Editor’s Note: Bill Rice has been writing about bass fishing since the mid-60s. Earlier this year we did a story on his career and today he offers up this account of how the Florida bass got their start in California and the ensuing race to catch the world record largemouth bass. We hope you enjoy this historical look at how the Florida-strain largemouths got to California. To read about Bill’s life and career, please click here.
Few of today’s bass anglers know the history of “big bass” – which actually began thanks to the vision of a Californian, spurred on by an inquisitive pro baseball player. That man was Orville Ball, fisheries biologist and head of the recreation program for the City of San Diego Recreation Department from the mid-50s until around 1969. It was back in 1959 after a fishing trip with friends that Ball had the idea to experiment with the introduction of Florida-bred largemouth bass into the waters of Southern California.
According to Jim Brown, Ball’s successor as the head of the recreation program for the San Diego City Lakes from 1974-2003, “Orville was fishing for crappie at Lake Henshaw with Rolla Williams (outdoor writer) and baseball player Ray Boone. It was Boone who wondered aloud why the bass he caught during spring training in Florida were so much larger than those in his hometown of San Diego.
“This led to a discussion in the boat of whether the fish were genetically different relative to growth potential or the issue was environmental. Orville decided to do some research and came across a thesis on the subject that had been written many years before by America’s top fisheries biologist, Carl Hubbs, who coincidently was in charge of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They met and while neither man was certain that the fish were different, they agreed it would be an interesting experiment to finally find out. Orville told me many times that he would not have pursued the experiment without Hubbs’ encouragement of such an experiment,” Brown said.
Skeptics scoffed at the idea, too, saying that the bass in Florida (which grew larger than any other largemouth bass in the nation) was simply a product of Florida’s warm, near-tropical environment. When transported to other waters, these Florida-bred bass would adapt to the local conditions and become “just another bass.” Boy, were they wrong.
Ball and Hubbs contended that these bass were different and Ball was going to prove it in the City of San Diego reservoirs, the municipal water-supply and recreational reservoirs that were under his supervision. He worked in cooperation with the City and County officials, the advisory group of citizen sportsmen on the City Lakes Committee of the Park and Recreation Board, plus the Florida and California Fish and Game departments.
His efforts succeeded when he was able to acquire 20,000 Florida bass fry, transported to California and stocked into Upper Otay Lake, east of Chula Vista in San Diego County. The first batch of fish in 1959, however, had to be destroyed after a DFG pathologist determined they were infected with ick (1).
However, a second batch of the Florida-strain was procured and planted in Upper Otay Lake, which had been treated with rotenone to remove all fish already present in the reservoir, though some bullheads and green sunfish were known to have survived.
Brown added, “The California DFG was initially opposed to the experiment, which is why Orville brought in Dr. David Jessop (Chairman of the San Diego Fish and Wildlife Commission) and other influential sportsmen to fight the issue on the political and bureaucratic levels. Orville said that with Dave’s effort, the DFG would have prevailed in the preventing the Florida bass ‘experiment.’ It was my privilege to make and write up the nominations of both Orville and Dave for their induction into the Hall of Champions San Diego Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, which recognizes individuals for their contributions to the sport in San Diego.”
From Upper Otay, which remained the breeding waters for the City lakes and was closed to public fishing until the 1990s when shore and float tube fishing was and still is allowed, small amounts of the Florida-strain bass were then transplanted to the City owned lakes—Murray, Miramar, Lower Otay, Sutherland, El Capitan, San Vicente, Barrett and Hodges. Apparently, the fish planting was paid for with San Diego County Fish and Game Commission funds (court fines from warden busts).
