Seven Great California Fishing Destinations
It's time for a road trip to some of the greatest fishing found in the Golden State.
If California is known for anything, it’s traffic. So … hop in a car and achieve a “Golden State of Mind” with a road trip across our nation’s most populous and arguably most diverse state.
California is home to more than just traffic. It’s a state with fisheries as diverse and varied as its people. In a week-long road trip, you can fish across California and chase everything from shiners to sharks. Test your skills with the familiar and try something completely new as you fish mountain lakes, urban piers, high desert and the open ocean while experiencing what really makes California “The Golden State.”
Mapped from north to south, this road trip includes noteworthy landmarks worth stopping at along the way, but it can just as easily be flipped south to north or personalized to allow for detours to see the “World’s Largest Plastic Egg” or whatever strikes your fancy. After all, the best road trips yield stories to last a lifetime.
Spin up your best mix-tape, sync your favorite playlist or power up talk radio, because it’s about to get reel … sorry,real.
MEDICINE LAKE | Golden Shiners
Start in north-central California in the tiny town of Tule Lake. Appreciate one of the world’s largest horseradish producers before visiting the Lava Beds National Monument, a massive system of caves and rock formations that is currently being considered for promotion to National Park status.
But if fishing is the only item on the agenda, continue south along State Highway 139 until you come to National Forest Road 97. Take a right onto FR 97 and travel 26 miles to Medicine Lake. Park at the main boat launch on the southeast end of the lake and prepare to wade. Waders or shorts and sandals? It’s a matter of preference, but this time of year, it can still be chilly up in the mountains.
As you walk along the shoreline on either side of the boat ramp, fish will immediately start jumping out of the water. It’s unreal. Hundreds of little fish — golden shiners — illegally introduced as live bait will catapult out of the water in much the same way as introduced Asian carp have become known for doing in waters in other parts of the country. It’s a common fish but an uncommon behavior found here. The fish are small and plentiful, and you can catch a fish every cast using a tiny (Size 24 or smaller) nymph or an equally tiny hook baited with an impossibly small piece of worm.
If chasing tiny baitfish isn’t your thing, marvel at the “gold rush,” then tie on a No. 4 Panther Martin spinner, a No. 2 Blue Fox Vibrax or a 1/4-ounce Little Cleo spoon and cast out from shore to target rainbow trout or make your way to the flooded timber and grass for brookies.
WHISKEYTOWN LAKE | Spotted, Largemouth & Smallmouth
If golden shiners and trout aren’t your speed, try catching the fish that eat them.
From Medicine Lake, travel southwest until you reach State Highway 89. Turn right and head west some 25 miles to the town of Mount Shasta. Stop at its colorful downtown for a coffee and pastry or grab some food at the original Black Bear Diner, a chain founded in Mount Shasta.
Take Interstate 5 out of town and travel south to Redding, passing by the rugged beauty of Castle Crags State Park and the aquatic sprawl of Shasta Lake. Get onto State Highway 299 and head west 15 miles to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, park, and pull out your bass rod.
Whiskeytown is home to largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, but it is a sleeper candidate to produce the next world-record spot. The fish will be active and aggressive this time of year, so grab one rod rigged with a 4.8-inch Keitech Fat Swing Impact in white and another rod with a crawfish-patterned lipless crankbait. Work the coves and rocky shorelines. Allow your lures to sink as needed to find fish, which likely are in post-spawn stage and feeding actively in water 12- to 20-feet deep to regain their weight.
If you have a boat or kayak, work the arm north of Highway 200 and try fishing Liberty Gulch, Red Gulch or White Rock Gulch. Drop-shotting can be effective if nothing else works; use a light weight, with a 4- or 6-inch Roboworm hooked through the head. Use light color patterns or try to match the silver or white of the local forage fish.Actual gold still exists in this area, so take a moment to pan the rivers nearby if given the chance.
HUMBOLDT BAY/EUREKA | Chinook/Coho Salmon
The city named for the iconic exclamation prospectors made when they struck it rich is a quiet, coastal town that hasn’t yet been overtaken by the gross commercialization found along most of California’s coastline.
Chinook and coho salmon call Humboldt Bay home, and though regulations for salmon change and require close attention prior to scheduling any trip, a solid salmon fishery is in place here.
If you have your own boat and are familiar with salmon fishing, troll size J-15 flatfish or herring cut-plugs behind a large flasher outside the mouth of the bay. Anglers can often find success “chasing” charter boats, but don’t get too close. If you find the charters, you’ll find the fish. Be sure to use heavy enough line to account for all of that gear and a feisty salmon on the end of your line — 30-pound braid is a good start.
No boat? Consider booking a charter for this trip. I had a great experience with Reel Steel Sportfishing landing decent-sized Chinook salmon and half a dozen cohos that had to be released at that time, though that does change year-to-year. The trip was $185 for eight hours of fishing, but we came back with limits much sooner.
