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Bass Heaven : 10-Pound Largemouth Fish Appear Plentiful in Perhaps Lake Casitas' Best Year Ever


OAK VIEW, Calif. — A new day's sun is lighting the sky, revealing a lush green countryside and a sprawling lake reflecting the billowing clouds above. Birds begin to sing.

The serenity of the morning is short-lived, however. Abruptly, in a collective roar of high-powered engines, bass boats by the dozens speed off.

The daily ritual has begun anew.

It's peak season at Lake Casitas, and the reservoir, rejuvenated after the drought by two years of steady rains, has been the hottest lake around for trophy-sized largemouth bass.

"It's good every year at this time, but this year has to be one of the best ever," marina manager Randy King says. "At other lakes a 10-pounder is a once-in-a-lifetime fish. We've been getting more than a dozen every week."

But lake regulars catch most of those fish, and they are a secretive yet fiercely competitive lot. A very large bass does not go unnoticed. Neither does failure to produce.

Marlin Spencer, a 53-year-old semi-retired cabinetmaker from Santa Barbara, is one such fanatic.

"I've fished here 20 years and I catch at least 10 bass (of) 10 pounds or more every year," Spencer says as he pulls his boat up to a point off an area known as Indian Mesa. The submerged trees and bushes beneath were home to an 11-pound 8-ounce lunker that charged the surface and inhaled one of Spencer's homemade lures the other day.

The lures are large jointed contraptions, painted to look like a trout and built to mimic one.

"There's nothing these bass like more than a trout swimming on the surface," Spencer says. "And when they come up, the water just opens up and there's nothing like it."

Spencer casts and begins the slow retrieve. The lure looks like a trout, but there is no sudden opening of water, only a gentle V-shaped wake following the lure as it swims back to the boat.

Spencer casts again, and again . . .

Elsewhere on the lake, Dave Townsend is battling a 10-pound largemouth.

Spencer isn't concerned, however.

"You have to have patience," he says. "It's just a matter of when they decide to feed. I can throw these (lures) all day if I have to."

It appears he won't have to wait long. A commotion erupts behind the boat, where several bass are chasing a small trout, which disappears suddenly as a bass opens its large mouth, taking the trout and a huge amount of water in one gulp.

Spencer puts his hand over his heart, breathes deeply, then casts several times in the vicinity of what he calls the "wolf pack" of bass. But the fish are not fooled by his artificial trout.

The commotion is over quickly, tranquillity restored. A breeze ripples the lake. Small ducks dive for small prey.

But for Spencer, nothing is biting.

Not too far away, John Shull, a lake regular from Ojai, is battling an 11-pounder.

Spencer decides to move.

He pulls up to an area at the south end, where a submerged ridge between what are now two small islands has produced in the past. Spencer casts. Nothing. He casts again. nothing. It is asked how he got the name Marlin.

"My mother picked it out of an old true-confession magazine," he answers, reluctantly. So much for small talk.

Spencer remains upbeat, though, outwardly anyway, and moves again to an area he calls "Fish Highway," near the dam.

"They come in from the dam and round this small point," he says.

Sure enough, two large bass are cruising around the point a few feet beneath the surface. Spencer's heart races again, and he casts. Again, no takers.

He works the shoreline toward the east shore. Several deer are grazing on the hillside. But Spencer can't get a bite.

"I've never cast so many times and not caught anything," he says, his frustration beginning to show. He fires up his engine and hits the throttle. "Maybe they'll be biting after lunch."

Despite having filled up on humble pie, Spencer orders a burger and coffee.

King hand-feeds wild birds meal worms behind the counter at the tackle store, where snapshots logging the day's top catches are displayed. He explains how Casitas has regained its prominence as one of the world's top largemouth bass fisheries.

"The lake dropped 55 feet during the drought," he says. "We lost nutrients and lots of habitat. The lake came back up 28 feet two years ago, covering all the new growth, and 25 feet last year. It gave us a terrace--there's great habitat 25 feet down and then there's the next level, where there are a lot of big bass."

The biggest Casitas bass was a 21-pound 3-ounce fish caught by Ray Easley in March of 1980. The biggest since, an 18-pound 8-ounce fish caught last March by Steve Gray of Ventura.

Many believe that Casitas will produce the next all-tackle world record, finally striking from the books the name of George Perry, whose 22-pound 4-ounce largemouth caught in a Georgia pond has stood as the record since 1932.

Spencer, however, has something else on his mind: producing a respectable fish by day's end.

"If it happens to be a world record, so be it," he says, back in his boat for the afternoon bite, should there be one.

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