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Blake Warren – ON THE HOOK

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Friday, April 21, 2017
Rallying around the cause, 'en base'
Thursday, June 01, 2017
Big bass fishing’s Valhalla

With most of state’s freshwater scene on rebound, OC anglers odd men out
For freshwater anglers throughout Southern California — and the whole of the Golden State in general — 2017 has so far been a breath of fresh air and a revival of sorts for many lakes and reservoirs. A much welcomed wetter-than-normal winter having brought lake levels up significantly, providing some long-needed drought relief, and replenishing ecosystems and essential nutrients throughout the state looks to have numerous fisheries bouncing back in a big way from recent dry years and trending upward for the next couple future seasons.

However, one region that still appears to be getting the short end of the stick as many watersheds are on the rebound is Orange County, which has seen its top freshwater fisheries fall by the wayside while others flourish in a rebirth of sorts.

The first proverbial shoe to drop was oft-underrated big fish-producer Corona Lake over three years ago, drying up due to drought to become essentially an unfishable puddle due to low water, and still not a viable option today despite getting some water this winter.

Then came the changing of the guard at trophy trout-centric Laguna Niguel Lake, which shifted from a private operation drawing big crowds with frequently-stocked big rainbows during the colder months to a city-run operation by OC Parks with no boat rentals available when the former concessionaire of nearly 20 years didn’t have its lease renewed late in 2015, resulting in fewer plants and smaller fish — though to be fair, OC Parks has done an fairly admirable job of getting quality trout stocks to the regional park lake.

And ultimately, the final dagger to draw blood in the area was the most unfortunate closure of highly popular Irvine Lake in early 2016, a result of a massive land transfer from the Irvine Com­pany to the County of Orange which has led to a stalemate standstill of progress as the county and Serrano Water District have ground to a halt in negotiations related to the land transfer over any potential agreement regarding the lake’s water recreation rights, keeping the lake’s gates shut and the public on the outside looking in for the time being until the situation can be settled between the two parties.

With these three popular lakes presently off the board, the lone option in the area is Santa Ana River Lakes, but not without heavier pressure due to closures at the region’s other top impoundments. A few lakes in the county’s Regional Parks system receive periodic trout plants and some opportunity, but nothing significant to sustain a full season’s pressure and demand in such a densely populated area.

The most significant — and seemingly unnecessary — loss to area anglers is clearly Irvine Lake, which was among the entire Southland’s most popular fishing spots for well over half a century before shutting its gates early last year. When the Irvine Co. made its decision to donate the 2,500-acre parcel to the county back in 2014, it was clear to all involved parties that a new agreement would have to be reached by 2016, when the Serrano Water District’s — which retains a percentage of the lake’s recreation rights — lease was up. When no such agreement was reached by that time, Feb. 28, 2016 became the last day anyone wet a line at Irvine Lake.

Here we are over 14 months later, and there is still no agreement in place between the county and Serrano, with no indications that anything imminent is anywhere near the horizon. Irvine’s gates are still closed and the biggest loser in all of it by far is the angling public, which has a gem of a fishery that generations of families have grown up enjoying right in its backyard — yet have to settle for merely looking at the lake for the time being until something is worked out between two parties that essentially view the watershed as merely dollars and cents, rather than the fantastic recreational resource that Irvine is to so many folks. It’s a shame by all accounts, no matter how one looks at it. And until the county can find a feasible way to operate a recreational concession without losing money along with reaching some type of accord with Serrano, it will remain nothing other than a shame — and a terrific fishery forced to sit idly by without much urgency on display from the powers that be.

On the bright side of things, Orange County is far more the “bummer” exception rather than the more common “things are looking up” rule.

The northern part of the state was the recipient of a whole heckuva lot of water this past winter, with many of its lakes filling (or nearly filling) to the brim. Many of the top lakes north of the Bay Area are still sitting awfully pretty heading into the back end of springtime.

In California’s Central Coast region — one of the hardest hit by the recent drought — the area’s most popular lakes are all looking fantastic, with Nacimiento and Santa Margarita essentially full, and long-maligned Lake San Antonio now once again open to recreation on a full-time schedule (starting May 19, South Shore only) for the first time since the summer of 2014 — San Antone had dipped as low as just 3 percent of capacity as recently as last year.

Castaic is as full as it’s been in quite some time and oft-visited Cachuma Lake is nearly half full after being at under 10 percent just a year ago (just to name a few), while most of San Diego County’s impoundments are enjoying increased water levels too.

So as outdoor enthusiasts and fisherfolk up and down the state are enjoying our greenest spring in years, plenty of new-look lakes that are now full of water and more outdoor opportunity than in recent memory, the freshwater scene in Orange County remains an odd blemish in an otherwise feel-good Cali­fornia fishing landscape.

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