Camp Far West

by Louis Bignami

My goose hunting partners hated Camp Far West Lake. My wife flinched every time I suggested we drive by "for a look" in cold weather months. But I avoided Camp Far West when water-skiers infest the lake and brown grass testifies to the searing heat of summer. However, fall, winter and early spring drew me to Camp Far West Lake like the honkers who, safe in a "no hunting area" sail in over the bridge. Striped bass hit shallow and on the surface during the cool months. Catfish gobble bait even when the waters muddy during storms. Add suspended black bass and the chance at crappie which improves toward spring and it's a wonder more fishermen have not discovered this reservoir which is technically a "lake."

Camp Far West Lake took its name from Camp Far West, the last camp on the Emigrant Trail just below the dam. Here wagon trains often broke up before members headed on into Sacramento. Today, Camp Far West is gone and the reservoir drowns the past as it provides fishing for another East Coast emigrant, the striped bass. Add the usual foothill reservoir catfish, black bass and panfish to the odd brown trout where the Bear River enters the reservoir and you have a winner destination for a weekend trip or a "minimum detour" backup on waterfowl or steelhead trips north of Sacramento.

Unfortunately for fishermen who haven't discovered this fine reservoir, but nice for locals, Camp Far West Lake rarely advertises. But it isn't hard to miss the "Camp Far West" signs on High-way 65.

Fall's Fine Fishing

We returned often between the end of Indian summer and the end of the school year for we lived only 30 minutes away. In fall the best striper fishing comes at dawn or dusk, and after dark when stripers swirl after threadfin and Zara Spooks. Cordell Redfins or one ounce silver Kastmasters let you cover the action if you can pass up decent dove shooting. Locals cast plugs for fish from the bank near the dam. Action continues until the lake cools or the first big winter storms muddy the waters.

Once the lake turns over, stripers prowl off points and savage threadfin over the submerged channel of the Bear River. As water levels drop to concentrate fish, action improves. If you don't spot fish, troll shallow running large Cordell or Redfin plugs off the dam and along the main channel of the Bear River. Compulsive bait fishermen can suspend live threadfins or shad minnows six feet or so under big bobbers and wait for the action.

Winter Winners

Once winter water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, stripers tend to hang suspended 20 to 40 feet deep over the submerged channel of the Bear River out of range of shore fishermen. So bankfishing locals switch to frozen sardines and take channel & blue cats. Spots just a cast from deep water from the banks near the North or South Campground produce best after dark. The cove between the North Campground and dam seems most productive in the morning and afternoon. When the lake level drops you can, if you take care to miss soft spots, drive across the lakebed and fish from your RV or vehicle.

Boaters still seek suspended stripers with depth finders and tempt them with a live threadfin shad hooked through the dorsal fin with a size 6 hook and taken down to the right depth with a minimum amount of split shot.

I prefer to jig structure spoons or big white spinner baits off the point where the Bear River and Rock Creek Arms join and along the rocky riprap around the dam. If the lake is full, watch the buoys. The current over the spillway can run fast indeed.

Smaller spoons or vertical Rappala ice fishing lures pick up suspended black bass when there is water in the Rock Creek Arm. You can string crappie from these areas if you fish live crickets or small minnows deep. Head as far as possible toward the Bear River Inlet and you might take a decent brown trout on small spoons or spinner baits.

Spring Stripers

Come spring the biggest stripers in the lake -- as elsewhere, these are females -- move into 4 to 12 feet of water off long sloping points. We launch our Scanoe early and position it well off the point. Steelhead rods and ten pound test line let us cast Cordell 1000 series red and white and silver and blue plugs as far as possible along the bank. After the splash subsides we slowly retrieve. The plug should barely waggle and leave a long "V" wake. Make three or four casts on each side of the point; then move up to the next point until you find fish or the wind kicks up and its time to troll.

In winter, small male stripers suspend in deep water where the arms of the reservoir join. Then, as water warms, they school up near the dam before they run up into the Bear River and, in some cases Rock Creek. Ounce white or yellow HairRaisers and 1/2-ounce silver Kastmasters do the job on these fish.

Spring also finds black bass action starting in the three big coves on the north side of Rock Creek where the water warms first in the shallows. Most years smallmouth hit first, then crappie and largemouth as the water warms. When fishing slows in this area, fish turn on in the same order along the steeper north bank of the Bear River arm.

If you use smaller threadfin shad you can sometimes find decent largemouth and more, if smaller, smallmouth. These fish hit small motor oil Fat Gitzits rigged on 1/16-ounce jigs and cast up against steep banks and fished "on the drop" down to 30 feet or so.

Fly Flinging

Fly fishermen are not left out either. Streamers that imitate threadfin shad take swirling stripers. So do chugging poppers. During the months when stripers run deeper you can slow troll an entire length of sinking line in front of a three foot long leader and floating streamer and do very well on black bass as well.

Conditional Fishing

Conditions are the key to success at Camp Far West. Its water level drops markedly in the winter, which concentrates fish. This exposes bare mud banks. Add rain or wind and the lake turns cocoa and takes four to six days to clear. Consider this and call -- 916-633-0803 or 645-0484- to check on water conditions. As a rule you can expect decent striper fishing when the lake surface temperature drops into the 50 to 55 degree range.

Do call Camp Far West to see if live bait is available before you arrive. If they are out, the nearest bait shops are in Lincoln or Wheatland on Highway 65.

During the summer, reservations are a must. In winter you should have no trouble finding grassy oak shaded campsites for tent or RV use just a few feet from night catfishing. Nearby Wheatland or Lincoln offer provisions, restaurants and lodgings.

Nearby Alternatives

We use Camp Far West as an alternate for hunting and an afternoon backup on first light steelhead action on the Yuba River. When we get our pheasants early in the valley, we swing by to check on stripers. When we find bluebird waterfowl weather or luck into dawn steelhead, we switch to striper action in the afternoon.

Locals find decent pheasant action in the triangle between Wheatland, Marysville and the Feather River. Sutter and Twin Cities Rod & Gun and other bird Co-ops give access to action. The Bear River below Camp Far West offers bass and, in highwater springs, shad. Quail lurk in the blackberry bushes near the valley as well. Spenceville Recreation Area has a few deer, a few quail and the odd duck in creek bottoms.

Steelhead action on the Feather and Yuba River continues until January most years.

caution: watch flows! Both rivers eat boats at high and flood stages.

The Feather River also offers outstanding smallmouth bass action along undercut banks. Put in at Riverfront Park and carefully run or, lacking skills, portage, Shanghai Bend Rapids and you can float the Feather River all the way to Star Bend or even Verona. The drift on the Yuba puts in at the Parks Bar Bridge on Highway 20 and, with a left bank portage around a clearly marked dam, can run to Hallwood Ave.

Portage over the riffle under the railroad bridge and you can run all the way to the Feather River. In the spring striped bass run in the Feather River; then the shad enter the Feather and Yuba Rivers. All of these activities and turkey hunting in the foothills allow visitors to Camp Far West many options. Now it they would just answer their phone!

Publisher's note: To see what's where topographic maps help. While you can buy individual "quads" for limited areas you might consider the new, and up to date CD-ROMs that might cover 200 or more quads. These let you examine large areas in great detail to turn up new spots to fish, and they allow you to then print only the areas you want. Even better they work with GPS systems as well

CAMP FAR WEST - 916-633-0803

Location: East of Highway 65 between Lincoln and Wheatland, 45 minutes from Sacramento and 25 minutes from Marysville.

Tackle:

Cast: 8 to 10 foot spinning rods with 8 to 10 pound test to cast one ounce silver Kastmasters, silver Zara Spooks (after dark) or brown trout or Hot Red Rebel or Cotton Cordell 1000 series Redfin plugs to swirling fish. Structure spoons, jigs or vertical Rappalas take suspended black bass or crappie.

Troll: Shallow and deep running Rebel or Cordell plugs over old river bottom. In spring, fast troll barely offshore for bass and crappie with crayfish finish Wee-R plugs.

Bait: Live minnows on #2 hooks for suspended stripers or black bass. Use #6 hooks and smaller minnows for crappie. Frozen sardines or anchovy and worms temp catfish. Fresh minnows seem the choice over stinkbaits.