This article reveals the best fishing spots in Merced County, whether you’re looking to catch rainbow trout, striped bass, or catfish.
Besides Merced and Los Banos, residents of the county live in Atwater, Livingston, Delhi, Winton, and other communities and rural areas.
This San Joaquin Valley area has vast tracts of farmland sandwiched between arid hills on both sides. The landscape is cut through by the San Joaquin and Merced River and dotted with reservoirs.
The county is home to the University of California-Merced, Castle Air Museum, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.
After you’ve checked out the best fishing waters in the county, scan through the “Fishing in Neighboring Counties” section at the bottom of this article. There you will find even more great fishing holes a short drive away.
If the opportunity to catch a large, tasty fish is a much higher priority for you than scenery, there’s the Merced County section of the California Aqueduct.
You’re pretty well fishing in a big ditch, but that ditch holds striped bass and catfish, primarily, and some of them get very large.
Most anglers simply go to one of the public access spots and dunk some bait.
These access points include: Mervel Avenue, south of Los Banos, between I-5 and SR 165; Canyon Road, southwest of Los Banos; and Cottonwood Road, off SR 33 northwest of Los Banos (between Santa Nella and Gustine).
Los Banos Reservoir
Also known as Los Banos Creek Reservoir, this impoundment on the namesake creek just into the rolling foothills of the coastal mountains 20 minutes southwest of Los Banos.
The reservoir typically has been stocked most years when the water is still cool, during the early season.
The moderate-sized reservoir, 470 acres when full, also home to resident bass, catfish, and panfish.
Facilities here include a campground and boat ramp.
Boaters should note a 5 mph speed limit, so this is a great place for small boats with electric motors as well as kayaks and canoes. However, boaters should know this spot is often windy, so time your trip in small watercraft accordingly.
Out on the eastern county line, the Merced Falls area between two dams is nicely stocked with hatchery rainbow trout several times during the spring and early summer.
That time frame will offer the best trout catches at Merced Falls, which is about a half hour’s drive northeast of Merced.
There is bank fishing access, and this little impounded area also is a good spot to fish from a canoe or rowboat.
Down through the valley, the river’s fishery transitions to warm-water species such as catfish, bass and panfish.
Some access points for those fisheries include the McConnell and George J. Hatfield state recreation areas.
This 2,000-acre impoundment is the forebay to the larger San Luis Reservoir just to its west.
The O’Neill Forebay shares a similar fish population with the larger reservoir, with catches of striped bass and catfish. Black bass and panfish also can be worth chasing here.
O’Neill Forebay is just 20 minutes west of Los Banos, or close to an hour from Merced.
There are campsites and day-use areas, mostly on the northwest side of the reservoir.
San Joaquin River
This part of the river runs too slow and warm for trout most of the year, but if you can find access you can do well fishing for catfish.
You might also catch bass, panfish, and other species.
There’s not a bunch of developed river access in Merced County’s section of the river. One place to check out is Great Valley Grasslands State Park, located near the Central Yosemite Highway (Hwy. 140) bridge. There’s a boat launch here as well as bank access.
San Luis Reservoir
When full, this large reservoir covers an impressive 13,800 acres and can be quite a good fishery for striped bass.
Anglers also catch largemouth bass, catfish, panfish and other species here.
At last check, however, facilities at the reservoir were closed due to a dam safety issue, so be sure to check the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area website before planning a trip.
When open, there are areas to camp and launch boats, among other recreational activities.
As with O’Neill Forebay, San Luis Reservoir is about 20 minutes west of Los Banos and roughly an hour across the valley driving from Merced.
This 500-acre manmade reservoir just north of Merced, next to the UC Merced campus, is a popular fishing spot for trout when it’s freshly stocked, which would happen during the cooler season.
Warm-water fish species such as bass and panfish also inhabit the lake.
There are accessible boat ramps and restrooms at Lake Yosemite County Park. See the website for fees, park rules, and other details.
Fishing in Neighboring Counties
Stanislaus County: To the north, the Modesto area offers access to several rivers and reservoirs that can be very good for fishing in the San Joaquin Valley.
Madera County: To the southeast, this large county stretches from valley farmland to peaks in Yosemite National Park and includes dozens of fishing spots, including the kokanee hot spot Bass Lake and striper fishery Millerton Lake.
Fresno County: To the south, the Fresno area is rich with great fishing opportunities, including Pine Flat and Shaver lakes, among many others.
Santa Clara County: To the west, the San Jose area includes a variety of smaller to mid-sized lakes and reservoirs with the potential to be very good for fishing at times, plus a vast and wild state park to be explored.