Trinity Lake Fishing: Catch More Bass, Trout and Salmon

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Few states can offer a greater wealth of fishing options than California.

Yet even in a state with such an incredible abundance of excellent fishing options, Trinity Lake is one that should catch your angler’s eye. 

Nestled in the heart of Trinity National Forest in Northern California, Trinity Lake spans nearly 17,000 acres at full pool and boasts 145 miles of shoreline. That’s a lot of prime water in which anglers pursue bass, trout and landlocked salmon. 

Like many of California’s major reservoirs, Trinity Lake was conceived of as a source of irrigation water and hydroelectric power in the mid-20th century.

The lake was born with the completion of the Trinity Dam in 1961, and it was completely filled with water from the Trinity River within three years. 

Trinity lake is deep and cold, with a long, meandering shoreline characterized by an abundance of small arms, inlets and points.

These are all factors that have helped its fish populations thrive, and the lake has produced current or past state records for several of its more common fish species. 

Bass Fishing

Both largemouth and smallmouth bass are common in Trinity Lake, and while largemouth bass attain greater size—often 10 pounds or more—this is one of the few lakes in the state where smallmouths reign supreme. 

There are relatively few trophy smallmouth bass lakes in California, and Trinity has always been considered one of the very best.

The lake was home to the state record smallmouth for 31 year thanks to a 9 lb.1 oz. smallie caught by Tim Brady in 1976. 

The Lake lost its smallmouth bass crown in 2007, but some suspect that the next state record fish could very well come from Trinity Lake.

Smallmouths in the 3- to 5-pound class are fairly common, and it’s not rare to catch a limit of both smallmouth and largemouth bass on a good day. 

Where to Fish for Bass

The upper end of Trinity Lake—which is to say, the end farthest from the dam—is often considered to be the best area, especially for smallmouth bass.

The gravelly flats in the upper lake are prime spawning grounds, and nearby rocky shorelines and drop-offs are prime fish-holding targets.

But don’t write off the rest of the lake. Areas all over the main Trinity Arm can be productive, especially the area known as Trinity Center.

Coves and points throughout the lake have potential.

Bass also use the old creek channels in the lake as travel routes between these prime hunting grounds. 

Smallmouths in particular gravitate to any area with rocky cover, especially around points and coves where easy access to both deep and shallow water is available.

For largemouth bass, look for aquatic vegetation, brush or fallen trees.

Largemouths prefer to wait around the edges of weeds and woody cover, where they ambush their prey.   

When to Fish for Bass

Bass at Trinity Lake get moving by late winter or early spring, as they head toward shallow water preparing to spawn.

This early time frame is a great window of opportunity, and along with the post-spawn period several weeks to a month later, it provides the year’s best bass fishing. 

Overall, the period from March to June is the best time for bass fishing at Trinity Lake.

Summer can be good too, but fish tend to move deeper, and bite most readily around dawn and dusk. 

Bass return to shallow hunting grounds in fall to fatten up before winter. 

Bass Tips & Tactics

Crawfish are a major part of the smallmouth bass diet at Trinity Lake. Consequently, any lure that imitates crawfish has potential to draw strikes.

Working crawfish-imitating jigs along the bottom in rocky cover is a tried-and-true tactic.

And of course, bass routinely fall for dead-sticked wacky worms at Trinity Lake, just as they seem to do nearly everywhere. Simply hook your wacky worm through the middle, and let it settle slowly to the bottom. 

Largemouth bass gobble up 6-inch worms, but smallmouth bass seem to prefer daintier 4- and 5-inch worms. 

A variation of the wacky worm technique, known as a neko rig, is also highly effective at Trinity Lake. This technique involves inserting a nail weight into one end of the worm to give it a unique flutter as it falls. 

As bass head deeper in summer, soft plastics on drop shot rigs are the go-to method to catch them. A wide variety of plastic baits, including straight-tail worms and creature baits, are effective on a drop-shot rig. 

Largemouth bass often fall for hefty swimbaits that imitate the lake’s trout and kokanee salmon, both of which are forage fish for big largemouths.

These Trinity bass tips will put you ahead of the game, and we suggest you read through our easy to read article on bass fishing techniques for more bass-catching ideas.

Trout Fishing

Many anglers who visit Trinity Lake do so in pursuit of bass. But this lake also offers excellent trout fishing for those in the know, and a lot of locals consider these fish to be Trinity Lake’s best-kept secret. 

Rainbow trout are most common, in large part because the California Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks them each year, but there are some big brown trout out there too.

Throughout much of the year, trout are dispersed throughout the lake, making them hard to find, but at certain times their movements are more predictable. 

Trout often congregate around the mouths of tributaries in spring and summer, providing great opportunities for fishing. 

The lower end of the lake, closest to the dam, is often the best area for trout. Finding fish can be tricky but trolling near the surface in open water near the mouth of a cove or tributary tends to be the most effective way to find fish. 

Spoons are the go-to trolling lures in most situations, but squid rigs like Mack’s Wiggle Hoochie can also do wonders, often leading to a mixed bag of rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. 

Keep an eye on your trolling speed. Between 1 and 1.5 mph is usually best, allowing lures to move naturally while staying close to the surface when trout are running shallow. 

Casting with spinners can be effective too, and shore fishermen catch their fair share of trout near the mouths of the Stuarts Fork and Swift Creek arms.

