In addition to being one of the most scenic of southern California's bass lakes, Santa Barbara's Lake Cachuma charms anglers for an entirely different reason: It's one of the region's best year-round bass fisheries.
By Michael Dickerson
"This is brutal," I said to my partner during a team bass fishing tournament at Santa Barbara County's Lake Cachuma. It was nearly noon on a hot, sunny bluebird day with nary a cloud in the sky nor a ripple on the water's surface, but my remark wasn't aimed at the weather.
"I wish I had a dollar for every time I've said that on this lake," my partner replied.
Perseverance pays, however, and we went on to win the tournament that day with an amazing tally: one bass measuring exactly 12 inches in length.
If that doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of Lake Cachuma, neither is it an indictment. As awful as the lake was that day, it has also been the scene of some of my best days with crankbaits, and some of my best days with jigs, not to mention some of my best days with jerkbaits, and best days with topwater lures - and the list goes on.
Lake Cachuma is a coy tease, and she doesn't give up her secrets easily. For those who do their homework and learn their lessons, however, Cachuma pays a handsome reward. The awful tournament I mentioned was an aberration. The typical tournament at Cachuma usually requires a five-fish total weight of between 21 and 27 pounds for victory, revealing the lake's nature as one of southern California's best bass fisheries. That's better than a 4-pound average; the lake has produced largemouths weighing more than 17 pounds.
Pros like Jared Lintner know they'll need five-bass limits between 21 and 27 pounds to win at Cachuma. Photo by Michael Dickerson
The lake was once known primarily for northern-strain largemouths as well as good smallmouth bass and trout fishing. Florida-strain bass, or hybrids between northerns and the Floridas, now dominate, and that's just fine with savvy anglers like Jared Lintner, a fast-rising Central Coast bass pro who's developed a reputation as one of the top sticks at Cachuma.
"What I like most about Cachuma is the Florida-strain bass because they're unpredictable, yet at the same time, you can generally always pattern them to some extent," says Lintner. "There may only be one little pattern going on the lake, but if you figure that pattern out, you can have one of the best days you've ever had. And you catch bigger fish with the Florida-strain bass in there. In a decent-sized tournament, it usually takes well over 20 pounds to win every time. It's one of the best lakes in the state in terms of the consistency in the average size of the fish."
Nestled in the mountainous Santa Barbara backcountry east of Santa Ynez, Cachuma is hard to beat for sheer beauty. Wildlife abounds at the lake, which is home to bald eagles, mule deer, wild boar, turkey, fox, coyote, badger and raccoon. Mountain lions and an occasional black bear are spotted along the lake's northern shore, which is off limits to visitors. At seven and a half miles long, the lake isn't huge, but seems bigger than it is by virtue of the numerous coves, cuts, flats, cliffs and other features that give an angler plenty of options to explore.
TRAINING GROUND OF TOP-RANKED PRO ANGLERS Even more impressive than the lake's serenity and beauty is the fact that it's a true year-round bass fishery. Each season brings changes that the knowledgeable angler can adjust to and take advantage of to enjoy quality bass fishing virtually any time of year. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the proof of Cachuma's greatness is supported by the fact that it's been a training ground for some highly accomplished competitive bass pros.
Rich Tauber and Jay Yelas, for example, were practically weaned as bass anglers at Cachuma under the tutelage of Ed Ando and Bill Sedar, respectively, who are practically living legends in southern California bass fishing circles. Ando and Sedar are considered grand old masters of Cachuma, and the techniques and tactics they pioneered there have been widely adopted, copied, modified and otherwise emulated by an army of anglers who've grown up to count among their ranks some of the nation's best competitive bass pros.
"It was a great experience growing up and fishing Cachuma," says Tauber. "It was a great training ground, and when I got older, the peacefulness and beauty of the lake brought me back again and again when I was home from the tour, because I could go and fish during the week and enjoy the quiet. Cachuma hasn't lost much of its charm."
With assistance from some of the most knowledgeable anglers ever to fish Lake Cachuma, including Tauber and Lintner, here's a run-down of the best techniques to employ on a seasonal basis at Lake Cachuma.
