Mythic Lake Almanor E-mail
Written by Chris Mayes   
Thursday, 19 December 2013 00:00

almchrisairborne The alarm clock went off at seven Saturday morning. Time to get the coffee going. The plan was to meet up with polepole (KFM Publisher Allen Sansano) and Bushy (KFM Chief Editor Allen Bushnell) at Westwood Beach around 9am for a morning of kayak fishing. The targets were the lake’s three primary salmonids: rainbow trout, brown trout, and landlocked Chinook salmon. Although it was already bright enough to fish by 7am, I was perfectly fine with taking my time getting on the water: November mornings are typically frigid affairs anyway, and having Lake Almanor practically at my doorstep for the past three years means I have plenty of opportunities for those crack-o-dawn fishing trips replete with frozen fingers. My goal for the next two days was to show these guys just how awesome kayak fishing can be on this lake.

I’d spent several of my childhood years shorefishing on Almanor. I had a lot of success over those years, mostly casting jigs and soaking bait. The allure of fishing beyond the confines of the bank was always there, but I presumed it was relegated to expensive powerboats that were well out of the grasp of my bank account. That all changed when I moved to Humboldt County in 2004.

It was there that I learned of kayak fishing on the ocean, and where I purchased my first SOT kayak- an old OK Scrambler that I bought from a friend for 300 bucks. After having great success targeting Trinidad lingcod and rockfish from the Scrambler during my college years, I started wondering about the possibilities a kayak could bring on inland waters such as Lake Almanor. Little did I know that the beginning of my post-college career would give me that opportunity. In 2010, the US Forest Service hired me right out of college as a fisheries biologist based in Chester, CA, located on the northwestern shores of Lake Almanor. Talk about full-circle, right?

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My first few adventures on Almanor were actually pretty tough. There was no such thing as a kayak fishing community up here. I attempted to emulate what the powerboats do by trolling various baits and lures, but soon found that trolling for hours on end for only a couple of fish an outing (if I was lucky) was far from my favored method of fishing. So, I fell back on the methods employed when fishing from shore- working jigs and soaking bait. These methods began producing more consistent results for me. Over the past few years I’ve learned not only how to fish jigs and bait most effectively from a kayak, but also where fish hold according to the seasons. As a result, the number of “epic” days of kayak fishing on Almanor has increased exponentially, to the point where I claim kayak fishing as THE best way to fish this lake. Yeah, even better than powerboats.

When polepole and Bushy asked me what tackle they should bring for their visit, I recommended what I call my “standards." Some quarter-ounce jigheads, three-inch fluke type plastics to rig onto the jigheads, a tub of nightcrawlers for mooching, and a few various minnow plugs and trolling spoons such as the 1/6 ounce red/gold Speedy Shiner, just in case we had to move around a lot. From fall through spring, the trout and salmon are focused on pond smelt (a.k.a., wakasagi), the primary forage fish in Almanor. An angler can imitate these slim, silvery smelt with various slim-profile lures in the two to five inch range. Using jigs to imitate the smelt is nothing new here: local anglers have used jigs for years on Lake Almanor with great success, fishing on anchor from powerboats. And, they were always a staple of mine when fishing from shore. But I believe jigs come into a league of their own when fished from a kayak, as polepole and Bushy were soon to find out.

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One of the great things about kayak fishing is the ability to fine-tune your presentation. This fine-tuning is a burden for powerboats, if not an impossibility. The motions of pulling up the anchor, firing up the outboard, puttering 20 feet, and dropping anchor again would become tiresome for anyone. But it’s nothing for the kayaker. As long as the wind isn’t blowing too hard, you can use a paddle or Mirage Drive to position yourself precisely where you want to fish, such as directly underneath a school of pond smelt. Ideally, when you’re fishing with jigs, you want to be fishing around schools of smelt because the bait will usually have gamefish hot on their tails looking for an easy meal. And you get to imitate that easy meal with a jig.

