The best ice fishing lakes in California typically provide excellent trout fishing on a consistent basis.
That may come as a surprise to most in a state famed for its sunny beaches and deep tans, but there are quite a few fantastic lakes to drop a line in when the hard deck forms.
Ice fishing is an excellent way to get out on the lake when you really need to spend some time in the great outdoors and catch some trout.
California offers a wide variety of fishing opportunities, but ice fishing is often an overlooked jewel in the Golden State.
Whether you’ve relocated to California and miss breaking out the ice auger every winter or are a native Californian and want to give it a try for the first time, we’ve got you covered.
There is a learning curve to ice fishing, as there is with any type of angling.
When you first set out and start tramping across the frozen lake, hearing the ice crack underneath your boots, you’re likely to turn around and beeline it straight back to your vehicle. I mean, who wouldn’t, right?
Ice is a finicky thing. It can be 18 inches thick and crack when weight is placed on it. You could drive an RV across ice that thick, and it wouldn’t break. However, the sound of cracking ice is enough to make your hair stand on end.
With that said, ice safety comes first.
Learn the acceptable thickness of ice before you ever attempt to walk on it. A good rule of thumb is that 4 inches is thick enough for an average person with gear, 5-6 inches is suitable for a snowmobile or 4-wheeler, and 8-12 inches will support a truck.
Ice augers are your friends when you ice fish. Without one, you’ll have a hard time getting through the ice.
Some lakes might have rental augers available, though it’s generally recommended to either buy one or bring a six-pack to bribe someone on the lake to drill one for you. If you choose the second option, you’d better hope there are fish wherever they drill the first hole.
Ice tents are great for windy days. If you plan on fishing several times and can afford one, go for it. If you’re a casual angler who wants to try it out, maybe wait on the tent and go out a few times first.
Let’s dig into the best ice fishing lakes in California.
Best Ice Fishing Lakes
Northern California has several areas that receive cold enough temperatures to freeze lakes and create the perfect conditions for us hard water enthusiasts. Especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s easy to find a hidden away lake that freezes over and can be fished.
The catch is that you’ll need to check regulations to ensure it’s open to ice fishing. While it might freeze over, a given lake’s fishing season may close in October or November. Be sure to stay current on those closure dates.
Rainbow trout, and in some places browns, cutthroats and other types of trout, are ready and willing to snap up your bait at any of these lakes. Some produce better than others, depending on the time of day, ice quality and type of bait.
Silver Lake is already known as an incredible fishery during the warmer season.
It’s near South Lake Tahoe and a reasonably quick two hours east of Sacramento. It’s in an area that includes several smaller lakes to the east that are roughly as high quality as it is.
Anglers flock to Silver Lake in the summer, and now it has become almost as famous among ice anglers in the winter. Recently voted as one of the premier ice fishing destinations in the country, Silver Lake lives up to its name.
Home to five types of trout—rainbow, brown, brook, lake and Lahontan cutthroat— Silver Lake has plenty of fish to keep you busy during the winter months.
If you’re going to hit the hard deck here, plan on waiting until about mid-December for the safest ice.
The fish like their worms here. Try targeting them with a 3/8 silver Kastmaster tipped with either a nightcrawler or waxworm. Jigging it slowly should do the trick.
Anglers also find success here with salmon eggs. If you’re not getting any action after 30 minutes, it’s time to try a new spot.
Start your search in 15-20 feet of water, then move deeper as needed. Once you get a bite, you should find more in quick succession.
Caples Lake is a popular place to ice fish.
Located about two hours east of Sacramento, there’s plenty to do in the area. It’s near Lake Tahoe and only a few miles up the road from Silver Lake.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort is right there for those who’d like to ski as well. Mid-December is the usual start of the season.
Caples Lake has some big trout holding in its waters, with 5- to 6-pound trout caught often.
The most popular areas to test out are by the dam, then along the southern side. Again, if the spot you’re fishing isn’t productive, change up after 30 minutes and try another area.
Set up with some Rapala ice jigs tipped with waxworms. Jig slowly. Like every other fish in cold water, trout are a little more lethargic in the winter.
A Kastmaster with a bit of nightcrawler will also do the trick. Use silver or rainbow colors. PowerBait can also do well. As with all trout lakes in California, salmon eggs should bring a few to the surface for you.
Frenchman Lake is a short 45-minute drive from Reno, Nevada, and can be reached in about three hours from Sacramento.
Check before heading out to make sure it has fishable ice. There are years that it doesn’t freeze over entirely, though some parts are still fishable. Safety on ice is paramount because falling through is the worst.
Fishing at Frenchman Lake can be epic, and it gets some love on our rundown of Best Rainbow Trout Fishing Lakes in California.
Believe it or not, ice fishing can be even better. It gets moderate pressure during the winter but is large enough and has enough big trout in it that you’re sure to find a good spot.
The basic setup here is more of the same—Rapala ice jigs or Kastmasters with mealworms or nightcrawlers on the hook.
Deeper water techniques call for something with some glow to it. Use something chartreuse that glows and tip it with nightcrawler or salmon eggs.
This lake gets windy, so a tent is a good idea if you’re planning on spending the day.
Red Lake is popular, meaning crowded.
There are a lot of trout in it, though they aren’t the size you’ll find up the road a ways at Caples or Silver Lakes. But if you’re out for numbers, this is the place to go.
At just over two hours from Sacramento, it’s a good weekend getaway for those looking to get on the hard deck. Spend the morning here catching your limit of 1-2 pound trout, and then head over to the ski resorts for the afternoon.
