Feather River country offers a lifetime of fishing opportunities
|The author and son-in-law Earl Jessee admire a pair of Lake Almanor rainbow trout. Photo by Doug Neal|
Hiking up the long grade, the late morning sun is hotter at mid-slope than it was when we started down in the cool canyon bottom. Our lungs are working hard and our calves feel a slight burn from the steep climb. Our dog Sierra is looking for a shady spot to take a break. Finally we reach the top of the ridge. We look back down into the beautiful granite canyon below, but only briefly. The trail bends into a thick stand of shady red fir offering relief from the heat. So we press on.
After a short walk through the trees, we break out on to the shore of a beautiful high-elevation lake. On one end of the lake damselflies flutter over grassy shallows. Most of the lake is bordered by a dense stand of lodgepole pine that grows right down to the water line. Little yellow pollen rings show where the high water sometimes engulfs the shoreline trees. On the far side of the lake a granite cliff juts upward from the lake reaching nearly a hundred feet into the air.
Now the hike is worth it. Our lungs and legs feel much better and Sierra wades into the water for a cool-down. I inflate my little back-packable raft and string my fly rod while Sandy settles into a shady spot with a good book. All the while I am studying the lake trying to solve the puzzle. Where will the fish be feeding?
This little gem of a lake is in Lakes Basin area just a few miles out of Graeagle. I fish every chance I get. I have lived in Plumas County for more than 20 years, and yet I have never been to this lake before. How can that be?
Plumas County has more than 100 lakes and 1,000 miles of streams. Any given lake or any stretch of river or stream can take many visits, or even many years to learn to fish well. What that adds up to is a lifetime of fishing opportunities right here at our doorstep.
Whether I want to explore new waters or visit waters that are as familiar as old friends, I have all I need right here in Feather River country. Let me tell you about some of my favorites.
In my mind, our local lakes fall into two categories: large mid-elevation lakes and the smaller high-elevation lakes.
Lake Almanor is without a doubt my favorite. It’s a large lake and it is fishable all year long. Almanor is one of California’s premier trophy trout lakes. Many rainbows and browns over 10 pounds are caught every year.
Almanor is not an easy lake to fish for the uninitiated. Its size alone can be intimidating. The primary feed source of interest to the angler is the pond smelt. They are a light-colored minnow about 1-1/2 to 3 inches long. Trollers use Speedy Shiners or Rapalas to imitate them. Fly fishers do well with Jensen’s minnows and similar streamer patterns.
You can often spot the schools of bait fish by watching where the birds are feeding. The trout attack the bait balls from the bottom. The schools of smelt swim close to the surface to escape the trout, only to be attacked by the diving birds. The schools of bait move around. Find the bait and you find the fish.
Water temperature is another key to fishing Almanor. In spring and late fall when the water is cooler, the fish can be found in shallow water and especially around stream inlets. In the heat of summer they seek out cooler water. Fish the deeper water and near Almanor’s many springs to find summertime trout.
Almanor also has landlocked king salmon. They tend to stay in the deeper water year-round. The best place to find the salmon is the deep water along the east shore and near the dam.
A big attraction for fly anglers at Almanor is the Hexagenia (or “hex”) hatch. The Hexagenia are large yellow mayflies that hatch from the muddy lake bottom and emerge from the lake surface late in the evening from mid-June to early August. They are found along the west shore of Almanor. The trout, salmon and even smallmouth bass feed very aggressively on these 2-inch mayflies.
There is also a decent Hex hatch at Butt Lake. Butt Lake is a long shallow reservoir just a few miles west of Almanor. It has the same species and fishes somewhat similar to Almanor. The big difference is the Butt Lake Powerhouse. Butt Lake is fed by Lake Almanor. Many pond smelt get caught in the Almanor water intake and wind up getting delivered to Butt Lake via the powerhouse. When the powerhouse is running the trout in Butt Lake congregate just below the powerhouse to enjoy the abundant feed.
Antelope Lake lies in the east central portion of Plumas County. This is a beautiful lake with many coves and small islands making for some great fish habitat. A canoe or kayak is the perfect way to explore the lake. What the trout may lack in size they make up for in abundance. There are also bass and catfish at Antelope.
Bucks Lake is a short drive from Quincy in the center of the county. The granite peaks surrounding the lake make for a very scenic setting. Bucks Lake has an excellent kokanee salmon fishery. The California Department of Fish and Game (now called the Department of Fish and Wildlife) introduced brown trout to help keep the kokanee from overpopulating. The result was bigger kokanee and some big brown trout.
But they didn’t stop there. They added mackinaw to the mix. The result was even bigger kokanee and some real trophy-size mackinaw. Many 10-pound-plus fish are caught each year. Twenty-pounders are not unheard of. And if somehow that isn’t enough, there are also loads of rainbows and brook trout in the lake.
Frenchman Lake and Lake Davis are in the southeast of Plumas County. Unlike the other lakes that are in more forested ecosystems, Lake Davis lies in a transitional ecosystem: part east-side pine forest and part sage desert. Frenchman is in a true Great Basin desert ecosystem. They both offer excellent fishing for rainbow trout. Davis is shallow, weedy and very fertile. The shallow lake is full of damselflies and blood midges, making it a real favorite with fly fishers. Fly-fishing is also popular at Frenchman Lake but most fish are caught by trollers and bank anglers. Both lakes are popular spots for ice fishing.
The high lakes of the Feather River region offer a much different experience. These are not typically trophy trout lakes. Some are accessible by road, many require a hike, but all are beautiful.
The most popular are the lakes found in Lakes Basin nestled under the spectacular Sierra Buttes. This area was sculpted by glaciers and has the feel of the high Sierra. Lakes Basin Highway delivers visitors right to the shore of some of the more popular lakes. A surprising number of lakes are just a short hike off the road.
Gold Lake is the largest lake in the area. It is noteworthy for the predictable afternoon winds and for some large mackinaw. Packer Lake, Lower Sardine and Gold Lake all offer very good fishing and easy access.
There are a few high mountain lakes scattered around the Bucks Lake Wilderness and above Indian Valley. North of Chester are Echo Lake, Silver Lake and Caribou Lake. These all fish well.
Deer Creek parallels Highway 32 for several miles, providing easy access. I like to fly-fish Deer Creek, but this is also a perfect stream for a salmon egg and split shot rig. The easy access and plentiful trout make it perfect for kids.
In the Almanor Basin, Hamilton Branch and the North Fork Feather offer great fishing opportunities. The North Fork can be accessed by road at several points. If you want some solitude and maybe some better fishing, try hiking away from the road access points.
Yellow Creek in Humbug Valley is another favorite. It begins as a classic spring creek and then changes to a freestone stream as it leaves the valley.
The crown jewel of the local streams has to be the Middle Fork Feather River. This designated Wild and Scenic River begins from the many springs of the Sierra Valley and then flows through Portola and Graeagle before following Highway 70 for several miles. The last road access before the Middle Fork enters an extremely rugged canyon is at Red Bridge on La Porte Road. From there, access to the Middle Fork requires a long steep hike. The upper portion of the Middle Fork has some very good trout fishing, but for those willing to make the hike, the fishing in the canyon is world-class.
There are too many more streams to mention here. Maybe the best thing to do is get out a map and go exploring. If you want a little help getting pointed in the right direction try one of the many local sporting goods stores to find out what is going on. There are also some excellent guides who can put you in the right spot and teach you all about the right tackle and techniques. Check out the Plumas County Visitors Guide for a list of fishing guides and facilities.