PACIFICA MUNICIPAL PIER/SAN FRANCISCO | Surfperch
On the way south on U.S. Highway 101 from Eureka to the Bay Area, be sure to stop at the famed Glass Beach, a beach covered in glass fragments worn smooth over time. Mackerricher State Park in Fort Bragg makes for a shining pit stop.
Once across the Golden Gate Bridge, be ready for traffic. The Bay Area gridlock is something special, but so is the Pacifica Municipal Pier, which is home to numerous species of surfperch, as well as a host of other species you’ve never heard of.
Take a sabiki rig, with size 8 hooks, and cut it in half. Put a 1-ounce weight at the bottom and use small pieces of shrimp or mussels to entice the myriad species living under the platform.
Surfperch are one of the best-tasting fish you can catch from shore, so consider a fish fry over the campfire if they cooperate.
Once you leave the Bay Area, smile and let the wind flow through your hair … in three hours or so when you finally get clear of the traffic.
SAN LUIS RESERVOIR | Striped Bass
Everyone has heard of In-N-Out, which offers good-for-fast-food hamburgers, but while on your way to San Luis Reservoir via I-5 south from Stockton, stop by Andersen’s Pea Soup restaurant in Santa Nella for a truly unique Californian experience before heading west toward San Luis Reservoir.
The Delta gets all of the glory, but this landlocked lake produced one world-record striper in 1992 (68.5 pounds) and a state-record striper in 2008 that weighed 71.5 pounds.
The aptly-named Dinosaur Point State Park is a great shoreline fishing spot but working any of the bays that don’t get much foot traffic is your best bet from a boat.
Stripers will hit almost anything, and anglers can find great success fishing all varieties of baits from anchovies to pile worms to whole crawfish or shrimp. Lure fishermen toss gold- or silver-colored spoons, jerkbaits and crankbaits. Countdown Rapalas in size CD-11 or CD-13 can be a great start for foraging fish in 10 feet of water or less, but P-Line Predator Jigs in 2- or 3-ounce sizes can be effective for fish holding on or near the bottom. For the ultimate challenge, throw 4-to 6-inch streamers on an 8- or 10-weight fly rod and hold on tight.
NEARSHORE/LONG BEACH | Bonito, Calico Bass
There isn’t any gold to be found along the Long Beach shoreline, but it’s a can’t-miss stop for nearshore fishing for ocean-bound anglers. Fishing with Long Beach Sportfishing at Berth 55 will cost you less than $50-60 (if you already have a rod and a license) for a 3/4-day of fishing — both deep and on the surface over open water — aboard the Victory.
The main targets are bonito, calico bass and a host of rockfish and other bottom-dwellers. In a typical day, you’ll spend time “live-lining” or “fly-lining” live bait for bonito, as well as fishing near the bottom for any of 50 or more other species.
You can rent gear, but if you opt for a DIY trip, bring two rods. You’ll want a jigging rod for deep water (fish will likely not top 10 pounds) and a heavy-action bass or trout rod for the calicos and bonitos. Come with a handful of small and large metal jigs, a crankbait or two, 4- and 8-ounce weights, a bag of 1/2-ounce slip sinkers, some No. 2 hooks and some No. 8 hooks, and you’ll be prepared for everything. Live bait is provided, but I’d bring a bag of shrimp along, too.
SURF-FISHING/TORREY PINES STATE BEACH
Sharks off the beach, anyone? You’ve saved the best for last. Make the last stand of your road trip at Torrey Pines State Beach, just off I-5, 20 miles north of San Diego. Arrive at first light and dig up some sand crabs. You can find them in the wavy sand that isn’t perpetually under water but still gets kissed by the surf in every round of waves.Sand crabs don’t bite, but they can scratch your leg, so bring a thick plastic bag to hold them in. Keep them in wet sand but not a pool of water, or they will drown.
Using a surf setup with a sturdy, No. 2 hook, impale an entire sand crab and toss out into the surf. You can use a “fishfinder rig” with two dropper loops to double your chances. Expect leopard sharks, a host of rays, shovelnose guitarfish, and several species of croakers to come out to play. All of them are edible, though few people keep rays or guitarfish. Corbina and corvina also abound.
If you opt to go barefoot as many surf anglers do, shuffle your feet rather than stepping. Stingrays routinely come up shallow, and they won’t hesitate to sting you … something I learned from experience while hooked up on a monster guitarfish.
HIT THE ROAD
California doesn’t have the fishing opportunities it had during the initial Gold Rush that started the state’s population boom, but it does still have amazing fisheries for those who know where to look.
An epic road trip might be a far cry from striking it rich, but studies have shown money only buys happiness when spent on experiences — not things. As you fish your way across California, you’ll be buying happiness and building memories one mile and one cast at a time, and those memories will be the ones you cherish most later in life, say … during your Golden Years.