If you’re early enough to get a prime spot, you should have an epic morning. The regulars recommend using Orange Deluxe Balls O’ Fire eggs, Atlas Mike’s Sugar Egg, nightcrawlers and Kastmasters.
The ice is usually fishable by mid-December.
Boca Lake is only a 25-minute drive west of Reno or about two hours east of Sacramento on I-80.
It is home to fantastic fishing for rainbows, kokanee, browns, brookies and Mackinaw trout (lake trout).
The ice near the inlet is a great place to set up if it’s thick enough. If not, head down by the dam.
Deeper water works excellent with some glowing bait. Go with chartreuse and either salmon eggs or PowerBait. Rapala ice jigs and small ice spoons tipped with mealworms or waxworms, or go with nightcrawlers in shallower water.
Boca Lake is popular with the locals from Reno, and it gets busy. The ice starts forming in mid-November but isn’t typically fishable until mid-December.
The area near the dam is usually the biggest draw, but trout here are found throughout the lake. It’s possible to see them come in as shallow as 3-4 feet closer to shore.
However, watch out for the ice near the shoreline. It can decay and become unstable throughout the season. When it’s firm, the shoreline provides some excellent fishing as well. Be sure to try shallow areas.
Stampede Reservoir is a few miles up the road from Boca Lake and offers good to great ice fishing.
The lake has rainbows, browns, lake trout and brook trout, in addition to being one of the best kokanee fishing lakes in California. The most likely catch through the ice are rainbows and browns. The inlet has some good action for brookies in the creek, but they often aren’t as interested through the ice.
Try anything silver and tipped with nightcrawlers here. The ‘bows love them, and the browns will follow suit.
Movement is vital at Stampede. Slow jigging will bring them in and keep them interested. Start early, and there’s a fair chance you’ll be at your limit around noon.
More: Stampede Reservoir Fishing
Donner Lake is a quick 90-mile drive up I-80 from Sacramento. It’s a deep, cold lake with plenty of trout to keep you busy.
The edges drop off fast, and it’s over 200 feet deep, so caution is definitely advised. It’s also super cold up here.
Lake trout are the major prize catch here. In January and February, you might be able to coax a few through the ice if your hole is big enough.
However, the typical yield includes rainbow and brown trout.
The eastern shore seems to be the more popular section, with the rainbows hanging around here while avoiding the macks in deeper water.
Try your luck in 20 to 30 feet of water with ice jigs tipped with nightcrawlers or garlic PowerBait. Balls ‘O Fire salmon eggs also work great here.
Large Kastmasters tipped with salmon eggs may get a mack in deeper water, but the action will be pretty slow overall targeting lake trout in winter. Even so, Donner Lake is one of the best lake trout (Mackinaw) fishing lakes in California.
More: Donner Lake Fishing
Several lakes in California freeze over for at least part of the season, though not all are as dependable as the list above.
California has a habit of being warm and sunny most of the year, much to the detriment of reliable ice fishing. There are definitely lakes that consistently deliver, while others provide most of the time.
Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake is known to freeze over at least partially every few years, but this is pretty far south to provide a consistent fishery every year.
But when the ice is thick enough, the trout are eager for a meal. People flock to the place when this happens, and word spreads fast.
If Big Bear Lake freezes, it is usually fishable by January. Some areas might be safe earlier but tread with caution. Be sure to check ice depth and conditions.
Use standard ice fishing techniques like ice jigs with mealworms or waxworms, along with anything shiny. Slow jigging is the key.
You’re likely to bring in a few trout before hitting the slopes in the afternoon.
More: Big Bear Lake Fishing
Lake Davis is about three hours northeast of Sacramento up I-80.
It has a checkered past with a major fish kill to remove invasive northern pike in the late 2000s. The CDWR didn’t fully refill the lake until 2016. It has been very active since and has returned to a great fishery.
Lake Davis is remote. Getting there is an adventure in itself—plan on taking your time and checking ahead for road conditions and ice levels. Once you head out, you’re in for a treat.
The lake has good numbers of rainbows and brown trout to catch, and you’ll be rewarded with a limit of decent trout for dinner.
Target them with nightcrawlers, waxworms or Balls ‘O Fire salmon eggs. Ice jigs work well, as do small Kastmasters. PowerBait left sitting still is a good option.
Last but not least we have Castle Lake.
Located near Mount Shasta, it’s a 3½-hour trek from Sacramento. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has been doing experimental planting here since the 1930s, so the lake is filled to the brim with trout of all sizes.
Drill a hole 50-feet from shore in any direction, plant your chair, drop a waxworm, bit of nightcrawler or PowerBait, and be ready to bring in a trout.
There’s a possibility that your bait won’t even get to the depth you’re targeting before you have a fish.
This lake would make the main list if it were a little easier to get to. The fishing is great. But it takes quite some time to get to, and there are times that it’s only accessible by a short hike through the snow.
Check the current conditions before committing to the trip.
California isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think about ice fishing. With all the options throughout the state, there are plenty of other types of fishing to get into, even during the colder weather.
If ice fishing sounds fun, and it should sound fun because it is, know that California has some genuinely epic lakes that deliver year after year.
You’ll be amazed at how much fun ice fishing can be if you’re adequately prepared.
Watching your ice rod dip and knowing there’s a trout on the other end is a rush that is an experience different than any other type of angling. You’re putting in work to earn these fish, and the return is spectacular.
Once you try it, you’ll likely be hooked; and if you’re not, at least you got out of the house into some beautiful winter scenery for the day.
Catch More Fish
Read our simple guide to learning how to go ice fishing, including the best lures and baits, how to choose your spot, what equipment you need, and how to stay safe on the ice.