Denis Peirce: Colder temps worth braving in the Sierra for rewarding day on water |

Denis Peirce: Colder temps worth braving in the Sierra for rewarding day on water

Gary Butrim, who lives in the Seattle area, enjoys fall fishing at Pyramid Lake in Nevada.
Denis Peirce/Submitted photo |

There is a predictable annual cycle to fishing. The heat of summer and the depths of a cold winter are the toughest times to be successful. The transition periods of spring and fall are the prime times to be out on the water.

When it comes to trout fishing in the Sierra lakes, I have found the prime transition times to be brief some years. In lakes, trout behavior is dictated in large part by water temperatures. Below 45 degrees the food chain declines and the fish tend to go off the bite. Yes, we could go ice fishing but I would rather not. Above the low 70s, water starts losing its ability to hold oxygen and trout seek cooler depths where it is easier to breathe.

The temperature for peak trout activity and feeding is 57 degrees. Add or subtract 5 degrees to that number and you can still be assured of a good shot at catching some fish.

The problem is that as the water temps reach that magic number they often keep right on moving. The perfect situation would be a long pause at 57 degrees. The sun getting lower in the sky and winter storms beginning to arrive make this a rare occurrence.

At the end of October many of the larger lakes in the Sierra hit the 55 to 59 degree range. I found it remarkable that so many lakes at different elevations were within a couple of degrees of one another, Lake Almanor (4,500 feet in elevation), Eagle Lake (5,100), Lake Tahoe (6,200), Donner Lake (5,900), Crowley Lake (6,900), Pyramid Lake Nevada (3,800). The fishing reports were remarkably similar.

At Lake Almanor the pond smelt forage fish had moved into the shallows around the lake. During low light conditions the rainbow trout are in as little as 3 feet of water looking for food. In sunny conditions the trout moved out to deeper water, with anglers targeting the 10 to 15 foot depths. Early and late, shore anglers could reach the fish without getting their feet wet, and the boat anglers were casting towards the shore. There have been some brown trout in evidence near the dam and in the vicinity of the mouth of the North Fork Feather River. The best flies have been Jay Fair Wiggle Tails in olive and smelt imitations.

Eagle Lake is reaching its peak for trout fishing. The rainbows are feeding near the top of the water column throughout the day. They are close to the bank early and late as well as during overcast days. One report mentioned the trout had schools of minnows corralled up against the rock levy outside the marina. The minnows were thick among the boulders and the trout would dart in from the deeper water to grab them. Other reports mentioned submerged rock piles as structure that the rainbows were feeding near. A minnow lure or fly cast over shallow rocky structure and pulled out to deeper water was producing quite well.

The boat launch is still functional but shore launched kayaks and float tubes can get you on the water conveniently.

Shawn from Shawn’s Guide Service has been guiding Donner Lake targeting mackinaw in the deep water spawning zones. If the macs are not on the bite, he will target rainbows around the perimeter of the lake. When the lake is glassy the rainbows can be seen feeding at the surface sporadically throughout the day. He did mention that there were kokanee in spawning colors staging off the west end stream that was too low for them to ascend.

Danny Salvador guides Lake Tahoe. For the last two weeks, he has been targeting the rainbow trout along the south east shore on the Nevada side. He has been trolling the 20- to 30-foot contour line pulling minnow imitating plugs well over 100 feet behind his boat. The rainbows at Tahoe are good size with many in the 20-inch range. Danny commented that fall is good for rainbows but the spring bite is even better. The mackinaw are in spawning mode in deep water.

Pyramid Lake Nevada has dropped down to prime trout temperatures also. Through the month of October the trout were commonly found down 20 feet or more with the water in the mid 60s. With the recent storms cooling the water the fish have been coming into the shallows where shore based anglers have access to them. The best fall action will last until the temps drop through the mid 40s which usually only takes about a month depending on the weather.

It is the very tail end of the season at Crowley Lake near Mammoth. The rainbows were in the 6- to 18-foot depths around the lake. The biggest concentration of trout were the browns that had moved into the Whiskey Creek arm adjacent to the boat launch and marina. The locals were out in force using various minnow imitations. With the season at Crowley ending, it is the similar pattern of trout in the shallows that is my point.

The storm at the beginning of this week put snow in the high country. There was more than 2 feet accumulated on Mammoth Mountain. This storm has dropped the water temps, particularly in the smaller bodies of water. The larger lakes take longer to dramatically lower the temps. I suspect we are below the magic 57 degree number at elevations above 4,000 feet. I was able to verify that Tahoe was at 53 degrees at the mid lake buoys.

For a low elevation reference, Lake Oroville at 660 foot elevation is 63 degrees.

The air temps in the high country that are chilling the waters are not as comfortable for fishing as we had in October. But the rewards for getting out now, can be a great day on the water.

Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User