Another factor that has helped the bass to thrive in San Diego's lakes is the abundance of forage fish — mostly shad and bluegill — which the bass eat. Bass fishermen talk a lot about the fertility of San Diego's lakes, by which they mean the entire food chain, from microscopic organisms through the forage fish to the bass and finally the ultimate predators, fishermen.
The fertility of San Diego's lakes didn't happen by chance. Almost any bass fisherman in the county will tell you it is the work of Larry Bottroff, a biologist with the department of fish and game, The soft-spoken man has been working with the freshwater fish in San Diego since the mid-Sixties, and has established a rapport with the local fishermen that fish and game personnel throughout the state rarely have.
On any Saturday Bottroff can be seen at one of the lakes in the county inspecting the fishermen's catches, measuring and weighing the fish, looking for the clipped fins that identify a fish he has previously captured by electro-fishing — a technique which temporarily stuns the fish while he marks and measures them, In this way he is able to determine the total number of fish in a lake. "Warm-water fishing in San Diego is at its peak right now," he says, "because the water level in the lakes is high and has been stable for four or five years.... Of all warmwater fishing [bass, catfish, perch] the greatest angling pressure by far is on the bass. Yet the take is low compared to the total number of fish." Otay, for example has 40,000 to 50,000 bass, but only thirty or forty percent are caught each year, ensuring a steady population without stocking the lake with planted fish.
The local bass fishermen credit Bottroff with the healthy fish population, and say he has done a lot to educate them on the proper way to take care of it. Many of the local fisherrnen exercise more restraint on themselves than does the state: for example, the use of only artificial baits and the releasing of fish less than thirteen inches in length, neither of which is required by state fish and game laws, "Most bass fishermen," Mike Kennedy says, "realize that with all the technological equipment made available to us in the last few years it wouldn't be long before there weren't any fish left to catch. That's why most of us practice a catch-and-release philosophy."
But Bottroff admits to having some doubts about the catch-and-release philosophy, particularly in bass fishing tournaments in which the fishermen are constantly releasing their smallest fish as they catch larger ones. "The mortality rate of the fish is high," he says, "In the summer. when the water is warrn, it may be as high as seventy percent. The handli ng of the fish destroys the protective membrane which covers their body and allows bacteria and fungus to infect the fish, Sometimes within a few minutes the infection shows up as a reddened discoloration around the fish's gills and fins. Once it has begun, this will almost certainly kill the fish." He doesn't consider this to be a serious problem yet. "Even if they released all the fish they caught, there wouldn't be a significant impact on the total fish population, But why waste good fish? If the fish are going to die anyway, why not give them away? The fish and game laws say there will be no wasting of the resource, What we have to do is decide what constitutes waste."
Bottroff has been telling the fishermen to use aerated live wells in their boats, to add an antibiotic formu», to reduce infections, to minimize the handling of the fish, and even to add ice to the live wells in the summer. And he says the local fisherrnen have been cooperative, But as word of the excellent bass fishing in San Diego has spread to Los Angeles and Orange counties, the area has been flooded with nonlocal fishermen. "Sometimes they're uncooperative," Bottroff says, "They release too many fish. Some of the locals aren't too happy about it."
"They're just a bunch of freeway fisherrnen," one local says, "and they fish just like they drive the freeways — no courtesy."
Bass fishermen, unlike bass, are not solitary hunters, In fact, they are a surprisingly sociable bunch. There are fifteen bass-fishing clubs in the county, with anywhere from twenty to fifty members each, They frequently hold tournaments among themselves and in competition with other clubs; but they are also beginning to realize there are enough of them to have an economic and political impact, and for this reason the clubs have recently organized under the San Diego Council of Bass Fisherrnen. They are interested in seeing that the water level in San Diego's reservoirs is kept high enough to maintain a healthy bass population, that speedboats and water skiers are kept off the lakes, and that whatever else they feel will benefit bass fishing in the county is given consideration.
Every year the bass fishing clubs get together for the event of the year: the Bill Wade Memorial Tournament. Bill Wade, who died in 1980, is considered by many to be the father of bass fishing in San Diego. He helped organize the original bass club in the county, Pisces, and was instrumental in bringing the Florida strain to our local lakes. The tournament bearing his name is also called the "top-six" because the participants are limited to the top six fisherrnen from each club, based on their standings in tournament fishing that year. The ninety best bass fishermen in the county — from clubs such as the Hidden Valley Bass Masters, the San Diego Strokers, the Ramona Bass Anglers, the Road Rangers, the Bass Pros, the Bass Company, and the North County Bass Busters — take this tournament very seriously. It's considered an honor just to qualify for the tournament, like being in the baseball All-Star game, and for the team that wins it...well, for the next twelve months, whenever they tell a fish story, the other clubs will have to listen.