Is this the year for an "official" world record? With drawdowns on the way, check out Cuyamaca and Jennings lakes rather than more popular waters in Southern California for your best shot at a lunker legend. (February 2007)
You can be sure anglers will be catching bass like this beauty all year at Lake Castaic.
Photo by Chris Shaffer
Last spring, anglers around the globe focused on Southern California when San Diego County resident Mac Weakley caught and released a 25.1-pound largemouth bass in Lake Dixon, a small 76-acre park lake near Escondido.
Although the fish was weighed on a digital scale and not a certified scale, it was the largest bass ever recorded in the world. The fish gained So Cal and worldwide attention and would have likely been a world record, had it not been snagged with a jig.
Since the fish was foul-hooked, and since Weakley didn't take the required measurements of the bass, his fish wasn't submitted to the International Game Fish Association for world-record status.
In accordance with California law, a fish not caught legally in the mouth must be released. Although it was reported that the angler first claimed the fish was mouth-hooked, Weakley released the fish anyway.
The record books will still show George Perry's 22 1/4-pound bass caught in 1932 in Georgia's Montgomery Lake as the world record.
Weakley's fish, however, is proof that Southern California has the ingredients to yield the next world record. While other places on the planet have the ability to produce record-size bass, there's no other spot that produces as many big bass as Southern California.
Is 2007 the year that someone finally displaces Georgia from the ranks as the world's biggest bass producer of all time? In Weakley's claim, we have a very good indication that at least one fish bigger than the current record is lurking here. On the other hand, catching that fish is another story.
"My thought is that I don't anticipate a world-record fish being caught this year, even at Dixon," said Mike Giusti, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist. He said the odds of catching that fish again, in the exact same condition, are pretty slim.
"It's possible, but I don't count on it," he said. "I don't think the record will be broken in the next five years. I don't want to dismiss the possibility of a world record, but we have to be realistic. It's not likely."
Southern California has two strains of bass, Florida and northern strain. Barring a miracle, only Florida strain fish have the ability to grow to world-record proportions. The largest of the species are the females. It's rare for a male to reach 15 pounds. Females carry the most weight in the spring when they spawn. Hands down, if a world-record bass is caught, it will likely be during the spring months, before late April.
According to Fish and Game, the added weight from their eggs comes in February, March and April. Their eggs can add 2 to 3 pounds to each female in the spring. They shed those pounds when they spawn, which is why the window to catch world-record-size bass comes in late winter and early spring.
"It's such a rarity, you don't expect the world-record fish to be caught," added Giusti, who said a trophy female bass living in Southern California can gain and lose as much as 2 pounds a year and can live close to 20 years. "Basically, it's a one-of-a-kind fish. You need a fish that's eaten a large meal, so you get the added weight if you want to break the world record."
There's a few necessary ingredients — crawdads, shad, panfish, stocked trout — to grow world-record-size bass. Most Southern Cal reservoirs have them all. These food sources serve as growing pills for largemouth. The forage allows them to grow faster than they would in other areas of the country where less food is available and the growing season is shortened by wintry conditions. Bass metabolism slows when the water is cold. Relatively speaking, water doesn't get cold here.
From San Diego to Ventura and throughout Los Angeles and Riverside County, the greater Los Angeles Basin has been hailed as a Mecca for world-class bass since the early 1980s.
According to the Bassmaster Top 25 — a list of the top 25 largemouth bass catches — 21 of the 25 heaviest came from Southern California.
Even if the world record doesn't come this year, the chance of more huge bass is strong. Locals, professional anglers, Fish and Game and guides believe more fish will be added to that list this year.
On the other hand, Giusti cautions anglers not to get overly excited, especially when it comes to catching that 25.1-pounder again. Even though it wasn't found floating, that fish has probably died.
