Found in the foothills east of Santa Ana, Irvine Lake offers a hilly Southern California retreat with good fishing, including cold season trout.
The reservoir is practically in the backyard for residents of Orange County, and is an excellent option for a weekend day trip with the whole family.
For the anglers in your group, Irvine Lake offers a variety of fishing, not just for trout but for a variety of gamefish including good numbers of largemouth bass, catfish and panfish to please all experience levels.
The lake also is even home to some stocked sturgeon that occasionally surprise anglers expecting a trout or catfish to pick up their bait. A rare bout with one of these giants will leave your arms feeling sore but your heart racing with excitement.
While the trout fishery is best during the cooler months, catfish are stocked during the warm seasons (often starting in spring) to keep the catches coming all year. In fact, though trout are popular, Irvine Lake really shines brightly for catfish.
Due to the lake’s proximity to millions of people, it can be quite busy here with anglers lining the shoreline when the fishing is best.
To further heighten the demand with limited supply, at this writing access is only allowed during designated hours from Friday to Sunday.
At least at 750 acres, it’s a large lake with room for quite a few anglers to spread out.
In addition to the limited days and hours, the fishing regulations are different and sometimes stricter here than most places, although they are fairly simple to follow.
Keep in mind that you will not need to deal with the trouble of towing a boat. Irvine Lake does not allow the use of watercraft or floating devices of any kind. All fishing is from the shore.
While far-off mountain streams are often excellent for trout fishing, Irvine Lake provides the option to catch multiple trout species close to home but, as mentioned, during the winter months when the water temperatures remain cool enough.
Trout that manage to avoid being caught out may reach larger sizes, but don’t expect any numbers to be caught once the water warms. Catch rates will slow later into spring and definitely for summer, but other fish take up the slack.
The lake has at times been stocked with multiple varieties of trout, with rainbow and brown trout most common. The steelhead form of rainbows has been planted at times.
Trout that were recently stocked will seldom hesitate to bite salmon eggs, nightcrawlers, and various types of artificial baits such as PowerBait, fished under a float or up off the bottom.
While still-fishing with bait is productive and easy, don’t hesitate to cast spinners and small spoons from the bank. Trout will aggressively strike these flashy baits as they pass by their nose.
At times, trout can be caught by sight fishing.
Trout are surface feeders that prey on insects as they scurry along the water’s surface or hunt down schools of minnows for their next meal.
As a result of their feeding habits, keep an eye for a “boiling” trout swirling at the surface and place a cast in its path.
But for much of the time, trout in this climate will head to deeper and cooler waters, making them a bit more challenging to find.
However, during the months they are stocked, the water should mostly be cool enough for trout to be within reach for bank casters.
If they can find room to cast safely, fly anglers should present small flies while slowly working the bug imitation back to them, either along the surface or submerged. Watch for feeding trout to place your best casts.
Irvine Lake is typically stocked with trout between one and three pounds. These trout are of good size and are sure to put up an excellent fight. However, trout over 20 pounds also have been landed.
More Trout Fishing
Irvine Lake also is stocked a few times each year with catfish, which tend to bite more often as the water warms into spring and on through summer and fall.
But don’t be entirely surprised if a cat picks up your nightcrawler or PowerBait during trout season.
Two popular varieties of cats are found in Irvine Lake, including frequently stocked channel catfish, which are the most popular species across most of the U.S.
There also have been some blue catfish planted here at times.
While fewer in number here, blue catfish are behemoths and have tipped the scales at around 90 pounds here, and channels can reach hefty weights as well. (Irvine Lake held the state record for blues in the past, although now the state record is over 100 pounds caught elsewhere.)
The numbers and potential monster sizes of catfish at Irvine Lake convinced us to include it among the best catfish fishing lakes in California.
Stout rods with heavy line would give you an advantage landing these big boys, but it’s possible on a mid-weight trout and bass rod that you’re more likely to use at Irvine Lake.
There also are special rules here to protect the big cats, so you’ll have to let the largest whisker fish go to fight again another day. All catfish over 24 inches must be released unharmed.
Both blue and channel catfish make excellent table fare. Catfish under two feet (in the keeper range) are actually better eating anyway.
Both catfish varieties will dine on similar food options allowed at the lake. The best lake-approved bait for catfish is often the cut mackerel, but other natural and jarred options will do the job.
To catch channel and blue catfish, fish your baited hook right on the bottom, where catfish forage.
Use some weight for casting and to keep the bait down. Sliding sinkers threaded to the line above a swivel will allow the catfish to take the bait without feeling the weight right away, leading to more hookups.
Keep in mind, catfish prefer soft muddy bottoms and will sometimes hide out during the day around structures like fallen trees or rocks.
In addition to mackerel, dough baits including specially formulated “stink baits” and nightcrawlers or other types of worms will catch catfish.
Allow the bait to remain still on the bottom of the lake and let the spreading scent bring in the catfish.
Once the fish bites and the line becomes tight (or suddenly very slack) as the catfish swims away with the bait, set the hook and the fight is on.
