Tucked into the arid southeastern corner of California, Imperial County isn’t the fishing capital of California for obvious reasons: Most of the water here is given to the plants that transform the desert into green fields.
The county does have two of California’s most unique bodies of water straddling its boundaries in the form of the Colorado River and the Salton Sea.
The Colorado River, down where it divides California and Arizona and then leaves the United States to flow south into Mexico, is much drained by all the people and crops that depend on its waters, but it still can be one of the state’s more productive bodies of water.
The Salton Sea, once famous for its corvina fishing, unfortunately is simply a shadow of its former fishing self.
A few smaller lakes and irrigation canals form the remainder of the fishing opportunities here, including a few lakes stocked seasonally with trout.
Modestly sized El Centro is the largest city in the county of less than 200,000 thousand, making it the least populous county in Southern California. Other communities in Imperial County include Calexico, Brawley, Imperial, Calipatria and Holtville.
Interestingly, much of the county sits below sea level, although spots like the stunning Algodones Dunes rise above that elevation. Other landmarks here include the Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert), Salvation Mountain and Holtville Hot Springs.
After you’ve read about the handful of major fishing options in Imperial County, see our Fishing in Neighboring Counties feature below. It will link you to articles that cover the more extensive fishing locations in San Diego and Riverside counties.
Here are the best fishing waters in Imperial County:
The great southwestern river has been treated shabbily by so many who crave its water in this dry landscape, but it still manages to produce tons of fish.
The lower Colorado River, including the stretch forming the eastern boundary of Imperial County, just north of Mexico, can offer some of the best catfish fishing in California (and also is among the best catfishing waters in Arizona).
The Imperial County area doesn’t get quite as much angling pressure as farther north around Lake Havasu and Blythe but has most of the same game fish species.
One of the big draws here are flathead catfish, which are among the largest catfish found in North America and prefer river environments.
Other inhabitants in the river include largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish and some striped bass.
Palo Verde Lagoon
This irrigation water channel in the eastern county near the Colorado River flows partly in Imperial County and accounts for the largest recorded tilapia ever landed in California.
The southern majority of California’s inland sea, a large salty lake in the desert, is located in Imperial County.
Salton Sea historically has offered some unusual fishing opportunities for traditionally ocean fish planted in the lake.
For example, it still holds existing California state game fish records for both Corvina and Sargo croaker species caught back in the 1970s and 1980s.
More recently, Mozambique Tilapia were a volume fishery for a fair number of years, but reports indicate that tilapia fishing also has fallen on hard times and the Salton Sea is a tough place to catch fish at the moment.
Though originally shaped into a unique fishery by irrigation practices a century ago, more recent agricultural practices have resulted in massive algae blooms that have turned the briny lake largely inhospitable these days.
Sunbeam Lake is a 14-acre lake about 15 minutes west of El Centro, offering local anglers a nearby spot to catch trout and other fish in season.
The trout, when stocked, are typically planted in the lagoon part of the lake during the winter months because they can’t tolerate the warmer water found at this location, which is below sea level.
Catfish have at times also been planted in Sunbeam, particularly in the lagoon.
There also are resident bass, panfish and perhaps some carp that live in the lake and may be caught all year.
The lake is a day-use area only. There are amenities offered in the RV resort.
For more detailed information, check out the Park’s website.
This 55-acre lake 10 minutes northeast of Brawley also has a variety of fishing options amid the lush farmlands that irrigation brings to this otherwise desert land well below sea level.
Wiest Lake will be most popular right after it is stocked with catchable trout, which occurs many years during the coldest months, as trout can’t survive in these parts when the weather gets broiling.
The lake also has been stocked with catfish in warmer weather, and there are resident bass, catfish and panfish to catch as well.
Boats can be launched at the lake, and there are primitive campsites available.
Wiest Lake is located on Rutherford Road (at Dietrich Road) just east of California State Route 111.
Fishing in Nearby Counties
San Diego County: To the west, this highly populated county also is quite filled with fishing opportunities, especially in its many water storage reservoirs and along its Pacific Ocean coastline.
Riverside County: To the north, this county stretches from the suburbs of the Los Angeles area clear out to a very productive stretch of the Colorado River, with outstanding reservoirs and more fishing spots in between.