Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fishing the Bucks Lake Area

This article was originally printed in the May/June 2003 issue of California Fly Fisher Magazine.

Fishing the Bucks Lake Area
by Andrew Harris

Intro & History
One of the joys of fly fishing is revisiting your home waters after a long absence.  My natal fishing grounds are Bucks Lake and nearby lakes and streams in the Plumas National Forest.  I am fortunate in that my family has a cabin on Bucks Lake and I’ve spent a significant part of my summers there almost every year since I was born.  For four years during high school and college I spent entire summers at the lake working for Bucks Lake Lodge.  Over the past few years my guiding obligations on waters farther to the north have kept me away from Bucks Lake.  However, last summer I made a point to take some time off and revisit this beautiful area.  It was great to apply some new skills to the waters that taught me some of my very first lessons in fly fishing.
            Bucks Lake was created in 1928 when the Great Western Power Company completed a dam on Bucks Creek, a tributary to the North Fork Feather River.  This area is at about 5100 feet elevation at the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada.  The Bucks Creek and nearby Grizzly Creek watersheds receive a great deal of snowpack, and the hydroelectric project was very well designed to capture the resulting runoff.  Water enters Bucks Lake, the main storage reservoir, from several small tributaries.  Water is then released into Lower Bucks Lake, which can be found immediately downstream from Bucks Lake dam.  Water from the diminutive Three Lakes is also diverted into Lower Bucks Lake.  From there, the water is sent to a powerhouse at the upstream end of Grizzly Forebay, a small reservoir on Grizzly Creek.  Finally, the water makes a final plunge down lengthy penstocks to Bucks Creek Powerhouse, which can be seen from Highway 70 between Oroville and Quincy.  The Bucks Creek hydroelectric project is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the renewal date for the license is December 31, 2018.
When I was researching my Plumas National Forest Trout Fishing Guide (published in 1999 by Frank Amato Publications), I was surprised to learn that Bucks Creek was historically devoid of trout.  Impassable waterfalls on the lower end of the creek prevented native coastal rainbow trout from inhabiting the upper reaches of the watershed.  Early settlers were quick to rectify this situation, bringing rainbow trout over from nearby tributaries of the Middle Fork Feather River.  Brown trout and brook trout were introduced to the Feather River country around 1905.  These three species now share Bucks Lake with kokanee (landlocked Sockeye salmon) and lake trout, or mackinaw.  These five salmonids cohabitate the lake in an interesting fashion.  Kokanee are extremely numerous, having taken advantage of ample spawning grounds in Bucks Creek.  They run from 10-14 inches and are mainly pursued by trollers.  Mackinaw dominate the depths of the lake.  They feed on kokanee, but have also taken a liking to the hatchery trout that are dumped in the lake throughout the summer months.  The rainbows, browns, and occasional brook trout are the easiest targets for fly fishers.  Most of the rainbows and brook trout caught in Bucks Lake are hatchery fish.  Lower Bucks Lake and Grizzly Forebay are predominantly populated by wild rainbows and browns.

Accessing the Lakes
            The Bucks Lake area can be reached via the
Oroville-Quincy Highway
from Oroville or Quincy.  The area typically becomes accessible in late May or early June and remains open until sometime in November or December.  The road is fully paved, although there are some very narrow and windy sections.  Bucks Lake is 17 miles from Quincy and about 45 miles from Oroville.  The Oro-Quincy highway skirts the southern shoreline of the lake from Bucks Creek to Haskins Bay, two of the most popular areas to fish.  To reach the dam and the campgrounds on the northwest end of the lake, turn off on
Bucklin Road
.  Lower Bucks Lake is just down
Bucklin Road
from the dam.  There is a dirt road that goes down the north shoreline of the lake.  Grizzly Forebay is most easily reached from the
Oro-Quincy Highway
.  The turnoff is about 2 miles west of the
Bucklin Road
turnoff.  The road is paved most of the way.
            Visitors can find accommodations at Bucks Lake Lodge or Bucks Lakeshore Resort.  Both lodges offer restaurants and housekeeping cabins, and Bucks Lake Lodge also offers a motel and a bed & breakfast.  There are also numerous campgrounds in the area.  Mill Creek, Sundew, and Haskins campgrounds are right on Bucks Lake, and the nearby Whitehorse, Grizzly Creek, and Lower Bucks campgrounds are also popular.  The three campgrounds on the lake fill up on many weekends during the summer.  They’re occupied on a first come, first serve basis, so plan your vacations accordingly.  Those same campgrounds are usually less than half full during the week.  Boats can be launched at the resorts and at most of the campgrounds.  There is a good, although unofficial, area to launch boats at the east end of Lower Bucks Lake.  There isn’t an actual boat ramp at Grizzly Forebay, but it is possible (if somewhat difficult) to launch an aluminum boat at the end of the road.

