Don Pedro Reservoir Fishing: Catch Bass, Salmon & Trout

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Don Pedro Reservoir is a long, meandering fishing lake surrounded by the rolling foothills of the Western Sierra.

It’s part of a region known as Gold Country, or Mother Lode Country, that gets its name from the gold rush that transformed California in the mid-19th century.

These days, Don Pedro Lake attracts prospectors of a different kind, and the prizes fished from beneath its surface are trophy bass, salmon and trout. 

Originally created with a dam on the Tuolumne River in 1923 (the dam was rebuilt in the 1960s), Don Pedro spans 13,000 acres at full pool.

Because of its serpentine shape and numerous coves, the lake boasts 160 miles of shoreline. 

Don Pedro Reservoir is a popular spot for bass fishing tournaments, and it’s not entirely uncommon to see multiple 10-pound bass brought in on the same day.

The lake record largemouth stands at 18 pounds, 9 ounces.

Thanks to ample stocking from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, Don Pedro Reservoir harbors substantial kokanee, Chinook salmon and rainbow trout populations as well.

These cold-water fish thrive in the 400-foot deep reservoir, making it a true two-story fishery. 

Bass

Don Pedro Reservoir is easily one of the best bass lakes in Gold Country.

Florida strain largemouth bass were introduced here in 1982, and double-digit largemouths are now common.

The lake also offers a limited smallmouth bass population, and spotted bass have been reported, although they have not officially been stocked here.

Largemouth Bass

While Don Pedro Reservoir offers great big-bass potential, it can also be challenging.

This large reservoir provides largemouth bass with a lot of prime habitat and an abundance of forage. Finding fish and getting them to bite isn’t always easy.

There aren’t many Northern California lakes where you’re more likely to catch a 10-pound largemouth, but you often need to put in some real work to catch a limit here.

Still, the potential is huge at Don Pedro, which is why we have it on our impressive listing of best largemouth bass lakes in Northern California.

The best way to put the odds in your favor is to visit in spring.

The April spawn brings big largemouths from all over the lake into predictable, shallow areas in coves and inlets, and there’s no better time for anglers to load up.

The ball gets rolling as soon as the water starts to warm in March, and there’s great largemouth fishing to be had right through the tail-end of the post-spawn period in June.

Steep, rocky banks leading up into shallow spawning sites are key, especially leading up to the spawn.

From one end of the lake to the other, Don Pedro Reservoir has dozens of shallow coves filled with cover, and any of them can be productive in springtime. 

That being said, if you ask a local where to find big bass, they’ll tell you: Moccasin Point and the Moccasin Creek Arm.

This part of the lake offers prime spawning habitat, as well a lot of old submerged timber that was left standing when the lake was built.

You can catch a lot of bass by knocking crankbaits off the standing timber, or by working topwater lures between them.

Buzzbaits and spinnerbaits also trigger vicious strikes, and trout pattern swimbaits account for some of the biggest bass in the lake. 

Don Pedro largemouths also seem to have a taste for some decidedly old-fashioned presentations. You might find success using classics like blue-and-black jigs and Carolina-rigged plastic worms.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass are far less common than largemouths, but there’s a decent smallie population in Don Pedro Reservoir.

Catch rates suggest that the largemouths outnumber smallmouths by about least five to one.

Unfortunately, there’s reason to believe that margin may be getting even wider, especially if the reports of spotted bass being caught here are true. Spots have a proven track record of out-competing smallmouths in California lakes. 

But at least for now you can count on catching a few scrappy smallies weighing 2 to 3 pounds on tube jigs, 4-inch Senkos and finesse worms.

Smallmouth bass are a bit more picky about habitat than largemouths, so focus on rocks.

Steep, rocky points like Moccasin Point are great places to find smallmouths. Don Pedro’s abundant rock piles and boulder areas often harbor them as well.

If you want to have a better shot at these red-eyed battlers, read our run-down of the best smallmouth bass fishing waters in California.

How to Catch Bass

Whether fishing for largemouths, smallmouths or even spotted bass, you’ll find tips to improve your catch rates in our guide to simple bass fishing techniques and tips.

Salmon

Landlocked salmon have become one of the biggest attractions at Don Pedro Reservoir.

Chinook salmon—also called king salmon—are routinely stocked by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. Smaller kokanee salmon are often stocked as well.

Chinook Salmon

Although not native to inland lakes in California, Chinook salmon have been stocked in Don Pedro Reservoir for decades, and are now an established part of the food chain. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are the top of the food chain. 

These fish grow fat on Don Pedro’s abundant threadfin shad, and at times even feed on small kokanee salmon. If you’re here to catch kings, large minnow-imitating lures are the ticket.

Chinooks prefer cold water, which for the most part means they stay deep and far from shore.

Throughout most of the year, you’ll find them in 60 to 80 feet of water, but when the lake heats up in summer they may be 150 feet down. 

Spring is generally considered prime time to be on the water for salmon, but there’s great fishing in summer if you’re prepared to go really deep. Either way, trolling is the tactic of choice.

