That’s not the case, and there is nothing to worry about.
Yes, there are skinny bass.
Yes, the amount of skinny bass has seemed to increase in weeks 2 and 3 compared to the opening week.
And yes, there appears to be noticeably less threadfin shad in the lake now than there was when we said our goodbyes to San V in 2008.
But this was all to be expected, and I have seen nothing out of the ordinary, either personally in my 5 days at the lake or through the numerous photos posted on social media and our own forums. So let’s address those 3 observations one by one.
1. Skinny bass at San Vicente
Most of the skinny bass are the bigger fish – those with heads you’d expect to see on a fish weighing 7 pounds are affixed to thinned out fish that only weigh 5 pounds. The only skinny fish that I’ve seen under 2 pounds had an obvious spinal deformity which no doubt has hindered its ability to hunt as effectively as its peers. What I’ve also observed is that the overwhelming majority of the bass I saw over 4 pounds have been very healthy looking. Their not the pot bellied fish you expect to see after the trout truck shows up or in the middle of the shad spawn, but for this time of year, these are healthy, normal looking bass. So a portion of the bigger fish in the lake are skinny. What does that tell us?
These are very likely the older fish in the lake. Like a human’s ears and nose, largemouth bass’ heads and other hard body parts never stop growing. They never even stop growing in length, though it does slow the older they get. So what do you end up with an old bass? A big head with a long and skinny body. That’s just normal.
Additionally, this is the time of the year when fish are their leanest. Everything is stacked against them environmentally; the water temperature is nearly 80 degrees so their metabolism is extremely high, there are no trout plants, we’re in between both the shad and crawdad spawns (both spring and fall). The environment is harsh this time of year.
Why are there are more of these fish at San Vicente than other lakes? Fish don’t grow to old age in heavily impacted lakes like ours by being easy to catch. They grow up being caught and released when they’re young and naive, and then become conditioned to fishing, and being increasingly hard to catch. The situation at San Vicente is different though, these bass have had 8 years to forget all about anglers, and they have. These old bass are all of a sudden just as naive to being caught as they were when they were 2 years old and finally big enough to swallow a senko.
The first few days the lake was open you could barely get your bait back to the boat without being bit if you were throwing anything close to what they wanted, anywhere near the fish. Fish are schooled up in groups, and when you pulled your bait into a group of fish, the most aggressive and healthy fish in that school would be the first to get the bait. The old, more lethargic bass lack the energy necessary to compete against their younger brethren.
With 2,000 anglers taking advantage of all of those aggressive, healthy, unsuspecting bass the first week it didn’t take long for them to slow down. While all of the aggressive fish are recovering from the effects of being caught and released, sometimes numerous times, the older and less energetic bass are getting their turns at the prey. Also, word got out that the best bite was in deep water with plastic worms and jigs (slow moving baits) – and those are much more appealing to a skinny, more lethargic bass.
Also, it cannot be ignored the human element in this. One guy makes a post on Facebook about unhealthy bass, and now everyone is looking for them. When they catch one, they take a picture, “hey, look at this skinny bass I caught!” Pretty soon, you’re at home looking at your favorite social media outlet, and all you’re seeing are skinny bass. It became taboo very quickly to post “hero” photos of 4-5 bass at a time, but talking about “emaciated” or “stunted” bass was engaging.
The other human element worth addressing, like it or not, there are anglers catching 5 and 6 pound bass at San Vicente right now that have never caught a 6 pound bass in the summer before. A lot of anglers only see fish that size in the spring. And the same can be said for anglers that are used to their big fish coming in the winter on swimbaits, taking advantage of fish keying in on stocker trout. On both accounts, those fish only look like that during those times of the year. The trout weight and eggs don’t stick around into September.
I’m not going to stay there weren’t skinny bass being caught, but as one biologist aptly described the situation, “anglers are making a mountain out of a molehill.”
3. There is noticeably less shad in the new San Vicente than the old
This should’ve been expected. And maybe that’s my fault for not getting out in front of this and preparing anglers for it like I did the fact that 10 pound bass weren’t going to be jumping into your boat at San Vicente.
Aside from the increase in water, the biggest change in San Vicente over the last 8 years has been the invasion of quagga mussels. It was plain to see their impact on the lake in terms of water clarity. San Vicente was generally clear 8 years ago, but clear then meant about 10-12 feet of visibility. When I walked down into the marina on September 21st for media day, the first thing I noticed about the lake was the astonishing clarity. The lake is CLEAR now, like Lake Mead clear. You can see 30+ feet in certain areas.
Quagga mussels clear up the water by filtering out all of the particulates in the water looking for phytoplankton to eat. An adult quagga mussel is capable of filtering a liter of water a day! The problem with this is that it upsets the entire food chain, zooplankton also feed on phytoplankton, and small fish (like San Vicente’s threadfin shad population) feed on zooplankton.
Is the quagga mussel a death sentence to a bass fishery? No. But we’ll likely never see the big (both in numbers and individual size) shad population in San Vicente that we saw prior to it closing.
One of the first things I noticed at San Vicente on opening day was that the skinny bass also had the longest teeth, especially the ones caught in deep water. The fattest deep bass all had red lips and filed down teeth, a sign that they’re successfully feeding on crawdads. But crawdads hold less nutritional value, especially for bigger bass, because they usually require a good amount of hunting to acquire, and because they’re mostly all shell. Adult threadfin shad on the other hand create a great deal of nutritional value, so older, slower fish may hold out for an easy shad meal rather than actively seeking out crawfish in the rocks.
So in summary, yes there are some skinny bass in San Vicente. Yes we’re seeing more skinny bass showing up in photos and personal experience than “usual”. Yes, there are less shad than we’re used to seeing at San Vicente.
But there is nothing wrong with the fishery, the fish aren’t unhealthy, they’re certainly not stunted, they’re just not gorging on finfish, and especially not trout fed. Get used to it, it’s normal San Vicente bass fishing in the summer.
FUN FACT: Did you know that San Vicente was the first public lake in all of California to receive threadfin shad? Threadfin shad were introduced into San Vicente Reservoir in June of 1954 by the California Department of Fish and Game to provide a forage base for the largemouth bass. The original plant consisted of a total of 3,200 shad.