By Tom Stienstra
On a trip through California’s Gold Country last month, we drove over the dam at Lake Tulloch near Sonora, and like most, had a provocative response: Look at all that water!
Tulloch, as are a few recreation lakes across Northern California, is kept full or close to it year-round, even when other reservoirs are drained to puddles.
Throughout spring, brilliant sunshine, blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s arrive across the valleys and foothill country. And so begins the boating and lake recreation season in Northern California.
After high water exports last year and a drought through January, many lakes are still very low. Yet a few are high and rising. As spring arrives and access opens to the high country, now through May, these 10 lakes are the best bets:
* Pardee Lake, east of Stockton: When Pardee first emerges into view, it is one of the most stunning sights in the foothills: big and beautiful, with emerald-green water surrounded by neon green foothills. It’s full of fish, whether trolling for trout or kokanee salmon up the Columbia Gorge, or fishing for smallmouth or largemouth bass. Pretty lakeside campsites for tents or RVs solve overnight issues. 81 percent full and rising. Info: Pardee Lake, 209-772-1472, www.pardeelakerecreation.com
* Tulloch, west of Sonora (Tuolumne County): Tulloch, 84 percent full and climbing, is one of a few lakes where there are lakeside homes and lodging. Trout fishing is decent in the spring and the lake is full of crawdads. As summer heat arrives, Tulloch is a destination for water sports. Nearby Copperopolis has one of the best ice-cream parlors anywhere, with the slogan: “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy ice cream.” Info: South Lake Tulloch RV Campground & Marina, 800-894-2267, www.laketullochcampground.com.
* Englebright Lake, east of Marysville (Yuba County): Englebright is nestled in a deep canyon, ideal for those with car-top or small, trailered boats at the upper end (bigger boats at the lower end at Skippers Cove Marina), with good fishing for trout. More than 100 boat-in campsites make it a great place to open the spring season. 97 percent full. Info: Skippers Cove Marina, 530-432-6302, www.englebrightlake.com.
* Lake Natoma, Folsom (Sacramento County): Whatever you call it — Natoma, Natomas or Nimbus (it goes by all three) — this long, narrow lake is the afterbay below Folsom Dam on the American River. Folsom came up from 17 percent full to 33 percent in four weeks, and Nimbus is solid at 80 percent. This is a great lake for kayaks, canoes and sculls. 5-mph speed limit. California State Parks, 916-988-0205, www.parks.ca.gov.
* Lewiston Lake, Weaverville (Trinity County): Lewiston is a jewel nestled at the foot of the Trinity Alps. It’s a long, narrow lake located just below the dam at Trinity Lake. The lake is almost always full, now at 96 percent, with cold, pure water. When the water flows in from Trinity Dam, the trout fishing is excellent at the upper end of the lake. Anglers often find some of California’s best “still water” fly-fishing on the northwest side of the lake on late-spring and early-summer evenings. Info: Pine Cove Marina, 530-778-3770, www.pine-cove-marina.com.
* Whiskeytown Lake, Redding: Though giant Shasta Lake (only 40 percent full) can provide high numbers of fish, it is Whiskeytown that has the big ones, especially big bass on large swimbaits. Whiskeytown is kept high, 87 percent full this week. In spring, afternoon winds out of the northwest provide some of the best conditions for sailing and windsurfing in the north state. Info: Whiskeytown Visitor Center, 530-246-1225, www.nps.gov/whis.
* Antelope Lake, Plumas National Forest: At an elevation of 5,000 feet, spring won’t arrive at Antelope Lake until late April, but keep this lake on your radar. It has many lakeside campsites, the trout fishing is good and the lake is always kept high. This week, even with other lakes in the Feather River drainage 40 to 65 percent full, Antelope was 84 percent and rising. Info: Plumas National Forest, Mt. Hough Ranger District, 530-283-0555; www.fs.usda.gov/plumas.
* Bucks Lake, Quincy (Plumas County): Bucks Lake is the crown jewel for the northern part of the county, with great trout fishing (including huge Mackinaw trout), camping and cabins. It is set in forest at an elevation of 5,200 feet. Info: Sportsmen’s Den, Quincy, 530-283-2733; Bucks Lake blog, www.buckslake.net.
* Lakes Basin Rec Area, Graeagle (Plumas County): This is better known as the Gold Lakes Basin, where eight lakes with camping are available within close range of the Gold Lakes Highway. The lakes look like they’ll be full for spring: Lower Sardine, Packer, Salmon, Snag, Haven, Goose, Gold and Long, and many others within hiking range. This is an ideal area to bring your camping gear and your kayak, canoe or other car-top boat. Elevations range to 6,400 feet at Gold Lake. The roads in should be accessible by late April. Info: Tahoe National Forest, Yuba River Ranger District, 530-288-3231, Plumas National Forest, Beckwourth Ranger District, 530-836-2575; www.fs.fed.us/r5.
* Carson Pass lakes: A mosaic of small lakes, set high near Carson Pass at 7,000- to 8,000-foot elevations, all look to be full as the first signs of spring arrive in the high country in May. Caples Lake, Woods Lake, Red Lake, Kirkwood Lake, Burnside Lake all provide good shore fishing for trout. With a small boat, Caples can be great at ice-out. There are a variety of campsites, from primitive walk-in sites to RV sites within range. Eldorado National Forest, Carson Pass Management Area, Amador Ranger District, 209-295-4251, www.fs.usda.gov/eldorado.