David Guzi nearly came out of the womb at Irvine Lake during a family fishing trip in 1971.
“My mother went into labor with me here, then we had to go to the hospital,” he said with a laugh. “I was fishing when I came out. I’ve been coming ever since.”
Guzi, from Orange, has fished the lake’s waters for over four decades — both with his father and as a member of OC Troutslayers, an Orange County fishing club.
It’s stories like Guzi’s that made the lake’s 2016 closure crushing for local anglers and its recent reopening so exciting.
On Aug. 17, over 2,000 early morninganglers flooded Irvine Lake, which reopened for shoreline fishing after disputes over water and recreation rights closed it to public access for three years.
Fishermen, fisherwomen and their families traveled from as far away as the San Fernando Valley and San Diego. A few arrived as early as 2 a.m., correctly anticipating a massive turnout.
“Shows you how many people like to fish; this isn’t even everyone,” Guzi said, referring to the many cars turned away after the lake’s new 600-space parking lot filled by 7 a.m.
Nestled east of Orange in Santiago Canyon, Irvine Lake is a 750-acre man-made reservoir created in the early 1930s. It is the largest body of freshwater in Orange County and houses drinking water for the Serrano and Irvine Ranch water districts.
But most who visit come for the fish. Irvine Lake has earned a reputation as a “trophy” lake among local fishermen for its massive catfish, bass and trout.
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner made it a goal to get the lake reopened soon after he took office in March.
“I truly did start hearing from people that they went with their dads and grandfathers and wanted to be able to take their kids out there,” Wagner said. “I won’t say it was an easy thing to do, but it was clearly one of the right things to work on. It’s a great resource for the community and it’s been out of the public’s hands for too long.”
With Wagner’s prodding, the two water districts reached a compromise with the county in June. The initial one-year agreement is a test run: Fishing is allowed along nearly two miles of the lake’s shoreline while officials monitor maintenance expenses and revenue from the lake’s concessions and tackle shop.
Following the first year, Wagner and OC Parks will pursue a longer-term deal that they hope will add boating, hiking and camping to the lake’s available activities. Public access is now funded primarily from the OC Parks budget, which also paid for the lake’s much-needed cleanup prior to reopening.
A caveat to the celebration is the unfortunate need to temporarily close Irvine Lake again in three to four years, this time for scheduled pipe and valve maintenance. But, if the numbers on reopening day are any indication, the anglers will be back, and as early as possible.
“Look at the shoreline — it’s shoulder to shoulder out there right now,” said Don Coll, one of the organizers of the Orange County fishing group Trout57. “There’s people tangling [fishing line] and nobody cares. Everybody’s happy today.
“How many places can you go to in O.C. where you actually feel like you’re not in the city right now?” he continued. “You’ve got the hills and the lake and the water and the wildlife ... If we caught no fish at all today, we wouldn’t care; we’re just ecstatic to be here, you know?”