Photo by Gene Hornbeck
When Art Berry was age 5, his father made a habit of dropping him off at Lower Otay Reservoir on weekends. It was Otay that taught Berry how to fish. More than 30 years later, Berry has used the lessons learned in his boyhood to make himself one of the top competitors on the FLW Outdoors Tour and one of the top bass anglers in the western United States.
Berry attributes much of the success to Otay’s bass — a population that’s as good now as it was in the 1980s, when Otay was regarded as one of the best bass fisheries in the U.S. Nothing’s changed there, of course. It’s just that Otay has been out of the limelight ever since.
“Lower Otay is much different than most of the San Diego lakes,” Berry said. “I think it’s because you can do so many different things, and it doesn’t get a lot of pressure. I think it’s still one of the greatest one-day fishing lakes in the country. If you can go there after it’s been closed for a few days, the fishing is excellent. When I get a chance to go home and go to Lake Otay, it’s one of the greatest places I can go.”
But if Lower Otay is such an exceptional fishery, why has it virtually been erased from the map of California’s best bass waters? The answer may be fairly straightforward. Otay has a stable population of bass; however, in the last decade it hasn’t yielded many fish between 10 and 20 pounds. And in Southern California, a reservoir that can’t accomplish that feat is easy to overlook.
Yet few California waters can compete with the consistency of Otay in late summer and fall, when 5-pound fish are common.
“I think the population of largemouths is as good as it’s ever been. As far as being able to catch big ones, you are going to catch 20 pounds or more for five fish,” Berry added.
Situated near the Mexican border and within rock-throwing distance of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Otay is a 1,100-acre reservoir with 25 miles of shoreline and all Florida-strain largemouth bass.
Located closest to Interstate 805, it’s also an exceptional catfish fishery that at one time held the state record for blue catfish. Crappie and bluegill are also plentiful.
Otay is much different than most So Cal reservoirs. Rather than being deep and formed in a narrow canyon, Otay is fairly flat and shallow, although it is deeper than 120 feet in a few spots. The main difference in Otay is that no trout are planted here, as they are in other southland reservoirs — and chances are, they never will be. The water is too shallow to support trout throughout the year.
However, Otay stands tall. It’s proof that trout aren’t the only ingredient necessary to grow big bass. Otay’s bass make a living off eating bluegill, shad and crawdads.
“It’s a very Bass 101 lake. You can learn good things there,” Berry said. “You can throw anything and do well. They bite spinnerbaits, the Senko, the fluke, a red Rat-L-Trap — pretty much anything you want to throw. It is that good, but because it’s a little out of the way, it doesn’t get much pressure. It’s down right near the border. In the heyday, they’d open the gate, and it’d be a mad rush to get fishing permits, there’d be so many people out there.”
Many anglers have adjusted their approach to Otay over the last three decades.
“Otay was in its prime in the early ‘80s. Now you have guys on the swimbaits deal in Southern California, and Otay isn’t a great swimbait lake, so it gets overlooked,” Berry said. “Otay used to be a lake where everyone used to fish crawdads. It used to be the crawdad capital of So Cal. Now it’s a great place where you can do something a little different if you want to. Where’s another place where you can go and have a chance to catch an 8- or 10-pounder on a reaction bait?”
HOT SUMMER ACTION
While Diamond Valley and Perris offer good late-summer bites, Berry says that he’ll never overlook the hot summer bite at Otay.
“I like to fish it late in the year because the fish are grouped together that time of year. They are congregated in bigger groups more now than they ever are,” he added. “As for targeting bigger fish, this is the time of year you can catch more than one. They really school up good.”
At Otay, generally speaking, the biggest fish in the lake live in the shallowest water. Berry says that he’s caught his larger bass by flipping in zero to one feet of water in the back of the tules.
“It seems like the farther you go into the tules, the bigger the fish will be. They’ll be where the water meets the bank,” he added. “It’s a battle, but you’re talking about targeting a completely different type of fish. They’re living in zero to one foot of water and they go up there to feed.”
Not only do frogs, insects, snakes and lizards lurk in back of the tules, but when people go down the bank, they push the bluegill and baitfish in there, too. Bass don’t need to venture out of the thick tules to eat. To target these bass, Berry uses a heavy weight, a Zoom Brush Hog and either Maxima 20-pound Ultra Green mono line or braided line. You’ll need a line strong enough to pull the bass out of the weeds.
In low-water years, many anglers believe that Lower Otay’s tules are left on dry land, which hurts bass fishing. On the other hand, Berry said that certain areas of the lake always have submerged tules. He likes fishing the road side of Harvey’s arm.
“They smash the frog in there. I’ll go up to the tules and take my frog and flip it as far back as I can. I call it the death dance,” says Berry, who uses Reaction Innovation and Sumo frogs. “A lot of times on the frog, you can penetrate the weeds three or four feet.”
Frogs are his first choice, but Berry warns anglers not to overlook the
value of deep-diving crankbaits in the heat of summer. “A lot of the good ones I catch there, I catch on the red Bill Norman DD-22,” he explained. “In the summertime, I like fishing them on the flats, anywhere the crankbait can get on the bottom. Long casts are crucial, because you want to get it on the bottom.”
Otay has plenty of flats where anglers can toss crankbaits. For the most part, Berry focuses on the main flats on both sides of Harvey’s arm and the left side of the Otay arm.
Another technique that earns a place here in the summer is tossing topwater. Due to the composition of the reservoir, the shallow water enables anglers to catch topwater fish virtually everywhere near the bank. Obviously, Pop-Rs, ‘Spooks and other topwater baits work well on flats, points and along the face of the tules. Other than the middle of the lake, there isn’t a bad spot to fish them.
“They smash the black frog. They love the buzzbaits. They love the Super Spook,” Berry added. “Topwater gives you the opportunity to do something different. Lake Otay is a true lake that is not San-Diego-style. It’s not like San Vicente where you can throw spinnerbaits along the bank all day and only catch a few fish. It’s a lot like the lakes in the East. It’s a place you can go and throw any bait and do well.”
At Otay, you don’t have to fish reaction and topwater baits to do well in summer. For those who like to slow down and fish plastics, grubs and jigs, there’s a place for you, too.
“If you want to go out there and catch numbers, you can throw a dart head, grub or Shad Rap crankbaits and catch fish all day. But if you want to catch a good one, you’ll want to fish the brush hog,” Berry said.
It’s the anglers who take a chance and fish deeper in the tules who catch the prized fish. But for the guy who simply wants to get bit, a Carolina-rigged lizard in green pumpkin will keep nibbles coming to the end of your line all day.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing Southern California. You can purchase his books by going online to www.fishingcalifornia.net.)