Southern Cal's 2006 Bass Outlook

Southern Cal's 2006 Bass Outlook

A very wet winter in 2004-2005 and a busy monsoon summer brought plenty of water for Southern California reservoirs, but there's more. Read this and get the straight scoop. (February 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

A year ago, anglers in Southern California were beginning to wonder if they should be building arks. Nearly constant rain and snow all winter poured huge amounts of water into drought-stricken reservoirs and streams. There were a lot of problems -- landslides, mudslides, floods and fires -- that ravaged a lot of public and private property, but for the Golden State's bass anglers, the thought of all that water flooding into lakes brought smiles.

Now we are looking at some of the best water conditions we've seen since the mid-1990s. Many reservoirs filled to capacity, some flowing over their spillways for the first time in years. If that wasn't enough, the summer of 2005 saw one of the longest and wettest monsoon seasons in recent memory. Weather conditions brought strong moisture-laden storms up from Mexico and into Southern California.

That's the good news; most of this report is good news. The bad news came last summer when it was suddenly announced in August that Lake Perris would be drawn down 25 feet from the normal level. Engineers from the Department of Water Resources determined that the dam, an earth-filled design built 31 years ago, did not meet the seismic safety requirements. Lake Perris lies close to the San Jacinto fault, and a minor earthquake on this fault, say engineers, could cause slumping of the dam and a dangerous release of water that would flood the rapidly urbanizing area southwest of the lake.

"If you had asked me before this happened, I would have said Lake Perris was just fine," said Region 6 biologist Mike Giusti. "The bass fishing has been very good. The regulations change we put in to move from a two-fish, 15-inch limit to a five-fish, 12-inch limit does not seem to have affected the population at all. We are still seeing something like 20,000 to 35,000 bass over 12 inches there every year. This is only the second year, and we are still seeing good numbers of fish over 10 pounds. Now it will be drawn down 27 feet below spillway crest and probably remain down for at least two years."

According to DWR officials, the agency will cut the amount of water stored in the lake by 42 percent, in turn reducing the lake's surface acreage by about 20 percent. This will create dramatic changes in Lake Perris.

"Basically, you can figure you will lose about 50 percent of the fish in the lake," was the gloomy prediction from Giusti. "Perris doesn't have a lot of structure (in deep water), and a 25 foot drawdown means you've just lost most of it. That basically means that we will lose everything that's presently inside the current 5mph buoy line."

That means the majority of the riprap along the face of the dam, around the marina and boat ramp areas will be out of the water. It also means the brush-choked northeast corner of the lake, where much of the bass spawning habitat is, will also be high and dry. The rocky shoreline that runs from the road on Bernasconi Beach around to the pumping plant will be dry as well. Only the base of Allessandro Island and the artificial reef structure placed in the lake when it was built will be under water.

"We are losing about 20 percent of the surface area of the lake," said Lake Perris State Recreation Area Superintendent Ron Kreuper. "We will move the 5-mph areas out to compensate for the drawdown. Nothing else will change, except we will lose the ability to launch on the personal watercraft boat ramp at the back of the lake. The main boat ramps will be OK."

The back (east) end of the lake will be affected the most. The high-speed travel that is currently allowed behind Allessandro Island will have to be curtailed. It will be shifted out into the main body of the lake between the island and the dam, Kreuper noted. The back side of the island and the east end will still have water in it, and will be in a 5-mph area, which might actually improve the fishing experience there.

"The counter-clockwise traffic direction that we currently use behind the island will not be there," Kreuper said. "We might have to reduce the number of blinds for our waterfowl hunters on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I don't have a clear picture on that yet. The 42 percent figure you see in the papers is the acre feet number. We will still have 80 percent of the lake available for fishing. The word "drained" is not in my vocabulary. That's not what is going to happen."

Another lake scheduled for a serious drawdown is San Vicente Reservoir in San Diego. While this won't happen until sometime in 2008, when it does take place, the lake will be nearly drained to the bottom and remain that way for several years while the dam is raised several feet to increase water storage capacity. According to Joe Weber of the San Diego City Water Department, the lake will be closed to fishing and boating completely, including all shore access. Until then the lake should have its customary good fishing.

