Hell Hole Reservoir fishing ranks as one of the best kokanee, mackinaw and brown trout waters in all of California.
The scenery alone provides reason enough to visit, and the fishing is nothing short of epic. Who’d think a place called Hell Hole would be anything but…hell? Well, this Hell Hole doesn’t get its moniker from the fishing, that’s for sure.
The reservoir is around 2½ miles long in a deep canyon, with enough depth to give those who chase after mackinaw and kokanee a reason to venture off the beaten path into the Sierra Nevada mountains.
If you decide to make the trip, you’ll be greeted with crystal clear waters sparkling in an awe-inspiring setting. The reservoir is created in a steep mountain gorge surrounded by cliffs and granite outcroppings.
There are plenty of hiking trails, campsites and incredible vistas to explore, or you can just sit back and watch the abundant wildlife. Hell Hole Reservoir is a remote destination, so plan accordingly.
Since this lake is so remote, you’ll most likely want to do some camping while you’re at Hell Hole. Be prepared.
This is definitely bear country. You need to come ready to deal with bears. Remember food safety and how to keep a clean, bear-friendly camp. Bear spray is a must.
One thing about this lake might be a minor drawback. Shore fishing is almost nonexistent. Shore access is abundant, but the fish rarely come close to it anywhere other than around the Rubicon River inlet in Upper Hell Hole.
So we advise you to bring some sort of watercraft, though it’s not always possible to launch a larger boat, especially later in the season, as we discuss below in the access section of this article.
Kokanee salmon are everywhere in Hell Hole Reservoir. And by everywhere, we mean you have to search the lake because they like to cruise the entire length of it.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife plants fingerlings every year, and there is a solid population of healthy fish.
The bite warms up with the water temperature. Kokanee are pretty shallow early, so in late spring, target them in 15-25 feet of water.
Start by the dam and work your way from there. The area around Waterfall Point can be active as well. If there aren’t kokes on the finder, there should be some rainbows hanging around waiting for an easy meal.
As the summer starts to take hold, the kokanee move deeper. Try trolling a hot pink Arctic Fox Kokanee fly behind a silver or copper dodger.
Find a school on your fish finder and set your downriggers to the proper depth. There’s a good chance you’ll be spotting them around 60-80 feet.
Throughout the summer months and into the fall, the same tactics should work for kokanee, and you’re likely to hook up with a rainbow trout or two and potentially a brown trout or a mackinaw for your efforts.
Catch More Kokanee
In addition to being a kokanee hot spot, Hell Hole also is known as one of the best lake trout (mackinaw) fishing lakes in California.
These lake trout aren’t native but they are self-sustaining and can grow to decent sizes.
An excellent trick to catching them is first finding the kokanee.
Start your day trolling for kokes in 30-50 feet of water early in the summer. Once you find a school of kokanee, take an f18 Rapala in black and silver and drop it 5 to 10 feet deeper than the kokanee.
Big macks like to follow the schools and occasionally swim up for a quick bite.
The lake trout start their most aggressive bite in the early summer when the water warms up a bit. Hell Hole Reservoir never gets particularly warm, but as the summer moves on and fish move deeper, set your down-riggers anywhere between 80 and 120 feet.
The fall finds the mackinaw preparing for the spawn, so it’s an excellent time to find big ones.
Be sure to release any lake trout hens you catch. It’s always good to put the bigger fish back, and since this lake is self-sustaining, unless there’s a prolific year, maybe limit yourself to the pups. The smaller fish taste better anyway.
The setup for this lake is a bit different than others due to the clarity of the water. You’ll need to use a longer leader, and it needs to be fluorocarbon.
Lake trout will see monofilament line and spread the word fast. If you use mono, you’ll be host to a lake full of big trout sitting down there laughing at your offering.
Turns out, the browns in Hell Hole like the same approach. They also like to eat the kokanee.
Brown Trout Fishing
Brown trout are some of the most entertaining trout to catch. The ones in Hell Hole grow some linebacker shoulders on them and know how to use them.
Fish over 10 pounds are swimming around in there, and it’s possible there could be some real monsters hiding out.
Now that you have the truck loaded and the thermos full of coffee, let’s go over the details.