A few minutes after I launched on a still, foggy morning from Westwood Beach, polepole and Bushy showed up. While they prepped their kayaks on the beach, my depthfinder started marking schools of pond smelt a mere few hundred feet from the launch. “I’m on bait guys,” I hollered to them. I dropped a three-inch Berkley Gulp! minnow on a quarter-ounce darter head to the bottom, about 40 feet down, so it was underneath the school of smelt. I lifted my rod in slow, 6-inch increments before letting the jig fall back to its original position. A few seconds later, my rod tip loaded up ever so slightly.

Most jig bites from salmonids are subtle affairs: oftentimes the only indication you have a bite is the loading of the rod tip, or your jig hitting an invisible bottom. I swung my rod up, and fish on! The fish sped off on a couple runs before I caught a glimpse of silvery flash about 10 feet down. It was a nice rainbow, probably 18 or 19 inches in length. I readied my net, but the fish soon shook the jig from his mouth and disappeared into the depths. Losing the fish didn’t matter to me: I’m typically content once I get a good look at the fish I’ve hooked, and an 18-19 inch rainbow is par for the course on Almanor. Once polepole and Bushy were on the water with me, we all dropped jigs around a large school of pond smelt and the hookups soon followed.

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polepole had the hot stick: he landed rainbows, browns, and a couple of landlocked Chinook salmon fishing a jig on one rod and a mooched nightcrawler on the other. Did I mention how effective a simple nightcrawler can be? I always make it a point to buy a second-rod stamp when I buy my fishing license for the year. This allows you to let a bait such as a nightcrawler with a splitshot about two feet above it hover in the water column while you work a jig with your other rod. It’s an absurdly simple technique, but sometimes it can be just as effective (if not more so) as using a jig. Fish have a tough time turning down a big, juicy worm.

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Bushy was hooking up on the jig as well, but was having a stroke of bad luck getting the fish into the net. I watched him hook a large, silvery fish (either a rainbow or a large salmon) that zipped every which way underneath his kayak before finally throwing the hook. Then a few minutes later, he was hooked up on another big fish—this one a brown trout—that erupted on the tranquil lake surface for a few moments before the line parted. That had to hurt, but I reassured Bushy that at least we all caught a good look of the fish before he escaped. It’s those big fish that you hook and never see that haunt you. I recalled a time several years ago when I was fishing with an ultralight spinning rod with four-pound line, and hooked into a giant fishing a whole nightcrawler from shore on the Lake Almanor Peninsula. I was unable to stop the fish: after bending my rod to the butt, he sped off on a run that took me down to a couple wraps of line left on my reel before the line snapped. Ever since that fateful day, I upped my gear to be a little beefier. I didn’t want another big fish to spool me on this lake.

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There’s a potpourri of salmonids in Lake Almanor: not only rainbow trout, but also Eagle Lake strain rainbows, brown trout, landlocked Chinook salmon, and even the rare brook trout every once in a great while. All of these fish will average from 14 to 18 inches in length. Fish over 20 inches are commonplace, and it honestly takes a fish over 25 inches in length to raise any eyebrows from the locals. A 10+ pounder has always been on my bucket list for this lake, but I have yet to attain it. The largest salmonid I’ve landed in Almanor was a 28.5 inch hook-jawed male brown trout in the dead of late January 2012, on a Kastmaster. I estimated that fish to be around nine pounds. Every year someone pulls a 12 or 14-pound trout from the lake—usually in the late fall or early winter months—so they’re always a possibility. The largest I’ve heard of was a nineteen pound brown caught by a local guide several years ago.

The lake is stocked heavily by CDFW with rainbows, browns and yearling-sized Chinook salmon. Unlike typical “stocker” trout, these fish are quick to grow and become fully-finned as a result of feeding on the abundant pond smelt and aquatic insects that inhabit Lake Almanor. In addition, approximately 50,000 rainbow trout are raised annually by the Almanor Fishing Association (a local nonprofit organization) in net pens before being released into the lake at the 12 to 13-inch range. Combine the stocked fish with robust self-sustaining populations of wild rainbow and brown trout that use Almanor’s feeder streams for spawning, and a smallmouth bass fishery that rivals any found on the West Coast, and you have a lake that’s chock full of fishing opportunities.