Those early experiments surpassed even the most optimistic expectations of those involved. By the mid-1960s, fish weighing from 6 to 8 pounds began to be caught regularly in the catches posted at El Capitan, Lower Otay and Sutherland lakes. By 1969, the results were astounding at all of the San Diego City lakes, changing the face of bass fishing not only in California but nationwide. A new state record was established that year with a bass weighing a little over 15 pounds, from little Lake Miramar. A 15-pound bass in only 10 years was a fantastic growth rate by any standard considering that the original “northern” largemouth bass species introduced to California back in 1874 from Michigan had grown to only 14 pounds in nearly 100 years – that fish was caught at Round Valley Lake in Northern California in 1948.
The northern largemouth bass historically had a growth period of from six to eight months a year because bass just don’t feed or grow much when the water temperatures go below the mid-50s range. During the previous 100 years of bass in California, the northern bass had rarely exceeded weights of 9 pounds and the San Diego County record was only 10-pounds 3-ounces, set at Barrett Lake in 1942.
Once those record-setting and tackle-busting bass started to appear at the San Diego lakes in the 1960s there was no end in sight. In 1970 and 1971, the first lunkers over the 16-pound mark were recorded and with each passing year the weights kept getting bigger until in the 1980s and 1990s the record books were being shattered each year.
During “electric shock” studies on the lakes, biologist Larry Bottroff of the California Department of Fish & Game saw enormous bass at over 17 pounds float to the surface, only to revive in seconds and escape the nets and studies of the biologist. But biologists knew it was only a matter of time until the “world record” would be attacked. That record was a 22-pound 4-ounce whopper caught in 1932 at Montgomery Lake in Georgia by George W. Perry – a mark that had been the standard every serious bass fisherman in the lunker hunt tried to break.
Leading the pack back in the early 1970s was Lower Otay Lake, which produced most of the bigger fish in that decade, but there were other strides being made throughout California. Other lakes in San Diego County, such as Wohlford, Dixon, Cuyamaca and Poway also got into the act and began plants of Florida-strain bass. Other lakes in California got into the game, too, even with central and northern California waters like Clear Lake, the Delta, Success, Don Pedro, Isabella, Shasta, Trinity and many, many more also obtaining plants of these fast-growing Florida bass.
I even got the “big bass” bug myself in the early 70s, and caught my first 10-pound-plus lunker in 1971, a 12.13 Florida at Lower Otay Lake, while fishing with fellow outdoor writer Chuck Garrsion. Since then I’ve become an avid big bass hunter, too, with more than 25 fish over the 10-pound mark, topped by a 13-3 whopper at Lake El Salto in Mexico. I’ve also caught big ones over 10 pounds at Lake Jennings, Lake Poway, Lake Hodges, Lake El Capitan, Lake Mission Viejo and Lake Casitas in Southern California along with 23 fish over 10 pounds during seven trips to El Salto, Aguamilpa and Lake Bacarrac in Mexico from 1998 thru 2008. My wife Anne has also chipped in with 11 bass over ten pounds at El Salto – she also has the family record at 14 pounds!
What’s even more incredible was one day at Lake El Salto in 2001. I had five fish over 10 pound that totaled 57.1 pounds and the 10 biggest went 100.1 pounds. That same day Anne’s 10 biggest weighed in at 85 pounds.
I had that first big bass from Otay mounted and it still hangs on my wall today. But since 1973, I have practiced catch-and-release no matter what the size of bass I catch. Needless to say, we are hooked on Big Bass fishing! Thanks to Orville Ball and the Florida bass transplanting, which have now beenplanted worldwide!
According to long-time San Diego fisherman, tackle dealer and team tournament director at WON Bass, John Cassidy, “More recently, when the State of California was looking for largemouth bass to stock the new Diamond Valley Reservoir, they conducted a statewide search to find the purest strain of Florida largemouth bass available. Even though the original crop of largemouth bass first introduced into California was via Upper Otay Reservoir by way of Florida, those bass had co-mingled with existing bass already populating the lake. The purest strain of Florida bass the DFG could find were from Lake Hodges. These Lake Hodges bass were then planted into the original spawning pools at Diamond Valley and from those 216 fish, we find the excellent population bass seen there today. As a little known side note, Lake Jennings, just east of San Diego, also has bass from that original Otay plant. No “northern” bass have ever been introduced here.”
