In Their Grip


NOTE: The following story pertains primarily to Upper Otay and so far is the only one taken directly from Lake Boy – A Memoir, which when completed is the story of my life and most importantly the manner in which fishing and lakes in particular became so important to me.  Most people associate this little lake with the successful transplant of Florida-strain largemouth bass, but are unaware that the first effort failed in 1959 when pathologists observed the fingerlings were infected with ich and ordered them all destroyed.  A second effort in 1960 was successful and the story of those fish and their progeny is well known.  Less known is the fact that Upper Otay was open along with Lower Otay and offered outstanding shore fishing for northern-strain largemouth bass until the lake was rotenoned to make room for it becoming dedicated to propagation of the new arrivals from Florida.  Following is one of my favorite stories involving Upper Otay.

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  • With each passing year, fishing and the lakes we visited gradually increased their grip on me like a gopher snake slowly but surely constricting the life out of a rat.  It had me and was all I could think about.

    When school was in session, our fishing was confined to every Saturday and most Sundays.  During school vacations, Wednesdays were added to the schedule, unless there was a painting job that kept my dad from fishing. We fished anywhere we could and for anything we could catch – bass, bluegill, crappie, trout and bullhead catfish.

    At the time, my father preferred to use live bait and I was particularly adept at catching bait-sized green sunfish around rocky outcroppings just as I had at Lake Wohlford a few years earlier when I caught 19 of them on the second fishing trip of my young life.  I was so skilled, that once I’d caught all my dad and I would need and placed them in a bucket, I began a small business supplying other fishermen.

    I’ll never forget one particular day at Upper Otay, a very small lake that at the time had a large population of bass that ran from about one to four or five pounds.  A large school of bass would work its way counter clockwise around the lake and kind of bog down in a narrow that led to the dam.  The closer you were to the historic structure, the better the fishing, as upon reaching the dam there was no place left to go for the smaller fish that served as food for the larger fish.  As a result, fishermen would arrive early, park and hustle to a spot as close to the dam as possible without crowding another angler or cutting into the queue that had formed.

    The first rod to bend would be the one most distant from the dam, a distance of maybe 60 yards.  As the school moved toward the dam, the succeeding rods would bend pretty much in order.  If the guy to your left was into a fish, you could pretty much bet that you were in line for the next bite.  To this day, I’ve never seen anything quite like that involving bass for anglers fishing from shore.  Spotfin croaker, yes, but not for largemouth bass.

    Being a resourceful lad I learned the economic concept of supply and demand first hand.  The adult fishermen simply wanted to catch bass, but were not much inclined to catch the little green sunfish that were the best bait and much better than the mudsuckers sold in the bait shops.

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  • I on the other hand loved to catch the green sunfish and given my ability to scamper around on the shoreline rocks like a lizard, was much more adept at catching them than anyone else, so a business was born.  Once my dad had his bucket of sunfish, I would traipse the shore carrying a second bucket filled with them.  The perfect bait size commanded a dime while those judged a little too large or too small fetched a nickel and I was a welcome sight to those short or out of bait.

    All customers were pretty nondescript except for a tall thin man who like my father always wore khaki pants and shirts.  The man had a wicked scar that ran from the left side of his forehead down to his jaw and a left eye that was out of synch with the right.  He almost always arrived early enough to claim the top spot next to the dam where the bass lingered the longest while corralling the school of bait they had been pushing in that direction.

    The man was well known for a reputation of being unfriendly and threatening to other fishermen while he claimed an unnecessarily large territory of the shore at the corner of the dam, and always had plenty of his own bait. One particular day, the fishing was exceptional with the bass making their circle of the lake and returning down the shoreline queue every 30 or 40 minutes.  No one caught more bass than the man at the dam who must have had a sea lion’s insatiable appetite for fish.  He’d caught so many that morning that he ran out of bait just as the bass reached his corner.

    Spotting me as I replenished by dad’s bait bucket, he yelled for me to come over and bring my bucket.  “Kid,“ he said, give me a bait.”

    “They’re ten cents,” I said.

    The man fished in his pocket, but with less luck than he was having in the lake.

    “Just give me a nice one,” he said.

    “Ten cents,” I said.

    “If you give me a bait,” he promised, “I’ll let you see my eye,” and with that, and before I could answer, he reached up and popped the eye from his left eye socket and held it out to me for a better view.

    I wish I could remember what happened next.  I’ve tried, but I can’t.  I don’t know if I gave him a green sunfish or screamed, dropped the bucket and ran back to my father as fast as I could.  Anything is possible.

    I do recall that on the drive home my father told me that the man, like he, had been injured in the war.

    About Author

    Jim Brown

    Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.

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    Matt Gamache

    Great story!