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5 Southern California Lakes I Like

5 Southern California Lakes I Like

Do you know how to fish Barrett, San Vicente, Dixon, Diamond Valley and Casitas lakes? A longtime bass tournament angler stops at his favorites and fills you in on tackle and techniques that work. (January 2007)

Stan Vanderberg shows just one of the lunkers that call Lake Casitas home. It's not the lake-record 21 pounder, but who would complain about an 11-pounder like this?
Photo courtesy of Bill Schaefer

It's January 2007, and a new year has just started. How will the bass fishing be this year? Will you catch the "official" world record? We sure came close to having one in 2006!

I don't know about you, but in January I start to get this really strong urge to get all my tackle set up and straightened out again. Everything must be in perfect shape because the new fishing season is starting, and I am excited!

Pre-spawn bass will start moving to the shallows and nearby points. Males will be looking for that perfect place to spawn and hopefully entice a female to join them. With so many bass in the shallows, it is usually the best time of year to catch large numbers of fish and have a chance at a wallhanger largemouth as well.

Below, I will take you on a tour of five bass lakes from southern California that I like and that will satisfy your urge for both numbers and size.

These lakes are some real favorites of mine as well as many other fishermen, and they will become your favorites, too. I didn't choose these lakes based on giant bass alone. I chose them for their surroundings, fun factor, numbers of fish to be caught and lastly, for the big ones that live there. I hope you can make it to all of them some day.


For numbers of bass, it is hard to beat this pay-to-play impoundment in San Diego's east county. At approximately 850 surface acres, Lake Barrett is not the biggest in southern California, but it sure holds its own in numbers of fish produced. Fishermen in the lake's glory days caught 50 to 100 fish in a visit.


The lake's dam was completed in 1922. It was built to hold drinking water for San Diego County, was closed to fishing and fished only by poachers over the years. Stories of 100-fish days abounded. In 1994, the lake was finally opened after the details were worked out with local landowners -- you must cross private land to access the lake. Fishermen are escorted in and out by lake personnel.

The lake goes through cycles. It does have its good years and bad. When it first opened, we saw 100-fish days for the first three years. Then it went downhill for a couple of years, then bounced back, then slid downhill again.

You get the idea. The last couple of years were a tad on the slower side, even though the daily average --at about 15 to 20 fish per rod each day -- was higher than any other San Diego lake.

This may be the breakout season, especially in the springtime, when the lake first opens. The fish in this lake will eat most lures, and a lot of lures that you wouldn't use as much in the other lakes around the county. So dust off those old packages and bring to Barrett all the lures you want to feel confident about once again.

Confidence in lures is a key factor in bass fishing. The Yamamoto Senko has been the hot bait here in the past. But as I said, this lake is the place to gain confidence in all the other lures that don't seem to work on the other lakes.

With the water up and so much brush in the shallows, spinnerbaits and flukes could be the hot ticket this year. Plastic worms, reapers, drop-shotting, jigs, crankbaits, Senkos and stickbaits should all do well. Don't forget your topwater baits at home either, as they work all season.

You can also use line with a higher breaking strength. Remember the fish here aren't line-shy, and you have a lot of brush, trees, and rocks to contend with.

The fish here are very healthy-looking and average about 2 pounds, with many 3-, 4-, and 5-plus-pound fish being caught. They are hard fighters and will test you and your tackle!

Speaking of tackle, this is a no-kill lake. Catch-and-release for bass only. You must pinch down the barbs on the lures once they're tied to your line. You don't have to pinch the barbs on every lure in your tackle box. But don't forget to do it to the ones you use, because California Fish and Game does come out and check.

Where should you start? Just go fishing. The fish are everywhere around the lake, whether hiding in shoreline brush, sunken trees, or on any of the many rockpiles. There are popular areas, but fishing the spots less hammered by the crowds will sometimes produce the best.

Rocky points are everywhere. Trees in the water and brush on every inch of shoreline offer cover to the bass. Just start fishing and you'll discover your favorite area. The water is traditionally a little stained, and will definitely be so this year.

In the springtime, therefore, when bass are bedding, you may not be able to see them nesting. Work your worm or favorite plastic bait slowly and your chances of entering a bass' bed will be greater, producing the strikes you need to catch them. You won't be disappointed.


To the north and west, Lake San Vicente, located about 20 miles east of San Diego City in Lakeside, has been the shining star among the lakes in San Diego county for many years. Just about every type of floating device and fishing platform is allowed here.

This impoundment usually kicks out largemouth bass numbers rivaled only by Lake Barrett, and totals for the year are usually five times that of any of the other lake in the area. The lake is a haven for largemouth bass.

Bass can be caught on everything plastic, from drop-shot and split-shot rigs to the old standard, Texas-rigged worms. Crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, as well as other reaction baits work well here. But to hook giant bass, crawdads and shiners have always been the best. When visiting here, don't forget your trout-imitation lures. Trout are planted as long as possible into the spring. Trout swimbaits can get you that wallhanger!

