Eagle Lake Fishing
Information and Network
About Eagle Lake
By Valerie Aubrey, Copyright 2006/revised 2009
Eagle Lake is located in northeastern California at an elevation of approximately 5100 feet. The elevation of the lake depends on how high the water is on any given year. It is California’s second largest natural lake (Clear Lake being the largest). There are four communities on Eagle Lake; Eagles Nest (summer homes, no amenities) on the east side of the south basin, Spalding (summer resort, year round residents) located on the west side of the middle basin, Bucks Bay (homes only ,no amenities, access to BLM’s Rocky Point Campground (outhouses during the season, primitive, no picnic tables), located at the northwest end of Bucks Bay and Stones Landing (year-round and summer homes, no winter amenities) located at the northwest end of the north basin.
Eagle Lake has long been known for having heavy winds (typically in the afternoon but can come up much earlier) that create large swells and waves. Quite often small craft warnings are issued for Almanor and Eagle Lake. As a rule of thumb; if you wait until the wind swooshes passed your ears it’s already to late to beat it back to the docks. The lake is roughly 16 miles long and about 6 miles wide at its widest point so it can be quite a long way back to the docks depending on where you may be fishing.
Nearly every summer we have an algae bloom on the lake. Some years it is worse that others. The algae bloom increases in the north and middle basins when the lake elevation is low. Much of it caused by props stirring up the nutrients and fertilizing it to a heavy brown carpet covering the surface most of the summer. The algae bloom can really affect the fishing in many areas of the lake. It is a temporary condition and typically there are dirty areas of the lake and cleaner areas of the lake. I usually have those areas listed in my report. It can last about 3 weeks or longer and can ruin a fishing vacation for some folks. However, we do find clean water to fish in until the bloom is over. Note that the algae does plug up water pumps on jet boats as well as intakes on outboards and outdrives. It can stick in water pump tubing, water jackets and thermostats so be sure to keep an eye on your gages if you choose to go several miles through it.
Unlike other lakes in the state, Eagle Lake is an alkaline inland body of water. The pH of the lake is in the 9’s while other freshwater lakes are a neutral 7 on the logarithmic scale. The pH rises during the hot summer months posing problems with catching and releasing these beautiful trout, especially during years of drought and poor water quality.
Eagle Lake has long been a spiritual place. You can hear the whispers of the ancient Native Americans as the wind blows through the pines and sage. Check out the Cultural History page.
However the pioneers in the late 1800’s began several attempts at building a tunnel that would transfer irrigation water from Eagle Lake to the ranchers and farmers in the Honey Lake Valley via Willow Creek Valley. The Bly Tunnel (the only successfully completed tunnel) , located near Miner’s Point and the CSUC Biology station at the northeast side of the south basin, was finished in 1922 and drained 30 to 40 feet of water off of Eagle Lake. Both the north and the middle basin were completely dry and were used for farming and ranching. It was later found that the water from Eagle Lake was too alkaline and killed most all the crops it watered but if it is mixed with spring water in Willow Creek and the Susan River the diluted lake water is just fine. A rockslide helped seal the tunnel not too long after. Several books are available that really go into the pioneer history of the lake. Many are available locally during the fishing season. In 2008 local citizens complained about Eagle Lake water flowing out of a pipe at the Bly Tunnel (after testing the pH and finding it very close to the lake water at that time). Public outcry in 2009 caused the State to revist the water rights issue again. The water rights for the Bly Tunnel have a long history of having been revoked and removed by the state which is all contained in the Eagle Lake Basin Plan (based on the VAIL Report which was agreed upon by all agencies as the basis for the EL Basin Plan). After the EL Basin Plan was in affect, BLM installed an 8 inch pipe (planned on a 6 inch but it was increased and hand written in on the plans). The pipe was installed to abide by "perceived water rights" which obviously had previously been revoked and at that time revisited again (1977-1985). The flow of the pipe depends on the lake level and increases and decreases with that level. Estimates of water lost through the pipe from calculations taking lake levels into the equation have shown that anywhere from 5 to 8 ft of water has been drained off Eagle Lake since the pipe was installed. Dec 21, 2011 the State Water Resource Control Board Water Rights Division issued a request for BLM to close the valves that carry Eagle Lake water into Willow Creek. On Feb 2, 2012 BLM closed the valves. By Feb 16, 2012 a major water study has been initiciated for the entire Eagle Lake basin.
