Best Bites

Best Bites

Stripers in the Delta, bass at Folsom and world-record-sized blue catfish at Otay keep California anglers in hot waters this fall. (November 2008)

In California, anglers have a wider range of opportunities than in any other state in the nation.

You might not find the year's fattest stripers on the Delta, but you'll catch a bunch in the 4- to 10-pound range.
Photo courtesy of Fred Thomason.

But right now, it might not seem that way. The season for Eastern Sierra trout closes in mid-November. The entire Sacramento River salmon season is closed. The ocean has now become too rough to fish. But thanks to our variety, several other spots are turning on just in time.

Are you looking for action right now? You can chase stripers on the Delta. Or fish for bass near the state capital on Folsom Reservoir. Or head down near the Mexico border to seek the next state-record blue catfish.

In November, anglers have plenty of spots they can focus on. And these encompass just a few of the Golden State's best options.

Folsom is known for a hot fishery in spring, but this reservoir can offer incredible bass fishing throughout the winter. And when it comes to kicking out quality fish, it rivals any water in the region.

Jay Rowan. California Fish and Game biologist, said bass in November tend to be 30 and 40 feet deep.

"There are a lot of big fish in that lake," he said. "It's not like Oroville, where you have a lot of spots and mostly smaller fish. Folsom puts out bigger sizes."

Gary Dobyns, the all-time leading money winner in the West, said that in winter, Folsom is a top still-water fishery in the northern part of the state.

"You can catch maybe 50 with a couple of guys in the boat. But more often than not, you can catch 20 to 30 a day," Dobyns told Game & Fish.

"It's a great winter fishery, one of the better winter fisheries in Northern California. It doesn't complete with Shasta and Oroville for numbers, but it will beat both of those lakes for quality."

In November, several warm sunny days in a row can tempt bass to move shallow, but the bulk of the population most likely won't creep above the 25-foot mark.

In late fall and winter, your success is determined by how well you can pinpoint structure, since all species of bass cling to it this time of year.

The bass pro said that this reservoir is full of structure, which is easy to see because it's marked with buoys.

During the next few months, you can hook smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass using the same technique at the same depth. Jigs, worms and swimbaits are the mainstay.

"You'll catch spot, spot, spot and then a big largemouth, and then a smallmouth," Dobyns said. "Last winter, I caught all three species off one hump."

Rowan and Dobyns said that when fishing Folsom during the cooler months, depth is a crucial factor. These two choose to toss swimbaits only when focusing on larger bass specifically. With trout and salmon species being frequently planted at Folsom, any bass heavier than 4 pounds is well aware of those high-protein meals.

Drop-shotting Roboworms, throwing a Yamamoto Hula Grub or a Huddleston are recommended tactics. Drag your worms and grubs slowly, especially as the water cools.

Trophy fish will be taken on swimbaits almost exclusively. Trout plants are part of the reservoir's regular routine. Folsom's bigger bass make a living grabbing planted trout and won't hesitate to chase down a Huddleston, Castaic Soft Trout or any real-life looking swimbait.

Heaving them across points, along the face of the dam and in the marina area awards you with the greatest chance of getting a bite.

"If there's an active big fish," said Dobyns, "it seems that I'll get it on the first or second cast. If I don't get bit on the swimbait, I'll go to worms and jigs."

Ronson "Catmando" Smothers caught this 45-pound blue at Otay. Mackerel get the big ones to bite, said this catfish expert.
Photo courtesy of Ronson Smothers.

In the 1990s, Otay Reservoir yielded world-class largemouth bass and monster blue catfish. In 2000 however, an angler caught a new state record at San Vicente Reservoir, and anglers then flocked there instead.

But the in winter and spring of 2007, Otay showed the fishing world that it still harbors a substantial population of state-record-size blues. The only reason for its absence from stardom was a lack of fishing pressure. With almost no one targeting the blues, they didn't get caught.

Lower Otay Reservoir, not far from the border with Mexico, is still not overfished by any means. But the secret of record-size fish is out -- again. There's a great chance that a new state-record blue catfish will be caught here. And for it to happen this fall or winter won't send shockwaves through the fishing community.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Mike Giusti, Fish and Game biologist. "It's been known as a big catfish lake for decades. I'm not sure exactly how big. We'll see, because those fish are getting old, but there's definitely state-record potential there. There's plenty of food in there for it."

"Potential" is an understatement. This year already, several catfish heavier than 60 pounds have been caught and verified, and some released. Through shocking and weighing, Fish and Game confirmed that catfish heavier than the state-record 101-pound blue live in Otay.

The potential for success is greater than ever. Cats now have a new food source to tap into: trout that the state recently stocked in the reservoir.