SPRING The arrival of spring at Lake Cachuma brings with it a wealth of possibilities for bass anglers. Depending on the conditions, a wide variety of lures will produce. "You can catch them split-shotting, drop-shotting, on soft plastic jerkbaits or spinnerbaits, and you can catch a lot of bass in all different water depths," says Tauber.
In early spring, the fish are typically staging on secondary points adjacent to spawning areas, and a lot of different lures begin to work, agrees Lintner.
"The rip-bait bite gets really good, soft plastic jerkbaits work, you can flip some nice fish, and of course the trout swim baits work well all year, long if there's some wind blowing or it's overcast," he says.
Crawdad-pattern crankbaits also work well on pre-spawn fish. Poes and Norman models are local favorites.
Although the fish are stacked on points early in the spring, Cachuma differs from most lakes in the fact that you can always find some shallow fish virtually any time of year. A spring trip to Cachuma with Lintner earlier this year proved that point. While Lintner racked up the numbers drop-shotting in 10 to 15 feet of water, I took big-fish honors with a 4-pound bass that ate a split-shot worm in four feet of water. On other occasions, I've seen bass attack a jig in the only off-color water in the lake - a narrow strip of muddy shorewash in 6 inches of water.
When the fish begin to spawn, sight-fishing is the name of the game for the largemouths. One clue to timing, aside from the obvious presence of fish on beds, is the fact that the smallmouths at Cachuma spawn before the largemouths do. They just use different areas, such as those with baseball-sized rock.
Primary spawning areas include Stork Flat and inside Santa Cruz Bay,
as well as most other cuts in the lake shoreline. For sight-fishing for bass on the beds, time-honored producers include white tube jigs and oxblood plastic craws. Craws in a natural shade pitched on light line are a good choice for skittish fish. Another classic technique for spooked fish involves pitching a jig right up onto the bank and slowly crawling it into the water.
Lintner once won a tournament at the lake during the spawn by pitching baby bass pattern flukes over bedding areas. "Most of those fish were in 5 to 10 feet of water, and we were just dead-sticking baby bass flukes, and we caught 5- and 6-pound fish all day. Just throw it out there and let it sink all the way to the bottom, twitch it, let it fall back to the bottom, and your line tightens up and just swims away," he says.
When bass fry are visible, artificial trout imitations are another good choice. Models that swim on or near the surface are a good choice if the fry are near the surface. If they're a bit deeper, try the soft-plastic models, which can easily be weighted to sink by inserting mojo-style sinkers in their bellies.
"Males guard the fry as well as the nest, and if they see a predator coming near, they'll attack it," says Lintner. "They don't like a trout coming near their nest, and they'll just try to kill it. They may short strike, but if you keep pitching in on them, they'll eat it."
SUMMER After the fish spawn and as spring turns to summer, Cachuma can turn notoriously tough. But it's also one of the best times to fish Cachuma - so long as you get there before the fog burns off or on overcast days. The good news is that the fog is often present for several months, and that's when the fish simply go nuts over topwater baits.
Prime Time For Topwater
"Cachuma is most noted for being just an incredible topwater lake," says Tauber. "People who've never caught a topwater bass in their lives can go there and, fishing in the morning fog, catch topwater fish. Those foggy days are just wonderful."
Top lure choices include a wide variety of poppers and stickbaits, particularly the Zara Spook and similar lures that are retrieved walk-the-dog style. The best spots are generally considered to be well-known feeding flats like Stork Flats and Jackrabbit Flats. One key is to look for areas with a lot of submerged and emergent grass, which grows in prolific fashion in summer. The fish bury up in the grass, and when it's foggy, they'll lie up near the top of the grass and pounce on topwater lures. Concentrate on holes and edges in the grass - any place there's a difference in the pattern of growth.
"I'll start fishing topwater lures right outside the marina," adds Tauber. "You can catch topwater fish all over the lake."
For tournament anglers, it's axiomatic that the one who gets on the best topwater fish usually wins a summer tournament. It's equally axiomatic that when the fog burns off, the bite takes a nose dive, and you'll have to dig deep into your bag of tricks to keep catching fish. The traditional recourse is to start trap-shooting, and it certainly works.
"And don't forget the old split-shot," adds Tauber. "It's still very effective, and there's something to be said for split-shotting now that everyone is drop-shotting. Good colors are Aaron's Magic, a kind of blue, green and brown, and I like purple with a blue vein and any oxblood color. Those are the only three I use at Cachuma."
