Exit the 101 just north of San Luis Obispo, head east 7 miles, and you’ll find yourself at one of the most beautiful and tranquil reservoirs on the coast – Santa Margarita Lake. There are two launch ramps, the Marina Ramp and the White Oak Ramp. On low water the White Oak Ramp is best because the Marina Ramp tends to flatten out.
Drive left at the marina and you’ll find what the locals call the swimming pool cove. Drive right and you can tour the marina cove, the main lake, and work over to Salsipuedes Bay. There are picnic tables and excellent shore fishing access along the way. Camping is above the marina cove and wrapping around the swimming pool cove. Margarita is a great place to camp.
Margarita is a vibrant fishery with northern strain largemouth, crappie, striped bass, channel catfish, rainbow trout, bluegill, golden shiners, shad, and bullhead. In late 1990’s a big largemouth was a 7 pounder. In more recent years (2006-2009) a surprising number of 10+ fish have been caught and the lake record has been broken more than once with 13lb+ bass. It’s very possible that Santa Margarita has the best northern strain largemouth fishing in the state.
Bass in Margarita go for your basic bass fare like jigs, drop shots, rattle traps and senkos. There can also be an outstanding swimbait bite here during all times of the year – not to mention the topwater. Work a zara spook super fast on top at sunset or put a buzzbait in the little channels between the grass beds. Being northern strain, the bass here just seem a little more eager than most places.
Stripers used to be common in Margrita in the 80’s and 90’s. The fishing peaked in the mid-90’s with good numbers of 20-30lb class fish being taken. Craig Jacobsen caught the lake record, a 33 pounder on a 12” MS Slammer in the late 90’s. Something happened though around 1998 with the stripers and they all but disappeared from the lake. Some people theorize that the fish went over the dam during high water. No one really knows. The decline in the stripers may explain the surge in the bass fishing.
Rainbow trout fishing at Margarita is put and take. Some fish may survive through the summer months but you’ll seldom see a trout larger than 2 or 3 pounds from this lake. You’ll see a few people trolling in the spring but it seems like most trout are caught soaking powerbait around the marina or over in the swimming pool cove. In April when the grass starts to grow up from the lake bottom it can become difficult to shore fish.
Speaking of grass, Margarita is one of the few lakes in the state that has big thick grass mats growing up from 0-14’ of water. The thick grass equates to fun fishing for bass with topwater and frogs starting in April and May. It also provides cover for thousands of bluegill which roam the shallows during the spring and summer. The bluegill are small (4 to 7 inches) but can be a lot of fun for the kids. Try any of the docks in the marina cove or by the White Oak ramp. May through July are the best times.
Channel cats at Margarita are good sized. You’ll see them spawning in the narrow section of the lake by the dam in spring and they’re in the 8-20lb class. There are piles of old concrete tubing here that they like to hide in. Jackass canyon and the back of the river seem to be popular catfish holes for guys soaking mackerel or anchovies.
The river end of the lake is only flooded during years with good rain fall. When it fills, there is a mile-long stretch in the back of the lake filled with standing timber, brush, tullies, and grass mats. The river itself can be crystal clear during these good water years. It’s a gorgeous place to fish and a good place to check for crappie in spring.
Water clarity at Santa Margarita can range from straight brown mud to 15’ clear green water. In the spring (usually coinciding with the grass growth) the water can go from 2-3 feet of visibility to 10+ feet of visibility almost overnight. In summer and fall you’ll see 3-6’ of clarity most years with minimal algae. How the water looks in the winter all depends on the rainfall. Margarita can fill to the brim with a few days of heavy rain. That’s when you break out a big black jig and flip in 3 feet of water.
The shad population at Margarita has been consistent and healthy for many years. They show under the marina docks, in the swimming pool cove, and along the shallow shorelines in Salsipuedes during late spring. The shad of course range in size but 3-5” threadfin are common. Drop shotting a small plastic worm under the shad balls can be effective for bass.
The best news of all at Santa Margarita is that there is no body contact allowed on the lake which means no jet skiers or water skiers. This goes a long way toward explaining why the lake has such terrific weed growth and abundant wildlife! You are allowed to kayak, float tube, and kickboat (with waders) but check the lake rules for specifics on where you can fish. They have some funny rules about how far out in to the lake you can go in a float tube.
If you go, treat this place right, it’s a special little lake.