This young lake might be the state's best location for big bass. (May 2010)
Southern California's largest fishing hole is only six years old and doesn't even show up on some maps. But bass anglers are having no trouble finding what is rapidly becoming known as one of the most productive fishing lakes in the state.
Photo by Ernie Cowan.
Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet was opened in late 2003 after a massive construction effort to build three dams enclosing two mountain ranges. What was once a huge cattle ranch is now an angler's paradise covering 4,500 surface acres and more than 26 miles of varied shoreline.
Thirsty Southern California needed the lake as a major domestic water storage facility, but the planners at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California also had visions of a world-class fishery. As earth was being moved to create the dams, California Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist Mike Giusti was moving mountains of brush piles and tending a small pond holding 217 largemouth bass that would seed the lake when it started to fill in 2000. Rising lake waters flooded the 80-acre pond in a dusty corner of the lake basin and the 217 bass had a new world to populate.
By the time the lake was opened to fishing in October 2003, there had been four spawning seasons and the bass population had exploded far beyond Giusti's expectations. Growth rates were also exceptional due to the combination of highly nutrient soil, excellent habitat and a balanced food chain. Bass that were put into the small rearing pond weighing between 2 and 8 pounds were now being caught at 10 to 15 pounds. It quickly became obvious that DVL was something special.
In only six fishing seasons, anglers are now regularly catching five-fish bass limits weighing 20 to 25 pounds. The DVL bass record stands at 16.43 pounds and Giusti expects to see bass to 20 pounds very soon.
"We are seeing exceptional growth rates and I think we will continue to see the lake developing for another 10 years until it reaches its peak," Giusti said.
The lake's varied aquatic habitat has also been a boon to many other species. Shallow coves and points are favorites for bass success, the lake's deep water offers good action for lake trout, and if you get bored you can always go after striped bass, smallmouth bass, catfish and panfish. Unlike most Southern California lakes, the 100,000 subcatchable rainbow trout stocked initially at DVL have become a breeding population.
What was once the Domenigoni cattle and dairy ranch is now a fishing Shangri La located within two hours of about 12 million people. The lake is accessible from the north by taking Interstate 215 south to the Highway 74 east exit. The highway name will change to Florida Avenue. Continue east on Florida and then right on Sanderson Avenue to Domenigoni Parkway. A left run on Domenigoni to Searl Parkway to a right turn to the lake entrance.
From the south, take Interstate 15 north to Interstate 215 and the Newport Road exit. Take Newport east and it will become Domenigoni Parkway. Continue east to Searl and a right turn at the lake entrance.
If you need that new bass rod, last minute advice or just want a room full of fishing fanatics to swap lies with, make the Last Chance Tackle Shop in Hemet your last stop before heading to the lake. Owner Dan Merchant is also a bass hunter and knows what's working. He stocks the old reliable lures and baits as well as the hot new bling that the eager bass hunter can't wait to try. Don't forget the Marina store that also stocks a good selection of lures and always has the latest information on the catch. A weekly fishing report is posted on the marina website at www.dvmarina.com.
And I know there's always a flurry of activity as you are getting ready to leave the dock, but don't forget to take a few minutes to chat with the landing staff. I found boat operators Melissa Eichmann and Louie Vega to be incredible sources of right-now fishing information. They see the fish being brought in daily and hear the first-hand stories of the fish caught and the big ones that got away.
There will be more than the normal level of interest in the spring spawning season at DVL this year. Low water levels closed the launch ramp in October 2008 and limited lake access to the small fleet of available rental boats. Essentially DVL had a one-year hiatus, giving bass another season of undisturbed growth. Nobody knows what this spring will bring, but anticipation is high.
One of those anxious anglers and an acknowledged DVL expert is Art Berry. He spends about 300 days a year on the water as a fishing guide and knows the lake intimately. Along with his knowledge from the surface of the lake, Berry walked the dry valley before it was filled with water and has a top-to-bottom view of what both fish and angler consider important. Biologist Giusti created piles of structure at every level before the lake was filled, and Berry knows where they are and how to fish them.
"There are brush piles all over the bottom of the lake and no matter how the water level fluctuates the fish will still have good spawning areas and protected travel routes," Berry said.
Berry used to live about 90 miles to the south in San Diego and frequently made the drive to DVL, but soon decided he needed to be closer. He now lives right across the street.
"I've fished all over the world and I have never seen a more perfect fishing lake. If I had to pick one place to guide, there is not a place in the country better than Diamond Valley," Berry said.
He attributes the rapid growth and quality of DVL bass to abundant food and the highly nutrient soil.
"It's a lot like deer hunting in a good area where the deer grow huge antlers. A lot of that is because of the minerals in the soil." Berry said.
Not only is DVL a world class bass lake according to Berry, it is also the perfect Bass 101 lake because it offers plenty of action for anyone learning how to fish.
"There is nothing worse than taking a kid out and he just sits there all day waiting for something to happen. That doesn't happen at DVL. There is always something biting," Berry said.
But it's the bass fishing that excites Berry who had a recent year where he caught 68 bass over 8 pounds. Action like that will rank right up there with any lake in the world. He also holds the DVL record for striped bass with a 29.77-pound striper caught in 2005 at the East Dam using a swimbait.
