Surrounded by the craggy High Desert landscape of Southern California’s Kern County, Lake Isabella is one of the top fishing lakes in the region for a variety of fish species.
Its rugged setting among the Sierra Nevada foothills inside Sequoia National Forest also makes it a uniquely beautiful lake.
Lake Isabella is a large man-made reservoir.
Its waters are held in place by two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams—known as the Main Dam and the Auxiliary Dam—which were built right in the spot where the North and South Forks of the Kern River meet.
Lake Isabella encompasses a lot of history as well. The lake spans 11,200 acres at full pool, and covers the remnants of Kernville and Isabella, two communities that were uprooted when the lake was first built in 1953.
Best known as a bass fishing lake, Lake Isabella produced a steady string of trophy largemouths in the 1980s. These days, the fishing here is more of a numbers game, but you still have a solid chance of hooking up with a 10 pound bass.
Many anglers are drawn to Lake Isabella by other species as well, including rainbow trout, crappie and catfish.
The deep waters of Lake Isabella stay relatively cool despite its southerly latitude, thanks also to its 2,500-foot altitude, allowing it to support a varied multi-species fishery.
Campgrounds and hiking trails all around the shoreline make it a popular destination not just for fishing, but for outdoor recreation of all kinds.
Lake Isabella’s reputation as a great fishing lake rests, for the most part, on its largemouth bass fishing.
Florida-strain largemouths were stocked in Lake Isabella starting in 1972, and by the mid ’80s the lake was consistently kicking out trophy bass.
The 18-pound, 14-ounce lake record largemouth, landed in 1984, was one of the biggest bass ever caught at the time. And Lake Isabella once laid claim to the heaviest 10-fish limit of bass ever brought in at a tournament.
By most accounts, the true glory days of monster bass fishing at Lake Isabella are behind us. But there are more than enough 5- to 10-pound bass to keep everybody happy.
Trophy bass in the teens still appear sporadically, and the numbers and size of fish still place Lake Isabella among the best largemouth bass fishing lakes in Southern California.
Largemouths thrive in Lake Isabella in part because they have a diverse forage base here—crawfish, shad, trout, bluegill—but also because the lake offers a wealth of bass habitat.
Anyplace a bass might want to hang out, they can find it here.
From shallow weeds, rocky shorelines and submerged timber to sloping points, rocky reefs and steep drop-offs, largemouth bass have a lot of great cover to choose from in Lake Isabella.
The hard part for anglers tends to be locating fish. Once you’ve done that, getting them to bite is often easy.
Spring is prime time for bass fishing, but Lake Isabella usually follows a somewhat later schedule than most Southern California Lakes. Bass tend to start moving into pre-spawn patterns in early April, but the real peak season is May and June.
In spring, a lot of local anglers swear by spinnerbaits. There’s a lot of woody cover in the back ends of both the North and South Forks, and tossing spinnerbaits among the flooded trees is great spring tactic.
A float tube is a popular way to get in among the timber where larger bass boats can’t reach.
By the time the spawn starts winding down, bass move from shallow coves toward nearby drop-offs and main lake points. Drop-shot rigged soft plastics are often very effective this time of year.
Working plastic worms as slowly as possible is often the key to success. Deep-diving crankbaits and crawfish-imitating jigs work well in summer too.
Rocky Point, which extends outward between the North and South Forks, is a great bass spot. The sheltered waters around French Gulch are popular too.
Look for bass in summer anywhere there is a steep drop-off near a prime area of shallow cover.
There’s a good surface bite on summer evenings too, and topwater lures can be effective well into fall.
Pick up more bass fishing techniques and tips in our how-to guide.
Lake Isabella has a reputation for being one of the best crappie lakes in California.
In early spring, when the crappie spawn is in full swing, it can seem like everybody is hauling in 25-fish limits of these spunky panfish.
Crappie action tends to heat up in early to mid-March, reaching fever pitch by the end of the month and through April.
Crappies head toward shallow coves en masse this time of year, gathering in huge schools anywhere weedy and brushy cover can be found.
A lot of crappies weigh between 1 and 2 pounds, but occasional 3-pound monsters turn up as well.
Live minnows and small jigs are favored by most local crappie fishermen. Try drifting minnows or jigs under a float.
Brightly colored tube jigs and marabou crappie jigs also work well with a consistent cast-and-retrieve method.
When crappies are feeding actively, they often gobble up miniature crankbaits and spinnerbaits too. Some even fly fish for crappies.
There are a lot of good crappie spots, and most anglers target them in the North Fork, along the western shore of Lake Isabella.
The area around the French Gulch Marina’s boat docks is especially popular, along with Freear Point, Boulder Gulch and Rocky Point.
There’s also good crappie fishing at the far east end of the lake, near where the South Fork of the Kern River enters the lake. There are a lot of submerged trees and brush in this area, making it a great place for kayaks and float tubes.