The Fleming Meadows area is a great place to troll for Chinook salmon in Don Pedro Reservoir, and it’s easy to orient yourself by trolling from point to point. Some of the deepest water in the lake is in this area, not far from the dam.

Middle Bay is another great spot, and the Woods Creek and Tuolumne River Arms can also be excellent, especially in fall.  

A wide range of shad-imitating spoons and plugs can draw strikes from hungry king salmon. Many local anglers also troll with real shad, which are available at local bait shops.

Running multiple baits at various depths may help you find fish.

It’s possible to catch Chinook salmon weighing up to 10 pounds in Don Pedro Reservoir, but fish in the 3- to 6-pound range are more common.

It’s also worth noting that Don Pedro is only one of two lakes in California—the other being Folsom Lake—in which landlocked Chinook salmon have been known to reproduce naturally.

Find more fish: Here are all the best landlocked Chinook salmon lakes in California.

You might also pick up some pointers in our simple guide to salmon fishing techniques, which is geared to anadromous salmon but offers up tips that can be applied to catching fish with similar habits in lakes and reservoirs.

Kokanee Salmon

Kokanee salmon are a landlocked form of sockeye salmon that have been stocked in many California lakes and reservoirs.

They run much smaller than Chinooks, averaging 12 to 15 inches, but kokanee put up an energetic fight. When the bite is going strong, you can catch them by the dozen.

That being said, kokanee fishing at Don Pedro has some very high highs and low lows.

These fish aren’t stocked every year, and since their population is very dependent on stocking, the kokanee fishing rises and falls accordingly.

To make sure you always know a place where the kokanee are biting, read through our guide to the Best Kokanee Fishing Lakes in California.

During years when kokanee are stocked, the best time to be on the water is mid-summer, preferably early in the morning.

Kokes tend to hold at depths around 80 feet this time of year, and the Middle Bay and Jenkins Hill areas are good places to start.

As with Chinook salmon, trolling is the best option. The two species tend to inhabit the same areas, with kokanee being a bit closer to the surface than the deep-dwelling Chinooks. 

In spring and fall, kokanee may be as shallow as 30 feet.

Some consider fall to be the best time for kokanee fishing because even though their numbers are fewer, the remaining fish will have grown substantially since they were stocked the previous spring.

A wide variety of smaller spoons, spinners, plugs and hootchies work for kokanee.

Apex lures and Kokanee Killers in hot pink are local favorites, especially trolled behind a dodger. Tip the hook with a kernel of sweet corn to give it some extra attraction.

We give you a bunch more lure suggestions as well as other tips and techniques in our simple kokanee fishing how-to guide.

Trout

Don Pedro Reservoir is an often-overlooked trout fishery that offers some exciting possibilities for catching big rainbow trout.

Brook and brown trout occasionally turn up in anglers’ catches as well, but rainbows offer the only consistent trout fishing.

Rainbow Trout

For whatever reason, Don Pedro Reservoir doesn’t get much attention for its rainbow trout fishing.

But the reservoir is stocked with trout in the fall (and somewhat into winter), and these fish are frequently caught by anglers targeting salmon.

For those in-the-know, trout offer a solid fishery in their own right, especially during the cooler months.

Rainbow trout generally tolerate slightly warmer water than salmon, and as a result, they are often shallower.

It’s not uncommon to find them all stacked up in the same areas, with rainbows on top, Chinooks on the bottom, and kokanee in between. 

From late fall through early spring, rainbow trout are often shallow enough that they’re within reach of shore fishermen.

They’re often caught on nightcrawlers, PowerBait and spinners from shore fishing areas like Fleming Meadows, near the dam. The dam area is a great year-round spot for rainbows.

Other promising spots to catch Don Pedro trout include the Jenkins Hill area and Middle Bay. The Woods Creek and Tuolumne River arms are home to rainbow trout as well.

Rainbows are usually in 20 feet or water or less from fall through spring, and may even strike surface lures at times.

In summer, they move down to depths between 40 and 60 feet and you’ll need to follow them down with your baits and lures.

For those who prefer to troll, Rapalas, Kastmaster spoons and Needlefish are popular lures. Some anglers troll with nightcrawler rigs behind a flasher or small dodger.

When rainbows are close enough to the surface, it can be a lot more enjoyable to switch to casting or drifting live bait instead of trolling, once you’ve located fish in a promising area.

Expect to catch some very nice rainbow trout in the 14- to 20-inch range along with the typical smaller trout.

Hefty holdover rainbows weighing over 5 pounds are sometimes caught, but a trout limit is much more likely to include more typical size trout.

More About Trout

If you’d like to add more tricks (and maybe all the right lures) to your tackle box, we have a simple guide to trout fishing.

Also, we suspect you’d like to know the very best rainbow trout fishing lakes and reservoirs in California, which probably includes one or two near you.

Other Fish Species

Anglers have a lot of options at Don Pedro Reservoir, and the fishing isn’t restricted to high-profile game fish we’ve already covered.

The lake has abundant panfish populations as well, including both crappie and bluegill. There are monster catfish in Don Pedro’s depths too. 

