Lake Natoma is quite unique in California. Now, it may seem odd to consider a fore bay for a large impoundment unique, particularly in a state where large impoundments are hardly in short supply. The uniqueness in this case is defined by the surrounding area, the 1.7 million residents of the Sacramento metropolitan area. Lake Natoma results from the impoundment of the Lower American River at Nimbus Dam, and it stretches in a narrow profile between the communities of Fair Oaks and Folsom. In one sense, Lake Natoma embodies the end of the road for the Lower American River’s anadromous highway for steelhead, Chinook salmon, shad, and striped bass. In another sense, it embodies a diverse recreation area that makes up the western end of Folsom Lake State Park. While Lake Natoma is not likely to make any fly fisher’s top ten list of stillwater fisheries, the fishery does have some strong points that are worthy of attention.
All large dams have fore bays below which water flows from the lower depths of the main impoundment above. So while massive Folsom Lake gets warm in the summer, the water of Lake Natoma remains considerably cooler. With the onset of warmer months, Folsom Lake becomes a popular black bass destination. With the arrival of summer’s hot days, it becomes more of a water skier’s haven. Folsom Lake does hold many trout, mainly in the northern arm. In spring and fall, these fish are not difficult to catch on a fly, but descend to the cooler depths when the heat arrives and surface water temperatures climb. Another consistent factor of fore bays is that they are not drawn down by late summer, so that unsightly bathtub ring that besets Folsom Lake by September is not evident for Lake Natoma. So unlike many impoundments that reveal their structure in late season, your education of Lake Natoma’s structure comes with visibility through water that is relatively clear. Now, let us keep the descriptive of “clear” in its proper context. Tahoe, it is definitely not, but then, that plays to the angler’s advantage since micro-tippet is not necessary.
As the fishery goes, Lake Natoma’s rocky upper reaches are known for huge, protein-engorged rainbows. Huge, an exaggeration? No way. While water temperatures do reach swimming friendly temperatures by mid summer, deeper water remains cool and suitable for trout habitat. The trout are not alone in Lake Natoma. Smallmouth bass are not uncommon, and are often a more realistic target than the trophy trout that often remain unsuitably deep for practical fly applications. Some largemouth bass area also caught in the warmer and shallow lower reaches, but if you are in pursuit of largemouth, it is just a short drive to Folsom Lake, which is a better bet. Lake Natoma does receive healthy infusions of hatchery trout in the summer, and like many impoundments, is a popular target for folks sporting worms, Power Bait, and bobbers. The canoe is the craft I most prefer for working the waters of Lake Natoma. Unless you confine yourself to certain areas, shore fishing is limiting, and a float tube too slow if you want to cover many different hot spots on the same outing.
The Pigskin Rainbows: The most noteworthy component of the Lake Natoma fishery is that of mammoth rainbows that reside in the narrow, deep, rocky sections above Rainbow Bridge in Folsom, though these fish are far more by traditionalists than by fly anglers. In early season when the discharge from Folsom Dam is higher, the current will be too strong above the bridge for upward progress in a canoe, but it can be readily workable from the rock structure of the shore. Later, you can paddle counter-current clear up to the Folsom Prison property line. The common technique for traditionalists is deep-sixing protein in the form of night crawlers, Power Bait and salmon eggs. These trout are among the largest impounded trout to be found in California. With abundant food these trout quickly develop tremendous girth, and are often referred to as “footballs“ for their bodily resemblance to the old pigskin. Many of these fish began their life in the hatchery, managed to avoid becoming a stringer statistic, and learned to find natural sustenance far and beyond the trout pellet. As they grew, the demand for larger morsels of protein followed suit. And what better place could there be to intercept those morsels than in the waters below Folsom Dam. The massive dam turbines serve as a “sushi maker” of sorts as hapless Folsom Lake fish are minced, the bounty of which is delivered downstream toward Lake Natoma. A 23-pound rainbow was caught above Rainbow Bridge a few years ago, setting a state record for an impounded rainbow trout. This lunker was not a thing of beauty to be sure, but if size matters to you, then it could be considered nothing short of a trophy. Sound logic leaves little doubt that even bigger trout inhabit the massive pool directly below Folsom Dam. These fish are wise to stay close to the dam, because if they do, they are most likely to die of old age. This is because the area of which I speak is on the property of Folsom Prison, and is emphatically off limits for fishing or trespassing, even if you’re Johnny Cash.
Fly fishing for the football rainbows is not impossible, but it’s not what the average fly fisher would consider the optimum experience. This effort is for the fly fisher who doesn’t mind working with unwieldy quick sinking lines, lead core leader sections, and large Clouser minnows or huge light colored leech patterns. Some folks I have talked to use a spinning rod, a weight and a fly. The fly is used in the same jigging motion a fly angler might use in certain sub-surface tactics, but the delivery system is where the definition of fly fishing is stretched. When the flows are at a higher level, monofilament with sinkers may be the only way to get the offering down in the current without affixing the unwieldy amount of extra weight to a fly line. Pursuit of these lunkers is no piece of cake; it requires lots of patience and conviction. If it were easy, the whole area would be elbow to elbow with anglers, and the spectacular backdrop would be tainted by littered Dorito bags and monofilament bird’s nests. One reason for the requisite persistence is that the sought after trout obviously have a superior supply of nourishment with which your artificial is competing. Your feathery minnow or leech imitation may be considered priority seven or eight by comparison, but takes do sometimes happen for the persistent. Your pattern should bear some resemblance to a minnow. So if you relish stillwater giants, this may be worth your efforts. But when asking most fly anglers seeking big trout in the area, and they will tell you that there is a considerably greater level of sport and visceral passion in chasing adult steelhead on the Lower American. If you do choose these leviathans as your goal, leave the five weight at home and come armed with a seven or eight weight. This is not only because you might end up with a real pig on the other end, but also because you will be throwing heavy grain, quick sinking lines to get your offering down quickly. The ideal flies are #2-#8 zonkers, Clouser minnows, long body leech patterns, and buggers with a modest amount of flash.
