Where to Fish in California: Our 10 Favorite Lakes, Rivers and Bays
The Golden State, or California, is the most populous state of the United States. With a landscape comprising mountains, lakes, rivers, a desert, and a Pacific coastline, there’s an almost endless list of outdoor activities to enjoy here. Whether you like climbing, mountain biking, hiking, or fishing, you’ll find plenty to fill your vacation here.
There are plenty of lively coastal cities and beach resorts to explore too, including Malibu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.
The fishing in California is as diverse and exciting as the State itself. Whether you’re into freshwater species such and bass, trout, and catfish, or you prefer saltwater fishing for species such as halibut, surfperch, and smelt, you’ll find great sport here.
If pursuing ocean dwellers is more your bag, take a charter out to deeper waters with your favorite depth measuring equipment in search of barracuda, ling cod, and even salmon during the season.
The golden trout was designated as the official state fish of California in 1947. These fish are somewhat elusive and are only found in high country locations.
Wherever you plan to fish in California, if you’re aged over 16, you will need to have a current, relevant license.
Similar to other states, the licensing regulations vary across different parks and counties, and there are different rules for ocean sports fishing, freshwater fishing, and shoreline fishing. In some cases, you will need to have a special license to fish for particular ocean species.
Check out this link to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website’s fishing information page. There you will find detailed information about licenses, quotas, and so on.
Top Fishing Locations
California has a wide variety of different places you can fish. There’s plenty of different spots that you can take a boat out and fish in the ocean, but that’s not going to be our focus here today. We want to walk through the best places you can go and fish in California without venturing into the deep blue ocean.
While this list doesn’t cover everything, it’s sure to be a great start for anyone venturing out looking to catch a few of their favorite fish on a lazy afternoon.
Let’s take a look at our favorites. Each one of these fishing spots in California are renowned for the sport they offer the leisure angler, including good access, amenities, and of course, plentiful fish!
1. The San Joaquin Delta
The San Joaquin Delta (located here) runs throughout California, and a visit to this fishing hotspot should be on every vacationing angler’s list.
Among the many species you can expect to land here include:
- Common Carp
- King salmon
If you’re after stripers, the best time to catch them is during the spring and fall spawning runs up into the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers from September through June. Resident stripers can also be caught during the summer.
Sturgeon are best pursued from the beginning of the winter right through to early summer.
Among the best boat fishing areas on the Delta for most species are Sherman Lake where the water is less than five feet deep, Threemile Slough where the Delta empties into the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and the power lines on the Sacramento River within two hours of high or low tide (fish the incoming tide).
2. Yosemite National Park
World famous Yosemite National Park is not the first place you’d think of to go fishing. Yosemite is probably best-known for its wildlife, waterfalls, and glorious mountain scenery. Visitors flock to enjoy hiking and river rafting, but there are some excellent fishing spots located within the park boundaries.
There are many different types of fish that you can find in Yosemite, including:
- Rainbow Trout
- Brown Trout
- Smallmouth Bass
- Black Bass
The season for river and stream fishing in Yosemite commences on the last Saturday in April through to November 15. Fishing here doesn’t open until June 15 to give protection to spawning rainbow trout. Also, Mirror Lake (considered a stream) is only open during stream fishing season.
All other reservoirs and lakes are open to fishing all year round.
There are some local fishing regulations in place in Yosemite:
- You may only use artificial flies or lures with barbless hooks
- You may not use live or dead minnows
- Amphibians, roe, and non-preserved fish eggs may not be used or possessed
- Fishing is not prohibited from docks or bridges
- From Happy Isles to Foresta Bridge, rainbow trout may only be fished on a catch-and-release basis
All around the park, there are plenty of facilities for visitors, including camping and RV parking.
3. McCloud River
The McCloud River is one of California’s best trout fisheries and is arguably one of the best trout fishing spots in the whole country. The McCloud runs off the famous Mount Shasta. Nearby you’ll find Burney Falls and Hat Creek, where native bows, brook trout, and brown trout all swim.
The McCloud starts high up in the glaciers of Mount Shasta. The high mineral content in the glacial water is what gives the McCloud River its turquoise color, unique in California. The Lower McCloud River below the dam offers many miles of accessible trout water. Here you’ll find rainbows and browns, averaging 14-inches and weighing in at up to 10-pounds.
The River is open for fishing from the last Saturday in April through November 15. The River flow is highest in spring, and fishable conditions usually set-in from mid-May. The summer months from late July through to mid-September are hot, sunny and bright (trout fishing spots). In October, the river sees a mega caddis hatch, bringing in big browns in search of the feast.