Crappie

Don Pedro Reservoir is one of several Gold Country reservoirs that offer excellent crappie fishing.

When the bite is really on, 100-fish days are possible, including a lot of “slab” crappies measuring 12 inches or more. Small minnows and a wide variety of ultralight jigs are effective.

The best time to go after them is March and April, when the spring spawn brings them into shallow areas in droves.

Look for them in the Woods Creek and Rogers Creek areas, and around the marinas.

Brush, woody cover, rock piles and rip-rap shorelines can all attract crappies in spring.

Throughout much of the rest of the year, crappies are a lot harder to find, but you can often track them down around the first major drop-off near a shallow cove. A fish finder can help.

They often bite near the surface in the evening, but may be down 30 feet or more during midday.

Crappie are excellent to eat and often a favorite for a fish fry.

More: Learn to catch crappie with these simple fishing techniques and tips.

Bluegill

Bluegill and other sunfish also are common in Don Pedro Reservoir. They bite readily, and offer a great opportunity to introduce kids to fishing.

Larger bluegill 6 inches and up are great table fare as well. 

Look for bluegill around brush, vegetation and woody cover, as well as under and around boat docks.

Red worms under a bobber are a timeless and always-effective way to get them to bite, but small jigs and flies are excellent too.

Boost your odds with our fishing tips and techniques for catching bluegill and other sunfish.

Catfish

Abundant catfish populations are available in Don Pedro Reservoir.

Channel catfish are the largest (often over 10 pounds) and most sought-after species here, but the lake is home to bullhead and white catfish as well. 

Any of the lake’s coves can be great for catfish, and areas near the dam are also popular.

Catfish offer some of the best shore fishing opportunities in the lake, especially at night and on warm summer evenings. 

Fish near bottom, and use natural baits like chicken livers, anchovies, night crawlers or sardines that appeal to catfish’s strong senses of taste and smell.

Get more bait and tackle tips in our simple catfish fishing techniques guide.

Planning Your Trip

Although Don Pedro Reservoir is a very popular destination, it doesn’t often get as crowded as many other California lakes.

It tends to be more popular among fishermen and nature lovers than the Jet-ski and cigarette-boat crowd.

A lot of that has to do with the lake’s location.

Don Pedro Reservoir is a stone’s throw from Yosemite National Park, and is fed by the cold waters of the Tuolumne River, which carries snow melt from Yosemite down into the lake every spring.

Most who come here come for the fishing, the scenery, or both, not to dip their toes into the chilly water.

During summer, the stiffest competition often comes from houseboaters. During the peak summer months, there are often more than 200 houseboats on the lake at any given time.

But Don Pedro Reservoir is big enough that it seldom feels crowded. 

Getting to Don Pedro Reservoir

Don Pedro Reservoir is located about an hour or a little more east of Stockton and Modesto.

A variety of options for supplies, dining and overnight accommodations are available in nearby communities, including Moccasin and La Grange.

Bank and Boat Access

Don Pedro Reservoir is managed as part of Don Pedro Recreation Area, which surrounds the lake and includes several boat launch and fishing access sites, as well as campgrounds and day use areas.

Here are the spots to know:

Fleming Meadows

Located at the south end of the lake east of the dam, the Fleming Meadows Recreation Area offers boat launch facilities and a full-service marina, along with a day-use picnic area and shore fishing access.

Located at the south end of the lake east of the dam, the Fleming Meadows Recreation Area offers boat launch facilities and a full-service marina, along with a day-use picnic area and shore fishing access.

There is also a campground at Fleming Meadows with more than 250 campsites, ranging from rustic tent sites to full-hookup RV sites.

Blue Oaks

On the west side of the dam, the Blue Oaks Recreation Area offers an additional boat launch ramp and campground, with tent and RV sites as well as a fish cleaning station and hiking trails.

Moccasin Point

At the north end of the lake, the Moccasin Point Recreation Area is a great place to launch your boat for bass fishing in the Moccasin Creek Arm.

There is also a full-service marina, ample shore access, a fish cleaning station and a campground with tent and RV sites. Hiking trails lead from the campground to areas throughout the Moccasin Creek and Tuolumne River arms.

Additional Access

Most of the shoreline of Don Pedro Reservoir is undeveloped, and countless “unofficial” shore fishing access sites can be found by driving around the lake and exploring various pull-offs.

Backcountry camping along undeveloped parts of the lakeshore is also permitted.

Know Before You Go

Like many reservoirs in California, Don Pedro Reservoir is heavily influenced by rainfall and drought, which can drastically affect the water level.

Low water can make some boat launches inaccessible, so it’s always a good idea to check the lake level before planning your trip.

You can get up-to-date information on lake levels through the Modesto Irrigation District website.

The water level can affect the quality of the fishing as well, but often in more long-term ways.

Many bass fishermen actually prefer to fish Don Pedro Reservoir when it’s low, because bass are concentrated in a smaller area.

But if bass are unable to reach spawning sites due to low water, it can impact populations for years to come.