Combine them with Otay's monstrous crappie, bluegill and shad population, and the food chain couldn't have better links in it to help catfish gain weight in a hurry.

Guide Ronson "Catmando" Smothers, of Catmando Baits, said that the big cats are out there,

but you aren't going to get a whole bunch of bites.

"I'm getting two to six bites a day," he said. "You just have to make them count."

Smothers and Giusti are among the majority who believe Otay is poised for great things. Traditionally, the period of November through March provides the greatest opportunity to hook the biggest cats. They'll likely come from the face of the dam, Harvey's arm and the Otay arm.

November is the beginning of the big-cat season because the cooling pattern tends to draw them from the deeper portions of the reservoir into the shallows, where anglers can target them more effectively.

San Vicente will be closed for more than five years while work is done to expand the reservoir's capacity. Otay won't be affected, except by the increased fishing pressure.

More anglers mean that more big fish will be caught.

Catching blues at Otay will take work and require specific gear. Filling spools with 25- or 30-pound test is mandatory, as are 7-foot medium-heavy rods designed for 20- to 40-pound-test.

Targeting the blues takes a lot of patience.

When you set anchor in 20 to 40 feet of water, make sure you have a second rod stamp. That way you can fan cast two rods per angler, in different directions.

Smothers invests in soaking 1- to 2-pound mackerel sliced into thirds, minus the head. Skipjack, anchovies, worms, liver and other cut baits will also entice the blues, but not as quickly as mackerel.

"In the winter, they are up shallow to feed," said Giusti. "You can find them anywhere from 5 to 50 feet. They go up and down all the time. They do slow down when they water gets cold, but Otay doesn't get that cold."

The Delta will be clogged with stripers in November, but it's a transition month. Historically, late fall means change -- a period when the water goes from somewhat clear to murky. When this occurs, the trolling of October and November is replaced by bait-fishing, which usually yields limit-style action.

On the other hand, if winter arrives late and rains don't muddy the Delta, anglers will be able to troll through December.

Pay attention to weather patterns and runoff, said guide Fred Thomason of Last Cast Guide Service.

"If we start getting rains, the bite will go to bait," said Thomason. "But if it's clear, you'll be trolling.

"It all depends on the weather."

Usually, storms force anglers to bait-fish -- rather than troll -- from November through February. Fortunately, massive congregations of mostly smaller stripers are available.

Beginning in November, the stripers will start to migrate toward the back of sloughs, bays and coves -- places of clear water where there are schools of bait.

"The fall run will be coming in strong in November," said Thomason.

"We had a great spring run last year, and I think we'll have super fishing in November and December."

Nothing is going to hurt the bite, unless we get served rains, he said. Rain brings mud and trash, but that doesn't normally happen until late December or January.

November's one downside is the lack of trophy fish. But if you alter your techniques to the water conditions, you can expect high catch rates.

Don't get me wrong. Trophy fish are caught during the month of November. But they are less likely than in September, October and again in the spring.

The average fish runs 4 to 10 pounds, and you can expect to also hook a few sturgeon, said Thomason.

There's no shortage of places to fish for stripers. Most of the Delta system will harbor them throughout the fall and winter. Some of the hotspots include the powerlines off Sherman and Decker islands, Montezuma Slough, the North and South Mokelumne River, the Sacramento River and the Deepwater Channel.

In reality, every section of the Delta harbors stripers this time of year, but large schools will be found in the above-mentioned areas and in closed bays like Discover Bay.

"If it muddies up really good, I'd be fishing in Minor or Cache Slough," Thomason said.

"Or I'll be fishing under the powerlines, right where the shallows drop into the deeper part of the channel. You have to be on that ledge."

Regardless of where you opt to soak bait, if you focus on the tides, you can ensure success.

"The tides are really important when you're talking about stripers," Thomason said. "If you want to be successful, you have to fish the top and the bottom of the tide."

The guide prefers the first hour and a half of the top of the tide, and the last hour and a half of the bottom of the tide. That's because it seems to move the bait around, and the fish are more active.

"They'll shut down on the slack tide most of the time," Thomason said. "When we're trolling, tides don't make as much of a difference. But they do when we're bait-fishing."

If the water if clear enough, he will occasionally bait-fish in the top hour and a half of the tide, and then troll.

Thomason soaks sardines during the cooler months, but he's been known to use pile worms and anchovies. He soaks all his cut baits in yellow Pautzke Nectar.

If you're trolling, broken-back Bomber Long A's, broken-back Rebel Minnows, big Manns plugs and small swimbaits are all standard.

Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide Series to Fishing California. You can buy his books at

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