To find the best spots on the McCloud, we recommend that you hire the services of a local guide. They’ll advise you on which flies to use too.
4. Lake Cuyamaca
Lake Cuyamaca is a small, 110-acre reservoir that you’ll find about an hour east of San Diego in the Cuyamaca Mountains. It’s a charming, scenic location that offers much more varied fishing than at any of the other local reservoirs.
Lake Cuyamaca is stocked with up to 45,000 of rainbow trout annually, and the consistent temperatures enjoyed in San Diego County mean that you can fish here all year round.
You’ll also find lots of 7-pound to 11-pound bass swimming here too. Thanks to the cooler temperatures in the Lake, largemouth bass don’t reach the monster, trophy size that other lakes see. Because of this, the Lake Cuyamaca tends to be much quieter and less hectic than other locations.
Cuyamaca is home to the only legitimate population of sturgeon and smallmouth bass in San Diego County. Since being introduced to the Lake in 1995 and 1996, smallmouth hasn’t thrived as well as sturgeon has, but the occasional specimen is still caught here.
Other species you’ll find in these waters include:
- Black and white crappie
- Channel catfish
The Lake offers lakefront camping. Tent camping is available on the north shore of the Lake, and there are a few lake view condos available here too. A short drive away in Cuyamaca State Park there’s a larger campground, offering RV hookups.
There’s a good restaurant on the western shore overlooking the Lake, a small but well-provisioned tackle store, and a mini-mart offering drinks and snacks.
Shoreline access is very good here with gently sloping banks and several access points. There are also several jetties, fishing docks, and fishing floats stationed around the lake. There’s a paved launch ramp for private boaters, and you can also hire boats from the marina.
The Lake is open all year round from 6 am to sunset.
5. Clear Lake
If you’re a bass specialist, you’ll want to pay a visit to Clear Lake, voted third-best bass lake in the US in 2016. The Lake offers just under 44,000 acres of water and is the largest freshwater lake in California.
Clear Lake is located in the north-central part of the State in Lake County. The area around the Lake boasts 10,000 acres of vineyards and no fewer than 35 wineries, so when you’ve finished fishing, a glass or two of the local vino might be in order!
In addition to bass, you’ll find the following species here:
Shoreline tules provide good shelter for the bass, making these spots popular for fishing. In the early season, check out the Lakeport area, along with the shoreline to Berger Bay. In the summer heat, bass head for the shade around the docks and close to shoreline trees. The mouth of Kelsey Creek, Point Lakeview, Baylis Point, Jago Bay, and out Luebow Point are all good spots too.
Anglers often get good results when drifting around Rattlesnake Island and Shag Rock. You could also be successful at some of the public areas around the lake, including Library Park and Redbud Park.
6. Lake Shasta
Lake Shasta is a two-story impoundment that provides habitat for warm-water and cold-water fish. The habitat provides good conditions for many species, including:
- White sturgeon
- White catfish
- Threadfin shad
- Spotted bass
- Smallmouth bass
- Sacramento squawfish
- Riffle sculpin
- Rainbow trout
- Largemouth bass
- Hardhead minnow
- Green sunfish
- Golden shiner
- Chinook salmon
- Channel squawfish
- Brown trout
- Brown bullhead
- Black crappie
Trolling from Turntable Bay to Hirz Bay is a good spot for brown trout. Dry Fork, Little Squaw Creek, and Big Backbone Creek usually produce some rainbows, as does fishing at Shasta Dam when the releases are high. However, do remember that tying to the buoy line is not permitted.
Before the temperatures warm up, rainbows, Chinook salmon, and browns can be caught from the banks. As temperatures rise, the trout move to deeper water. Try fishing with live minnows from the shore or a boat, 2-feet to 3-feet below a bobber in spring or 50-feet to 100-feet deep in summer.
Bass fishing here is good year round. Rubber worms and live bait will give success with the right rod and reel setup, depending on the time of the year.
Summertime is best for catfish, especially after sunset when channel catfish, white catfish, and bullheads can all be found here. For more information about what fish are biting and where ask in one of the local bait shops.
7. Smith River
Smith River is located in the northwest of the state and is renowned as California’s premier salmon and steelhead river, holding the State record for steelhead at 27-pounds. Salmon in the 50-pound to 60-pound range are not uncommon here! In fact, the record here is an incredible 86-pounds.
The Smith River is known as California’s last wild river. Enjoy a day surrounded by towering redwoods, deep clear pools, and sheer rock walls.
Salmon fishing commences in September, where anglers target big king salmon close to the mouth, adjacent to the famous Ship Ashore. October sees salmon gathering in the Sand Hole, but you’ll need to hire a licensed guide to fish here.
