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RECREATION : The Big Mouths That Roared : Country’s Largest Bass Throw Their Weight Around at Lake Casitas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until 15 years ago, everything was very peaceful for the residents of Lake Casitas. Swim a bit. Munch on a few shad or crawdads. Dodge an occasional angler’s lure. Spawn a lot.

The easy life.

And then those big mouths from Florida showed up!

The next thing the locals knew, a few rainbow trout were missing. And the shad and crawdads were acting more nervous than usual. And then the anglers came. Bass anglers, the ones with the 16-foot boats and roaring 200-horsepower engines. And the tackle boxes the size of footlockers.

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“This lake was a pretty routine kind of place until then,” said Randy King, the manager of the Ventura County lake’s boat-rental service, who has worked at the lake for 25 years. “Some decent fishing, but nothing special.

“Then they put those 300 Florida largemouth bass in here, and they just took over.”

Florida. Brings to mind certain images. Beaches. Cars being driven slowly and erratically with only the top of a head sticking above the steering wheel. Lots of people like Don Johnson without socks.

But to the bass angler, Florida conjures up one image--giant, aggressive bass that feed on anything that moves and is smaller than a football. Mice. Small ducks. Frogs. Snakes. Bass that gorge themselves so frequently that they grow to enormous, outlandish proportions.

Today, those 300 Florida bass have created one of the top bass fisheries in the nation. Thousands of their offspring have grown big and fat and mean at Casitas, patrolling the depths in search of something to kill and eat. Consequently, anglers also patrol the lake in increasing numbers, coming from all parts of the nation and as far away as Australia for a crack at the country’s largest bass.

The California-record bass came from Casitas on March 4, 1980, a 21-pound, 3-ounce behemoth that fell to a live crawdad. Attached to the other end of the rod was Ray Easley of Fullerton.

In the years since, the size of the bass has remained eye-widening. Ten-pound bass are common. Eleven-, 12- and 13-pounders come out of the lake with some frequency. A year ago, Harry Jioras of Oxnard was nearly yanked from a boat before he grabbed the lower lip of a 16-pound bass and swung it aboard.

There are other stories from Casitas.

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Jim Stewart of Camarillo, a pro bass angler, was bumping a plastic worm along the bottom in about seven feet of water one morning in mid-April. Suddenly, a seven-pound bass bolted from the shadow of the boat and engulfed the artificial bait. Stewart set the hook with great sadness.

For just a few feet behind the seven-pound bass and also racing for the plastic worm was a bass Stewart estimated at twice the other fish’s size, likely an egg-laden female preparing to spawn. Enraged at having lost the meal, the 14-pound female attacked her male partner, opening a gash on the seven-pounder’s back. Stewart looked closely at the wound as he held the bass, and then he released the fish.

“They were fighting over the worm,” said Stewart. who fishes the lake regularly. “I got to watch the whole thing. It was pretty amazing to watch. But just my luck, the little one got the worm.”

King, who sees a lot from his vantage point near the boat-rental shed atop a bluff overlooking the lake, tells of giant bass charging at boats.

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“We’ve had guys with a stringer of trout dangling over the side get attacked by a huge bass,” he said. “They come right up after the trout. I saw one stringer where trout had big chunks of flesh stripped off of them by the bass.

“The guys in the boat were pretty excited when they came in.”

Casitas, located just outside Ojai, opened on Jan. 1, 1960, culminating a three-year project headed by the federal Department of the Interior. An earthen dam was constructed across a canyon, blocking Coyote Creek and several other streams. Slowly, the lake formed--reaching depths of more than 200 feet in the canyons--and water was available for the burgeoning population and booming agricultural business in Ventura and surrounding towns.

Today, in the midst of a serious drought, Casitas is down about 60% from its capacity. An island in the middle of the lake, Sunken Island, is no longer sunken and has been temporarily renamed Arrow Island.

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Far from shore, giant stumps that are normally 25 feet under the surface now thrust 20 feet into the air. And two boat ramps sit high and dry. A new ramp that does reach the water gets heavy use on weekends.

But the fishing has been remarkable. For those who know the lake the best, the drought actually has aided the pursuit of the biggest fish, concentrating them into smaller areas.

One who knows the lake intimately is Jerry Scotton of Oak View. Scotton has fished the lake extensively for 20 years, the past 10 as a guide. This winter and spring have been especially productive for him and his clients, producing five-bass limits for nearly every angler.

“But it’s not the number of fish that amazes these guys,” Scotton, 39, said. “It’s the quality of the fish, the size of them. I’ve had clients recently from Wyoming and Montana and Arkansas and other states, and all of them left just amazed at the quality of the fish in this lake. They were just astounded.”

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Scotton, who has caught a 16-pounder in the lake and has boated numerous 15-pounders, isn’t astounded by anything at Casitas anymore. He has caught so many trophy-sized largemouth bass that he said the thrill has diminished for him.

“The excitement now is putting a client in the right place with the right bait and then watching a guy who probably hasn’t ever even seen a bass half this size nail a giant and then battle him to the boat,” Scotton said. “That’s my thrill. I don’t even fish anymore.”

Scotton, along with most of the lake veterans, uses crawdads to entice the largest bass. Bragging-size fish such as Stewart’s still are fooled by artificial baits, but the vast majority succumb to the live crustaceans that inhabit the lake by the thousands. Crawdads--or crayfish--are so popular as bait that they are sold at the lake.

The 16-pounder that Scotton caught a few years ago, however, had no interest in crawdads. Not with all the freshly stocked trout milling about.

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“That’s exciting,” Scotton said. “The really big bass will move up along the rock ledges during the winter months and wait for a school of trout to pass over the ledge. And then they attack them. I caught my 16-pounder on an eight-inch rainbow plug, a Redfin lure. That fish was caught about 20 feet from where Easley caught his state-record fish.”

King too has watched the spectacle.

“When we plant trout in here, the bass will just explode on them right here in the marina,” he said. “I’ve watched those bass working together, school a bunch of trout together and push them right up onto the beach. The trout come right onto the sand, trying to escape the bass. It’s something to see.”

The drought that has left most of California in near-panic has, according to King, left Casitas with a glowing future.

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“With the receding water level, we have an enormous amount of brush growth going on along the edges of the lake,” he said. “When the water level returns to normal in a year or two, all these fish that now have virtually no cover or protection in the lake will have forests of bushes and shrubs and small trees to hide in and around.

“Then, the fishing here could just get unbelievable.”


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