Mike Jones - KEEPING UP

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018
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Wednesday, October 17, 2018
The Best, Ever: Part 2 Mexico in My Backyard

The Best, Ever: Part 1 — Chemically enhanced piranha
In fishing, as in life, there are people who make a difference. Places too. In both cases, the unrelenting tick of the clock eventually calls them home. People die and places sometimes just go away, changed forever.

As a native southern Cali­fornian, I thought I was somehow immune to it. Growing up, I rode my Stingray bike through sprawling construction sites where the whine of saws and the gunshot reports of framing hammers were simply the soundtrack of an era. Much later, when I lived in Texas, and someone would see maybe five houses going up, I would always laugh at them.

“Can y’all believe what is happening?” the Texan would moan in a sad drawl.

“Yes, yes, I can believe it,” I would respond with a knowing tinge of sarcasm. “When you see five hundred houses going up, think of me.”

The place I lost was, without exaggeration, the best bass fishing lake on the planet. Better than Hodges, Otay, Castaic, Casitas and Clear Lake at their peaks. Better than Lake Fork and Mille Lacs. Even better than Ray Scott’s private lake behind his house in Alabama. Not only was the fishing better, the fish were bigger. And, on most days, I had it all to myself.

More than anything, I knew what I had when I had it. It was so magical I didn’t think there was any way this 65-acre bass powerhouse could last for long. But it did. It lasted because it was located in one of the most unlikely places on the planet, an avocado and eucalyptus-lined arroyo tucked among the foothills at the end of Culver Road — only a locked gate away from the ever-growing planned community of Irvine, Cali­fornia.

Of course, I know what you’re thinking: Misty, water-colored memories of times gone by. I get it, but stay with me because I have corroborating testimony.

My love affair with Rattle­snake Reservoir began on a day when I found myself in Anglers Marine and my friend, Rick Grover, asked me a pointed question.

“Hey, there’s a lake over in Irvine with a fishing club that needs members to pay for insurance, you interested?”

“Are there any fish in it?”

While some fishermen are easily impressed, Grover is not one of them. The sly look he shot back spoke more volumes than an Al Lindner In-Fisherman library. Oh my. This, I could tell, was serious. Apparently, the club had been in existence for decades, as much for duck hunting as it was for fishing. The insurance payments were required to satisfy the Irvine Company and the rest was to pay for the upkeep of some aluminum boats.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Rattle­snake, I can only speak to my personal involvement. Like all of you, I like getting in on the hot bite. However, as a writer, I never felt it was fair to report on a fantastic adventure at a private lake. If I were the reader, it would just piss me off. So, I never did. That said, I would never pass up the opportunity to fish at such a place. After all, my journalistic principles only run so deep and the photographic possibilities could not be denied. No matter where a fish is caught, everyone loves a big bass photo. Blue sky, white teeth, green fish. This was and will always be the equation for painting any picture about happy anglers doing happy things.

With a concrete dam and spillway at the west end, flooded timber dominating the north side, a line of tules framed by the south shore, water as deep as forty feet and a wash connected to Irvine Lake three miles to the northwest, Rattlesnake had it all. In the El Niño years, at full pool, Rattlesnake had even more.

The fish were square-bodied super chunks, thick as proverbial bricks and averaging between three and four pounds. To be sure, there were smaller bass but more of them seemed to be over the average than under it. Blessed with a solid shad population plus an array of cover and structure options, it was easy to understand why these fish were so healthy. Less clear-cut was the reason for so many mastadons. While I was never quite sure of its impact on this pint-sized Jurassic Park, a pump that periodically sent reclaimed water surging back into Rattlesnake brought with it an unmistakable chemical aroma.

One day, a water district truck appeared on the dam. The driver shouted down to me, “Ya catchin’ any?”

In my standard, noncommittal angling reply, I shrugged.

“Now and then.”

He shook his head. “Well, judging from the water quality, I wouldn’t think you could catch anything in this lake.” As the man waved a friendly goodbye, I could only assume the quality he referred to was the clear-water, scraped-clean-bottom variety favored in nearby subdivisions.

He was as wrong as wrong could be. In addition to largemouth, everything in Rattle­snake grew to formidable proportions, including a species I had never caught before and most likely will never catch again. It hit my crankbait with the ferocity of a plate-sized bluegill and the determined power of a trophy-caliber largemouth, but it was neither. At first, its mottled olive, oval-shaped body slashed with red made me think someone had dumped a piranha in the lake, a very large piranha. Somewhere in the neighborhood of four pounds, this tropical Oscar was massive even by Amazonian standards where its South American cousins co-exist with their toothy counterparts. Unaware the IGFA actually has world-record classifications for such things and wanting nothing other than a long release, I bid my husky friend, adieu.

Next time: Part 2 Mexico in my backyard

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