Several factors come into play to make these Almanor fish so much bigger, stronger, and more abundant than the ones you’ll find in other California lakes. Lake Almanor was formed in the early 1900s by the damming of the North Fork Feather River at the southern end of Big Meadows. As a result, the lake is surprisingly shallow considering its size. Paddling from the western or eastern shores towards the peninsula (which bisects the lake into two basins), depths will hardly exceed 50 or 60 feet. The deepest part of the lake is at the southern end near the dam, but even here the deepest I’ve found was little more than 100 feet. The shallow nature of the lake kicks the aquatic food chain into gear much quicker than in a deep, steep-sided reservoir. The second major factor that makes Almanor stand out from other California lakes is the abundance of underwater springs and inflowing tributaries. Underwater springs are scattered all over the lake, and they provide thermal refuge for all manner of fish species.

Salmonids seek out springs and tributary mouths in the summer months for cooler temperatures, and return to springs in the winter because the groundwater is typically several degrees warmer than the main lake. These thermal refuges give the fish increased chances of enduring high summer and freezing winter temperatures. Combine the above factors of abundant stocks, self-sustaining wild populations, increased lake productivity, and a high carryover rate due to thermal refuges, and you have all the ingredients to grow a lot of very big fish in a relatively short amount of time.

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Being tucked at 4,500 feet in between the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, Lake Almanor experiences a 4-season climate with summer high temperatures averaging in the 80s and 90s, and winter lows often dipping into the single digits. Many areas of the lake will be covered in ice in the winter, but there always seems to be some open water available to fish in the eastern basin even during the coldest of winters. Fishing can be good year-round, though spring and fall are typically the best. As mentioned before, pond smelt are the salmonids’ primary forage in the fall through spring months. In the summer, abundant aquatic insect hatches tend to draw the fishes’ attention away from the smelt. Almanor sees a wide array of insect hatches, including the famed “Hex Hatch” of jumbo-sized Hexagenia mayflies that occurs from June to August. The Hex Hatch can provide excellent fly-fishing opportunities from a kayak on late summer evenings.

Spring through summer also sees the lake’s excellent smallmouth bass fishery come to life, with double-digit catches of smallies ranging up to five pounds not out of the question. Pre-spawn action typically begins in earnest in late March, and one can go far by dragging small crayfish-imitating plastics across gravel flats or throwing minnow-shaped ripbaits along rocky shorelines from March into June. By mid-summer, these fish can provide exciting topwater action, particularly in the stump-covered flats found in the northwestern portion of the lake.

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There are a wide range of launch sites for kayakers on Almanor’s western and southern shorelines. Two public US Forest Service boat ramps are available near the communities of Prattville and Canyon Dam, respectively. Public access is available for beach launching at various pullouts from Prattville to Rocky Point Campground on the western shore. Westwood Beach, located on the eastern shore just south of the community of Hamilton Branch, provides the best public access for fishing the northeastern portion of the lake. Hot spots for fishing can vary according to the season and where the pond smelt are located. Some of the more consistent spots include the Prattville jetties, Plumas Pines log boom, Geritol Cove, Lake Cove, Recreation Areas #1 and #2 on the Peninsula, the A-Frame, Big Springs and the mouth of Hamilton Branch. In addition to jigs and mooched baits, traditional trout trolling techniques also prove effective in these areas. Trolled Needlefish, Speedy Shiners and minnow plugs such as Rapalas can provide both trout and salmon.

By Sunday afternoon, I bade polepole and Bushy farewell. Two mornings’ worth of fishing resulted in a solid lineup: a mixed bag of rainbows, browns, and Chinook salmon up to 22 inches in length. Both jigs and mooched ‘crawlers provided the majority of the fish, though polepole had some action on a trolled red+gold Speedy Shiner as well. A few fish were kept, though the majority were released.

If you’re looking for some of the best trout and inland salmon fishing available on the west coast, definitely put Lake Almanor on your list of places to check out. It’s one of those places I believe every kayak angler should visit at least once. Not just for the big, abundant fish either: the scenery can be breathtaking. Don’t be surprised if you’re stopped in your tracks while loading the kayak back on the truck after an evening of fishing.

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