Clearly a Winner

Northern California's Clear Lake Boasts Bassing Nirvana

Article by David A. Brown

photo of Clear Lake in Northern California
Creek mouths are always a good bet for fishing a large swimbait

When 19th Century newspaper editor Horace Greeley popularized the phrase "Go west young man," he probably didn't use Clear Lake as a selling point. Nevertheless, anglers making the trek to California's largest natural lake find a gold mine of bass fishing opportunity set within majestic Norwalk ambiance.

Situated about 2 ½ hours northwest of Sacramento, the pride of Lake County neighbors with the Golden State's famed wine country, and sits amid verdant sloping scenery of the Mayacamas Mountains punctuated by the peaks of St. Helena, Hood Mountain and a dormant volcano known as Mount Konocti. Natural springs help feed this lake, with vent holes in Soda Bay releasing a constant stream of bubbles, some percolating topside.

"Clear Lake's rolling hills and the view of Mount Konocti is breathtaking," said California pro Ken Mah. "The lake changes colors with the season – dark greens to vibrant copper colors from the natural spring water release."

No doubt, beauty abounds, but Clear Lake doesn't trade on her looks. This piscatorial powerhouse packs plenty of punch propelled by Florida strain largemouths stocked here decades ago. A hardy buffet of crawfish, perch, silverside minnows, threadfin shad and a plump forage fish called “hitch” keeps bass fat and sassy with specimens commonly reaching double-digit dimensions, right up the lake record of 17 and change. Spring spawning season heightens the chance at stretching the string on a 10-pounder, but anytime you want to keep busy with a day full of quality bass bites, Clear Lake delivers.

"There are many things that make this one of the best (bass) lakes in California, if not the world," said diehard Clear Lake fan and tournament pro, Matt Newman. "First reason is that the fish there are big and they bite year-round. Apart from the dog days of summer, which can still be very good on frogs and topwater, the bite there never slows down. 

"Another reason is the diversity of fishing that you can do there. You can fish deep with jigs or worms on one spot and then fish a shallow swimbait or frog on the next spot and do just as good. It's a great place to practice different techniques because the fish usually cooperate. Deep, shallow, slow or fast they all work most of the year." 

Photo of angler Paul Nailey holding a bass
Local anglers like Paul Baily know that the Trash Fish is a highly effective swimbait option on Clear Lake.

Lay of the Lake

As much a visual feast as a fishing fantasy, Clear Lake offers diverse habitat that packs a lot of options into a day on these waters. The lake’s mostly shallow north end extends southeast through The Narrows, around the Buckingham peninsula and into its deeper south end, which splits into eastern and southern arms. Cache Creek at the south end, along with Kelsey and Adobe creeks to the northwest and Rodman Slough (north) offer prime bass spawning habitat. Lengthy stretches of quiet waters lined with vegetation and punctuated by fallen timber, docks and the occasional rock outcropping offer attractive nursery grounds for mama bass.

Photo of a man fishing on Clear LakeLargemouths also bed throughout the vast and shallow fields of tules (pronounced “too-lees”) – the lake's primary aquatic vegetation. When the spawn is on, bass will stake out little pockets and gaps in the cover. Protective parents are quick to attack intruders, but even after the reproductive rituals, flipping this cover with jigs or Texas-rigged plastics is productive nearly year-round.

Tules alone are good, but where the slender plants grow adjacent to shoreline rocks, there you’ll find prime bass habitat. Rocky points with deep ledges and offshore rock piles offer good prespawn and post-spawn staging points. Jigs, Carolina rigs, drop shots and weighted worms rigged wacky style do well here.

Throughout Clear Lake, big swimbaits enjoy a downright cult-like following. From solid models like the River2Sea S-Waver or 22nd Century Triple Trout to the soft-bodied Osprey Talon or ultra-limber Trash Fish, big swimmers plus long rods equals serious fun. Working these bulky baits along tule lines and at the mouths of creeks can entice mind-blowing strikes. Likewise, bouncing a 4-inch leadhead swimbait over rocky edges in Clear Lake's south end is a good bet for a bent rod.

Photo of Clear Lake and surrounding mountains in Northern CaliforniaResidential areas also produce well, as bass often spawn on the shallow flats and suspend under the deep ends of docks. The docks of Lakeport Lagoon, a mobile home park at the lake’s north end are particularly popular for tournament bass fishermen, as the relatively narrow canals allow anglers on the front and back of the boat to hit both sides with ease. Elsewhere, when the hitch amass around the docks on the east side of the Buckingham Peninsula, get ready for a lights-out swimbait bite.

"The entire lake is productive – it just depends in how you like to fish," said FLW Tour pro Brent Ehrler. "If you want to fish deeper structure, you fish the lower end. If you want to fish shallow structure, you fish the north end. It's a very versatile lake."

Mah agrees, adding: "Tournaments get won shallow on topwaters, frogs and flipping, but as many get won throwing a football head jig, dropshot, and deep diving crankbaits on the many rock piles."

Photo of angler Scott Green holding a bass
Anglers like Scott Green know that wacky rigged worms account for many bass bites on Clear Lake.

Tips From The Top

Complementing the generalities, our three pros offered a little insight into some of their Clear Lake preferences.

