GOLD COUNTRY’S BEST KEPT SECRET
here is an abundance of lakes and reservoirs in the Sierra foothills. People come from all over California to enjoy the boating and fishing available at Lakes Don Pedro, New Hogan, McClure and many others. But few people have discovered the beautiful New Melones Lake, the fourth largest man-made lake in California, behind Oroville, Shasta, and Trinity.
Located in Calaveras County in Angels Camp (home of the Celebrated Jumping Frog Jubilee), New Melones Lake was formed with the completion of a 625-foot high dam in 1979. New Melones surpassed in size the Old Melones reservoir that had been formed in 1926. By 1982, the lake was filled and on its way to becoming the wonderful recreational spot that it is today.
While most lakes have heavy boat traffic, New Melones is just the opposite. Several launching sights, 12,500 surface acres of water (at full capacity), and 100 miles of shoreline insure plenty of elbowroom for everyone. Even holiday weekends find New Melones Lake much quieter that of other Gold Country lakes (parking at the boat ramps is sometimes a problem on busy weekends, so plan on arriving early on summer weekends, especially holiday weekends). Campsites offer barbecues, water, campfire rings, and shower facilities. You can make camping reservations by visiting www.reserveusa.com. New Melones Lake, while open to fishing and camping 24 hours a day, has an entrance gate (you can exit any time) that closes at night, and opens again each morning, to help keep vandalism down. Be sure you call to find out when the gate will be closing, if you plan on arriving late. The New Melones Visitor’s Center ( 536-9094) is a great place to learn about the area’s history, the forming of the lake, and the flora and fauna from the knowledgeable rangers. Be sure to ask the rangers about their informative talks on interesting local subjects, and about their guided hikes.
Fishing is wonderful year-round at New Melones Lake. From Thanksgiving to February, when the trout are gorging themselves on shad in the coves and creek channels, anglers catch stringers of beautiful two to seven pound rainbow and brown trout right from shore. On warm summer nights, boaters can limit out using minnows or night crawlers with submersible lights that attract baitfish, which in turn attract the big trout. It’s very pleasant to spend the night (the lake is open to boaters all night long) bobbing under the stars, the lake water all around you shimmering from your light and the flash of minnows
The lake is home to largemouth, a few smallmouth, spotted and redeye bass. Spring through fall, bass action is hot. In fact, bass fishing tournaments have embraced the lake in recent years, including it in their itineraries and holding Tournaments of Champions there. Summer and fall bring catfish in the three to thirty pound range, some even larger. Perch and crappie can be caught both in the summer using jigs and minnows in the coves and creek channels, as well as in the winter, fishing deep at night using minnows with submersible lights. Kokanee (small, feisty relatives of salmon, and regarded by some as the best tasting of any freshwater fish) were introduced into the lake in spring of 1997, and are thriving far beyond anyone’s expectations. Kokanee action is great in the spring and summer, with limits of two- pounders being common. Members of the Project Kokanee and Kokanee Power say Melones is one of their favorite kokanee lakes.
Wildlife abounds at New Melones. Osprey hawks nest in the tall trees near the lake, and bald eagles are common in the late winter and spring. Egrets and herons can be spotted on the shore and soaring in the blue skies. Black tail deer, fox, and raccoons are a common sight in the evenings as they come down to the shore to quench their thirst and feed. Berry bushes at the water’s edge provide a home for teal and mallard ducks, Canadian geese, cormorants, and coots. Turtles can be spotted sunning themselves on logs at the water’s edge, only to slip into the water with a soft splash as one nears. With luck, a shy river otter or two may be spotted frolicking in the sun. The majority of the lake is bordered by land managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, and is open to hunting, season permitting.
Water ski enthusiasts who come to New Melones for the first time are thrilled to find an uncrowded lake with a surface like glass and even a slalom ski course. Jet skiers can have a ball exploring the many coves and creek channels. The configuration of the lake, its sheer size and its many fingers and arms, insures that skiers and anglers can share the water without crowding one another, as happens on so many other bodies of water.
The area surrounding New Melones Lake is rich in history. The area is thought to have been first inhabited by Native Americans around 3500 years ago, and the Miwok Indians arrived in the area about 500 years ago. Evidence of Native American life can be seen along the Stanislaus River. There are bedrock mortars (boulders that have indented hollows in them from the Indians grinding acorns) and Indian petroglyphs (drawings on rocks) to be found when exploring the riverbanks when the water is low. Human remains found in some of the many caves along the Stanislaus are thought to belong to ancestors of the Yokuts, who may have used the caves as burial sites.
The most fascinating era in New Melones Lake’s history is, of course, the Gold Rush. There is plenty of historical interest left for visitors to discover. The mining town of New Melones, now 200 feet under the lake, was once one of the most prosperous in the Mother Lode. There are miles of stone fences still standing that were built in the 1800’s by ranchers to keep their cattle in, and stone foundations of old cabins long gone, on the rolling hills surrounding the lake. A twenty-minute car ride from the lake will take you to many interesting Gold Rush towns. Angels Camp, Murphys, San Andreas, Vallecito, Sonora, Jamestown, and Columbia, all nearby, are still quaint little towns, very much unchanged from the days when they were built.
There is much gold left in the New Melones area. People still pan for it in the many streams and creeks that flow into the lake. All that is needed is an inexpensive gold pan and a little patience.
From fishing, hunting and camping, to gold panning and sight seeing, New Melones Lake has it all. Come and see what beautiful New Melones Lake has to offer!