May 15, 2018
Stable weather and rising water temperatures lift the action from good to great at for California trout fishing in June.
When is the best time of the year for California trout fishing?
Is it during the month of April, when the ice breaks in the high-country and trout season kicks off on waters still closed since November?
Perhaps it's the month of October when stream trout binge on caddisflies and reservoir trout blitz balls of threadfin shad and pond smelt?
For more than four decades, I've cast and trolled my way through dozens of trout seasons, and June always seems to mark the high point of my trout fishing year to year.
Sure, April and May are exciting months to fish, full of promise and potential. Trout are just coming out of their winter funk and looking to feed, improving the action, but April weather conditions are notoriously inconsistent early in spring, and snow keeps many high-country lakes out of reach. Even if you could get there, the frigid water temperature discourages aggressive feeding on the part of the trout.
Fast forward to June. Trout fishing improves greatly! June weather is often more stable and warming. Longer days increase the snow melt, improve access to the high-country, and warm surface water to temperatures comfortable for trout.
In short, June is a premier month for California trout fishing simply because fishing opportunities are at their highest for both boaters and bank anglers. As spring transitions to summer, California trout anglers rediscover the plethora of trout waters to choose from, while stable weather and rising water temperatures lift the trout action at many lakes, streams and rivers from good to great!
Being a full-time fishing writer, I visit several dozen different trout waters in spring and summer, but a core group of waters inscribed on my mental checklist always lift my expectations for outstanding fishing. C'mon! Let's get our trout on!
Lake Shasta is my hands-down favorite lake for fishing of many kinds. Stretching across more than 30,000 surface acres and lined with 365 miles of shoreline, Shasta is the state's largest reservoir and also one of California's richest lakes, in terms of angling opportunity.
Shasta boasts rainbow trout, brown trout, landlocked king salmon, kokanee salmon (landlocked sockeye salmon), largemouth bass, spotted bass and smallmouth bass, along with channel cats, crappie, bluegills and even the occasional sturgeon. Day-in-day-out, threadfin shad are the primary forage for just about all of Shasta's gamefish; but in late May and through the month of June, Shasta offers anglers a bonus known locally as the "plankton bite."
Plankton? Well, sort of. The organisms are actually a form of freshwater shrimp — a planktonic crustracean — that trout and other fish love to eat when the tiny shrimp are gathered densely. "The organisms are really daphnia, a form of freshwater shrimp that thrive in cold nutrient rich water," says Lake Shasta expert Gary Miralles. "You find these little guys in most of our reservoirs. Up in the Pit River arm of Shasta, the (daphnia) activity is particularly intense. The Pit River flows through farm country before it enters the lake, and, as a result, it packs a lot of nutrients that act as the catalyst for the daphnia bloom."
You'll typically encounter these shrimp early in the day before the sun is on the water, and, if you don't know what it is, you'd likely avoid it because it makes the water look awful. Productive patches of daphnia-rich water look greasy and stagnant and are dotted with leaves, twigs, pine needles and all manner of debris.
When you slide into such a greasy stretch, look into the water and you'll see a writhing soup of hundreds of thousands — indeed, millions — of these tiny organisms, sometimes called "water fleas," squirming, pulsing and circling.
In areas where the organisms are particularly dense, they form reddish-orange spiral "ropes" that twist through the water like the lazy smoke of a damp wood fire spirals when disturbed by a gentle breeze.
When you're in the plankton, a glance at your sonar unit will likely show the organisms aren't restricted to the lake's surface. Big masses of them often reach nearly to bottom and look a lot like dense weeds on the sonar screen. Fish of all sizes hold around and within the masses. I've even graphed sturgeon cruising the bottom beneath the masses of these shrimp.
Probe the cloud of plankton with bright-colored spoons and plugs trolled briskly. Since the trout are feeding on the shrimp rather than baitfish, you're not trying to match the hatch. Instead, you're trying to catch the eye of the trout with something fast and bright-colored, triggering a reaction strike.
It's amazing how the presence of the shrimp draw fish from far and wide. This is particularly true for the lake's rainbows, which seem to really love the shrimp. I've routinely caught rainbows feeding on the daphnia that weigh from 3 to 4 1/2 pounds.
When you bring these big trout into the boat, their mouths and throats will often be filled with thousands of shrimp that look like a glob of Cream of Wheat cereal. If the shrimp action has been going on for a while, the trout flesh takes on an incredible red color.
In a typical year, Shasta's "plankton" action extends to early July when rising surface temperatures cause the shrimp to retreat into deep water. When this happens, the trout that had been concentrated around the shrimp scatter and turn their attention to dining on shad.
The Tahoe Basin in the High Sierras represents a lot of different things to many different people. It is a land of alpine ski runs; in fact, the world's elite winter athletes traveled to the basin in 1960 to compete in the Winter Olympics. The basin also is a place where high-rollers ply the gaming tables in high-rise casinos. Millionaires come to Tahoe test their luck with the cards against other millionaires.
But when I think of the Tahoe Basin, I think like many other trout anglers: Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border, holds massive trout. Nowhere — except, perhaps, in Alaska, the Northwest Territories or the Great Lakes — do you have as good a chance of hooking a 20-plus-pound trout as you do at Lake Tahoe.
From a physical standpoint alone, Lake Tahoe is an amazing spectacle situated at an elevation of 6,225 feet, stretching 12 miles wide and 22 miles long. The lake covers a surface area of more than 193 square miles and reaches a maximum depth of 1,637 feet, making it the 10th deepest lake in the world.