This lake was originally built to store water for San Diego and its surrounding communities, but the area calls out for more water every year. Given that demand, the San Diego County Water Authority did a study and determined San Vicente would be the best lake to expand. The dam will be raised, and the current lake of 1,069 surface acres would increase by approximately 500 surface acres. This will help out both the resi

dents and fishermen of San Diego County.

The dam will be raised between 54 and 123 feet. Studies are still under way to find the right amount, but should be in that ballpark. The drawback is the lake will have to be closed to all recreation while the dam project takes place and will not reopen until the water rises to the new launch ramp. The lake will close in mid- to late 2008 and reopen somewhere between 2014 and 2017.

A long wait, but it should be worth it. When the "new" lake is opened, it should be one of the greatest fisheries in the West. No fishing pressure for somewhere between six and nine years should make it better than its top-notch counterpart, Lake Barrett. Fishing is great now, though, so take advantage of it while you can.


Still heading north from San Diego, we come across the small impoundment of Lake Dixon. Don't pass up this lake; it's one of the top choices around. Last year the unofficial record largemouth bass of 25.1 pounds, caught by Mac Weakley, was brought to the dock and the world's attention. Mac decided not to pursue the world record, so this giant as well as others are still in the lake for the taking.

Plastics, jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, as well as most other baits, work well here. But if you're chasing a giant, use one of your trout-imitation lures. The more realistic it is, the better your chances at a big one.

Lake Dixon dam was constructed for water storage and was completed in 1971. It has picnic areas, hiking trails, concessions, and camping. Fish were planted about five years prior to the lake's opening for business, and trout were planted after the opening up until to the present.

The trout are probably the reason for the quick growth of the bass. This lake has produced 20-plus-pound fish, many in the teens, and is just a great all-around lake for fishing and camping.


Still working our way north, we come to Diamond Valley Lake. The name is appropriate for this gem of a fishery, thanks to Mike Giusti, a Game and Fish biologist. He stood on the bow of his research boat one day, gazing out over the lake with the glow of a proud father, and told me, "This is a dream come true. To see a lake through from start to opening day and know it is a topnotch fishery . . . I couldn't be happier."

This lake, nestled in a valley where mammoths and mastodons once roamed thousands of years ago, started life as a rearing pond of about 80 acres and has grown into the largest lake in southern California. When full, it has about 4,500 surface acres. Two giant earthen dams, the largest project ever in the U.S., were built to close in this valley and form the lake.

The water level is still fluctuating a little, but the current level is about 4,100 acres -- enough room for the small rental fleet and 250 private boats allowed each day to fish very comfortably. Fishing is also available from the shoreline for about 1 1/2 miles.

The top targets of fishermen are the largemouths and smallmouths. The original 217 largemouth bass released into the rearing ponds for Diamond Valley Lake came from Lake Hodges in San Diego and are known for being strong, large fish. The fish at Diamond Valley have had some good spawns and have flourished over the last several years. They are now some of the strongest-fighting bass I've ever wrestled with!

The smallmouths, on the other hand, have been harder to catch. Surveys bring in only a few of them. There's some uncertainty as to whether the original 2,500 have had good spawns, but 1- to 2-pound fish have been caught. Hopefully, there is a strong population, and more will be caught as fishermen discover their hiding spots. These golden bass are tough fighters and should do well in this deep lake. Look to steeper and rocky banks for these guys.

After launching your boat, you can start at almost any point of shoreline and begin to fish for the largemouths or smallmouths. All the lake looks very fishy and, for the most part, it is. From the backs of coves to no-nothing banks, special structure was planted around the entire lake, and the fish are spread out. There are several small islands and underwater reefs to fish.

Worms will definitely get you the most bites and will keep the day exciting. Drop-shot, split-shot, or Texas-rigged, every worm technique will work. Smaller baits will probably bring higher catch numbers to the boat. There are tons of 10- to 12-inch fish. And don't forget your jigs at home either, as they will tempt fish both big and small.

Reaction baits -- such as topwater baits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and even swimbaits -- should get you hooked up with bigger fish. Overall, your catch numbers may be lower, but you will have caught some larger fish if you stay with reaction baits. There are a lot of trees and brush in the water, so go with a little heavier line.

Early-morning fishing using big topwater lures such as a Zara Spook over submerged points will call up the big boys. Pop-Rs and buzzbaits will also bring them up. But if you need to drop down under, then go to jerkbaits and spinnerbaits.

Remember, this lake is full of trout and, from bass spawns, smaller bass fry each year. Swimbaits in various sizes will work here as well. Again, your total numbers for the day might suffer by chucking a trout imitation all day. But when you hook one, it will be a giant!


