Denis Peirce: Fishing Folsom Lake |

Denis Peirce: Fishing Folsom Lake

Denis Peirce
​Folsom Lake smallmouth bass.
Photo by Denis Peirce |

As a general principle, do you want to travel toward a population center when looking for a place to fish? My opinion had been that we should be heading away from an urban area trying to find good fishing. Based on this idea I have not fished Folsom Lake in the decades I have been living in the Foothills. Recently I had my opinion changed.

In May, I attended an Outdoor Writers Association of California convention in Placer County. I was invited to fish Folsom Lake with bass fishing guide Don Paganelli. I was excited to go and find out what I had been missing. I have had reports from bass tournament anglers that there were some good fish in the lake.

The drought hit Folsom Lake especially hard. The water level had dropped to 116 feet below full. The dam at Folsom is much lower that Oroville and the water stored had dropped well below 25 percent of capacity. It seemed logical to me that the fish population would have suffered with the small remaining volume of water. We were going to be fishing the lake at close to full condition. Would there be enough fish to provide good sport?

It was a cloudy day with a chance of showers. I was teamed up with Carol Martens, a professional woman bass angler. We met Don Paganelli at the Granite Bay launch ramp and headed up the North Fork arm of the lake. Our first stop was a cove a couple miles up the lake on the east shore. Don explained that there were spawning bass as well as post spawn in the area. I asked why we were fishing this particular location and he explained that the breeze has been blowing into the cove for an extended time. This results in the baitfish and their food being pushed into the cove and the bass would follow.

We started out casting to a small point halfway back in the cove. Don had me rigged up with a tube bait in brown that was a good representation of a crawdad. Carol was fishing with a drop shot rigged pond smelt imitation. Crawdads and pond smelt comprise the bulk of the bass diet in Folsom. We hooked up within the first fifteen minutes in the cove. Casting to rocky structure extending out from the bank resulted in some nice smallmouth bass. Carol was spending more time fishing deeper with the pond smelt. The deeper water in this cove was producing mostly spotted bass. An hour and a half later the bite had slowed and Don took us another couple miles back the North Fork.

Our second destination was a large bay north of Anderson Island Nature Preserve. At this spot we did not fish close to the bank. What appeared to be a nondescript bay was in fact a large flat with granite rock formations. The depth varied from 10’ deep to 20’ in just a yard or two. We were over a boulder field that the bass used to corral pond smelt schools. Don explained that at these high water levels the smelt were feeding on the plankton and algae in the bay. The boulder field gave them some cover but it also allowed the bass a good place to hunt.

Don dropped small buoys over the top of the tallest boulders as we drifted over them on the first pass. When we came by on follow up passes we knew where the boulders were and could cast to them. We picked up a few fish here but as the morning gave way to afternoon the bite dropped off.

Our third destination was close to the dam. There were some lake front homes a few hundred yards from the dam that sat above some impressive granite formations, hence the name “Granite Bay”. We again were targeting submerged boulders well off shore. We picked up one more bass here before we called it a day.

I was impressed with the fishing at Folsom Lake. There was an excellent survival rate for the bass despite the low water conditions. The lowest water level occurred at Thanksgiving last year and the water has been rising since. The lake has been held about a dozen feet below full pool to keep a flood control cushion in case there is a wet spring storm. The fish have scattered back to the previous haunts they inhabited when the lake was full. My theory about heading away from an urban area to find good fishing has been disproven, Folsom Lake is a testament to that.

If you want the short cut to learning how to fish for bass at Folsom Lake, Don Paganelli is your answer. He has been fishing the area for over 30 years. He has excellent gear and the knowledge to go with it. You will have a fun day on the water. He has a blog on his web site: where you can follow the seasonal patterns at Folsom as well as striper fishing in the Delta. I had a great time spending the day with him.

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

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