"That fish was probably 20 years old," says Giusti of Weakley's catch. "It's probably pushing its lifespan. As far as I know it's still alive. They said it took off when they released it. It could live another year, but will it be caught again? Who knows? If it dies, we might not even know. If it's down at the bottom and died, the pressure could collapse the air bladder and (it would) stay on the bottom, or it could get trapped in the tules and guys would never see it."
Dixon and nearby Poway Lake are two San Diego-area lakes that have the ability to kick out a world-record fish. These are both small park lakes that are heavily stocked with trout. Largemouths slurp these trout down, which enables the bass to grow rapidly. Each of these waters harbors a small number of large bass, maybe only one or two. Fish and Game believes these fish could be close to the end of their lives, meaning that if those fish die, it could take another 10 years or more for younger bass to grow to those proportions again.
"You have to get it in the right condition and the right time," said Giusti. "There has also been some die-off issues in Dixon and Poway. There aren't a lot of big fish there. The total number of fish there isn't that great."
Casitas has been the most consistent trophy bass lake in the region. That's going to remain true this year. With water levels back near the brim, bass have more cover, better spawning areas and access to more food. It's a sure sign of good things to come.
"We sure hope to see the world record. I really do think it's here. My gut feeling tells me it's here," said Randy King of Lake Casitas Boat Rentals. I
n his 20-plus years on the job, King has held, seen and weighed more than 2,000 bass heavier than 10 pounds — likely more than anyone else in the world.
"I didn't think it was here anymore until the 19.8 showed a few years ago," King said. "But that was proof. And that fish is still in here. It got released. We haven't seen much bigger than a 15-pound fish in the last year or so, but we know they are here. The guys who aren't full of it — those that we believe — say they've seen world-record fish in this lake."
On the other hand, longtime mainstays for bass anglers, such as Castaic Lake and Perris, are likely on the down cycle. Anglers can expect bass populations to decrease in both reservoirs.
"Castaic has a drawdown that's going to happen. They are going to draw it down 60 to 80 feet at least, and we aren't sure how it's going to affect that fishery. I don't count on Castaic producing much, except for maybe the Lagoon, which always produces big fish. Castaic was on the rebound, too, but now it's going to go the other direction. It could take 10 years for Castaic to recover," said Giusti.
Perris is also now questionable because of the drawdowns there.
"I think our chances are slim" for a record at Perris, said Giusti. "We are going to see a lot of big fish die due to the drawdowns. The forecast for quality, trophy fish isn't as good this year at Castaic and Perris. That eliminates two lakes that historically produce big fish."
In San Diego County there are other fisheries that don't get much attention from the media, but have the ability to yield massive Florida-strain largemouth bass. Two waters — Lake Cuyamaca and Lake Jennings — don't receive as much attention as Poway and Dixon, but do consistently kick up bass in the teens for a selected few anglers who know how to carefully target them.
While they weren't reported to papers and fishing magazines last year, Lake Cuyamaca has proof in photos and official weigh-ins of a 17.8-, a 16- and several 14-pound bass, all caught within a two-day span by swimbait specialist Mike Long. Each day included a five-fish, 50-pound limit of bass that were released.
"A couple of guys really believe there are 19- and 20-pound fish here. Mike Long caught a 17.9 last year, and he said there was another fish bigger right next to it," says Cuyamaca Ranger Willard Lepley. "I'd say, yes, there's a 20-pound fish in here, but it's never bit my hook. The Florida-strain largemouth is doing well here, but the smallies never came back like we expected."
One thing to consider about Cuyamaca is that due to the high elevation here, the bass bite is slow in March and April. To find more active fish, you'll need to arrive in May and June when the water warms. And keep in mind, bass fishing is challenging here.
"It's hard to catch bass here because there's so much natural feed in the lake. It's full of golden shiners, crawdads, crappie and lots of trout we feed them," Lepley added.
Lake Jennings is another sleeper. But use caution. Jennings is similar to Poway and Dixon, in that there are very large bass here, but there aren't a lot of them. A lake record near 17 pounds is proof that big bass grow here, but there's only a handful to go around. And with the lake as small as it is, there's a lot of pressure on these big fish.