He thinks the spring bass bite this yea
r at DVL could be outstanding.
"With the fishing pressure way down for the last year and lots of vegetation growing on the banks, it could be like fishing a new lake as water levels begin to rise. There will be lots of available food and plenty of places for fry to hide," Berry said.
Bass fishing at Diamond Valley Lake is also unique because it has become a sustainable fishery. Because of the excellent habitat and food balance, bass fishing at DVL is not just a spring and early summer event either. While the hawg hunters traditionally head to the water for the spring spawn, Berry said DVL has at least two bass fishing seasons.
Spring and early summer is a time when lots of bass can be caught because of the spawning frenzy. Mountains surrounding the lake can be carpeted with wildflowers, and mild weather creates an idyllic environment for the bass hunter. Relatively clear lake water makes sight fishing especially attractive and it just comes down to knowing where and how.
Guide Berry said bass fishermen will do well if they work the main points of land that sink into the lake because spawning bass often hang on these points. Depending on conditions, the bass will rise and drop along the underwater ridgelines. Spring is a great time to sight cast because the clear water lets anglers see the spawning hawgs quite well.
Wind can also be one of the big-bass hunters best weapons, because it will churn the water and cause the fish to move closer to the surface to see food, especially in the afternoons. The wind also cuts down on the sound made by fishermen and helps anglers successfully approach lure-wary bass.
"A lot of fishermen don't understand that these fish are very aware of their surroundings and are very smart and quickly recognize when something isn't right." Berry said. "The bass love it when it's windy and they move up on the lake points to feed."
He says many anglers have no concept of stealth and simply motor right to a good spot and begin casting. The successful bass fisherman will use the wind to mask their presence, approach from up wind, cast with the wind at their back for longer tosses and let the wind drift them over an area they want to fish.
"The biggest bass will come when you first hit the area," Berry said. "Once they catch on to the fact that you are there, you might as well move on to the next place."
Because of the relatively clear water, Berry also suggests using the lightest line possible. One of his most popular spring rigs is a 4-inch plastic worm with a very light drop shot on 4 to 6-pound line. No matter whom you talk to at DVL, the Senko and Yamamoto names of lures are often mentioned. Dan Merchant at Last Chance Tackle says a Senko in watermelon red flake and any of the Yamamoto soft plastic lures fly-lined on 5- to 10-pound line are an excellent spring choices at DVL. As warmer summer temperatures arrive, the bass fishing at DVL shifts to top water baits such as shad pattern poppers.
Chris Nickerson of Hemet said DVL is always good when fished with a Carolina rig, but he has what he calls a "secret" lure that slams the bass during the spring bite. It consists of a scrounger head or lead head jig rigged with a split-tail soft plastic fluke in a pattern that duplicates the color of shad baitfish.
There may be daily variations as to the hot spots, but there are also areas that regularly produce excellent bass fishing.
Lake boat operator Melissa Eichmann said she sees anglers having the best success in the morning and late afternoon. The dependable spring bass hotspots include areas around the lake's water inlet tower, the rock quarry, the small saddle dam on the north shore and behind the island in Rawson Cove where shallow water creates ideal bass spawning grounds. Spring and summer hotspots also focus around the south corner of the east dam, and at "Art Berry Point," the first main point on the north side of the lake west of the boat docks.
Once summer slows most bites down, DVL fishermen don't have to put the bass gear away and in fact can anticipate some huge fish at times when most bass hunters at other lakes would be surprised.
"There are eight or nine months out of the year when you can catch all of the bass 10 pounds and under you want," Berry said. "But there are also peak periods when you can catch larger fish, and I'm talking about the bass of a lifetime."
The successful bass fisherman at DVL understands that the hawgs don't feed the same way as smaller bass, and knows how to fish to those differences. The spring bite is obviously one of those peak times, but any DVL veteran will tell you that November through March can also produce some monster bucket mouths.
"December is when the bass are putting on their weight and they are in a feeding frenzy, feeding on stocked trout," Berry said.
During this time, fishermen using swimbait lures simulating trout patterns will find this a good choice for landing a trophy bass. What DVL has become is an all-season fishery, offering just about every kind of freshwater fishing opportunity from the monster hawg trophy fish to the aggressive trout and good eating panfish.
In addition the largemouth bass and striper records, Keith Thomas holds the lake crappie record with a 3-pound fish taken with a shad. Michael Wolf of Redondo Beach holds the record with a monster bluegill weighing 3.45 pounds taken with TroutKrilla at the rock quarry, and Jason Walsh made the short hop from Temecula in 2008 to land a 42.56-pound lake record catfish with an LA Slider at the inlet tower. The lake trout record is a 15.45 rainbow taken by Andrew Aralos of Hemet with PowerBait near the east dam.
The opening of the extended boat launch ramp in December has returned Diamond Valley Lake to public access. While there are 35 motorboats and 10 rowboats available for rent, a lake that spans more than 4 miles in length and 2 miles in width, can handle hundreds of additional boats and fishing pressure.
This is a boater's lake. There is a small portion of the north shore just west of the boat docks available for to shore anglers, but to really access this giant lake a boat is a must.
Whether Diamond Valley Lake is on your map or not, it should be on your radar as one of Southern California's most exciting fishing destinations with expectations that it will only get better in the years ahead.