The big bass fever also spread to other states and there have been reports of 18-pound-plus fish coming out of some lakes in Texas and other states. And the latest surprise is that the nation of Japan has joined the lunker Florida-bass parade after stocking a number of lakes several years ago. In July 2009, Japanese angler Manabu Kurita caught what is now considered to be the world record, edging out the Perry record fish by only .06 pounds. However, as the Perry record wasn’t broken officially by more than 2 ounces, it is considered a “tie” for the record between Perry and Kurita. Nevertheless, the record will surely be broken by a bigger margin one of these days.
In 2001, my friend Mike Long of Poway caught a bass at Lake Dixon that tipped the scales at 20.75 pounds. That fish had a distinctive “dot” on its right cheek, and the fish was released after we took several pictures the morning of the catch. In 2003, that same fish now known as “Dottie” was caught again, by Jed Dickerson of Oceanside. We again shot some pictures of “Dottie prior to her release. (Mike has pictures of Dottie when she was 16 and 18 pounds – he caught her at those weights too. Did you know that?)
In 2006, “Dottie” showed up again, this time caught by Mac Weakley, who was fishing with Dickerson. It was reported that the anglers were sight fishing and snagged the fish instead of hooking it in the mouth – so a legal catch was denied – but not until they weighed the fish (not on a certified scale) and it was reported to be a whopping 25.1 pounds, nearly three pounds over the official world record size.
Then in 2009, “Dottie” showed up again at Dixon, only this time park rangers found her floating dead on the surface of the lake, so she will never be caught as the world record. But her size indicates that the world record can and will be broken in the near future.
In early 2010, Ed Zieralski, the Outdoor Editor of the San Diego Tribune wrote:
“Rumors and allegations are part of the big bass fishing circus. It won’t change. And don’t think for a minute we won’t have another big bass story in San Diego County, maybe as soon as this spring. There’s always a chance for a world-record bass here as long as there are trout-stocked bass lakes.”
Larry Bottroff, former fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Game and the city of San Diego before retiring in 2003, believes Southern California still has a great chance to produce a bass bigger than 22-pounds 4-ounces. He did his master’s thesis at San Diego State on Florida-strain largemouth bass and then spent more than four decades monitoring this area’s bass.
As Bottroff reflected, “San Diego should have owned the world-record bass long ago, most recently when Dixon’s famous Dottie was caught twice, each time weighing more than 22 pounds. The latest was when Mac Weakley of Carlsbad inadvertently foul-hooked the big girl in 2006 when she weighed 25 pounds, 1 ounce. But Dottie, so nicknamed because of the black dot on her right gill plate, bellied up in 2009.” (when was the other time she weighed more than 22 pounds? I heard rumor that when Jed caught her she lost a lot of roe weight and when they weighed her initially on an uncertified scale she weighed over 22)
For Bottroff, who still helps out at bass tournaments by checking and helping revive bass for release, it’s a matter of seeing too many anglers miss opportunities for the record. “Think of how many bass these lakes have turned out over the years that were over 20 pounds, and that’s not counting the number caught illegally at night and never weighed in or recorded,” Bottroff said. “I remember there was a rumor about a 20-pounder poached out of San Vicente that I never saw.”
Bottroff also remembers three other bass that were more than 20 pounds that were being preserved around the same time at local taxidermist shops in the 1970s. And there was one other 20-pound-plus bass that was caught by a notorious poacher who tried to peddle the fish as a world record but failed.
Much of the Florida bass planting has been done by DFG officials, but the fact remains – throughout the period since the introduction of Florida-strain largemouths, there has been a lot of “bucket biology” by fishermen that led to the Florida-strain intergrades taking over almost every other water previously dominated by northern-strain black bass, including farm ponds, sand pits and golf course water hazards.