Even fly fishing can be effective, as trout feed on insects at the surface of the lake in summer.

Be sure to read up on the simplest and most effective trout fishing tips.

Salmon Fishing

Kokanee salmon—a landlocked form of sockeye salmon—are abundant in Trinity Lake. These silver-sided fish inhabit the lake in great numbers, usually feeding in open water. 

Trinity Lake was once known for having mostly small kokanee under 10 inches. But in recent years the balance has shifted, thanks to changes in lake management, and you’ll find plenty of 12- to 14-inch kokanee.

Kokanee bite readily on spoons, and these pan-sized salmon are prized table fare. 

Trolling spoons on open water is usually effective for kokanee salmon, and many local anglers place a kernel of sweet corn on the hooks of each spoon or lure for extra attraction. 

In addition to kokanee, Trinity Lake is also home to Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon.

They were planted here by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in the late ’90s to help reduce kokanee populations, which at the time were overpopulated and stunted.

Through continued stocking, kings have come to thrive. It would be a stretch to call them abundant, but there are some real monsters out there and this is one of the best lakes in California to catch landlocked Chinook.

Trinity Lake holds California’s record for landlocked Chinook salmon, with a 20-pound, 15-ounce fish that was caught near the dam in 2013. 

Trolling is effective for Chinook salmon as well as kokanee.

Keep in mind that these larger salmon often feed on small kokanee, so larger silver spoons or other fish-imitating lures are often a good bet. 

The challenge with fishing for both species of salmon is finding them. These fish can often seem to be almost anywhere, or nowhere.

Your best bet is to troll several lures at various depths in open water, particularly in the lower end of the lake closer to the dam. Salmon can be within a few feet of the surface, or they could be as deep as 70 feet.

If you’re still learning the ropes when it comes to landlocked salmon, be sure to read through our simple guides covering the best kokanee fishing techniques and how to catch salmon.

Other Fish Species

Trinity Lake is home to a significant bluegill population.

While these fish aren’t as sought-after by anglers as the bigger game fish, they’re great fun to catch, especially for kids.

You’ll find bluegill in Trinity Lake around boat docks, brush piles and vegetation in relatively shallow water through much of the year, especially from late spring through summer, and they bite readily on small jigs and small natural baits.

Read our guide to fishing for bluegill and other sunfish.

Channel catfish are also fairly common, and grow to impressive sizes.

Some fishermen pursue channel cats by casting or drifting natural baits like chicken livers and cut shad on bottom, especially deep holes near woody cover. Night fishing can be most productive.

Trinity Lake also harbors an abundance of bullhead catfish.

While these catfish are smaller in size than channel cats and seldom targeted by anglers, they put up a good fight on light tackle, and they are easy to catch using nightcrawlers and other natural baits.

California’s state record bullhead (4 pounds, 8 ounces) was caught in Trinity Lake in 1993.

Here are some more tips for catching all kinds of catfish.

Planning Your Trip

Trinity Lake is not only a great fishing lake, but it’s one of California’s most picturesque bodies of water.

The mountain range that surrounds the lake, known as the Trinity Alps, is truly breathtaking. 

Perhaps for this reason, the lake receives a lot of attention from pleasure boaters, jet skiers and the houseboat crowd, especially during summer. 

Even so, fishing pressure at Trinity Lake is somewhat lighter than other major lakes in the area, such as nearby Shasta Lake and Whiskeytown Lake.

During summer especially, try to get on the water as early in the day as you can to beat the crowds.

Where is Trinity Lake?

Depending on which part of the massive lake you’re going to, Trinity Lake is between one and two hours from Redding, California, which is the nearest city of size. It’s more than three hours driving from Sacramento and four hours or more from much of the Bay Area.

Bank and Boat Access

Several marinas and launch sites provide boat access to Trinity Lake.

Trinity Alps Marina, Trinity Center Marina and Trinity Lake Resort and Marina are all popular places to launch, dock or rent a boat. 

The lake is encircled by Trinity National Forest, and the U.S. Forest Service operates several public boat access sites around the lake. These sites provide free boat launch facilities and, in some cases, excellent shore fishing. 

The Fairview Public Boat Ramp is a great launch site near the dam, its location making it an ideal starting point for trout and salmon excursions.

Many bass fishermen prefer to launch at the Trinity Center Public Boat Ramp, closer to the head of the lake. 

Lake Levels

Water levels at Trinity lake are prone to much fluctuation, with low-water conditions especially common by late summer and early fall but possible in other seasons during prolonged drought conditions.

Lake levels can affect the best fishing locations and tactics, but it also has an impact on lake access, especially for boaters. Some of Trinity’s launch ramps can be difficult to use when the water is especially low. 

It’s in your best interest to call ahead and check on water levels before making the trip. The Weaverville Ranger Station in Shasta-Trinity National Forest usually has up-to-date info on water levels and lake accessibility. 

Accommodations

The U.S. Forest Service operates several campgrounds around the shoreline of Trinity Lake, with hundreds of campsites for tents and RVs.

The Minersville Campground, Alpine View Campground and Clark Springs Campground all have shore access and boat launch facilities in or near the campground. 

Cabins are available at Trinity Lake Resort and Marina and at Pinewood Cove Resort.