San Pablo dam is a small man-made reservoir perched just above the San Francisco Bay near the city of Orinda. The lake covers 834 surface acres. The first dam was built in 1920 with subsequent improvements over the years leading up to the public opening in 1981. Did you know that prior to the opening in 1981, the Diablo BASS club augmented the structure in the lake with tire reefs, gravel, and concrete structures – particularly around Scow Canyon? These structures are still visible at low water.
There are rainbow trout, Florida strain largemouth, spotted bass, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill, redear, carp, goldfish, sturgeon, and shad in the lake. The carp population is one of the densest you will see anywhere with tens of thousands of 5 to 20lb carp lining the shores in spring. The shad schools are strong as well and you can meter them in 100 yard stretches during the right conditions.
San Pablo is fed by Bear and San Pablo Creeks and augmented with water from the California Delta. Although there have been years where water clarity has approached 8 feet, San Pablo is almost always muddy to stained green in color. The clearest water is by the dam on the west shore. The dingiest is in the south end where the creek comes in.
There are four major off limits areas on the lake: The entire face of the dam, the area around the water tower, the marina below the main recreation (main rec) area and the back of the south end. There is also an area dubbed “the preserve” which is a ¼ mile stretch from the creek to the boat ramp where you are only allowed to use your electric motor.
To launch at San Pablo dam, it used to be that you had to have a 4-stroke motor. They’ve relaxed that requirement somewhat in recent years to include 3-star CARB rated motors. Check the EBMUD site for the latest rules before you go. They’re very aggressive about quagga mussel inspections here as well so you should also verify the lake hours.
For some reason it was determined many years back that San Pablo should be closed from November through February to protect migratory waterfowl (there’s not that many birds at this lake relative to other nearby lakes, but ours is not to ask…). The opener is usually the 2nd week in February and can be very crowded, though not so much in the last few years.
In 2004, a seismic study on the dam concluded that if there was a large earthquake, the dam could collapse and flood out the homes below the lake. EBMUD lowered the lake to reduce the risk, and for five years now the lake has been kept well below full pool. There was serious discussion about taking all of the water out of the lake but it was decided against. Maybe someone remembered the smell of the massive fish kill in the late 70’s when they did drain the lake for a prior retrofit.
In any case, San Pablo dam went from one of the premier trophy bass lakes in the entire world and arguably the most popular trout lake in the Bay Area to just your average California mud hole.
It used to be that San Pablo was the 2nd most heavily stocked lake with rainbow trout in the state, getting over 50,000lbs annually. With the dam retrofit the water got dingier and the trout fishing got tougher. This led to less fishermen which in turn led to less revenue for trout planting and less trout actually planted. In addition, in 2009 thanks to a lawsuit by the Center for Biological diversity all DFG trout plants were stopped at the lake to protect indigenous species. The lake is still supposed to get 37,000lbs of private hatchery trout this year. Solid but not what it once was.
It’s all been a vicious circle at the lake since the draw down and sad to see such a tremendous lake waste away to mediocrity. One of the more depressing episodes of fishery non-management in the state. We can only hope that when the dam work is complete things will turn around and some ‘new lake’ effect will result as brush that has grown up during the draw-down is flooded.
But we should talk about the fishing, because you can certainly still catch fish at San Pablo. Trout is the #1 game in town and on weekends you can find dozens, if not hundreds, of people lining the shore fishing for trout. Shore access is available on the entire west shore by foot, and you are allowed to fish from shore on the east shore as well if you can get over there by boat. If you come down to the lake from the Dam road make sure you buy a permit before you head down. The EBMUD police patrol this lake frequently. The mouth of Scow Canyon, the Main Rec, and the area by the launch ramp are all popular for trout.
Trolling for trout at Pablo can be good if the water is reasonably clear (say 3-5 feet). If the water is dingy you’re better off soaking powerbait or nightcrawlers. The trout are stocked at either the launch ramp or the Main Rec so either spot can turn hot if a fresh load of fish goes in. There doesn’t appear to be a die-off of trout in the summer so it’s reasonable to assume that fish hold over. San Pablo water temps stay much cooler than nearby lakes due to the strong breeze from the Bay in the summer that washes over the hills from the west in the afternoon. If you want to beat the summer heat, this is a good place to go. You might need your jacket in July.
There are sturgeon in San Pablo and they are BIG. There’s been years where people have legitimately set up to fish for them and caught them with some regularity. The hot spot seems to be just down below the kiosk at the launch ramp entrance to the lake. Shrimp is the reported bait of choice. Watch the size limit regulations if you catch one. It’s the same as if you catch them in the Bay.
Catfish in San Pablo are big as well. The average channel cat coming out of the lake is in the 15-25lb range. They like to eat bass lures and just about every October they go on a rampage around the lake with people catching them on all sorts of silly stuff like crankbaits and needlefish. Most of the regular catfishermen set up and fish bait around the tower or half-way down the back of scow canyon. The lake record is over 31lbs – a big channel by any standards.
The largemouth fishery at San Pablo is one of the stranger fisheries around, but it’s an interesting one. The really good fishing peaked in 2001-2003 with terrific numbers of 15lb+ bass being caught. Jigs and swimbaits were the deal with some sight fishing mixed in. A ton of big fish were caught and killed as well by trout fisherman. The lake record fish is the largest bass on record north of Lake Isabella at 18lbs 11.2oz – caught and killed by a trout fisherman on a nightcrawler/marshmallow combo rig of course.
What has always been strange about San Pablo is that there are very few small bass. So few that if you were to go out trying to catch a 1 to 3 pound bass it might take you a good long while to find one and catch it. Even the male bass at San Pablo have always been big, with 4 and even 5 pound males not uncommon.
Since the draw down, 90% of the useable bass cover has become exposed and no longer has fish-holding value. Where there used to be 25 or more laydown trees in the lake, there are now less than 6. Where the bass used to find spawning areas in shallow grass and brush there is now mud and mucky shell beds. The result is big-framed diseased looking bass with red sores on their body from the bad water condition. There are still big bass in the lake but nothing over 15 pounds has been reported in several years.
Crappie do appear from time to time but there hasn’t been any consistent bite of note in the past 10 years. The redear record at the lake is 3lbs 6.4oz but there’s no fishery for them per se and it would be very unlikely to ever see one in the shallows. Spotted bass are present in the lake and have been since at least 2001. There’s been fish up to 7lbs caught and they seem to be increasing in numbers. The spotted bass were likely a result of an illegal stocking.
Oddly enough, San Pablo has a large population of white colored goldfish and people do fish for them. Big point is a popular area for this. You’ll see folks with baskets full of them on occasion. And carp… wow there are a lot of carp in San Pablo. It would be fun if bow hunting were allowed here. You could shoot carp for weeks and not even make a dent in the population.
Right now San Pablo is a lake that has been knocked down from its glory days. When the dam is repaired and the level is raised and the DFG plants are resumed (we can only hope), maybe then San Pablo will return to its former glory. The potential will always be there for this muddy little canyon lake in the north bay.