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Written By: Dan Bacher, August 18, 2014
Location: Union Valley Reservoir,
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Union Valley Reservoir is not only the largest of the lakes of the Crystal Basin Recreation Area in the Eldorado National Forest, but it has the most diverse fishery.
Anglers can catch rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, mackinaw trout, German browns and even smallmouth bass in its clear waters below the snowcapped granite peaks of the Crystal Range.
A trip by Fish Sniffer Publisher Paul Kneeland and Bruce Wicks of Foresthill on July 26 exemplified the variety of species the lake produces. The two anglers landed 6 kokanee ranging from 14 to 15-1/2 inches, two rainbows measuring 14 inches each and the most exciting catch of the day – a 13.3 lb. mackinaw, along with two mackinaws measuring 17 inches long.
“We caught most of the kokanee on a a pink Uncle’s Larry spinner behind a copper/pink Vance’s dodger,” said Kneeland. “We hooked the mackinaw on a small blue/purple Ex-cel spoon while trolling with downriggers and Uncle Larry’s cannonball flashers at 60 feet deep near the dam.”
“I landed the big mack while using a Cousins 7’ 9” ultralight kokanee rod with 6 lb. Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon line,” he noted. “It took 25 minutes to land and barely fit in the net.”
While the piscatorial duo did well, they said that is was an overall tough bite for the other anglers that they surveyed, who had just one or two kokanee.
While Kneeland’s fish was a huge one, there are even bigger mackinaws swimming in the lake. Anglers fishing with Ken Mathis of Ken’s Custom Tackle broke the lake record twice this year, with the biggest a 24.8 lb. fish caught in May.
On May 14, Matt Hayes landed a mackinaw measuring 37 inches long and 21 inches in girth and weighing 24.8 pounds while jigging in 47 feet of water during a guided trip with Mathis.
“We located some large arcs at 47 ft,” said Mathis. “So down went a 2 oz weight with a 30 inch leader with a frozen herring. We were able to watch the weight drop down on the fishfinder right next to the biggest arc. “
“Then the fun began. This fish went from about 47 ft. of water out to about 110 ft. After about a 26 minute long battle on light line, we were finally able to get this beast into the net. This was just in time for the frayed leader to give out,” said Mathis.
“She was full with a 14 inch smallmouth bass, a limit of kokanee, all about 12 inches long and in various stages of digestion, and a decayed treble hook,” said Mathis. “She also had 2 large egg skeins that had to have weighed at least a pound.”
Then on May 21, Bill Hayes of Citrus Heights put a beautiful trophy mack in the boat after a long battle on light line while jigging. This fish measured 37 inches long and 21 inches in girth and tipped the scale at 22.7 lbs.
“The best time to hook the macks is usually from February through May,” said Mathis. “However, this year produced phenomenal mackinaw fishing until the Department of Fish and Wildlife planted a bunch of rainbows in the lake when the American River Fish Hatchery was evacuated in June.”
Mathis finds the best action while trolling his Double Flutter lures and frozen herring behind his 10-inch dodgers. He also jigs with herring/dodger combinations in the latter part of the season.
The mackinaws feed on a number of fish, including smallmouth bass, sunfish, kokanee and planted rainbows
“The mackinaw were planted in the 1980s and now they are naturally reproducing,” said Mathis. “While you have a chance of catching a trophy fish over 20 pounds on every trip, the average mack caught weighs 3 to 5 pounds.”
The shore fishing can be very good at times, though most anglers fish from a boat at Union Valley.
My first-ever trip to Union Valley reservoir was a shore fishing adventure with a Boy Scout Troop in 1964. I remember that long, windy drive on a dirt road to the campsite – the roads have long been paved in the years since. After we made camp, we went to bed and then woke up at dawn the next morning.
I remember the scoutmaster hooking trout after trout from the bank while using salmon eggs with split shot. I imitated what he was doing and soon landed five rainbows myself.
Unfortunately, not long after catching the fish and I began to feel sick. By that night, I came down with a fever. By the next day it was apparent I had my second case of the measles – an event that my doctor said was impossible, but had happened nonetheless.
Since then I have fished Union Valley for kokanee, mackinaw and rainbows, but I still remember the fishing trip where I “lucked out” by getting the measles the second time.
Kokanee fishing is usually best from mid June through mid August. The kokanee caught this year have ranged from 12 to 14 inches.
Union Valley is one of the few lakes where you can catch the kokanee while top-line trolling in the spring. When the thermocline forms, then the fish go down deep. At press time, anglers were catching the kokanee on a variety of offerings at 40 to 60 feet deep, according to Mathis.
The Department of Fish and Game stocked 49,998 kokanee salmon in Union Valley in the spring of 2013. Since 2006 the lake has been stocked with anywhere from 25,000 to 50,0076 kokanee each year, with most years receiving around 50,000 fish.
One thing anglers need to figure into their kokanee fishing strategy at Union Valley during the summer is the current created through the lake when the two powerhouses are running. When the water warms up, the cool, oxygenated water coming out of the powerhouses draws the kokanee.
The CDFW plants rainbows in the reservoir from May through September. Anglers catch many rainbows here while targeting kokanee, as Kneeland and Wicks found on their recent trip.
Smallmouth bass are the sleeper fishery at Union Valley. Catching bass is not easy here, but you can nail fish up to 2 pounds while fishing finesse plastics in crayfish and minnow patterns. The top area is the south side of Peninsula Point or any rocky shoreline throughout the lake.
German brown trout are also present, but are relatively uncommon in the catches at Union Valley. If you want to catch browns, you can go to nearby Icehouse Reservoir, where the browns are more abundant. Browns are also found in good numbers in other Crystal Basin lakes, such as Gerle Creek Reservoir and Junction Reservoir, the afterbay of Union Valley.
Union Valley can be fished year round, although you should exercise caution and check the weather reports when fishing the reservoir during the winter.
Union Valley is a SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) Reservoir, along with Icehouse, Loon, Gerle Creek and Junction reservoirs. SMUD began construction of the Upper American River Project, a series of hydroelectric power plants in the Crystal Basin, in 1957.
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