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Barrett Is Better

Barrett Is Better
Solitude. Gullible Northern-strain bass. It's a catch-and-release paradise. Check out Barrett Reservoir for excellent Southern California world-class bassin'. (May 2007)

These are Northern-strain black bass, so you won't see a lot of 12-pounders. But you will find a ton of 2- to 6-pounders hitting shad imitations.
Photo by Richard A. Bean.

Southern California has some of the best bass angling in the nation. A number of bass-record compilations point out that California has produced more than 20 of the 25 heaviest bass ever caught. And Southern California accounts for a majority.

The San Diego area is perhaps the epicenter of that great bass fishing. A number of waters operated by the City of San Diego are open to angling at its best. Florida-strain bass introduced by the late Orville Ball have produced big bass, and plenty of 'em.

The state's southern end has few natural lakes, but dozens of reservoirs dot the landscape. And the fishing couldn't be better. Or could it?

One factor that intrudes is the population of anglers. These days, it's hard to find a lake not being fished by a lot of folks. On a weekday, you have a fair chance of finding water that isn't being used by a whole fleet of bass boats. But if you like solitude, weekends can be a real challenge.

Also, Florida-strain bass -- and the hybrids from the mixing of Florida fish and Northern-strain largemouths -- are harder to catch than pure Northern-strain fish. More bass in California waters grow to large size, but the fishing can be tough.

These two problems -- too many anglers, and hard-to-catch bass -- can lead a bass angler to frustration. Imagine waiting two hours to launch, then catching only a couple of fish on an outing that costs you for travel, gas, lunches, launch fees, parking for tow vehicle and trailer.


One answer to this hectic fishing situation is Barrett Lake in the south of San Diego County.

At 861 surface acres, Barrett isn't all that large. But entry is controlled, and on a "busy" day at Barrett, you can often feel quite alone. The reservoir is shaped like a ragged "L," with two creeks forming the long arms. Pine Creek Arm goes north, and the Hauser Arm reaches east into the Hauser Wilderness Area. In all, you get about 12 miles of winding, rocky shoreline.

In the fall of 2006, a wildfire burned a lot of the brush on the hills in the Hauser Arm, but little impact on the fishing is expected. This small water is just about the only place in Southern California where anglers have a reasonable expectation of a solid population of Northern-strain bass. You probably won't catch a lot of fish heavier than 10 pounds, but usually you'll catch a lot of them.

Barrett has a well-deserved reputation for churning out good numbers of 2- to 4-pound Northern-strain largemouths. This population is protected by strict catch-and-release regulations that keep anglers from removing too many fish and causing the population to crash.


Lake Barrett is unique among publicly operated reservoirs. It's located behind locked gates in a remote area of San Diego County and was closed for many years. Access has been offered on a limited basis by reservation since 1994.

Along with Upper Otay, another San Diego City lake, Barrett is one of only two reservoirs in the region that operates under highly restrictive regulations designed to protect both the fishery and the quality of the fishing experience.

The lake's regulations call for the use of barbless artificial lures only and the release of all fish in this "zero kill" fishery. These regulations were designed primarily to protect the last significant population of Northern-strain largemouth black bass in the area.

Other species include bluegill, bullheads, and both white and black crappie. Threadfin shad and silverside minnows are the primary forage fish.

For anglers accustomed to other California bass lakes, the quiet at Barrett is almost shocking. For one thing, no private boats are allowed on Barrett. This puts a crimp in you plan to use your fancy bass rig, but also means there are no irritating personal watercraft, no water-skiers and very few other fishermen. It's entirely possible to fish all day without getting close enough to another boat to have conversation, much less feel crowded.

Barrett is open three days a week -- Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. You can use one of the lake's rental boats, simple aluminum craft with modest motors, or you can launch a float tube or kayak.

Knowledgeable Barrett anglers know the trick is to rent a boat and use it as faster transport for float tubes or pontoon craft. Indeed, the whole Barrett experience is set up to do just that. Barrett is really isolated behind private property, so there is no shoreline development. You don't fish with folks gazing down on you from the balcony of their townhouses, like on some other lakes in the Southland. Also, there are very few trails or access around the lake. The only real way to get to the water is at the marina maintained by the city.

Just getting into Barrett is different. Because the access is through private property, you have to arrive at a gate on Lyon Valley Road, then have a city vehicle escort you through the private property. This is actually pretty easy, but it's a part of the agreement worked out by Jim Brown, the now-retired City Lakes Recreation Manager.

Barrett was closed to public in 1969, and for many years he worked behind the scenes to strike a compromise with local landowners so it could be re-opened to anglers. In 1994, he finally succeeded and Barrett was in instant hit with anglers looking for that great combination of solitude and aggressive bass action.

The basic package for fishing Barrett is also different from any lake in the area. At most other lakes, you just show up, purchase a launch-fishing permit, and go fishing -- unless, of course, the lake is already filled to capacity when you get there.

Barrett requires that anglers get their entry passes via TicketMaster. When you purchase a ticket, you receive a reservation for four anglers, and it includes the use of a 14-foot aluminum boat and motor. Only 100 anglers, on 25 boats, are allowed on the lake each day.

