A bass angler’s paradise that also harbors abundant populations of trout and salmon, Lake Berryessa ranks among California’s finest fishing lakes.
Nestled in the heart of Napa County, Lake Berryessa is a very large reservoir encompassing 20,700 acres at full pool, with a shoreline that stretches over 160 miles.
Its waters harbor some of the most diverse and abundant fish populations in California. Yet, compared to many other lakes in the state, it receives relatively little fishing pressure at times.
With being this close to the Bay Area, you can bet that nice weekends will bring out hordes of pleasure boaters.
Still, there are times all year long when you can find plenty of quiet water, especially when you strike out during the week and head off away from the major access points.
Lake Berryessa’s shoreline is home to a handful of resorts and marinas and several more modest boat access sites.
It may lack some of the grand facilities that would be conducive to major fishing tournaments but nonetheless holds dozens of regional tournaments spread across the year, especially in the cooler months.
Whether you fish tournaments or not, make no mistake—there are big fish here, and lots of them.
There are lakes where you can catch a lot of bass, and there are lakes where you can catch big bass. At Lake Berryessa, you can do both.
When the bass action is hot at Lake Berryessa, 50-fish days are not a rarity. There are plenty of 2- to 3-pound bass out there, but it’s at least possible to catch a 10-pound kicker,
Lake Berryessa also belongs to a rarified class of California lakes where you can catch all three major black bass species in the state: largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and spotted bass.
It’s even possible to catch all three species on back-to-back casts when conditions are right.
For anyone out after the three-species grand slam, the best time to hit the water is May or June.
Smallmouth bass may be the most sought-after species at Lake Berryessa, if only because they are so rare in California as a whole.
There are only a handful of really good smallmouth fishing lakes in California, and Berryessa is one of them. The two opposite ends of the lake tend to offer the best smallmouth fishing.
Up north the Putah Creek inlet offers an abundance of the rocky habitat that smallmouths love. Down at the south end, the area known as the Narrows is similarly productive.
The Narrows tends to be the area where smallmouths first start to become active in spring, sometimes as early as February. By March, lots of smallmouths will be on their way to shallow areas to spawn, and by April, fishing for smallmouths is in full swing.
Crawfish-imitating jigs are top smallmouth lures on Lake Berryessa, but smallies also feed on shad and smelt, so minnow-imitating crankbaits and swimbaits can be effective too, especially early in the season.
As smallmouths gradually start to make their way toward deeper habitat in May and June, try soft plastics on drop-shot rigs around rocky points and drop-offs.
Largemouths are the heavyweights among Lake Berryessa’s bass.
With a lake record just over 17 pounds, there are some real giants out there, making this one of the best largemouth bass fishing lakes in Northern California.
The best time to target double-digit largemouth bass at Lake Berryessa is late winter into spring.
Following patterns that are generally a few weeks behind smallmouth bass, largemouths usually spawn by early May.
Overall, May is probably the best time to be on the water, as you can find bass in various stages of pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn in different parts of the lake.
Markley Cove is a perennial favorite spot to target big largemouths, but you can find them in areas all over the lake.
Their location is most predictable around the spawn, when they head toward some of the shallowest available water in the far backs of coves, often three feet or less.
Look for big largemouths around weeds and especially fallen timber. Carolina-rigged creature baits often tempt strikes, and wacky worms are ever-reliable.
Oftentimes, big largemouths at Lake Berryessa tend to fall for surprisingly dainty lures. Downsized finesse worms could net you the biggest catch of the day.
After the spawn, as the water continues to warm and bass hunt more actively in increasingly deeper water, crankbaits become more and more effective, and bass may be triggered into a reaction strike.
The Paradise Cove area is often a good summer spot, and topwater lures can work wonders on calm days around sundown.
Spotted bass were introduced to Lake Berryessa more recently than smallmouth or largemouth bass. Yet they have come to thrive here, and now proliferate in great numbers.
Spots reach sizes similar to smallmouth bass, so you can expect to catch an occasional 5-pounder, but true giants are rare. A lot of the fish you’ll catch are nearly-identical “cookie cutter” spots weighing 2 to 3 pounds.
But spotted bass bite readily, sometimes even during the winter, when other species are hard to catch. They also spawn a little colder and deeper than their brethren.
Finesse soft plastics on drop-shot rigs are great for spotted bass. Jigs and wacky rigs will definitely draw strikes, and crankbaits are effective for covering a lot of water in a hurry.
In summer, spotted bass are more likely to chase schools of shad and other baitfish in open water, and you can have great success casting jerkbaits, cranks and swimbaits that mimic the local forage.
Spotted bass inhabit areas all over the lake, and fishing around steep-sloping rocky points and drop-offs can almost always be effective.
