World-class fishing just a short drive away in Merced County

For world-class striped-bass fishing, look no further than two neighboring bodies of water on the eastern slopes of the Pacific Coast ranges of Merced County. San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay, just off Interstate 5 west of Los Banos, have produced fish weighing upwards of 65 pounds. Some call these monsters “Moby Bass.”

San Luis was built as a storage facility for irrigation water for the San Joaquin Valley. With this winter’s big rains, it filled in late March and is now at about 90 percent with roughly 2 million acre-feet of water. Its blue-green water ripples against the surrounding grasslands, now turning gold.

Just below the dam at San Luis, on the opposite side of the highway, is the smaller O’Neill Forebay. Many prefer the Forebay, with 14 miles of shoreline, for its open water. Campgrounds there include sites near shore with lake views, often less wind, a more intimate feel for kayaking, boating and water sports — and some of the biggest striped bass ever caught.

The state-record striped bass, credited by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, was caught at O’Neill Forebay by Hank Ferguson of Soquel and weighed 67 pounds, 8 ounces. Yet Dan Bacher, of the magazine Fish Sniffer, later verified a bigger one, which weighed 70.6 pounds. The biggest striped bass verified at San Luis weighed 66.9 pounds, caught from shore near the Romero Visitor Center by Alvin Vang of Clovis. In recent weeks, O’Neill has provided good numbers of smaller fish, and San Luis has produced both numbers and size, with some in the 10- to 25-pound range.

Two lakes, one story

When the Delta pumps near Tracy started cranking in 1968, the water was sent south and staged at giant San Luis and O’Neill Forebay.

As part of the Central Valley Project, recreation facilities were developed at each. You almost always can get a campsite here. Three campgrounds are available, one at San Luis, two at O’Neill Forebay. They range from RV sites with hookups for water and electricity to primitive tent sites. There is plenty of room for all boating.

The location in grasslands of the western San Joaquin Valley means warm temperatures in spring and early summer and wind that often rises in the afternoons. That makes it a morning lake for boating and fishing.

When the Monterey coast is fogged in and the San Joaquin Valley hits the 90s, the wind can howl from west to east. At each lake, there are light towers that provide wind warnings. No lights means no problems. Amber, the most common, means to use caution, and that afternoon winds are predicted. Red lights mean closed to boating, but by that time, the whitecaps likely will have you back at the dock.

In the spring, when striped bass spawn, the eggs are suspended in the current for 48 hours before hatching. This is also when the pumps are cranking at full volume and send 70,000 gallons of water per second down the California Aqueduct to San Luis. With the water goes the eggs and newly hatched fry, and in the past 50 years, the once-great striped-bass fishery in the Delta (and Bay) was transplanted to San Luis and O’Neill Forebay.

Camp, boat, fish

On my visit last week, there was a light chop on the big lake, San Luis, so we ventured instead to O’Neill Forebay. The campgrounds were wide open, a take-your-pick deal.

A good side trip is to see if you can find the elk. A herd of about 100 elks often roam in subgroups along Basalt Road below San Luis Dam. The peak time for the calves to be born starts in mid-May.

Because O’Neill is always full of water, it makes launching easy and predictable. First thing in the morning, it’s a good spot for kayaks, and many explore the shoreline that extends south from the boat ramp.

For fishing, the legends, including Al Whitehurst, Terry Baird, and more recently, Dan Blanton, who developed flyfishing here for stripers, catch-and-release, have named many of the best spots. At San Luis, for instance, the big cove south of the dam is called the Bay of Pigs for all the big striped bass caught here. Submerged islands are also good. At O’Neill Forebay, the mouth of the Trench, located just north of the small islands above Fisherman’s Point, can be a likely spot. So are shoreline areas with rocks or riprap.

Blanton, a Hall of Fame flyfisher, shares his expertise and details of his trips at San Luis at his website, DanBlanton.com. The most famous fly pattern is the Clouser Minnow, along with many spin-offs from that pattern developed over the years. For conventional tackle, most do fine if they cast a chrome-black Rattletrap or a Shim Jig. Some just sit on the shore with bait.

Lots of small fish are common. Just when you think all the lake has is little guys, Moby Bass can jump up and rock your world.

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