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Bass Fishing in America: Boat-in Camping at Lake Sonoma
By Janis Cooke Newman
I was searching myopically around the pale blue light of the tent for my contact lenses when I heard my husband's voice. "Uh-oh," he said, "I didn't plan for this." Wondering what the man who wouldn't take a two-mile hike without a snakebite kit and a NASA emergency blanket couldn't possibly have planned for, I stuck my head out into the early morning air.
"Daddy caught a fish!" our son Alex shouted.
"Get the net!" my husband screamed. He was holding onto his fishing rod, dancing around at the water's edge. "I just put in the line and there he was," he said, as I scooped up an 18-inch bass. "I can't believe I caught a fish before I even brushed my teeth."
It was our first morning at one of the boat-in sites at Lake Sonoma, and already the pressure was off: The sun was barely up, and we'd just caught dinner.
Taking the pressure off is pretty much the theme for camping at Lake Sonoma. Located less than two hours north of San Francisco (Noe Valley) on 101, barely 10 minutes from the wineries of the Dry Creek Valley, Lake Sonoma is an easy drive. And there are about two hundred campsites -- both developed and primitive -- so you're guaranteed a good spot.
But what we like best about Lake Sonoma are the boat-in sites: 94 places to camp that are reachable only by water. When you stay in one of these sites, you get the wilderness feeling of backpacking, with the ease of car camping (a plus when one of your fellow campers is 5 years old and disinclined to carry anything heavier than a Curious George backpack filled with plastic dinosaurs).
Then there's the fishing. Created by the Warm Springs Dam in 1983, Lake Sonoma extends for nine miles on Dry Creek and four miles on Warm Springs Creek, and the upper stretches of both are chockfull of bass.
Our campsite was about a 20-minute ride from the Lake Sonoma Marina, where we rented a small fishing boat, and only a stone's throw from the water's edge -- a distance Alex tested using a small pile of rocks. Set beneath an oak tree with twisting branches, it had a picnic table, a metal pole with a hook for hanging a lantern and food bags, and a low stone grill. Pit toilets were just a short walk away. (There's no piped-in water, but with the whole lake right outside your tent, it's easy to purify all you need.)
After tethering the unexpected bass to a line and putting him back in the water to swim around until dinnertime, we took our boat out to fish in the small coves that surround the lake.
"Cast your line near the structures," my husband advised, "structures" being fishing lingo for dead trees. Per his instructions, I sent my purple worm (the bass bait of choice, according to the Dry Creek Bait and Tackle Store in nearby Healdsburg) in the direction of a bare trunk sticking out of the water, and immediately caught a good-sized branch.
A number of serious fishing boats floated by us, trailing the summertime smell of gas and oil. These boats had nearly silent trolling motors, and they'd suddenly appear behind us like a kind of stealth fishing vessel.
"How ya doin'?" my husband called out to a man wearing a baseball cap with a large fish printed on the brim.
"Okay," the man said nonchalantly. "Caught about thirty."
That afternoon, we washed off our camp dirt with a swim in the lake, terrifying a family of wood ducks who were paddling by. Afterward, we lay on grass studded with tiny wildflowers, letting the sun dry our skin and listening to the staccato tapping of a woodpecker. Lake Sonoma is surrounded by an 8,000-acre wildlife refuge, and from time to time we'd hear the cartoon gobble-gobble of a wild turkey.
As the sun began to set, my husband stuffed his bass with garlic and sage, brushed it with olive oil, and cooked it over a driftwood fire in the grill. Bats flew overhead as we picked at the crispy skin of the bass, washing it down with a sauvignon blanc we'd kept cool in the lake. After dark, we turned off the lantern and studied the night sky. There were so many stars, the Big Dipper was almost impossible to find, like Where's Waldo? in one of Alex's books.
First thing the next morning, I cast a chartreuse spinner (another recommendation from the Dry Creek Bait and Tackle Store) out to a structure before brushing my teeth. (I'd decided that poor dental hygiene must be one of those fishing secrets you're always hearing about.) Almost immediately, I felt a quick tugging.
"I got one!" I screamed, reeling in the line.
"Mommy got a fish!" Alex shouted, waving the net around in the air like a flag.
"It's a crappie," my husband declared, scooping up a fish half the size of the one he'd caught the day before.
"No, it's not," I told him haughtily, "it's a small bass." And then I went off to brush my teeth.
Boats and Campsites
Camping Reservations: While the Visitor's Center at Lake Sonoma holds 12 boat-in sites for walk-ins, it's advisable to make reservations ahead of time, especially on weekends and holidays. (Yes, campsites are available year-round.) Reservations can be made through the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS), either toll-free by phone at 877-444-6777, or on the web at www.ReserveUSA.com. Look for the Lake Sonoma sites under the listing Boat-in Sites. There is a $10 fee for each night's camping. Since the NRRS has no real information on where the campsites are, it's worth calling the Army Corps of Engineers at the Lake Sonoma Visitor's Center at 707-433-9483 ahead of time and requesting a map of the lake. The people at the Visitor's Center are very helpful and will also describe the sites for you.
Renting a Boat: If you already have a boat, you can put it in at the Lake Sonoma Marina for a $10 per day fee, which includes parking your car. Otherwise, the marina rents boats by the hour or by the day. Our 14-foot fishing boat, which was the least expensive option, cost $110 a day. There is also a $5 per day parking fee when you're renting a boat. Call the Lake Sonoma Marina at 707-433-2200 to reserve your boat in advance.
Going Fishing: If you want to know what the bass are biting on, be sure to stop at Dry Creek Bait and Tackle, 3495 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg; 707-433-2264. They also sell fishing licenses. Next door to the bait and tackle shop, you'll find the Dry Creek Store, where you can pick up sandwiches and sodas, and almost anything else you might have forgotten.
Are We There Yet? is a Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please email Janis Cooke Newman at email@example.com or the Noe Valley Voice at firstname.lastname@example.org.