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Otay's Florida Connection

Otay's Florida Connection

When bass anglers talk about big bass, you'll usually hear about Otay Lake. Just eight miles from San Diego, this reservoir pumps out big Florida-strain largemouths. (May 2008)

Guide Troy Folkestad lips a nice Otay bass that hit a jig-n-pig crawled slowly over a big rockpile near the mouth of the Harvey Arm.
Photo by Richard Alden Bean.

Shaped like a large letter T lying on its side, the Otay arm of the lake stretches north, while the Harvey Arm points east. The dam tips the end of the southern arm of the lake.

Otay has a little bit of everything in the way of bass-holding structure. There are tules and plenty of shoreline brush.

The Harvey Arm has a number of submerged trees along the now-covered stream channel, and there are plenty of rock piles and coarse rubble on the bottom to hold bass.

With good cover and a great food supply, Otay's bass are numerous and healthy. While the largemouths come in the normal mix of sizes, anglers who fish this lake regularly will tell you that some really big largemouth are roaming this lake. Bass up to more than 12 pounds were caught recently.

The Florida-strain fish in Otay and most other San Diego City lakes grow larger than their northern-strain counterparts.

Bringing them to San Diego was the brainstorm of Orville Ball, the city's second fishery director, and a group of local sportsmen who banded together for the task in 1959.


A shipment of 204,000 fingerling Florida bass was stocked in smaller Upper Otay and then moved to several other area lakes, including Lower Otay. They quickly grew to impressive size, and anglers flocked to the area in search of a fish that might break the long-standing record for largemouth bass, which was set in 1932.

Over the years, Otay has produced some prodigious largemouths. While not breaking the national record, Otay has turned out largemouths weighing more than 18 pounds.

It continues to be a good bass lake, capable of surprising anglers with bass over 10 pounds at any time.

The prime forage base for Otay's bass is threadfin shad and bluegills, with good populations of crappie and a fair number of crayfish as well.

This would seem to make Otay a great crankbait lake, but over the years, soft-plastics have produced most of the big bass.

This trend was so prevalent over the last couple of decades that the lake had a special plastic worm named after it. The Otay Special is a brown translucent worm with a black stripe of vein running its length.

Combinations of solid black, green, brown and blue all work well.

Otay is also a lake where live crayfish are highly popular, and now there's a new wrinkle. Starting last year, trout are being stocked in Otay during the cooler winter months. This is the result of increased funding to the state's trout hatchery system.

The addition of trout also has created an opportunity for anglers to hunt trophy largemouths with the huge plugs and soft-plastic swimbaits designed to mimic planted rainbows.

Troy Folkestad, who guides anglers on many Southern California lakes, is an expert big-bass fisherman.

"In my opinion, you can fish swimbaits successfully even if there are no trout in the lake," said Folkestad, the son of bass tournament champion Mike Folkestad.

"They don't have trout in the trophy-bass lakes in Mexico, and I caught big bass on swimbaits down there."

He said it doesn't matter what the bass think the lure is. To them, it's just bigger prey, and that gets their attention.

"Bass are opportunistic creatures," he said, "and if there's something there that's the right size, they'll eat it. It doesn't matter if it's a crappie, a bluegill, a trout or another bass. If it has the size they are looking for and the right profile to appear alive, they'll eat it."

Folkestad, who is confident with a number of methods and lures on the San Diego lakes, reminded me of another lure that works well on Otay's big bass.

For many years, he has fished so-called Monster Worms, huge 12-inch replicas of night crawlers. These big soft-plastics will get hits from smaller fish, but they excel in getting the attention of really big bass.

Mostly rigged Texas-style, these huge plastic worms work best fished with very little weight. An 1/8-ounce worm weight makes the big worm sink very slowly. You can also fish these big worms on a Carolina Rig to cover a lot of water.

Brown, black, dirty olive and similar grubby earth colors are just the ticket for Otay.

Of course, nobody should visit a prime bass lake like Otay with just big worms and swimbaits. Pig-n-jig setups, using either pork or plastic trailers, are very good for Otay's big bass. These lures imitate crayfish.

Then again, you can also go right to the source and fish live crayfish. If you do, use a slow retrieve to inch a live crayfish through bottom rubble and weeds until it gets the attention of a big bass. Around here, the technique is called "stitchin'."

You can also throw crankbaits on this lake. When the bluegills are nesting, I've scored some good fish using bluegill-patterned crankbaits along the shoreline.

All the finesse techniques of small plastic worms, including drop-shotting, have their place. But by and large, you get a better chance for a trophy fish by throwing the big baits.

Otay isn't a lake that gets a lot of surface action. Boils do happen when bass feeding on shad or other bait at the surface, but overall, expect to fish deeper for the big fish.

Otay Lake used to be open for only part of the year, and then only on selected days. This was the plan for all the San Diego City reservoirs.

It was a carefully thought-out plan to limit the fishing pressure on any one lake, while still leaving one or two open at any time of the year.

But that schedule has changed. It's just one of a number of

changes to the fishing program for the city lakes. Otay is now open year 'round.

Joe Weber, City Lakes Recreation manager, said in November through January, it would be open via the Iron Ranger method of payment. Otherwise, it will be fully manned this spring.

