Lake Almanor Fishing: How to Catch Big Trout, Salmon & Bass

Sharing is caring!

One of Northern California’s most beautiful fishing lakes, Lake Almanor is surrounded by the rolling slopes of the Northern Sierra Nevada.

This Plumas County reservoir spans about 28,000 acres at full pool, making it one of California’s largest man-made lakes as well as one of its best for trout fishing.

There are a lot of great fishing lakes in the Sierras, but Lake Almanor is unique. It’s one of the likeliest places to hook up with trophy-sized trout—both browns and rainbows—but it also happens to be one of California’s best smallmouth bass lakes.

That’s a rare combination that makes this an exciting place to wet your line. On good days when the hex hatch is going strong, it’s not rare to catch a mixed bag of trout and bass.

One characteristic that makes Lake Almanor stand out is its depth. Despite being California’s second-largest reservoir by surface area, its maximum depth is only 90 feet.

Underwater springs and chilly mountain water from the Feather River (along with northerly latitude and 4,500-foot elevation) keep the lake cool enough to support trout year-round as well host as another cold-water fishing favorite, landlocked Chinook salmon. 

Geographically, Lake Almanor could best be described as a somewhat heart-shaped lake. It has two distinct basins, east and west, separated by a narrow peninsula.

The east and west basins of Lake Almanor each have their own unique character, and each offer different fishing opportunities depending on the season.

The shallower west basin offers abundant insect hatches that can lead to fishing bonanzas.

The east basin is where you’ll find Lake Almanor’s greatest depths, and where bass and trout often gorge themselves on vast schools of pond smelt.

Trout

Lake Almanor offers abundant populations of both rainbow trout and brown trout, and big ones too.

Rainbows in the 3- to 6-pound range and 4- to 9-pound browns are par for the course, thanks to ample stocking and natural reproduction of both species.

Alamor is on our lists for both the best rainbow trout fishing and best brown trout fishing spots in all of California.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

The challenge for anglers is twofold. First, Lake Almanor is a huge lake with a lot of water and more than 50 miles of shoreline.

Second, the trout here are very well-fed, and getting them to choose your bait over the abundance of natural food is no small feat.

The lake supports ample populations of pond smelt, which provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for trout (especially big browns).

Insects also hatch profusely at various times throughout the summer. The hatch of the hexagenia limbata mayfly—known as the hex hatch—is especially important.

Seasonal Trout Patterns

Rainbow and brown trout move around a lot in Lake Almanor, motivated by changing temperatures as well as availability of various food sources.

In springtime, the waters of the shallower west basin of Lake Almanor warm up first, and offer the best opportunities for early season fishing.

The west basin mostly consists of relatively featureless flats 15 to 30 feet deep, and trout are drawn to any structure here. Natural springs and the area near the North Fork of the Feather River inlet are especially productive.

As springtime progresses, areas along the southern shore of the lake become better and better for trout fishing, and by summer, a lot of trout will be in the east basin chasing smelt.

By the time summer rolls around, the best thing a fisherman can do is be ready to move.

The east basin offers deeper, cooler water, which trout prefer as the western part of the lake warms up. But abundant insect hatches frequently draw them out of their comfort zone.

In June and July, the prolific hex hatch takes place along the southern and western shorelines, attracting trout in droves.

Green drake and caddis hatches also attract trout to the Hamilton Branch inlet, on the northern shore of the east basin.

Fish spread out in lake from summer into early fall, and the most consistent way to find them is by trolling smelt imitations.

There’s also decent shore fishing in late fall and winter, and many local anglers use live nightcrawlers from shore.

You won’t catch great numbers of fish this way, but the ones you do catch will most likely be tanks. 

Lake Almanor Fly Fishing 

Fly anglers within driving range of Plumas County look forward to the hex hatch all year.

On warm June and July evenings, the larvae of hexagenia limbata mayflies rise from the bottom of Lake Almanor and emerge from the surface as inch-long adult mayflies before taking flight. 

The prime area to take advantage is along the southern shore of the lake, from Canyon Dam west. The areas around the PG&E boat ramp and Almanor campground are popular. 

Fly fishing from a float tube is a great way to go after trout, and when the hex hatch is in full swing, you’ll see float tubes all along the southern and western shorelines.

Wet or dry flies can both be effective, depending on the stage of the hatch. 

Nymphing is the most popular technique. Use light orange and yellow nymph flies size 6 to 8 to imitate the emerging hex fly larvae.

The hatch often takes place in 20 feet of water, so a long leader and sinking line is essential.

