Lake Morena: A Year-Round Fishing Oasis in San Diego’s Hinterland

You want fish? You got fish. The lake is remote, but it’s worth the trip. If you like bass, make the effort.

The key here is the elevation. The lake is at 3,200 feet and is just south of Cleveland National Forest, only seven or eight miles from the California/Mexico border. Because of the altitude, everything gets going a little later in the season than at lakes at lower elevations and closer to San Diego. Some folks show up in early March, find the bass deep and sluggish, and wonder, “What’s all the fuss about Morena?” Show up a month later, however, and you’ll find out.

From April through July, Morena consistently produces bass—small ones, big ones, and medium ones. It’s just plain a fish-catching place. The lake has a lot of brush-lined shore and plenty of rocks, and the bass hang amid these areas. Since Morena covers 1,500 surface acres when full and has 26 miles of shoreline, a boat with an electric motor will help you cover all the good spots in a single weekend. The back side of Goat Island used to be a prime spot on the lake, but due to low water levels, the back side has been dry, and there has been no Goat Island since the early 2000s.

Before the fish move into the shallows, the fishing is best on plastic worms, salt-and-pepper-colored reapers, and eight-inch cinnamon-colored Blue Veins. Then, just like that, when the fish move into the top 5–10 feet of water, it’s a great lake for casting surface lures. It’s exciting fishing, with the strikes coming right on top. Try the Rebel Pop-R, Jitterbug, Zara Spook, floating Rapala, or Chugger. If you have a fly rod, bring it along and lay small poppers along the surface. Bass? There are plenty.

The lake is also stocked with trout, and they provide a fair alternative. The Department of Fish and Game plunks in rainbow trout in the 7- to 8-inch class and some up to 12 inches. They are more like growing pills for bass, however, and the lake record proves it. Morena also has catfish, bluegill, crappie, and redear sunfish. The lake experiences something of a drawdown over the course of a year, and by fall, it isn’t unusual for it to be about two-thirds full. Lake levels are always a key here. The higher, the better.

Lake records: 19-pound, 3-ounce largemouth bass; 9-pound, 6-ounce rainbow trout.

Facilities, fees: There is a paved boat launch. Campgrounds, cabins, restrooms with flush toilets, showers, and picnic areas are available. Developed facilities are at Morena Village to the east. Boats under 9 feet or over 18 feet long are prohibited. No swimming is allowed. The speed limit is 10 mph. Day-use, fishing, and boat-launching fees are charged.

Directions: From El Cajon, take I-8 east to Pine Valley, then continue east for four miles to Buckman Springs Road/County Road S1. Take the Buckman Springs off-ramp, turn right (south) on Buckman Springs Road and drive 5.5 miles to Oak Drive. Turn right on Oak Drive and drive 1.5 miles to Lake Morena Drive. Turn right on Lake Morena Drive and drive to the lake (there’s an RV park on the right).

Types of Fish You Can Expect to Catch at Lake Morena:

  • Rainbow Trout:
    • The star of the show during winter and early spring, these feisty fish are stocked throughout the season, making Lake Morena San Diego County’s only year-round trout fishery. PowerBait, salmon eggs, and small lures will entice them near rocky outcrops and deeper areas. Expect rainbows up to 5 pounds, with some lunkers reaching 10 pounds!
  • Largemouth Bass:
    • These cunning bronze bombers lurk in weeds, around submerged trees, and near drop-offs. Crankbaits, jigs, and spinnerbaits strategically fished during the warmer months will get you hooked. Be prepared for a fight, as Lake Morena bass can reach up to 8 pounds!
  • Channel Catfish:
    • These whiskered wonders offer year-round action, especially during the summer nights. Look for them near the dam and deeper sections, readily attacking cut bait, nightcrawlers, and stink baits. Channel catfish in Lake Morena can reach impressive sizes, up to 20 pounds!
  • Crappie and Bluegill:
    • These scrappy panfish provide non-stop fun, particularly for kids. They abound in shallows and around brush piles, easily enticed by small jigs tipped with live bait. Be prepared for an arm workout, as these feisty fish love to keep you busy. Both crappie and bluegill are abundant, making it a great spot for families or anyone seeking fast-paced action.