Tahoe's anglers fish for Mackinaw trout, rainbow trout, brown trout and kokanee salmon; but the real attraction is the size of the trout it produces. Tahoe holds brown trout that weigh in the middle teens, with the promise of fish beyond 20 pounds; double-digit rainbows; and Mackinaws that weight more than 30 pounds.
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"Mackinaw are the apex predator within the lake. Macks greatly outnumber both browns and rainbows, and this shows in the catches," says Gene St. Denis of Blue Ribbon Fishing Charters (phone: 530-544-6552; online at BlueRibbonFishing.com).
Top-lining and deep-water trolling are the two basic approaches used by St. Denis and many other trout fishermen at Lake Tahoe. For numbers of keeper-size Macks, deep-water trolling is the way to go.
Use your sonar to find the fish and "grind" on them, trolling slowly back and forth until you start hooking fish. Deepwater Macks aren't picky. Basically, you are trying to show them something that looks like a 2-inch minnow moving slowly in the depths. Lures slathered with a good shot of gel-based scent work best. Most of the Macks you catch when trolling small baits in deep water run 3 to 5 pounds, but really big fish — from 10 to 20-plus pounds — can show up at any time. Plastic drop-shot baits, grubs, hoochies and flies teamed with medium to large dodgers work well, too.
Top lining at Tahoe is always exciting! It's the approach that produces huge Macks, browns and 'bows. The tradeoff is, top-lining is a very hit-and-miss method of fishing of speed-trolling.
Stormy days and periods of low light during late spring and early summer are great times for pulling big, shallow-running minnow plugs fast through Tahoe's shallows. Rainbow trout- and kokanee- colored plugs work best. Most anglers run the plugs 200 to 300 feet behind the boat on 8-pound monofilament tipped with an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader.
NEW MELONES RESERVOIR
Situated behind New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River is New Melones Reservoir. When the lake is at full capacity, it covers 12,500 surface acres.
Trout anglers who visit the lake find big numbers of big rainbow trout and some very elusive, very large brown trout. After four years of drought, the big influx of water into the reservoir in 2017 created a trout boom. Epic fishing ensued with anglers routinely tempting rainbows up to and beyond 7 pounds.
New Melones is a shad-rich lake. Shad-patterned lures are the way to go for trollers and bank casters. If you're in a boat, use your sonar to find the bait and you'll be well on your way to finding the rainbows.
Meanwhile, bank anglers enjoy great action at New Melones from April through late June tossing standard dough baits, inflated worms and casting with spoons such as Kastmasters and Cripplures.
A group of dedicated live-bait anglers at Melones catch their trout by drifting live minnows below slip bobbers. When that bobber dips it could be a rainbow, brown, bass or even a channel cat!
"Your best bet to hook browns is to troll close to structure. They aren't pelagic like the rainbows are," said outdoors writer and expert angler Dan Bacher. "Most of the browns are caught around the spillway or in Carson, Angels, Coyote and Mormon creeks where there are still-standing trees in the water.€¦ Troll threadfin shad — 'rolling shad' — or troll with jointed Rapalas in fire-tiger or shad patterns. Overall, the best trip I've had at New Melones was when I fished it with James Pagani. On that day, we landed over 30 rainbows to 4 pounds using Pagani's spoons and fast-trolling approach," Bacher concluded.
Bass Lake was featured in the old Dan Akroyd and John Candy movie, Great Outdoors. It's location in the Sierra National Forest in Madera Country, about 14 miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, made a great setting for a movie about a peaceful family vacation in the woods that is shattered when the annoying in-laws drop in.
Bass Lake is small — just 4 miles long, only 14 miles of shoreline, and a maximum depth of 98 feet. Set at an elevation of 3,376 feet, the lake features both cold-water fish in the form of rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, as well as warm-water species such as spotted bass, largemouth bass, crappie and catfish.
The lake was formed in 1910 when the 145-foot-high Crane Valley Dam was constructed by Pacific Gas & Electric to impound the waters of Willow Creek, a tributary to the San Joaquin River.
Bass Lake is heavily stocked with rainbow trout that average 13 inches long and range up to 24 inches and about 5 pounds. The lake also produces some of the largest kokanee salmon in California. The average kokanee runs 16 to 17 inches, but fish longer than 20 inches have been common for the past several years.
In early summer, both trolling and bank-fishing accounts for hefty stringers of rainbows. The favorite offerings among trollers is a small dodger or a set of micro flashers trailing a night crawler threaded on a hook or an artificial Gulp! Crawler, trolled from 1 to 1 1/2 mph. Wiggle Hoochies work well too.
Bankers do best floating dough-baits such as Berkley PowerBait and Zeke's Sierra Gold in a variety of different colors and scents. Inflated worms can pay hefty dividends, too. Some bank anglers score with standard spinners and spoons, but there is a contingent of jig-fishermen who hook up with 2-inch soft plastic minnow baits rigged on light jigheads
GET OUT OF THE RUT
It's a sad fact that when many anglers make the transition from bank fishing to fishing from a boat, they get caught up in what I like to call the "trolling rut."
These anglers, perhaps on an unconscious level, believe because they have a boat they must troll whether they are catching fish or not. Don't get me wrong, trolling is a great way to catch trout, but it doesn't work all the time. Sometimes, trout are sluggish or inactive and just won't chase a moving lure. At such times if you really want to catch trout, your best bet for success is soaking natural bait.
All things considered, my favorite baits for fishing from a boat are live baby night crawlers or small minnows. These baits provide a lot of subtle movement that really makes them attractive to tentative trout. When fishing bait from an anchored boat, I use slip bobbers because they give me the versatility to hit a variety of different depths, while systematically probing the structure I'm fishing.