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The Trout of Lake County

The Trout of Lake County

Nestled among the fringes of Nor Cal's Bass Capital sits a quartet of Lake County stillwaters that provide reliable early-season rainbow trout opportunities.

By Don Vachini

Snuggled deep in my down jacket in hopes of alleviating the morning's wintry chill, I scrambled to attention as my rod danced vigorously in its holder. Invigorated by the sting of steel, a rainbow performed a series of airborne pirouettes in a freedom-seeking venture, ultimately to no avail.

Within minutes, my son Matt's rod jiggled in a similar way. Before the sun peeked through the cloudy overcast on that early March morning, Matt and I had not only landed five impressive rainbows between 12 and 15 inches but we had done it in absolute seclusion. We had not seen another boat nor any anglers on Lake County's Indian Valley Reservoir.

What made our feat even more notable is that this and three other trout hotspots in Lake County surround Clear Lake, arguably one of the best bass fisheries in the West. Certainly, with all of that fishing traffic going to one location 110 miles from either San Francisco or Sacramento, you'd think more trout anglers would have found Lake County's stillwater trout fisheries. For those who do target the trout here, these fisheries are highly regarded.

Indeed, Upper and Lower Blue lakes, Indian Valley Reservoir and Lake Pillsbury, which make up Lake County's Big 4 are early-season coldwater fisheries worthy of your visit now.

With an average annual rainfall of 35 inches and a temperate climate surrounding the hulking prominence of Mt. Konocti, conditions are conducive to winter trout angling. In fact, in-the-know Lake County anglers often keep an eye focused on the barometer before heading to one of these waters. Though little understood, barometric changes have a profound effect on trout eating habits. Their most dramatic feeding responses occur during the transitional phases from good to bad weather and from bad to good weather.

Matt Vachini stuck this Lake Pillsbury rainbow while fishing the Eel River arm. Photo by Don Vachini

A pair of small natural lakes 10 miles northeast of Clear Lake and sitting adjacent to Highway 20, the Blue Lakes benefit from subterranean flows.


Surrounded by oak, pine and bay woodlands in steep terrain, long and narrow Upper Blue Lake is nearly 200 feet at its deepest. The recipient of about 30,000 rainbow trout in the 10- to 12-inch category from the DFG, this 73-acre water is the most popular and most consistent producer of early-season trout of the county's four coldwater lakes, according to Art Cerini, owner and operator of the Narrows Resort. "Throw in holdover trout, which approach 3 to 4 pounds, and the potential is there for some great early-season trout fishing."

With March water temperatures in the ideal 52- to 58-degree range, trout are definitely active. Cerini says trolling with ultra-light rods and reels spooled with 2- to 4-pound monofilament is by far the most effective technique early in the year. While downriggers become the key as fish descend to follow the thermocline, top-lining is great in February and March since trout are near the surface. Slow trolling at speeds of 3/4 to 1 mph is suggested. Top-liners seem to do best when a small chop ripples the water. "The ripple conceals the boat's wake, and the trout seem to let down their guard a bit," Cerini said.

After heavy rains have clouded the water with muddy runoff, Cerini hints that noisy lures will help attract trout. That's when locals use Cripplures, Power Dive Minnows, Rattle Spins, Rat-L-Traps, Broken-back Rebels and Rapalas or slow-wobbling Thomas Buoyant spoons. "When a fish is landed, return and pass through the same location," Cerini suggests. "These trout tend to school and more than one are often caught from the pack."

As water clears, gold, silver or blue Krocodiles, Kastmasters, Needlefish, Humdingers, Uncle Larry's spinners or Sep's Pro Secrets will work magic.

For those confined to the bank, Cerini suggests the boat launch area, near the outlet, and the lengthy dropoff along the Highway 20 narrows. Here, worms, red salmon egg/marshmallow combinations and rainbow glitter Power Bait, Crave Bait or inflated night crawlers will take their share of the constantly cruising trout.

I prefer to work spinners, spoons or plugs deep across the gravel bottom of the small, seasonal rivulet entering near LeTrianon Resort, which provides a sense of protection to the fish. Whether fishing from shore, a small boat or float tube, I always seem to entice at least one inquisitive trout from this incoming water.

While the upper Blue Lake is more accessible and duly impacted, Cerini feels it is the lesser-known Lower Blue that offers the most feasible chance at what he deems the "surprise trout" during winter and early spring. Fed by Upper Blue's overflow, the lake level steadily rises and a fair number of planters wash downstream to this lower body of water after rainstorms.

