Sutherland Opener (1955) Revisited


In the days before this year’s opener at Lake Sutherland, a few SDFish members became anxious with anticipation of what might await them on opening day.  It made me wonder if they would be interested in a report from Sutherland’s very first opening day in 1955, a mere 62 years ago.

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  • As an eight year old kid who read every fishing magazine he could get his hands on and pretty much lived and breathed fishing, I enjoyed the good fortune of tagging along with my dad.  At that time, the entry road  was near the dam and sloped down hill through a gate that has been locked to public traffic for decades.

    When you reached the bottom of the hill, the road forked.  To the right was the shoreline road that remains in use to this day and to the left was a short spur that led to a small parking lot and a portable building that served as the first of three locations that would be home to the Sutherland concession over the years.  The cracking and tilting concrete slab for the concession can still be seen when the water is low.

    After parking his gray 1950 Buick rather late in the morning, my dad proceeded to the concession stand to purchase his fishing permit and chat with the staff.  One was Chuck Martin the Dam Keeper and another was Butch Collins who held the rights to half of the concessions on city reservoirs (Tommy Morgan had the others) and would later become better known as the founder of Nurseryland.  Little did I know at the time, the role this lake and these men would play in my life years later.

    Returning to the car, my dad opened the trunk and began removing fishing tackle.  After attaching a Fred Arbogast frog pattern Hula Popper to the dacron line, he handed me a Langley outfit that featured a Streamlite casting reel mounted on a spun glass rod that could be bent into a complete circle.  You can still find plenty of Hula Poppers around, but a Langley reel would be a collector’s item.  Langley was a local company near Euclid and Market streets with a machine shop that produced aluminum parts in support of the war effort.  With the war over they converted to fishing reels which were manufactured from 1948 to1962 when the company was bought out by Zebco – but I’ve digressed enough with this yarn.

    Given my proclivity for turning a spool full of line into a backlashed bird’s nest and the fishing time he wasted resolving them, I suspect my dad twisted the spool control knob as tight as he could before urging, “Go see if you can catch a fish Seamus.”

    In an instant, I had become a hero to men whose live mudsuckers were mostly being ignored by the bass. With no objection from me, they paraded me and the fish around the concession which brought my father down the shoreline with a huge smile on his face.

    Wanting to be independent of my dad and the handful of other anglers in the area of the concession, I walked south a bit to the nice little cove closest to the dam on the west shoreline.  Sutherland anglers will recognize it for the large granite boulders on the shore.  Standing beside the boulder, I unleashed my mightiest cast which propelled the Hula Popper a distance of maybe 30 feet – at most.

    As I’d read in the directions that came with every Hula Popper at that time, I slowly chugged the plug back toward shore, since I was too young to smoke and have still never smoked a cigarette, I could not follow the printed directions that read something like this:  “Jerk the rod to make the lure make a chugging or popping sound and reel in the slack you have created.  Work the lure slowly by taking a puff of a cigarette between each pause as the patented hula skirt continues to pulsate and attract fish.”*

    Aside from the cigarette smoking, I dutifully followed the instructions and just as the Hula Popper reached the edge of the boulder, the water exploded as a bass that was huge to me engulfed the lure and began taking line off the dragless and single action reel so fast that I could barely control it with the pressure of my thumb on the rapidly spinning spool.

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  • With much of the battle fought on the surface, there was enough commotion to attract a few men 20 or 30 yards down the shoreline, one of whom came running with a landing net in his hand.  There was a lot of yelling – the usual stuff like “Don’t horse him,” and “Keep his head up.”  I don’t think I was doing any yelling, but I may well have pissed my pants before the fish was on the bank and thrashing around until it was covered with a Panko-like coating of brown dirt and decomposed granite.

    In an instant, I had become a hero to men whose live mudsuckers were mostly being ignored by the bass.  With no objection from me, they paraded me and the fish around the concession which brought my father down the shoreline with a huge smile on his face.  Soon the fish was placed on a metal stringer attached to a stake pounded into the ground and before long the coating washed off.  The fish so mesmerized me that I had no further interest in fishing that day.  Enticed by the attention I received, I walked down the bank for a considerable distance with the rod in one hand and the stringer in the other.

    The shoreline for a few hundred yards had become my stage and I loved being in the spotlight for the attention it brought from other anglers.

    “Did you catch that fish all by yourself boy?”

    “Yep, I did!”

    “And did you catch it in the middle of the day with that danged ol’ Hula Popper?”

    “Yep, I did!”

    After a bit, we were loading our gear back into the trunk and the bass was wrapped up tight in a wet gunny sack and placed on the drop cloths my dad used as a house painter.

    As we wound our way home toward 2634 C, Street, I suspect I pretty much glowed the entire way, and then again later as my family and a few neighbors gathered to see the nice bass I’d caught.

    I knew it was the start of something big, but I would not know how big until years later.

    *I apologize for having to paraphrase the printed directions folded into each Hula Popper box in the 1950’s, but it is as close as I can recall and pretty close to the real thing.  I think somewhat similar instructions came with Injured Minnows by Creek Chub.

    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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    Gretchen Yearous
    Gretchen Yearous

    I am fascinated with the design of the Sutherland Dam. All the dams I have seen are a flat design but this one is so unusual. Do you know how it became that design? I hit the 2017 opener with flyrod, of course, with less success than your opening day… Read more »