What Weber didn't say is that the Iron Ranger method of opening the lakes is just the tip of the iceberg for change. It is clear that the City Water Department's new director is trying to get the Water Department out of the recreation business.

As things stand now, if the recreation operation is allowed to continue, in the future it will be handled by the Parks and Recreation Department.

There's a small chance that in the future, the City of San Diego's famous lakes may be closed to fishing. It hasn't yet gone that far, but sportsmen should be aware of what could happen if they don't get involved.

For sportsmen fishing San Diego lakes, the other major issue is possible closures and restrictions following the discovery of quagga mussels, an aquatic pest introduced into the U.S. waters from abroad.

These small freshwater mollusks have turned up in Otay as well as several other San Diego area waters. Quagga mussels first invaded the Colorado River system and have apparently moved down the aqueduct from Lake Havasu into Southern California waters. They reproduce quickly, clogging pipes and aqueducts and causing millions of dollars in damage to water systems.

The Department of Fish and Game is putting a number of restrictions in place to combat the movement of these destructive pests. To see how the new regulations affect your fishing, check the DFG's Web site at .

Also check out the city Web site at to see what the City Lakes requires of boaters.

If all that wasn't bad enough, San Diego County's recent round of wildfires burned a bit of the shore at Otay.

"The fire did get the Harvey Arm of the lake, but it had been previously burned during the Cedar Fire of a few years ago, so it didn't do much additional damage," said Weber.

"No structures were damaged, and if we don't get heavy rains, we should be OK."

Reservoir keeper Brian Norris seconded that opinion. He said that the eastern side of the reservoir was burned, but not nearly as badly as four years ago.

Thankfully, the bass fishing remains quite good. Water levels were down a bit in '07, and that slowed the bluegill bite in the tules.

But the bass fishing has held up very well. We got off a good spawn in '05, and that has now produced good numbers of fish.

"I didn't see anything larger than a 12-pound, 9-ounce bass last year," Norris said, although a new lake record was set for blue catfish: A 97-pounder was caught. "Having the lake open in the winter is a plus for the big cat anglers," he said.

This spring, things will be different at Otay because with the year-round fishing, there will no official opening day.

It's a good idea to check Otay fishing reports on Internet fishing sites to see when spring spawning activity begins. Call the city's fishing report hotline at (619) 465-3474.

With all the future problems that might face the bass angler at other San Diego lakes, Otay still remains one of Southern California's outstanding bass lakes.

My regard for Otay is such that more than a quarter century ago, my wife and I spent our wedding night trying to catch a few winks in the back of our pickup truck in the boat line at Otay, waiting for the lake to open so we could go fishing.

Upper and Lower Otay reservoir lie within a 30-minute drive of downtown San Diego, approximately eight miles east of Chula Vista. Upper Otay is a small lake, with only 80 surface acres and is open to float-tubers and shore-anglers only.

Lower Otay is a much larger water, covering 1,200 surface acres, and has a maximum water depth of 137 feet and 25 shoreline miles.

Lower Otay's fish include Florida-strain largemouth bass, black and white crappie, bluegills, channel catfish, blue catfish, white catfish and bullheads. Minimum-size limit for bass is 12 inches.

Fish limits are five bass, five catfish and 25 crappie, with no limit on other species. Fish catch information is updated weekly.

Both private and rental fishing boats may launch. The city charges a $5 fee per angler for fishing, and a $5 launch fee for each boat.

Rowboats are $12 for all-day use; a half-day costs $8. Boats with 5- horsepower motors run $35 for the day, $25 for a half day.

In addition to fishing from boats, anglers can float-tube or fish from shore. All the roadside of the Otay and Harvey Arms and both sides of North Point are accessible by foot.

Use of float tubes is restricted to within 150 feet from shore. Float-tubers must wear chest waders and have a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device readily available at all times, as well as 144 square inches of international orange visible at least 12 inches above the waterline. (A hunter orange ball cap will work just fine.)

They must also possess a horn or whistle to warn approaching craft. Float-tubers will be charged the fishing fee, but not the launch fee.

There are no concession services at this San Diego lake. Anglers should bring their own tackle, bait, gasoline and anything else they may need.

This might change in the future when recreation on the city's lakes becomes the responsibility of the Parks and Recreation Department.

A California state resident's fishing license costs $38.85. A non-resident license is $104.40. There are short-term licenses available for out-of-state visitors, and residents may start off with a one-day license for $12.60.

The two-day license is $19.45, and a 10-day license costs the same as an annual license -- $38.85.

There are barbecues and picnic tables in the picnic area. Patrons can bring self-contained barbecues for use in designated areas only. No ground fires or glass containers are allowed.

Overnight camping is not allowed at Lower Otay. The nearest camping is two miles away at Thousand Trails, or abo

ut five miles away at Sweetwater and Bonita county parks.

For reservations at these county parks, call (619) 565-3600.

The nearby communities of Chula Vista, National City and Imperial Beach have all services.

The reservoir's operating schedule now runs year 'round. Anglers can check an informative Web site at or you can call the San Diego City Lake fishing information recording at (619) 465-3474 or 3475.

Contact the City Water Office at (619) 668-2030.

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