Among serious trophy and world record bass hunters, no other region of the world besides California has gained as much recognition for consistently producing fish heavier than 15 pounds, and for good reason. Of the top 25 bass ever officially recorded (including George Perry's world record 22-4), 22 have come from the Golden State.
And among the California lakes that seem to churn out these monsters most often, few can match the overall productivity of the reservoirs in and near San Diego. These include nine small lakes located in and maintained by the San Diego City Water Department, along with 11 additional reservoirs situated in San Diego County. All supply water to the city, and some are more than 80 years old.
Is there a world record out there?
Former California Dept. of Fish & Game fisheries biologist Larry Bottroff has seen possibly as many as four of them.
San Diego-area big bass angler Mike Long, who has caught dozens of bass over 14 pounds in the last five years, has hooked and lost two that might have done it.
Just a short time after Jed Dickerson landed a 21-pound, 11-ounce bass in the spring of 2003, he spent more than a day casting to a fish he could clearly see was much larger.
If you're wondering if there truly is a new world record largemouth swimming in California waters, the answer is almost definitely yes. Many anglers, in fact, felt the record would be broken in the spring of 2004, considering Dickerson's experience on San Diego's Lake Dixon.
"Most of the big bass at Dixon are caught by sight fishing during the spring spawning season," Dickerson explains, "but this spring the unusual heat caused an algae bloom that discolored the water for weeks, so we never saw many fish at all. A few bass in the 15- to 18-pound class were taken, but overall it was a very slow year."
Dickerson and his frequent fishing companions, Mac Weakley and Mike Winn, (both of whom have also caught huge teen fish) have seen several times what all three firmly believe are 24-pound-class bass . Dickerson, in fact, even had a sportswriter in the boat with him in 2003 when one of Lake Dixon's monsters suddenly appeared before them in less than 4 feet of water.
"The writer pitched a swimbait to the bass, which instantly went nose-down on it as if to strike," Dickerson recalls, "but before it could, the male bass came out of nowhere and knocked the female away. He kept butting her all the way to the surface before they both dived back to deep water. If we would've had a long-handled net, we might have netted her."
Bottroff, who's been working with California's big bass programs since 1967, first with the state and then with the City of San Diego, has never actually brought up a world record bass in his years of electroshocking, but he has seen four he felt would at least break the 20-pound barrier.
"I believe that in every year-class of bass there is a certain small percentage of the females that are destined to be 'superfish,' " says the biologist. "An even smaller percentage of these actually grow to 20 pounds or larger, even though I believe they have growth potential.
"I honestly feel these fish are different genetically. There aren't many of them, but they're definitely out there. However, I'm not surprised the record hasn't been broken because these fish become so specialized in their feeding and overall behavior that we never see them."
Long, 38, has caught bass as heavy as 20 pounds, 12 ounces, but many years ago, he taped a bass that measured 32 1/4 inches in length and 30 inches in girth. The fish was poached from Lake Miramar in the early 1980s and was already mounted, so no weight was ever officially recorded, although the fish almost certainly eclipsed the 22-4 of George Perry's world record.
"Even today, anglers catch monster bass but never report them because of the resulting publicity and fishing pressure they know the lake will receive," he says. "Most of the best big bass lakes in California are surprisingly small, and serious trophy hunters just don't want to talk about where and when they see a giant, but I'm sure when a genuine and legally caught world record shows up, everyone will know about it pretty quickly."
The San Diego City Water Department lakes include Barett, Hodges, El Capitan, Miramar, Murray, Lower and Upper Otay, San Vicente, and Sutherland. While not all have made fishing headlines, several have certainly produced their share of teen fish; Miramar and Hodges have both broken 20 pounds, while Murray, Lower Otay, and San Vicente have topped 18 pounds.
The San Diego County Lakes include Cuyamaca, Dixon, Guajome, Henshaw, Jennings, Loveland, Morena, Poway, Ramona, Santee and Wohlford. Of these, Dixon has produced fish over 20 pounds, while Jennings and Poway have given up 18-pounders.
