Surrounded by the lofty pines of Tahoe National Forest, New Bullards Bar Reservoir is a picturesque getaway that offers some of Northern California’s best fishing.
This 4,700-acre reservoir on the North Fork of the Yuba River sometimes generates some confusion with its name. The “new” seems often to get dropped, and many locals skip the “reservoir” part too, referring to the lake simply as Bullards Bar.
But while there may technically be nothing “new” about New Bullards Bar Reservoir—the dam was completed in 1970—the lake does hold some surprises, especially for anglers.
New Bullards Bar Reservoir gained national attention in recent years when a string of whopper spotted bass broke the world record multiple times in quick succession.
The current record, tipping the scales at 11 pounds, 4 ounces, was pulled from Bullards Bar in 2017.
There’s also a lot more to fishing here than spotted bass. New Bullards Bar Reservoir is deep, cold and clear, allowing it to support a thriving two-tiered fishery.
Warm water game fish like largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, crappie, bluegill and catfish thrive in the lake’s relative shallows, while its depths support landlocked salmon and trout.
With such a diverse fish population, New Bullards Bar Reservoir offers opportunities for fishing year-round.
Although Bullards Bar Reservoir offers seemingly endless fishing possibilities, there’s no doubt that the majority of anglers who visit the lake do so in pursuit of bass. And for the most part, it’s spotted bass that hold their attention these days.
When Nicolas Dulleck nabbed his record spotted bass, he unseated a previous record holder, a 10-pound, 6-ounce fish caught two years earlier, also at Bullards Bar.
If the world record spotted bass changes hands again, Bullards Bar remains one of the likeliest places it will happen.
Clearly, Bullards Bar deserves its spot on our list of the best spotted bass fishing lakes in California.
The lake sustains populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass as well. But like many California lakes where spotted bass have been introduced, the newcomers seem to thrive at the expense of their large- and small-mouthed brethren.
These days, spots have all but taken over at Bullards Bar. Smallmouth bass in particular have become rare, and largemouths are far from the dominant species that they once were in the lake.
So, if you’re headed to New Bullards Bar Reservoir in pursuit of bass, expect to catch spots, and lots of them.
When to Fish
One of the advantages spotted bass have over other species is that they spawn deeper, colder and often earlier. They don’t seem to mind a little chill.
That’s an advantage for anglers too, as spotted bass provide a reliable bite in the winter months when largemouth bass fishing slows way down.
In fact, winter might be your best shot at hooking up with a real trophy spot. The current record fish was caught in February; the previous record in January.
But going out after giants in the dead of winter can be a hit-or-miss gamble. For numbers, bass fishing on New Bullards Bar Reservoir begins to heat up as the water warms.
The lake’s coves are the place to be in springtime, as bass head toward relatively shallow water to spawn. Largemouths often head to the far backs of coves at this time, while spots spawn a little deeper.
Bass fishing can be fast and furious in May and June, as bass finish spawning and begin feeding heavily around drop-offs and main lake points.
But there’s another peak later in the year, as summer turns to fall. This season often finds bass more willing to chase baits on the surface, and many fish return to the shallows of the lake’s many coves.
Where to Fish
Shallow water bites are at their best in spring and fall, when bass are most likely to be found in coves and the mouths of creeks. Mill Creek Cove and Tractor Cove are top locations.
As water levels fluctuate, you’ll see an abundance of submerged timber in the lake’s coves in springtime. These areas can hold a lot of fish.
Fishing coves and shallow points often yields good numbers, but not the most impressive-sized bass.
You may find yourself in a cove, hauling in dozens of 2-pound spotted bass that look as though they were stamped out in a factory, while scratching your head about the location of the giants.
For the most part, the biggest bass in New Bullards Bar Reservoir tend to favor deeper water. You’ll find them farther down on main lake points and deep rocky ledges, while many smaller bass hold closer to shore in the relative shallows.
The biggest bass often favor deeper water because its where they find their favorite prey—kokanee salmon.
Kokanee are a major food source for bass in Bullard Bar Reservoir, and the lake harbors an abundance of these small landlocked salmon, many measuring 8 to 10 inches. Once bass reach a certain size, these little morsels make perfect prey.
