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'If the water level is low, the fish are more concentrated, but only for a short period of time," says Tim Douglass, assistant reservoir keeper for Lake Hodges, which is currently 76 percent full. "Right before the rains [in 2005] came, the fishing was considered slow here. After the rains, we came up 50 feet in one month, and it was still slow. Now that the reservoir's maintained its level, we've had a second solid spawn of bass." The fishing season began in February and runs through October. Water levels at some of the county's lakes and reservoirs have been drastically reduced as a result of scant precipitation, evaporation, and drafting (the process of drawing water out of the lake for purposes of filtration). This condition, according to lakes program supervisor Nelson Manville, "might mean better fishing, but, environmentally, it would be better if [the reservoirs] were more full; the fish would be healthier, less stressed, and there would be more fish for people long term. When Lake Murray gets drawn down, the fish are bumping into each other."

El Capitan, located on the San Diego River east of Lakeside, is the county's largest reservoir, with a capacity of 112,807 acre-feet, 1562 surface acres, and a depth of 197 feet. An acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons. "Right now, it's storing 39,148 acre-feet [less than 35 percent of capacity], and it changes every week -- we're drafting 9.5 million gallons a day and lost 204 acre-feet in one week. That changed our gauge by .29 of a foot, or three to four inches. In a big reservoir, you start talking a foot gone, and that's a hell of a lot of water."

The Lake Murray Reservoir, located near La Mesa, has a maximum depth of 95 feet. In the early 1990s, the reservoir was drawn "20 to 30 feet at a time" in order to eradicate the invasive Hydrilla verticillata weed. This weed grows an inch a day and infests and destroys freshwater ecosystems by covering the surface of a lake or river and blocking sunlight from native aquatic plants. It can also alter water chemistry and oxygen levels. "When we finished drafting in 1993, we had 30 feet left," says Manville.

Theresa Deaett says the water level doesn't seem to affect her fishing at Lake Cuyamaca. "The biggest differences I notice are during a full moon -- the fish have light and eat all night long. When they're not hungry in the daytime, the catch goes down," she says, adding that water temperature and barometric pressure changes also influence the fish. The small lake has 110 surface acres and an average depth of 10 feet. "You could fit 40 to 50 Lake Cuyamacas into El Capitan," says Manville.

Manville prefers higher elevations and more surface area for fishing and stresses the long-term benefits of higher levels. "When the levels are too low, there's no growth of aquatic weeds, which give baby fish something to hide in. When fish are able to spread out, they grow better. Every fish grows in relation to the size of what it's in. The bigger a lake is, the better the fishery will do."

In addition to working at Lake Hodges, Douglass is a sea captain on large fishing boats. "The lake is more of a controlled environment," says Douglass. "You don't have swells, and there's more shoreline, so if you have a problem, you can get to a shoreline quickly. Lighter equipment is less expensive. A saltwater rod is stiffer and heavier and starts at $70. A freshwater rod can be as low as $9.99." Douglass prefers the variety, taste, and fight of fish in the ocean but knows that many anglers prefer freshwater fish, like bass, trout, crappie, and catfish. "Certain people love to catch a certain kind of fish, and that's all."

Between 2003 and 2004, Lake Hodges was at 17 percent water capacity. "This affected fishing," says reservoir keeper Conway Bowman. "It was strictly shore fishing. People couldn't launch their boats. The lake was only in the main basin." The only boats allowed on the water during that time were "car-top" boats, or those that could be strapped to a car, like a kayak or small aluminum boat.

Many lakes have reported growth in the size of fish in the past decade, which may be due to the growing trend of "catch and release" rather than "catch and keep." According to Bowman, Lake Hodges sells about 200 permits a day, and a good catch number is 800 to 1000 bass. In March of last year, the world record for largest bass caught was broken when Carlsbad resident Mac Weakley caught a 25-pounder at Dixon Lake in Escondido. The fish was released back into the lake.

"If someone catches a large female largemouth bass, from 12 to 20 pounds, and keeps it, a lot of bass anglers look down on that person," says Bowman. "That large bass is going to lay a lot of eggs, carrying on the life span of the next generation of bass." -- Barbarella

Fishing Season at San Diego's Lakes and Reservoirs Information on locations, prices, dates, and more: www.sdfish.com

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