Lake Sutherland – Then and Now

And More…Much More

The last time I was at Lake Sutherland, which opens March 2, was just a few days ago.  The first time I saw what was to become my favorite lake was a long time ago…

It was a Saturday in the spring of 1955, and my father was itching to take a look at a new lake that had just opened a few miles east of Ramona.  To pull off such a trip, he convinced my mother that the family should take what was called in those days a “Sunday drive,” and I suspect the annoying pleadings of a certain eight year old kid helped his case.

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  • I’d be surprised if she didn’t realize there was an ulterior motive to his suggestion.  After all, she was long aware that her husband regularly angled for ways to do a little angling and this was likely no exception.  Nonetheless, she consented to go along, packed a picnic lunch and by mid-morning we had piled into the grey 1950 Buick, and we were on our way.

    An hour or so later we turned from Highway 78 onto Sutherland Dam Road and a minute later went over the little crest that offers travelers their first view of the lake.  At each turn in the road we gazed down in an effort observe all that we could.  Eventually we reached the dam and turned down a road that was the only point of access for a vehicle.  At the bottom we turned left and pulled into a parking area that served a makeshift concession stand where my father obtained the requisite fishing permit and inquired about the fishing. Depending on water level, the concrete slab under the concession stand has been a popular spot for bank anglers since the little building was drug south to an adjacent hill following that first season.

    Being the opening weekend of a new lake there was a good turnout by anglers limited to fishing from the bank along with an assortment of officials from the city and Department of Fish and Game as well as outdoor writers covering the event.  Gathering the gear from the trunk of the Buick, my father handed me a baitcasting outfit that included a Langley reel mounted on a spun glass rod so soft that the tip could easily be bent in an arc to touch the butt.  The spool was filled with Dacron line with a large frog pattern Hula Popper tied to the end of it, and in short order produced the largest bass in my life to that point.

    For more on that day and to give a little context to this story readers are invited to go back in the Lake Boy archive to the entry dated March 12, 2017.

    Some combination of that day, the bass and the lake itself was my baptism 63 years ago, it took control of me as surely as if I had been recruited into a religious cult.  The outdoors in general and fishing and hunting in particular became my religion of choice.  It was a faith shared by my father and drew us to worship together every chance we could from that day forward.

    If it is fair to say that the many bodies of water we flocked to in this county were our churches – Sutherland was our Vatican – the absolute center of our faith.  During its early years, Sutherland was open on a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday schedule and more often than not we fished it two of the three days it was open each week.

    Some combination of that day, the bass and the lake itself was my baptism 63 years ago, it took control of me as surely as if I had been recruited into a religious cult.

    For the first few years we fished exclusively from shore, but in those days the east shore was easily accessible thanks to a dock at the Santa Ysabel narrows that connected east and west.

    Few anglers if any visited Sutherland as regularly as we did in those days and my dad soon endeared himself to the lake staff.  We pretty much became fixtures, and it was not long before I was living with Damkeeper Chuck Martin and his family during non-school periods.

    Following his retirement from the Navy as a “Tin Can Sailor” who barely survived the most fierce maritime battles during World War II, my dad became a house painter and handyman, so when the lake staff needed something they couldn’t get from the city, they turned to him.  To this day, the large sliding glass window in the office of the boat house is the same one my dad picked up and installed for Dam Keeper Chuck Martin in the early 60’s.

    Being able to live at Sutherland in a gun and tackle room tucked into a corner of the garage was a great period of time in my life.  As a “resident” I was permitted to fish and hunt anytime that I wanted as long as I observed state Fish and Game regulations.  As a kid who faithfully read fishing and hunting magazines as if they comprised my “bible,” I felt like I was in heaven.  I worked hard for room and board with the fringe benefit of being able to fish, hunt and explore without limitation as long as my chores were done.  As a bonus, the concessionaire paid me a dollar every time one of the motors I kept gassed was rented and on open days I was on the dock from opening to close.

    I became a good enough fisherman that I was used as a guide for visiting “dignitaries” that included city politicians, administrators and media wishing to connect with a largemouth bass.  At that time the media consisted of George Herrick from the Evening Tribune, Rolla Williams from the San Diego Union, Channel 10 Sportscaster Al Coupee and a writer or two representing Western Outdoor News whose names escape me.  Being ever present, I was by all accounts – Lake Boy.

    My direct relationship with lake staff and indirect relationship with the media soon became highly problematical as a result of the Water Department’s water management policy.  If the rainy season had produced significant rainfall and runoff the Water Department would draw the reservoir down at the optimal time to reduce loss in transit, which happens to coincide with the peak of the spawning period.

    Most reasonable people understood that the primary purpose for construction and operation of the city’s reservoirs is to impound water for use by citizens, but those same people were growing increasingly frustrated with the impact those withdrawals had on spawning fish and the health of the fishery.  Worse, the Water Department had a history of ignoring  concerns expressed by citizens as well as their employees in the field.

    Without checking the archives for stories from that time, I believe the first year of major withdrawal that came to mind was 1961, and few people were as upset or knowledgeable of the Water Department’s actions as their own lake staff who had the job of opening the valve below the dam, watched as spawning bass and other species that were trapped in pools behind the perimeter access road died and rotted in the sun – and they had photos to prove it.

