September 29, 2010
In the last three years this tiny southern California reservoir has produced three bass in the Top 16 of all time. Now, big-bass experts Mike Long, Jed Dickerson and Mac Weakley tell how they fish San Diego's star lake.
By Mike Bennett
When fishing for big bass in southern California, many anglers speak of Castaic Lake, Lake Casitas, San Vicente Reservoir or Lake Perris. These are fabled waters where double-digit bass wait near every point or piece of structure to inhale the first passing bait. At times, each of these waters have been singled out by top bass anglers as "the next lake" to kick out a world-record largemouth bass.
But a tiny unknown, a 70-acre lake off the I-5 Freeway just north of Escondido, has been suddenly hurled from obscurity to the top of the world-record-watch list. How? By kicking out three of the biggest 25 bass ever landed by sport anglers, and all within the last three years.
This "new" water is actually an old lake that until April 2001 had been overlooked by many big-bass fanatics since the 1970s, Dixon Lake.
It all started on April 27, 2001 when Poway resident Mike Long landed a trophy 20-pound, 12-ounce bass, which he released after having it weighed on a certified scale.
While Dixon was unknown among the masses at the time, it wasn't luck when Long caught that fish, which at the time became the 8th largest bass ever caught by a sport angler. (It now ranks 9th.) "Back then we pretty much had that lake to ourselves," said Long, a dedicated big-bass expert. "We spotted that bass on a Saturday, but when I approached she took off." From that day on Long or one of his fishing partners fished Dixon every day and checked the area for sign of the big female. Nearly a week later, on a Friday, the fish was back and willing to bite. To this day it is Long's only largemouth bass over 20 pounds, but is one of 251 fish he has landed over 10 pounds.
Since Long's 20.75-pounder, Dixon has kicked out many bass in the 10- to 15-pound range - big fish, but not quite world-class fish.
The fourth largest bass ever caught and recorded by an angler is Jed Dickerson's 21.69-pounder from Dixon Lake. Photo courtesy of Mike Long
That would change two years later.
Fast forward to May 23, 2003 when Carlsbad angler Mac Weakley caught and released a 19.44-pound bass. Once again, tiny Dixon Lake gained national attention, and it wasn't finished yet. A week and a day later, Weakley's friend and fishing partner, Jed Dickerson, also of Carlsbad, landed an even bigger bass that now ranks as the fourth-largest ever caught by a sport angler.
Dickerson had spotted the huge fish the day before he caught it. The big female was holding tight to a nest in about 15 feet of water off a point near the boat dock. The next day, Dickerson, eager to top Weakley's catch, tried coaxing the big fish into biting, but the fish wasn't on the nest. He checked a hole in a nearby weed bed, and there she sat in the company of a large male.
After many casts with a Mission Fish swimbait, Dickerson hooked and landed the big female, all 21.69 pounds of her. The basketball-shaped bass, which was officially weighed at 21 pounds, 11.2 ounces, was taken near the point in Boat Dock Cove around 6:45 a.m.
Dickerson's fish was within 6/100s of an ounce shy of the official California record, Mike Arujo's 21.75-pound Lake Castaic bass, and just a tad more than a half-pound off George Perry's venerable 72-year-old world record of 22 pounds, 4 ounces.
As Long was taking photographs of Dickerson's catch, he noticed a birthmark-like spot under the eye of Dickerson's bass. He pulled out photos of his catch from two years earlier and his bass had identical markings. Long sent a scale sample to Oregon to the same person who examined the scale of his fish, and the ensuing analysis proved it was the same fish.
"When I caught her they aged her at 11 years," said Long. "When Jed caught her she was 13. A bass will peak weight-wise at 15 years old and live to be up to 25 years old. It is proof catch-and-release works."
Dickerson says Lake Dixon anglers understand the importance of C&R: "There is a pretty good understanding between big-bass fishermen at this lake: No matter how big the fish is, release it." Dickerson did exactly that, leaving big-bass aficionados to surmise that Dixon may indeed hold the most promising opportunity for the world record to be broken in the late winter or spring of 2004.
|HUNTING A WORLD-RECORD BASS
While Lake Dixon vaulted to the top of southern California's list as the lake to produce a world-record largemouth, several others continue to make that claim as well.
Many anglers believe Castaic Lake or its Lower Lagoon are most likely to break George Perry's 72-year-old record. Castaic is where Bob Crupi landed the second- and sixth-largest bass of all time, both over 21 pounds, and Mike Arujo landed a 21.75-pounder, which is No. 3 of all time. Seemingly countless bass from 10 to 15 pounds are caught at Castaic each year.
Lake Casitas annually yields dozens of bass over 12 pounds each year, and Randy Crabtree caught a 19.5-pounder in April 2002. This lake is a swimbait fisherman's paradise -- that's what Crabtree used -- and three-fish limits of 40 or more pounds are not uncommon single-day catches.
Many San Diego-area lakes are also primed for producing record fish. San Vicente, Poway, Miramar and Murray receive trout plants every winter, and all have lake records of over 15 pounds.
Lake Perris in Riverside County should not be overlooked. Over the past 10 years it has kicked out several fish over 15 pounds.
Some of the highest hopes for a southern California world record bass fall on a new jewel-- Diamond Valley Reservoir. Designed as a bass fisherman's paradise, DV has thousands of man-made structures. The fishery got a huge kick-start from an extensive bass-rearing program as the lake was b
eing filled. Food sources include crawdads, shiners, shad, bluegill and rainbow trout. Prior to DV's inaugural opening in October, bass to 10 pounds were caught during population studies.
Most experts believe the lake is four or five years away from producing world-class bass, but one thing it will do immediately is take fishing pressure off other south state waters. -- Mike Bennett
SWIMBAITS SNOOKERED ALL 3 BIG BASS All three of these record catches came off a swimbait. Dickerson and Weakley landed their fish on 8-inch Mission Fish swimbaits. "I have had more luck fishing it slowly, like a worm, rather than swimming the bait," Dickerson offered. "Bouncing these things off rockpiles can be deadly."
Long's swimbait of choice is the Castaic Trout. He says in clear water such as that at Dixon, "the more lifelike the trout the better off you are."
Now that we know that bass in Lake Dixon can reach world-record proportions, let's take a look at how these fish can grow to such an enormous size, and why swimbaits are so effective in targeting them.
The reason bass at Lake Dixon grow so big is rainbow trout, and more specifically, hatchery-raised rainbow trout. Trout are like a greasy double-bacon cheeseburger with large fries and a milk shake to a hungry bass. Dixon's big bass feed almost exclusively on trout during cold-weather months because these slow-swimming, one-shot meals are plentiful. Big bass don't like to compete with smaller, quicker bass as they pounce schools of shad or comb the shorelines for crawdads.
Lake Dixon anglers are trying to land bass over 10 pounds, with 15-pound and bigger fish the actual target. Smaller fish, from 5 to 9 pounds, are much more aggressive than their older and wiser counterparts.
In Dixon's clear water, you can see big bass cruising in 15 feet of water looking for that one- or two-trout meal. This is a bass that wants to get the maximum amount of nutrition for the least amount of energy. This is why bass in California grow as round as they do long. A bass that weights 5 pounds in a lake that does not stock trout, may double its weight if placed into a lake with trout.
DEEP-WATER ACCESS Another factor for the explosive growth of bass at Dixon is that the bass can access deep water. While the lake covers just 70 surface acres, it extends to nearly 80 feet deep. A big bass feels safe in deep water, and will almost always choose a resting place with easy access to the deep blue.
Big bass have gotten big by being around for a long time. In that time they have seen virtually every model of boat, lure, line or hook many times over. Conversely, they spook easily.
Swimbaits range from 4 to 24 inches in length and are most likely patterned after rainbow trout. There are as many styles and designs of swimbaits as there are manufactures that make them. Some swimbaits are made of wood designed to crash along the surface. Many are a soft plastic and can be slowly fished down the contour of a lake's bottom.
Many big-bass anglers won't fish a swimbait that is less than 6 inches long; most prefer swimbaits from 8 to 15 inches. The old adage "big bait, big fish" holds truer for big bass in southern California than most other game fish. A bass in Lake Dixon doesn't get that basketball-like physique streaking all over the shallows expending energy chasing a quicker, more agile prey than trout.
In late fall the Department of Fish and Game starts to stock catchable-size trout from about 7 to 13 inches in length at Dixon and continues stocking them until warming water temperatures prevent their survival the following spring. Once Dixon is given its stocking schedule, it will usually be stocked on the same day of the week, every other week.
When stocked into a lake, trout are disoriented and slow, and an easy meal for hungry bass. For the first or second day after being stocked, trout are acclimating to their new surroundings - an easy target for bass.
In late fall and early winter big bass will hold off breaks or points, usually holding right on the edge of deep water. Then they can ambush a school of trout in shallow water or bolt to the deep if spooked. This ambush point a big bass will use will have easy access to deep water, but remember a big bass will be more than willing to venture into shallow water to chase a school of trout than any other prey.
DEDICATED ANGLERS A lot of big fish are seen almost on a daily basis by the boat docks and the points near it. To be able to land one of these fish is almost impossible in this clear water, and dedication is a must.
Dickerson, Long and Weakley fish multiple times a week. Long fished pretty much every day after spooking his big fish, and she didn't reappear until six days later.
Dickerson fishes every morning through specific moon phases and averages 25 days of fishing per month during the spawn. "I work 'til two in the morning, sleep 'til four, then head out to fish. I would be falling asleep on the drive home, and I live less than 20 minutes away. I would go home and pass out then go back to work and start all over."
The best time to fish a swimbait is in low light conditions such as early morning, evening or in the worst weather possible. A bass will follow your lure all day long on a bright sunny day but usually doesn't strike at it. There is something about a dark, cloudy, drizzly, day that makes a bass smash a trout bait. With a wind chop on the water or rain pounding the lake's surface, the bass doesn't feel like it's having cannon balls launched at it when your swimbait hits the water.
Some anglers blindly cast swimbaits down the Dixon shoreline until they happen upon a big fish. This means they cast to a lot of dead water and only occasionally hit a few prime holding areas. Most big bass are structure oriented and don't make it a habit of showing themselves. Using a quality fish finder will let you locate prime areas where big bass will be lurking and eliminate those that are vacant.
TARGET THE SPAWN In early spring, bass wake up and get ready to start their spawn. This is the time of year that a world-record bass is probable. The bass will bulk up its weight to get ready to spawn.
When the first males start to come shallow to clear nests for the females to spawn on, the females hold in deeper water and feed voraciously to put on some last-minute weight. So while most anglers pound the shallows sight-fishing for smaller male bass, you want to be fishing a swimbait on that deeper water where she will be holding.
In spring, and as late as June, the big females will move up to guard the nest the male built. "You want to get to the big females just as they start to guard a nest and before the male has them all tied up," suggests Long.
A smaller fish's nest will be as shallow as a couple of feet, but a big bass usually spawns in 10 to 20 feet of water, depending on how clear the water is.
A bass doesn't really eat at this time, but she will strike at anything she sees as a danger to her nest. This is when a good pair of polarized glasses becomes necessary at Lake Dixon. Being able to spot a lunker in 15 to 20 feet of water is nearly impossible without them.
When you finally spot that lunker, it will look like a submarine. Take a deep breath and cast that big swimbait well past the fish and retrieve it slowly toward the nest. Bring it to a rest on top of the nest and let it sit there. If she retreats to deeper water, remember where that nest is and return to it later in the day.
If she sticks around, that's the first victory. She may ignore the swimbait, but don't move it at all. After a few minutes give the rod tip just enough jiggle to slightly move the bait. Try to keep the lure in the same place but at the same time vibrate it or get it to kick its tail just a little.
This may be all that's required and she may stuff it in her mouth to remove it violently from the nest. Or she may still just sit there.
Don't move the bait at all - for a minute, five minutes, 20 minutes, whatever it takes. This will get a big female very antsy. She has seen many lures dragged across her nest over the last week. It might not happen one day, but sooner or later, maternal instincts will direct her to smash the intruder as hard as she can. That's when you can finally set the hook and land the fish of a lifetime.
Remember: A large female produces the genetics for large offspring. A bass removed from a nest for an extended amount of time leaves the nest open to raiding from bluegill or other predators.
A digital hand scale will tell you if that bass is a 15-pounder; boat shrinkage is a very real phenomenon, as all big females in the water look like 20-pounders. But with any bass at this time, the Dixon scenario should go: catch, photograph, weigh and release. That's what the pros at Dixon have done with all of their trophies, and they've got the world-class lineage to show for it.
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