"The shad population is huge, and we expect very good bass fishing in 2007," said Laurie Miller, the assistant lake manager. "People who come to Barrett to bass-fish need to think about the bluegills and crappie here, too. The

crappie are huge and there are lots of them."

Bring a float tube or pontoon to fish out of, or bring you own clamp-on electric trolling motor and battery. The boats are solid, but not equipped with the gadgets and amenities you'd expect on a bass boat. So bring all your own gear.

The lake is filled with threadfin shad, so the natural method for catching Barrett bass is to throw shad imitations. Small crankbaits like Shad Raps, Rat-L-Traps or soft-plastic baits like Renosky or Kalin's grubs get hit with enthusiasm.

The smaller size Slug-Go, the new Yamamoto Shad Shape work and similar plastics are also very good. I've had excellent results with several small sizes of soft-plastic swimbaits in shad colors.

Spinnerbaits, especially silver blades with white and/or chartreuse skirts, are deadly. Barrett bass hit blades that are run just under the surface. But if you fish near the dam, try helicoptering a spinnerbait down the face of the dam into 30 or 40 feet of water. Then hang on tight!

If the action slows even a bit, toss a plastic worm in the brush. That's usually a sure cure for boredom.

Topwater artificials are the classic method for Northern-strain fish in the mornings and evenings. Pop-R, Rico, Bill Lewis Slap-Sticks and SpitFire, Heddon's Zara Gossa -- or anything that's shad-sized and either pops, sputters or spits water -- will get busted hard.

Keep an eye open for sudden appearances of shad being attacked by schools of roving largemouths, especially in the early morning and again in the late afternoon and evening. At midday, any kind of soft-plastic is the best bet. Barrett bass tend to like dark shades of blue, black and brown.

If you like bass fishing with a fly rod, you're in luck. Barrett just may be the classic bass fly-fishing lake in California. You get a great combination of low angler numbers, no-wake limits, and a large number of aggressive Northern-strain bass.

As a long-time bass fly angler, I feel confident that a flyfisher can get through a day on Barrett with only a handful of small white streamers that mimic a threadfin shad. A floating line is fine in the morning and evening, but a sink-tip or medium sink-rate line will get more fish during the middle of the day. A 2-inch Lefty's Deceiver in white, or a simple white bucktail fly with large eyes will do just fine.

A small pencil popper in white, silver, or white with a red head is excellent for catching Barrett bass when they bust shad on the surface. Anywhere on the Hauser Arm where you find a combination of trees and boulders, you may well find bass feeding on shad. While fishing for Barrett bass, don't be surprised to find yourself battling a huge bluegill or a monster crappie. There are some very large panfish in this lake, and they also feed aggressively on shad.

As noted, the rental boats including float tubes or pontoon craft are excellent for providing transportation for four anglers out to various parts of the lake. Once on site, two or more of you can slip into a tube and glide away for some quiet sport.

Make sure you have a floatation vest, and you do need some hunter orange, such as an orange ball cap, to make you visible to boaters, though the low speed limit and lack of private boats and jet skis reduces the risk of a collision.

Barrett Lake, 42 miles east of San Diego, is under the jurisdiction of the City of San Diego Reservoirs and Recreation Program. It's normally open for fishing on a limited basis (25 parties of four or fewer persons per day) from April through October on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays for the first two months, then usually only Saturday and Sunday for the remainder of the season.

The lake holds a good population of large bass as well as an abundance of bluegill and crappie. Barrett is a catch-and-release lake, with a zero-take policy for all species. Regulations require the use of barbless hooks and artificial lures only.

No camping or concessions are available. No swimming or water contact is allowed. A reservation through TicketMaster is needed to fish. Each reservation costs $50 and covers all four anglers. Contact TicketMaster at (619) 220-TIXS or

For more information, call the city at (619) 465-3474 or visit online at

Entry to lake area is controlled. You must be escorted from the highway to the launch ramp by one of the city employees who make their run in the morning at 5, 7, 8 and 9 a.m. They escort anglers out again at noon, 2, 4 and 6 p.m. and at sunset.

Fishing is allowed from boat, shore or float tube. No private boats are allowed. There is no launch ramp.

Your reservation gives your party the use of a rental rowboat and motor. You may supply your own motor, up to 20 horsepower. A boat is necessary, even if you plan on tubing or walking the shoreline.

Some of the best fishing is a long way from the docks. But there is only one access point, and almost no walking trail anywhere around the lake, which is big enough to make trying to tube more than a small area around the docks almost impossible.

The fishing fee per angler, over the cost of the reservation, is an additional $10 per adult over 16, paid at the lake at the time you pick up your boat. A valid California license is required, and anglers shouldn't forget to wear it.

Access is available only through Lyons Valley Road. From Interstate 8, turn south on Japatul Road. Take a left on Lyons Valley Road and travel six miles to the gate.

Or from Highway 94, turn west on Honey Springs Road, then take a right on Lyons Valley Road. Go 1.7 miles to the gate.

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