Pick up some more great catfish tips and favorite baits in our simple fishing guide.
Other Fishing At Irvine Lake
When trout and catfish aren’t enough, or aren’t cooperative, try your luck catching largemouth bass, panfish, carp or perhaps the elusive sturgeon.
Lake Irvine holds largemouth bass above 10 pounds, although of course the average catch is smaller.
One major reason they grow so large here is that all bass must be released for fellow anglers to enjoy.
One of the best approaches to catching largemouth bass, especially for new bass anglers, is simply casting and retrieving crankbaits or other lures that resemble the food source, such as smaller fish or crawfish.
Another solid option is soft plastic worms or other soft artificial baits cast around fallen trees, weeds or other structures where the bass seek shelter ready to ambush prey.
More: Read out our many other effective ways to catch bass as well as learn where to find the very best largemouth bass fishing lakes in Southern California.
There are several common types of panfish in Irvine lake, including redear sunfish, bluegill, and crappie. Each of these is caught by using similar methods.
Keep an eye out for panfish around structures close to shore, especially in the spring and often again in the fall. In the hottest and coldest months, many panfish move deeper, especially crappie.
You’ll have to try different areas until you discover some holding spots.
Tip a small hook with a piece of nightcrawler beneath a float or cast small jigs, spinners or other lures designed for smaller fish.
Crappies especially go after lures that resemble small minnows, including crappie jigs and micro-sized crankbaits and spinners. (Also find California’s best crappie fishing spots.)
Sunfish including bluegill feed on minnows but are especially fond of eating insects and worms, so use some nightcrawler or try artificial flies or poppers.
Common carp can grow large and can exceed 30 pounds in Irvine Lake.
At times you will spot carp boiling the water or cruising along the surface, while other times they will root around while feeding on the bottom.
Carp can be caught on various baits, but check the rules to make sure it’s legal at Irvine Lake or buy it at the lake store to be sure.
A corn-scented dough bait might be worth trying, as carp elsewhere are often caught on the real thing.
Some fly anglers will actually tempt carp into striking an artificial pattern, and these fish will put up a fight that rivals some of the game fish with much better reputations.
White sturgeon are prehistoric fish that grow massive in size and are native to California rivers but sometimes planted in lakes.
The sturgeon are caught in a similar fashion to catfish. Focus on the bottom by utilizing a weight and baited hook.
Tip the fishing hook with a whole nightcrawler, but don’t be surprised if a more common catfish picks up the bait.
While the sturgeon here don’t get as large as they do in their natural habitats elsewhere in California, the lake is home to sturgeon that have tipped the scales at over 40 pounds.
Pick up some more white sturgeon fishing information here.
Planning Your Trip
As a result of the lake’s convenient location and minimal visiting hours, the banks line up quickly with visitors.
The gates are open from Friday through Sunday between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Allow enough time to get to the lake to pay for parking before the gate into the lake opens, so you’re ready to claim a spot and start fishing in those productive morning hours. Arriving by 6:30 a.m. is a good plan.
A modest fee ($5 at this writing) is charged for parking in the spacious lot.
Don’t worry about picking up fishing bait before arrival. A bait and tackle store is on site with all of the essential needs.
Where is Irvine Lake?
Located up in the hills, Irvine Lake is a quick drive out East Santiago Canyon Road from the east side of Orange.
The heavily regulated reservoir is majority-owned by the county of Orange and stores water for the Irvine Ranch and Serrano water districts.
As a water storage reservoir, water levels are likely to drop during the dry season, when water usage far exceeds rainfall.
Management practices have changed here over the years, so take note of current rules and hours of operation.
At one time, Irvine Lake charged hefty fees in exchange for much more fish stocking, but now the lake is more accessible to anglers of more modest means, though fewer overall fish are planted.
Another bright side is you won’t have to obtain a fishing license if this is the only place you’ll be angling. Unlike most California freshwater fishing holes, you can fish here with just the entrance fee.
The only variety of live bait allowed in Irvine Lake is nightcrawlers, and nightcrawlers and the few other types of bait allowed here are sold at the on-site bait shop.
A five-fish limit per person is in place no matter the combination of the species, as long as it’s not one of the fish you must release unharmed.
Remember, largemouth bass are catch and release only no matter the size, and catfish over 24 inches also must be released. Bring a tape measure for the cats.
Boats, kayaks and all manner of watercraft and float tubes are banned at Irvine Lake (therefore there also are no boat rentals). The only fishing allowed is from the shore.
Don’t overload the car with rods. The lake policy states that a maximum of one fishing pole person is allowable, so bring a mid-weight rod for versatility.
We suggest you consult Orange County’s Irvine Lake page for the lake rules and any updates, as well as a link to the more recent fish stocking schedules.
Oak Canyon Park is a separate private park located near Irvine Lake, which may keep the non-anglers in your group occupied while you fish.
The park features a ferris wheel, miniature golf, video arcade and other rides and sports.
Irvine Lake is ideal for both experienced and inexperienced anglers. Head out to the foothills for a day trip and give the kids a chance for a fun-filled day of fishing action.