The original “draining” of the lake through the Bly Tunnel impacted the lake itself. The alkalinity increased as the water level went down, it is believed to have killed many of the bass that were in the lake at that time. It took the lake a few decades to recover just the water in the lake. By the late 1940’s only a handful of Eagle Lake Trout came up Pine Creek to spawn. CDFG personnel at that time recognized the eminent danger the trout were in, not only from destroyed spawning habitat upstream but facing extinction in such low numbers. Eggs and sperm were collected from all the trout that fine day and the species was brought back by those individual fish. Since that time the California Department of Fish and Game has been artificially spawning the Eagle Lake Trout.
But prior to that, PG&E employees collected spawners and eggs for stocking Lake Almanor in the late1930's (1939) and even sent some to associates in hydro electric's in New Zealand where the Eagle Lake trout have done very well. So well, that New Zealander's thought they had their own species of trout. DNA testing showed that all the trout tested in New Zealand were Eagle Lake trout. (the PG&E information was received from a geneticist).
The lake consists of three separate and distinct basins. The south basin is the deepest and is surrounded by tall mountains, timber, lava beds and rocky outcroppings while the west (middle) and north basin landscapes are that of the “sage step” of the Modoc Plateau with rocky outcroppings and points dividing the basins. Both the middle and north basins of Eagle Lake are shallow and have miles of tules along the shoreline. The deepest hole in the upper basins is just south of Buck Point at 20 to 24 feet deep depending on the lake level of course. The middle and north basins depths average 12 to 18 feet of water in years of good water or 6 to 12 feet in low water years. The south basin has some very shallow rocky points and ridges as well as a hump or two in the middle of the lake that are about 5 feet deep on low water years and can be very dangerous because they are surrounded by 40 feet of water on each side. But, mostly the south basin has plenty of 40 to 90 foot water, you just have to be very careful until you get to know the lake. Some of the rock hazards are buoyed but by no means are all of them marked. You must be very careful on this lake as the depth can change in less than a heartbeat.
The Eagle Lake Trout migrate throughout the lake. During the heat of the summer the trout move south and the tui chub move north to spawn in the warm shallow water. (Some do spawn in the south basin as well.) The tui chub offspring is the most important food source for the trout and are often seen along the shoreline. In fall, the cooler water temperatures bring the trout back to the shallows for a feast of freshly hatched minnows. Not all the fish migrate to the shallows, many large schools remain in the deep water of the south basin where the food supply simply never runs out and has its own tui chub minnow factory. However using minnows for bait on this lake is illegal. Make sure you know the regulations pertaining to this lake and its tributaries. Other natural food sources include fresh water shrimp (¾ inch at largest size), snails, various leeches, various damsel flies, caddis and mayflies as well as many other insects and aquatics.
Due to the alkalinity of Eagle Lake it supports only a few species of fish. The jewel of California is our native Eagle Lake Trout and is used by the Department of Fish and Game as a propagation species due to its unique ability to adapt to many different fresh water environments and collect 2 to 3+ million eggs annually for the state. Other native Eagle Lake species include Tui chub, Lahontan redside shiner (a sucker like looking fish), Tahoe sucker and speckled dace.
From 1965 to 1979 the Department of Fish and Game began planting different (exotic) species of fish in Eagle Lake. Apparently before recognizing the alkaline factor may not allow other species to live very long in the lake. Other exotic species were planted prior to 1965 as well. One species that did thrive in the early 1900’s was large mouth bass. The bass disappeared after the tunnel and several years of drought during the 1930’s lowered the lake level and increased the alkalinity, but no factual evidence to that theory exists. The other species that were planted are as follows (Taken from The Pine Creek Assessment, Eagle Lake Watershed, By William Platts and Sherman Jensen for the USFS Eagle Lake Ranger District 1991);
Great Lakes whitefish
Non Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout (several of unknown origins, 1965)
Largemouth bass (as far back as 1901)
Coho Salmon (1930’s)
Brown Trout (1914-1933)
Kokanee salmon (1952-1956)
Rainbow trout (again after the 1920’s)
Each native species has a part in the ecology of Eagle Lake and must be kept in balance. The speckled dace is a “guppy” sized beige (ish) colored fish that swim in small (family units) schools with anywhere from 2 to at very most 50 individuals (most noticeable during the hot summer months when you can see them swimming beside an anchored boat). Generally The Tahoe Sucker also depends on the flowing fresh water for some spawning. We see them come right into the trap and when we rescue trapped fish late in the spawn or pre-spawn. These fish are carefully cared for and returned to the lake. They are a special find and are treated as such. They don't take electric shocking well so CDFG tries to capture as many as possible prior to any shocking.
