Do you want to go to a low elevation lake that features catfish or go to a high mountain lake that holds trout?
You don’t have to make that choice at Lake Valley Reservoir, situated on the North Fork of the American River near Yuba Gap. That’s because quality fishing for both rainbow trout and brown bullhead catfish is available amidst solitude and stunning northern Sierra Nevada scenery.
Set amidst a boulder-strewn shoreline surrounded by a thick conifer forest, the lake is a haven for bank anglers, kayak fishermen and trollers. Unlike many reservoirs, motorized fishing boats are restricted to a 10-mph limit, so you won’t find any water skiers or personal watercraft users speeding around the lake. It is one of my favorite reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada – and its proximity to Interstate 80 makes it an ideal location to fish when I want to get away for an afternoon of fishing.
On Labor Day weekend, 2016, the fishing wasn’t hot, but anglers still caught holdover rainbows and some feisty brown bullheads during a short afternoon trip that I made to Lake Valley. I caught and released a fat and healthy catfish weighing over 1 pound while soaking a gob of nightcrawler near the boat ramp.
Meanwhile, Joshua of Sacramento and his two fishing buddies landed two holdover rainbows and lost a larger fish while soaking PowerBait near the dam. Two trollers also reported catching and releasing two catfish.
Earlier this summer, Brian Garcia found excellent catfish action while shore fishing with nightcrawlers on the lake. “I wanted to see if I could get trout, but I ended up catching 7 catfish up to 13 inches,” he said. “I also lost some other fish and missed numerous bites.”
Rainbow trout are the only species of fish that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) currently plants at Lake Valley. The Department most years stocks around 4,000 pounds of rainbows in the reservoir. The lake also hosts a sleeper population of German brown trout.
After stopping trout plants for four years starting in 2003, the Department resumed planting rainbows in the lake again in 2008 when the American River Hatchery stocked 1,000 pounds.
The fishery management of the lake has a long and fascinating history. A Department survey done of Lake Valley on July 23, 1958 forecasted that “Eastern Brook Trout should do very well,” noting that the lake had a good forage base though poor natural reproduction for the brookies.
The agency chemically treated the lake on November 11-12, 1959 to remove brown bullheads, chubs and green sunfish. However, the brown bullheads not only survived, but also thrived and have become the lake’s dominant resident fish.
By 1988, the Department no longer planted brook trout in the lake but had begun stocking rainbow trout regularly, planting up to 2,000 pounds of catchable rainbows and up to 20,000 rainbow and Eagle Lake trout fingerlings each year. The agency also planted 10,000 brook trout fingerlings in 1997, 9,900 brown trout fingerlings in 1998 and 21,868 brown trout fingerlings in 1999.
The Department stocked 20,068 browns in 2001, 6,000 pounds of catchable rainbows in 2002 and even an experimental 14,188 Chinook salmon fingerlings in 2004.
While all of these species have been planted over the years, the only three species I have personally seen caught on my trips to Lake Valley have been rainbow trout, brown bullhead catfish and green sunfish. I do wish the CDFW would resume planting the brook and German brown like it did for many years in the lake.
On my first trip to Lake Valley in October 2000, my late cousin Tom Mulderrig and I each caught a bullhead over 1 pound while fishing inflated nightcrawlers near the dam. However, we never got another bite after picking up those fish.
My next short afternoon fishing adventure to Lake Valley in June 2008 produced great fishing for catfish, but no trout. I hooked catfish after catfish while fishing nightcrawlers near the boat ramp until swarms of hungry mosquitoes forced me to the refuge of my truck.
On the next trip a couple of weeks later, Cal Kellogg Sr. and Jr. and I were ready for hot catfish action like that I found on the previous adventure, but the fish weren’t biting. We caught only a few small catfish.
It wasn’t until July 30 of 2012 that I fished at Lake Valley again in the afternoon after a fishing trip to Donner Lake. This time I targeted catfish with nightcrawlers on the bottom, but I couldn’t keep the trout off! After catching and releasing two scrappy holdover trout, I headed home to Sacramento
Figuring out the mysteries of catching Lake Valley’s trout and catfish is not easy, since the fishing varies wildly from trip to trip.
For example, after hearing excellent reports on trout fishing by trollers and bank fishermen, I decided to head to Lake Valley in mid-December 2012 between storms. This was the most magic trip to the reservoir that I have ever made. After catching one trout and losing one other on the side of the dam near the ramp, I walked over to the other side of the dam.
The fish were biting lightly – and I couldn’t’ get a hook into them. Suddenly right before dark in the chill December air, the fish got very aggressive. In less than 10 minutes, I filled out my limit with four other beautiful rainbows caught on PowerBait and Pautzke Fire Bait. What made this trip special was that I was the only angler fishing on the lake when the hot bite began.
In 2013, I made three shore fishing trips in the spring and summer. On each trip except one, I found wide-open action on trout in the 12 to 15 inch class while bait fishing near the dam.
On one of these trips, a fish pulled my rod into the water when I wasn’t looking. I later hooked the same trout that pulled the rod into the water, but the line broke on the rod and it is apparently still sitting on the rock-strewn bottom of the lake.
Regardless of whether the fishing is hot or cold at Lake Valley, I always enjoy fishing and hiking around the lake amidst the scenic beauty and solitude that this Sierra gem offers.
Smaller boats are always advisable on the one lane, narrow concrete boat ramp at Lake Valley. The boat ramp was in the water and boaters were having no problem launching on my latest trip.
Lake Valley Recreation Area Facts
Size and Description: Lake Valley Reservoir in Placer County is a component of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Drum Spaulding Hydropower Project. The lake, located at an elevation of 5840 ft. in a forested mountain setting, has a 300-acre surface area and is about 2 miles long. It holds 8,000 acre-feet of water when full. Tall lodgepole pine trees and granite rocks surround the reservoir. There is quick and easy access from I-80. The long, somewhat narrow shape is great for flatwater paddling.
Fish Species: The DFG has resumed planting rainbow trout in Lake Valley after four years with no trout stocks. Over the decades, the DFG has also planted brook trout, brown trout and even king salmon. Brown bullheads are very abundant in the reservoir.
Boat Ramp: A concrete boat ramp is located in the Silver Tip Picnic Area. There is no fee. The lake is drawn down severely by late summer.
Day Use: Silver Tip Picnic Area is provided and maintained by the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company: 10 picnic sites. The season is May through October.
Directions: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 East and exit at the Yuba Gap exit. Continue until the intersection and turn right onto Lake Valley Road. Continue for about 1 mile to another intersection, where you will make a left onto Forest Road 19 (a dirt road). Continue and park at the Silver Tip Picnic Area and Boat Launch.
Camping and Lodging: Lodgepole Campground is operated by the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company. There are 35 campsites with fees required. The facility is operated from late June through Labor Day. Lodging and restaurants are available in Colfax, while grocery, bait and tackle are available at the Nyack Shell Convenience Store, 1 Nyack Rd, Emigrant Gap, CA. 95715-9998, phone (530) 389-8212.