California’s Free Fishing Day is Approaching. Here Are Our 15 Favorite NorCal Fisheries to Celebrate.

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan

Don’t miss the last chance to fish for free this year! Free Fishing Day in California is being offered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Saturday, September 3rd, during Labor Day weekend.

“Free Fishing Day is a great opportunity for experienced anglers to share their love of the sport with someone who’s never tried it,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham.

A basic annual resident sport fishing license in California currently costs $52.55, while a one-day sport fishing license costs $17.02. CDFW offers two Free Fishing Days each year – usually around the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend – when it’s legal to fish without one. If you would like to fish the rest of the year, please go to CDFW’s website for information about purchasing a license.

Here are the 15 best places to fish in Northern California on “Free Fishing Day” (as told by Chip O’Brien):

Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake. Photo by Brandon DesJarlais

North of Redding, home of Largemouth, smallmouth and Alabama spotted bass. Also wild and hatchery rainbow and brown trout. Shasta is big water. While there are some wading opportunities where the various tributaries flow in, it’s almost crazy to fish Shasta without a motorboat. (Although I’ve had a few surprisingly good days kicking around in a float tube, but I’m nuts.)

The list of fish species in Shasta Lake reads like the New York City white pages: Three species of bass (listed above), rainbow and brown trout, Chinook salmon, bluegill and green sunfish, brown and white bullheads and white sturgeon.

Fall River

Don’t even think about it without a boat. Access to Fall is limited to a scant few public launch sites (due to private property), and this is a fly fisher’s Nirvana. If this is the way you enjoy your “best” fishing, motor upstream slowly until you see pods of fish. Quietly drop anchor and wait a bit. The fish you scared will come back. The rest is up to you. (Great bird-watching here too!) Figure out a way not to get out of the boat to pee.

Learn more about fishing Fall River

Trinity River

West of Redding, think, big, nasty sea-run fish; steelhead, plus Chinook and coho salmon. For this kind of fishery, the Trinity is relatively small water. Lots of anglers enjoy wade fishing it, but a boat is a big advantage because you can cover much more water. It’s also a fairly long fishery, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get away from other anglers.

Learn more about fishing on the Trinity River

Trinity Lake

The former state record smallmouth bass came from Trinity Lake (Trinity County), and the current record inland Chinook salmon does too. Trinity offers Largemouth and smallmouth bass, salmon, rainbow and brown trout, bullheads and catfish. Like Shasta, Trinity is big water. A motorboat is pretty much a must.

Clear Lake

It’s west of Williams and north of Santa Rosa, and might be the best bass fishing lake in the country. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore all the other species present, like bluegill, catfish, carp, and crappie. The state record white crappie comes from clear lake. So why do I list carp here (not commonly seen as a game fish)? Because hooking one is like snagging a roaring freight train, that’s why!

Sacramento River

One of California’s longest rivers (second only to the Colorado River), the Sacramento has to be carved into sections. Between Redding and Mt. Shasta, the “upper”Sac is known for both wild and hatchery rainbow trout. Most of the river is catch-and-release, but there is a section where hatchery fish may be harvested. Down toward Shasta Lake the river also hosts smallmouth bass in the deeper pools.

All the water from Keswick Dam in Redding downstream is referred to as the “lower” Sac, and there’s a lot going on here. I haven’t a clue how many guides in drift boats work the river between Redding and Red Bluff, but I’m sure the number is staggering, and for good reason. In addition to rainbow trout, the river holds pink and Chinook salmon (in season), American shad, striped bass, steelhead and white sturgeon. When the water is high in the summertime, you can also find largemouth and smallmouth bass in the warm, weedy sloughs along the edges. The state record pink and Chinook salmon came from the Sacramento River.

Below Red Bluff the water tends to be a little warmer, so warm-water and anadromous species tend to dominate. There are also salmon guides aplenty.

Learn more about fishing the Sacramento River

Hat Creek

This smallish spring creek southeast of Burney is a shrine to fly fishing and wild trout. Wild-eyed anglers, sometimes waving bamboo rods worth more than my car, drool if even one of these ultra-selective trout looks at their fly. It isn’t really that tough, but the more skill you have, the better. The success of transforming the fishery from a put-and-take fishery in the 1960s into a world class, wild trout Mecca inspired the formation of California Trout and the California Wild Trout Program. If you’re into it, this is the Vatican of California fly fishing.

Learn more about fishing Hat Creek

Hot Creek

Photo by Shea Rouda

East of Mammoth Lakes, there is scant more than a mile of public water here. Why bother include it in an article on the “best” places to fish? In that mile there are roughly 10,000 wild rainbow and brown trout. Fly Fishing, catch-and-release only. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but another shrine to wild trout management and fly fishing.

Owens River

Photo by Dane Deaner 

Not far south of Hot Creek, the Owens is mainly wild brown trout habitat, and some are huge. This eastern Sierra area is stunningly beautiful. A day fishing here will not soon be forgotten. There is room for both wade fishing and drifting this river.

Yuba River

Photo by Daniel Nylen

Not far north of Sacramento, the Yuba just seems to get better and better. Like a lot of rivers, you can wade it or drift it, but drifting is the way to go if you can. Much of this river runs through huge mine tailings from the gold rush era. This stream is well known for good dry fly fishing.

American River

Here’s a River flowing through downtown Sacramento, and yet can offer surprisingly good fishing. The American has Chinook and pink salmon, rainbow trout, steelhead, and American shad. Parts of it can be ugly and trash-filled. Other sections are just simply beautiful. A boat helps a lot here, but is not mandatory. This river can offer surprisingly good fishing for being such an urban river. Worth it if you live in the area and don’t feel like too much driving.

Putah Creek

Another fishery brought back from the brink, Putah is roughly an hour north of San Francisco. Though fire has denuded sections in the last few years, the fish haven’t noticed much. There are a lot of rainbow trout here, and some big ones. It can get crowded due to its proximity to so many people, but can be really great in the non-peak periods. Anglers are urged to leave it alone in the wintertime to allow these wild fish to successfully spawn. No bait is permitted.

Pit River

North of Burney, the Pit is rugged wading but chock-full of wild rainbow trout (and a few browns). Below Lake Britton is a series of dams and powerhouses carving the river into distinct sections, and some of these sections are quite remote. The farther you are willing to hike, the better the fishing is likely to be. With a little hiking you will not see another angler all day long. There’s a lot of Pit River to fish between Lake Britton and Lake Shasta. The section below Lake Britton Dam sees a lot of fishing guides and clients.

Learn more about fishing the Pit River

McCloud River

South of McCloud, this is a put-and take trout fishery with hatchery fish above Lake McCloud (stunning waterfalls and campgrounds) and a wild trout, catch-and-release fishery below popular with fly anglers. The state record bull trout came from Lake McCloud in 1968, but are likely all gone now. Above the lake are rainbow trout. Below the lake are rainbows and browns. The scenery above and below the lake is breathtaking.

Learn more about fishing the McCloud River

Truckee River

Flowing between the Nevada border and Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River is another (there are quite a few in California) trout fishing Mecca. No bait permitted.

Of course this list is vastly incomplete, and that’s one of the truly great things about NorCal. Great fishing opportunities abound. Beyond naming a few of the famous places to fish in the north state, I hope this begins a conversation about places either included or not. (Remember, don’t give away too much.) Feel free to comment, and let’s see where this goes! What would you consider a “best”place to fish?

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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