And last but certainly not least is Lake Casitas, located still further toward the north, just east of Santa Barbara. The dam was finished in 1959 and was to hold water in reserve for southern California as many lakes were built around this time. At around 2,500 acres when full and with 30-plus miles of shoreline, there is plenty of room to fish here. There is a nice camping and recreation area here as well.

This lake is located in a beautiful setting, and the fishing is out of this world! The lake has not only a good population of smaller fish, but it's known for its giants. It is another lake that plants trout, and those big bass just gorge themselves on them, growing to record size. It's not uncommon to catch a limit of giants in a day. The lake record is over 21 pounds!

Pre-spawn can be the best time here for largemouths. There are tons of males roaming the banks and females that could break records hanging just outside. It's worth the drive from anywhere in Southern California -- or NorCal, for that matter. And you can camp for a few days. (If your first day is good, you won't want to leave.)

All the regular baits work here, from plastics to crankbaits and everything in between. If you really want a trophy, though, you'll need to invest in some of the lifelike trout-imitation lures.

As I said, the big boys love trout, and if you put the time in chucking one of these lures, you'll have many a glory day on this lake, probably setting new records for yourself -- and maybe the state and world as well.


Lake Barrett: The lake is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations can be made by calling (619) 220-8497 or on Ticketmaster's Web site at Reservations will be available one month at a time, always beginning on the second Tuesday of the previous month. From Interstate 8, take Japatul Valley Road 5.6 miles south to Lyons Valley Road. After turning right on Lyons Valley Road, watch for descending numbers on green milepost markers. The gate is located 6 miles down the road just past milepost 12. Or from Highway 94, turn left on Honey Springs Road, go 7.7 miles to Lyons Valley Road. Turn right on Lyons Valley Road, and it's 1.7 miles to the gate. To learn more, visit

For some local tackle stores, you can telephone:

€¢ Angler's Arsenal, at (619) 466-8355;

€¢ Angler's Edge, at (619) 938-0020;

€¢ Aim Marine Tackle, at (619) 443-0031; and

€¢ Lakeside Bait and Tackle at 619-443-3859.

No guides are available.

Lake San Vicente: From Highway 67, go east on Willow Road, turn left on Moreno Avenue, and follow signs to the entrance. From the entrance, it's about a mile to the concession and launch area. Check out

San Diego City lakes' hotline is (619) 465-FISH (3474). Local tackle stores include those listed above for Lake Barrett.

For guides, call Art Berry Guide Service at (619) 454-4522, or Aim Marine Guide Service at (619) 443-0031.

Diamond Valley: Call the marina office at (951) 926-7201, or visit From the Los Angeles area, take Highway 60 east to Interstate 215 south, and exit at Highway 74 east. Head east on Highway 74 to Highway 79 south. Highway 79 is also known as Winchester Road.

From Orange County, take Highway 91 east to Interstate 215 south. Take the Highway 74 east exit off the 215 and go to Sanderson Avenue.

On Sanderson, turn right (south) to Domenigoni Parkway. Turn left (east) to Searl Parkway, and you'll see the entrance to the East Marina.

From the San Diego area, take Highway 15 north to Highway 79 north. To reach the East Marina, take Domenigoni Road from Highway 79, and head east to the marina entrance at Searl Parkway.

Don't forget, there are certain rules for fishing this lake, such as restrictions on motors and fuels. Your boat must be inspected before arriving or launching at DVL and to be allowed in, it must meet the requirements.

You can find all the details on their Web site at

A local tackle store is Baja Vinnie's Bait and Tackle in Temecula, at (951) 296-9999.

If you want a guide, call Art Berry Guide Service at (619) 454-4522, or visit

Lake Dixon: For information go to Take 15 Freeway to the El Norte Parkway exit in Escondido. Go east 4 miles to La Honda, and make a left. (You'll probably see the sign for Dixon Lake before you see the sign for La Honda.)

Follow La Honda up the hill until you get to Dixon Lake. The lake is open year-round. Gates open at 6:00 a.m. daily. Park closes at dusk. Night-fishing is available during the summer months. For further information, contact the park ranger at (760) 839-4680. No pets are allowed at this facility.

Camping reservations can be made Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., by calling (760) 741-3328. Walk-in reservations can be made at the concession building at Dixon Lake, 1700 North La Honda Drive, Escondido.

The number for Dixon Lake Store is (619) 749-2755. Call Art Berry Guide Service at (619) 454-4522.

Lake Casitas: This site is 13 miles northwest of Ventura on State Highway 33. There are lots of campsites that include full hook-ups. Call (805) 649-1122 for reservations. The recreation area includes a snack bar, boat rentals, bike rentals and a grocery store. Visit

Local tackle stores include Casitas Store at (805) 649-1202. Guide services include Ojai Angler Guide Service at, or Mike Campbell at (805) 649-4158.

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