- 2,027,840 Acre Feet
- 65 Miles of Shoreline
- Surface Area 12,250 acres
- 270 feet deep
- Oneill Forebay Water Heights full=222.60 ft (<219ft is too shallow to boat) Water data
- San Luis Reservoir full=543 ft Water data
San Luis Reservoir is one of California’s largest reservoirs and a critical component of the state’s water supply system. In fact, with a capacity of more than 2 million acre-feet (AF), it is the largest off-stream storage facility in the world.
I always dreamed of knowing a body of water so well that I could catch fish in it at will, in any weather, in any conditions. I thought that might happen later in my life when I retire to some small lakefront or riverfront cabin–like ” On Walden’s Pond” . The one thing I have realized fishing all over the world is sometimes, you overlook the best fishing of all and it’s right under your nose. Sometimes those moments come by accident and luck; whether it’s catching and enormous bass in my backyard lake- Calero Reservoir- or casting to 20lb mudding carp in the flats of the Perc Pond near my office, or catching a 12 inch trout in the creek behind Leland High School on an indicator and nymph. I forgot that the main reason I started fishing for fun, mainly because it is was easy and cheap. It is time for me to understand San Luis Reservoir–really understand it. It’s the best world class piece of fishing water within and hour of my house (next to the delta).
These pages are dedicated to that goal–to crack the mystery of San Luis Reservoir Stripers. I started fishing SLR sometime around 1970 when I was 13 years old. I remember when my dad would bring me to the lake where he taught me to catch fish with anchovies from the shoreline. He also taught me to clean and dress stripers so that my mother would not complain about the fish we brought home-“Ikejime” (humane dispatching of a striper to preserve taste). My dad was a meat fisherman and I learned how to use a scalpel (a fillet knife) at age 13 because of his obsession with bringing home the fish. Maybe that contributed a bit to my current profession as a dentist but back when I was young, it was all about fishing and quantity and San Luis was the meat locker. Today, I am more about understanding the biology behind the fishing and fighting the political threats to this great fishery that was born of mans inspiration to control water to the masses. In short, the wonderful fishing in San Luis is a man made phenomena populated by a non native species-the largest off stream reservoir in the world with Stripers.
The Lake-Man Made Striper Habitat dedicated by John F Kennedy
JFK gave this speech at the groundbreaking of the project actually detonating an explosive at the projected water level of the finished dam on August 18th 1962. The dam project was completed in 1967 but President John Kennedy never saw the completed project as he was assassinated in Texas a year later on November 22, 1963. …how we set things in motion not knowing what the future will bring.
History and Biology of Stripers
Captain John Smith, wrote in his journal in 1614 “that Striped Bass was a most sweet and wholesome fish as ever I did eat” And In 1634: William Wood, in his New England’s Prospect, called the Striped Bass “one of the best fishes in the Country . . . a delicate, fine, fat, fish.” Striped Bass were also served at the nations first Thanksgiving.
The Striped Bass, scientifically referred to as Morone saxatilis is endemic to the East Coast. The striped bass has been a prized fish since the Plymouth Colonies in 1670 where they were commercially fished. In 1607, Captain John Smith found the Chesapeake Bay waters clean and clear, free of the phytoplankton clouds that followed in later years. He wrote in 1614 that the fish seemed so plentiful that one might walk “dryshod” across their backs over the river. Striped bass can live up to forty years and reach weights greater than 100 pounds at nearly five feet in length, although individuals larger than 50 pounds are considered an absolute trophy fish and a possibly once-in-a-lifetime.
The entire California Striper fishery is the result of 435 fish planted on two occasions–135 fingerlings in 1879 and 300 in 1882. Fingerling Stripers were first introduced into San Francisco bay in 1879 and were place in the Carquinez Straits. Transported by train from New Jersey’s Navesink River, the fish prospered in Delta and San Francisco Bay. Six months later, an eight inch bass was reported to have been caught in Monterrey Bay. The first confirmed report in SF Bay occurred several months after that. Only 4 years later on October of 1883 a fisherman reported catching a 16 lb striper in the Sacramento River! Imagine what the DGF would have said today about dumping a bunch of foreign fish into the Bay! The striper population in the Bay exploded–between 1889 and 1892 the yield of stripers by commercial fishermen increased 250 percent. There is a record of a party boat in SF bay that landed 1500 fish in one boat in 1894 with an average size of 7-14 lbs. The stripers were fished commercially until 1935 when the local sports fishermen managed to lobby against the commercial fishery to improve their sport! There are many observations of schools of spawning stripers in the San Joaquin River in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In contrast, commercial salmon fishermen in the Sacramento River rarely reported catching striped bass during the same time period. Today, stripers are very prevelant in the Sacramento and large schools are often observed.
Times have certainly changed. Stripers have established themselves as far north as the Umpqua River in Oregon and as far south as Redondo Beach in Los Angeles. What a scary thought that a couple hundred fish dumped into the bay could change the entire dynamic of a coastal fishery forever! A 36 Inch, 20lb Striper is about 12 years old. You can count the rings on the scales to determine age. Stripers migrate into rivers and estuaries with current or tidal oscillations to spawn in the spring. There have been reports of Stripers spawning in the Pajaro and Salinas river estuaries and some flyfishermen. Flyfishermen have been targeting these estuaries that are only open weekends and Wednesdays to steelhead fishermen. March and April are good months to fish the river using a fly fishing combo. Striper eggs need to drift and suspend in current to develop into fry which takes 2 days. Female stripers start annual spawning at 18 inches and a 5 pound fish can produce over a million eggs. Yearly surveys taken since 1946 of the distribution abundance of Striper fry indicate the the fishery is healthy. And, as many species in the Delta decline due to water fluctuations, Stripers are the least effected. As one Biologist recently put it
Striped bass are extremely prolific and attempts to propagate them artificially are unwarranted. So many fry are produced through natural propagation that almost any contribution from artificial sources would be superfluous. Once established in an area any decline in the population is most likely the result of environmental factors rather than insufficient natural propagation.
