Clear Lake has been attracting boaters, fishermen and lovers of the great outdoors for more than 10,000 years.
Today we know of Clear Lake as a great place to sail or go water skiing. But from the earliest days of human habitation of northern California, this 68-square-mile lake was first a source of survival for Native Americans; later a thoroughfare for tourism steamboats during the Old West era; then a capital for the commercial fishing industry; and ultimately a little-known player in winning World War II and the Cold War.
The oldest lake in North America is generally pegged by scientists as being about half a million years old. It’s also the largest natural freshwater lake wholly contained within California, though people have been boating on Clear Lake since well before California was known as “California.”
The indigenous Pomo tribe of Native Americans is believed to have settled the shores of Clear Lake and to have been boating its waters roughly 11,000 years ago—and that’s 4,000 years before ancient Egyptians settled along the Nile River. The lake itself is what drew the Pomo people, as fishing on Clear Lake provided (and still provides) an abundance of fish per acre.
The Pomo tribe of Clear Lake built boats with the same airtight qualities of its celebrated Pomo baskets, weaving bundles of Tule reeds together and binding them with grape vines. Boating was critical to the Pomo not only for fishing, but also because their communities were spread out on many of the islands that are still on Clear Lake today.
Homesteaders would force the Pomo people out in the 1800s, taking over the Lake County mineral springs that quickly turned the towns of Cobb, Middletown and Anderson Springs into trendy hotspots for wealthy vacationers. Clear Lake was soon jammed with luxury passenger steamboats to shuttle these elite out-of-towners across Clear Lake to the various different shoreline towns’ resorts.
But fishing would remain a primary reason for boating on Clear Lake, as northern California in the late 19th century did not have as many man-made reservoirs as it does today. This gave Clear Lake an outsized importance in the freshwater commercial fishing industry, and Clear Lake’s gigantic fish population made it one of California’s most important sources of freshwater fish in the 19th and 20th centuries. And to this day, Clear Lake is still known as the “Bass Capital of the West” and ranked by Bassmaster magazine as the best bass fishing lake on the West Coast.
The last commercial fishery on Clear Lake closed in 1941, just when a new form of boat arrived on the lake—boats that weren’t boats at all. Instead they were seaplanes, the amphibious aircraft used by the US Navy in WWII. Seaplanes were an important tool in the Pacific theater, because they could take off and land without using an airfield. The biggest and most important naval base during WWII was the Alameda Naval Station just south of Oakland, but the foggy conditions of that area frequently made landing there unsafe. So Clear Lake was the Navy’s most frequently used Plan B, making Clear Lake an indispensable naval resource during the war. This legacy is celebrated today at the annual Clear Lake Splash-In, the oldest and largest seaplane rally in the western US, but the major strategic significance of Clear Lake as an auxiliary naval landing station remained serious business until the end of the Cold War.
These days, it’s all fun, sun and relaxation on Clear Lake, and the Lakeside Hot Car and Boat Show will show an entertaining face on the vintage boats of yesteryear. But Clear Lake’s fishing, boating and birding make it a great destination year-round.