ESCONDIDO — Lake Wohlford opens its nine-month fishing season Friday and trout five pounds and better will be caught. But it won't be like the good old days.
"When they got a little bit big, we had to go down to the surplus store and buy hundreds of machetes to issue to the people who went fishing," says Earl Losch, the former owner and operator of Lake Wohlford Resort. "They had to cut them in four pieces to get them in the boat."
Uh-huh. That's probably why they weren't mounted on the walls of the Lake Wohlford Cafe, which displays other trophy catches of trout, catfish and largemouth and smallmouth bass dating to 1944.
Or maybe the cafe cooked them. Don't blame chef Ken Krongaard. Some people think he's been there since the lake was formed in 1895, but he didn't arrive until the '70s. Besides, he's only 83.
The Kuebler family homesteaded the property in the 1880s. In 1895 a flume was completed to bring water from the San Luis Rey River into Bear Valley, and the Kueblers found themselves with a resort on Lake Escondido. Further development of the reservoir system placed the lake downstream from Lake Henshaw, and in 1924 it was renamed to honor A.W. Wohlford, the banker who shaped the policies of the new water company.
Losch came along in 1933, during the Depression, looking for work. He not only got a job but the hand of Charlie Kuebler's daughter Ava and later took over the place, running it until he sold out to John O'Flynn 15 years ago.
As resorts go, this is not Club Med. But the food is good, the accommodations adequate and O'Flynn has maintained the legends and traditions, including the cafe's catfish menu, homemade pie and Losch's tall tales. Losch still lives there as sort of the resident character and historian because, he says, O'Flynn told him, "You know where all the bodies are buried."
Until more formal law enforcement took over, Losch also was the law around Wohlford--a deputized sheriff.
He also says, "I used to make my own hootch here."
Long after Losch is gone, his landmarks will remain: the cafe, the unfinished home site, the well, the airport.
Most folks that drive through Bear Valley on County Road S6 probably are unaware of the airport, up on a hill overlooking the resort. Losch built it in 1954.
Did Wohlford need an airport? Probably not. But Losch had this glider someone gave him to settle a $400 debt, so what else was he to do? He bulldozed the top of the hill into a 1,650-foot airstrip, whose crumbling blacktop runway is still used by a couple of dozen regular visitors.
There is no control tower, but there is a windsock to assist brave pilots who have compared the experience to the thrill of landing on an aircraft carrier.
Losch bought the 127 acres of property from the Kueblers for $10,000 in 1939 and developed his construction skills as a Navy Seabee overseas in World War II.
"Over there, I dreamed up all kinds of things I was going to do with the place," he says.
When he returned, the first thing he did was build the cafe in 1946. In a week. Losch summoned 57 of his Seabee buddies, who were used to building things in a hurry.
Losch also built 10 adobe cabins and continued to tinker with various projects until, he says, "Finally, there were so many inspectors on my back that I said 'To hell with it' and sold it to John O'Flynn in 1977."
Losch had a home site with a 360-degree view of Bear Valley from a hill opposite the airport, but it never got beyond some rock walls attached to steps that go nowhere. His tall water-drilling rig stands rusting nearby, surrendering to overgrowth.
On the slopes behind the cafe, more than 200 residents have settled into mobile homes, whose wheels turn no more. There's an old hydraulic grease rack Losch once used to work on tenants' cars.
Wohlford is rustic, all right. That's its charm. You can hear the Ricochet band's country rock live every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at the Oakvale Resort across the lake.
But the fishing brings most people to Wohlford. The lake records compare with any other for size and variety.
"From Jan. 1 to the end of May, this is a hell of a lake for bass," O'Flynn says. "March through May, the crappie bite comes on."
Wohlford, about five miles from Escondido, is at 1,500 feet. It's only about a mile long and a quarter-mile wide, but is the major water supply for the city and benefits from a sustained level year-round, despite droughts. In the near future, however, it might have more water than anyone wants.
The San Diego County Water Authority is looking for places to store more water in case a major earthquake destroys the aqueduct upstream. One option under consideration is the building of a new dam that would raise Wohlford by 80 feet--and submerge the resorts by 50 or 60 feet.
Escondido opposes the prospect, as do the "Friends of Lake Wohlford."