New Bullards Bar Reservoir also has several small waterfalls that empty into the lake at various points along the shoreline. Casting for bass around the base of the falls is a favorite pattern among local anglers.
Tackle and Tactics
Because Bullards Bar Reservoir has such an abundant kokanee population, casting swimbaits that mimic kokanee is a great tactic for targeting the biggest bass out there.
But the lake gets a lot of fishing pressure relative to its size, so more subtle presentations are often more effective.
Another unique thing about this lake is that doesn’t have much of a shad population. Shad-imitating crankbaits that are so effective elsewhere don’t fare so well at Bullards Bar.
Aside from eating kokanee, bass tend to forage more on the fry of other fish, so finesse soft plastics are often the best lures.
Grubs, jigs and creature baits all excel at times, and small plastic worms on drop shot rigs can save the day when the bite is slow.
Wacky worms are effective too. Sometimes darker colored worms work best, but bass often fall for white and translucent colors.
The fluttering fall of an unweighted wacky worm in just the right color looks an awful lot like an injured kokanee, gasping its last breath as it flickers toward the bottom.
Wind is important too. Pay attention to its direction when you reach the lake.
Most days, the best fishing takes place on the wind-driven side of the New Bullards Bar Reservoir.
The wind propels phytoplankton toward one side of the lake or the other. Kokanee follow, and big bass often aren’t far behind.
If you go in search of giant spitted bass in winter, the secret to success is often to fish deep and slow. Big spotted bass often hold as deep as 40 feet in winter, and they will strike slow-rolled swimbaits that look like easy targets.
To hone your skills at catching spots and their cousins, read our Bass Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
Kokanee don’t exist merely to fatten up the bass at Bullards Bar. They provide exciting fishing opportunities of their own.
These landlocked salmon are stocked in many California reservoirs, where they typically max out around 12 inches and a little shy of a pound. But in some lakes, including New Bullards Bar Reservoir, they reach greater sizes.
It’s possible to catch kokanee exceeding 15 inches and weighing up to 2 pounds at Bullards Bar. They’re abundant too, and it’s possible to catch dozens of them on days when the bite is really on.
Kokanee fishing starts to pick up in early spring, and you may find fish in 30 to 45 feet of water in April. That’s relatively shallow by kokanee standards; they’re usually down as deep as 70 feet by mid-summer.
The size of these fish tends to increase as the season wears on, with winter-stocked kokanee growing up over the course of the year.
They return to the shallows in late fall for their spawning season when the water cools down again.
Most fishermen pursue kokanee by trolling in deep water, and spoons and spinners in a variety of colors can be effective. Pink, orange and white are local favorites.
Trolling your lure behind a flasher or dodger can help catch kokes’ attention and tempt more strikes.
Try a variety of depths until you locate a school. Sweetening the hook of your lure with a kernel of white shoepeg corn is a great way to get more bites.
Deep water throughout the lake can hold fish, but regular favorites include the Little Oregon Creek inlet, Mill Creek Cove, areas near the dam, and far up in the North Yuba River arm.
We’ve compiled the most effective kokanee fishing tips into a simple guide.
New Bullards Bar Reservoir can be hit or miss for trout fishing, but there’s little doubt that there are big fish out there.
The California Department of Fish and Game has planted both rainbow trout and brown trout in the reservoir, and the easiest time to catch them is during the colder months, when they can be found in relatively shallow water.
Brown trout in particular congregate in the North Yuba River Arm in fall as they stage for their spawning run. The spawn finds browns pushing farther up into the North Fork of the Yuba River. Rainbows also gather in the North Yuba Arm in winter.
The river itself is arguably a better trout fishing destination than the reservoir, as it offers easier access and plenty of prime water for wading and fly fishing.
In Bullards Bar itself, trout often forage on open water baitfish.
Their preference for cold conditions keeps them in deep water for most of the year, though they may come closer to the surface, following prey that has greater tolerance for warmth.
Trout may be caught by trolling with spoons and spinners. They tend to prefer similar conditions to kokanee, and may sometimes be caught using similar presentations.
It’s rare to catch a limit of trout at Bullards Bar, but a hefty rainbow makes a great kicker to your limit of kokanee on any given day.
The area near the confluence of the North Yuba and Willow Creek arms can be productive, and trout have also been caught in deep waters near the dam.
Pick up a bunch of fish-catching ideas in our simple how-to article about trout fishing.
