If you’ve ever thought about taking your kids on a deep-water fishing trip, or maybe hiking to a High Sierra lake to cast into its tranquil depths, this coming Saturday is a great day to make it happen. August 31 is one of two “Free Fishing Days” offered each year by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, when you can go fishing without buying a state sportfishing license. The hardest part is deciding where to go—California’s 1,200 miles of Pacific coastline and hundreds of lakes and rivers provide fishing opportunities as diverse as the state itself:
1. San Francisco Coast
California is enjoying one of the best salmon fishing seasons in years, due in part to a banner rain and snow season last winter. Anglers are reeling in king salmon (also known as chinook) in record numbers, with most fish in the 12- to 18-pound range. Even if you’ve never fished before, you can land a big salmon, but you have to get up early. Most charter boats leave San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf at about 5 a.m. to cruise outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Book a spot with Argo Sport Fishing, Wild Wave Sportfishing, or San Francisco Fishing Charter.
2. Lake Cuyamaca
This 110-acre lake near Julian in San Diego County is stocked with more than 38,000 pounds of rainbow trout each year. They swim alongside a bounty of bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish, which are more common catches during the warm summer months. Cuyamaca is a great spot to teach kids to fish. Rent rods and reels at the tackle shop and drop in a line from shore, or rent a motor boat and troll around the lake. Free fishing classes are offered at the launch ramp every Saturday morning. Although you don’t need to buy a license on Free Fishing Day, you do need a Lake Cuyamaca permit ($8 adults, $4 children), available on-site.
3. Lake Tahoe
One of the country’s largest and deepest alpine lakes, Tahoe is famous for its huge mackinaw trout, a fish that thrives in cold water. The average “mack” reeled in from Tahoe weighs about four pounds—enough to feed a large family—but 10-pounders are common. The lake’s record fish was 37 pounds, a true monster of the deep. Beginners often reel in a big one in their first hour or two on the water. Charter boats including Tahoe Sportfishing, Hooked Up Sportfishing, and Eagle Point Sportfishing supply all the gear and know-how and take you to the big lake’s most productive spots.
4. Shasta Lake
An easy reach from Interstate 5 near Redding, Shasta Lake is home to a smorgasboard of cold-water and warm-water fish—trout, bass, squawfish, crappie, shad, bullhead, sunfish, and more. You never know what you’re going to reel in, and that’s part of the fun. The lake hosts dozens of fishing tournaments each year with anglers vying for trophy trout and landlocked king salmon. For a great weekend getaway, rent a houseboat so you can fish day or night (summer evenings are often highly productive), or book a day-trip with local guides Jeff Goodwin, Sac River Guide, or AC Guide Service.
5. Eastern Sierra
The golden trout is California’s state fish, and it’s one of the country’s most sought-after swimmers, partly because of its stunning red-orange coloring. The fish can be elusive—it lives only in high-alpine lakes, typically higher than 10,000 feet in elevation. To catch one, you have to take a long hike with your fishing rod. The Cottonwood Lakes Trail near Lone Pine leads 5.5 miles one-way to the five Cottonwood Lakes, home to healthy populations of goldens. To protect these beautiful fish, the lakes are catch-and-release only.