Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, have been stocked in several big lakes by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife over the past several decades.
In freshwater lakes, these Chinooks are generally referred to as landlocked salmon, and they offer a unique fishing opportunity for anglers with the nerve and patience to go after them.
Chinook salmon are called kings for a reason. These are some of the toughest fish California anglers have a chance to tussle with.
That being said, landlocked Chinooks don’t get as massive as their ocean-dwelling relatives, which are the largest salmon in the Pacific Ocean.
In the open ocean and the rivers where they return to spawn, it’s possible to catch these fish weighing 50 pounds or more, although migratory salmon half that size are more typical.
In inland lakes, they seldom live long enough to grow past the 10-pound mark. But a 10-pound salmon will still give you a run for your money.
Temperature is a crucial consideration when you’re looking for kings in California’s inland lakes and reservoirs. In most bodies of water, these salmon will seek out temperatures below 50° if they can.
They might rise up into warmer waters to feed when they have to—in the end, the big fish always follow the little fish when they get hungry—but they’ll soon return to their comfort zone.
As a result, Chinook salmon tend to inhabit deep water, especially in summer.
In from late fall to early spring, you might find king salmon as shallow as 15 to 25 feet, but by mid-summer, they often hold anywhere from 50 to 100 feet or more below the surface.
Trolling open water is the most efficient way to find them.
Fishermen in California troll with a wide range of spoons, plugs and other lures that resemble the threadfin shad, pond smelt and other smaller prey fish that salmon eat.
Flashers or dodgers may be added to the line for extra flash and vibration, and downriggers are often employed to get the offering down to the appropriate depth.
As a general rule, it’s a good tactic to start at the shallower end of the Chinooks’ preferred range early in the morning. Then work your way deeper over the course of the day as the sun gets higher.
Another popular tactic, known as mooching, involves dropping a live bait on a weighted line down to the depth where fish are known to be, while letting your boat drift.
Mooching is a good tactic once you’ve pinpointed the location of a school of salmon, while trolling is a more effective way to find fish.
Whatever tactic you choose to catch landlocked Chinook salmon, these are the California lakes where you’ll find them.
Surrounded by a picturesque mountain range known as the Trinity Alps, 17,000-acre Trinity Lake is one of California’s great multi-species fishing lakes, including trout and smallmouth bass.
Trinity is a man-made reservoir with deep, cool water. Chinook salmon have been stocked in Trinity Lake since the late ’90s.
The fishing can be hit or miss, as is the case with much salmon angling, and you might spend hours searching. But the rewards can be great.
This vast Northern California reservoir is one of the most likely places in the state to hook up with kings weighing 10 pounds or more.
The area near the dam is often productive, but open waters throughout the lake can yield strikes.
King salmon often forage on smaller kokanee salmon on Trinity Lake, and a favorite tactic among local anglers is trolling silver spoons that mimic small kokanee.
Spring and early summer tends to offer prime salmon fishing.
Trinity Lake is the home of California’s state record landlocked Chinook salmon, a 20-pound, 15-ounce fish that was caught in 2013 near the dam.
Other popular fisheries here include trout and smallmouth bass.
More: Trinity Lake Fishing
At 30,000 acres, Shasta Lake is California’s largest man-made reservoir.
Located at the northern end of the Central Valley not far from Trinity Lake, it’s also one of California’s best known destinations for king salmon.
Spring offers prime fishing, when the upper part of the water column is still cold, and you can frequently catch Chinook salmon at or above the 40-foot mark.
By summer, the kings may be down at 100 feet or more.
Trolling hoochies behind a dodger or flasher is a tried-and-true tactic here.
Local experts tend to start off on spring mornings by trolling relatively close to the surface, and then work their way deeper as the sun gets higher.
Shasta is an enormous body of water, and there’s potential to find salmon almost anywhere.
Some of the most reliable Chinook spots are near Shasta Dam and also in the deep areas of the Dry Creek Arm, north of the dam.
Shasta Lake has a wealth of fishing opportunities besides salmon, including being among the best trout and bass lakes in the state.
More: Shasta Lake Fishing
Located a little less than an hour north of Yuba City, Lake Oroville is a large, meandering reservoir with several major arms and 167 miles of shoreline.
The action peaks in spring, and anglers tend to get a lot of 16- to 18-inch kings, along with a few holdovers from previous seasons that may weigh 5 pounds or more.
Recent fishing reports suggested that numbers of these 5-pound-plus salmon have been higher than ever.
Trolling near the Highway 162 Bridge is popular, and the main lake area near the dam can also yield substantial catches.
Kokanee Cut Plug are a favorite lure among Oroville’s king salmon aficionados, and trolling depths range from 50 to 100 feet.
Lake Oroville was also stocked with landlocked coho salmon until 2013, when the California Department of Fish & Wildlife switched to stocking Chinooks.
Rumors of coho salmon in the lake still persist, but in all likelihood the cohos are long gone.
Lake Oroville also is a fantastic place to catch largemouth and spotted bass.
Folsom Lake is an 11,450-acre reservoir surrounded by the Sierra Nevada foothills not far from Sacramento.
One of California’s most reliable Chinook lakes, it offers deep, cold water and a variety of forage that allows king salmon to thrive.
There’s a solid early season bite at Folsom Lake.