Crappies seemingly pull a disappearing act when the water warms up in summer, moving out toward open waters where they roam chasing baitfish, or sometimes school around drop-offs and deep weed lines.
Many crappies return to spring haunts for a round of fall feeding later in the year when the temperatures start to cool off.
As great as the crappie fishing can be in Lake Isabella, these fish do tend to follow boom-and-bust cycles. Their numbers are influenced by water levels, which directly impact their ability to spawn.
The crappie fishing can be incredible one year, only to crash the next year and then rebound again the year after that.
Hone your skills with Crappie Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.
Lake Isabella receives monthly rainbow trout plants from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife throughout the cooler months, and these fish are a major attraction for local anglers.
That being said, it tends to be a numbers game when it comes to trout fishing in Lake Isabella.
This is what you might call a put-and-take lake, and most of the 10- to 13-inch rainbows are caught within a few weeks of being stocked. Some get gobbled up by big bass too.
Of course, the DFW will occasionally plant larger broodstock rainbows in the three pound range, and a few trout do survive multiple seasons in the lake, eventually reaching 5 pounds or more.
The lake record rainbow trout tipped the scales just over 9 pounds.
Rainbow trout spend the warmer months in deep open waters, and are often caught by trolling off the Main Dam, Boulder Gulch and Auxiliary Dam areas.
Depths from 15 to 30 feet are often productive.
But the real prime trout season is late winter into early spring, when rainbows are more willing to enter shallow waters, putting them within range of shore fishermen.
Many anglers use Kastmaster lures, Rooster Tail spinners and Flatfish lures.
Salmon eggs, marshmallows, PowerBait and nightcrawlers are effective for bait fishing, and some of the biggest trout seem to fall for marshmallow-and-nightcrawler combos.
Engineers Point, which extends out into the lake between the Main and Auxiliary dams, is a favorite shore fishing spot for spring trout, especially the east side of the point.
Boulder Gulch is also a popular place to fish for trout from shore. Some anglers also like to fly fish in this area from float tubes.
Other Fish Species
Lake Isabella is a diverse fishing lake with a lot of different options. It’s the sort of lake where there’s always a good chance of being surprised by whatever one finds at the end of their line.
In addition to the game fish mentioned above, the lake also harbors numerous other species.
Although they are far less common than rainbows, brown trout are some of Lake Isabella’s true monsters. Big bruiser brown trout weighing over 20 pounds have been caught in the lake.
Brown trout favor slightly warmer water than rainbows, and they’re more likely to stick close to cover rather than roaming open waters.
They aren’t officially stocked in Lake Isabella, but a few make their way downstream from the Kern River.
Fishing around rocky areas in early spring with minnow-imitating lures like Rapalas and Silver Fox spinners can sometimes lead to hooking up with brown trout.
The areas around the dams are good places to start.
That being said, they aren’t common enough that one can easily target them. Expect to catch mostly rainbows with an occasional brown mixed in.
If you want to specifically target this species, read our Best Brown Trout Fishing Lakes and Rivers in California.
Landlocked Chinook salmon have been stocked a few times over the years by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.
They haven’t really taken hold in Lake Isabella the way they have in a lot of Northern California lakes, but their numbers appear to be increasing.
Oftentimes salmon are caught by mistake while anglers are trolling for trout. They inhabit similar areas, but salmon will often be found deeper.
Large trolling spoons behind flashers or dodgers can be effective if you are specifically targeting salmon.
The area off Engineer Point is one of the more likely spots to catch landlocked salmon.
Chinook also been caught in the Piney Point and the Flume areas in fall while trying to make their way upstream to spawn.
Find all of the Best Landlocked Chinook Salmon Fishing Lakes in California.
Another note: Landlocked Chinook salmon aren’t the same as kokanee, which are landlocked sockeye salmon and are more common in colder lakes and reservoirs farther north. We also have a guide to the best kokanee fishing lakes in California.
Catfish are common in Lake Isabella, and they’ve been known to save the day when other fish refuse to bite.
Channel catfish are the most sought-after species of catfish in the lake, but bullhead and white catfish are present as well.
Channel cats weighing over 20 pounds have been caught here, but fish up to the 5-pound class are far more common and make for better eating anyway.
As in most lakes, your best bet to catch catfish is to use the smelliest natural bait you can find. Mackerel, anchovies, chicken livers, clams and nightcrawlers are popular.
When catfish are biting, you can seemingly catch them almost anywhere.
The Camp Nine area, Boulder Gulch, Lime Dike, Paradise Cove and Stine Cove are all great options, along with areas near both the main and auxiliary dams.
Catfish bite readily any time from spring through fall. Many anglers catch them right from shore, especially in the evening and after dark.
