A decade ago, swimbaits were the secret bait in Southern California. Now they are the ubiquitous bait of the 21st century. They're also your ticket to catching huge bass in several So Cal lakes. (January 2006)
Ed Guyette caught and released this 10-pound Casitas bass.
Photo by Chris Shaffer
Southern California has emerged as the swimbait capital of the world. Many of the largest bass are caught here each year, and most of those are taken on swimbaits. While just about all of the region's lakes harbor big bass, the key to landing one or more of them is fishing in waters that feature large numbers of big bass rather than one or two enormous fish that likely have earned nicknames assigned by your peers.
In many of the smaller San Diego County lakes dwell one or two bass that, given the right conditions and plenty of planted rainbow trout, might weigh close to the weight of the long-standing world record, at some point before this coming July. Most likely, however, the average angler has a better shot of winning the lottery than catching one of those fish.
Fortunately, there are a handful of waters in which big bass are fairly common, and where swimbaits rule the day. Among them are Casitas, Perris, Diamond Valley, Castaic Lagoon and San Vicente.
Remember that the swimbait world has changed drastically since the days when anglers tried to hide swimbaits from other anglers aboard their boat. These days, swimbaits are as common as plastic worms. But has this craze made it tougher for anglers to catch bass on swimbaits?
"I don't think that's the case," says Mike Giusti, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist who stays in close contact with the bass world. "It's hit and miss, because most of the guys who throw swimbaits aren't throwing them all day. The guys who are fishing big swimbaits all day still catch fish. You can't go out there for a few hours, throw a few baits and expect to catch trophy bass every time."
Nonetheless, the So Cal swimbait scene has progressed markedly from the days of anglers throwing surface-running plugs like the famed Castaic Soft Trout. Today's swimbaits come in sinking, suspended, floating and weighted models.
"The guys who really know how to fish swimbaits will throw them all day and catch fish all day, but you can't just go out there and throw the shallow divers all day and catch fish," Giusti adds. "You have to figure out what the fish want and how they want it presented."
Choosing a swimbait can be as challenging as deciding which package of plastic worms to buy out of the dozens on the shelf at Wal-Mart. Swimbaits can range from a few bucks to more than $100 for special garage-made models.
"You can pay a lot or a little," says Giusti. "The cheap one might work just as good as the expensive one, but once someone catches a big fish on one, everyone will start using it."
Hands down, Casitas is the best overall swimbait lake in Southern California. Casitas yields more bass bigger than 10 pounds than any other lake in the West. In fact, Casitas -- on a good year -- may kick out more bass over 10 pounds than all the other lakes in the region combined. Swimbaits are the mainstay from October through March.
"I don't know why it's so good, but I think it's because we don't have stripers competing with the stocked trout," says Randy King at Lake Casitas Marina. "The problem at Castaic is that they have to share their trout with the stripers. I think the bass are feeding on the trout here."
Wintertime is planting season, when Casitas is stocked with trout almost weekly. Trout serve as growing pills for the bass, and what better way to match what they're eating than by throwing a swimbait?
On the other hand, Casitas' action can fluctuate. Some years, the lake yields triple-digit numbers of big bass. Other times, it's only double digits, which would be magnificent for most waters, yet disappointing for Casitas.
"I think it will return this year. The guys will be throwing the swimbaits like crazy," King says. "I hate the swimbaits, because the guy who hasn't paid his dues can still catch a huge fish. If you throw a big enough swimbait out here, you are going to catch a big one."
Nonetheless, finding a prime spot to throw can be challenging. Casitas can be clogged with swimbait anglers.
"Every one of the guys that's good at throwing swimbaits have three or four spots laid out and then they move," King says. "If you are the first one on it, you'll get the fish."
Casitas is mostly reserved by anglers fishing with the Castaic Soft Trout, Megabait Charlie and the Huddleston. However, finding the Huddleston can be as tough as catching a 20-pound bass. They don't mass-produce them and have problems keeping up with demand.
"They are still here," says Castaic Soft Trout pro staffer and Casitas legendary bass angler Ed Guyette, who has caught and released more than 500 bass greater than 10 pounds from Casitas. "We still have a world- record bass in this lake -- if not a few of them."
Guyette is one of many who believe several large fish will be caught this winter.
"We haven't had water until this year," he adds. "For the last few years, the big bass have had to go down deep to find structure to relate to. Now they have that near the surface, so we'll be able to target those fish again."
Guyette is one of many big bass chasers who fishes exclusively with swimbaits during the winter.
"If you want to catch a big fish you have to use a big bait," Guyette avers. "There's a lot of pressure on this lake, and the fish get pounded. But if you put in your time, you have a good chance at catching a fish over ten pounds."
Castaic Lagoon is the smallest of the list of big bass lakes, but it has the ability to yield the largest fish -- which it did in 2005 with a 19.26-pound monster that was caught and eaten. Fortunately, there are still dozens of hogs to go around.
It's no secret that many big bass born in Castaic Lake are brought by anglers to the Lagoon for photos and are then released in the Lagoon. In a sense some anglers -- illegally, we might add -- bring the big fish here to create their own little sanctuary of huge bass. On reaching their new home, the fish are greeted with a smorgasbord of food.
"They have excellent ecolo
gy there. It's top-of-the-line. They have bait, crappie, bluegill shad and trout, and the lake isn't pressured, per se. A lot of guys fish it, but they float tube it, and a few use bass boats," says Dave Keys of Castaic Landing. "There are no stripers. The largemouth bass is the top predator in the lake. They stock it with trout in the winter, and all these bass have to do is grab a few trout and they eat well. It's the perfect lake to grow big bass."
