Exploring The Bounty Of Berryessa

The following appears in the June issue of California Sportsman:

Lake Berryessa’s rainbow trout population has surged in recent years and anglers are landing incredible Eagle Lake-strain fish up to and beyond the 5-pound mark at this popular Bay Area fishery north of Vacaville. (CAL KELLOGG)

By Cal Kellogg

Lake Berryessa is an amazing fishery and it’s going to offer outstanding action for multiple species this summer and fall. The lake is full, bait in the form of threadfin shad is abundant and predatory fish are on the chomp!

I’ve been fishing the lake on and off for a couple decades. Most recently, I’ve taken several trips to the big lake beginning last December. I’m still hitting it once or twice a month as I write these words in mid-May.

Yes, I’ve spent a few hours of late playing with the lake’s fabled black bass population, but the majority of my time has been chasing Berryessa’s rainbows and freshwater kings. I’ve yet to be disappointed!

Undoubtedly, many people reading this article are familiar with Lake Berryessa, but for those who are not, let me describe the layout of the impoundment.

Three western grebes cruise along Lake Berryessa’s main body. The presence of these birds often means there are threadfin shad in the area. Find the shad and you’ll find the lake’s rainbows and kings. (CAL KELLOGG)

LAKE BERRYESSA WAS CREATED in 1957 when the Bureau of Reclamation completed Monticello Dam on Putah Creek. It’s the seventh largest reservoir in the state of California. When at full capacity, Berryessa features 21,000 surface acres, 165 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth in excess of 240 feet.

When confronted with a large body of water such as this, I like to break the lake down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Lake Berryessa lends itself to this philosophy well, breaking down into three distinct sections.

On the southeast side of the lake lies the Narrows. This area is very similar to the canyon reservoirs found throughout the Northern California foothills and it features steep rock and clay banks that quickly fall away into deep water.

At the top of the Narrows, you’ll find the Markley Cove launch facility and the dam. The bay out in front of the dam is known locally as the “Ball Park.” This is an area that is overlooked by many trout and salmon anglers. The action here can be good at times; it’s a great place for small boaters and kayakers, since it’s only a short run from the launch ramp at Markley Cove.

The lake’s main body features mildly sloping banks, large, relatively shallow coves, numerous submerged humps and a very deep central channel. There are three islands about midway down the lake’s western side.

On the northwestern shoreline you’ll find Putah Creek. The flooded creek channel is rocky and contains both deep water and shallow, gently sloping coves.

The arches on this sonar unit’s screen represent a pair of Berryessa king salmon hunting along the edge of a submerged hump. The horizontal line above the fish is author Cal Kellogg’s downrigger ball. (CAL KELLOGG)

IN THE BROAD VIEW, the fishing menu at Berryessa has always been robust, with largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass, crappie up to and beyond 2 pounds, bluegill, channel cats in excess of 30 pounds, rainbow trout, king salmon and kokanee.

Bass fishing has always been consistent for both numbers of fish and large trophy-caliber bucketmouths. The lake’s record bass, a 17.5-pound Florida-strain largemouth, was landed by Delbert Abrams in spring 1988.

As mentioned above, I do enjoy playing with the lake’s black bass. March and April are great months for chasing spawn and prespawn fish. In May, postspawn bass can provide exciting topwater action early, late, in shadows and anytime there is chop.

In October, bass will be deeper and feeding on masses of shad. Vertical jigging with spoons during this period can be absolutely incredible!

OK; enough about bass. At the core, I’m a coldwater-species guy and love chasing trout and salmon. The menu within this fishery at Berryessa always seems to be in flux. Early in the 2000s, Berryessa was the place to go for large numbers of big kokanee. When the bite hit its stride, limits of 17- and 18-inch fish were common; I landed a couple well over 20 inches at that time.

When the kokanee bite peaked, the fishery’s rainbows were badly afflicted with copepods, which are a skin parasite that doesn’t affect the trout’s meat or pose a risk to humans, but they look nasty!

Berryessa’s king salmon have always held third-banana status beside the lake’s kokanee and rainbows.

When the kokes were big and the rainbows looked sickly, the kings were there, but most of them were small to midsized and didn’t get much attention from anglers.

Fast forward 20ish years to the present and the tables have turned. Kokanee are scarce as hen’s teeth, the kings are running from medium-sized 2-pound fish to massive 6-plus-pound battlers, plus the rainbow fishery has exploded.