The Narrows is arguably the best area for spots though, with lots of the steep, rocky cover that they love, and easy routes of travel between deep and shallow water.
Spotted bass frequently cohabitate with smallmouths in the Narrows, and a few largemouths are often in the vicinity too, making it probably the best place on the lake to catch all three in a single outing.
If you get hooked on these fish, find more spotted bass lakes in California.
How to Catch Bass
You’ll find additional ideas of how to catch all of these three species in our Bass Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
Kokanee are a landlocked sockeye salmon that are widely stocked in California’s large, deep man-made lakes.
In some of those lakes, kokanee salmon don’t amount to much. They tend to proliferate in large numbers, but end up stunted, seldom exceeding 10 or 12 inches in length.
In some cases, they are even smaller and provide forage for big bass and trout, and little else.
But Lake Berryessa is one of the few lakes where “kokes” reach sizes up to 18 inches, or 2 pounds. And they do so in great numbers, making this arguably among the best lakes in California for kokanee fishing.
Kokanee tend to inhabit open water throughout much of the year, and anglers for the most part seek them out by trolling in deep areas of the lake.
Mid-lake near the deep side of the big island is a great spot, and areas near the dam are regularly productive. Markley Cove and Skier’s Cove are also worth a few passes as you search for schools of kokanee.
Spring is prime time for kokanee fishing on Lake Berryessa, with the action starting in March and really kicking into high gear by May. By summer the numbers will be fewer, but size tends tend to increase throughout the season.
Try trolling at various depths to locate schools of kokanee. They typically range from 10 to 30 feet below the surface. They especially tend to hold in deeper water as surface water conditions rise.
Trolling with small spoons and spinners behind flashing dodgers is the go-to presentation for most local kokanee enthusiasts.
Almost any color can be effective, with bright and fluorescents leading the way.
No matter what lure you choose, be sure to tip the hooks with a kernel of white sweet corn. Kokes can’t seem to resist it.
We have lots of how-to tips in Kokanee Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
Landlocked King Salmon
Lake Berryessa also harbors populations of landlocked king salmon. While not as common as kokanee, they reach much greater sizes.
Kings in the 4- to 5-pound range are the norm at Lake Berryessa. And while they don’t typically live long enough in inland lakes to pass the 10-pound mark, it’s not unheard-of.
To catch kings, your approach won’t be too much different from kokanee fishing. But it’s best to think a little bit bigger, and sometimes a little bit deeper. Throughout most of the year, kings inhabit depths of 45 feet or more.
The main lake is the domain of big kings. To find them, the best tactic is often you watch your electronics for schools of bait fish, and then start trolling for the salmon that follow them.
Choose big, fat spoons that imitate shad, or longer, slender spoons to mimic pond smelt. Lake Berryessa has populations of both, and the best lure depends on what the salmon are chasing on any given day.
Another tactic is to troll with fresh or frozen shad in a bait harness rig.
In late fall, the lake experiences a turnover phase, and king salmon are much more likely to hunt near the surface.
Drifting with live shad is a popular tactic when salmon hunt close to the surface in relatively shallow water.
You may also be able to adapt some of the tips in our salmon fishing how-to article to your fishing at Lake Berryessa and similar fisheries.
Lake Berryessa has been stocked with trout for decades, and these fish offer incredible fishing opportunities.
Rainbow trout are the more abundant species, but there’s a good chance of catching the occasional big brown trout as well.
In summer, you can expect to find trout in deep, open water, often in the 30- to 40-foot range. They tend to like the same general areas that kokanee do, but you may find trout at slightly different depths.
Trolling is the way to go throughout most of the year.
Silvery spoons with a lot of flash are ideal, but spinners work as well. Squid-like plastic lures called hoochies are a favorite among many local trout fishermen and also will pick up kokanee.
Downriggers are often the best way to get your lure down to the necessary depth, while trolling with a dodger can give your lure some extra flash to make it more attractive.
A spoon behind a dodger looks a lot like a weak, injured bait fish lagging behind the school.
The time of year when Lake Berryessa’s trout routinely inhabit shallow water is during the colder months. For many, this is the best time of year.
From November through the winter, it’s possible to find rainbow trout in 10 feet of water or less, and fishing from shore can be effective.
If you don’t have the advantage of a boat, the colder months are your time to shine at Lake Berryessa!
Casting spinners, spoons and small crankbaits from shore is a great way to nab winter tout.
Bait under a bobber works too, with options ranging from live minnows and nightcrawlers to salmon eggs and marshmallows.
The Putah and Pope Creek arms offer a great shallow water bite this time of year, and areas around the Narrows, Markley Cove and the dam are often productive as well.
Read our simple how-to article to learn more about trout fishing methods and some extra tips.
