You Remember Lake Barrett, Right?

You’ve no doubt heard of Lake Barrett, the City of San Diego water supply reservoir that holds up the water of Cottonwood Creek long enough to eventually divert it to Lower Otay via the Dulzura conduit to Lower Otay Reservoir, rather than allow it to follow its natural course into Mexico as a tributary of the Tijuana River.

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  • It’s that same east county lake that has been heralded far and wide for the unique opportunities it presents as possibly the nation’s the only municipally operated reservoir in the country that offers access to hunters during the waterfowl season and catch and release fishing from spring thru fall.

    To further refresh your memory, Lake Barrett is that hallowed place where:

    Bass fishermen in particular dream about from their last visit, until their next;
    Novice anglers are virtually guaranteed to catch their first bass followed by many more;
    Average anglers catch more bass than they have ever caught before;
    Skilled bass anglers catch in excess of 100 bass on every visit;
    Everyone goes home with a raw thumb, a smile and a plan to return, and;
    Opportunists scalp tickets.

    I remember that lake from my visits as a child more than 60 years ago. I remember driving to the lake when I was in my late teens to pick up rental outboard motors needing attention and returning to my station on the dock at Lower Otay. At that time, and despite ten thumbs and an absence of any mechanical aptitude I was somehow capable of providing the most minor of repairs (spark plugs, props and starter pull cords and springs) before returning them.

    I remember petitioning the Department of Fish and Game to gain approval for regulations that would allow it to be opened as the state’s and possibly the nation’s first zero kill fishery for the purpose of protecting northern strain largemouth black bass that had been overtaken in every other local public reservoir by the Florida-strain, thanks to the latter’s superior genetics.

    I remember guiding Boyd Gibbons, the Director of the Department of Fish and Game to an estimated nine pounder – his largest ever. I remember losing a fish that I’d hooked only to see another take its place before I got the lure back to the boat. I remember reeling in one bass hooked on a large surface lure, watching other bass try to take it from the jaws of the hooked bass and ultimately landing two at once. I remember promising fishing companions on their first visit to the lake to be prepared for the best day of bass fishing of their life.

    I don’t recall the Lake Barrett that I fished recently, thanks to the media pre-fishing opportunity I was afforded as a staff writer for SDFish.

    The Barrett Lake boat dock

    The rental boat fleet at Barrett Lake is prepped and ready for the action of opening day on May 2nd

    To be clear, I do remember the locked gate on Lyon’s Valley Road, the meander that winds through a beautiful grove of mature oaks and twice across Wilson Creek before delivering its first view of a beautiful lake seen by relatively few. I remember the anticipation that builds after parking my truck, gathering up an armload of gear and walking down the hill to the boat dock. I remember the thrill of motoring away while trying to make a decision regarding the first destination and wondering if the best and most fish would come from the coves across from the boat dock, Pig Point, Pine Creek Arm, Hauser Arm or maybe Echo Cove. Would this be a day in which the fish concentrated on points, coves, rock piles, brush and trees or my preference – brush in association with rocks? Would they be concentrated in open water chasing bait balls of threadfin shad?

    Before our first stop midway in the Pine Creek Arm with dawn giving way, I became aware of two things; large areas of almost pea soup laden with a hearty algae bloom; and millions of threadfin shad spawning everywhere, along the shore, on rocks, brush, stumps and newly emergent cattails.

    Both of these things are fairly common in most local lakes at this time of year. What was not is that there were no schools of bass to be seen crashing and cashing in on the readily available and free breakfast buffet! From the start, it was more than a little unnerving and would only get worse in the course of a short morning of fishing before my companion – first-time Lake Barrett visitor Union-Tribune columnist Bryce Miller needed to get back to work. Worse, I’d brazenly promised him the best day of bass fishing of his life. With no response to the first few casts, it was evident the lake’s normal welcoming committee of agreeable bass would not be greeting us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a sign they would not be helping to fulfill my foolish promise.

    Although still early into our venture I became concerned, even after a top water lure cast between a boulder and cattails produced a bass that didn’t look like the Barrett bass of my past – a three pounder that was in terrific shape. It was thick, fat, deep bodied and forebode quality over quantity.

