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Casting call

Times Staff Writer

“EVERYONE get ready!” shouts fishing guide Mark Franco, shattering the calm of a summer morning on the glassy surface of Diamond Valley Lake.

A shadow flashes across the gray screen of the electronic fish finder as hungry trout chase a cluster of baitfish toward Franco’s 20-foot pontoon boat. He rushes to the stern, eyes growing wide under his baseball cap as his clients grip rods baited with night crawlers. Suddenly, two reels squeal under the strain of hefty fish.

“We’ve got a double!” Franco shouts, as anglers muscle the fish into the boat. Magnificent, the trout’s backs are adorned with black flecks while a shimmering rainbow marks the border above their protruding silver and white bellies.

Franco’s voice booms loudly over the water, but it disturbs no one. His boat is one of only two dozen vessels on the massive, 4 1/2 -mile long lake. It cruises near a cove where a new boat launch was supposed to have been completed -- to potentially put more boats on the water -- but that project, like so many others at Diamond Valley Lake near Hemet, is on hold.

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And that’s just fine with Franco. He has the water all to himself, something few anglers in a megalopolis such as Southern California can claim. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for a lake like this,” he says.

Two years ago, the lake opened as the biggest man-made reservoir in Southern California with the promise of becoming a regional recreation center and one of the best fisheries in the state. At a cost of $2 billion, Diamond Valley was engineered from the bottom up to be an angler’s dream and a tourist draw for struggling local communities.

Instead, the lake is a conundrum. It is brimming with stout largemouth bass, hungry rainbow trout and giant catfish, but it’s devoid of the throngs of recreational users that officials predicted would follow.

Anglers, bait peddlers and biologists who know the lake offer several reasons for the low turnout. Some say the water body is simply too huge for many fishers to master. Others suggest the ban on swimming, jet skis and old, polluting boats keep people away. It’s hot here too, and the shore and surrounding hills are brown and barren.

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The lake’s operators are reluctant to invest in new amenities such as an extra boat launch, a swimming park or trailer campgrounds until more visitors come. The Catch-22 means Diamond Valley Lake is one of the state’s great fisheries that few people ever discover.

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The purest lake

WHEN the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California opened the lake in October 2003, it came with the promise that Diamond Valley would be a world-class fishery. For the region’s 2 million anglers, it seemed a godsend as they eagerly awaited a new body of water in an arid land. On opening day, trucks and boats on trailers queued for miles for the opportunity to drop lures on fish that had never seen baits before. That day, it seemed the lake was destined for great things.

There was good reason for such optimism in the beginning. The lake was designed with meticulous care.

But the buzz quickly faded. During the past year, about 15,000 boats were launched at Diamond Valley Lake -- about half as many as at Lake Casitas in Ventura County. Just 12 miles up the road in Riverside County, about 80,000 boats launch at Lake Perris annually.

Mike Guisti was no small part of the cause for optimism. One of the most experienced biologists in the state, he built the fishery from the ground up, literally.

Near the north shore, Guisti, who works for the Department of Fish and Game, casts his line toward some submerged shrubs near an egret standing on the bank. After a few tries, Guisti rears back and lands a bass that weighs under 5 pounds, but it’s strong, evergreen on top with a big white belly, and its fins make swimming motions as he holds it aloft. Guisti is a lifelong fisherman with a raspy, good-old-boy voice. He knows the hot spots on the lake. He should. He’s the one who put the bottom structure on the lake bed, and then put the fish in the lake.

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“This is the purest lake for fishing,” Guisti says as he makes another cast.

More than eight years earlier, the MWD tasked Guisti with creating the best fishery in the state. Back then, the lake was a dry stretch of agricultural land with a few homes nestled in rolling hills. It was like working on a clean slate, a rare opportunity.

He began by stocking an 80-acre pond with thousands of bluegill and red-ear sunfish -- the start of a food chain for bass and other species. He then set out to find the best breed of largemouth bass in the state. Genetic testing at UC Davis narrowed the search to Lake Hodges in San Diego County, which is home to 95% pure Florida-strain bass. Those kind of fish grow bigger, fight harder and are more difficult to catch than their northern bass cousins. More than 200 of the Lake Hodges bass were dumped in Diamond Valley Lake as it began to fill. Later, smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, catfish and carp were added in 1999.

