Believe it or not, as Northern California cools down for winter, fishing in many places around here starts heating up. In fact, the next several months are probably my favorite time of year to fish, and not just because you have the water all to yourself.
From migratory steelhead and striped bass, to fat holdover trout, if you’re not dropping a line in the water right now, you’re dropping the ball.
Where to go? I checked with some fishing friends of mine for suggestions. Ready? Here are their answers (and for more info, click any link highlighted in red)
Until snow makes getting up there impossible, Garry Erck with the fishing conservation group Project Kokanee loves Ice House Reservoir. Once that snow falls, he suggestions lower elevation lakes, including shore fishing at Lake Amador, near Ione, which has a strong trout planting program, and chunky holdover rainbows on Lake Berryessa (and, bonus points for Berryessa…you kinda pass right by Berryessa Brewing on your way back to Sacramento on Highway 128. Just sayin’.)
Fishing Guide James Netzel with Tight Lines Guide Service spends quite a bit of time taking clients out on the Sacramento for good eating, great fighting sturgeon and striped bass. He can also be found on Folsom Lake, which I also agree can be a good lake in winter–especially for what are essentially landlocked steelhead: when Folsom Dam was constructed in the 1950s, many migratory steelhead (sea-going rainbow trout) were trapped. But they adapted and while they’re not all that common, the descendants of those fish can still be had and winter seems to be the best time for them. If you catch one, you’ll know instantly–they fight much harder than stocked fish, are usually good-sized, and their colors are absolutely beautiful. Like this beauty my father-in-law caught in February a couple years back.
Winter on Folsom can also be good for landlocked chinook salmon (pictured)
(One note on Folsom though: I and most other trout and salmon fisherman have a love/hate relationship with it. One trip could be awesome, and the next four, nothing. Folsom isn’t easy to figure out. But, hey, it’s close. And occasionally, you do have those days, so….)
Anyway, speaking of steelhead, Northern California fishing guru Sep Hendrickson, who hosts the California Sportsman radio show on our sister station 1140 KHTK suggests hitting the lower American river (the stretch below Folsom and Nimbus Dams) for winter-run steelies. “They’re usually not big,” he says, noting an average fish will run maybe a pound. But, “they’re great fighters and there’s always a chance of picking up a larger fish, in the five-to-ten pound range.” If you don’t mind a drive, Sep has two other suggestions: road trippin’ to what Sep thinks is the best kept lake for trout in Northern California–Lake Almanor. If you don’t have a boat he suggests shore fishing off of Highway 36 just north of Chester. Also, Eagle Lake, which has it’s own unique strain of native rainbow trout that are known for their size (3-4 pounders are common) and fight. But, know that the Eagle Lake fishery closes for the season December 31st.
My personal winter recommendation? Lake Camanche. It’s well-stocked with some fat rainbows, and because of the cooler water they’re right on top…you don’t have to fish deep and hunt for them. I’ve never had a bad outing in winter at Camanche. Also, ask around about the Camanche’s south shore trout pond…it’s a bank fishery and is often stocked with very nice-sized rainbow.
With most of these lakes and streams, you’re going to have a big advantage if you have a boat (or know someone with a boat). But it’s not essential. A quick Google search will pull up a long list of guide services throughout the region and the best thing about guides..? In addition to knowing their stuff, they have all the stuff--rods, tackle, electronics. All you need to bring is a license, and lunch. Plus most clean and filet your catch afterwards. Be sure to check out guide websites to learn their waters of expertise. For example, Sep recommends JD Richey for an American River steelhead trip, calling him one of best guides for that stretch of water in the area. If you want to target Delta striper or Folsom trout/salmon, my buddy James with Tight Lines is pretty tough to beat. But those are just two examples. Figure out what you wanna catch, where you think you wanna go, and then start your search from there.
If you don’t fish often but have some gear and wanna go on your own, check in with a local fishing place first: Fisherman’s Warehouse is great–the staff know a ton and are easy to talk to. Same with Wild Sports. The fishing department at Sportsman’s Warehouse can also be a good source, or check out websites like fishsniffer.com and usafishing.com.
As always, be sure you’re license is up to date (kids under 16 don’t need one), and make sure you know the regulations–some bodies of water mentioned have specific seasons. Others, certain size and catch limits. Once you have that taken care of, grab a coat, a hat, your rod and reel and get out there. Fishing can be hot in winter!