Clear Lake Fishing: Catch Trophy Bass (and Big Catfish, Crappie)

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Nicknamed the “Bass Capital of the West,” Clear Lake is without a doubt one of California’s best fishing destinations. 

At just over 43,600 acres, it’s also the largest natural lake that lies entirely within the state’s borders.

Clear Lake is a rich, fertile lake that supports a thriving warm water fishery not only for bass, but also crappie, catfish, bluegill and other species.

Part of what makes Clear Lake unique is that it is relatively shallow.

Just 59 feet at its deepest point, Clear Lake is warm, weedy and nutrient-rich, supporting an abundance of the types of habitat and forage that game fish like largemouth bass need to thrive.

It’s simply a great place to spend a day fishing. As you explore the lake, keep an eye out for osprey and bald eagles overhead, and pelicans and great blue herons hunting along the shoreline. 

Perhaps best of all, Clear Lake gives up its secrets readily. Unlike many of California’s deep clear reservoirs, Clear Lake is a relatively easy lake to figure out.

Catch rates here are some of the highest in the state, and simple fishing tactics, more often than not, are wildly effective.

Largemouth Bass

A fishing boat and fishing pier on Clear Lake, California.
Photo by simplicity1973 (Canva)

Clear Lake is certainly a great multi-species lake, but there’s no doubt about which fish species most anglers come here to catch: largemouth bass.

Clear Lake has been stocked since the 1950s with both Northern and Florida strain largemouth bass.

As a result, it’s one of those rare lakes that’s great for both numbers and size. Clear Lake offers up trophy bass as well as incredible abundance of more modest-sized fish.

Ten-pound bass are relatively common here, and the lake record largemouth bass, caught by Jerry Basgal in 1990, weighed in at 17.52 pounds.

But if you’re more interested in numbers than size, you can easily catch dozens of bass in the 3- to 5-pound range when the conditions are right.

It’s not hard to see why Clear Lake is prominent in our Best Largemouth Bass Fishing in Northern California article.

When to Fish

The best time to fish for largemouth bass at Clear Lake is springtime. More big bass are in shallow water in spring than at any other time of year. 

Largemouths spend their winters in relatively deep water, and they begin to head toward Clear Lake’s shallows in March. By mid-April most years, the spawn is in full swing.

The exact timing varies, but largemouth bass spawn when the water temperature is between 55 and 65 degrees. 

That being said, Clear Lake offers better shallow fishing opportunities during all seasons than most California lakes.

Even in summer, it’s possible to find bass in less than 10 feet of water, especially around dawn and dusk. As spring turns to summer, there’s a great topwater bite on calm evenings.

Fall is a time of transition, and fishing can be hit-or-miss as temperatures drop. But shad tend to congregate in shallow coves and backwaters and bass usually follow, stocking up on food before the winter slowdown. 

Where to Fish

Clear Lake supports a lot more aquatic vegetation than most Northern California lakes, and weeds can be the key to finding bass. 

Tules in particular grow in abundance along much of the lake shore, and largemouth bass use them to hide and hunt. Casting along the edge of tules is a favorite tactic among local anglers.

There’s an abundance of man-made structures on Clear Lake too—docks, piers, pilings—and bass love to seek shelter under and around these structures.

Also look for natural cover like brush, boulders, hydrilla and other vegetation.

The northwestern shoreline of the lake around the Lakeport area and Berger Bay is a popular section of the lake for bass fishing, especially early in the season. 

But Clear Lake is a massive body of water, and it has countless great fishing spots for bass.

Points like Point Lakeview, Baylis Point and Luebow Point are often productive, and the mouth of Kelsey Creek is a perennial favorite, along with the narrow part of the lake just off Shag Rocks.

Tips & Tactics

There are a lot of ways to approach bass fishing at Clear Lake, and it’s best to come armed with a wide variety of lures. You never know just what the fish will want.

Still, there are a handful of methods that never seem to fail.

Tossing a wacky worm along the edge of a tule bed or under a boat dock has a solid chance of drawing a bite throughout most of the year. 