    Author Jim Brown with a chunky Barrett Lake bass

    Author Jim Brown with a chunky Barrett Lake bass

    Crossing to the other side of the arm a similar specimen took a liking to a frog that Bryce offered beside some cattails. While frogs and rats have become more popular in the last decade or so, my lure of choice – a Bomber Spin-stick (a fore and aft prop bait) -the very same one that has produced scores of Barrett bass in the past and has not been manufactured in decades – produced a clone of the first bass. Bryce’s offering of a wacky rigged Senko over a rock pile produced another in the chunky image of the others. Bryce toyed with a small spinner that I thought might yield a fat crappie or two, but instead resulted in small bass under six inches that were fat, but miniature versions of the larger specimens.

    Union-Tribune columnist Bryce Miller with a healthy Barrett Lake specimen

    By this point, you are probably wondering “what in the hell is wrong with those two guys? They were fishing a closed lake with no competition and on a beautiful day and we all know that any bass angler worth his or her salt would‘ve killed ‘em!”

    I agree, those are my thoughts exactly and quite frankly there are plenty of things wrong with “those guys,” for anyone who takes a closer look, but a lack of effort for a bit over four hours was not one of them.

    Before you ask, I’ll fill you in on a few things that much to my surprise did not work:

    • Chartreuse and white spinner baits fished among submerged trees and brush;
    • Floating Rapala minnows of various lengths ripped, twitched and cranked through, over and around an assortment of shoreline cover;
    • An assortment of crankbaits worked at various speeds and depths along shorelines and points;
    • Jigs worked over submerged rock piles that used to produce larger fish at Barrett.

    I’d love to provide some reasonable excuses for our lack of success. I’ve considered arguing that a little over four hours was not long enough, that we should have had a trolling motor for maneuvering along the shoreline, spent some time double anchored over points and rock piles – but I can’t and won’t.

    What I can and will say is that the few Barrett bass we examined were the fattest and appear to be the healthiest I have ever seen at that lake, and an enormous biomass of threadfin shad should provide forage not only for bass, but all other species in the food chain as well as grebes and wading birds.

    I will also tell you the sobering fact that in my opinion and experience the best fishing I have experienced at Barrett came when the fish were nowhere near the shape of the fish we saw on this day. These fisheries run in cycles and maybe none more so than Barrett due to a variety of possible factors that range from lack of harvest/take to fluctuating water levels as well as impacts on recruitment, growth and the ratio of the population to water volume/surface area. Admittedly, that’s a lot of variables with few controls or absolutes.

    Ironically, my best fishing at Barrett has come when the bass population has collectively been at it unhealthiest! My hundred fish days came during cycles in which one or two dominant year classes of bass had grown so old that their livers were no longer effective in metabolizing the food they consumed – starving fish with heads that appeared too big for their declining bodies and often bore parasites along with sores of secondary bacterial infections. These were fish that attacked everything they saw and for their length should have been two or three times their weight – fish so desperate that I could catch them.

    With all of that said, our brief visit was but a snapshot in time and a blurry one at that. As such, take heart in the knowledge that aside from the apparent robust health of the fish we caught, our experience may be an anomaly and not necessarily a predictor of what might be expected for the 2018 season at Lake Barrett. That is going to depend on the memories you make and take from Lake Barrett.

    The Details – Lake Barrett is a zero kill, catch and release fishery (barbless hooks only) that will open May 2, and operate on a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday schedule. Reservations will be handled by Ticket master (800 745-3000) and go on sale for a month at a time beginning at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. For those desiring a rental boat and motor, a reservation costing $80 (not including Ticketmaster’s fees) will allow entry of up to four anglers and two vehicles. In addition, 25 reservations per day will be issued for those wishing to fish from shore or a float tube at a rate of $20 per day and may include a second angler at the same rate. Primary lake staff will consist or Reservoir Keeper Jose Gutierrez and Assistant Reservoir Keeper Laurie Gensler.

    Water Level – The water level at this time is less than a foot lower than for the same period a year ago with a current gauge reading of 121.5 which is 39.38 feet below spill level and provides a surface area of 377 acres.

    Information – For further information, call the San Diego City Lakes Program at (619) 668-2050 or email customer care@sandiego.gov.

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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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