Bucks Lake
            Although the lakes are open to fishing year round, they’re not always accessible or free of ice.  Fishermen can typically access the area by May or June, sometimes sooner if they are launching a boat at one of the resorts.  Fishing is very good at this time for two reasons: the fish haven’t received any attention all winter and they’re up near the surface where you can reach them easily with fly gear.  Trout and kokanee can be caught all over Bucks Lake by retrieving streamers on floating and intermediate lines.  Focus on sharp drop-offs, points, and the inlet streams.  Bank fishing can be problematic this time of year because the lake is often full.  The water backs up against trees and steep slopes, making casting difficult.  It’s very advantageous to have a boat or float tube.
            Spring hatches include Carpenter Ants and callibaetis mayflies.  The Carpenter Ants usually assault the area in early June.  They appear on Grizzly Forebay first and then proceed upwards in elevation to Lower Bucks and Bucks Lake.  These bugs are easily imitated with large (size 10-12) flying ant patterns and they are welcomed voraciously by the fish.  By the end of the hatch the water is littered with ants and the trout are stuffed.  Callibaetis mayflies are already hatching at this time of year and they persist throughout the summer months.  They hatch in the shallow areas of the lake and can be imitated with a traditional Adams (size 14-16).  The water level fluctuates drastically from spring to late fall, so Bucks Lake is not able to establish large weedbeds.  Accordingly, Bucks Lake doesn’t have large hatches of damselflies, dragonflies, and many of the other aquatic insects we typically associate with good Stillwater fly fishing.  The trout are more focused on terrestrial insects, small midges, and forage fish.
            Summers are warm at Bucks Lake, and water surface temperatures can get up to 70 degrees.  It’s a great time to go swimming, but the trout are not typically near the surface during the months of July, August & September.  The exception is at the mouths of tributary streams when they’re flowing.  Bucks Creek, Haskins Creek, and the various forks of Mill Creek can flow strong throughout the summer months after a heavy winter.  These inlets are frequently the only place where trout can be found near the surface in the summer.  When the streams aren’t flowing much, the inlets can still be good.  Just back away from the stream mouth and fish the submerged stream channel.  Keep moving into deeper and deeper water until you find the fish.    A full-sink line is very useful this time of year.  For flies, try woolly buggers, damsel nymphs, princes and zug bugs.  A good rule of thumb is to fish at the depth where the water is 60 degrees F.  Use a thermometer to check the surface temperature and then make an educated guess as to what that depth would be.  You can even put your thermometer on a string and lower it down to different depths.
Trout return to the surface of Bucks Lake in late September.  By then the lake is low and it’s easy to walk or wade the shoreline and cast at will.  The inlet streams are still productive, but trout will be found cruising the entire shoreline of the lake.  I like to fish a large pheasant tail on a floating line with a long leader at this time of year.  This is how I caught my first wild trout out of Bucks Lake.  It was a crisp November day and I was fishing near the Mill Creek inlet.  Nearby, my sister Karen was sitting in her folding chair, slaying planted rainbows and brookies with a worm under a red and white bobber.  I persevered with my fly rod, eventually hooking and landing a 14” rainbow.  There was not a single mark on this fish, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had never caught a wild trout out of the lake until then.  I had just started fishing streams, catching beautiful little wild trout on yellow palmers and California mosquitoes.  Not knowing anything about hatchery fish, I just assumed that stream fish were beautiful and lake fish were ugly.  But when I held this new, immaculate trout in my hand, I realized that it was different from all the other rainbows I had caught out of the lake.  It was wild.  And I could only assume that there were more like it!

Lower Bucks Lake
            Most fly fishers will find Lower Bucks Lake much more to their liking than it’s larger brother upstream.  It’s smaller and a more intimate setting.  The roar of ski boats and jet skis is rarely heard.  The lake is dominated by wild brown and rainbow trout.  Best of all, the fish stay near the surface here throughout the season due to cooler water temperatures.  Due to its location in the middle of the Bucks Creek hydroelectric project, a lot of water moves through this reservoir.  Cold water comes in from the bottom of Bucks Lake.  During the summer months, surface temperatures at Lower Bucks are typically 10 degrees F cooler than surface temperatures at Bucks Lake.
            My favorite way to fish Lower Bucks is from the bank.  The countless rotting stumps protruding from the sandy shorelines make excellent casting and fish-spotting platforms.  The fish like to hang around these stumps.  In some areas there are even small aquatic weed patches.  Nothing like you’d see at Crowley or Lake Davis, but the fish routinely investigate them for nymphs.  A floating line with a weighted nymph usually works well in the shallow areas.  Cast to weed patches, stumps, and drop-offs, all the while looking for cruising fish.  One of the best spots for sight-fishing is near the make-shift boat ramp at the east end of the lake.  Another worthwhile tactic is to cast a crayfish pattern or rusty-colored woolly bugger into the depths of the lake on a sinking line.  There are a fair number of crayfish in Lower Bucks and the browns are quite fond of them.
            The water level at Lower Bucks Lake fluctuates daily according to the demand for hydroelectric power.  When the lake is high and the water goes up against the steep, heavily wooded banks, a float tube makes fly fishing much easier.  Paddle out into the lake and cast in towards the shoreline.  A float tube can also help in the evenings when the trout feed on midges in the middle of the lake.  Griffith’s Gnats and midge pupa patterns in very small sizes often work well.
            Another good place to fish is the pipe at the west end of the lake where water from Three Lakes empties into Lower Bucks.  The pipe discharges heavily through June and sometimes into July and August.  Fish congregate here to feed on the insects that come through the pipe.  Almost any technique will work here, including dry flies drifted on the current, nymphs fished on the swing or under indicators, and streamers stripped across the current.  Big fish can be found here.