The copepods are nowhere in sight these days and the rainbows are robust, averaging a solid 11?2 to 2 pounds and ranging up to 5.

Berryessa is planted with Eagle Lake-strain rainbows, which prosper in the lake’s shad-rich waters. They are sleek, chrome-bright and put up a vigorous and violent fight!

Some folks, myself included, believe a spawning population of Eagle Lake rainbows exists at the lake because you’ll occasionally catch a very small trout that is perfect in every way. They are sleek, chrome and strong, with perfect scales, fins and tails. They don’t look or fight like a trout that has ever seen the inside of a hatchery.

IN TERMS OF TABLE-FARE grades, Berryessa kokanee get an A+ with their sweet blood-red meat. The rainbows get an A- with pleasingly orange flesh and a nice mellow flavor. The kings get a B- only because I inevitably compare them to those caught in the Pacific.

King filets from Berryessa and other reservoirs lack the orange luster and flavor of their ocean-running cousins. Why? The answer is shrimp. Ocean kings feed heavily on krill, which is what gives the meat the distinct orange color and amazing flavor. Landlocked kings have no access to shrimp. Because they feed 100 percent on baitfish, the table fare they offer suffers as a result.

In recent months, most of my trips to Berryessa have focused on tangling with Eagle Lake-strain rainbows, but when I’ve come across kings, I haven’t hesitated focusing on them. Kings are beautiful, put up an awesome bulldog-like fight and provide good fodder for the smoker.

While Berryessa’s landlocked kings respond to spoons, other good offerings include dodgers and hoochies, as well as rigged bait. (CAL KELLOGG)

SINCE KOKANEE ARE FEW and far between, I’m not going to burn space talking about how to catch them. Instead, I want to share my observations about Berryessa’s rainbows and kings.

Of course, you can make some basic generalizations about both species. They are at their shallowest in the late fall, winter and early spring when the water temperature is at its coolest.

When the water is cool you can work near the surface, say, from 1 to 30 feet deep. As the surface temperature rises, both the kings and ’bows will drop down in the water column.

Typically, the kings will hold deeper than the rainbows, but that’s a very basic generalization. I’ve been on rip-roaring trolling bites at Berryessa when I couldn’t predict if the next hookup would be a salmon, a rainbow or an ill-tempered spotted bass.

This leads us to my next generalization: When you find shad, you will often find predators in the form of rainbows, kings, bass, catfish, crappie and birds feeding on the baitfish. In this sense, Berryessa is a little like saltwater fishing. If you find schools of bait, there is no telling what you might catch if you match the predominant forage!

There are really four areas where serious trollers hunt for Berryessa rainbows: the mouth of Putah Creek; the area of the main body from the mouth of the Narrows northeast to the big expanse of open water beyond the Big Island; inside the Narrows; and in Ball Park Bay at the dam.

Angler Abdul shows off a big king salmon and rainbow trout landed trolling a Trigger Spoon in purple haze during a recent outing in Berryessa’s popular Narrows. (CAL KELLOGG)

Many skilled Berryessa trouters prefer working the main body. I agree that the fishing in the main body’s open water can be outstanding, both over the channels and over big, submerged flats, so long as there is bait in the area to hold the fish in a general location.

Often during the winter and into early summer, rafts of western grebes will tip you off to the presence of bait. Any time you see grebes, the area is worth exploring, particularly if the birds are diving and coming up with minnows clenched in their beaks.

Nathan Kelsch of Big Nate’s Guide Service (bignatesguideservice.com) is a true Berryessa trout and king salmon master who mops up some impressive catches working the lake’s main body. One tip he gives is to avoid working areas with excessive boat traffic.

“Too many guys working one area can make the trout really skittish,” Big Nate disclosed. “For example, there are trout holding around the mouth of the narrows right now, but good luck getting them to go. There have been a lot of boats working them recently, and they are very spooky.”

The mouth of Putah Creek can be hit and miss. If there are trout milling about the area, the action can be fantastic. But if they aren’t there, don’t burn a bunch of time grinding the area trying to draw strikes.

I really enjoy trolling the Narrows. I always like working features that concentrate the fish, and that definitely has that effect. There are two basic strategies in the Narrows. When the surface temperature is warm, I like to stay in deep water over the original river channel.

