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CA's San Vicente Better Than Ever After Dam Expansion

CA's San Vicente Better Than Ever After Dam Expansion
San Diego County Water Authority graphic

San Vicente, which was closed in 2008 for its dam to be raised more than 100 feet, is re-opened and the fishing's been great.

Raising San Vicente Dam more than doubled the reservoir's capacity. (San Diego County Water Authority image)

By Bill Schaefer

San Vicente Reservoir, located in San Diego's east county, is one of the San Diego City Lakes gems. It was already one of the largest lakes in San Diego County, but the growing need for water in Southern California had the city making plans to increase the size of the lake and more than double its capacity.

The lake was built originally in 1943, but the city knew that the area's need for water would increase over the years and the lake would have to be made larger. So, certain of this need, it was designed into the lake's original dam's architectural design to be able to increase the dam height in the future.

San Vicente, when it first opened, held about 90,000 acre-feet of water storage, but as the need grew for more water and the Southern California drought continued, plans were made to finally increase the height of the dam.

After studies and engineering the plan, it was decided to raise the dam by 117 feet of the possible 120 feet our forefathers planned it could handle. With the increase in height, the lake grew to more than twice its original size. The project added a possible 152,000 more water acre-feet of storage to the lake when full capacity.

The lake closed in 2008, and the work began. For years, fishermen speculated on how fishing would be when the lake opened and if they would even still be around to fish it. Rumors spread from the handful of poachers sneaking into the lake that it was out of this world fishing.

Then finally in 2016 rumors started circulating again that this was going to finally be the year the lake reopened. After a few months of rumors, the word came that it was indeed going to open on Sept. 22, 2016. A few days before the actual lake opening, the San Diego mayor cut the ribbon at a small ceremony, and the lake was officially open for business.

So, would the giants show up? How would the fishing be?

On opening day and weekend, Thursday through Monday, at the lake sold out in 5 or 6 minutes with a limit of approximately 150 boats on the water each day.

Originally, you had to purchase your permit to launch and fish from Ticketmaster, but as the opening week's crowds subsided, the city took the reins back on the permit sales and they are now available at the lake each open day.

For more information on all the current rules and regulations at San Vicente, take a look at their informative website, accessible through

San Diego County Water Authority graphic

Well, how was the fishing?

It was indeed out of this world. You could almost throw a bare hook at the water and catch something. Anglers on the very first day talked of 100- to 200- fish days for a couple of guys in a boat. Wide-open topwater in the morning, to a later bite on almost anything in their tackle boxes, was the norm. And it was almost at every location on this lake. You have to remember that this is a new lake. At least in the sense that after the water rose you now have all new shorelines, points, islands and coves. It may look similar, but it is not. It will take some adapting to, but remember, exploring is fun, especially when fishing.

But all the noise of 150 boats each day did eventually push the bass out into deeper water. The second day and the following days after the opening day found fishermen having to fish in 30 to 100 feet of water. There was still some topwater action in the morning, but soon after sunrise, the fish returned to the depths.

It takes a little technique to fish deep, but if you pick a main lake point to fish, throwing out into 100 foot of water and work up hill, you would find fish. There are a lot of new underwater humps and rock piles to fish as well. The other interesting thing is that the shoreline brush in the lake now goes out into 80 to 100 foot of water.

So, fast-forward to now, and the fishing has still been great.

Even though the numbers have settled closer to normal, this lake still puts out way more fish than any other lake in the area.

Tips and Tactics

And, you can catch a lot of numbers in the 2-pound range, but also in the 4- to 6-pound range. The fish here eat everything. And, although they were scared off into deeper water when the lake opened, they have now been through a spawn where they were naturally drawn into shallower water, even with all the boat noise. They seem to be in a more regular state as far as depth, say 3 to 30 feet of water.

Now that the bass have been through the spawn, May brings back roaming wolf packs of bass, similar to when the lake first opened. There may be some morning topwater action, or at the very least, jerkbait action. Baby bass and bluegill colors may be extra good right now, as some of the bass are still protecting fry and will attack anything that threatens their spawn fry.

