Loon Lake Offers Superb Rainbow Fishing At Desolation Valley Wilderness Edge  

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As I reeled in the Panther Martin spinner towards me through the chilly, crystal clear water, I saw the tip of my second spinning rod begin bouncing as a trout grabbed my bait. I dropped the lure rod, picked up the bait outfit and I set the hook.

The fish made several runs before I worked it towards shore and pulled it up on a rock out of the water. It was a beautiful fat rainbow trout around two pounds, shiny and fat, one of the thousands of pounds of rainbows stocked in the reservoir this summer.

Loon Lake in the Crystal Basin of El Dorado County has been known in the angling community for decades as a pristine location for trollers and bank anglers to catch large numbers of holdover and planted rainbow trout. The future of trout fishing at Loon Lake is even brighter, due to a new trout planting program that was initiated in 2015.

Bill Hayes shows off a huge mackinaw that he caught while trolling guide and tackle manufacturer Ken Mathis.
Bill Hayes shows off a huge mackinaw that he caught while trolling at Union Valley with guide and tackle manufacturer Ken Mathis.

SMUD, in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), this July and August stocked Loon Lake, Ice House and Union reservoirs in El Dorado County with a total of over 25,000 pounds of rainbow trout. These stocked trout, like the ones I caught, were one to two pounds each and in a few years could be potential trophy fish.

Darold Perry, SMUD’s supervisor for hydro license implementation, said, “The amount of fish stocked can number as high as 50,000 pounds in a given year, depending on matched stocking by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. We started this project last year, and we’ll be doing it annually.”

The effort helps SMUD meet conditions of operating its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for the Upper American River Project (UARP).

SMUD’s Loon Lake offers excellent boat launching facilities, including a concrete ramp and boat dock.
SMUD’s Loon Lake offers excellent boat launching facilities, including a concrete ramp and boat dock.

The federal government awarded SMUD new 50-year FERC license in 2014 to continue operating the UARP that provides nearly 700 megawatts of low-cost, hydro power, enough to provide about 15 percent of SMUD’s energy capacity during an average year, according to SMUD.

SMUD says the effort is intended to increase angling opportunities for the general public. Surveys conducted in the recreation area show fishing to be the top reason people visit.  “It will also increase prey opportunities for nesting eagles, osprey and other wildlife,” noted Perry, a biologist by training.

“SMUD is a valued partner and we look forward to continuing our shared goal of stocking some of the most pristine lakes of the Sierra with rainbow trout,” said CDFW Environmental Program Manager Kevin Thomas. “I frequently fish at Ice House Reservoir and look forward to one day catching some of those trophy trout.”

Union Valley will receive the largest number of fish, since it’s the largest of the three reservoirs, and Loon Lake and Ice House will get lesser amounts. This summer Loon received a total of 6,250 pounds of rainbows, Ice House got 8,750 pounds and Union Valley received 10,000 pounds. Mount Lassen Trout Farms of Payne’s Creek has been contracted to deliver and stock additional fish.

Steve Page of Antioch landed these two rainbows while trolling at Loon Lake on September 14
Steve Page of Antioch landed these two rainbows while trolling at Loon Lake on September 14


Located an elevation of 6358 feet 45 miles northwest of Placerville at the edge of the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area, the 76,200 acre-feet lake is formed by Loon Lake Dam, completed in 1963 by Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

The lake, designed to conserve spring snowmelt runoff for use during the summer and autumn for hydroelectric power production, is part of SMUD’s Upper American River Project. The conifer-lined alpine lake, silhouetted by the snow-graced peaks of the Crystal Range, is in my opinion the most beautiful of all of SMUD’s Crystal Basin lakes.

Loon Lake Dam impounds water at the headwaters of Gerle Creek that, prior to the dam, flowed intermittently through Loon and Pleasant Lakes, both natural lakes. However, most of the water now stored in Loon Lake Reservoir arrives from Buck Island Reservoir in the adjacent Rubicon River watershed by way of the Buck-Loon Tunnel.

I had only fished Loon a couple of times before my latest trip, the first in the summer of 2000, when I landed a limit of gorgeous rainbows while trolling Cripplures with Dale Daneman of Dale’s Foothill Fishing. The second was a bank fishing adventure at the reservoir in the summer of 2011 where I again landed a limit of rainbow trout.

Rick Grimmett of Citrus Heights was trolling the lake with his grandson, 7-year-old Gus that day and gushed about the solid fishing available at the lake.

