As long as there isn’t too much snow to access the lake, or if the lake isn’t frozen over, Lake Almanor is one of California’s best winter trout fisheries. I’ve had stellar days of fishing with morning temperatures in the low double digits.
My little 12′ Lowe Johnboat actually banged its way through the chunks of ice floating on the surface. Large schools of pond smelt were suspended in open water as thousands of Western Grebes wintering on the lake dove to fill their bellies.
Almanor is one of my favorite lakes to fish when the weather gets cold. As you might expect, the boat pressure is light. What may surprise anglers is that the fish bite really well in the winter. When the surface temperature is a measly 39 degrees, the trout actually feed aggressively at this big reservoir.
There are three ways to target these mid winter trout. The first way is to toss bait from the bank. I’ve seen some local yokels around that stake out their favorite bank fishing spots, and the guys routinely pull out some really nice browns and rainbows.
The hot bait is an inflated crawler. I don’t suspect that these guys are catching a whole lot of fish, yet the fish they are catching are some brutes. Five to seven pound browns are a legitimate possibility for patient and cold hardy anglers soaking inflated night crawlers.
The other two methods are both trolling methods, but they are vastly different. The first method is to pull bright chrome/black back minnow plugs at a quick pace. I like F-11 Rapalas or Yo-Zuri Pin Minnows.
I don’t troll them quite as quick as I would in the summer, spring or fall. I just like to go fast enough to get the plug wiggling a little. Twisting the throttle often results in strikes.
Once again, keep in mind that these fish don’t want the plug going 4.5 MPH; instead, just keep it wiggling. The strike usually isn’t a jarring blow. The rod just loads up and starts pumping. The craziest thing about Almanor in the winter is that huge schools of pond smelt will gather in open water. This can be some of the most mindless trolling there is.
Put a minnow plug out 300′ behind the boat and troll around flocks of diving grebes. What’s even more shocking is that you won’t just encounter rainbows employing this method. You’ll also catch the occasional open water brown trout that would more often be associated with thick cover such as downed under- water trees.
Almanor also has some huge Sacramento pike-minnow (formerly known as squawfish). It always cracks me up when I hear people talk about how hard these fish fight.
I’ve caught hundreds or maybe thousands of pike-minnows throughout my life, and one thing they don’t do is fight for squat. They hit hard, and then they come in like a piece of moss. Be that as it may, I recall a January morning where I hooked a large fish and started slowly working it towards the boat.
The fish took a slow and deliberate line towards a buoy and wrapped the line on the buoy’s anchor chain. I carefully put the boat in reverse and regained the lost line. When I got to the buoy, I looked down approximately 10′ and saw a huge ten plus pound pike-minnow with my plug in its mouth. Unfortunately, I had no way of freeing my line, and the fish was lost.
The third way to fish Almanor in the dead of winter is to slowly drag a nightcrawler along the lake’s bottom. I particularly like the lake’s east shore. Be prepared to donate some tackle to the downed trees and stumps that make up the lake’s bottom structure. I’ve even lost a couple of downrigger balls.
That’s where the big browns spend the bulk of their time, and they seem to have a real affinity for eating a slowly trolled crawler. In fact, it seems like the single best tactic for seducing Salmo trutta at this lake. The real complaint I have for this method isn’t just the fact that tackle will be lost in abundance, but so will plenty of fish.
These fish will be nippers. Don’t expect them to absolutely clobber a nightcrawler on the slow troll. It will be more of a “doink, doink” kind of a bite.
It’s the kind of bite where you stare at a rod tip for hours and then notice the rod tip bob about an inch or two very briefly. The likelihood is that a very reluctant to eat brown has actually taken the bait.
Yank the rod out of the holder, reel down and set the hook. The result is often a brown hooked in the very tip of the upper jaw. These aren’t your garden variety browns either. Almanor has probably one of the best average sizes in the state for brown trout.
These fish will typically fall between 3-6 pounds. A true trophy brown over the magical ten pound mark isn’t out of the question. Lightly hooked large fish is a great recipe for heartbreak.
If you get tired of the holiday season and the gluttony and boredom that comes with it, head into the Northern Sierra and give Almanor a try this winter. The big browns and rainbows will be happy to blow the dust off your tackle.