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TRIPS : LAKE CASITAS : Back to Nature : The drought has caused crowds to thin, but there's still plenty of fish and natural beauty.

June 14, 1990|JANE HULSE

The crowds are thin these days at Lake Casitas near Ojai. Most likely, it's because the drought has lowered the lake, leaving a tell-tale white line high on the banks. Now only 61% full, the lake hasn't been this low since 1969.

"It just isn't as attractive," said Jim Wagner, superintendent of the Lake Casitas Recreation Area.

But the lake is no less usable because of the drought, he insisted. The boat ramps and docks are all in place. And so are the fish. Recently, an angler pulled out an 18-pound bass.

In fact, Lake Casitas holds the state record for bass--a 21-pound, 3 1/4-ounce beauty, nabbed March 4, 1980. A whopping 41-pound channel catfish came out in 1972, and a 9-pound, 4-ounce rainbow trout set the lake's record in 1985.

But on a recent Monday, there were only a handful of fishermen working the waters and just a couple of boats on the lake.

The lake gets up to 1.5-million visitors a year during normal times. But last year, the count was down to 900,000. And this year looks no better.

The water is so low that a second, flat, grassy island has emerged on the lake. Formerly submerged trees stick out of the water, and the remains of old California 150, which went underwater when the valley was dammed in the 1950s, can be seen.

Casitas is still deep enough for boating--200 feet in most spots. A spin around the 6,200-acre lake takes boaters close to the main island, where deer graze on the tree-studded slopes. An occasional heron swoops down to the shore to keep an eye out for fish.

The recreation area, managed by Casitas Municipal Water District, charges $3 per car to enter the grounds. Thirteen campgrounds offer about 750 camping sites at a $10-per day rate, and trailers that sleep four can be rented for $35 per night.

The marina sells bait, tackle, fuel, fishing licenses, boats, motors, mooring slips, as well as breakfast and lunch. Visitors can launch their own motorboats and sailboats, or rent a boat--everything from a four-passenger row boat to a 10-passenger patio deck boat.

The area has a few restrictions. The big one is no swimming or water skiing. Canoeing and kayaking also are prohibited. The islands are off-limits, and shore access is limited to about five miles on the north end of the lake.

The precautions are necessary because the lake, held back by a dam at the south end, provides drinking water for more than 50,000 people in Ventura County. The best view of the lake and the surrounding mountains is from the top of the dam at the end of Casitas Vista Road.

The lake has had its moment in the spotlight. During the 1984 Olympics, the rowing and canoeing events were held there. Race lanes were anchored in the water, a giant scoreboard was erected, tents for the athletes were put up and stands for spectators were brought in.

But that's not all. Olympic organizers even brought in trees and plants in five-gallon containers to spruce up the grounds. When the games were over, most of the trees and plants were hauled away to return the area to its natural state.

"In the beginning, everyone was a little scared," said Doug Ralph, area assistant superintendent. Residents feared that the rural beauty of the area would be destroyed by the influx of people and equipment.

But in the end, few were sorry. Thanks to the games, the area got new picnic areas, new paved roads and more fish for the lake. And there is barely a sign that the event ever took place.

* The Details: Lake Casitas Recreation area is in the Ojai Valley at Santa Ana Road and Highway 150. The park is open year round. Times vary according to sunrise and sunset. At this time of the year, the park is open from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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