The story begins on a spring day in the mid-1950s, as three anglers drifted for crappie at Lake Henshaw. During a lull in the action, they drifted into a conversation that changed the course of bass fishing history. In the boat that day were professional baseball player Ray Boone, San Diego City Lakes Manager Orville Ball and San Diego Union outdoor writer Rolla Williams.
Boone wondered aloud why the bass he caught in Florida during spring training were so much larger than the bass he caught in his hometown of San Diego, and asked Ball what he thought of the matter. A lively discussion ensued as to whether the large size of the bass in Florida were a different fish or simply the beneficiary of better conditions for growth.
When the day was done and the last tasty morsel of crappie was devoured, Ball returned home with the intent of researching the matter and finding an answer for his fishing partners. In the course of his research, Ball came across a reference to a thesis written years earlier by a student at the Eastern Michigan University describing certain taxonomic differences between largemouth black bass from Florida and those from northern states.
Ball noted with some amusement that the student who authored the research was none other than Carl Hubbs who in the course of a distinguished career was recognized worldwide for his work in fisheries. Coincidentally and fortuitously, Ball smiled at the fact that Hubbs was now stationed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography – a mere 20-minute drive from his office. Ball arranged for a meeting and the two men sat down to discuss Hubbs’ earlier findings, discussing whether the greater growth of the bass in Florida was a matter of “nature or nurture.”
They agreed the best way to find out was to bring some Florida bass to San Diego to see how they’d do. Arrangements for fish were made with officials in Florida and Upper Otay was treated with rotenone to kill its existing population of fish. It wasn’t long, however, before the effort ran into a roadblock.
The Department of Fish and Game – possibly hurt from not being included in a project that was properly within their jurisdiction and domain – opposed the fish transfer, effectively blocking it.
Ball, who had once been a pretty good running back at Hoover High, called for an end around by engaging the support of Dr. Dave Jessop. In addition to being one of San Diego’s most prominent sportsmen, Dr. Jessop wielded considerable political influence as Chairman of the San Diego County Fish and Wildlife Commission, which gave him a good bit of influence with the California Fish and Game Commission. Those connections aside, he had political connections with legislators and, it was rumored, the governor.
With the DFG resistance conditionally weakened and Jessop leading the interference, Ball had a clear path to the goal line and the certainty of bringing Florida bass to San Diego. In addition to changing its position, the DFG provided the services of biologist George McCammon to assist from the state’s end – but there would be further setbacks along the way. Early in 1959, funds derived from Fish and Game fine money administered by the County Commission were used to fly 10,000 fingerling bass to San Diego. Upon inspection by a DFG pathologist, all had to be destroyed because they were parasitized with ich, which is also common to tropical fish kept in aquariums by hobbyists.
Undeterred, a second shipment of 20,400 fingerlings was secured from the Holt State Fish Hatchery near Pensacola. It’s my recollection that the United States Navy assisted with the transfer of those fish using naval airbases at Pensacola and Miramar. This time the fish passed inspection and they thrived after being planted in Upper Otay. In 1960, they were large enough for transfer to other lakes after capture by hook and line. As a prominent local fisherman, my father was one of a few dozen invited to assist with the transfer and with Ball’s approval I tagged along on a school day and was the only kid there.
To set the scene, we assembled at the lake’s edge around 7 a.m., where we were instructed in the procedures that would follow, not the least of which was the safe handling of the precious fish. We were divided into those who would fish and those who would serve as “runners.” Each pair of anglers shared a garbage can half full of water. Once the can had a few fish in it, the runners would arrive with an empty can, dip it in the lake until it was half full and exchange cans before running to new galvanized trash cans placed along the shore and later transferred into a tanker trunk.
It was a well-designed process that worked like clockwork until, suddenly, we were all ordered to stop fishing. The bass were dying!
Thanks to their genetics, the Florida-strain of largemouth black bass had “taken over” local populations of the northern strain and long-standing lake records began to tumble. Not only did they grow larger, but they bred with the northern strain and their offspring (technically intergrades rather than hybrids) increasingly exhibited the traits of the Florida-strain. Those traits included spawning earlier (which made the fry of later spawning northern bass forage), faster growth after the first year, greater maximum growth and, because they were tougher to catch, less vulnerable to exploitation by over-fishing.
Studies showing the Florida-strain as being tougher to catch than their more easily exploited northern cousins stuck like a fish bone in the throat of promoters who staged tournaments for profit. Western Bass, a subsidiary of Western Outdoor News, fanned the flames of opposition with my old friend and tournament director Harvey Nasland, proclaiming “the last thing we need are bass that are tougher to catch.”
I will note here that in an earlier promotion, Harvey created the California Lunker Club, which offered the membership inducement of “lunker insurance.” Any member of the CLC would be insured for the mounting cost of any bass over a certain weight. The tremendous numbers of large Florida-strain bass caught by members seeking to have their insured lunkers mounted “wiped us out financially,” Harvey said – leading to the subsequent demise of the club.
From 1974-80, the state placed a moratorium on the introduction of Florida-strain largemouth as they studied the possibility of whether they would be detrimental to bass populations in colder waters in the north half of the state. Upon completion of the study, it was determined that further introductions could resume without restriction.