Next came the underwater structure essential to a great fishery. Crews laid down miles of PVC pipe, hundreds of brush piles and dozens of submerged trees. In a boot-shaped cove near the boat launch, workers submerged the remains of a demolished parking structure from a nearby hospital, creating what locals now call Catfish Cove.

Guisti says that while the catfish and bass have met his expectations, the trout are a real surprise. They are abundant and huge, and during winter, anglers were catching scores of them near the marina. The lake record for trout is 11.3 pounds, but Guisti thinks even bigger fish are prowling the lake’s green depths. He credits a nutrient-rich mix of water: The portion imported from the Colorado River was high in nitrogen and low in phosphorous while the portion imported from Northern California was low in nitrogen and high in phosphorous.

“The combination creates more fertile water than either of them alone,” he says.

Guisti doesn’t worry about whether the lake will become a popular destination. The fish are big and on pace to grow bigger, he says, maybe big enough to break state and world records. Eventually, he believes, the anglers will come.

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Other attractions

FROM the west dam, barren, sun-baked hilltops rise out of the water like piles of gravel. Except for a few stands of eucalyptus, the shores are without shade, giving the surroundings a harsh, desert feel.

In the beginning, Metropolitan Water District officials promised the local community the reservoir would be a hub for money-making ventures, including RV parks, campgrounds, hotels and casinos. But like the extra boat ramp, most of those projects are on hold.

“Nothing moves all that fast at the Met,” says board member Randy Record.

The water district is talking to contractors about building campgrounds and other amenities near the east end of the lake. There are plans for museums and an expanded marina too.

But funding may be a problem. The lake is operating on a $1.3 million annual deficit. Any further improvements at Diamond Valley will have to be financed by private investors, MWD officials say.

And the MWD emphasizes that the reservoir’s primary purpose is not to draw anglers, but to hold drinking water. It contains 260 billion gallons -- enough for a six-month water supply for Southern California in case of emergency. The tough environmental restrictions that prohibit human contact with the water, including swimming, water skiing and use of personal watercraft, are intended to keep the water clean.

Back on the lake, Franco may not have figured out the politics of Diamond Valley Lake, but he understands where to find the fish. He has a leg up on most other anglers who come here. The reservoir is bigger and deeper than most lakes in the state, so it takes anglers a long time to learn which coves and dams, shores and depths, hold fish. Few are willing to put in that kind of time. Franco already has.

A gregarious lifelong angler with a toothy grin, Franco, 42, learned to fish from his father and worked as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat when he was a teen. He worked in construction until a misstep on a roof forced him to change careers. He became a professional guide five years ago, and the trout are now his livelihood.

“For some reason, trout just kept calling to me,” he says.

But the best trout lakes were in the Sierra Nevada, hundreds of miles from his Redlands home.

When Diamond Valley Lake opened in 2003, Franco decided to make it his lake. He secured a sponsor and dedicated himself to learning every ripple and underwater contour. He’s put in more than 250 days of fishing here.

As sun glimmers off the water, Franco’s boat cuts a wake near the west dam. Two fishing lines follow close behind as he trolls using downriggers. Franco shouts directions to his client, Gary McCormick, a pest and weed-control specialist, who pilots the vessel while watching the sonar screen.

“Look at this ball of bait” coming across the screen, McCormick says.

Franco lets out a childish laugh, picks up a net and heads to the stern. One of the lines snaps off the rigger, setting a reel spinning. Franco calls to 12-year-old Kelsey Trost, the youngest angler in the fishing party. The thin blond girl grabs the pole and begins to crank the reel. The rod bends in a sharp arch.

“We got him!” says McCormick. “He’s our fish.”

Franco plunges the net into the water and hoists a feisty, 5 1/2 -pound trout.

“This is what we live for,” he says with a big smile. He drops the fish into the live well, which is already stuffed with brawny fish the size of giant deli sandwiches.

“Oh, my hands are tired,” Kelsey complains. But she flexes her wrists, adjusts her life vest and prepares for another cast.

“That was fun.”

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Hugo Martin can be reached at hugo.martin@latimes.com.


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