“I like to troll with Sling Blades with dodgers or small Rapalas around 15 feet deep here,” he noted. “I always catch a lot of fish at Loon. We’re going to go out trolling near the dam at 5:00 pm after we set up camp.”

“I catch mostly rainbows here, although I have in the past caught browns up to 18 inches,” he noted. “The few guys who target browns reported catching fish up to 10 pounds while trolling plugs, but you have to be very patient.”

That day, I also saw two other anglers in a boat traveling right near the ramp. I asked them if they had seen any shore fishermen catching fish on the lake.

“Hike down below that concrete structure on the lake north of here and you should do well,” one gentleman advised me. “There’s a big concentration of fish right off the shelf there – we’ve been hooking lots of rainbows there in our boat.”

After thanking the angler for the tip, I drove over to the parking area near the structure, the intake to a tunnel to Union Valley Reservoir. I quickly caught my limit of rainbows, including one beautiful square tailed holdover, while employing orange and yellow Power Bait.

One my latest trip, on September14, I again fished that spot during the late afternoon and found trout success once again. Fishing pressure was very light; there were only two boats on the lake when I arrived. Steve Page of Antioch showed me two rainbows that he caught trolling spoons in the top 20 feet of water.

Set right at the edge of the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area, Loon Lake is a great place to fish, hike, boat and camp.
Set right at the edge of the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area, Loon Lake is a great place to fish, hike, boat and camp.

I ended up being the only angler on the lake after those anglers in two boats left. There are few things better than catching big trout in total solitude on a gorgeous reservoir right next to the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area.

One of the great things about fishing Loon is that there are other superb fishing opportunities nearby. You can fish for planted brown and rainbow trout at Icehouse Reservoir or you can target mackinaws, kokanee salmon, rainbows and smallmouth bass at Union Valley Lake. Gerle Creek Reservoir also features a wild brown fishery.

The CDFW historically stocked 9,000 rainbows in Loon, 6,000 rainbows per year in Union Valley and around 10,000 rainbows in Ice House, but these numbers have been increased, due to the agreement between SMUD and CDFW. Stafford Lehr, now Chief of the CDFW Inland Fisheries Branch, played an instrumental role in negotiating an agreement that provides both doubling of the current numbers of trout planted at the Crystal Basin reservoirs and enhanced stream flows for native species


Crystal Basin Recreation Area Facts

History: In 1957, SMUD began construction of the Upper American River Project (UARP), a series of hydroelectric power plants in the Crystal Basin.   As part of this project, SMUD created a network of beautiful mountain reservoirs. Through careful planning with the Forest Service, SMUD built a variety of recreational facilities around the reservoirs. Spanning 85,000 acres of pine and fir forests and traversed by lakes, reservoirs and streams, Crystal Basin offers a diverse range of exciting outdoor adventure. Working together, SMUD and the Forest Service continue to provide land- and water-based recreation opportunities for all visitors to enjoy.

Camping: More than 700 developed campsites are available, each with a fire ring and grate, table and parking space. Piped water, trash containers and toilets are available at most campgrounds. Most sites require fees and reservations.

Fishing: Anglers can target rainbow trout at Loon Lake, rainbow and brown trout at Ice House Reservoir, smallmouth bass, mackinaw, kokanee salmon, German brown or rainbow trout in Union Valley Reservoir and wild brown trout in Gerle Creek Reservoir.

Boating: All of the lakes have boat ramp access. Loon Lake, Ice House Reservoir, Union Valley Reservoir have paved boat ramps and are large enough to accommodate motor boats. The lakes are large and provide ample space for manuvering.

Fishing Guide Services: Contact Dale Dale Daneman, Dale’s Foothill Fishing Guide  Service , (530) 295-0488, www.dalesfoothillfishing.com.

Hiking: Hikers can access more than 117 miles of trails across the Sierra Nevada. Many offer easy to moderate day hikes.

Loon Lake Chalet: Skier, hikers and mountain bikers can take refuge in this year-round chalet offering a large warming room, small kitchen and sleeping accommodations for 20.

Wheelchair access: Many of the developed areas throughout the Basin are accessible for people with disabilities. The fishing pier at Gerle Creek, several of the parking areas, and the paved boat ramps at the reservoirs accommodate wheelchairs.

More information: For reservations or more information about the availability of recreational facilities at the El Dorado National Forest, call 530-644-2349. For maps, brochures and other information, got to: http://www.smud.org/en/about/Pages/recreation-crystal.aspx/ Call You can also call SMUD at 1-888-742.7683 for a Crystal Basin Recreation Area brochure and map.

Loon Lake