Without actually having eyes on the lakes it's difficult to ascertain when this begins to occur. You can try calling marinas, if they exist at the lake you are interested in, or you can try calling Ranger Stations, if you can get someone on the phone who has a pulse but neither of those methods are particularly reliable. I use an online resource provided by the California Data Exchange Center to track water levels in the lakes I am looking to visit http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/staSearch (select the radio button for "Station ID/Name" and enter the name of the lake in question).
I've had my eye on Iron Canyon Reservoir for a couple of years now. Iron Canyon is in Eastern Shasta County and is rather remote. It's a 25mi drive SE of Lake McCloud (which I visited last spring) and 22mi North of the intersection of Big Bend Rd. & CA 299 (Intersection is 37mi East of Redding). The lake sits at 2,660' altitude and was created in 1965 when PG&E erected an earthen dam impounding Iron Canyon Creek and feeds the James Black Powerhouse which incidentally is one of the larger hydroelectric plants in PG&E's system.
Iron Canyon is widely reported to be an excellent trout fishery and its remote nature provided the mix of minimal crowds and fishing opportunity that I was looking for and with a favorable weather forecast for the weekend I was off with one of my dogs for a weekend of camping, canoeing and fishing.
The drive up from Mountain View was simple if a bit long at ~5hrs. The last portion, from the town of Big Bend to the lake, was a bit dicey as the lumbering operations in the area are in full swing. Beware of log trucks on the road on weekdays and the road is rather beat up. No worries if you drive an SUV or pickup, but be careful if you are in a regular car, there are some rather substantial holes in the pavement and some bumps that you can easily bottom out on.
We arrived at the lake just before 10am, loaded the canoe and headed out across the glassy lake to the island. One of the first observations was the steepness of the banks around most of the main body of the lake. There are areas in the five arms with areas amenable to an easy landing, but the main body has relatively few. If you are looking to camp along the shore, focus your search for a spot in one of the arms of the lake, this will also serve to provide you a bit more shelter from afternoon winds.
The island too has only a couple of spots where one can easily land and unload a canoe or kayak and locating one we made a landing and walked around the island and found the only flat spot on it at the top. The lake levels at Iron Canyon were very low last year which probably kept people away and it looked as if it had been at least two years since anyone had camped there. There was a fair amount of wind-fallen branches on the ground, and a few larger limbs and small trees that crossed the "path" to the camp site at the summit of the island. Whomever the last camper was, they left a six pack worth of empty Natty Light cans and an empty Southern Comfort bottle..I guess dirtbags drink cheap booze. I packed your trash out for you..jerk.
Because the lake is a power generation resource the water levels can and do fluctuate. The water dropped ~3' on Friday then steadily rose ~12' over Saturday and through noon on Sunday. The effect of the fluctuation is the banks are damp and muddy which makes loading & unloading a canoe or kayak a sometimes difficult affair. Additionally, you ought to tie off your boat at night lest you get a distant look at it resting on a bank that you aren't standing on. Not a huge concern but something to be aware of while you are there, and a reason to note the storage level trend on the aforementioned CDEC website before you depart.
I spent most of the middle of the day clearing off the sticks and limbs so there was room for my tent and so I could easily walk around, set up camp, filtered enough water for the weekend, cleaned out and rebuilt the fire pit and processed a good sized pile of firewood. The weather was pretty warm all weekend though and I didn't even start a fire the second night so if you are the next person to camp there, enjoy the firewood I left you.
The breeze kicked up through the middle of the day so I wasn't missing out on any fishing but around 4pm the lake glassed off again so Guinness (my dog) and I hopped in the canoe and set off to try to avail ourselves of a few of the Iron Canyon trout population.
There is a reason why the activity is called "fishing" and not "catching fish"... it's because the latter is not assured. There were four groups of people that I saw on the lake all weekend that were fishing and nobody was catching anything to speak of. I suspect that the recent huge increase in the lake level (from 30% capacity to 90% in a couple of weeks) combined with the Oak Worm hatch being in full effect conspired to keep the fish either from feeding or well fed on the worms blowing into the lake. Either way, I got skunked. Tried every lure in my tackle box, tried wet flies, dry flies, night crawlers and even ugh "Powerbait". One "bite" all weekend.
In no way though did that sour the weekend. The weather was fantastic, the lake was glassy every day except for a mild breeze from about 12:00 to 4:00pm and I was able to spend a solid 3 days with Guinness. We saw a ton of wildlife as well including Bald Eagles, Osprey, Canada Geese, Merganser, Otter, Deer and a Black Bear Sow with two cubs. Couldn't get the camera out in time to catch the Raptors or Bears but did catch the deer and a few other things.
I definitely plan on returning to Iron Canyon later in the year. The fishing is "supposed to be" too good to write it off based on one bad weekend. As you can see in the photos, the place is beautiful and despite heavy lumbering activity in the area you can't see any evidence of it from the lake (subject to change of course) and its remote nature keeps the crowds low.
Vist my blog for photos of Iron Canyon here: