CLEAR LAKE: California Part I of 2

by Annette Bignami

Wine country remains special. Tours and tasting, wine and crisp French bread spread with a soft cheese enjoyed under a spreading oak tree could not be more romantic. Fine meals at a reasonable cost and winding roads that are still fun to drive can't be beaten.

Unfortunately, where tourists mob up in the Napa and Sonoma Wine country visitors are often herded through wineries, take a number and wait in delis and suffer the dubious joys of tourist bus traffic. Fishing at Clear LakeClear Lake, California's largest freshwater lake, just two and a half hours away from the Bay Area, remains the uncrowded choice.


Clear Lake Fishing

photo credit: Annette Bignami

More years ago than I care to remember we lived in Monterey, we would get in the family car and travel to Clear Lake for a week or two weeks spent lazing by the water in the warm sun. Then as highways improved we vacationed in the Sierras or Southern California. Travel writers, like other travelers, can overlook the opportunities in their "backyards" in search of the exotic and remote. To find such a splendid destination so close to home is a bonus.

California settlers discovered Clear Lake's recreational opportunities early. By the 1850's settlers attracted to the European spas built near the many natural springs in the area flocked to Bartlett Springs, Soda Bay Springs, Seigler Springs, Anderson and Adams Springs. Most of these resorts burned down and were not replaced as easier-to-reach spas were established nearer population centers. Roads around the lake were primitive and most travel was by water.

Lake County centers on Clear Lake, the largest natural lake entirely in California. Natural lakes do have major advantages. To start their level is much more stable than that of reservoirs so their banks are more attractive. Clear Lake's limnology makes it a particularly fine fishing lake, as the waters are just the right depth for maximum fish production. Add Mount Konocti, Cow Mountain and other coastal range peaks around the lake and you have a wonderful setting in an out-of-the-way spot missed by tourists wedded to major freeways.

The same watershed that keeps the lake full irrigated wineries started by such notables as Lola Langtry who brought in a Bordeaux expert to make wine on her 4,200 acre ranch that's now the site of Guenoc Winery. However, the cost of transport out of this isolated area, and prohibition nearly killed the industry. As a result walnuts and wonderful Bartlett pears took over until the wines came back in the 1960's. Today, Lake County wines have "won more awards per acre than any other area in the world."

"Go where grapes grow! Vineyards mean great climate." With so much water to moderate extremes winters are warmer and summers a bit cooler than the Sierra foothills. Spring and fall remain prime times to visit with mild weather and "super fishing" that's best with either a guide or from a boat.

Clear Lake rental boats come in all flavors save houseboat. Skiffs suit fishermen. Canoes, pedal power and sailboats add to the mix. Clear Lake does get windy at times, so it's a popular sailing choice. Fortunately, the lake has many sheltered areas where you can always find calm fishing waters.

More adventurous visitors para sail or water ski. Clear Lake attracts a number of professional water skiers from all over the world like the Australians who practice during their off-season. You might try an aerial tour to view the lake and surroundings too on a float plane.

The aquatically replete might try golf, hiking, biking or horseback riding. The only aquatic option that's not available is houseboats because, I'm told, there's no place to moor them, as almost all of the shoreline is private property. Golfers find ecent golf courses and a large driving range around the lake. Buckingham and Riviera Courses overlook the water; Hidden Valley Lake Golf and Country Club is the 18-hole choice.

Rental bikes are available in Lakeport and other population centers. The many back roads in the area put the fun back into driving too. Dirt road addicts can bounce around on the many roads hunters use to reach deer and quail around the lake.