington's Sportsman's Store at 530-534-8000.


Lake San Antonio -- While trolling accounts for the bulk of the stripers caught during summer and fall, make sure you're ready to cast topwater plugs when baitfish boil at the surface. For information, call Monterey County Parks at 805-472-2311.


San Luis Reservoir & O'Neill Forebay -- These waters are known for producing trophy striped bass. Have a shot at your own wall-hanger by trolling shad imitations from March through July. For information, call the San Luis State Recreation Area at 209-826-1196. -- Brian Sak


Clear Lake (Lake County): California's largest natural lake offers a unique experience to Westerners accustomed to fishing deep man-made reservoirs. Clear Lake's shallow, fertile waters are full of life, including forests of underwater vegetation, plenty of baitfish and an incredible number of trophy bass. Anglers from across the U.S. rate the largemouth fishery here as one of the best in the country.

The nice thing about Clear Lake is it gives up monster bass virtually anytime of the year. Simply find out whether the bite is at the north or south end, then head there and start fishing any of several classic baits. Try casting crankbaits, ripbaits and spinnerbaits around weed-filled flats and tule-lined points during spring and fall.

Get out early when summer arrives, fishing topwater lures and swimbaits parallel to the bank; pitch frogs to thick vegetation when the sun's high. Catching fish in winter takes a slow presentation to brush, docks and rockpiles.

For information, contact the Lake County Visitor Information Center at 800-525-3743.

Lake Mendocino (Mendocino County): Thanks to the reputation of nearby Clear Lake, Mendocino gets less pressure than it invites, considering the quality of the largemouths and smallmouths that come out of here.

The only negative aspect of this lake is the hammering it takes from water skiers. You'll solve the problem, however, by getting out early and late in the day. Fish spinnerbaits parallel to rock walls in the spring, covering lots of water. Slow things down in the summer, casting topwater plugs until the crowds hit the lake. Crankbaits work well in the fall, while dragging soft plastics down steep rocky points pays off between winter storms.

For information, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 707-462-7581.

Spring Lake (Sonoma County): The number of huge largemouths that come out of this 75-acre lake is mind-boggling. Several bass pushing 10 pound are caught every year, and the 20-pound plus lake record, caught and released in 1997, may still be lurking in its depths. Spinnerbaits, Rat-L-Traps and a variety of soft plastics take bass here, with the best fishing along the tules that are inaccessible to shore anglers.

Target trophy largemouths near the fishing dock in winter, using big swimbaits that match the stocked rainbow trout. Note that gas-powered boats are not allowed on Spring Lake.

For information, contact the Spring Lake Regional Park at 707-539-8092.

Shasta Lake (Shasta County): Shasta has to be one of the simplest reservoirs to get to in the Golden State, with Interstate 5 crossing it just upstream of the dam. There's no doubt that easy access translates into people, and this lake gets its share of house boaters, water skiers, personal watercraft users and anglers.

Regardless of the time of year that you go, however, the fishing remains good thanks to the sheer size of this place. You'll always be able to find a quiet cove to wet a line at Shasta.

There is plenty of habitat throughout the lake for the largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass that live here, but you'll increase the odds of catching what you're after by targeting specific areas. Most consider the Pit River arm the best for largemouths, where reaction-type baits take fish from submerged willows and wood. You'll find spots all over Shasta as long as there's rock and deep water nearby. Smallies can be difficult to locate, but are sometimes taken off steep banks and breaks.

For information, contact the Shasta-Trinity National Forest district office at 530-275-1587.

Trinity Lake (Trinity County): California's smallmouth bass rarely get mentioned when the dock talk turns to big fish, but smallies should be the first things that come to mind at this designated trophy lake. Make this one of your first trips this year because the bite slows dramatically as lake waters warm.

Cast small reaction baits to stumps and ledges early in the day, switching to earth-toned, soft plastic grubs in deeper water when fish get inactive. Soak live crickets if the smallies develop a case of lockjaw. Keep in mind that special regulations at Trinity allow just two bass a day between March 31 and May 31.

For information, see Shasta Lake above.

General freshwater fishing regulations limit you to five black bass in possession, with a minimum size limit of 12 inches, measured from the tip of each fish's nose to the end of its tail. Angling is open year-round to anyone with a valid California fishing license; children under the age of 16 do not need a license. Exceptions to these rules are listed above.

For information, contact the Department of Fish and Game at 916-653-7664, or check online at

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