This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of California Fly Fisher.
As a child growing up in Chula Vista, a trip from our house to Otay Lakes seemed like it took hours. The winding two-lane road bordered by a small creek, rusty barbwire fencing and cow pastures added to the belief that the lakes were indeed in the middle of nowhere. As I grew up and Chula Vistaís development started leap-frogging eastward, what once seemed like a long trip to a far away lake became shorter with each of our successive moves eastward. Today, Upper Otay Lake is about 5 minutes from my home and provides me a weekly respite from the development of one of the fastest growing cities in San Diego County. Long gone are the farms, cows and pastures and in there place now stand large expanses of new stucco homes, industrial parks and shopping centers. The sounds of shotgun blasts can no longer be heard from the duck hunters on the weekend due to the encroaching development, but a whole lot of solitude and great fishing remains if you know where to look.
While the well-documented land grabs in the Owens Valley provided assurances of future drinking water for the people of Los Angeles, the San Diego Water Company (which was bought out by the City of San Diego in 1901) had a similar plan to ensure drinking and irrigation water for citizens of the quickly growing City of San
Paul Sharman with a nice Largemouth Bass.
Upper Otay was originally intended to serve as an emergency drinking water reserve for Lower Otay Lake but its history took an interesting twist. A discussion between fishing buddies, that included Orville P. Ball the Cityís Lake Manager at the time, Rolla Williams and major league baseball player Ray Boone, resulted in an idea to create a nursery for the fast growing Florida-Strain Largemouth Bass. It was determined that Upper Otay could provide a favorable impoundment for an experimental fish transplantation project. The lake was chemically treated to remove all fish and then re-stocked with Florida-Strain Largemouth Bass. Due to parasites the first stocking was not successful, but in May of 1959, 20,400 bass fry were successfully introduced making Upper Otay the source for all Florida bass planting in California. This experiment also kept the lake closed to fishing until 1996, when the Water Department decided to open it to catch and release fishing with barbless hooks for all species. With the number of fisherman in San Diego growing rapidly prior to the lake being opened to the public, no water seemed off limits. In 1968, poachers added to the mystique of Upper Otayís bass when a poacher caught and left a 16.5-pound bass on a fence post for the lakeís supervisor to find. The bass was wrapped in a bag with a note declaring that the angler wanted to share this fish with the world. However, what would have been a State record Largemouth Bass at the time could not be reported since it was caught illegally. The story was widely reported in the sport sections of newspapers from San Diego to Los Angeles. But what really makes Upper Otay the most unique lake in California is that as of 2006, 21 of the 25 largest bass ever caught were direct descendents of the originally stocked fry.
The lake is still a hatchery and breeding reserve for pure-strain Florida largemouth. Lake records for the largest fish of each species caught have never been kept, but pictures of large (sometimes double-digit) bass surface on bulletin boards from time to time. In addition to Californiaís original population of Florida-Strain largemouth, Upper Otay is also home to bluegill, crappie, channel catfish and is typically stocked with trout in January (although not in 2007).
Where and When to Fish
Upper Otay can be fished from the shore or in a float tube or kayak. Boats are not allowed and there is not a launch ramp. Shore bound anglers can wade along the shoreline as long as waders are used, contact with the water (i.e. swimming) is prohibited. While float tubing, fish areas along the reeds, weed beds and rocky points. Pay particular attention to submerged trees and weeds and always make a couple of casts along the dam and the rocks to either side of it. You can make your way around the lake several times in a fishing session in a float tube.
Spring brings out the hand-sized Bluegill.
Being only 20 acres in size when completely full, the shore-bound angler can fish his or her way around the lake in an hour or two. Productive fishing areas start as soon as you get out of your car and include submerged trees and reed beds that are within casting distance from shore. Once you find a likely area, cast your fly up tight to the structure, let it sink slowly and then strip it in. If you feel a tap, or any unusual resistance, strip-strike the fish by giving the line a sharp pull to set the hook before lifting the rod. This will result in a more efficient strike and also keep the fly within the fishís range if it spits the hook. One of the advantages to fly fishing these areas is that once you have the right amount of line out you can cast again and again right up against the structure. This can really come in handy because many times you will not get a strike without really covering the area with multiple casts.
