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Back in Business : Bass Bountiful on Reopened Barrett Lake, but Severe Restrictions Exist for Anglers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the morning sun beating down on his shoulders, Chris Baugh looked to the sky and made a prediction.

“It’s going to bust 90 today, easily,” he said.

Baugh was referring to the weather, but the 26-year-old San Diego resident might as well have been talking about his fish count.

Largemouth bass from two to six pounds were coming out of the woodwork--in this case submerged trees and brush--to chase down his shiny white lure.

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Baugh caught about a dozen fish, and lost a half-dozen more, before 8 a.m.

“I’ve never seen fish like this in my life,” he said, jumping from his boat to a rock, holding his rod-tip high, trying unsuccessfully to coax a bulky bass from the safety of the bush.

The experience was also new for Dennis Ostrem, Baugh’s partner in the boat. Dennis’ son Scott was up to his chest in water, casting a plastic worm from a float tube as the Ostrems matched Baugh fish for fish.

And with nobody else in sight, surrounded only by the rocky shores and rolling desert hills, they were seemingly alone in their bliss.

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But not too far away, in other coves and on other shores of sprawling Barrett Lake, there were about 75 others pinching themselves between bites as they, too, seemed to be living a bass fisherman’s dream, being the first to fish a lake that has been closed to angling since 1968.

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Located in a remote section of southeastern San Diego County, Barrett Lake, a water-supply reservoir for the city, was closed 26 years ago primarily because of low water and access problems.

Since then, the fishery has had a chance to develop unmolested, save for poachers, who, because of the lake’s isolation, have been able to sneak in and out without getting caught. One reportedly used an ultra-light airplane fit with pontoons.

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But the poachers’ impact is still believed to be minimal, judging from recent estimates that place the population of Northern-strain largemouth bass at close to 15,000. And the end of a prolonged drought two years ago was a boon to the fishery.

“The water level has been up in the last two years and the result is a bigger lake that the fish have thrived in,” says Jim Brown, program manager for the San Diego City Lakes.

Brown has been under pressure from fishermen and local fishing clubs for years to open the lake to angling, and finally, as a result of a cooperative effort by employees of the San Diego Water Utilities Dept. and members of the San Diego City Lakes Committee, a plan has been developed to allow limited fishing with restrictive measures designed to provide anglers with a unique experience while protecting the fishery.

“Our goal is to ensure a high-quality fishery so that in two years fishing will be as good as it is today,” Brown said.

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Prospective anglers have to submit postcards for a lottery-style drawing. The lake is open only on weekends, and only 20 access permits--for up to four persons each--are allowed each day. The only boats are rentals and motors cannot exceed 20 horsepower, so bass fishermen must leave their high-tech, high-speed world of sonar behind.

“A return to the good old days,” is Brown’s description.

The most restrictive measure of all is that all fish must be released, although the state Fish and Game Commission this week is considering a limited take of species other than bass, namely bullhead and bluegill.

But this apparently is not a problem for bass fishermen, most of whom practice catch-and-release anyway.

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Interest is so great that Brown’s office has been inundated by postcards and telephone calls, with most of the callers asking if their cards have been received. More than 3,000 were received for the first drawing a week before opening day last Saturday. The next drawing is on Aug. 19.

Marylin Saunders, a clerical assistant, postponed her vacation because she wanted to be the one to notify the lucky 40 drawn for Saturday and Sunday.

“I had to hold the phone away from my ear because they would start screaming, they got so excited,” Saunders says. “Some of them thought I was one of their friends pulling their leg.”

One of those notified was Scott Ostrem, 27, of San Diego.

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“I felt like I won the California State Lottery,” he says. Ostrem called his father, who flew from Sacramento to participate in what he considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ostrem then called Baugh, who said he would have paid $1,000 for the experience.

Also among those picked was Jerry Lipetsky, an angler from nearby Alpine and a friend of DFG Director Boyd Gibbons. Lipetsky invited Gibbons, and the DFG subsequently issued a news release praising San Diego for opening Barrett and providing California bass fishermen with a chance “to return to simplicity and tranquillity.”

Gibbons grew up fishing at nearby Lake Henshaw in a rowboat with his grandfather, casting an old surface plug called a Dingbat, which was popular in the 1940s. Little did he know that Brown had one of the bulky lures in his antique collection and thought it would be fun to present it to Gibbons shortly before the lake officially opened at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday.

Gibbons gladly accepted the shiny black lure, which was soon to lose its luster.

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Dawn broke over the lake, and many bass had already broken its glassy surface.

Brown landed a four-pounder on his first cast, and not long after that, the Dingbat had attracted the attention of a much larger fish.

Elsewhere on the lake, Bob Martinez and Leonard Lerma, from the San Diego area, were still skunked. Between them on the boat was Leonard’s 73-year-old father, Joe, who had already pulled in six fish.

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Suddenly, Martinez and Leonard Lerma hooked up at the same time, using lures from Joe Lerma’s tackle box. “We had to borrow from the great Kahuna here to catch one,” Martinez said, his rod still bent by a fair-sized bass.

As the day went on, the fishermen continued to work the rocky shores, casting off the points and in the shrub-lined coves. The habitat was superb throughout the lake.

Jeff McKee, 31, of San Diego, was working the shoreline with a bright green plug. “ Anything chartreuse is working,” he said, showing off a snapshot of a 10-pound bass the length of his cooler. McKee and his three partners claimed to have combined for more than 60 fish and it was barely noon.

A few hundred yards down the shoreline, Ron Ruano was casting from a float tube toward a submerged rock, pulling in what he said was his 80th bass. Ruano, 38, was not as enthusiastic as the rest.

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But then, this was nothing new to him. “I’ve fished here before,” he said, saying he was an El Cajon resident.

“Legally?” he was asked.

“Well, I got into some trouble, so I don’t come here no more,” he said. “But my friend over there won the lottery, so I’m here legally today.”

Gibbons, Brown and Lipetsky were still at it elsewhere on the lake. The Dingbat was scratched and the skin on Gibbons’ thumb was shredded from countless bass catching and grabbing.

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Baugh and the Ostrems were still at it, too.

It had busted 90 long ago. In more ways than one.


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