There are three lakes at the northern end of California's Central Valley Water Project: Shasta, Whiskeytown and Trinity. All of them offer excellent fishing opportunities and Shasta, the biggest man-made impoundment in the state, is at the head of the pack. Located in Shasta County, Shasta Lake is a snap to get to because Interstate 5 goes right to it. Also in Shasta County, Whiskeytown, the smallest of the trio, is only a few miles west of Redding on State Route 299. Besides providing good fishing, it's recognized as one of the best places in the region for sailing.
Meanwhile, Trinity Lake, situated in the heart of Trinity County, simply does not get as much attention as the other two. There is a fair amount of summer recreation activity, such as houseboating, water skiing and fishing, but it's not as crowded as Shasta and Whiskeytown. It may be because Trinity is farther off the beaten path, and the winding mountain roads that lead there are not exactly freeways.
Trinity is more than a bathtub full of water. In existence since 1963, the lake is 19 miles long and has 145 miles of shoreline. Arguably the most scenic of the trio, Trinity, at 2,370 feet elevation, is surrounded by impressive, forested mountains. When the lake is full, as it was most of last year, it has the look — and feel — of wilderness.
As far as fishing is concerned, Trinity's claim to fame came in 1976. That's when Tim Brady, of nearby Weaverville, caught the former state-record smallmouth bass (9 pounds, 1 ounce) there. Even now, in the spring, a fair number of bass anglers head to Trinity to try their hand at catching a few bigger-than-average smallmouths and, perhaps, some respectable largemouths as well.
Bass fishing aside, what a lot of people do not realize is that Trinity also provides outstanding fishing for coldwater species such as trout, kokanee and landlocked chinook (king) salmon. Admittedly, I was one of those anglers who didn't pay very much attention to Trinity, but last summer that changed for good during a fishing trip with guide Mike Elster (contact him at 916-215-6330 or www.mikesfishingguideservice.com). He lured me to Trinity with tales of his recent success on scouting expeditions and a couple of productive trips with clients.
"You ought to give Trinity a try, Higley," Elster said, when I called him to chat one evening. "It's way better than I expected. We can pick between trout, kokanee and kings, or go for all three."
"I opt for the triple play," I said cleverly, and with that we agreed to meet in the town of Lewiston at 6 a.m. the following Friday morning.
I got there at 6:01. "You're late," Elster said, looking at his watch.
"Only a minute!"
"Yeah, but every minute counts," he laughed. "C'mon, lets go get the boat wet. We'll put in right behind the dam at the Fairview ramp."
We launched Elster's well-equipped 20-foot Duckworth 30 minutes later, and cruised a short distance to the Stuart Fork Arm, where we planned to start the day. It wasn't long before we had four rods with lines attached to downrigger cables and a variety of lures running from 20 to 70 feet down. Trolling slowly, we settled back, coffee in hand, and waited for something to happen. We didn't have to wait long.
"Fish on!" Elster said, as one rod bucked and the line jerked free from the downrigger clip.
Quickly, I grabbed the rod and started reeling in slack like mad. When the line was tight the fish was still there, and a couple of minutes later the first kokanee, a plump 13-incher, was in the long handled net.
"Wow," I said, "that didn't take long. Let's do it again."
The kokanee wasn't a monster, but it was bigger than I expected. In the past Trinity kokes were overabundant and stunted. They spawned successfully in tributaries and were so numerous they practically ate themselves out of house and home. Small, landlocked sockeye salmon, kokanee feed mainly on zooplankton and Trinity, being relatively clean and cold, apparently doesn't have all that much of it.
Little kokanee were the rule for many years, but the situation started to change for the better in 1997. That's when the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) came up with a plan to improve the kokanee fishery and give anglers another fish to try for at the same time. According to Monty Currier, reservoir biologist for the CDFG in Region 1, the department started planting king salmon in Trinity, hoping they would feast on the kokes and control their numbers, thus allowing the remaining fish to increase in size.
"I'm not sure if kings are the only reason why the kokanee are bigger these days, but I like to think we did something right and they are a contributing factor," Currier said.
From all indications, they are. Last year, on every scouting trip and on outings with clients, Elster caught limits of fat, dime-bright kokanee in the 12- to 14-inch class. It was a far cry from the days when they rarely reached 9 inches. As far as I was concerned, the kokanee were a story by themselves, but Elster was determined to round out our triple play.
