Cachuma - Gem of the Central Coast

When I think of Lake Cachuma, I think of the serenity and all of the beauty the Santa Ynez Valley has to offer and then I add water. This is the lake that Bass pro Jay Yelas learned and honed his craft on prior to becoming a Bassmaster on a national scale.

To me Cachuma offers a bass fisherman all that one could hope for in one impoundment. Because of an almost evenly split population of Largemouth and Smallmouth even on a bad day an angler will be able to catch some very respectable fish. The impoundment is basically a dammed up portion of the Santa Ynez river and while it does have some of the drawbacks which are typical of ultra clear water fisheries in this case Cachuma shows it's personality and there are a multitude of techniques and areas that give seasoned and rookie fishermen alike a chance at a truly memorable day on the water.

Let's break down this fishery into basic components first to better understand its subtleties. Cachuma has all the components of a great western reservoir with flats and creek channels, shear walls and some great rock type bottom along with the sandy silted type of bottom, which usually supports the seasonal weed growth. With the added bonus of yearly sunken float sum and wood cover there is almost always some type of preferred cover for an angler to fish.

One of the biggest keys to this fishery can be the timing both seasonally and daily of the wind and the fog. These two factors alone can make the shallow fish a feast or famine affair. The wind is usually mild and from the west, while an east wind limits the normal fishing areas and in general makes for a tough day on the water. A nice early morning fog from late May through early September can bring on the best topwater the south coast has to offer.

I would describe Cachuma's largemouth population as being of two distinct types. Those fish that are always deep except during the spawn and those that are always shallow year round. The deep fish population seems to only come to the shallows in the later months of April-June to spawn and then quickly return to there deep water haunts. The shallow fish population doesn’t seem to leave shallow water ever. They are the first to spawn and will do so as early as February if the weather and water temps will allow it and they will spawn when you would think it was impossible. I've seen the fry two months later in April after a terrible February so you know the spawn happened to some degree. I guess Mother Nature just finds a way.

When the fish do remain in the staging areas they generally are adjacent to the flats and cove entrances. The female fish pursue their needs to calcify up their bodies by eating crawdads for egg production. This coupled with the warming waters activates the fish’s metabolisms pushing them inevitably shallower. The best method for pre spawn fish for Cachuma at full pool is flipping. At full pool there in no better pattern than a flipped jig or Kreature bait VERY SHALLOW in the many shallow pockets and wooded back areas of the lake. I use 60-pound spider wire and 1 oz. jigs. The standard black, black/blue, black/red, brown or purple will take the lion share of fish but because of the smallmouth connection brown/purple or black/brown/purple can make a great in-between choice.

All you'll need to tip off your offering is almost any craw imitation trailer that you prefer. I like to use Berkley power craws when I flip because of the additional scent and a Yamamoto twin tail grub when pitching smaller jigs along the banks and drop offs. These shallow fish just seem to always be available and I have caught them in inches of water on jigs during a rare snowfall in late December yet just the week before I had found a few willing to eat Zara Spooks in that same location.

Because the lake level does fluctuate from year to year Cachuma fishes as a different lake over the course of the sometimes 60 foot downward pool changes it can experience over the course of a few short years. At full pool you can flip but when Cachuma is in it's southern California drought conditions and the fish have little cover to relate to they become more transitory and start to orientate towards the offshore structure of points and roadbeds where a Robo worms oxblood colored worm on a dropshot rig can make your day simply spectacular. If you have been treated with seeing Cachuma un-plugged as I have many times over in my 28 years of fishing there you could have easily marked on your map all of the old oak roots and stumps that adorned the lakes original river bottom. When this lake is down 50 feet from its full pool it fishes much differently and is not as apt to have the ultra clear water that it has at full pool. It is best if you buy a good map and familiarize yourself with the original riverbed and the creek channels in the larger coves. This will enable you to make the required adjustments seasonally and in accordance with the available water table fish the style you wish to pursue.

