When the salmon season is closed on the ocean and Central Valley rivers, anglers still have the chance to hook both planted fall Chinook salmon and wild naturally-spawned fish on Folsom Reservoir, Sacramento’s backyard salmon and trout lake.
Within ten minutes of putting the rod in the water on Folsom Lake on January 25, the rod tip began to dance and the fish pulled the line off the downrigger. I grabbed the rod and fought the fish to the edge of the boat, where Jerry Lampkin of TNG Motor Sports Guide Service netted it.
The fish was a fat 12 inch Chinook, silvery and shiny. Lampkin released the fish back into Folsom’s clear and cold water. Not long after that, we landed another small but scrappy Chinook and released it also.
While the morning began with great expectations, that was the last fish landed that morning, although we did lose one other fish. We got off the water before noon while enjoying a beautiful, sunny morning on Folsom.
We trolled that morning with a variety of offerings, including a white/purple stripe Rapala on a top line and blue/ chrome Speedy Shiners, GVF Speedo lures and homemade white hoochie/spinner blade combos at 20, 30 and 40 feet deep behind Cannon downriggers. We also trolled nightcrawlers behind dodgers at different depths. We caught the two fish in the North Fork, but also trolled in the South Fork.
Three days before our trip, Lampkin and Jim Palmus from Lincoln landed three rainbows to 17 inches and two kings in the 12 inch range while trolling chrome/blue Speedy Shiners in the North Fork at 20 feet deep.
Folsom Lake, located on the American River above Folsom Dam, is the second reservoir in the state after Don Pedro where the successful spawning of Chinook salmon in the river above the dam has been documented by anglers and CDFW biologists.
The Chinooks were first stocked in 1999 and have been a very popular species with anglers because they grow to over 8 pounds in the forage-rich waters of Folsom. The CDFW stocks triploid (sterile) Chinook salmon in the lake when they are available to feed upon the abundant Japanese pond smelt and threadfin shad.
The CDFW planted 30,000 Chinooks in 2015 and another 42,588 Chinooks in 2016, but none were available in either 2017 or 2018. However, CDFW was able to plant 100,000 chinook fingerlings in Folsom in 2019.
“I’m not sure if there are Chinook still spawning, but I would assume there are,” said Jay Rowan, CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Supervisor.“That survey that we did on the South Fork several year ago was brutal physically and dangerous. It’s not one I’d send anyone in to repeat.”
“There has been at least some level of natural survival which I assume will try to spawn, but the fish we have stocked from 2014-to present will all be triploids,” said Rowan.
While spring is the overall best time to pursue Chinooks and rainbows on Folsom Lake, there is decent fishing available for the two species year round.
“Folsom is a finicky lake,” emphasized Lampkin. “One day you’re a hero, the next day you’re a zero. Some days are great, while some days you can’t find a fish.
Lampkin had his best day on Folsom a couple of years ago when his four clients landed 20 quality fish, including Chinooks up to 6 pounds as well as big holdover rainbows, before noon.
Lampkin and his fishing partners have landed salmon up to 7 pounds and rainbows up to 5 pounds while fishing on the lake after he began fishing the during the collapse of Sacramento River salmon populations during 2008 and 2009.
As an angler who has fished Folsom since I was 10 years, I concur with Lampkin on his assessment of Folsom as a “finicky” lake. I have experienced days catching limits of big holdover trout from shore – and other days when I have to struggle for one or two fish.
The first fishing trip I ever made to Folsom Lake was in the summer of 1963 when my aunt Alicerae drove me up to the lake to fish for bluegill. I had a great day catching bluegill in the Lakehills Estates are of the South Fork.
At that time, anglers didn’t target planted rainbows at Folsom – they went fishing for “landlocked steelhead.” During the fall and winter, you would see anglers fishing with minnows and nightcrawlers for these 16 to 22-inch fish from the bank at Mormon Island, Brown’s Ravine and other areas on the lake.
For years, there have been rumors about giant trout on Folsom. On a trip in May 2018, an angler fishing with James Netzel of Tightlines Guide Service hooked and lost a huge trout.
“The rainbow spit the hook when we got it up right up to the boat,” said Netzel. “We fought the fish for 15 minutes and had to follow it with the boat as the angler fought it.”
He first thought it might be a sturgeon, but when the angler got it up to the surface, Netzel could see it was a rainbow with a big red stripe on it. “I estimated it was close to 15 or 20 pounds, but we’ll never know because it swam away after the hook came off,” he said.
One might say that this is all just a fish story until you realize that the American River watershed has produced the largest wild and holdover rainbows found in the state. Not only that, but Alan Fong. manager of Fisherman’s Warehouse in Sacramento, was personally shown a photo of a 14 lb. rainbow caught at Folsom by a troller two years ago.
The American River below Nimbus Fish Hatchery produced a 25.04 lb. rainbow (legally considered a steelhead) in February 2002, while Lake Natoma above the dam produced a 27-1/2 lb. new inland state rainbow record in 2008.
The trout in Lake Natoma feed on the same forage species found in Folsom Lake, pond smelt and threadfin shad, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that a fish in the 15 to 20 lb. class could also come out of Folsom.
Bank anglers experience the top rainbow and king action in the fall during the period of the fall turnover from October through December. Fishermen regularly hook a mixture of holdover trout and salmon while tossing out PowerBait, nightcrawlers, minnows and other baits under bobbers and on sliding sinker rigs.
“There is also a fairly significant wild rainbow trout component in the fishery,” said Rowan.“The thought is that these fish use the North and South forks to rear, come down to the lake during certain times of year to feed and get out of the warm water in the forks, then head back up into the forks to spawn.
“I’m not sure by percentage how much of the catch they make up, but enough show up in pictures on the net that make me think it’s a fairly decent part of the fisher,” said Rowan.
Rainbow trout plants at Folsom have varied greatly from year to year. The American River Fish Hatchery planted Folsom with 13,300 pounds of rainbows in 2015, 5568 pounds in 2016, and 3250 pounds in 2017.The facility stocked 9,200 pounds for a total of 20,200 fish into Folsom Lake in 2018 and 9,600 pounds. for a total of 18,840 fish in 2019.
Besides rainbow trout and Chinook salmon, Folsom also features good populations of spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and channel catfish. For more information, contact Jerry Lampkin, TNG Motor Sports Guide Service, 530-320-0994, http://www.tngmotorsports.com.