History of Lake Morena:

Nestled in the heart of the Campo Mountains, Lake Morena boasts a rich history that intertwines with its diverse ecosystem. The lake’s allure lies in its elevation at 3,200 feet, just south of the Cleveland National Forest and a short distance from the California/Mexico border. This higher altitude delays the fishing season compared to lower-elevation lakes near San Diego.

From early March, where the bass are deep and sluggish, to a month later, when everything comes to life, Lake Morena offers an unmatched fishing experience. April through July is the sweet spot, consistently yielding bass—small, big, and medium. With 1,500 surface acres when full and 26 miles of shoreline, the lake invites anglers to explore its brush-lined shores and rocky outcrops, with an electric motor-equipped boat being the key to covering all the prime spots.

The back side of Goat Island used to be a prime fishing spot until low water levels turned it dry in the early 2000s. The lake’s evolution through the seasons dictates the fishing experience. Plastic worms, salt-and-pepper-colored reapers, and eight-inch cinnamon-colored Blue Veins dominate before the fish move into the top 5–10 feet of water, transforming the lake into a haven for casting surface lures like the Rebel Pop-R, Jitterbug, Zara Spook, floating Rapala, or Chugger. Fly fishing enthusiasts can also join the excitement by laying small poppers along the surface. The diverse fishery includes bass, trout, catfish, bluegill, crappie, and redear sunfish.

Top 5 Tips for Anglers Fishing at Lake Morena for the First Time:

  • Familiarize yourself with the lake’s elevation and how it affects the fishing season.
  • Plan your visit between April and July for the best bass-catching experience.
  • Consider using plastic worms, salt-and-pepper-colored reapers, and surface lures for varied fishing conditions.
  • Utilize an electric motor-equipped boat to explore the expansive shoreline and key fishing spots.
  • Be aware of the changes in fishing tactics as the fish move into shallower waters.

Top 5 Strategies and Tactics for Maximizing Your Fishing Experience at Lake Morena:

  • Seasonal Adaptation:
    • Adjust your fishing tactics based on the changing seasons. Different species dominate in different months.
  • Golden Hours:
    • Fish during the early morning and late evening for a higher chance of success. The fish are less pressured and more active during low-light conditions.
  • Shore or Boat Advantage:
    • Both shore and boat fishing are viable options. While the shoreline offers peaceful coves and breathtaking scenery, boats provide access to deeper waters and hidden areas.
  • Adapt to Wildlife Events:
    • Take advantage of unique events like Women in the Wild’s Fishing & Kayaking in September and Summer Movies in the Park nights.
  • Tactical Adjustments:
    • Keep an eye out for algae blooms that can affect water clarity and adjust your fishing tactics accordingly.

Top 5 Recommendations for Fishing Gear at Lake Morena:

  • Rainbow Trout Gear:
    • Opt for light to ultralight spinning rods with 4–8 lb test line. Use PowerBait, salmon eggs, and small lures.
  • Largemouth Bass Gear:
    • Choose medium to heavy-action casting or spinning rods with 10–20 lb test line. Crankbaits, jigs, and spinnerbaits are effective.
  • Channel Catfish Gear:
    • Select medium to heavy-action rods with 12–30 lb test line. Use cut bait, nightcrawlers, and stink baits.
  • Panfish Gear:
    • Use ultralight to light spinning rods with 2–6 lb test line. Small jigs tipped with live bait work well for crappie and bluegill.
  • Check Our Gearlist:
    • Explore our gearlist account for exact gear recommendations to maximize your fishing experience.

Check out our Gearlist for the gear we for trips like this

Our Gearlist account lists all of the gear we use. Discover our top picks, where to snag them, and stay informed with our regular updates.

With its rich history, diverse fishery, and stunning scenery, Lake Morena stands as a year-round fishing oasis in San Diego’s hinterland. From the tranquility of its shores to the thrill of reeling in rainbow trout, largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, and bluegill, every angler finds their piece of paradise. The strategic tips, seasonal insights, and gear recommendations ensure that your fishing experience is not only memorable but optimized for success. So, heed the call of Lake Morena, secure your gear, and embark on an angling adventure that promises the magic of San Diego’s hidden gem.