Late winter and early spring often find Chinooks as shallow as 20 feet, and Folsom is one of the best places in California for shore anglers to catch these powerful fish.
Granite Bay and Brown’s Ravine are a couple of the more popular early spring shore fishing spots.
Expect a mixed bag of salmon and rainbow trout, with solid chance of hooking up with fish up to 6 or 7 pounds.
The Speedy Shiner, a type of spoon, is a popular lure here.
The DFW has stocked a lot of fish in Folsom Lake, including 100,000 Chinook fingerlings in a recent season.
Folsom Lake is also one of the few California lakes where natural reproduction of Chinooks has been documented. The fish make an annual run up the American River to spawn.
Folsom Lake also is a great place to catch a variety of warmwater fish, including California’s top three black bass species.
More: Folsom Lake Fishing
Don Pedro Reservoir
Along with Folsom Lake, Don Pedro Reservoir is among the very few lakes in California in which Chinook salmon have spawned and reproduced successfully.
It also offers salmon and trout anglers one of the state’s most diverse fisheries, with healthy populations of king salmon, kokanee, brown trout, brook trout and rainbow trout.
This 13,000-acre reservoir is located due east of Modesto.
Surrounded by the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Don Pedro Reservoir is fed by the Tuolumne River, and its 400-foot depths provide ample room for big kings to roam.
The Fleming Meadows area is a popular spot to troll for salmon in springtime. It’s common to find rainbow trout, kokanee and Chinooks all stacked up in the same area, with Chinooks typically being the deepest.
Open water in the main lake channel tends to be best in summer.
Threadfin shad are a major forage for king salmon in Don Pedro, and many anglers catch salmon by trolling live shad, as well as shad-imitating spoons and plugs.
The lake has given up Chinooks up to at least 11 pounds.
At 28,000 acres, Lake Almanor is the second-largest reservoir in California.
It’s also an outstanding king salmon lake, but one that has been known to frustrate anglers simply because of the sheer volume of water it contains.
As with many lakes, the area near the dam is a good place to start trolling. In particular, Lake Almanor’s western shore just above the dam is a productive spot for spring salmon.
Shore access is available in the is area, and bank fishermen have a chance to catch salmon in the very early part of the season.
Many anglers also have good luck in Big Spring Cove as well as on either side of the peninsula.
The lake’s maximum depth is only 90 feet, so in summer you can usually find salmon in the deepest available water.
Pond smelt are a major forage fish in Lake Almanor, and your best bet is to choose lures that mimic these long, narrow bait fish. Needlefish lures are extremely popular at Lake Almanor, along with J-Plugs and Rapalas.
Lake Almanor also is very good for rainbow trout, brown trout and smallmouth bass.
More: Lake Almanor Fishing
Surrounded by the rolling hills and vineyards of Napa County, Lake Berryessa is one of California’s great two-story fishing lakes.
While bass fishing is the main attraction for many anglers, this 18,500-acre reservoir also harbors big Chinook salmon.
You have a decent shot at catching kings approaching 10 pounds in Lake Berryessa, but 2- to 4-pounders are much more common.
In early spring, it’s possible to find salmon as little as 15 to 25 feet below the surface. But by summer, trolling at a depth of 50 feet or more is best.
Lake Berryessa has populations of both threadfin shad and pond smelt, and king salmon dine heartily on both.
Long, thin lures like Needlefish are great smelt imitations, but thicker, more shad-like spoons are often just as effective. The best option may change from one day to the next.
The best location is just as variable. Oftentimes the areas near the dam and Markley Cove are most productive for salmon, but schools of Chinooks may also be found by trolling around the main Berryessa Island and off Portuguese Point.
More: Lake Berryessa Fishing
In addition to the lakes listed above, a handful of other California lakes have been stocked with king salmon.
While these honorable mentions aren’t quite the safe bets the lakes mentioned above may be, they still offer a chance to get your lure in front of a chunky Chinook.
Pine Flat Lake
About 35 miles east of Fresno in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Pine Flat Lake is a man-made reservoir of roughly 5,800 acres.
Although best known as a bass fishing lake (especially spotted bass), Pine Flat has also been stocked with king salmon.
Fishing reports for salmon in Pine Flat Lake are hard to come by.
But the California Department of Fish & Wildlife has planted Chinook fingerlings in Pine Flat Lake and these fish should start appearing in anglers’ catches in 2021.
Spanning 11,200 acres in Central California’s Kern County, Lake Isabella is among the southernmost California lakes to offer a solid chance to catch Chinook salmon.
The lake is also unusual in that it has two dams; and the area just off the point that separates the two dams is a popular area to troll for salmon.
The DFW has stocked Chinook salmon in Lake Isabella a few times over the years, including a large plant of Chinook fingerlings in the spring of 2019.
Rainbow trout are more common here, and it’s fair to expect a mixed catch.
Nevada County’s Lake Spaulding (a.k.a. Spaulding Reservoir) has been stocked with king salmon on numerous occasions going at least as far back as 2001, and there’s no doubt that these fish are in there.
But Spaulding has a reputation as a fickle lake, with banner days followed by days when you strike out, seemingly with little rhyme or reason.
Lake Spaulding is a small reservoir of just 698 acres, and it has a reputation as a kayak angler’s paradise.
It’s a picturesque lake surrounded by the lofty pines of the High Sierra, and has also been stocked with brown trout and rainbow trout.