"Hey John, look at this," he said, pointing at his fish finder as we putted along. "Those big marks have to be kings. Let's troll around here for a few minutes and see if we can pick one of them up."
With that, he steered the boat in a wide circle and went back the way we came. Soon, a rod dipped, and I grabbed it just as a second rod started jumping in its holder. Just like that, we had a double on kings in the 17-inch class, and we netted both of them a short time later.
Interestingly, after the planted kings grew to catchable size, only a few anglers fished seriously for them, and those who did caught very few. It wasn't for lack of fish. Last summer Elster spent some time keying in on the kings, and eventually he found them in good numbers.
In less than two hours we had that pair of kings and several more kokanee in the boat. All we were missing was trout, and Elster knew how to remedy that. He pointed us toward the back portion of the Stuart Fork Arm where he caught rainbows on a previous trip.
The first trout that bit one of our lures was a scrappy rainbow a little bigger than the kings. It reluctantly gave in to rod pressure after an energetic battle, which the next trout, almost a twin to the first, tried its best to duplicate.
With the fish on ice, Elster and I sat back and reviewed the morning. We wanted to catch three different kinds of fish on the same trip, and we succeeded. Easily. And if we can do it, so can you. It's a simple matter of choosing the right tackle, trolling at the right speed and putting your lure in the right place at the right time. Okay, it might not be simple, but it certainly can be done.
There are a couple of ways to troll more than a few feet down. Lead core line is the old standby, but for exact depth control Elster relies on a pair of Walker Downriggers. With downriggers, he knows his lures are at certain levels, and when a fish is hooked he can tell exactly how far down it was. That way, he can put his lures back in the strike zone every time. When trolling, he also likes his offerings to run 100 feet or more behind the boat so the fish aren't bothered by noise from the trolling motor when the lures go by.
Speed is important also. We trolled at 1.6 mph, which seemed about right on our trip, but Elster increases or decreases speed when he feels it's necessary to attract the fish. Sometimes he trolls at less than 1 mile per hour. It's important to note that some lures and dodgers don't perform well at higher speeds, so 2 mph is about maximum.
As for tackle, he prefers 7- or 7 ½-foot medium-action rods for trolling and levelwind reels filled with 8-pound test monofilament.
"I like the combination of a medium-action rod and monofilament line because it has a little give, and that's especially critical when kokanee are involved because they have delicate mouths," Elster said. "At the same time, the tackle works well for trout and kings. In a trolling situation most of the fish hook themselves, and since kokanee have weak mouths I always net them rather than attempt to hoist them aboard."
To catch the Trinity trio, we trolled with Apex and Hum Dinger spoons and Wiggle Hoochies on 8-pound test leaders behind Sling Blade dodgers. To help catch short-strikers, a trailer hook was attached to the single hook on some of the lures. Elster embellished the lures with a squeeze of Pro Cure Predator Gel and, especially for kokanee, he put one kernel of canned Green Giant shoe peg corn on each hook.
"You don't need corn for trout or kings but it really helps with kokanee," Elster said. "I think it adds a smell or maybe to them it tastes like plankton. All I know is it works."
Our day was spent on the Stuart Fork Arm and Elster has had the same kind of success on the Papoose Arm, too. Those locations are readily accessible from the Fairview ramp, which is just north of Trinity Dam. Other parts of the lake may produce just as well, but we started and ended our day on the Stuart Fork Arm and had no need to move around.
On our way back to the Fairview ramp I was all smiles. Not only did we catch the three species we were after but we had the place virtually to ourselves. A couple of bass boats went by, but we didn't see anyone else trolling on the main body or on the arm where we were. I assure you that would not be the case on either Whiskeytown or Shasta.
Fairview is one of six public boat ramps that provide access to different parts of the lake. It is important to note that during low-water years some of the ramps are apt to be high and dry. Trinity Lake is on the Shasta-Trinity National Forests, so to check on the status of boat ramps you can contact the Weaverville Ranger District office at (530) 623-2121.
To get to Trinity Lake from Redding and I-5, take State Route 299 west approximately 29 miles to Trinity Dam Blvd. Turn north there and go 13 miles to Trinity Alps Marina and the Fairview ramp. You will pass the town of Lewiston and Lewiston Reservoir on the way.
For those who want to spend more than one day on Trinity, there are several options to choose from. There's food, lodging and fuel in Weaverville, Lewiston and Trinity Center, which is at the north end of the lake. In addition, there are several resorts in the area and a number of public campgrounds operated by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.