Switch to mayfly-pattern dry flies with floating line when the trout begin feeding on mayflies on the surface. 

Other hatches take place in different parts of the lake throughout summer, so various fly-fishing techniques can be effective.

There’s a major green drake hatch in the Hamilton Branch, and olive or brown wooly buggers are great flies to try.

Trolling for Trout

Throughout much of the year, trolling with smelt imitations is one of the most effective ways to catch trout on Lake Almanor.

While events like the hex hatch provide an exciting opportunity, the trout here really get fat on smelt, and they do it year-round. 

In springtime, trolling smelt imitations is the most reliable way to catch trout in Lake Almanor. At this time of year, focus on the west basin, and troll close to shore for brown trout, or a little farther offshore in 15 to 30 feet of water for rainbows. 

Trolling the east basin is more productive in late summer, after the water has warmed and the major insect hatches have subsided. Big Spring Cove and the dam areas are great summer spots.

A common trick local fishermen use to find trout during these seasons is to look for congregations of gulls and other seabirds. Birds feed on smelt near the surface, and there’s usually a good chance trout will be nearby. 

Approach potential fishing spots quietly, and keep your lures well back of the boat to avoid spooking the fish.

Plugs like Rapalas and Needlefish in classic silver and silver/black patterns are popular for trolling.

Soft plastic minnows like Gulp! and Powerbait also work well behind a dodger.

How to Catch Trout

Learn more simple fishing tips and techniques for catching trout.

Landlocked Salmon

Landlocked Chinook salmon have been heavily stocked in Lake Almanor, with as many as 150,000 salmon fingerlings planted some years. It’s one of a select number of California lakes that offers landlocked Chinook salmon fishing.

Even so, Lake Almanor frustrates salmon fishermen as often as it rewards their efforts. The main reason is the lake’s sheer size, which can make finding these fish difficult.

Unlike trout, Chinook salmon don’t bother with eating insects. They’re meat-eaters, and they spend a lot of time following schools of smelt in open water.

Salmon can be just about anywhere, especially during the cooler months, when the lake’s temperatures are low enough to give salmon free rein.

Trolling is the go-to method for anyone looking for salmon in Lake Almanor, and any smelt-imitating spoon or plug can tempt strikes.

Needlefish and Apex lures are local favorites when targeting salmon, and flashers and dodgers are often used to create extra flash and vibration while trolling.

Chinooks favor the deeper east basin of Lake Almanor, and the area near the dam is a good place to start.

The deepest part of the lake is not far from the dam, and during summer, salmon will be down below 50 feet more often than not. 

Deep areas just off the peninsula and in Big Spring Cove are also good areas to troll for Chinooks. The latter is named for its cool underwater spring, which is a magnet for both trout and salmon. 

Chinook salmon tend to favor somewhat cooler temperatures than trout, and as a result they’re usually deeper.

When trolling, be prepared to experiment with depth until you find fish. Trolling multiple lures at different depths is a great way to narrow it down. 

Lake Almanor offers a lot of Chinook salmon in the 5-pound class, and occasionally fish approaching 10 pounds are caught.

Grab some more salmon fishing tips in our simple guide.

Smallmouth Bass

Lake Almanor is one of the best smallmouth bass lakes in California, and one of only a handful of waters in the state where you can realistically expect to catch your limit of smallmouths on any given day. 

Smallies in Lake Almanor average about 2 pounds, but there are lots of 3-and 5-pound fish as well, and you have an outside shot at a 5-pounder.

Lots of smallouths hang out in 10 feet of water or less throughout much of the year, but the biggest ones tend to be a little deeper.

The easiest time to catch smallmouths is during the spring pre-spawn phase, as they leave deep winter haunts and head toward shallow, gravelly spawning sites. They tend to be even more aggressive than normal at that time.

The process begins in April, and spawning usually happens in May.

Lake Almanor’s southern shoreline offers a lot of prime rocky smallmouth habitat, as well as submerged stump fields. The west side of the peninsula is also a favorite smallmouth bass fishing area.

Four-inch Senkos are a go-to lure, along with a wide variety of other finesse soft plastics.

Smallmouths have a lot of forage to choose from, including crawfish and pond smelt, so a lot of different presentations can be effective. 

The spawn typically begins winding down by early June, and smallmouths gradually make their way to deeper structure in the 10- to 25-foot range.

They gorge themselves on smelt and crayfish after the spawn, often hunting around rock piles and stump fields.