On the other hand, the rest of the lakes in the San Diego area look quite good, with the possible exception of Lake Morena, which by late summer last year was down to only 24 percent of capacity. By comparison, Lake Hodges stood at 93 percent full, and even El Capitan, which was almost dried up by the drought, was at 60 percent. The rest of the San Diego City waters look quite good for the 2006 season. Otay will be full, Barrett is vastly improved, and Sutherland, which had been extremely low before the winter of 2004-2005 went over its spillway.

"I can't think of any real changes in our operations. As long as El Capitan stays up, we have the water ski program there during the summer, and we haven't had that for a few years because of low water levels," said Weber. "Talking to Larry Bottroff, (the recently retired City Lakes biologist, who continues to advise the city on fishing matters) all of the lakes have had slow fishing in 2005 as the water level came way up. We haven't replaced Larry yet, but he still comes in and works with some of the bass clubs that have tournaments, checking fish. We are thinking of bringing him back part time, and we will hire his replacement at some point when budgets allow. With a hiring freeze on, it's impossible right now."

Weber also noted that boat travel will be limited under the highway bridge at Hodges, while CalTrans is doing a freeway modification project. He also reported that the new pump station will be completed in 2008, and that will allow them to keep the water level at Hodges higher and much more constant. It will still go down but it should never get as low as it has in the recent past. They intend to operate it between elevations of 310 and 290, only a 20-foot fluctuation at maximum.

A good bass

lake that underwent a massive drawdown, then had to face forest fires and floods in the last couple of years is Silverwood Lake. A state park on the California Aqueduct system, Silverwood still has some angler access problems to deal with.

"The bridges on the Miller Canyon road supported the water line and when they burned it destroyed the lines," said Park Superintendent Larry Cermak. "That's not only a drinking water issue for visitors, it's a fire concern as well. We have to keep Miller closed until that is done."

"The Willows picnic and parking area we need to get open again, but that will be done by contract workers who will remove all the rock and boulders that smashed the area," Cermak noted. "Cleghorn Road is open again. The road is a bit rough, but it is open. The main parking lot (No. 4) is open on the other side, but one end of it is buried in sand. That's a contract issue also. Number 2 is ok, but 3 is in Willows -- closed for cleanup."

Despite all the damage from fire and water, the fishing has been very good all last year and there is no reason to expect it to be any different in 2006. Local guide Manny Freire noted that last summer Silverwood had a great topwater bite. Bass anglers were doing southern style "mat" fishing with weedless frogs on top of the floating fire debris in the backs of the coves and catching some very nice fish.

A bright spot for the future is Lake Elsinore, which has never been known for its fishing. The City of Elsinore, with the San Jacinto Water District, has been pursuing a major campaign to improve the water quality on Elsinore, the largest of Southern California's natural lakes. Last year Lake Elsinore came up 20 feet, filling the lake almost to the brim and adding nearly 1,000 surface acres.

Starting in 2004, the water district started adding thousands of hybrid striped bass, known as wipers, to help control the threadfin shad population. Along with a carp removal program that has netted more than a million pounds of carp from the lake, the wipers are helping to reduce the trash fish and bait fish in the lake.

Recent studies have shown that the wiper program plus a lake-wide aeration system, designed to add oxygen to the water, are beginning to have an effect. More bass and panfish are being seen now than for a number of years, and with the shoreline brush flooded, chances for several years of good spawn and growth for the bass population is high. Elsinore won't be considered a prime bass fishing spot in 2006, but it is worth keeping an eye on.

"We put in 18,000 half-pound wipers in June 2005," said Dave Ruel, one of the program biologists for the Elsinore project. "These are smaller than the fish of the previous year, but we needed numbers to control carp fry. We did do a sample netting in August 2005 and we saw some bass and bluegill -- not many, but more than we've seen before. These were small bass that were probably yearling fish. When we did this two years ago, we netted 2,000 fish and only one was a bass."