Spinnerbaits and ripbaits can provoke vicious reaction strikes during the pre-spawn and post-spawn periods.

Casting floating frogs around likely spawning sites is also a favorite spring tactic, and it can continue to be effective throughout summer, especially during the low-light hours when bass are most likely to hit a topwater lure.  

Crankbaits and drop-shot rigged soft plastics are effective in summer as bass move into slightly deeper water around sloping points, ledges and rock piles.

In fall, the fishing can be a bit of a guessing game, but crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits are good lures for covering lots of water and finding fish.

If you want to up your game and pick up another tactic or two, read our Bass Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Crappie

Clear Lake has long been one of California’s best crappie lakes. These fish were first stocked here in 1908, and today’s anglers enjoy catches of both black and white crappie.

In fact, there have been a few times when the crappie fishing at Clear Lake outshone even the bass fishing. The state record white crappie was caught here and has been unsurpassed since 1971, and the state’s black crappie record fell here in 2021. 

It’s clear to see why Clear Lake makes our list of best crappie fishing lakes in California.

Crappie offer year-round fishing opportunities, but spring is prime time. These panfish spawn a little earlier than largemouth bass, and they congregate in shallow water as early as February. 

Crappie action around boat docks and shallow shoreline brush can be fast and furious throughout March and into April, and it’s common to catch 50 or more in a day.

Most crappie are in the 10- to 12-inch range and weigh a little under a pound.

These fish fight hard on light tackle, and taste great on the table.

There also are some really big ones out there too, and it’s not uncommon to catch crappies in the 2-pound class.

Any type of small jig can be effective. Tube jigs, split-tail jigs and curlytail grubs are all popular, often in high-visibility colors like white, hot pink and chartreuse.

Of course, a small minnow under a bobber seldom fails to draw strikes from hungry crappies. The best bite is usually around sunrise and sunset.

Fishing boat docks is a reliable spring pattern, and can even be effective in summer, as crappie often use docks to shade themselves from the sun.

Try cruising slowly along an area of the shoreline with lots of docks, making a few casts to each one until you locate a school.

By mid-summer, most crappie in Clear Lake retreat to open water, often at depths of 20 feet or more.

Many locals rely on their electronics to find elusive crappies this time of year. It might take you hours to find fish, but once you’ve found one, you’ve most likely found hundreds.

Learn a lot more about crappie fishing techniques and tips that put the slabs on your hook.

Catfish

Sunset offers up purple and orange hues reflecting on the surface of Clear Lake.
Photo by lovefishn (Canva)

Catfish don’t often get the glory or the accolades largemouth bass do, but channel catfish inhabit Clear Lake in such abundance that there are days when you simply can’t keep them off your hook. 

Lots of these channel cats weigh between 5 and 10 pounds, but there are true giants out in the lake’s depths.

Frank Gentle made headlines in 2019 when he caught a new lake record weighing 33.57 pounds, beating the previous record-holder by just a couple ounces.

The Clearlake Oaks-Glenhaven Catfish Derby, held at Clear Lake every year for decades now, is the largest catfish tournament west of the Mississippi, and hands out thousands of dollars every year for the biggest catfish.

If you’re out after catfish on Clear Lake, your best bet is night fishing. Big cats often spend their days in deep holes and make their way toward shallow flats to feed at night.

Catches of catfish in shallow water during the daylight hours are most common in spring and fall, and you’ll often see kids catching them from boat docks and banks.

In summer, look for these fish off the deepest end of long, sloping points when the sun is high. Deep holes near shallow flats are best; try the areas just off Frasier Point and Rattlesnake Island.

Any smelly, natural bait fished near bottom can land you a mess of catfish. Dead shad and other baitfish on drop-shot rigs are popular here, and a lot of local cat-fishermen swear by raw shrimp and chunks of hot dog.

Clear Lake also is on our list of best catfish fishing lakes and rivers in California.

Bring more of these whisker fish to your hook (and pick up some great bait suggestions) with our simple techniques and tips for catfish fishing.

