Describing a time of year when this small impoundment east of Burney doesn’t fish well can be a real challenge. But when cooler weather sets in Baum Lake tops a short list of fisheries that might actually be at their best when temperatures take a nosedive. Even though it does get pretty cold up there in the wintertime, sitting in a small boat or casting from the bank hooking fish after fish tends to keep attitudes toasty warm.
Beyond anything else you could say about Baum Lake; that it’s a critical cog in a giant hydroelectric power-producing machine, a sanctuary for exotic bird life and an archaeologically significant site for Native Americans, it is first and foremost a big bucket full of trout.
Anglers never need to wonder if they’re fishing in the right place. There are healthy populations of wild rainbows and browns, plus the lake receives generous allotments of hatchery fish throughout the traditional fishing season. The bounteous food supply even allows hatchery fish that elude capture long enough to grow to prodigious proportions. There is a five-fish limit at Baum Lake, any method of take is allowed (no hand grenades, please) and it’s open to fishing year-round.
To the casual eye fishing Baum Lake might seem deceptively simple and straightforward. It slips out from beneath Hat Powerhouse 1 as running water far more like a stream than a lake. Flows from Crystal Lake join with Baum due west of the parking lot creating another great fishing area. The icy-cold springwater creeps slowly downstream until, about a mile down, it achieves an almost stillness before slipping under yet another dam. The sheer biomass beneath the surface of the water, life that is, gently massaged by this water is staggering. It oozes through verdant forests of aquatic plants, gives flight to untold billions of underwater insects and finally moves through the gill rakers of tens of thousands of hungry trout.
No, you’re not allowed to fish in the hatchery.
It’s awfully hard to ignore the big humming building at the top of Baum Lake. While that baby is probably powering light bulbs in beautiful downtown Kathmandu, I’ve come to see it as a massive sign saying, “FISH HERE!” Not that it’s easily accessed, but the plunge pool directly below the powerhouse is Trout Central. There are some very large specimens here, and they got that way by being hard to catch. More accurately, they get a lot of fishing pressure and are hard to get to. Because the water is so clear, the fish are deeper than most anglers think. Reason #1 for failure to catch fish here is that most anglers are not fishing deep enough.
So you’ve cast your gob of worms into the bucket with a weight the size of a bowling ball, and you’re still not catching fish. Reason #2 for not catching these fish has to do with the fact that these fish feed mainly on tiny bugs. Sure you can get the odd fish on bait or even spinners, but Mother Nature usually serves bugs and that’s what the fish have come to crave. It makes sense that fly anglers would have the advantage here, but not necessarily so. (See Reason #1.)
Think of the Baum Lake Parking lot as the center of this universe. From the honey-hole below the powerhouse the water shoots down a straightaway with few fish in it, then makes a left-handed U-turn. Once around that corner just east of the parking lot, great fishing water literally surrounds you again. The current collides with the parking lot before heading back downstream again, and fish stack up on the eastern side to intercept whatever food the current is carrying. To the west of the parking lot is a levy and small concrete structure where a large spring called Crystal Lake drops in. The water between the levy and the parking lot is also stacked full of trout, usually feeding.
As the currents on both sides of the parking lot converge down below, every bit of the water between here and the island downstream is loaded with trout. On some days you can see trout taking insects from the surface of the water. Other times they hurl themselves out of the water like freshwater porpoises in hot pursuit of fast-moving food.
The island marks the lower limit of the really trouty water, but good fishing also extends down the west side of island. It’s not that there aren’t trout between the island and the dam at the bottom, but they tend to be fewer and larger. This signals a different kind of fishing best left for anglers willing to catch fewer fish in hopes of a real trophy. Bait anglers typically fish higher up on the reservoir, but solitary fly and hardware anglers can sometimes be seen tossing good-sized baitfish imitations to hook-jawed leviathans down below.
As mentioned above, there isn’t really a bad time to fish Baum Lake, but the winter season has a few advantages. First, there are far fewer anglers. Trout that get fished on mercilessly naturally become harder to catch. Another advantage is the abundant weed beds that all but clog the reservoir in summer leaving little open water to fish have receded. In other words, you don’t have to fight trying to get your hooks out of weed clusters during winter. The water is much easier to access.
Small prams are the most efficient (and comfortable) way to fish Baum, but you can get plenty of fish from shore as well. Pontoon boats are popular as long as they have anchors to hold you in the slow current. Float tubes are not a good idea since most do not have anchors, and because it’s generally too chilly to spend more than a few moments bobbing around in moving water like a Gore Tex covered ice cube.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine