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Written By: Cal Kellogg, April 2, 2014
Location: Bullards Bar Reservoir,
Bullards Bar Reservoir: Most Norcal anglers have heard the name, but relatively few have made an effort to visit the Yuba County lake. I’m a great example of this. I’ve lived within 90 minutes of the lake for more than 15 years and up until a few years ago I’d only fished the lake a couple times and on both of those occasions my focus was on catching kokanee salmon.
It was back in 2009 that I started hearing rumors, whispers here and comments there indicating that the lake had become a sleeper black bass fishery, playing host to smallmouths, Florida strain largemouths and a huge population of quality spotted bass. When I visited the lake a couple years later, the rumors and whispers were confirmed. We’ll talk more about the fishing I enjoyed on that trip in a bit, but first I should probably introduce the lake to the uninitiated.
The plans for the formation of Bullards Bar Reservoir were first sketched in response to the great floods of 1955. By 1959 formal plans were drawn and funding was sought. It took a while, but the dam was ultimately completed in 1969.
The size of the dam and resulting reservoir are quite impressive. The dam is 2,323 feet in length and has a height of 645 feet, ranking it among the top 40 in terms of the world's largest dams. When at full capacity the reservoir holds 996,103 acre feet of water earmarked for irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power production. In terms of total size the reservoir is among the 50 largest in the world.
The reservoir sets at an elevation of 2,000 feet. It derives its water from the Yuba River watershed and is located in a heavily forested network of canyons.
The basin that now holds the lake was covered with timber that was logged before the lake filled. The result is that nearly everywhere you go you’ll find stumps, thousands of them.
The back of just about every cove features a creek that ranges from a few inches to a few feet in width. In the spring most of these creeks are flowing. Since the water level at Bullards varies a good deal throughout the fall and winter months most of these creek beds are kept quite distinct by flowing water and offer unique structure when the lake level is up and creek beds are submerged.
For a long time bass anglers pretty much avoided Bullards because it had a reputation of being a small fish lake. In searching through DFG tournament data, I found the record of a 2006 tournament at the lake that hosted 44 boats. The teams average 4 keepers, however the big fish weighed in at an anemic 1.3 pounds.
Between then and now things have changed dramatically. The lake’s spots are enjoying a growth spurt and no one is really sure why. From what I’ve been able to learn from locals, 3 and 4 pound spots are extremely common and if you fish the lake seriously you’ll pick up one or more spotted bass at or above 5 pounds throughout the course of the year. If luck is on your side, you might eclipse the 5 pound mark by a wide margin.
Since this spotted bass size boom is a recent trend, it is very hard to get information about the lake. Most folks even in bass fishing circles don’t know much about the lake and those that do are rarely willing to talk. In talking with folks that know the lake, the consensus seems to be that the lake’s bass are feeding heavily on juvenile trout and kokanee.
I caught my first large spots at Bullards during a winter trolling trip with Fish Sniffer Publisher Paul and Merv Arnold. Bass were the last thing on my mind, but as we drove to the lake my cell phone rang. It was Sheldon Bright, Fish Sniffer sales representative and northern California bass pro.
He asked me if I had any bass stuff with me and told me that he’d been hearing about some big spots being caught in recent days. I told him that I only had trout gear with me, but that I did have a couple cans of night crawlers. He advised rigging up a couple rods for drop shotting and working a main lake point with the night crawlers. “The water is cold so you’ll probably find the spots holding between 15 and 40 feet deep,” he advised.
We got to the lake at about 10 in the morning. After launching the boat. We ran far up one of the lake’s arms and located some willing rainbows. Before we knew it, it was after 2 o’clock and almost time to hit the road, so we decided to troll down the river arm.
As we came around a bend we found ourselves in a bay with the surface being dotted by jumping kokanee that were in the 3 to 4 inch range, but the way they were jumping was strange. The way they shot out of the water it looked almost as if they were being chased.
