Manzanita Lake – Great sight fishing for big brown and rainbow trout!
That heartbreaking (and all-to frequent) moment when a wily trout outsmarts us can fortunately also be an educational one. The immediate feedback of an observed refusal lets you know that from the trouts perspective, something is wrong. Once you know that, you can get to work figuring it out by trying other flies, tactics and techniques and watching how the trout respond. Plus it’s exciting! This is one of the reasons I have always loved fishing Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park. With it’s large flats, clear water and large cruising rainbow and brown trout, the lake offers plenty of educational opportunities to observe the behavior of fish eating (or perhaps specifically not eating) your fly. And once you figure it out… Fish on!!!, lesson learned. And it seems that I learn plenty of lessons every time I visit here.
Manzanita lake is a phenomenal sight-fishing destination in Northern California. Big rainbow and brown trout cruise the edges and flats of the lake looking for a variety of aquatic and terrestrial insects. Making it a little easier to get close to these fish is the fact that the Manzanita Lake trail loop, skirting much of the lake’s edge, is popular with visitors and helps desensitize the trout slightly by showing them plenty of non-threatening humans. While these fish aren’t particularly spooky, they definitely aren’t stupid and a careful approach is still required. Even more important for success, being that this is a relatively popular fishery and the fish have seen it all, is fly selection and especially presentation. If your fly isn’t acting just like the naturals the fish are going to cruise right by without a sideways glance. I’ve seen fish refuse a slowly sinking fly, just to come back and inhale the same fly without a second thought as it’s ascending on the retrieve. Being that the situation is so observable, your failure can become a successful learning experience instead of just a nice day enjoying the pleasant view of Mt Lassen.
Sometimes, if the lake has been fished hard or has seen a lot of recreational use, the fish seem to get spooked off the flats. If this is the case and you are committed to wade fishing, success can still be had by concentrating on the drop off areas and suspending nymphs from an indicator or slowly retrieving nymphs or stripping leeches. However, the lake also fishes well by boat and the fact that no motors (including electric) are allowed on the lake makes for a peaceful setting with no wakes, and a boat does open up a lot of water.
While the fish are very well educated, fly selection is actually pretty straightforward. Probably 70% of the time I’m there I’m fishing midge pupae, callibaetis nymphs (and hopefully dries) or damselfly nymphs. If you’re getting refusals or no activity with these and can’t easily see what the fish are feeding on, just stop fishing for a while and watch a fish to see how it’s behaving, or put your nose right up to the water surface to see what’s going on down there. Likely culprits include terrestrials such as ants and beetles blown in from the trees. While I’m generally fishing nymphs, Manzanita Lake has some great dry fly opportunities as well. Also productive is stripping nymphs and leech patterns as well as woolly buggers to imitate the very large dragonfly nymphs in the lake.
Typically I’m fishing with a floating line and a 9-12 ft leader tapered down to 5x. Most the nymphs are either not weighted or only slightly weighted as the fish I’m targeting are in very shallow water so it doesn’t have to sink much, plus I want it to land with as little splash as possible to avoid spooking the fish.
For access, I often park in the pullouts just past the park entrance and work my way around the lake in a counter clockwise route, often retracing my steps to sight-fish my way back once the trail leaves the water near the parking lot on the other side (also a good point to get started in the opposite direction). The boat launch is located at the parking lot on the South-East side of the lake.
At an elevation of 5,900 feet, the lake freezes over in the Winter but is usually good to fish from May through October. Manzanita Lake offers some of the best sight-fly fishing opportunities in Northern California and it’s very convenient to stay close by with the Manzanita Lake campground located just up the road. That, combined with all the other recreation this area has to offer makes it a great family-friendly fishing trip. Hope to see you out there!