by Joel Shangle
Alex Niapas hoists a 17-pound, 13-ounce New Melones largemouth caught on a California Reservoir Lures Bedwetter jig. (Photo courtesy Alex Niapas)
ANGELS CAMP-The term “best ever” is a dangerous, somewhat ambiguous label to hang on a fishery, even one as well-known and productive as New Melones Reservoir. How can you possibly prove it?
Here’s how: “There have been over 10 (largemouth) pushing the 15-pound mark caught in the past three weeks, one 19-pounder, one spot that went 10.1, and I have no doubt that there’ll be a spotted bass over 12 (caught here),” says Bub Tosh, owner of Paycheck Baits.
For those of you who are keeping track, the 10.1 was a new lake-record spot, and the 12-pounder that Tosh predicts would shatter the International Game Fish Association world record. And the double-digit largemouth, while occasional catches at this massive Mother Lode impoundment in previous years, haven’t been nearly as prolific as in the past 365 days.
So, best ever? Hell yes.
“The past two years, I’ve seen that fishery blow up and kick out giants like it’s never been before,” says Tosh, a lifetime resident of the area. “It’s unreal. Melones has kinda flown under the radar for bass guys – all the guys from this area love to troll it for kokanee, but the bass anglers haven’t been abusing the lake. It’s all built up. The past two years, it’s kicked out the biggest and most badass of spots and largemouth.”
You can thank the abovementioned landlocked sockeye for that, and for the abundance of 5- and 6-inch shad. While Melones is indeed one of the best kokanee fisheries on the West Coast, those 8-inch chromers are more than just good fodder for smokers throughout the Mother Lode. They’re growth pellets for both largemouth and spots, and the dinner bell stays on virtually year-round here.
“Because of the way they’ve stocked this lake, they’ve almost turned it into a pond,” Tosh observes. “There’s more food in this lake than anywhere: you go look at McClure or Pardee or even Clear Lake, and the guys are crying because they don’t have the shad we do. Add them to the kokanee, and this lake is just much, much more fertile. The bass are almost never around the bank because they’re out eating kokanee, which never come away from the thermocline. You can just beat the bank to death and not find anything, because the bass are out suspended in huge wolf packs, almost like a school of stripers.”
Your shot at shallow fish
That wolf-pack phenomenon has contributed to a unique fishery where anglers are fishing for typically shallow-water species in water that’s “kokanee deep,” so pros like Tosh have tweaked their techniques to suit the conditions.
“You learn to throw topwater in 120 feet of water,” Tosh jokes.
This month, however, is the one time of year where fish will behave more like every other bass on the planet and move shallow to spawn. Water temperatures this spring kicked off an early spotted bass spawn, but the largemouth spawn has been pushed back, and should be at its peak in May.
“Largemouth are absolutely looking for wood or bank structure now,” Tosh says. “The bigger ones will try to be around the docks, basically any downed wood they can find. This fishery consists of a small main lake and a long river, and you can fish from the bottom end of the river all the way up to Mormon Creek, as far as you can go. There’s a helluva lot of wood back up in that river arm.”
Randy Pierson of Oakdale hooked the new lake-record 10.1-pound spotted bass in March, but local experts swear that a world-record fish exists in New Melones’ waters. (Photo courtesy Glory Hole Sports, gloryholesports.com)
Bring out the baits
John Liechty of Glory Hole Sports has been whacking big largemouth since March, mostly throwing big Huddlestons over main lake points as bass phase through their prespawn. While those big boomer baits will still be in play this month, Tosh suggests possibly downsizing a little to better mimic kokanee and shad than the trout that the Hudds imitate.
“I think these fish are used to eating a little bit smaller bait,” Tosh says. “The Hudd will definitely still work, but as much as (Melones bass) gorge on smaller fish, I’d probably run something like a Top Shelf or Optimum, those 5- and 6-inch baits.”
Big creature baits like Carolina- or Texas-rigged Brush Hogs, craws or lizards will produce well this month, as will topwater baits like The One, Zara Spooks and various other poppers and prop baits. Also, don’t eschew the Alabama rig, which would theoretically approximate a small school of kokanee or shad.
“Weightless Senkos are pretty hard to beat when it warms up, too,” suggests Liechty. “Jigs, too: run a 3/8 or ¾-ounce, but nothing flashy, Just a simply twin-tail Yamamoto in green pumpkin is perfect.”
After the spawn
Once Melones’ largemouth have finished their spawn, they’ll begin to move out of creeks and shallow flats, onto secondary points, and then to main lake points.
“Almost any secondary point on the lake, there’s going to be a wolf pack of bass on it after they spawn,” Tosh confirms. “You can throw topwater and just crush them. June will be the bloodiest month of topwater anyone has ever seen around here. A guy with any skill or who knows the game a little could go up there and have an absolute free-for-all during the week.”