In a crowded pub I had one of those “TV commercial” moments. My buddy and I were talking fishing when he asked the name of my favorite local fishing hole. I know it wasn’t just in my head, but it seemed like all the noise and conversation in the room suddenly stopped. Everyone was listening for an answer to that question.
Suddenly feeling very self-conscious I stammered, “Well, if I told ya’ I’d have to kill ya’,” and the room fell back to normal.
It’s probably a good thing social media is more of a “virtual” experience. Ever read the comments following someone’s post revealing some good place to fish? Not only are they verbally tarred and feathered, hung out to dry and crucified in effigy, but in this age of COVID-19 you might consider them “coughed upon,” however virtually.
Anyone who has ever revealed a good place to fish knows how the Frankenstein monster must have felt when the angry mob came after him with torches and pitchforks. It can happen in person or on social media with much the same result. Apparently it’s OK to talk about places everyone already knows about, but you dare not breathe a word about places off the local radar. So how in the world does one set out to find your own secret fishing Shangri-las?
The truth is, even in a place as populous as sunny California, there is a ton of good fishing water that sees very little fishing pressure. So how does one find them?
Printed Angling Regulations
You might call this a no-brainer, but these largely-ignored free booklets are available at most sporting goods stores, grocery stores and CA Department of Fish and Wildlife offices. “Sport Fishing Regulations” booklets are packed full of information hardly anyone takes the time to read.
You can get them online, but it’s easier to pick up the printed version so you can go through and circle, underline or highlight intriguing possibilities. Fisheries in each section are listed alphabetically, but also pay close attention to tributaries to well-known streams or rivers. If the regulations say a river has a two-trout limit, it’s a very good bet that smaller streams flowing into it will also contain trout.
It’s safe to say that fisheries with “Special Angling Regulations” are both well-known and capable of offering exciting fishing opportunities. These are usually rivers with a good wild trout population that can benefit by a little protection from too much popularity. Some rivers have both sections with “Special Regs.,” and other areas with “General Regulations.” Anglers are correct to suppose the “Special Regs.” sections offer good fishing, and they often do. They can also be more crowded. But that doesn’t mean the sections of those same rivers with more traditional fishing regulations do not offer good fishing. At the very least, you are more likely to have the place all to yourself.
A good first step is to locate every good fishery in the county you want to explore. If, for example, you want to find fishing spots in Siskiyou County, go down the list and highlight each fishery in that county.
There’s no denying the value of wearing off a little shoe leather trying to find great places to fish. It’s just part of the game, and some of these will turn out to be wild goose chases. But if you are willing to invest a little time and energy, you are bound to discover the best-kept secret of fishing in California.
The Great Secret
Years of exploration around NorCal have yielded much; a lot of wild goose chases, some truly magnificent fishing discoveries, and one nearly iron-clad rule:
Most Californians are not willing to hike more than 15-20 minutes from their cars for fishing. Consider what that means. If you are willing to hike even a little bit further, you may discover fish that hardly get any angling pressure at all. By the way, that also goes for most of the well-known fisheries as well. NorCal is blessed with a number of famous fisheries like the Sacramento River (upper and lower), the McCloud, the Trinity River, etc. Even these iconic waters have sections that rarely get fished due to anglers’ refusal to wear off a little shoe leather.
Older folks might prefer the good-old printed versions, and the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer series is hard to beat. These very detailed map booklets are incredibly detailed and even feature contour lines showing how steep or gradual the elevation.
Google Maps is a great online source allowing you to look at different areas with much greater detail than most printed map books. One feature I really like is tracking the exact mileage from point to point. You can also sometimes discern river features like riffles or which end of a wilderness lake is deep or shallow, or are there tributary streams running in or out. Some of the images of rivers and lakes are so clear you can actually see major features like shallow and deep water, weed beds and rock outcroppings.
Even if you’ve located a likely wilderness fishing spot you’d like to check out, it’s not wise to just wander off into the bush. Give some serious thought to your physical conditioning. How long a hike are you safely prepared to make? What is the terrain like? Is there shade, or will the hike be in blistering sun? A few things I always bring include plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat with a brim, a walking stick or wading staff and polarized sunglasses. It’s never a bad idea to bring a friend, but if you intend to do a solo trip there are a few other things you need to know.
Can you identify poison oak? Are you up for watching out for rattlesnakes? What about bears? These are all common parts of the NorCal wilderness. Be sure you understand and follow whatever angling regulations apply to the waters you fish.
Talk like a politician
A great way to approach those awkward direct questions about great places to fish (in public or on social media) is to take a lesson from your average politician. Let’s say someone asks, “Where is the best place to catch a big bass around here?” Possible responses might include, “I hear those ponds on the golf course are loaded with big bass, but you can’t fish for ’em.” Or maybe, “I saw a guy fishing the ponds at the sewerage treatment plant, but I think he was only catching brown trout.”
Then again, my all time favorite: “I hear 70 to 90 percent of the big bass around here are caught in the water.”
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.