Ehrler: "I have two favorite times, spring and fall. In the spring, you can flip shallow docks or tules with a (weightless) Texas-rigged Yamamoto Senko and have a good chance of catching a 10-pound-class fish. In the fall, you can run small patches of grass with a Lucky Craft LV500 lipless crankbait and catch 30 fish a day. Both are extremely fun ways to fish."

Mah: "I really enjoy fishing the shallower portion of the north end, from Soda Bay all the way around toward Nice and Lucerne. I really enjoy fishing grass, tules and wood. The north end has an abundant amount of that type of cover. 

"If I had to pick three techniques for Clear Lake it would be a 3:16 Mighty Minnow (swimbait), flipping a Texas-rigged Excite Craw or a 3-inch Big Bite Baits Yomama on a 4/0 Gamakatsu super heavy cover flipping hook and a SPRO Bronzeye Frog in natural green or a SPRO popping frog in black widow."

Newman: "My two favorite seasons are spring and fall. The spring is obvious – the fish are big and usually pretty easy to catch. I have had so many days with 20-plus 5-pounders. Plus they really eat the swimbait. It's always good when you throw a swimbait all day and never stop catching them.

"Fall is my second favorite. This time of year you can fish fast and cover water and catch them great. The swimbait bite starts to come back and the crankbait bite is the best I have ever seen. Lots of fish and they're often over 8 pounds. 

"My favorite area of the lake changes with the seasons. In the spring and fall the upper bowl is a blast. It's shallow with weeds most of the time, so it's great fun to fish topwater, punch and throw frogs. It does get affected by fishing pressure easily though. The lower end has the deep water and handles fishing pressure better than the upper end. You can catch fish in that end all year. It also has most of the rock so it's great for jigs and cranks."

Newman's advice for Clear Lake newcomers is to pick an area of the lake and thoroughly fish it. As he notes, the north end probably holds more large fish but the south end is more consistent most days. Overall, despite the occasional bad hair day, you'll find Clear Lake remarkably kind to first-timers. Unlocking the treasure chest of quality and quantity takes practice, of course, but this Western gem makes the learning process a ton of fun.

"I have traveled all over the country chasing bass and Clear Lake, by far, is my favorite," Newman said. "I have never had a bad trip there and always hate leaving. My best advice is: Get there and just go fish your favorite technique. It will usually work."


Matt Newman loves the topwater bite during Clear Lake summers.

Clear Lake Clipboard

At 1,329 feet above sea level, Clear Lake covers 43,785 surface acres, stretches 19 miles and beams 8 miles across at its widest point. Maximum depth is 60 feet, but the average is about 28. Within approximately 100 miles of shoreline, the lake holds loads of crappie, bluegill, trout, carp and huge catfish of up to 50 pounds, in addition to its Florida-strain largemouth bass.

The valley in which the lake resides was formed some 3 million years ago by the earth’s tectonic movements. Initially just a series of oxbow lakes scattered along Cache Creek, Clear Lake emerged when the valley deepened and melting snow filled the chasm.

Geologists suspect it's North America's oldest lake, while archeological evidence shows humans inhabiting the fertile Clear Lake Basin for some 12,000 years. Pomo Indians were the prominent Native American group but their civilization declined significantly in the early to mid-1800s with the arrival of Spanish explorers, European settlers, and gold prospectors.

For information on Clear Lake and Lake County, visit www.lakecounty.com.

Enjoy The View

Angler fishing on Clear LakeComplementing its stellar fishery, Clear Lake boasts abundant wildlife throughout its natural surroundings. The brilliant yellow headed blackbird perches among the tules, while scrub jays and orioles flitter among shoreline trees. The great blue heron – Lake County’s symbol – patrols the shoreline shallows while soaring ospreys and bald eagles hunt for fish to snare. Nearby forests hold wild turkeys, California quail, red tail hawks, Steller’s jays and many more. Furry residents include black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, elk and blacktail deer.

Elevated views are always nice and much of the lakeside road rises high enough to peer over tree lines and houses for memorable views of bass boats racing to their next spot. Soda Bay Road on the lake’s west side parallels one of the most scenic stretches of Clear Lake from Konocti Bay near Clear Lake Riviera to Lakeport.

On the west side of the road, a couple of miles north of Konocti Harbor, drivers find a suddenly enchanting stretch of towering pines and boulders the size of minivans in the Black Forest – a good bet for casual hikes with binoculars and a birding field guide. Throughout this course, and most of the lakeside loop, the road has no shoulder, so drive with caution. Occasional turn-outs allow for safe parking when the next photo-worthy site arises.

Along the lakeside roads, often in the most unassuming spots, visitors will be amazed at the vivid shades of golden orange as wild California Poppies – the state flower – burst from the landscape. Elsewhere, bluish-purple lupine blossoms enhance the Lake County beauty.

Clear Lake State Park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=473) on the western shore, above Soda Bay, offers some of the county's best opportunities for nature watching. From the moment you enter the park, blacktail deer, chipmunks and hawks display a welcoming acceptance for humans. Kelsey Creek and Old Kelsey Creek run through the park and offer bass and panfish opportunities in sheltered waters for boaters and shorebound anglers.

Lake County visitors also enjoy cultural and historical facets such as Lakeport’s colorful downtown, the historic district of Lower Lake and the Lake County Museum (Lakeport) featuring Pomo Indian weaving exhibits. Other diversions include casinos, horse trails, sailing and paddleboat cruises, while wine aficionados find several vineyards thriving in the area’s rich soil, abundant moisture and comfortable altitude.