BIG BEAR LAKE — Two years ago Steve West caught a world-record nine-pound, four-ounce spotted bass at Lake Perris near his home in Riverside, but he doesn't fish there anymore.
Too crowded, he says. Now he'd rather go to Big Bear Lake for bass.
To many, that's like going to Barstow to surf: It's lousy, but you have the whole place to yourself.
If the bass fishing at Big Bear is only slightly more popular than the surfing, that's fine with West.
"People don't know about it," West says. "I'm kind of glad."
Big Bear was created by a small rock dam in 1884 and enlarged by a higher dam in 1912. About a two-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles, it has long been known for a variety of recreational activities, including water skiing, sailing and some of the best trout fishing in Southern California.
With a capacity of 2,973 surface acres, it has plenty of room for an assortment of fish, even Northern largemouth bass that lurk in the grass and around the docks.
There also are catfish, some crappie, a few bluegill and coho (silver) salmon--few know about the salmon, either--offering anglers opportunities to fish several ways for several varieties of fish. Trollers, spincasters, still fishermen, a few flycasters, some float-tubers, even bow fishermen stalking carp in the back bays are part of the scene.
One day in '86, a local real estate salesman named Jim Hall scored a lake grand slam when he caught a four-pound, six-ounce rainbow trout, a 3 1/2-pound bass and a nine-pound catfish. The remarkable thing was that he caught them all using the same black plastic lure that fairly resembled a tarantula.
"I made it myself," Hall said. "I call it a Jimmy Jig."
Hall isn't sure what attracted such a diversity of fish. Like a lot of angling lore at Big Bear, it's just accepted, along with other more or less sophisticated secrets.
Lin Crawford, president of the Big Bear Valley Sportsman's Club who owns a small tackle store, qualifies as a resident expert on Big Bear fishing. He dispenses his knowledge freely to visitors and readers of the local weekly paper, The Grizzly.
"A flatfish is one of the most effective lures (for trout) on this lake, (but) most people don't use 'em," Crawford said. "You have to use something that gets their attention."
But sometimes results confound expertise. The Big Bear record for a rainbow is 14 1/2 pounds, caught at the mouth of Papoose Bay at the west (dam) end in 1941. Crawford says records are sketchy, so few recall the angler's name--only that he was using a single red salmon egg and a tiny size-16 hook.
Andy Barnett's specialty is catfish, which he has hooked out of the warm shallows east of Eagle Point for more than 34 years.
Barnett's secret: "Fresh chicken liver. Fresh--not frozen."
The favored rainbow area is "Trout Alley" on the south side between Metcalf and Boulder Bays. On a summer weekend the spots off the landmarks "Rock Wall" and "Zebra Room"--a former shoreline nightclub--build up like parking lots, and farther offshore trollers cruise as if they were on Main Street on a Saturday night.
Most use worms or Powerbait--the old and new reliables.
A few veteran anglers anchor right in the traffic lanes leading into the marinas in Metcalf Bay. One, Joe Gembrin of Palm Desert, usually catches his share of trout while rolling in the wakes of boats passing through.
"They come in here to feed because there's a lot of weeds," he said. "Water's water. I caught a 4 3/4-pound rainbow right here."
Big Bear is known even less for flyfishing than it is for bass but, Crawford says, the whole north side can be good in late afternoon when the sun leaves the water, but only in the spring or fall when the weeds are gone. And then it's not what fly anglers usually do.
Crawford advises them to \o7 troll--\f7 not cast--a dry or wet insect pattern on spinning gear, using a three- or four-pound test leader and no smaller than a size-8 hook.
"If you catch 'em on the feed, you can knock 'em silly," he said.
Bass live in other neighborhoods, on different diets. West, his companions having gained his trust in an afternoon of prowling the lake's hot spots, reaches deep into one of his tackle boxes and reveals a four-inch black plastic lizard with white spots on its belly.
"This has been a well-kept secret here for a long time," he says.
But, generally, "A pig and jig is good all year long here."
Pig, in bass angler jargon, is a slice of pork rind.
West, 37, is a serious bass fisherman. He shares the spotted bass world record with Gilbert Rowe, who also caught his at Perris, but four years ago Crawford tipped him off to Big Bear's potential. He's outfitted like a pro, with a sleek, 17-foot bass boat equipped with a 150-horsepower outboard and electronics that tell him the water temperature and depth, display the fish on a scrolling graph and do everything but net the critters and clean them.
"It's mostly status," he says, selecting one of eight rods he has on board.