The trout cruise along the wide expanse of this open, 52-acre stillwater, but brush along the shoreline limits access and most anglers just skip it. For those who make the effort, they are rewarded with quality action.

The best angles are from a floating craft. A canoe with a small electric motor paired with conventional tackle to include 1 1/2- to 1 1/8-inch gold/red flutter spoons with two colors of leadcore line will get lures to the necessary 6- to 10-foot depths necessary to entice trout.

With noticeably shallower depths than the upper lake, Lower Blue is popular with flyfishermen. Techniques as well as fly patterns here are fairly simple. A good choice is either towing a leech imitation, silvery streamer or Woolly Bugger on a sinking line behind a float tube or twitching a small, size 10-14 Beadhead Bird's Nest, Prince or Pheasant Tail nymph four feet beneath a strike indicator.

Offerings worked parallel to the fringes of submerged weeds or along overhanging brush can be highly effective, and anglers working the inlet area often meet with success. Dragging a small plug across the gently moving water of the inlet one morning, I received a smashing take. Darting rapidly to and fro, the unseen adversary put a serious bend in my ultra-light spinning rod, and I had to use both finesse and a tighter drag setting to keep it from attaining brush or running upstream. Even in the dull, pre-dawn light, the silvery rainbow exhibited a soft pink lateral, defined black spots and a healthy girth. During the ensuing half-hour, I landed and released two more similar 'bows that had apparently found this structure to their liking.

Formed by a dam on the North Fork of Cache Creek, this 4,000-acre impoundment has 41 miles of shoreline. It is reached by turning off Highway 20 onto Walker Ridge Road, then its five miles to a signed turn-off to the launch area, which is four miles from that intersection. While the rough access road deters some, adventuresome anglers willing to brave the muddy, pot-holed and twisty passageway can benefit from outstanding, uncrowded trout fishing. The surrounding chaparral-covered hillsides are perfect habitat for deer and wild hogs, and virtually necessitate boat travel on the lake itself.

The DFG releases 18,000-20,000 Eagle Lake-strain rainbows into the lake to augment pre-dam, native progeny. Self-sustaining rainbows combine with bountiful DFG plants as both catchable, native recruitment and put-and-grow philosophies exist, according to Rich Tipton, owner of Lucky Strike Guide Service. "While native and holdover rainbows typically run 16 to 18 inches, most planters top out at 12 to 14 inches."

Fishing at the location of any incoming water is a good initial bet, and Tipton's proven hotspots include the inlet channel from the North Fork Cache and the mouths of Long Canyon, Wilson Glade, Zimory, Catenburg, Stanton and Wolf creeks, where voluminous early-season flows not only dump food forms but creates high oxygen levels. I prefer to anchor 100 feet or so from their mouths and then fan cast the area, letting a spoon or spinner settle deep before retrieving. Oftentimes I will vary return speeds and impart sharp jerks to attract attention.


For those we affectionately call creek freaks, Lake County's segment of the Coast Range provides backcountry rainbow and brown trout action. While lakes are open to year-round fishing, their tributaries fall under general trout regulations, with a season that opens the last Saturday in April.


The heavily shaded upper sections of Clear Lake tributaries Cole and Kelsey creeks hold native rainbows up to 9 inches. Lake Berryessa's feeder, Putah Creek is home to small numbers of trout above Middletown.


Those who prefer adventure and seclusion can hike or backpack into the Snow Mountain Wilderness to work the Middle Fork Stony Creek for hyper 7- to 9-inch rainbows in the shadows of Snow, Sheet Iron and St. John mountains. Collecting runoff from remote Mendocino National Forest backcountry, the upper Eel River and its Rice Fork, plus tributaries Copper Butte, Hummingbird, Thistle Glade, Bear, Rice and Blue Slide creeks, support 10- to 11-inch rainbows with steelhead integrity.


North Fork Cache Creek and its brushy, hard-to-reach feeders above Indian Valley Reservoir offer secluded trout fishing. Below the dam, tight-lipped locals catch wild brown trout from 6 inches to 3 pounds. Challenging terrain and the presence of rattlesnakes keep most anglers away. Be aware of the closed section 1,000 yards below the dam. -- Don Vachini


One of my favorite and productive techniques is to drift a 1/32-ounce mini-tube jig near the moving water as pods of trout frequently gang up here. Paired with an ultra-light rod and reel, and either tied directly to 2- or 4-pound monofilament line or, during breezy conditions, 6 to 8 feet under a small bobber, these finesse lures are slowly twitched up and down. I always try to pause after an upward twitch, which allows the jig to fall and flutter like an injured minnow.