It's also fairly shallow and small. To feed, the bass don't have to work hard and expend lots of energy.
"There's a lot of grass that grows, so they have places to hang out, hide and ambush trout," Keys adds. "Try just going around the lake. If they are planting trout, they'll move on the trout. I've seen them busting trout in the middle of the lake. The trout are candy for them."
Time of day isn't a huge deal, but can make a difference.
"Historically, the first and last couple of hours might be the best," Keys says. "But I've seen big fish coming up there and feeding at noon."
The most important ingredient is patience. As with all swimbait fishing, you'll likely have to make a lot of casts to gain success here. The more time you put in, the better chance you have at a big one. But that first cast might be your lucky one, too.
Diamond Valley remains Southern California's newest lake, but it also offers one of the best opportunities for trophy bass. The majority of its big fish seldom weigh more than 10 pounds, but an impressive number of those caught weigh over 5 pounds.
"We are now seeing a lot of sixes, sevens and eights," says Giusti. "I think we are going to start seeing more big fish. This year will be even better. The lake is going to be a year older. That makes a big difference. Diamond Valley's bass can put on as much as two pounds a year."
According to Giusti, his best educated guess is that 25 to 40 percent of the population is in the 5- to 8-pound range. Note, however, that there are monster bass available, too.
"We have a few bass in the 15- to 20-pound range, and it's possible to have some pushing 20 pounds," adds Giusti. "I think there are about forty to fifty fish in the 10- to 15-pound range in Diamond Valley, but that's purely a guess."
Guess or reality, the most important factor is that there are huge bass in Diamond Valley, which is just southwest of Hemet. Without a doubt, swimbaits are the way to cash in on trophy fish.
"The guys who are catching the big fish are throwing them year-round," Giusti says. "Most of the guys are throwing the trout baits in the winter, but there isn't one bait that's working better out there than the others. Basically, it's a variety -- pick your brand."
|THE BEST OF THE REST|
|Souther California's reservoirs are loaded with big bass. In fact, nearly every water harbors at least a few bass of 10 pounds or more. Here's a list of waters that have earned honorable mention as swim bait lakes.|
|Lake Jennings has been touted as one of San Diego's better lakes for producing 10-pound bass. Odds are, however, that if you aren't willing to spend countless hours on the water your chances of success are slim. Why? Because Jennings' 10-pounders number in the handfuls, not the dozens. There may be fish close to 20 pounds available, but the total number of fish keeps this lake off the big-boy list.|
|Lake Poway & Dixon|
|Poway and Dixon are two favorites for targeting record-sized bass. However, if you aren't Mike Long, the odds are well against you catching one of them. Both of these small waters contain a relatively small number of huge bass that require the utmost amount of patience and stamina as an angler to catch them. These fish have special names (only some of which can be published) and get pounded extra hard by anglers.|
|Castaic is making a comeback and beginning to yield better quality fish than it did just five years ago, but it's still not returned to its glory days of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Throwing a swimbait there may generate strikes from a 5- to 7-pound bass, but the chance of a 10-pound-plus fish isn't high. Anymore, it's more likely you'll catch a striper than a largemouth chasing trout here. Trolling swimbaits near the marina, casting from the damn, and fishing from a point near Castaic Landing are the best ways to get bit. -- Chris Shaffer|
Fishing Diamond Valley with swimbaits doesn't take genius, only patience. The lake is the largest in So Cal, which can deceive anglers into thinking they have to cover a lot of water. Focus on spots where trout are commonly found. The marina, main lake points and coves are places where you'll want to concentrate your efforts.
Over the years, Lake Perris has maintained an excellent population of big bass, but an enormous amount of pressure has toughened up the bite. Now, Perris has more to cope with. In 2005, the lake is going to be drawn down at least 40 percent, to complete necessary repairs on the dam.
"I don't think it's going to affect the bass fishing this winter, but by next year, it could start to take its toll. I wouldn't be surprised if we lose 40 percent of the bass," Giusti says. "You are looking at three to four months of good fishing, and then the population is going to be affected."
This winter though, the bass will still be alive and healthy. In fact, they'll be more concentrated than ever. Barring the development of lockjaw or over-harvest, an abnormal number of big bass could be caught.
"It's still consistent," says Giusti, who believes that Perris holds bass up to 18 pounds. "The numbers of big fish may have gone down in the past few years, but it's been pounded pretty good by anglers."
That pounding has taken a toll. In short, it's harder for anglers to catch big bass, because these fish see so many baits. At Perris, your best bet may be to vary retrieval speeds. Try different baits and vary your depth. If everyone is throwing surface baits, it might be a good idea to fish suspended bait.
While not likely to yield the next state record, San Vicente remains home to quality bass fishing. San V doesn't kick out many bass better than 10 pounds each year, but it parallels any fishery when it comes to quality 5-pound bass.
San V doesn't require anglers to lug around 10-inch swimbaits, either. Here you can save your arm and heave
6- and 8-inch baits. In fact, the smaller swimbaits are more likely to get eaten than the larger ones.
When fishing San V during winter, you'll always find big bass near the marina because that's where trout are stocked. But many anglers concentrate on main lake points, affording them the opportunity to locate migrating bass.
(Editor's Note: Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing in Southern California, which you can purchase at