More Fish Species
Although bass, kokanee and trout are the most sought-after game fish in New Bullards Bar Reservoir, the lake supports diverse populations of many different fish species.
For anyone who loves the pure enjoyment of spending a day fishing, pursuing these other species can be just as rewarding.
Bluegill and sunfish thrive in shallow areas all over the lake. They typically inhabit waters 15 feet deep or less, and congregate around weeds, boat docks and woody cover.
These fish rarely exceed 8 inches in length, but they put up a hard fight on light tackle. They’re a popular quarry on family fishing trips, and they fall easily for live worms fished under a bobber.
Crappie are prized as some of the tastiest fish in fresh water, and New Bullards Bar Reservoir hosts a decent population of these feisty panfish. Small jigs and live minnows are most effective baits for catching them.
Spring is the easiest time to catch crappie, as they head toward spawning grounds in the lake’s coves and creek arms. They may be caught around brush piles and flooded timber in spring, usually in 10 feet of water or less.
There are big cats in New Bullards Bar Reservoir. Channel catfish inhabit areas all over the lake, spending most of their days in deep holes and only emerging to hunt on shallow flats as the sun goes down.
Not many people pursue catfish at Bullards Bar, in part because bank access is limited.
But you can catch them in shallow water throughout the lake’s many coves and inlets on warm summer nights.
Fish with smelly, natural baits on or near the bottom.
Want to catch a stringer of these delicious fish? Spend a few minutes reading our simple guide, Catfish Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
Planning Your Trip
New Bullards Bar Reservoir is a beloved destination for a variety of outdoor recreation, and not just fishing.
The lake is popular for water sports like wakeboarding, water skiing and jet skiing, and is also known as one of California’s premier houseboat destinations.
The upshot of all this is that the lake can get pretty crowded, especially on weekends, holidays and any time the summer sun draws people to the water.
Luckily, the off-season is not only the best time to beat the crowds, but also offers some of the best fishing.
If you are planning on visiting the lake in summer, try to get on the water as early as possible, and plan your visit on a weekday if you can.
Where Is New Bullards Bar Reservoir
New Bullards Bar Reservoir is located in Yuba County, near the communities of Camptonville and Oak Valley. Marysville Road parallels the lakeshore to the east.
The lake is mostly undeveloped and is surrounded by the mountainous landscape of Tahoe National Forest. The recreational facilities that do exist around the lake are mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Bullards Bar is about 90 minutes from Yuba City and a little over two hours from Sacramento.
Lake Oroville, another of Northern California’s best fishing lakes, is less than an hour from New Bullards Bar Reservoir.
Bank and Boat Access
Despite the shoreline of New Bullards Bar Reservoir being almost entirely undeveloped, shore fishing access is very limited. The lake’s steep-sloped banks make getting to the water a challenge.
New Bullards Bar Reservoir offers two developed boat launch facilities:
- Emerald Cove Marina: The Cottage Creek Boat Launch ramp at Emerald Cove Marina is popular launch site located near the dam at the south end of the lake. The marina also offers docking, fuel, fishing tackle and supplies, and boat rentals including houseboats.
- Dark Day Boat Launch Ramp: In addition to a free public boat ramp and ample parking, this recreation site on the eastern shore includes picnic areas and hiking trails. There are trails leading down to the water, but the terrain is steep and fishing can be challenging.
There is also an undeveloped launch site with no amenities at the end of Moran Road, on the western shore.
This site provides limited bank access on the lake’s Little Oregon Creek Inlet, and it is ideal for hand-launching small craft like canoes and kayaks.
Camping at Bullards Bar
Camping is available at several locations around the lake.
The Dark Day Campground, which offers a handful of non-electric tent sites is a popular camping spot partly for its easy access to the Dark Day Boat Launch.
Bullards Bar is also home to several boat-in only campgrounds, which are accessible only by water and offer a fun adventure for intrepid campers. These sites are located at Madrone Cove, Frenchy Point and Garden Point.
Low water levels may, at times, make boat-in spots inaccessible.
Another option is the Schoolhouse Campground, which offers more than 50 campsites (all non-electric) for tents and RVs on the east side of the lake, not far from the Dark Day area.
Find a U.S. Forest Service map of Bullards Bar amenities here.