The advent of the livewell in boats probably contributed heavily to the “unauthorized” spread of the Florida bass. But the widespread notoriety of the huge bass catches also is probably responsible for the tremendous increase in industry products such as bass lures, rods, reels, depth finders, pH meters, trolling motors, bass boats and just about everything else that has to do with fishing. There would be no Bass Pro Shops and hundreds of local tackle shops without the tremendous growth of the bass fishing industry, bass tournaments, bass clubs, etc.
According to records we’ve compiled over the years at Western Outdoor News and also according to B.A.S.S. headquarters in Alabama, these are a few of the top bass ever officially caught in the world record quest. I’ve heard of a few other fish apparently caught in California and Texas which may qualify for this list, but they have not been authenticated.
- 22.31 pounds: Lake Biwa, Japan, Manabu Kurita, July 2, 2009.
- 22.25 pounds, Montgomery Lake (Georgia), George W. Perry, June 2, 1932.
- 22.01 pounds, Castaic Lake (California), Robert Crupi, March 12, 1991.
- 21.75 pounds, Castaic Lake (California), Michael Arujo, March 5, 1991.
- 21.69 pounds, Lake Dixon (California), Jed Dickerson, May 31, 2003.
- 21.20 pounds, Lake Casitas (California), Raymond Easley, March 4, 1980.
- 21.01 pounds, Castaic Lake (California), Robert Crupi, March 9, 1990.
- 20.94 pounds, Lake Miramar (California), David Zimmerlee, June 23, 1973.
- 20.86 pounds, Castaic Lake (California), Leo Torres, Feb. 4, 1990.
- 20.75 pounds, Lake Dixon (California), Mike Long, April 27, 2001.
- 20.25 pounds, Lake Hodges (California), Gene Dupras, May 30, 1985.
- 20.25 pounds, Lake Miramar (California), Johnny Garduno: March 25, 1990.
- 20.13 pounds, Big Fish Lake (Florida), Fritz Friebel, May 19, 1923.
- 19.70 pounds, Lake Mission Viejo (California), George Coniglio, March 31, 2006.
- 19.50 pounds, Lake Miramar (California), Keith Gunsauls, Feb. 29, 1988.
- 19.50 pounds, Castaic Lake (California), Mark Balloid, May 28, 1990.
- 19.50 pounds, Lake Casitas (California), Randy Crabtree, April 9, 2002.
- 19.44 pounds, Lake Dixon (California), Mac Weakley, May 20, 2003.
- 19.25 pounds, Lake Miramar (California), Chris Brant, March 22, 1998.
- 19.19 pounds, Lake Morena (California), Arden Charles Hanline, Feb. 17, 1987.
- 19.19 pounds, Lake Wohlford (California), Steve Beasley, Feb. 3, 1986.
- 19.15 pounds, Lake Ikehara (Japan), Kazuya Shimada, April 22, 2003.
- 19.06 pounds, Lake Miramar (California), Sandra W. DeFresco, March 14, 1988.
- 19.04 pounds, Castaic Lake (California), Danny Kadota, Jan. 8, 1989.
- 19.03 pounds, Success Lake (California), Larry Kerns, Jan. 27, 2001.
- 19.10 pounds, Lake Baccarac (Mexico), Bruce Knutsen, January 17, 1993
- 19.00 pounds, Lake Tarpon (Florida), Riley Witt, June 26, 1961.
- 18.94 pounds, Lake Isabella (California), Keith Harper, April 7, 1984
(1) Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (commonly known as freshwater white spot disease, freshwater ich, or freshwater ick) is a common disease of freshwater fish. Ick is one of the most common and persistent diseases. The protozoan is an ectoparasite. White nodules that look like white grains of salt or sugar of up to 1 mm appear on the body, fins and gills. Each white spot is an encysted parasite.)