Trolling anchovies here can see powerful kings grab baits and take off on long runs after they’re hooked. It all makes for an exhilarating and challenging day’s fishing.
Drift boat action for kings is best in November. After this, it’s time for steelheads to take center stage. Steelhead fishing continues right through winter into April.
When you’re not fishing, the small local town provides enough entertainment to keep you entertained with a pub and small casino.
8. San Francisco Bay
San Francisco Bay is located next to the city that bears the same name. The lively city provides plenty of lodging, eating, and entertainment just a stone’s throw from the fishing area.
At a depth between 10-feet and 35-feet with a muddy bottom, the Bay is perfect halibut territory! The best time for halibut is late May through summer, coinciding with the arrival of anchovies and the beginning of a feeding frenzy. Look out for the “halibut tide,” when the incoming tide is smaller, moving the bait but not muddying the water.
If halibut isn’t your cup of tea, there are other species you could encounter here, including:
- Ling cod
- Striped bass
Salmon are usually found within San Francisco Bay during the late summer weeks. Trolling is the preferred method used by local fishermen. Striped bass frequent the saltwater close to the shorelines where the salt is diluted by fresh water from local streams and rivers that run into the Pacific Ocean.
Look for sturgeon after the first hard rains of November, through to the first signs of the warm, spring weather. Usually, fishing enthusiasts are permitted to catch one fish measuring between 46 and 66-inches in length each year.
If you fancy hiring a charter, you could go in search of Albacore tuna, about 30-miles out into the deep water beyond the Bay itself. When fishing in California, the best time for tuna is between June and December.
9. Klamath River
The Klamath River runs for over 260 miles from the high deserts of Oregon, through the Klamath Mountains, before entering the Pacific Ocean.
For keen anglers in search of salmon, the Klamath is a must-see destination. The Klamath is renowned for its salmon runs. In an average year, you can expect between 100,000 and 200,000 Chinook salmon to run the river. Half of this number will arrive in early September, heading for the Trinity River to spawn. The mid-August summer run sees fish making for the Middle Klamath.
As well as Chinooks, you’ll find steelheads here too. The average steelhead can range from 7 to 15-pounds. After the Chinook runs, the larger steelheads come up river to feed. Specimens from 12 to 16-inches are not uncommon here.
Successful fly fishing techniques employed here are swinging flies and nymphing. Swinging flies works best on the lower to mid-sections of the River during the early season from August through September when the water is warmer.
In the cooler months of November through February, dead-drifting nymphs under indicators in the upper sections of the River is the best strategy.
The Klamath River flows through the Six Rivers National Park, where you’ll find lots of cabin lodging and camping. Alternatively, Crescent City is only a short drive away.
10. Lake Berryessa
Lake Berryessa, just west of Sacramento, is ranked at number seven in Bassmaster Magazine’s Top 10 Bass Lakes of 2016 and is the largest lake in Napa County.
The lake is a man-made reservoir, and because of this, the water levels tend to fluctuate. Despite this, the lake is home to several species popular with most anglers, including:
- Spotted bass
- Largemouth bass
- Smallmouth bass
- Rainbow trout
- Brown trout
- Kokanee salmon
Although the summer season sees the Lake popular with boaters, kayak anglers and water skiers, there are quiet areas where there is plenty of fish to catch. The southern end of the Lake, close to the dam in Markley Cove is a really good fishing spot. Other good areas include Portuguese Point, Big Island, and Putah Creek Inlet, particularly for catfish.
To get the most from this location, we recommend that you hire a guide.
California offers a stunning array of species for the leisure angler to pursue. The Golden State is especially good for dedicated trout and bass fishermen, but also offers plenty of opportunities for those in search of steelheads, king salmon, and sturgeon.
A fishing vacation in California has to be at the top of your list if you want a memorable trip with plenty of great sport, fabulous weather, and stunning scenery. If you want to vary things, take a trip into one of the big cities for a shopping trip, eat at one of the many top-class restaurants or lively beach bars, or try your luck in a casino.
Daniel C. Warren gradually morphed from a weekend warrior into a full-time outdoorsman and outdoor blogger. From picking up trash in the woods or sleeping under an open sky to hiking until his plantar fasciitis says no more or having a field day fishing with like minded fellow countrymen, there’s little he doesn’t wholeheartedly enjoy while out in the wild. While some might call him a true-born nature freak, he likes to see himself as a “born-again” outdoor enthusiast. Daniel just can’t get enough of nature, and we’re grateful whenever he decides to share his latest experiences with us.