If it were up to me, I’d like to go back in time and keep the DFG from ever planting largemouth and spotted bass in California.
Say what? Am I anti-bass? No way!
I just think smallmouth are the most interesting variety of bass and they, unfortunately, have been overrun by these other types of bass in most of our local waters. Of course, we could debate this until the Chicago Cubs win a World Series, but in my estimation, smallmouth are better fighters (I once mistook a smallie for a steelhead on the Russian River because it was so strong) than their big mouthed and spotted cousins and are pretty cool-looking as well.
Major reservoirs such as Folsom, Don Pedro, Oroville and Shasta all kick out smallmouth from time to time, but the species composition at many of the state’s lakes has shifted since the introduction of spotted bass. DFG Biologist Dennis Lee told me that spotts have certain biological advantages and seem to be doing better than the smallies in reservoirs that contain both species. Since spotted bass can be found in many California lakes, the number of good smallie waters is dwindling. There are, however, still a few spots worth checking out without having to go to Minnesota.
Despite a decline in the fishing over a decade ago, Trinity Lake is still regarded as the state’s top smallmouth factory. Fish over 6 pounds are caught each season, but not with the regularity that they once were. Now days, the average bass at Trinity runs in the 2- to 3-pound range.
In the summer months, the lake’s jumbo smallies can be tough to catch (try them in March), but anglers still can find good fishing for the smaller ones. This time of year, the fish will hold on 15- to 20-foot deep breaks that are located near shallower water. Grubs and Weenie-style worms are the way to go — try colors like smoke, pumpkin with a chartreuse tail and black with red flakes.
Okay, so you know about Almanor’s excellent rainbow and brown trout and landlocked salmon fishing, right? Well, the lake is also a dynamite smallmouth water. It’s unlikely that it will ever surpass Trinity Lake in terms of big fish, but Almanor holds a solid population of 2- and 3-pound bass and a good sprinkling of smallies over 5 pounds. The current lake record is 6 pounds, 4 ounces.
Again, spring is the best time to hook a hawg at Almanor, but you can find good action throughout the summer — you just have to look a little deeper. By day, throw with plastics and craw-colored jigs as deep as 30 feet. If you can hit the water right at the crack of dawn or just before dark, try throwing topwater baits like Zara Puppies, Storm Baby Chug Bugs and Pop-R’s. Since smallies really like structure, try fishing in Gould Swamp…there’s a ton of good bass habitat (stumps, boulders, etc.) in there.
Looking for a lot of action and aren’t too concerned about setting any records? Try the Russian River, where quantity, rather than quality, is the name of the game. The average fish here will go 1.5 to 2 pounds, but there are also some big smallies over 5 pounds available as well.
There’s a lot of private water on the river, so take a jon boat or a canoe and do a float. That’s the best way to access the overhanging trees and rocky areas that the fish like, anyway. Use ultralight gear and throw mini grubs like smoke-colored Kalin’s fished on 1/4-ounce jig heads, small crayfish-imitating plugs and junior-sized Gitzits.
Smallmouth bass can be found along much of the Russian’s length from Cassini Ranch near the mouth up into the Alexander Valley near Cloverdale. However, the best stretch runs from Healdsburg on down to Guerneville.
Other Smallie Rivers
The Feather River from Verona to Marysville can sometimes produce world-class smallmouth bass action, though it’s been in a down period of late. You can also get some good fish in the Delta, Lake Britton, Whiskeytown Lake and Lake Tulloch. Like I said earlier, Folsom’s got some nice fish, but they’re few and far between. I’ve also caught some nice smallies to about 3 pounds at Lake Clementine, but it doesn’t seem to be all that consistent. If you don’t mind micro-sized fish, try the North Fork of the American below Clementine Dam. There are a ton of fish in there, but you’ll have trouble cracking the 12-inch mark.