"I think we'll see an 18- or 19-pound bass caught this year," says ranger Hugh Marx. "They aren't easy to catch, but we know they are here. These bass have a lot of trout to eat and shad. They grow big pretty fast."
If you aren't concerned with catching trophy bass exclusively, then there are dozens of other options.
Topping that list, Santa Barbara County's Lake Cachuma is a sleeper fishery that has the ability to produce trophy fish, yet also offers great action. Cachuma affords anglers the opportunity to catch largemouth and smallmouth bass in the spring.
"I'd say, yes, there's a 20-pound fish in here, but it's never bit my hook," says Lake Cuyamaca Ranger Willard Lepley.
Cachuma is benefiting from a massive storm that occurred in late December of 2004 and January of 2005, when heavy rainfall brought the lake from drought levels to full pool in two weeks. The storms drove the water level up 55 vertical feet.
As the water rose, it flooded prime bass habitat and spilled lots of feed into the lake, which is a huge positive for Cachuma's bass. Anglers should notice a difference in the quality of fish this spring.
Pushing closer towards Central California, Lake Isabella has been talked down upon since the early 1980s. A lack of catch-and-release fishing during the heyday spelled doom for this fishery at the tail end of the Sierra. But many believe that's set to change this year.
"Isabella pretty much dropped off the map in the late '80s when people raped it of all the big bass," says Jeff Huth of Valley Rod and Gun. "I've heard it's really come back well. There's a few people from So Cal who are catching a ton of bass out of there and keeping a lid on it."
A little bit farther north, Pine Flat is one of the state's most overlooked fisheries. For some reason it's never included among the best, yet it's kicked out more world-record spotted bass than anywhere else in the world.
"The last three world-record spots have come out of that lake," Huth said. "It's been four years since the world record has been broken. I think it's overdue. I think it's going to happen this February because there's going to be a lot of people throwing swimbaits. I guarantee it will be in February, actually. Since anglers are more comfortable with swimbaits now, there is a higher chance of catching that world-record fish."
On the other hand, Huth believes that after this spring, it might be a challenge to find another record-size spot at Pine Flat.
"I would say that in my best guess, the big spotted bass are on the decline. But how can you say that when the last three world records have come out of there in a period of 5 years?" Huth asked. "That's just what I think. The largemouths have had a good spawn the last few years, and the fishery is doing well. We've had good water this year. I think nothing but the best is going to happen there this year."
For anglers heading east outside of the Los Angeles Basin, there are a few spots that won't disappoint.
For a long time, Lake Mead was a dud. Bass fishing was pitiful. However, after the lake rose considerably a few years ago, the bass population rebounded. The lake has since fallen again, but it hasn't hurt the bass population just yet. This season could be another banner one for anglers simply looking to find great action.
"The fishing has picked up considerably in the last few years. It's been like night and day. The water came up, it got into vegetation, and they had a couple of really good spawns and the shad population got really high. It's been good ever since," says Gary Dobyns, the all-time leading money winner in the West, who has twice finished second in the U.S. Open at Mead in the last few years.
"Three years ago in the U.S. Open, there were only three of us who weighed in limits. You just couldn't catch a fish. Now you can catch a few limits a day and cull a few."
Dobyns said it's common for anglers to catch 1- to 2-pound bass at Mead, and there's a lot of 3- to 4-pound fish to go around. This year, anglers can expect to catch 5- and 6-pound bass regularly.
"The quality of fish is way up, too. There's been more 3-pound fish caught than any other time I can remember. The lake is healthier than it's been in several years. It's not the same lake that it was a few years ago," Dobyns added.
Whether or not Southern California produces an official world record this year, there's still some of the world's best bass fishing here. You can bet anglers will weigh in fish in the high teens. Will you be one of the legends people will want to read about?