Grizzly Forebay
            Grizzly Forebay has good surface action throughout the year.  There is a powerhouse at the upper end of the Forebay that dumps in cold water from the bottom of Lower Bucks Lake.  Grizzly Forebay is very similar to Lower Bucks Lake, and can be fished in the same manner.  The main difference is that Grizzly Forebay is about five to ten degrees cooler than Lower Bucks.  The cold water (50-55 degrees) comes in at the powerhouse, and I have frequently observed that the fish primarily feed away from the powerhouse, in the warmer part of the lake near the dam.
            The road to Grizzly Forebay ends near the dam on the north side of the reservoir.  From there you can walk a shoreline trail upstream (east) towards the powerhouse.  Grizzly Forebay is usually full, and shore fishing can be problematic.  I really enjoy fishing from a float tube here.  Fish rise to midges throughout the day, usually in the middle of the lake.  Fish also cruise the shorelines looking for terrestrials and nymphs.  Fly selections for Grizzly Forebay should include woolly buggers, griffith’s gnats and other small midge patterns, and parachute mayflies in the smaller sizes.  The Carpenter Ants hatch in force here in late May and early June.  Come prepared with large flying ant patterns.

Other nearby waters
In addition to Bucks Lake, Lower Bucks Lake, and Grizzly Forebay, there are many enjoyable smaller streams and lakes in the immediate area.  Three Lakes is a group of small lakes down a long 4WD dirt road from Lower Bucks Lake.  They are higher in elevation and usually can’t be accessed before late June.  Although they are home to rainbows and brookies, I have never found the drive to Three Lakes to be worthwhile for the fishing.  To the east, closer to Quincy, Silver and Gold Lake offer better fishing and easier access.  These roads can be reached from the tiny town of Meadow Valley in between Quincy and Bucks Lake.  The road is dirt and not very good, but should be passable to 2WD vehicles with good ground clearance.  Silver Lake is right at the end of the road, and Gold Lake is an enjoyable one-hour hike away.  Gold Lake has brook trout up to 12” and Silver Lake has rainbows and brookies.  Float tubes are very advantageous in both lakes.
            The southern shoreline of Bucks Lake is dotted with cabins, most of them on lots leased by the Forest Service and Pacific Gas & Electric.  The north shoreline of Bucks Lake is the southern boundary of the Bucks Lake Wilderness, and is not developed.  If you enjoy fishing small streams (and I mean small), this is a fun area to explore.  The various forks of Mill Creek flow through this Wilderness Area.  They all have fish, and I’ve spent many enjoyable days trying to find the elusive 10” trout in that prime pool.  Most of these creeks are home to rainbows, browns and brookies.  Be aware that tributaries of Bucks Lake are only open from the Saturday preceding Memorial Day through September 30th.
            The Pacific Crest Trail bisects the Bucks Lake Wilderness, traveling the ridge between Bucks Lake and the canyon of the North Fork Feather River.  This is a beautiful section of the Pacific Crest Trail.  You can get on the trail at a marked trailhead on the
Oro-Quincy Highway
just east of Bucks Lake.  In the northern edge of the wilderness, Lost Lake has no trail, some decent sized brook trout and a lot of solitude.  If you’re interested in hiking in to some of the lakes and streams in the area you should definitely pick up a map of the Bucks Lake Wilderness.  It’s a brand-new topo map put out by the Forest Service, and it’s much easier than packing along several smaller 7.5 minute quadrangles.


  1. Hi Andrew. found this website while searching for Rainbow Point info. health and happiness to you and family.
    rick Mahoney

  2. I would say you covered the fly fishing flies for bass. Those frogs are killers. Do you use many poppers? thanks for sharing a great post!! lake fishing beginner's guide