    The following year produced the same scenario with a decent winter producing enough water that could be transferred to San Vicente and once again Water Department engineers ignored the concerns of their lake staff, namely Chuck Martin who lobbied for the water to be taken well before or after most of the spawning had been completed.

    Enraged at the unwillingness of his superiors to consider the fishery and the mess of rotting dead fish he was left with, he was outspoken in expressing his concerns which were ignored.  Frustrated, he passed along to me records for the last two years of withdrawals along with a few photos and emphasized that “something has to be done,” which I took as my queue for action.

    My first step was to reach out to the local media contacts to tell them what was going on, but when questioned, Water Department officials denied that water was being withdrawn or that withdrawal was damaging to the fishery.  The same denial was given to City council members who had inquired, making our concerns over stranded bass look foolish.

    Having read somewhere that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” I sat down and wrote a letter that described what was happening at Sutherland.  Not having a typewriter in the house or anyone who knew how to type, I enlisted the help of Miss Erb, a spinster who lived next door, owned a typewriter and knew how to type.  With my handwritten letter now typed, I attached the Water Department’s own official records and provided copies to our media contacts.  Rolla and Al in particular were outraged that they had been misled by the Water Department.

    My father shared copies of the package with members of his Federal Employees Rod and Reel Club and San Diego County Fish and Game Association which in turn drew the interest of the San Diego County Fish and Wildlife Commission, which was advisory to the increasingly interested state Department of Fish and Game.

    A meeting to question the Water Department was scheduled before the City Council.  Since they had swallowed the Water Department’s denials a year earlier along with the proverbial hook, line and sinker, I realized that I had to get to try to meet with each of them to make our case and provide copies of the package.  As I recall, I managed to meet with all but one who was away from the office.  If I am right that the year was 1962 and I was barely 15 years old.

    Well before the meeting began, the council chambers had filled with members of the local fishing clubs along with members of the county commission and other interested parties.

    The Water Department was represented by Ernie Clay, its Assistant Director who earlier had been the Chief Engineer for the construction of Pleasant Valley Reservoir on the Owens River for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  After returning to his hometown of San Diego as an engineer for the Water Department, he was instrumental in the construction of Miramar Reservoir.

    Armed with evidence in the form of the package I’d provided them and upset that they had consistently been misled, the City Council grilled Clay to the delight of an audience he had not anticipated.  Clay was unaware the members of the City Council held Water Department documents that refuted their earlier claims.  As a result, Clay and his Department were essentially hung by their own petard.

    Assistant Director Clay, who had the physical stature of Napoleon had met his Waterloo as the Water Department was railed by the Council and ordered to discontinue drafting until the completion of spawning and to take that into account in future reservoir operations.  Their action pleased the large audience and infuriated Clay.

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  • My memory of the aftermath is more clear and in the end more meaningful in a variety of ways.  In the lobby outside of the council chambers, I was surrounded and congratulated by many of those who had been inside who were aware of my role in what had just taken place.  After a few minutes someone pushed their way through my admirers.  It was Ernie Clay who now stood toe to toe with me, wagged his finger in my face and loudly proclaimed “You, you, you (Ernie stuttered when he was upset or excited), I know who you are.  People have been telling me that when you are old enough they want you to be hired as a Student Worker (the title that preceded Lake Aides), well as long as I’m around you are never going to be hired to work on these lakes.”

    Many of those present quickly chided Clay for the way he was bullying me and it continued as Clay proceeded to the elevator.

    After investigation and evidence of further disregard by the Water Department for public concerns as well as the council itself, Mayor Frank Curran commissioned what he described as a “blue ribbon committee” for the purpose of further investigation and preparation of a report.  Those named to the panel were prominent civic leaders also known vaguely as “city fathers” which is to say they were the kind of people behind the scenes trusted by the politicians for their guidance and advice on civic matters.  Orville Ball, who worked under Clay with the title of City Lakes Superintendent  and desperately wanted to  get out from under the Water Department in general and Clay in particular was named to serve as the city’s staff representative to the panel.

    After many meetings and interviews over what I recall as a long period of time, the committee concluded that the Water Department had been malfeasant and recommended that the entire San Diego City Lakes Program be transferred to the Park and Recreation Department.

    They demanded that spawning fish be given consideration with regard to water transfers from Sutherland, which eventually morphed into a letter of agreement between the Water Department and Department of Fish Game which was to act on behalf of the fishery resource in order to minimize the impact of water withdrawals on spawning.

    The City Council subsequently approved both recommendations and the water transfer agreement, which the Water Department was vehemently opposed to, was hailed as the first of its kind to protect warmwater fisheries.  To the best of my knowledge, it remains the only such agreement in the state of California.

    News that the Park and Recreation Department would be taking over the program did not sit well with Water Department employees, some of whom were suspected with sabotage after the boat dock at San Vicente mysteriously burned down one night.