Working the channel will pay dividends all year long, but when the surface temperature is cool, I like to work shoreline structure. There, rainbows like to position themselves between the deep water and shoreline. This gives them the opportunity to push the bait up against shoreline structure, where the shad are easier to run down.

I fish Ball Park Bay just like I fish the Narrows. When it’s warm, I’m out in the middle probing the depths; when it’s cool, I’m lurking along the rocky shoreline.

Lure selection for rainbows is straightforward. Rainbows are strikers and will hit a wide range of offerings. In general, if you want to get into the fastest action and the biggest fish, you want to run shad-imitating lures. My favorites are spoons and trolling flies.

Speedy Shiners and Trigger Spoons are local favorites, but Needlefish, Kastmasters and others will get the job done. When the surface temperature is in the 60s, I work fast, in the 2.5 to 3.5 mph range. When the water is colder the fast approach still works, but I often have better luck downsizing and slowing down a bit.

My personal-best Berryessa rainbow came this winter. The 5-plus-pound battler grabbed a shad-pattern Junior Trigger Spoon trolled 10 feet deep at 1.8 mph from my Hobie Pro Angler.

For trolling flies, Arctic Fox shad-pattern offerings work great, as do Metal Heads. I had some memorable action this winter power trolling light-colored Metal Heads in Ball Park Bay at 3 mph right along the shoreline.

Most days, lures in chrome, blue, purple and white will get hit, but there are times when the trout prefer the bright stuff, so it pays to have a range of color choices.

Spoons are the hands-down best offering for the reservoir’s rainbow trout. Shad patterns often work best, but there are some days when bright stuff produces strikes. (CAL KELLOGG)

FOR KING SALMON RESIDING in any lake, including Berryessa, you can cut your lure selection down to three basic offerings: spoons trolled fast; dodgers paired with light-colored hoochies; and rigged baitfish in the form of frozen shad or anchovies.

If the kings are in the mood to chase, you can’t beat Speedy Shiners, Speed Spoons or Trigger Spoons. If the salmon aren’t feeling aggressive, the hoochie and blade approach works well, but so does rolling bait if you don’t mind the hassle of rigging and storing it.

Kings are biters and much of the challenge of catching them comes in the form of finding them. Berryessa is a big place and the salmon tend to move around more than they do at other reservoirs where kings consistently hold in a handful of locations.

Some anglers like to do their salmon trolling in open water. While I partake in open-water fishing at times, I learned to troll kings along the California coast, where the best action often takes place in proximity to structure. I’ve applied this approach to hooking landlocked kings and it’s generally worked out pretty well for me.

When searching for kings I look for bait and deep suspended marks. Often those deep marks are salmon that have fed and are resting. You can work these marks and score some fish, but you’ll often do better trolling shallower around adjacent structures, where the most active fish go to hunt.

You might mark a few fish on the structure or you might not see any. I’ve caught a lot of big kings working structure areas where I wasn’t marking any fish. I call it trolling on faith. Give it a shot. When you find a big 5-plus-pound king on the end of your line when the sonar screen was devoid of life, you’ll develop faith straight away.

Kellogg caught this average-sized Berryessa ’bow while trolling a silver Trigger Spoon just beneath the surface on a foggy morning’s kayak adventure. (CAL KELLOGG)

You’ll sometimes find the kings relating to shoreline points that drop into deep water. At other times the structure will be in the form of high points well offshore. Having a sonar unit equipped with GPS and a topo map is a great tool to have for this work. For example, you might find success working the sides of a high spot that tops out at 50 feet deep with 100 feet of water surrounding it.

When targeting landlocked kings at Berryessa or any other reservoir, remember this advice: Keep your lure selection simple. Look for active kings on structure, because kings love to hunt near points and humps. Don’t be afraid to work around structure where you aren’t marking fish.

Power trolling with spoons is a great approach in this situation because it allows you to cover maximum water in the shortest time. Once you locate some salmon, you might continue pulling in fish on spoons or you might do better slowing down and breaking out the blades and hoochies. Where you find one king, there are generally more in the same general area. CS

Editor’s note: Cal Kellogg is a longtime Northern California-based outdoors writer. Subscribe to his YouTube channel Fish Hunt Shoot Productions at youtube. com/user/KelloggOutdoors.