There is good news and bad news for anyone wanting to visit any of these reservoirs to try for a trophy. The good news is that they're open for anyone to fish, and that the spring bed-fishing season is not the only time to come. Big bass can also be caught throughout the fall and winter months, which corresponds to the trout stocking schedule.The bad news is that many of the lakes are open only during specific hours (usually sunrise to sunset); may be closed several days each week; can be closed several months of the year; might be limited to a specific number of anglers; or may be restricted to trolling motors only. Daily use fees also are charged."Fishing any of these reservoirs is not the same, say, as visiting Lake Fork, Santee Cooper or Lake Toho," emphasizes BASS pro Dean Rojas, a former guide on the San Diego lakes and no stranger to big bass. "For the most part, these lakes are surprisingly small — several Lake Dixons (75 acres) would fit into Toledo Bend's Housen Bayou, for instance — and the rules governing them will seem strange to many nonresidents."Controlling water pollution here is critical, since this is San Diego's drinking water. Swimming and wading are not allowed, and outboard usage and boat speed limits are strictly enforced. Water-skiing is permitted on only one lake. As a result, anglers will find most of the lakes unusually clean and clear."Although all of the lakes have extremely deep water, all also have at least some shallow coves, points or flats," continues Rojas. "You can't always expect to find shoreline cover like brush, laydowns, and flooded timber, either, but you will have rocks. Vegetation is present in some form in many of the lakes, though it isn't the same grass that grows in Southern impoundments because of the rocky bottom and the normally fast dropoffs to deep water."When It All Began
California's Florida-strain bass program began in May, 1959 when 20,000 fish were brought in from Florida and stocked in 20-acre Upper Otay Reservoir, which served as the Fish & Game Department's hatchery. From there, offspring were gradually stocked throughout the region."In just a few years, our harvest studies proved that the new Florida bass were more diffficult to catch than the native largemouth," explains San Diego County fisheries biologist Larry Bottroff, "so we knew they would live longer. Thus, we had one of the primary ingredients to producing giant bass — age — taken care of naturally."When we started stocking Florida bass, we certainly did not do so with the intent of producing 20-pound fish, but by the early 1970s we already had 17- to 20-pounders showing up."
The fact that bass grow so large in these small reservoirs is also due in part to the deep water, which provides refuge to the bass; the excellent water quality; and the abundance of forage. In addition, nearly all the lakes in the county are stocked with thousands of pounds of hatchery-bred rainbow trout each week during the fall, winter and early spring.
These high protein trout (known by area bass fishermen as popsicles) have an enormous impact on the growth of the bass. Scale samples from Jed Dickerson's 21-pound, 11-ounce Lake Dixon bass indicated the fish was between 12 and 13 years old. Similar age studies with largemouth in Florida show many of those fish often needed 10 years to reach a weight of 10 pounds.Planning A Trip?Dickerson, who has been fishing the San Diego-area lakes for 20 years, offers these thoughts to those who may be planning a trip to any of these reservoirs.
"First," says Dickerson, who fishes some part of the area about 20 days per month and who has plenty of other big bass in addition to his 21-11, "try to make your trip during the full moon, regardless of which month you come. Plan to fish two days before and at least two days afterward; give yourself enough time on the water to have a chance to catch one of these fish."Secondly," he continues, "bring a variety of lures. We don't catch everything on swimbaits. A lot of big bass are actually caught on small 1/2-ounce jigs, and even by drop shotting 3-inch plastic worms. Late in the summer at Lake Poway, we use topwaters, and I know some who use weightless Senkos."Finally, says Dickerson, try to fish several of the lakes. "They're well-marked on San Diego maps, and each offers its own characteristics," he says. "Sometimes, too, one lake may be active while at the same time another will be completely quiet. I've fished as many as three in one day before I found active bass."
One of the most important aspects of fishing any of the San Diego lakes is careful preplanning. Although you should bring your own tackle, you may not need your boat, since johnboats with trolling motors are available to rent at many of the reservoirs. If you do plan to rent a boat, be in line at the lake early, especially during the peak spring season.
Along with boats, you will also generally find a small snack/tackle shop, picnic area, walking trails, and in some instances, a campground. Although fishing is a prime attraction, the lakes serve as general family recreation areas, as well.
Because operating schedules for each reservoir are subject to change, your preplanning should include contacting the lakes you plan to fish to ensure they're going to be open. Low water conditions due to drought will force closures; Lake Hodges (which has produced 20-pound bass despite the absence of stocked trout) was closed to boats in February 2004.