    Throughout what was to be a tumultuous period I worked for Concession lessee Butch Collins who owned Nurseryland and operated half of the concessions on the city lakes.  The other half were operated by Tommy Morgan who had a bait and tackle store near Fairmount and El Cajon Boulevard.  Having begun working for the concessionaire at Sutherland at the age of 12, I remained there until 1966 when Collins moved me to Lower Otay under a new operating agreement in which the concessionaire took over operation of the boat dock which I operated for two seasons.  The nights prior to open days I lived on the boat dock because of a job that began an hour before sunrise and ended well after sunset when the last boat had been cleaned.

    In 1969 I became a Recreation Leader in Barrio Logan which is when I started a program for the purpose of introducing kids throughout the city to fishing.  The San Diego Police Department helped by providing cops on light-duty assignments due to injury or volunteered on their own time, to serve as fishing guides at Lake Murray.  It would never happen today, but we used the Police Department’s prisoner transfer bus with window bars to transport the kids between their neighborhood playgrounds and Lake Murray.

    In 1971 I was selected to develop a youth fishing program at Lake Chollas which opened to public fishing for the first time.  As a rather sterile fishery, I turned to my friend Larry Bottroff who brought loads of bullheads and crappie from Lake Morena and arranged for annual loads of DFG reared channel catfish.  In 1972 we opened Camp Chollas which quickly became the region’s most popular and lowest cost summer day camp for kids.

    In 1974 I was promoted to take over the San Diego City Lakes Program, a move that took me from a 14 acre lake on a roughly 25 acre parcel in the city limits to a program that spanned the county and was the largest municipally operated reservoir recreation program in the nation.

    By that time Ball had been gone for several years and Chick Reeves who had been inserted to supervise the program had a personality and demeanor more suited to being a prison guard.  Trouble was brewing and organized bass fishermen in particular expressed their unhappiness to the extent that some in the city were becoming concerned.  I was stepping into a bit of a mess, but on the positive side the only direction we could go in was up.

    Upon my arrival, I was instructed to meet with Park and Recreation Director Ed Mendoza who was one of the best people I have ever worked for and his direction was simple.  “You did a great job for us at Chollas and I know that you know these lakes and the people who use them so I’m giving you a free hand to do what you think is right in order to get them back on track.  We have expanded the Golf Division to become the Golf/Lakes Division where you are going to work under Don Makie.  We figure that your job will be 90% lakes and 10% golf while Don will be 90% golf and 10% lakes when you need his help.”

    I did the best I could to follow that direction and the period from 1974 to 1981 was the most enjoyable of my career.  Don was a great guy who knew golf and golfers and depended on me to know fish and fishermen as we  gradually changed the culture involving our employees and the concessions in serving our patrons.  We began improving facilities and opened Lake Hodges after 20 years of closure over the objections of the Water Department.  I made plans to open Barrett and Upper Otay.  I felt that we were getting the program on track and heading in the right direction when fate dealt us a curveball.  Proposition 13 which greatly curtailed property taxes passed and the money available to general fund departments were directed to make 20% cuts in their programs, even those of us that were significant revenue producers.

    With our funding curtailed and programs on the chopping block, a decision was made by the City Manager to transfer the City Lakes Program back to the Water Department which was flush with money derived from water rates which were exempt from Prop 13 limitations.

    It was simply a matter of reality that the Park and Recreation Department had the right philosophy but not the money; and the Water Department had the money, but not the right philosophy.

    Informed the City Lakes Program would be returning to the Water Department, they quickly stated they would take back the program, but not Jim Brown.  At that point Assistant City Manager Mike Graham who had formerly been the Water Department Director intervened and informed them that Jim Brown would be coming with the program and that was that.

    Nineteen years after Ernie Clay had told a 15-year old kid “you’ll never work on the lakes as long as I’m around,” the kid was not only back, but working in a Water Department where Clay was still the Assistant Director.

    As I soon found out, this was a marriage that was not made in heaven – but that story will have to wait for another day.

    Short Casts

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  • Opening Day – First up on the calendar is the opening of Lake Sutherland March 2, and if the current water level is any indication, prospects appear to be better for the 2018 season than recent seasons past.

    Fred Hall Shows – The annual Fred Hall Fishing Tackle and Boat Show will make its appearance March 2-4 in Bakersfield at the Kern County Fairgrounds, March 7-11 at the Long Beach Conventions Center and March 22-25 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.  If you have to pick just one, I’d suggest the Long Beach version which is the largest of the three and worth the traffic to be encountered on the 405.

    Blake Jones Derby – Since 1968 the Blake Jones Trout Derby has attracted anglers to Bishop and the 2018 edition set for March 17 should be no different.  Over $10,000 in prizes will be awarded to anglers fishing Pleasant Valley Reservoir and the Owens River.  In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the event a celebration featuring information booths, educational displays, casting games and entertainment will be offered at the Eastern Sierra Tri-County Fairgrounds in downtown Bishop.  Registration and additional information can be found at www.bishopvisitor.com or by calling the Bishop Chamber of Commerce at 760- 873-8405.

    Sierra Trout Opener – If you are a fan of Eastern Sierra trout fishing, mark your calendar for the season opener on April 28.

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  • 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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