You want to avoid Indian Valley's numerous stickups and slightly submerged trees. Those provide habitat for early-season bass, not trout. The use of electronics not only helps avoid unwanted structure but to locate the thermocline and pinpoint individual or schools of trout. Tipton says cold surface temperatures are ideal for keeping trout on top.

When water temperatures fall into the 52- to 55-degree range, trollers typically catch the larger fish. Top-lining Sep's 2-inch scented grub at first light is a proven method, and when the sun rises and fish drop deeper, downriggers and flashers or dodgers paired with night crawlers become quite reliable.

During the early season, before water temperatures turn, Tipton suggests working the top 5 to 15 feet of water from first light to half an hour after the sun hits the water and then again during the last hour of light. "During the heat of the day, troll frog-pattern Krocodiles, green or blue Kastmasters or orange Needlefish 15 to 25 feet deep," Tipton says.

Maneuvering silvery, minnow-imitating lures such as Uncle Larry's spinners, Yozuri, Apex, Wee-Tads, Goldeneyes or towing a blue or purple Humdinger behind a Sling Blade can be deadly at Indian Valley. Since trout tend to follow lures for great distances without committing, impulse strikes can sometimes be induced by periodic changes in speed, zigzag or S-turn courses or a periodic sweeping forward of the rod. "Any speed under 2 mph is suitable," Tipton says, "but if your boat allows for it, creep at roughly 3/4 mph."

A well-planned Project Kokanee effort has elevated the landlocked salmon populations to trophy status here. By planting fewer salmon than in years past, the fish tend to grow quickly on the food supply here. In spring these kokanee are small, 8 to 11 inches; they will be bigger - up to 3 pounds - during summer. Look for them along the dam or at the north end of the lake at 30- to 35-foot depths.


For stillwater trout fisheries, the following resorts are reliable sources of up-to-date information:


LeTrianon Resort (Blue Lakes), 707-275-2262; The Narrows Resort (Blue Lakes), Art Cerini, 707-275-2718; Lake Pillsbury Resort, Bill Gay, 707-743-1581; Indian Valley Store, 916-662-0607; Limit Out Bait & Tackle, 707-998-1006; Ed's Market, 707-274-8029; and Lucky Strike Charter Guide Service, Rich Tipton, 707-585-8050.


For fishing information, contact the Lake County Marketing Program, 800-525-3743 or online, Watershed information can be obtained online at -- Don Vachini


For pursuing the landlocked salmon, Tipton suggests trolling a dodger and Kok-A-Nut, Wedding Rings, Sep's Kokanee Kandy or Kokanee Bug in fluorescent pink, purple or orange tipped with shoe-peg corn.

As the largest lake in the Mendocino National Forest, Lake Pillsbury is tucked along the mountainous northern fringes of Lake County, covers 2,000 acres and 65 miles of shoreline amid thick stands of oak and pine forest. Formed by Van Arsdale Dam on the Eel River and filled by flows from the Rice Fork and other arteriole feeders, it is accessed via Middle Creek Ridge Road out of Upper Lake, from Potter Valley or by a tiny airstrip.

The reservoir's self-sustaining progeny of steelhead initially trapped behind the dam is bolstered by 18,000 rainbow catchables courtesy of the DFG. A variety of synthetic or natural baits dunked along or near the dam will take trout from schools of patrolling planters. A boat, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to pursue late-winter trout, which are usually scattered along the main body of the lake. High-tech anglers depend on sonar to locate trout or establish structure patterns.

Serious rainbow seekers work the Eel River Arm, Horseshoe Gulch, Rice Fork and upstream of Rocky Point with chartreuse/pearl and pink/white Needlefish, blue/white Kastmasters, silver or gold Apex and silver/blue Dartee spoons on downriggers or leadcore line. Side planers towing white, yellow or orange Bingo Bugs often fool the warier residents commonly found in the shallower canyon sections.

One of my favorite alternatives is turning off the motor and rowing to avoid detection, and then drifting. I try to cover as much structure as possible, fan casting yellow to orange in-line spinners like Rooster Tails, Pro Secrets or Panther Martins. Using the countdown method, I allow the lure to sink, count the seconds and then begin my retrieve, making a mental note on what "count" provides the most strikes.

When perplexed with no action among feeding trout, I often refer to one of my high-mountain lake tactics: attaching a No. 12 Beadhead nymph to the hook of my spinner and trailing it 3 inches behind the lure.

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