Picking A Lake
Although there are 20 reservoirs in the city and county system and all of them do have fish, today only a handful regularly attract serious bass fishermen. These include Dixon, Jennings, Lower Otay, Murray, Poway, San Vicente, Sutherland and Wohlford.Here's what you'll find at those lakes:Dixon — The 20-pound, 12-ounce bass caught here in 2001, along with Dickerson's 21-11 (believed to be the same fish), have made this 75-acre reservoir ground zero for the next world record bass. Most fish are taken on jigs or swimbaits in the spring when bass bed in holes in the vegetation. The lake is open from 6 a.m. to sunset year-round, and night fishing is permitted during the summer months. Private boats are not allowed but aluminum rentals and trolling motors are available. Tel: 760-839-4680.
Jennings — "This lake has produced bass topping 18 pounds, but we've seen some larger fish," says Dickerson, who fishes the 85-acre reservoir often. "The weekly trout stockings provide plenty of food, which makes swimbaits among our most productive lures, but we also use jigs in some of the coves because of the brush and timber." The lake is open from 5 a.m. to sunset Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and for summer night fishing. Private boats are allowed, and rentals are available. Tel: 619-443-2510.
Lower Otay — Standing timber, rockpiles, shoreline tules and abundant vegetation have made Lower Otay a favorite among bass hunters (local tournaments are conducted here) for many years, even though trout are not stocked. Lure choices range from topwaters and spinnerbaits to finesse drop shots (the water is extremely clear) to swimbaits. The lake is open from sunrise to sunset Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, from late January through September. Private boats are allowed and rentals are available. Tel: 619-465-3474.
Murray — "I like Murray because in 1990 when the lake was drawn down, the city actually bulldozed up some humps and added brushpiles to improve the fishing, especially in the different coves," says Rojas. "The water is extremely clear but it's produced fish over 18 pounds and lots in the 15-pound range. I like to use Texas rigged worms around the brush and rocks, but they'll hit swimbaits, too." Fishing from private boats (and rentals) is available Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, December through September. Tel: 619-668-3274.
Poway — Without question, this is one of the premier reservoirs in the county, and serious trophy hunters spend a lot of time here. Although Mike Long's 18-2 stands as the lake record, Long and others have seen larger bass at Poway. Everything from swimbaits to drop shot finesse worms can be used, since the lake's generally rocky shoreline has little cover. Some giants are caught working swimbaits right along the buoy line that marks the restricted/no fishing zone. The lake is open sunrise to sunset Wednesday through Sunday, November through May. Private boats are not permitted but rentals are available. Tel: 858-679-5466.
San Vicente — "At just over 1,000 acres, this is one of the largest lakes in the county," notes Rojas, "and because of the vegetation and rock cover, the extremely deep water, and the trout, it has produced a lot of big fish over the years, including some over 18 pounds. Among Californians, however, San Vicente almost seems to be better-known for big catfish and big bluegill." The water is extremely clear, and finesse presentations along both the inside and outside edges of the vegetation work well. The lake is open sunrise to sunset year-round, but fishing is only permitted on certain weekdays, which varies according to the season. It's the only lake in the county that permits water-skiing. Private boats are permitted, and rentals are available. Tel: 619-668-3274.
Sutherland — "This is probably my favorite lake in the entire system," Rojas continues, "because it's always had a lot of fish and a lot of big fish, too. The water is slightly stained and there are some nice shallow, rocky flats and points where you can use crankbaits and buzzbaits as well as plastic worms." The lake is open Friday through Sunday, March through September. Private boats are permitted and rentals are available. Tel: 619-465-3474.
Wohlford — This small lake was one of the late Bill Murphy's favorites, not only because it holds big bass but also because it receives much less pressure than the other better-known lakes in the county. The stained water allows for a wider choice of lures including big plastic worms, and the generally rocky shoreline offers plenty of excellent bass cover. The lake is open weekends only between September and December, but daily the rest of the year. Private boats are permitted, but cannot be longer than 20 feet. Rentals are available. Tel: 760-839-4346."If I were to give advice to someone planning a trip to San Diego to fish any of these lakes, I would simply tell them to schedule enough time to fish several of them," says Rojas, who still fishes in San Diego several times annually.
The lakes are completely different than what most Southern and Eastern bass fishermen are accustomed to, and the fish are not easy to catch, especially the really big ones. The most exciting thing is that you know some of these reservoirs do hold 20-pounders and maybe even a new world record, and that it could hit on any given cast."