Like many freshwater lakes, Upper Otay changes throughout the year as well as the day. When the lake opens in February it will typically be at its fullest and coldest. Due to the water temperature, bass fishing is somewhat slower at this time of year, but the stocked trout can save an otherwise slow day. As spring arrives and the water starts warming up, bass and panfish start moving into shallow water and fishing for the fly fisher can really pick up. It is during this time of year that the topwater fishing can be exceptional. With the arrival of summer the water continues to heat up and slowly evaporate. As the water recedes, new structure opens up and old spots are overgrown with aquatic weeds. Late summer also finds weed beds forming along the shoreline providing additional structure for the float tubing fly fisher to work. During this time a fly cast on the weed bed and then slowly pulled off can oftentimes be met with a sharp strike from one of the resident bass or Bluegill. Fishing at Upper Otay can be very productive all day long, but I have had my best days fly fishing first thing in the morning and right before sunset. Something about this lake really seems to come alive at these times.
Fly rod selection for angling the Southern California freshwater should take into consideration the species you are chasing, the size of flies you will be throwing and the wind. The typical quarry for the fly fisher at Upper Otay includes Largemouth Bass, large Bluegill and stocked Rainbow Trout. Typical trout gear in the 5-weight and 6-weight range will suffice most days unless you are going to be casting big flies for Largemouth Bass or it is exceptionally windy. An 8-weight rod can come in handy and make casting bulkier flies in the wind much easier. Pairing the above rod with a quality reel that has a solid drag system is preferred in case you hook into a trophy largemouth or Bluegill. It can mean the difference between having a nice fish run into the reeds and break you off and the opportunity to take your photo with your new personal-best bass or bluegill.
With either of these rods I typically fish a weight forward floating line sized appropriately when targeting fish in the upper portions of the water column (10 feet or less) and along the reeds. Typically, I will also bring an extra spool with a fast-sinking
The author with a Largemouth Bass.
For all species available at Upper Otay it is hard to beat a good old black, olive or brown Wooly Bugger in sizes from #10 for Bluegill and Trout to size #1/0 for largemouth. Other subsurface fly patterns that will produce include Andy Burkís V-Worm in size #10, black and olive leach patterns, Barrís Meat Whistle and Clouser Minnows that mimic the colors of Upper Otayís baitfish. While it would seem that the larger flies would tend to catch only bass, it is not uncommon to catch large Bluegill on 4 inch long V-Worm. I have even taken some respectable bass on a size #10 beadhead Wooly Bugger while targeting Bluegill as well.
Upper Otay can also provide some above average top water fishing for both bass and bluegill both early in the morning and late evening. Pencil Poppers, Panfish Poppers and size #1 OR #1/0 Jack Gartsideís Gurgler can stir up some action when the fish start boiling on the surface. If you have never caught bass on a surface popper you are in for a treat. This can be some of the most visually rewarding fishing you have ever done. Cast the popper to a likely area and wait for a few seconds, then start a retrieve with short sharp strips of the line to pop the fly along the water causing some commotion. Your patience will be tried as you see the water boiling up behind your fly and then a large mouth come out of the water to engulf it. Wait until the line comes tight and set the hook, you are in for a ride. While development has slowly encroached upon Upper Otay, some things have indeed remained the same. Routinely good, and often superb fishing can be available almost year-round. If you are looking for a quick morning or afternoon of fishing with easy access, Upper Otay can fit that bill. Try it; you might just forget you are so close to civilization for an afternoon.
If You Go
Upper Otay is open for fishing from February to the end of October on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Fisherman can access the lake from sunrise to sunset, but the parking area next to the lake is typically cleared out just before the sun goes down. However, you can park at the gate and hike in, which allows you to fish until sunset with only a short hike back to your car in the dark. Anglers can access the water in float tubes and by wading along the shoreline. Upper Otay is a catch and release fishery and permits only barbless artificial lures, all fish must be immediately released. Upper Otay is located approximately 30 minutes from downtown San Diego, within the city of Chula Vista. The lake can be accessed from Interstate 805 and State Route 125 (due to open in late 2007). Take the Telegraph Canyon/Otay Lakes Road exit and head east past Wueste Road to the reservoir entrance on the left. Look for a bright yellow gate and the dam. Follow the dirt road up past the dam and down to the parking lot. Daily fishing permits are $5.00 for adults and $2.50 for children (8-15) and seniors. Fishing permits are available at the lake in what is called an ìiron rangerî if you have exact change or at the concession at Lower Otay Lake (back on Wueste Road). For more information on Lower Otay, or any of the City of San Diegoís lakes, contact Sharon Smith with the City of San Diego at 619-668-2050 or email email@example.com. For current fly fishing information, call or stop by Andy Montana's Surfside Fly Fishers at 957 Orange Avenue in Coronado; phone (619) 435-9992, Stroud Tackle at 1457 Morena Blvd., (619) 276-4822, or the San Diego Fly Shop at 124 Lomas Santa Fe Drive #208, Solana Beach, (858) 350-3111.