It would be a stretch to say that smallmouth bass are common in lake Isabella. But smallmouths are abundant in the Kern River, which feeds the lake, and a fair number of these fish have made Lake Isabella their home.
Your best bet if you’re targeting smallies is to focus on rocky habitat far up in the North Fork arm of the lake, and along the aptly-named Rocky Point.
There’s also good smallmouth bass fishing in the Kern River downstream from Lake Isabella.
Smallmouths weighing over 5 pounds have been caught in Lake Isabella, but 1- and 2-pound fish are far more common.
Smallmouths are known to fall for jigs, spinnerbaits and a variety of soft plastics.
They tend to favor somewhat smaller lures than largemouths.
Lake Isabella harbors a great bluegill population, and these feisty panfish are a favorite among kids and families looking for an easy catch.
They are great fighters for their size and make good table fare when you catch enough fillet-sized fish.
Bluegill are commonly caught from shore and in shallow water throughout Lake Isabella’s many coves.
Paradise Cove, Kissack Cove, and the marshy area where the South Fork of the Kern River enters the lake are all good spots.
Bluegill are commonly caught in and around French Gulch Marina as well.
You don’t need anything fancy to catch bluegill in Lake Isabella.
Red worms and mealworms are some of the most common and effective baits, either fished under a bobber or threaded onto a small jughead.
Spring and summer are prime times.
Pick up some more techniques and tips for bluegill and sunfish fishing.
Planning Your Trip
One of a handful of popular Kern County lakes, Lake Isabella is close enough to several major population centers that it’s easily accessible.
But it’s also just far enough away that it’s spared a lot of the heavy recreational boat traffic that plagues many large SoCal reservoirs.
Overall, the best time to visit Lake Isabella is spring, when most fish species bite readily, but before the modest summer crowds arrive.
Visiting in spring is also a good way to beat the summer temperatures, which regularly top 100 degrees.
The Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce puts on the annual Isabella Lake Fishing Derby, which starts in spring and runs for several months, paying anglers for catching tagged trout.
Know Before You Go
Lake Isabella is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the entire lake is open to anglers. Boating, however, is only permitted from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset.
The lake is susceptible to sudden, strong winds that can make fishing difficult, especially on the South Fork, which is the larger and more open portion of the lake.
The North Fork and the area along the western shore of the lake is favored by many anglers because it is sheltered from the wind.
Getting to Lake Isabella
Lake Isabella is located about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield in the Kern River Ranger District of Sequoia National Forest.
It’s just under an hour’s drive to the lake from Bakersfield via CA-178 E (CA-178 runs along the southern shoreline of the lake; CA-155 along the western shore).
Bank & Boat Access
Lake Isabella has two full-service marinas and several public boat ramps.
Shore fishing is also available at a handful of recreation areas around the lake.
Most of the Lake Isabella shoreline is undeveloped, and easily accessible for shore fishing if you’re willing to hoof it.
Some of the best places to launch a boat of fish from shore include:
French Gulch Marina
Located on west shore just above the Main Dam, French Gulch Marina offers launch facilities, fuel and 100 lighted slips. They also offer boat rentals including fishing boats, pontoon boats and kayaks.
North Fork Marina
Overlooking the west shore of the lake’s North Fork at Juniper Point, North Fork Marina offers boat launch facilities, pontoon boat rentals, fuel and 30 lighted slips.
South Fork Recreation Area
This U.S. Forest Service site on the southern shore of the lake includes a public boat launch and courtesy dock, along with ample shore fishing access.
Launch 19 Boating Site
Located at the foot of Engineer Point between the Main Dam and Auxiliary Dam, the Launch 19 Boating Site offers a public boat ramp and is popular for shore fishing (note: this site has been frequently closed in recent years for dam repairs).
Tillie Creek Launch Ramp
This public launch ramp is located on the North Fork in the community of Wofford Heights.
This public park in Wofford Heights is a popular shore fishing site on the North Fork.
Paradise Cove Boat Ramp
The U.S. Forest Service operates this boat launch on the southern shore of the South Fork. The boat ramp is adjacent to Paradise Cove campground, and shore fishing access is available.
Camp 9 Boat Launch
Another U.S. Forest Service launch site, this ramp is part of the Camp 9 Recreation Area, on the eastern shore of the North Fork.
All boaters on Lake Isabella must obtain a boating permit before launching. Permits are available at both marinas and several convenience and grocery stores near the lake.
As with any inland lake in California, a freshwater fishing license is also required.
Camping at Lake Isabella
There are eight campgrounds around Lake Isabella with more than 500 campsites.
These campgrounds are operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and offer a variety of options for tents and trailers. Amenities vary, but no hookups are available at any of the campsites.
Most sites can be reserved in advance online or by phone, but some are available on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. More information about each campground is available through the U.S. Forest Service’s Kern River Ranger District website.