I was trolling a silver wobbling spoon about 5 feet beneath the surface. Just as the boat entered the area of surface activity, my rod got slammed and I’d hooked something that I could barely move with my spinning rod armed with 4 pound test. I worked on the fish slowly and eventually got it to the boat. I was expecting to see a brown trout, but it was a spotted bass weighing nearly 4 pounds that materialized behind the boat.
After taking photos of my big bass and releasing it we rigged up for drop shotting with night crawlers. While we were able to hook a couple more bass in the 3 pound class while working a huge stump dotted point we mainly had problems.
Our trout gear was simply too light to hook and hold the bass. With our soft trout rods we had trouble driving hooks home and when we did get a hook up the bass would surge into the stumps and break us off.
Since that day I’ve been back to the lake many times armed with bass gear and I’ve nearly always found exceptional action.
Understanding the forage base that Bullards bass exploit is one of the keys to successfully catching bass at the lake. According to Bob Boucke of Johnson’s Bait and Tackle in Yuba City, the lake’s ecosystem really began to change about a decade ago. The lake’s once robust kokanee population began to dwindle and the spotted bass got larger and more abundant.
“The fingerling trout and kokanee planted in the lake, provided perfect food for the bass - they started growing like crazy,” says Boucke.
Besides trout and salmon, the bass also feed on the lake’s abundant crayfish population, making Bullards Bar “spots” unusually fat, “football” shaped.
Boucke relates that anglers use live crayfish and minnows to entice Bullards Bar bass, along with plastic worms, swimbaits, spinnerbaits and drop shot rigs.
Sheldon Bright was among the first anglers to begin targeting Bullards spots seriously.
“The best year-round method for catching spotted bass at Bullards Bar is drop shotting with shad pattern Robo Worms,” said Bright. “Throwing jigs and swimbaits is also effective.”
When the water warms up, throwing Lucky Craft ripbaits and Senkos can also be very productive. “On most lakes, you can expect to catch a 1 to 2 pound spotted bass on a Senko off a tree,” said Bright. “However, on Bullards Bar, you can expect to hook a 4 to 5 pound spotted bass while using the same method.”
Sheldon shared that the best bass fishing is generally available from May through July. “Anglers can catch and released 30 to 60 fish in a day during that period,” said Bright. “That’s really awesome fishing, especially when you consider that the bass average 2 to 4 pounds each.”
As is the case on many other lakes where Alabama spotted bass have been introduced, the fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass has declined on Bullards Bar.
“I can go 3 to 4 trips in a row without hooking a largemouth at Bullards Bar,” said Bright. “And largemouth over 3 pounds are rare. The smallmouth numbers have also declined; although you can hook a few if you target the areas known to hold smallmouths.”
“Bullards Bar has an amazing, healthy spotted bass fishery,” concluded Bright.
In the final analysis, the dominance of spotted bass over smallmouth and largemouth bass in Bullards is due to three major factors.
First, spotted bass spawn deeper in the water column than largemouths and smallmouths. They are less subject to the fluctuations in water levels common in California reservoirs during the spring spawning season.
Second, the “spots” frequent open water to feed on kokanee and trout, rather than just holding close to structure. This has resulted in trout and salmon trollers often hooking as many bass as salmonids while fishing open water on the reservoir.
Third, “spots” are very opportunistic feeders, continuing to feed when water temperatures cool down during the winter months, in contrast to smallmouth and largemouth bass. These unique and popular fish continue to be active when other members of the sunfish family develop “winter lockjaw.”
The Alabama spotted bass is a relatively recent introduction to the state’s fisheries, with the DFW introducing the fish to the state in 1974. Since that time spots have become not only the dominant bass, but the dominant predator at many northern and central California reservoirs.
While it is true that the average spot at lakes like Shasta and Oroville only run about 12 inches, this isn’t the case at Bullards where the average fish is over 2 pounds.
If you want to experience spotted bass action at it’s best, plan on visiting Bullards Bar this spring!
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