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Santa Margarita Lake Fly Fishing


A Santa Margarita Lake trout.

A Santa Margarita Lake trout.

Brian Milne

Depending on the rainy season, Central California’s Santa Margarita Lake can provide some nice fly fishing opportunities for Sierra starved anglers who can’t get up to the mountains.

Winter and spring showers can quench drought concerns and breathe new life into a fishery anglers rightfully call “Margaritaville.”

Also known as the Salinas Reservoir, created by the damming of the Salinas River near Santa Margarita, Calif., Santa Margarita Lake has been in pretty good shape since 2005 when it was full capacity for the first time in seven years.

It also added a new-and-improved marina store for the first time since 2003 after low water levels deflected a majority of the area’s anglers and pleasure boaters to nearby Nacimiento, San Antonio and Lopez lakes.

Don and Sandra Lopez opened a full-service outfit in summer 2005. It includes boat repairs and a handful of rental boats.

Boat anglers have two launch ramps to choose from, which wasn’t always the case during the dry spells.

Trout plants were restored and the lake’s resident population of largemouth bass, catfish and panfish have all kinds of new habitat to work with. In fact, the fishing at Santa Margarita is beginning to rival the conditions of the lake’s heydays in the mid-’90s and ’80s.

“It’s seems like everyone’s catching everything,” said Ranger Chuck Woodard (805-788-2397. “Bass, trout, crappie … there’s something for everyone.”

Santa Margarita Trout

The trout bite is best before the heat begins beating down on the lake in the summer. In the spring and early summer, the California Department of Fish and Game stocks as often as every couple weeks. The lake also receives fish from the Calaveras Trout Farm.

Three or four days after a plant, trout usually head for deeper water. But for the first couple days, trout can be picked up on nymphs and streamers.

Santa Margarita Crappies

One day they’ll be there in a thick school. The next they’re gone.

Santa Margarita’s black crappies can be hard to figure, but once you get a handle on their tendencies the crappie bite here is as good as anywhere in the state.

The key to finding a nice school is seeking out the right temperature and cover. It’s no secret slab sides, a warm-water fish, prefer warmer water. That’s why float tubers are often the most successful crappie fishermen.

Tubers have an advantage because they can get a better feel for changes in water temperatures as they kick along.

For example, if the lake is hovering around 60-64 degrees, belly boaters will kick until they find a brush-laden cove in the mid to upper 60s. If the inlet is in full sunlight and is protected from the wind, they’ve found an ideal spot.

Keep dropping jigs, minnows or streamers in and around brush piles and it’s only a matter of time before you hit the strike zone.

Santa Margarita Bass

When spring comes around, the bass make their seasonal move into the new shallow breaks in search of nesting sites. Some bass spawn earlier in the warmer sections of lake, but for the most part these northern strains are in their prespawn feeding mode.

Many tournament anglers in search of quality bass swear by flippin’ and pitchin’ dark plastics in and around cover with 8-foot rods and 30-pound test.

So fly fishers seeking good numbers of bass will turn to bead-head nymphs and heavy streamers, adding split shots to their flies and getting them down to strike zone.

In the evenings, topwater poppers can make for some fun visual strikes. And while night fishing is not permitted at Santa Margarita, the ranger staff allows anglers to fish up to 30 minutes after sunset – which is often the best bite of the day.

Santa Margarita is a popular lake for Central California anglers because the shallows are always calm and free of swimmers. The lake, which was created by the damming of the Salinas River, is off limits to jetskiers and swimmers because it is a water source for the City of San Luis Obispo. No bodily contact with the lake is allowed, although float-tubing is permitted if no contact with the water takes place.

Because the lake has such unique restrictions and has had adequate rain in recent years, local anglers figure the bass fishery will only continue to improve at “Margaritaville.”

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