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Angler's Dream: New Lake, Nice Day, Stupid Fish

Diamond Valley Lake, near Hemet, opens to rave reviews from fishermen who get first crack at a stocked reservoir.

October 04, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A placid lake, tens of thousands of largemouth bass, and a dusty reach of Riverside County will never be the same.

On Friday, fishermen from around the nation cast big dreams and small lures into Diamond Valley Lake, a massive drinking-water reservoir near Hemet that has been in the works for more than a decade and is Southern California's largest freshwater lake.

The reservoir, framed by mountains and containing enough water to quench Southern California's thirst for six months, is being heralded as one of the best spots in the nation to fish for largemouth bass.

"Fantastic. Today is so great. It's way beyond expectations," said Phillip J. Pace, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which built the reservoir.

"It's kind of like waiting for your child to be born -- when it finally comes, you're like 'Wow. Look at this.' "

The 4 1/2-mile-long, 2-mile-wide reservoir is an engineering marvel, but building it was not without obstacles. Property was condemned, expensive court battles were waged, and residents of some nearby towns are still wondering when promised recreational facilities will be built.

The area is dusty and rural, and its residents are bracing for the change the lake is supposed to bring.

In addition to potential hotels, restaurants and golf courses, there is talk of a casino and Branson, Mo.-style dinner theaters.

But Friday was about fishing. Three-hundred boats filled with anglers, and scores along the shoreline, cast their lines in crisp air under cloudy skies.

Anglers, who long ago made reservations, started lining up Thursday evening for their first crack at the lake -- and the bass, bluegill, rainbow trout, catfish and red ear sunfish stocked in it by fisheries experts.

Maurice Camp, 58, and Tom Stone, 72, were first in line. The friends, who have been fishing together for 15 years, arrived at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 12 hours before their boat would be launched.

"It's virgin water, never been fished," said Stone, of Baldwin Park.

"This is a new experience for us, which makes it that much more exciting," said Camp, a Murrieta resident. Besides, he said, as he pointed to a string of trucks towing boats that snaked down the mountain, "We didn't want to be in the end of this mess."

Anglers from as far away as Florida were desperate to get out on the water, having waited years for the $2-billion reservoir to be built, filled with 260 billion gallons of water, and opened to the public.

Amid little fanfare, that wait ended Friday.

And legends were born.

Within minutes, Josh Upton, 30, of Hemet had caught two largemouth bass, 5 and 4 1/2 pounds.

The story quickly spread through the scores of fishermen waiting to launch their boats, and confirmed what had been only rumored: The water at Diamond Valley Lake is thick with fish -- large fish that have never seen a fisherman's lure.

"I'm having a blast out here," Upton said Friday afternoon, after catching more than a dozen more. "Normally, you've got to work hard to catch fish like that."

The lake was designed for fishing, not partying. There's a ban on swimming, personal watercraft and other forms of body contact with the water -- as well as a prohibition against smoking and alcohol.

Underwater plastic pipes mimic catfish mating caves, citrus trees anchored to the lake bottom serve as habitat, and the nutrient-rich water has promoted fish growth greater than anyone anticipated.

Until Friday, the only people who had cast lures into the lake were wildlife biologists and some select groups who got to preview the lake.

In other words, the fish didn't know to avoid bait.

"The fish are stupid -- my kind of fish," said Chris Tallman of Yucaipa.

Most of the anglers said they planned to catch and release, so the fish would grow and remain abundant. Fishing requires a state license, and there are bag limits, depending on the species.

Shoreline fishermen, who were allowed to cast from 1 1/2 miles of rocky and difficult-to-access coves, were having less luck then their counterparts in boats.

"Everyone came to fish but the fish," said Ron Brown, 65, of Perris.

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