I love to fish in the winter and my favorite winter patterns involve structure fishing with spoons and Silver Buddy types of baits because I loathe waiting for action and will often only power fish the lake all day long in the winter. While jigs and worms are the methods one would pursue normally something always draws me to fishing the deep-water fish with reaction baits. Either really heavy jigs tumbling off of ledges or spoons dropped and ripped in the fishes face are the most often used patterns by me for the larger "deep fish" during this season. I've noticed that there seems to be a doldrum effect on the shallow fish in the beginnings of early fall. If the weather is really warm in late October and November the shallow fish will sometimes go off their feed for 4-5 weeks. Only 15 inch and smaller fish on crankbaits and very few spinnerbait fish are sure signs that something is different. It usually boils down to lake turn over which is caused by less light and the warm Santa Anna wind in the early fall prior to the real snap of winter.

Both largemouth and smallmouth can be caught with these types of baits during these colder periods. It is this time that the areas I look to are typically the chunk rock areas that line the outside bends of the old submerged riverbed. Santa Cruz point, the edges of both Jackrabbit and Storke flats and the submerged Cistern Island are but just a few of the locations that have historically produced good fish for me from September through February year after year.

While vertical jigging of your spoons can be good or best there are times when you should not be afraid to fish your spoons or blade baits on the rock walls the lake has in abundance. I call this method stair stepping and there are times when this method is the hot ticket to some fast action. I generally learn more about bottom composition with these baits than I would with a lighter bait. For spooning I usually toss a Chrome 3/4 oz. Hopkins Shorty with a replaced hook of either an Owner or Gamakatsu #4 hook in red color on 12-14 pound premium line almost perpendicular to the wall about ten feet out and let it settle to the bottom while following it down on a barely taunt line matched to the spoons fall rate so as to detect strikes on the initial drop as strikes ALWAYS occur on the drop of a spoon.

Since I feel most anglers tend to over work a spoon or a blade bait I will share my rods specifics. I use a short 5 1/2 foot Loomis CR662 fast action pistol grip rod 1/4 to 5/8 medium fast tip to control my upward ripping motion of the bait. This wall method requires that I rip the bait in short hops up and away from the wall and follow it down hitting bottom over and over until I am in 45-50 feet of water and then I repeat the process as I travel down the bank. When I am teaching this tactic to those who have not done it much or at all I make sure to emphasize the point that it is very rare for a fish to strike on the way up and if you feel anything just hold the rod and feel the pressure. If it moves THEN you can set the hook but more often than not what you are feeling is either rock or wood and by not instinctively setting the hook you can easily back off and gently shake the spoon free. If it's fishing line you are forgiven for setting on the feel as line often feels just like a fish and that's when a plug knocker in indispensable. It's amazing where you can toss a treble hook and not get snagged and by fishing perpendicular to the wall you will avoid the rock outcroppings and irregularities of the bottom on the sweep of the rod that can cause you grief and instead allow the spoon to freely fall past these fish quickly requiring them to react. If you remember anything form this article I hope it is this. Speed makes fish stupid and react when they might know better. When your hands are cold as they usually are during this time of year it in my mind is easier to detect strikes with this style of fishing then a light worm or other method. And lastly in the art of spooning I would mention here that line twist can be your friend when fishing a spoon. Always use a snap or a split ring with a spoon but under no circumstances should a swivel or snap swivel ever be used. This kills the action of the spoon.

I use line twist to my advantage often in vertical spooning. One scenario is when spooning in heavy cover and rather than remove the treble for a single hook you simply drop the spoon straight down. If you survive the initial drop and a few rips off the bottom where there is a lot of wood or brush just hold the rod still with the spoon off the bottom. The act of the spoon slowly rotating edge to flat with the hammered finish is just like a blinking light and is enough to get it eaten. The rod simply loads up and you can now reel the fish out of the branches of that cover you thought impossible to fish with your spoon. After rhythmically spooning in one spot I often will stop and use this same tactic in open water if I didn't get a reaction and holding the spoon close but off of the bottom can sometimes sucker a fish into making a commitment.

Cachuma is an all season everything is good kind of lake that has enough room and structure for you to fish any way that suits you. I hope you come to enjoy Cachuma's bounty as often as you can so that you too will feel the call of this lake and area and recall it fondly.