Bluegill

Sometimes when no other fish seem to be biting, bluegill save the day. That’s definitely true at Clear Lake. These feisty panfish offer great fun for kids and grown-ups alike on family fishing trips.

There are big bluegill in Clear Lake measuring 10 inches or more, but most are around 6 inches and well under a pound. Small to medium-sized bluegill are common within casting distance of shore. 

You can catch bluegill anywhere there are weeds or boat docks in Clear Lake, and you really don’t need anything more complicated than a worm on a hook under a bobber.

Of course, fishing for ‘gills with tiny jigs on ultralight tackle can be is another option, and many experienced anglers find it more fun and challenging.

You can often target bigger Clear Lake bluegill by jigging in slightly deeper water, such as around the deeper edge of a weed bed.

Spring is a great time to go after big bluegills, as they emerge from deep winter haunts and spawn around the same time as bass. You can often see their gravelly, circular nests on shallow flats.

This type of fishing can be super simple, but you still can boost your odds of catching more and having more fun at it with our Fishing for Bluegill and Sunfish: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Planning Your Trip

Clear Like offers splendid scenery as well as great fishing.

The lakeshore is accessible through numerous public parks that offer boat launch facilities and fishing access, along with opportunities for hiking, swimming, camping and bird watching.

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Clear Lake, and not just because that’s when the fishing is good.

Clear Lake’s vast expanse of open water makes it popular among the watersports crowd in summer, and it’s best to avoid busy summer weekends unless you want to compete with a lot of jet skis and water skiers.

But on a mild spring day, you may see no one else out there other than your fellow anglers.

It’s always a good idea to check the lake levels ahead of time, especially if you’re traveling from afar.

Water levels at Clear Lake are prone to fluctuation, and may be particularly low in summer and wintertime, which may affect your ability to launch at certain ramps.

Because it’s such a warm, shallow and fertile lake, Clear Lake is also prone to algae blooms in summer, especially during low-water periods. An algae bloom can temporarily bring fishing to a halt until it clears. 

Getting to Clear Lake

Clear Lake is located in Lake County, a little over 90 minutes from Sacramento. The quickest way to get there from Sacramento is to take I-5 N, and exit onto State Highway 20 W toward Clear Lake.

The lake is also just over two hours north of San Francisco via I-80 E and CA-29 N.

Several small towns and communities encircle the lake. The largest of them is Clearlake, which offers a wide range of options for shopping, dining and accommodations.

Bank Access

Clear Lake has plenty of great shore fishing access, and places like Lakeside County Park, Library Park and Redbud Park are surprisingly good fishing spots. You can fish from shore at Clear Lake State Park as well. 

Accessible shoreline near the base of the bridge at Rodman Slough is another popular shore fishing spot, and it’s common to see anglers casting along the wooden breakwater in Lucerne.

The best time for shore fishing is spring, as crappie and bass start to congregate in shallow areas as early as February and March.

There’s also great shore fishing for catfish on warm summer nights, and bluegill can be caught from shore practically year-round.

Boat Access

More than a dozen launch ramps provide boat access at Clear Lake, including several free launch sites at public parks. Popular launch ramps include the Lakeport 5th Street Ramp, Redbud Park, Lucerne Harbor County Park and Lakeside County Park.

Boat launch facilities at Clear Lake State Park also are available to campers and day-use visitors.

Several marinas around the lakeshore also provide boat launch facilities, along with boat rentals and docking. Options include Clear Lake Cottages and Marina, Braito’s Buckingham Marina and Riviera Marina.

Camping & Accommodations

Clear Lake State Park has four campgrounds—Cole Creek, Kelsey Creek, Lower Bayview and Upper Bayview—with more the 140 campsites in total.

The Kelsey Creek Campground is the only one with waterfront sites, and the only one that is open year-round.

The campsites are open to tents and RVs, but there are no electric or water hookups. Clear Lake State Park also offers cabins with electricity and heating.

Additional accommodations are available at Clear Lake Cottages and Marina, the Lake Marina Inn and a wide variety of inns, lodges and resorts surrounding the lake.

Find more fishing spots in Lake County