It is believed that Eagle Lake was connected to but not a part of the Ancient Lake Lahontan and that some species of fish may have traveled to the lake through the streams (Willow Creek). The Eagle Lake trout is considered a hybrid sub-species of rainbow trout that adapted to living in the highly alkaline water. “The Eagle Lake trout is not a typical Lahontan species. Eagle Lake could have originally contained Lahontan cutthroat trout. Later the basin may have connected with the Pit River Drainage allowing the Eagle Lake trout access to the Eagle Lake Drainage.” (Taken from The Pine Creek Assessment, Eagle Lake Watershed, By William Platts and Sherman Jensen for the USFS Eagle Lake Ranger District 1991). Other theories connect Eagle Lake to the Columbia River drainage at one time too.
It isn’t known if any of these plantings of NON Eagle Lake rainbow trout have polluted the “native” gene pool. DNA was not collected back then and there is nothing to use for comparison, so was I told by our retired fish biologist.. However, I have been contacted by a fish geneticist recently who's specialty happens to be Eagle Lake trout. CDFG was not interested in this persons help when offered. But, it appears that there is plenty known about the DNA of the ELT. Maybe CDFG just doesn't want to know. But a true strain does exist in New Zealand. Awesome!
With all the variations in our trout species, they appear to be a mixture of many different salmonoids to begin with. What ever it may be, our red-fleshed trout continue to live and thrive in our alkaline water whereas the other species did not fair as well. Of course, hind sight is always 20/20. The Department of Fish and Game definitely will not be planting other species of fish in this lake anytime soon. We also see plenty of lighter fleshed trout. This is actually normal and about 15 percent of the trout are by nature light fleshed. But, during the artificial spawning these traits can increase incidentally as the technicians can't tell by looking at a fish if it has lighter meat...funny, many of us that catch them can tell by looking at them.
Eagle Lake is a natural lake. It is fed by numerous underground springs and rivers and by snow melt from seasonal tributaries. There is approximately 100 miles of shoreline over 27,000 acres. Pine Creek is the main tributary where the CDFG and USFS has the egg collection facility and is located in Spalding. (Big) Merrill Creek and Papoose Creek are located at the south basin. They are somewhat smaller but can rival the flows of Pine Creek when conditions are right. Other smaller tributaries include Little Merrill, Cleghorn, McClellan, Stones and several without names attract the trout. Our spawn ready fish (as well as fish that are not ready to spawn) are drawn to flowing fresh water, and are just as interested in the smaller creeks as the bigger ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if they would come to a flowing garden hose this time of year. This poses several problems when the creeks begin to flow in spring. Loss of fish when flows quit is the main problem especially when not protected by a weir or barrier. Predation is a natural occurrence but can also be detrimental to the vulnerable trout. (See the Eagle Lake Trout Spawn)
The optimum lake elevation for the best water quality begins at 5106 ft. and higher. The historic high water level, I assume is recent (last 100 years) is 5125 ft. The Eagle Lake Trout do not spawn in the lake, they need fresh flowing 50 degree water in order for their eggs to have a chance at surviving. This is why they are drawn to the tributaries in spring. However, I have seen our trout attempt to spawn in a spring during a year that the creeks did not flow. But, if they do spawn in the lake during the right conditions the likelihood of their eggs surviving is extremely low.
After many years of drought the lake level on Feb 16, 2012 was 5096ft and it is going to get lower by the end of the fishing season. In Dec 2011 a single lane low level launch ramp was constructed behind the marina store to accomodate the recreation area and possibly the entire lake visitors by late summer/early fall 2012.