If you see a ball of fry along the shore, the bass protecting it may not be in plain sight, but work your jerkbait all around and through it. Also remember all that brush in the water. The bass use it as a natural highway around the lake, darting out to feed when they spot unsuspecting prey.

Plastics are always a good weapon for fishing underwater brush. The lightest sinker or weight you can get away with will help you pull through all those sticks. You should also peg your sinker if you are Texas rigging worms as I was opening weekend.

Dead-sticking larger 8- to 10-inch worms or Senkos has always been a good bet here. Let the bait sit as long as you can stand it, move the bait an inch and let it sit again. So many times you would go to move the worm that next inch and the bass would already be on. It almost felt like you were caught in the leaves on all those deep bushes instead of a fish. A mushy feeling on the end of your line, then a hard tug, and half the time you would miss them. You can't hesitate because more times than not it was a bass. When in doubt, set the hook!

Morning fishing, as I mentioned, should include topwater and should continue, to some extent, through the fall. Both poppers, like the classic Pop-R, or walking baits, like a Zara Spook, should do well like last year. Buzzbaits will call those bass out of the bushes when run over shallow brush. There should even be some frog action.

largemouth bass

Soft and hard jerkbaits, as I mentioned, should do well in the morning or along mudlines caused by the afternoon wind. Middle of the day, the deeper the better, as jigs, worms and creature baits did very well.

Most of the fish are 1- to 2-pounders, with a lot of 3- to 6-pounders mixed in. Some bass look very healthy, and a few look a bit skinny as the competition for food goes on in the lake. As I mentioned, bass pattern and bluegill pattern should be hot, as we have had several bass throw up baby bass and bluegill they had eaten.

Crawdad patterns also do well at this lake in reds, purples, and blues. Cranking has always been a good bet at San Vicente, and my favorite is an all white Fat Free shad crankbait. I have even had a few bass eat my hung up crank off brush at this lake in the past.

For equipment, you may want to load up a little heavier line. I was using Maxima Ultragreen mono in 12 and 15 pound for my plastic fishing. You could go with braid on frogs or jigs. There were a number of break-off fish for us over the last few months, and it just kills you that you won't know what that bass could have been size wise. You don't want to lose a giant or your personal best.

Bass Biology

I spoke with California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Russell Black about San Vicente and the future of this semi-new fishery. Black told me that they did several surveys of the lake, shocking up just over 6,000 largemouth bass. In all those surveys, the largest bass they found was 9.5 pounds. Now this doesn't mean there aren't larger fish in the lake, but when there is a competition for food sometimes the fish are a little smaller than usual. The surveyed bass averaged about 3 pounds and were very healthy fish.

I asked about the population of catchable fish, which sometimes a lake is measured by. Black said that although the top number on his population scale was about 31,000 adult fish over 12 inches, he felt that number could have been higher as many shocked fish were missed in surveys because of all the brush in the water. He also added that the surveys had very low numbers of repeat- tagged bass, lending credence to the fact that the population numbers could be higher.

Finally, I asked about the health of the lake and if there is enough bait to support the bass. The baitfish population was down when the lake opened, and some of the bass were a little skinny. But it is a survival of the fittest situation. And, now that there has been a successful spawn, all of the various species' spawn will be available this year to feed the bass. With all the brush in the water, the food population should rebound and sustain a healthy bass population.

As I mentioned, the lake is a new collection of coves, shoreline and structure. Explore the lake and find new areas. You can also fish the higher-level areas of old hotspots, but they are now 80 to 100 feet underwater. Sometimes the bass just slide to the new shore. Fishing is now several months old, and the 100-fish days have subsided to about 20- to 30-fish days. But you can't get action like that at any other lake in Southern California.

It is a lake that takes a bit to figure out now that it has gone through a change. Some will do good here, and some not so good. Skill will prevail at this impoundment for a while. But one thing is for sure: This lake is shaping up to be one of the top fisheries in Southern California.

Get Your Fish On.

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