More Fish Species
Lake Berryessa harbors a wealth of different fish species that provide excellent fishing opportunities, even though many of these fish are seldom pursued by anglers.
Some, like bluegill and other sunfish, are abundant and easy to catch. They inhabit shallow weed beds and under docks all over the lake, and sunfish offer fun and easy fishing for kids and grown-ups alike. (Find bluegill and sunfish fishing tips here.)
Others, like the Sacramento pikeminnow—a giant member of the minnow family that some anglers might mistake for trout at a glance—are rarely targeted specifically by fishermen. But they put up a hard fight when hooked, often by mistake.
While many pursue more “glamorous” game fish like bass and trout, the simple enjoyment of fishing for catfish is undeniable. Lake Berryessa harbors a thriving population of these hard-fighting and good-eating fish.
Channel catfish are the most prized catfish species in Lake Berryessa.
The lake produces great numbers of 2- to 4-pound catfish, which are perfect for the table. There are giants out there too, including channel cats weighing 20 pounds or more in the lake’s depths.
The lake also supports bullhead and white catfish, though these species are smaller and less often targeted by fishermen.
Catfish are bottom feeders, and the tried-and-true method of catching them is to drop smelly, natural baits like chicken livers, nightcrawlers, cut shad and prepared stinkbait to the bottom of Lake Berryessa, and watch your line closely for a strike.
The Putah Creek Inlet and Pope Creek Inlet are great for catfish. The best time to catch them is at night, when they are most active.
As the sun sets, catfish in Lake Berryessa head towards relatively shallow water—often in 10 feet or less—to feed. During the day, they tend to hole up 25 feet deep or more.
Learn more catfish fishing tips in our easy guide.
Typically weighing about a pound, crappie are often abundant in Lake Berryessa if you know where and when to find them. Crappie are naturally cyclical, so some years are better than others.
Spring is the best time for crappie fishing, as these fish head toward shallow water in droves to spawn. Look for them under docks, in weed beds and around brush piles and fallen timber in April and May.
By summer, crappie take up a more nomadic lifestyle, following schools of small minnows around the lake, often schooled in open water but usually not too far from the deep edge of a weed bed, point or drop-off.
They can be hard to find, but once you find one, chances are you’ve found many. Drifting live minnows or casting small jigs are often the best methods of catching them.
Portuguese Cove, Steel Canyon, the Putah Creek area and around Lake Berryessa’s islands are some of the best parts of the lake for crappie.
Learn more about how to catch crappie in this article.
Planning Your Trip
Whether you’re looking for a day on the water or an extended week-long fishing getaway, Lake Berryessa provides plenty of options.
The lake was created in 1957 with the completion of the Monticello Dam on Putah Creek. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns the lake and dam, and also operates a handful of recreational facilities around the lake.
Where is Lake Berryessa?
Lake Berryessa is in Napa County about an hour from Sacramento and 90 minutes from San Francisco. The lake is easily accessible from CA-128, which runs east-to-west just south of the lake.
From CA-128, you can take Steele Canyon Road to the Berryessa Highlands area near the Narrows, or head north on Berryessa Knoxville Road, which follows the lake’s western shoreline and provides access to several parks, marinas and recreation areas.
Bank and Boat Access
Lake Berryessa offers a wide variety of access, including boat launch sites and shore fishing areas.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns these access sites (though many are operated by third-party vendors) and charges a boat launch and/or day use fee at each one:
- Eticuera Day Use Area: Shore fishing access and hand-launch for small craft at the north end of the lake at the Eticuera Creek Inlet.
- Putah Canyon Recreation Area: Boat launch facilities and shore access near the Putah Creek Inlet.
- Monticello Shores Recreation Area: Boat launch on the western shore of the lake.
- Smittle Creek Day Use Area: Day use with shore access and hand-launch for canoes/kayaks near Berryessa Islands.
- Oak Shores Day Use Area: Day use with shore access and hand-launch for canoes/kayaks near Berryessa Islands.
- Spanish Flat Recreation Area: Day use area with limited shore fishing access.
- Capell Cove: Boat launch site near Spanish Flat Recreation Area.
- Steele Canyon Recreation Area: Boat launch facilities, and shore fishing near the Narrows.
- Pleasure Cove Resort: Launch site and shore fishing near the Narrows, including marina with boat docks, rentals and gas.
- Markley Cove Resort: Launch site closest to the dam with shore fishing and a marina with boat docks, rentals and gas.
Aside from a parks, marinas and boat launch sites, the shoreline of Lake Berryessa is mostly undeveloped.
Camping at Lake Berryessa
Camping for tents and RVs is also available at the Putah Canyon Recreation Area, Spanish Flat Recreation Area, Steele Canyon Recreation Area and Pleasure Cove Resort.
More information on each site is available through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central California Area Office website.