When the hex hatch goes into high gear in June and July, smallmouth often get in on the action. It’s not uncommon for fly fishermen to catch smallmouths and trout on alternate casts.

Topwater baits like buzzbaits, poppers and floating Rapalas can be great for smallmouths on summer evenings during the hatch.

If you like bait-fishing, try live crickets or grasshoppers near the surface or with a pinch of weight.

When fall rolls around, bass switch gears again and start chasing smelt.

Pond smelt spawn in September and October in the west basin of Lake Almanor. Vast numbers of these 2-inch baitfish congregate in coves and inlets about 10 feet deep, and neither bass nor trout are far behind.

Expand your repertoire of bass catching techniques with our easy fishing guide.

Other Fish Species

Numerous fish species call Lake Almanor home. And while these other fish may not be as common or as greatly sought-after by anglers and the top three, that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked!

Largemouth Bass

Surveys of Lake Almanor suggest that its bass population is about 90 percent smallmouths and 10 percent largemouths.

That’s an unusual proportion for a California lake, but it has a lot to do with Almanor’s cool, clear water and rocky habitat. It’s perfect for smallies, but simply not the kind of lake where largemouths thrive.

Largemouth bass are most likely to be caught incidentally in areas where they share habitat with smallmouths.

They’re slightly more common in the west basin, where shallower water allows more vegetation to grow in summer. Topwaters, buzzbaits and wacky worms are all good options for largemouths.

We’ll help you find the best largemouth bass lakes in Northern California.

Catfish

Lake Almanor is home to channel catfish as well as brown bullhead.

Channel cats are the larger and more sought-after of the two, and fish weighing 10 pounds or more have been caught.

The very best time to go after catfish is warm summer evenings.

Shore fishing near the dam is often effective.

Big catfish spend much of their days in deep holes in this area, but they emerge toward dusk to prowl shallower water close to shore in search of food.

In the Northwest corner of the lake, the causeway area and the aptly-named Catfish Beach are also excellent spots for catfishing.

Try smelly, natural baits like chicken livers, nightcrawlers and cut bait, and use enough weight to keep your bait near bottom.

With solid whisker fish angling, Lake Almanor is an honorable mention in our roundup of the very best catfish fishing lakes and rivers in California.

Find more catfish fishing techniques and tackle tips in our easy guide.

Planning Your Trip

Unlike many of the smaller, more remote lakes in the Northern Sierra, Lake Almanor is accessible year-round, and offers excellent fishing in winter.

Moreover, Lake Almanor doesn’t seem to suffer as much during droughts and typical late-season conditions. It’s level is more likely to be closer to full than many other reservoirs.

Several public boat launch sites and privately owned marinas provide access. 

While Lake Almanor is certainly a popular summer destination, it doesn’t get quite the volume of heavy boat traffic that many other, more well-known Northern California lakes have to deal with.

It has a family-friendly atmosphere and seldom feels crowded.

Getting There

Lake Almanor lies within the Sierras of Northern California’s Plumas County.

It’s about 90 minutes southeast of Redding and 90 minutes northeast of Chico. The lake is easily accessible via CA-89 and CA-36, which intersect in the community of Chester, on the lake’s northwest shore.

Bank and Boat Access

Much of the shoreline of Lake Almanor is privately owned, but numerous access points are available for shore fishing as well as boat access.

Parts of the lake are accessible through the Almanor Ranger District of Lassen National Forest.

Popular places to launch a boat or fish from shore include:

Canyon Dam Boat Launch and Day Use Area

This is one of the most popular access points on the east basin, and offers free public boat ramps and shore fishing access. Administered by the U.S. Forest Service, this site is located near the dam at the southeast corner of the lake. 

Almanor Campground

You’ll find this a beautiful, shady Forest Service campground on the south shore of Lake Almanor, offering numerous rustic sites for tents and RVs.

The campground also includes a boat launch and lots of shore fishing access. There is no fee for fishing or launching boats. 

Lake Almanor Recreation Trail

The trail follows the southern shoreline of Lake Almanor for just over 18 miles. It offers great views and abundant lake access, and is open to foot and bicycle traffic only. 

North Shore Campground

This privately owned campground offers boat launch facilities, canoe/kayak rentals and fishing access at the northwest end of the lake, near Catfish Beach.

The campground mostly caters to RVs, but also offers tent sites and cabin rentals. 

Knotty Pine Resort & Marina

This private resort has a variety of amenities on the east side of the peninsula, including boat launch facilities, docks, boat rentals and a fully stocked marina store.

Cottage and cabin rentals are also available.