Black Bass and Etc. If you are like me, you leave the football trout to the bait specialists. I much prefer working the nooks, crannies and structure more in vicinity of Nimbus Dam where bass and sunfish are more commonly found, content to pursue salmonoids in the many other quality locations. There are a number of hotspots like a ghost pumping station where the lake water extends around the structure, accessible by canoe. Fish are occasionally hooked in the water within the structure, kind of a novelty. Aside from the Negro Bar area and above historic Rainbow Bridge, the premier canoe destination on Lake Natoma is a secretive wooded lagoon not far above Nimbus Dam. It is on the north side of the lake and is home to bluegills, black bass, and even 10-plus pound carp in a few of the extremities. Your best action is in the morning before good numbers of canoes and kayaks converge. Beyond fishing, this is a great place to observe cranes and wild turkeys, and the tree-canopied area seems as if it is miles away from Lake Natoma. There is plenty of rocky structure along the south side of the lake, great to sling intermediate sinking line and an olive bugger from a canoe. I find that a nine foot five or six-weight rod is suitable. Surface action for bluegill can be fun in summers around dusk with foam spiders and various hopper patterns. Three of four weights are the best bet if that strikes your fancy. Largemouth bass that beckon for bulkier flies are more prolific in the warmer coves of Folsom Lake, are sporadic in Lake Natoma. Though found in warm, shallower waters of Lake Natoma, do not expect much in trophy proportions. Lake Natoma is long, and unless you have the better part of a day to paddle the whole lake, access becomes an important detail. Good fishing spots can be found in vicinity of all access points, but these access points are fairly well spread out from one another. Fore bays are sometimes excellent fly fishing destinations. Lewiston Lake below Trinity Lake is among the best stillwater fly fishing spots in the state, not to mention, one of offering breathtaking scenery. Lake Natoma is no ugly duck. It offers a wide variety of water-based recreation, and fine scenery, exceptionally well maintained. While it is certainly not in the league of Lewiston Lake either for scenery or as a stillwater fishery, it offers something special to the Sacramento metro area. Lake Natoma offers scenic beauty that is uncommon for a lake in the suburbs, and can offer some fly-fishing excitement that locals can relish without a trip to the gas station.
If You Go. The US Highway 50 corridor offers the entry berths to Lake Natoma. There are three main access to Lake Natoma: Off Hazel Avenue (by Nimbus Dam), Willow Creek off of Folsom Boulevard, and Negro Bar, off Greenback Road in Folsom between Orangevale and the Historic Rainbow Bridge. A modest fee of seven dollars is charged for entry, a few more dollars for boats. Keep in mind that in spite Lake Natoma’s adjacency to the Sacramento County-operated American River Parkway, Lake Natoma is part of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, and is operated by the State Park system. In other words, if you are fishing for half-pounders or stripers on the Lower American, your paid access to the Lower American is not valid for Lake Natoma. If you are from areas outside Sacramento, consider the many fishing opportunities that can be reached with an hour’s drive in any direction. Also consider the myriad hotels, motels, and campgrounds that allow a comfortable place to hang your hat before a day in pursuit of fish on a fly.
Bridges to History. The area where Lake Natoma now sits has a colorful place in California history. That history centered around the historic town of Folsom. Folsom blossomed during the gold rush, and for a period, had one of the largest Chinese populations to be found on the West Coast. From 1860 to 1861, Folsom became the western terminus for the Pony Express, and in 1881, the Folsom Prison was established. One feature that is preserved as a historic attraction is the Folsom Powerhouse. At its completion in the summer of 1895,the powerhouse laid claim to the longest overhead transmission of power, transmitting electric power 22 miles to Sacramento. During that same year, a truss bridge was built across a then unimpeded American River. With the inception of the automobile as a common mode of transportation, the truss bridge became strong on nostalgic and weak on function. So, in 1917, the picturesque Rainbow Bridge was built over the river just above Negro Bar to better handle the burgeoning number of automobiles, the name inspired by the rainbow-like arch supporting the bridge. The truss bridge was removed in 1930 and transported to the location where Walker Road across the Klamath River in Siskyou County. Many dams were built in the United States between the mid 1930’s and the1960’s. California certainly had its share of dam projects as the mushrooming population brought with it concerns about water storage, flood protection, and hydroelectric production. So in 1955, the Folsom Dam project (including Nimbus Dam and Lake Natoma) was completed. With so significant an increase in hydroelectric production, the once superlative Folsom Powerhouse became obsolete and was decommissioned in 1952. I am compelled to mention the personal significance of the Folsom Powerhouse. It was on the rocks below that it was there my wife and I first kissed while looking across the lake to Negro Bar on a crispy February afternoon in 1989. Through today, both Folsom Lake and Lake Natoma provide flood control, abundant recreation, and hydro-electricity to a substantial population base. The story of Folsom began long
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