The lowest recent lake level was 5097 in 1992. During the winter and spring of 1992/1993 we miraculously received nearly 9 vertical feet of water (over 27,000 surface acre lake). Since that time we have barely been keeping up with our yearly evaporation of 30 to 36 inches. In October of 2004 the lake level was officially at 5099 ft. and 8.4 inches. By December 22, 2005 a strange wet weather pattern arrived and dumped several inches of water in the form of rain. That rain started all the tributaries flowing into the lake. The tributaries flowed until February 22, 2006 when a week of single digit temperatures froze up the flowing water. February 25th the temperatures warmed up and all the tributaries (with the help of more rainy weather) began flowing again. By March 5, 2006 the lake level had topped the 5101 elevation. The Lake level continued to drop after 2006 and by July 2009 it had dropped to an elevation of 5097.9 ft.
It is normal for the creeks to begin to flow by late February but nearly every year the temperatures drop, freezing things up again. We did expect this to happen in spring of 2006, despite the fact that the creeks flowed through the winter. We had measures in place to rescue fish if needed and install barriers to prevent the trout from entering the creek to the point of not being able to return to the lake freely if flows receded.
Folks use many different methods of angling to catch our trout. Due to warm summertime temperatures the water heats up and conditions change. Shore fishing is basically a poor choice during July and August, but early in the season and in fall shore fishing really picks up. But, during the heat of the summer it is necessary to be able to fish in 40 to 70 feet of water because the trout will be 30 to 45 feet deep.
Most people either troll, bait fish, cast lures and jigs or fly fish (fly-fishing is best in spring, fall and winter). The most frequently used live bait is a nightcrawler threaded on a hook. Nightcrawlers fished under slip bobbers is the best way to go because you can change the depth very quickly and easily. Trolling nightcrawlers is also a deadly combination. Eagle Lake Fishing Information and Network conduct fishing seminars at Mariners Resort at the north end of the lake and Eagle Lake Recreation Area down south.
Trolling is a favorite way for many folks to fish. These fish don’t just go for anything and they can be very particular on any given day. Sometimes one has to throw the tackle box at them to find the flavor of the day. But, if you have needlefish or similar type lures just make sure you have one with florescent orange on it to start with. Other folks (myself included) prefer to troll flies that were made popular by J. Fair. There are a few tricks to trolling flies but my best advice is to be holding your pole so you can set the hook in a heartbeat and don’t give them any slack. Brown and florescent orange are about the best flies on the lake but occasionally the time of year, the area of the lake, weather and the food source that is being taken by the trout comes into play. I have a variety of colors of flies but the brown and florescent orange are by far my favorite colors. Many people have also been trolling plastic grubs behind “wiggle disks” off their downriggers with great success the last few years.
Having faith in what you like to use can pay off, but don’t be afraid to ask people what they are using to catch fish when you aren’t. Most folks up here are pretty good about telling you how to catch fish. We have several competent fishing guides on the lake (see our website’s Proud Sponsors).
Nymphing is the most successful fly-fishing technique. Olive, brown and florescent orange are the best colors and shades depending on the time of year. Float tubing is becoming popular and I recommend being able to move to deeper water with the fish. Wading can provide some early action but after the sunrise you won’t be able to reach them unless you have means of doing so.
The fishing season begins the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and is open through December 31. Folks visit from all over to fish for these trophy trout in their native water. Our typical fish is between 2 and 4 pounds with larger fish also being taken (mainly in Spring, fall or winter). The beauty of the Eagle Lake trout is the various colors and patterns that have been typical since before other fish species were planted in the lake. To say that there is a typical or normal Eagle Lake trout would be a misstatement.
Welcome to our home. All we ask of you is to respect the lake, its cultural heritage and all it has to offer. Please don’t litter or urinate in the lake. It is a closed system. Port-a-Potties on board are recommended as we have no floating bathrooms. In a pinch please go to shore to relieve yourself. People who care about the lake are out there watching. It’s a digital age. The indiscreet may end up being photographed and featured in a weekly column.
V. Aubrey, 2012 (C)
ALL EAGLE LAKE, ALL THE TIME
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