The first thing to do is check ahead to ensure the road is passable. It can be closed early in the year due to heavy snow or road conditions. Some years the primary access doesn’t open, and you have to take the alternate route that is an extra 2-hour drive.
Once you get there, start out by the inlet. Float some nightcrawlers and see if any browns are hanging out snacking on the smaller rainbows and willing to pick up some fast food.
If there are ‘bows in the area, also toss some rainbow-colored Tasmanian Devils or Rapalas.
Trolling throughout the summer works well, with 60-90 feet of water a pretty safe bet. Use a silver dodger trailing a nightcrawler close to the dam in the early evening, when browns start to go on the prowl.
The powerhouse is another good area to focus your search. Rumors of browns released in this area of over 17-pounds are out there, so who knows what you might get.
The bite gets better as cold weather sets in, though access to the lake can suffer from low water. If that’s the case, you can usually launch an aluminum boat and still get your troll on. Shore fishing is just too steep to attempt in almost any area.
Stick with it, and you’ll find them. The CDFW plants browns every year in good numbers, so keep at it.
Hell Hole Reservoir landed a spot on our list of the best brown trout fishing lakes and rivers in California. Check the link to see what other waters also earned the honors.
Rainbow Trout Fishing
Rainbows are planted as fingerlings in the spring each year. The majority get snatched up by the mackinaw and holdover browns, but some make it through the year.
The best spots to target them are in 10-15 feet of water with Kastmasters tipped with a worm near Waterfall Point and the inlet. Floating nightcrawlers at the inlet works well and might also bring in a brown or two.
Trolling the sides of the lake near the shoreline throughout the season should be productive. The Narrows is a good spot as long as the water is high enough. Once it drops down, cast into the shallows there, and you’ll probably find some.
Rainbows are admittedly not the main draw at this lake, but they are still fun to catch.
Plus, when you find them, you know there are bigger fish nearby, waiting patiently for one of them to step out of line. Maybe they will mistake your lure for an errant rainbow.
Looking for better rainbow fishing? We have you covered with the Best Rainbow Trout Fishing Lakes in California.
Catch More Trout
Check out our free and simple guide to trout fishing techniques and tips.
Planning Your Trip
Hell Hole Reservoir is in Placer County, about 100 miles from Sacramento. The first 80 miles will fly by. The next 20 or so will take an hour or so.
The dirt road etched into the mountain takes you through some rugged, incredibly scenic country on the northern end of Eldorado National Forest.
You’ll pass several lakes and campgrounds on your way. Don’t give up and stay at one of them. Keep going. It truly is worth the effort.
You’ll think you’re never going to arrive, then you’ll crest a hill, and there it is: A beautiful, crystal clear lake in the bottom of a granite canyon.
It’s surrounded by boulders and cliffs with hiking trails looping throughout. There’s plenty for everybody to do.
The reservoir sits at a bit over 4,600 feet in elevation, which isn’t particularly high compared to some lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, but winters certainly can be harsh and the shoulder seasons of early spring and fall can go from pleasant to frigid and back. Summers are usually mild with high temperatures averaging in the 80s.
While the reservoir is only about a dozen miles west of Lake Tahoe for an eagle, for humans it’s every bit as far to Hell Hole Reservoir from South Lake Tahoe in time and miles on the circuitous route. You can do it as a day trip from Tahoe, but plan a full day with lots of drive time for a round trip.
French Meadows Reservoir sits very close to Hell Hole on the map but is still about 40 minutes by car, given the winding mountain roads, but at times offers easier trout fishing.
Boat and Shore Access
Boating is really the only way to fish Hell Hole Reservoir. There’s one boat ramp. It’s a gravel launch that is sparsely maintained, and when the lake is low it will be out of the water. The access becomes limited to portable aluminum boats and kayaks.
The shore is open around the lake, though access is beyond difficult due to the steep banks.
Where to Stay
There are campgrounds all around the area. Some are accessible by boat on the lake, while others are a very short drive from the lake. Formal lodging and hotels are nowhere near the lake, so that isn’t an option. Food will need to be brought in with you and stored safely because it’s bear country.
You can bring in an RV, but there are no hookups. The nearest town will take almost an hour to get to, so try not to forget anything. One important note: take bug spray! Every mosquito in California lives at Hell Hole Reservoir.