March 17, 2016
Giant largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass! Got your attention? Well, California has a history of larger than normal bass, and these three species make up the bulk of what you will catch here. Yes, there has been a drought going on, but hopefully the predicted El Nino is causing rain in your area, giving you time to read this article and plan out your fishing season.
Springtime can bring rain, but it can also bring amazing fishing. I will try to pick out a few of the more popular fishing destinations as well as some you may not have considered so that you can get an idea of some new waters you may want to put on your list.
In Northern California there are many lakes that are just a puddle of their normal size. We need rain, and hopefully it has come or is on its way. I talked to retired fisheries biologist Larry Bottroff, who said that all the low lakes will have to go through a rebuilding. That is, start from scratch again as far as rebuilding the fish population of the lake.
Many had banner years as the lakes fell in size, condensing the fish. But with that, noted Bottroff, comes the fight for survival and food. Smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, and so on. Even the larger fish will run out of prey and begin shrinking in size to some extent. Bottroff told me of several shocking survey trips where previous surveyed bass had lost several pounds from the previous year. It will take time for them to regain their weight again.
As the lakes rise, more cover and vegetation will be in the water, giving the small fry of all species a place to hide from predators. This will lead to a slow rebuilding in the lake. Baitfish, from shad to bluegill, will feed the bass, and the bass will grow larger and healthier. Fishing for "foot longs" will increase with more catches. Over the next year or two, the populations will increase every year the water stays up and the food chain stays strong. That is what rain will mean to the bass fisherman.
Let's start at the top of the state with Lake Shasta. Nestled in the redwoods, this lake is a great vacation getaway and fishery. Always one of my favorite lakes, the water may be down about 100 feet here, but it is still a great option for anglers. This lake is home to largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. The lake can be a good pick for numbers of fish because of the smallmouths and spotted bass. Springtime can bring wide-open fishing for both. I once caught one smallmouth after another in a late springtime snowstorm here. And once the spawn starts, the bite is usually on.
The smallmouths love crawdads, and any jig setup will work at Shasta almost year round. Soft plastics will do the trick for spotted bass and largemouths, alike. Drop-shot or split-shot rigs all along the Pit Arm will attract the fish. Springtime can bring a ton of fish to the banks, and then the numbers game is on. Darter head setups are also deadly here. Look for rocky points, tree roots and old river channels for action. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits along with hard and soft jerkbaits will do well too. Summer and fall will bring topwater action throughout the lake. Go to Spooks, Pop-Rs or your favorite topwater bait.
Heading south, our next stop is Lake Oroville. Another body of water affected by the great California drought, this lake is also lowered from time to time by the releasing of water into the Feather River to maintain the fisheries there and for water consumption. But, the lake is still fishing well, as high numbers of fish can be caught in a day. There are largemouths and spotted bass in this lake, but the spotted bass rule. It is likely your high catch numbers will come from them most of the time.
Plastics are the best bet here, both drop-shot and split-shot rigged. Even wacky-rigged Senkos can entice these bass. Look for steep rocky banks. Sometimes when catching large numbers of small fish, you can cull out some of the dinks and get to the larger fish by choosing larger jigs or crankbaits. If you are having a slow day, don't give up, as it is not uncommon to pull up to a different rocky point and catch one spotted bass after another. Summer and fall bring topwater action on popping baits or walking baits. Cranks and spinnerbaits will do well this time of year as well.
Still heading south, into wine country, we come to Clear Lake. Clear Lake fluctuates normally, but recent draw-offs have it on the low side. A lot of docks are out of the water. But there are some docks still in the water, and they will hold bass. The south end of the lake is deeper and has been the best area to fish lately, although you should not give up on any area of this lake. You never know what you may stumble into. This lake is a numbers lake, but the average fish are about 2 pounds. Giants abound in these waters, with a norm of 5 to 10 pounders. Fish go all the way up to the lake record of 17.52 pounds!
I talked with big bass hunter Dean Jamieson, who makes a trip or two up here each year to fish Clear Lake. This lake is one of the most celebrated waters in California. Clear Lake holds so many giant bass that it's almost impossible not to catch one if you put in the time, advised Jamieson. The giants will eat the big swimbaits, and that's all Jamieson throws to attract that one big hit.
As with any lake, the spring brings males to the shallower spawning areas, with the larger females not far behind. The fish here are a strong 1.5 to 2 pounds, with a lot of larger bass. Everything works here, from jigs to rattle type crankbaits. Drop-shot and Texas-rigged worms around structure can score very well. The lake holds a strong population of shad, and swimbaits can get you some of the larger variety bass. Summer topwater action can be a real blast here, with anglers never knowing how big of a fish will attack the bait. Some launch ramps have been affected at times by the low water, so search the web for the latest information if you are planning a fishing trip here.
To the south is Lake Berryessa, at one time one of California's largest manmade lakes, after Shasta. This lake is a great vacation spot, as Napa wine country is just a stone's throw away from the water. This lake boasts about 175 miles of shoreline when full and currently sits at about 65 percent capacity. If you bring the family, camping and hotels can be found close by.
This lake holds spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass and can be a good numbers lake. The lake's largemouth record is over 17 pounds, and double-digit fish are regularly caught in the spawn-time action. But the spotted bass produce the numbers year round. As I mentioned, spring spawn can be good for all species. Worms and jigs can account for a lot of the action here. Post-spawn and summer action turns to drop-shot plastics, Senkos, spinnerbaits and crankbaits. Topwater action turns on in the summer into fall. Big Island can be a great area to explore.
As we continue south we arrive in Stockton, Calif., and the California Delta. This collection of waterways goes on forever, and water level is not as much an issue here. Do remember that with thousands of miles of channels, you will need a GPS or mapping unit to find your way around. It is easy to get lost out there. Once situated, you can enjoy some great smallmouth and largemouth fishing.
The Delta is just that, and with constantly moving tidal waters you will have to pay attention to the tides. But, as long as there is tidal movement, in or out, you should catch fish. The Delta has it all. It contains every kind of fishing structure you can imagine as a bass angler. Thousands of miles of tules, old boats, downed trees, duck blinds, rock and riprap you can flip or pitch to. Spinnerbaits run through young tule growth can bring hot action. Frogs over matted weeds is my favorite here. Year round, this area has something for bass fishermen to catch fish.
There is a small lake east of Stockton I have to mention — Pardee Lake. This lake is home to some amazing smallmouth fishing. It has been lucky enough to not be that affected by the drought and hangs in at about 80 percent full as of this writing. This lake holds the California state record for smallmouth, for a fish weighing in at 9 pounds 13 ounces. Usually, big fish weigh in the 5 to 9 pound range. The lake also holds largemouth bass up to a respectable record of 13.4 pounds.
The lake should be open now after a renovation to its RV area last year and repair of the main sewer line. There are no jet-skiers or water-skiers at this fishing getaway, and there is all the structure you will need to score. The smallmouth bass love crawdads, and jigs and creature baits will do well, with drop-shot rigged plastics scoring around rocky or gravel shorelines. The smallmouth and largemouth here even chase the trout around, so smaller trout swimbaits will work as well.
I tried to cover some of the old favorites as well as a few waters off the usual path for you to consider when you are planning your next fishing excursion.
Hopefully El Nino has arrived in your area and has raised lake levels with winter rains. Get out and try your local lakes. With rising water, they should all start to wake up. If you need a getaway, the lakes above are great vacation spots with excellent fishing, and you should be rewarded for your efforts. Half the fun of fishing is exploring, and a new lake can make that all the more enjoyable.