Another lake that was a former bass fishing powerhouse that may again host good bass angling is Lake Henshaw in San Diego County near Julian. Dependent on local watershed rather than aqueduct water, Henshaw had been low for years, but last year brought the water level higher than it had been in a decade. At this point Henshaw is not producing the monster bass it used to, but things are definitely looking up for the future, and may well be worth checking out this year. The water district that controls Lake Henshaw recently changed its policy to allow only catch-and-release bass angling.

Another quality bass lake that has introduced new regulations to protect its fishery is Lake Casitas north of Los Angeles. Like every other lake in the area, Casitas suffered years of low water, but that has ended. What is probably more important is that the lake operators have changed the limits for the fishery to try to protect the population of giant bass that swim in the lake.

Casitas' fisheries management plan allows anglers to keep up to five, 12- to 18-inch fish per day. Trophy fish can be brought to the marina to be weighed, then they must be released. Park staff has resumed a program of temporarily restricting specific areas from fishing, essentially closing portions of the lake to fishing to give them a respite from fishing pressure. Closed areas are rotated periodically.

In addition to the new bass rules, Casitas officials are stocking Florida-strain bluegills and black crappie. There will also be a regulations change to decrease the per-day limits on those fish.

"We had a real good spawn in 2005 and last fall. A lot of people were catching two- and three-pound fish," said Randy King, marina manager at Casitas. "We had a dry spell in the spring and summer of not many big fish, but late in the summer we started to see some 10-pound-plus fish.

"From January to March 2005 we came up 41 feet. There was so much new water, the lake spilled, and all the brush was inundated and we just couldn't find (the bass). We are not four feet from full now. It should stay full, and in a normal year we pick up enough water to keep the level at nearly full."

In case you're wondering, 41 feet wasn't the most dramatic elevation change for south state reservoirs in 2005. That distinction goes to Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County. "Cachuma came up 60 feet and went over the spillway, creating some of the best bass habitat in Southern California," said Craig Hingham at Casitas. "There is terrific new cover all around the lake." All reports indicate a terrific spawn last spring, and this could be the sleeper lake of all Southern California waters in 2006.

The mountain lakes, Big Bear, Hemet and Arrowhead all experienced full or overflow conditions in 2004-2005, and the bass fishing is on the upswing. Big Bear is known more for trout than bass, but it has a hardy population of largemouth bass that can produce limits of fish in the three- to four-pound range. Lake Hemet, on Mt. San Jacinto, is a small reservoir better known for trout than it is for bass. It filled completely in 2005, and is a "sleeper" for the bass enthusiast that should not be over-looked, especially in the summer when hot days chase anglers out of the low country reservoirs.

A similar high country retreat exists in San Diego County. Lake Cuyamaca is a small lake on the edge of Cuyamaca State Park that has a huge population of crappie, stocks trout year 'round, and also enjoys some decent bass fishing in the spring and summer. A near-victim of the wildfires of 2004, Cuyamaca should be in good shape for 2006.

The Southern California bass scene includes the Colorado River from Lake Havasu down to the border with Mexico. On Lake Havasu itself, the ongoing good news is the surge in smallmouth bass populations. The river just below Havasu, the Parker Strip, also has good smallmouth bass angling all the way down to Blythe.

"The smallmouth fishing on the strip has been good for what I called stunted smallmouth; most of them are less than 12 inches long," said John Galbraith of Angler's Pro Shop in Lake Havasu City. "Havasu, on the other hand, is just full of big smallmouths.

They filled a void that wasn't being used by the stripers or the largemouth. We have lots of rocky structure with crawdads, and the smallmouth just love it. There are places you used to fish that were 50 yards of rocky bank and you would expect to catch one or two largemouth, you can now catch a limit of smallmouth."

South of Blythe, the river becomes more largemouth habitat than smallmouth range, and the habitat improvement programs recently done to open up the side waterways and pothole lakes around the Martinez Lake area have improved the bass fishing there quite a bit.

There you have it: 2006 will have some small and localized disappointments, but the overall bass fishing situation for Southern California appears to be very good. It's time to clean up that boat and get ready for a beautiful spring.

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