I have been telling people where to go (both literally and figuratively) for the bulk of my career. The weekly fishing report was started in the early 1970s as a way to summarize how the fishing was in major fishing waters in the Inland Empire and expanded to include the whole southern half of the state. It got so big the newspapers that ran the report each week had to run it in tiny type (called agate), and then had to trim it to only the waters in their immediate circulation areas as newspapers started to shrink.
A few years ago, I added roundups by species at the top of the report for the specialists. The roundups were lists and tips where anglers were likely to find the best trout or bass or catfish fishing that week. And then the generalists started pestering me so much about simply ‘the best place’ to fish for whatever species, that I added my three ‘picks of the week.’
Apparently a lot of fishermen follow the report religiously and believe what I put in there is gospel. Most know that it’s reporting about what happened over the past week, filtered through marina operators, dock hands, happy or unhappy anglers, and finally my 40 years of doing this report. It’s a guide that’s generally accurate, but most anglers also know that things can and frequently do change from week to week in fishing. (For example, my number one pick last week, the wide open tilapia fishing at the Salton Sea, was shut down by the storm front that moved in and you’d have been cursing my name if you went there last weekend and didn’t get a bite. Hey, weather happens. Bites shut down.) That’s why we update them each week.
I was trying to explain to an editor why we needed to run the fishing report each week, but he just didn’t get it. He was a ball sports guy who didn’t fish. I finally told him to imagine a golf course with holes and greens that moved around the course at will, sometimes with five or six greens concentrating at the end of just one fairway. Guys could drive balls down a lot of fairways before finding a green tucked up in the rough somewhere. They would need information about where the greens were hiding. ‘Well, that would be crazy. You’d have to be stupid to play,’ he said.
But that’s fishing and maybe he’s right. But we do play.
A lot of anglers are secretive about where and what they fish. Most of these guys and gals just think they’ve discovered the perfect bait or lure (and end up selling it via infomercial on the Outdoor Channel) or a genuine secret spot in a region with nearly a million anglers. I don’t want to burst your bubble if you’re one of those people, but there are no secret baits.
Lures, flies, and baits are getting better and better. They look and act and taste more like real things fish eat every year. But some lures go the other direction and look and do things that nothing in nature does, but fish like bass and bluegill and rainbow trout still eat them. Natural baits still work better than all of the lures on the market, which is why you can’t use natural bait in an increasing number of places and many types of bait are banned. So your secret bait is just a variation on a theme that has been used before.
Secret spots are slightly different story. My fishing report covers all the major waters in the region, places where you will almost always see other anglers. But it doesn’t cover all of the small trout streams that drain out of our local mountains. It doesn’t cover most city park lakes, small ponds in housing tracts, or golf course ponds. I don’t report on flood control ponds or private lakes like Lake Arrowhead. All of these places might have issues relating to trespass or fishing access. But they all get fished ñ some of them pretty significantly. Some private waters like Vail Lake are famous. If that’s your secret spot, it’s not a secret.
Go to Google Maps and pull up the satellite image view of Southern California and start scrolling around and you’ll see there is water everywhere. If you know that right people or aren’t afraid of climbing over or under fences and ignoring signs (and the tickets that might come with getting caught), there are a nearly endless number of secret fishing spots in Southern California. Well, they might not be secret, but you can fish them in solitude sometimes and that might be the key.
Go to any fishing forum for this region and you will see images of guys holding fish with the background blurred out so the location isn’t given away. When I was younger I climbed over countless fences and scurried across night-time golf course fairways to fish secret spots. Usually I ran into other anglers. Some of these spots are good for a couple of seasons and then they dry up (flood control ponds have this nasty habit). Some are good until the golf course manager changes and the new guy thinks the weeds in the pond are nasty and copper sulfates it to death, ruining the fishing. Some are just darn hard to fish (pick any small stream running out of the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, or San Jacinto mountains) and have little fish to boot. Why bother? I remember a friend telling about fishing a local creek where he once caught a six or seven pound rainbow that had washed out of someone’s pond upstream. He has photos. His biggest trout from that stream before that fluke fish was a nine-inch rainbow, which is a real trophy fish for that creek, hand-fed wash-downs aside. He shows off the photo of the nine-incher more because he knew it was a wild fish born and bred in the creek. Secret spots have their own appeal.
While it is illegal, fishermen are pretty good about making sure a local pond or lake in a housing tract gets stocked with fish. Fish and Wildlife officials might get apoplectic about a fisherman hauling a non-native fish into an artificial lake in created human residential area. Of course, the agency did the same thing for years, so I’m a little more forgiving and logical about the whole thing.
I get tipped off about secret spots by guys occasionally, but like most of you, I find them on my own.
Years ago while working on a magazine in Orange County, I was picking up something in an office complex that had a pretty cool artificial stream running between all the offices. Of course I was checking out the water. Then I saw it: a trout slide out from a brick undercut bank to eat a bug off the surface of the water. No way. I had a fly rod in my car and worked late that evening and went back to see if anyone was in the complex past six. There wasn’t. I did find a Rapala packaging stuck in the sand of one of those outside ash trays so I knew I wasn’t the only one. But it was quiet and the tumbling water kept out the sound of the nearby freeway and street traffic.
Would we all rather be fishing some pristine Sierra trout stream with native rainbows or, better, an arctic river for char or pike? Sure. But we make do and adapt. The whole food-gathering thing is embedded in our DNA, even if we let the fish go. We keep our skills honed by fishing in this urban jungle. The arctic would be easy.
And don’t worry, I never write about our secret spots, even though most anglers wouldn’t bother with them.