Reservoirs, Fishing, and Boating within an Hour of Merced County Communities



Hub for boating, fishing, and water recreation

Encircled by the reservoirs of the Central Valley’s irrigation system, Merced County is a hub for boating, fishing, and water recreation.  From the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on the eastern side of the county to the Diablo Range on the west side, there are eleven lakes within an hour’s drive of all communities in the county.

Few counties have so many highly-rated areas for boating and fishing.

Running east to west across the county, the Merced River has many access points for fishing.  Portions of the San Joaquin, Chowchilla, and Fresno Rivers also flow through the county. The Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers lie just outside the county’s borders.  While a boat is necessary to access some of the best fishing areas, there are also many lesser-known locations to fish from the shore of a river or lake.

Hot months of summer

Most reservoirs and river access points offer camping, picnicking, swimming, and other recreational activities.  Spring and fall usually have the most comfortable weather.  Swimming, waterskiing, wakeboarding, and other kinds of water recreation are enjoyed during the hot months of summer.

For more information

Click on any of the reservoirs or river access points listed below for more details on that area.    Links to websites maintained by each recreation area are provided for additional information, regulations, campground reservations, and contact information.

eastman lake   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


Adam blauert

Adam blauert

All kinds of boat and water recreation are allowed at these reservoirs except at Los Banos Creek Reservoir where a 5 mph speed limit keeps the lake calm for fishing.  Please know and adhere to the speed limits posted at other lakes.

River Access in Merced County

The best river fishing in Merced County is along the Merced River.  The river was named Rio de Nuestra Senora de Merced by a Spanish expedition in 1806.  The current name and the name of the county were derived from this original name.  

Running 112 miles from Merced Lake in the high country of Yosemite National Park, the river empties into the San Joaquin River at Hill’s Ferry in the northwestern corner of Merced County. From Merced Lake, the river cascades down Nevada and Vernal Falls, and then through the entire length of Yosemite Valley. 

Controlling the snow melt

It is joined by smaller North and South Forks in the steep river canyon between Yosemite Valley and Lake McClure. The river is dammed by New Exchequer Dam at Lake McClure, McSwain Dam at Lake McSwain, a dam at Merced Falls, the Crocker-Huffman Dam between Merced Falls and Snelling, and several smaller dams.The river’s flow depends on the previous year’s snowfall. 

Between Snelling and Hill’s Ferry the river is often slow and meandering, but it’s glassy surface can hide a strong current underneath.  Exercise extreme caution if venturing into the river. In the upper regions Class IV and III rapids are common and the current can be overwhelming, even in the lower areas. 

Safety First

Submerged hazards and deep holes in the channel of the river are not uncommon.  Every year unprepared swimmers drown in the river.

don pedro lake
don pedro lake

Overall recommendations for best fishing with a boat

 O’Neill Forebay and Don Pedro Lake are usually the highest-rated and most consistent fisheries in the area.

Lake McClure, Lake McSwain and Modesto Reservoir also generally provide excellent fishing.

Eastman Lake and Hensley Lake can be good when their water levels are high.

Best boating and water recreation

lake mcclure
lake mcclure
  • O’Neill Forebay
  • Don Pedro Lake
  • Lake McClure.

Best river fishing

Bagby Recreation Area at Lake McClure at the MID and PG&E Fishing Access

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area.

Reservoirs Closest to home

Other fishing and boating resources

Fishing and Boating Resources at

Department of Fish and Game Regulations:

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations:

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds: