Southern California lakes will continue to merit their national reputations as top-notch bass fisheries.
Southern California rivals Florida and Texas as the best largemouth bass fishing region in the country. A year-round growing season, coupled with exceptional forage and favorable weather conditions keep most reservoirs from Bakersfield to Mexico in prime candidacy to pump out some of the country's largest fish.
The question on most bass anglers mind is, "What does the 2011 season have in store for the Golden State's fisheries?" According to Mike Giusti, supervising regional biologist for the California Department of Fish & Game, anglers can expect more of the same. While a few reservoirs might surprise anglers this spring, traditional powerhouses will continue to stand tall.
"Things aren't going to change much in Southern California this year. The biggest thing affecting the bass has been the drought. We've had about a five-year drought period that's reduced water levels and fish in most lakes," notes Giusti. "You'll probably see fewer fish in most reservoirs, but generally on the larger size. You aren't going to see as many in the 12-inch range, because the reduced water levels reduces the number of fish you can support. Generally, when this happens the larger prey on the smaller fish."
Giusti's scientific approach holds true but, he believes, for the most part, most anglers won't see a difference in fish populations. According to Giusti, there are a few reservoirs that will thrive, even while many other waters struggle with drought conditions.
"Places like Hodges should be pretty good and El Capitan and Otay Reservoir should be okay because they aren't affected as much by drought," he says. "Diamond Valley has suffered and so has Perris, because of the low water, but there's still some nice bass in both."
Record Fish Chances
Southern California anglers are conditioned to drought. In fact, these conditions are present most of the time. Still, the region expects to hear chatter of world record fish, but that's not entirely likely this year, Giusti predicts. There's always a surprise factor, he says, but per electro-fishing operations, recent studies and the death of a few extremely large, older fish from SoCal reservoirs in the last five years, a new world record isn't likely to be caught this spring.
"You never know if we'll see a record fish. With quagga mussels in waters now I don't know what we are going to see with record fish. These mussels are taking the nutrients out of the water and they are also taking out some of the productivity. This means there will be less food, less shad, etc., which makes it harder to get trophy fish."
Meanwhile, there remains an outside chance that a world record bass could have swam under the radar in recent years -- and might show this spring.
"You always have a possibility at Casitas, but that fishery has gone downhill lately. Diamond Valley is getting close to the point where we could see that, too," notes Giusti. "Poway and Dixon are a possibility, but we haven't seen those big fish the last few years. They may have been fished out or have died off. Those lakes didn't have a large number of fish, just some large fish. And, once they caught that one big near-world record fish a few years back, those places got hammered."
So where are Giusti's sleeper fisheries this spring? While he's high on most of the larger San Diego reservoirs, he cautions the masses not to overlook Silverwood. A quality trophy striper fishery for the past decade, Giusti says Silverwood's bass are gaining ground in SoCal and should show their merit this year.
"The size and quality of fish is there, but the numbers aren't changing much," Giusti says. "You are getting a lot of 2- and 3-pound fish and a lot of fish in the teens."
Giusti has been working on Silverwood's recovery since 1998. Prior to '98, the reservoir was drained to near empty when work was done on the dam. As it was refilled, per the California aqueduct, the CA DFG tossed in 2,000 largemouth bass from San Diego County's Otay Reservoir. These fish ran 2 to 13 pounds and are the reason the fishery has recovered.
"We tried to recover the fishery about a year after they refilled it and while the numbers of bass aren't huge, it's been successful," explains Giusti. "The numbers are still down, but what's surviving is getting to a quality size. And, it's one of those places that doesn't get much pressure."
Diamond Valley Reservoir
In the previous two years, water levels have risen at Diamond Valley Reservoir. Meanwhile, the fishery won't reflect this for a few years. DVR should be status quo this year, with plenty of big bass available.
"If water levels stay stable, we'll be fine, but either way we'll have good fishing," says CA DFG Biologist Quinn Granfors. "But increased water would be very good for the fisheries if we can get the reservoir to rise again this year."
Still, DVR is much lower than it was five years ago. Fortunately, the reservoir was raised 12 feet in November of 2009 and 45-50 feet in 2010. That roughly 60-foot increase in two years has improved recruitment and the bass' ability to survive through the winter months.
"The higher water level is going to space fish out a lot more, not only in depth, but also in the perimeter of the lake. They won't be as concentrated as they have in the past," adds Granfors. "The increase in water is more long-term. It takes these fish two to three years to become legal size, or 12 inches, so we won't see a big difference in the fishery until at least 2012, but hope for more water. The more water, the bigger carrying capacity in the lake."
Even though long-term effects won't be seen for several years, anglers can expect to find trophy bass available this spring. Diamond Valley continues to keep pace as a great place to land bass greater than 10 pounds.
"We'll see more of the same with size, but I'm hoping for more double digit fish this spring," notes Granfors. "Big fish have always been here and they are still here."
The biggest item to effect DVR's bass is the explosion of the striper fishery. With anglers reporting an average teetering on 10 pounds, the stripers have been eating much of the bass' food source and are heavily competing with them. If you are a bass angler, keep your limit of 10 stripers or the fishery many suffer further.
"It's increased competition for food. And, it's another predator that's praying on small
bass too," says Granfors. "I'd say it has a slightly negative effect on the bass, but the thing with stripers is people have figured out how many are in here and are learning how to catch them. If people are catching that many stripers and taking them home, it'll help the bass fishery but, if they throw them back, it's not great for the bass fishery."
Granfors will go as far as saying Lake Skinner is the most underrated fishery in Southern California. While studies are still preliminary, the CA DFG believes gobies, an invasive species, is responsible for the growth in the bass population. Unlike the gobies found in the Great Lakes, these Shimofuri gobies originate in Japan and have entered the reservoir through the San Francisco Bay, via the aqueduct system.
"I had someone call me and claim they were catching baby snakeheads out there and it turned my internal alarm on. I went to Skinner and figured out they were gobies, actually," explains Granfors. "I'm thinking the bass are eating the gobies. I don't have proof, though. I haven't done any stomach analysis on it, but it's a good hypothesis."
Unlike many Southern California reservoirs, Skinner has seen a size increase in it's catfish, panfish and bass in recent years. That is expected to improve again this year yet, for some reason, anglers still haven't taken to the fishery.
"I think Skinner is a great bass fishery that no one pays attention to. It's totally underrated," Granfors adds. "The average bass in there is about 3 to 4 four pounds. The stripers look kind of pathetic, though. They are kinda skinny. In recent years the bluegill fishery has done really well and the bass will feed on them where the stripers won't, so it's another good sign for the bass fishery."
A decade ago, Perris would be one of the better reservoirs to target during the spring. Nonetheless, this fishery isn't among the state's best anymore. On the other hand, Perris still boasts a solid population of quality fish. The culprit continues to be low water. The reservoir was lowered drastically several years ago to do repairs, but a delayed environmental impact report is holding water levels from being replenished. It's likely the reservoir won't be coming up in 2011, period.
"I think the fishery will start coming back a little bit. The numbers of bass have dropped though," says CA DFG Fisheries Biologist Ben Ewing. "A lot of the east end is still high and dry and that's where the bass used to go spawn. There's a lack of spawning habitat right now."
Fortunately, Perris still maintains a stable population of older bass.
"We are seeing mostly older fish. We don't see a lot of the smaller stuff anymore," adds Ewing. "We had a 42-pound weigh-in last year in a tournament, so there's still plenty of quality fish available. And, it's getting plenty of trout, so I'm sure those bass are enjoying that."
Moving south, Jennings is another wild card. This tiny San Diego fishery has the ability to pump out the largest bass on the West Coast, yet suffers from extremely clear water and line-shy fish.
"Last year was just terrible! We didn't have a double-digit bass caught last season, but we saw them every day," says Jennings lake manager Hugh Marx. "We have the toughest bass to catch in the state of California and definitely some of the biggest. Part of the problem is we have 20- to 30-foot visibility."
Because of strict guidelines from the water district, Jennings' bass anglers are always going to be facing adversity, yet monster bass will be available.
"I suspect that since most of our fisherman use 4-, 6- and 8-pound test and they hook one of those big females, they'll get broken off for sure," says Marx, noting that in 2009, Mike Long caught a 19-pound bass that's still in the reservoir. "She's probably 20-21 pounds now. Once they get that big and old they don't necessarily put on that much weight every year."
Still, one of the best fisheries in the West, Lake Casitas has fallen some from the pedestal it stood atop a few short years back. Casitas remains packed with quality bass, but the number of trophy fish (those greater than 10 pounds) is receding, says Jon Lopez of Lake Casitas Boat Rentals.
"Most anglers still think there's some big fish out here, just not as many as there used to be," Lopez says. "We've been seeing a lot of 12-pound fish that look like they have eight-pound heads."
There's several factors contributing to Castias' incremental pullback. With the CA DFG no longer planting trout, a massive portion of the big bass' diet is absent. In a reservoir that used to receive more than 50,000 rainbows a year, the pulling of the allotment hurts and will continue to affect the fishery.
"A lot of guys think that the doubling of the carp population is hurting the bass, and they are stocking so fewer trout that it's hurt the bass population," notes Lopez, who mentioned a few 13-pound bass were caught in 2010. "I believe there's bigger fish in here. I saw some that were close to 15 in the water, but I haven't seen one caught that big in a while. There's just not enough food for the big bass to eat. Think about it. I'm sure you'd have to eat 100 shad to equal a single trout."
From the professional side of things, former Angler of the Year Randy McAbee is banking on Lake Isabella as the southern part of the state's best bass fishery -- when it comes to big bass. McAbee landed several bass greater than 10 pounds in 2010 and believes 2011 will be much better due to higher water levels and good water quality.
"Isabella has been great for a long time, but guys don't want to tow their boats up there, so they pass on it," McAbee says. "But for those dropping jigs off the face of the dam and around the islands and humps, there's some big, big bass out there."