If you're not ready to start throwing worms, one trick that often pays off, especially from early summer on into midsummer, is an all-white crankbait. It's a great choice on overcast or foggy days, and will often keep producing even after the fog lifts. White, in fact, is a great shade for Cachuma in a variety of lures, primarily because shad is one the primary prey species at Cachuma, along with crayfish and trout. White crankbaits, soft-plastic jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, topwater lures and jigs all take their share of fish at appropriate times.
When the classic topwater action cools off, savvy anglers also break out old classic, the Smithwick Devil's Horse prop bait. "I like to use it after the spawn, in late spring and early summer," says Lintner. "I use the biggest one they make, a 9-inch model, up on the sheer walls and vertical bluffs. The big females come out there and suspend, and if you can get a nice calm day with maybe a little bit of ripple, throw it as close as you can to the bank, rip it hard one time and let it sit for a 15- or 20-second pause. Then rip it again. Usually, if they're going to eat it, they'll nail it in the first 7 feet or so of the retrieve."
Bill Sedar, who's probably caught more big bass at Cachuma than anyone else over a span of decades, once confessed to me that one of his favorite lures at Cachuma is also the old Devil's Horse. He was certainly one of the first to popularize its use at the lake, and it's always been one of his favorites. He typically uses silver lures on sunny days and a black one when it's overcast. He often uses one with the front propeller removed to impart a darting action to the lure.
As well as topwater lures perform on foggy days, they can be even better on warm summer nights walking the shoreline. This isn't an activity I recommend for the faint of heart, given the amount of wildlife prowling Cachuma's shores at night, but if you can find decent shoreline access and don't mind making blind casts, the action can be phenomenal. The lure that's worked for me for many years is a little hard to find, but well worth the effort; it's a half-ounce, all-black double-bladed Woodchopper.
FALL As summer gives way to fall, Cachuma can be downright unpredictable. In most years, October can be a very good month as the fish move shallow and begin to feed up for the winter. By the same token, November can be one of the toughest months of the year. Much depends on the weather. Good or bad, it pays to start off with a jerkbait. If you can't catch them on this reaction lure, break out the finesse baits.
Things Get Tricky
Fall can also be a great time to shift your focus to the lake's large population of smallmouth bass. "The smallmouth bass population is much greater than it was when I first started fishing Cachuma 20 years ago," says Tauber. "The population has really increased. One of the best spots in fall is the Chalk Cliffs. Crawdad crankbaits, like the Fat Rap, are a good choice. Most guys like the Norman crankbaits, especially the Deep Little N and the DD22.
WINTER Unlike most South State lakes, Cachuma has a reputation for producing some outstanding action in winter. "In winter, you can go there when it's super-cold and just start catching fish right away, and as the day warms up, it just gets better," says Tauber. "You can't catch a fish on the bank in winter at Casitas to save your life, but you can catch them at Cachuma, and they're usually better fish."
Cold Weather Brings Hot Fishing
The pig 'n' jig is a great choice at this time, especially in purple and brown combinations. The lake, in fact, has always been known as a "purple" lake, and the purple jig should be a primary we
apon in your arsenal. In years with good rainfall, producing off-color water, black becomes a primary color. The largemouths also begin to show a real fondness for red crankbaits with the onset of winter.
"By December, it usually gets insane with the crankbaits and jigs," says Lintner. "I usually have a couple of days off around Christmas, and the days before and after Christmas, I'll be at Cachuma. It's just too much fun."
Lintner says he typically catches fish in water ranging from 5 to 20 feet deep, from the shallows to the deeper ledges.
The other top choice in winter is imitation rainbow trout. "Some of the local guys, that's just about all they throw in the winter," says Tauber. The important thing to remember, he emphasizes, is to throw it primarily on windy or stormy days when light penetration is low and the surface chop makes it hard for the fish to see you, but still easy for a hungry bass to see a trout swimming overhead.
Facilities at Cachuma include a fully-stocked store, gas station, Laundromat, RV dump station, snack bar, marina, boat ramps and a bait and tackle store. Public swimming pools and bike rentals are available during summer, and year-round camping is available. For lake information and fish reports, call (805) 686-5054 or (805) 686-5055.
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