Current Striped Bass Controversies
There has been a hot debate these last years (2010-18) about the effects of Striper predation on other species in the California Delta Population that led to the DFG proposing to increase the kill limits and decrease minimum size for California Stripers. Some feel this is an attempt to eradicate striped bass. There exist a lobby to eradicate the Stripers in order to give the salmon a chance to recover. The effects of eradication of Stripers would be financially huge to the sportsfishing industry. Weather this is truly a consensus amongst scientist, or a smoke screen by special interest is debatable. Most sportfishing industry representatives believe 40% to 100% of their business is striper related. The ecology of the delta fishery is complex and possibly beyond understanding. Compelling peer reviewed research supports both sides of the Delta ecology controversy however one thing is certain, Southern California’s thirst for northern California water via the peripheral canal is killing an estimated 100 million fish a year. For one hundred and thirty years, the salmon and stripers have co-existed, but at not time in the last 130 years has so much of the delta watershed been diverted to southern California. In a meeting on Feb 2, 2012, organized sportfisherman including fly fisherman from the Bay Area presented opinions and arguments along with academics, and lobbyist on both sides of this controversy. The proposed regulation changes were made with the interpretation of current scientific research that Stripers were eating Salmonids in the delta. The contention that the entire delta fishery was on the decline and that only looking to stripers as the cause of delta native fish population decreases is narrow minded and inaccurate and the commission unanimously voted to leave the regulations alone. Heading the scientific support for the eradication of stripers was Dr Chuck Hanson who believes, based on research, that there is solid evidence that Stripers do feed significantly on the Salmonid population and are causing declines or impeding recovery of the salmon and steelhead. The main contention of sportsfishermen is that the water user and lobbyist are, in a calculated and undermining way, trying to divert blame for the cause of declining fish populations away from themselves and toward Stripers. Another controversial subject is to give native species–the salmon–the best chance for recovery at the expense of non native species like striped bass.
As a lifelong avid fishermen with a biology background, I support the preservation of endangered species and the preservation of ecosystems, however I also believe that as hard as we try to understand the effects of only one factor on an ecosystem–there is no wisdom unless we address all the factors at once and that seems impossible to achieve with our political system. Thus, fighting over one thing like striper predation is a waste of effort . Unfortunately, the politics of water–the need for irrigation and drinking water –overshadows the concerns of a relatively few fishermen. We sports fishermen are not as big a lobby as we think and we are not as large a harvester of fish, even with no limits, as the commercial fishermen or the “the pumps”. We need to use tools like “saving endangered species” to leverage our power against the majority who don’t care about fish or eco systems. We fishermen are the idealists and the witness to the changes. We are intimate with the ecosystem and we must try like Spartans to fight the great powers that would suck the delta dry and blame the demise of Salmon on Stripers. I often wonder if Striper fishing in California will ever be as good as it was in the old days. Im not sure why it isn’t better now since the terrible water policies in California favor Striped Bass habitat and stripers are very resilient living in fresh, brackish and salt water. Catch and release is good first step especially since studies have shown so much mercury to exist in delta stripers. Current consumption recommendations seem in line with current limits and the healthiest of people can only eat one Striped Bass meal a week safely according to the OEHHA. I like to eat Stripers and l follow the guidelines and eat at most only one meal a week .
Let us all remember that the entire Striped Bass Fishery is the result of only 400 fish and that they are a very prolific and resilient non native species. When they dumped those 400 fish into the bay in 1879, they let the genie out of the bottle and there is no putting it back in my opinion. Eradication of Stripers even with a full on effort to do so seems unlikely based on the 130 year history of Stripers in California. So much emotion about the regulations wiping out the striper population without a real idea of fishery management is evident. The water diversions are key for sure and as a united front we should fight those lobbies as hard as we can. Sound judgement by Bioligists (my professor at UC Davis when I was a Fisheries Biology Major–Peter Moyle) is what is needed and often science does not support that which seems obvious. We could have possibly hurt our cause by not allowing the regulations recommendations to pass. By saying no to the DFG biologist , we are saying no to more research. Research that would eventually point to the need for more water in the delta and NOT the eradication of striped bass.
As of 2013. A new threat to Striped Bass the perhaps the San Luis Fishery have arisen. The state of California proposes a 25 billion dollar project to build two large water diversion tunnels on the Sacramento River . The environmental impact study on the project, based on computer modeling, suggest that the majority of the 50 Northern California Delta marine species would likely be ok except it could not estimate the effect on 9 species including the Striped Bass. The proposal is to build three massive intakes along the Sacramento River between Freeport and Courtland in order to divert HALF of the Sacramento River water from the delta into tunnels which will dump into the peripheral canal somewhere near the state and federal water canals around Tracy. The huge irony of the project is that the diverted water will be used to create more that 1000,000 acres of new habitat in the form of floodplains, tidal marshes and grasslands at the expense of destroying River and Delta habitat by creating massive pumping right in the migration path of eight fish populations–all done in the name of stabilizing the water supply with better distribution of water. This would be a ten year project and the consequences to San Luis Reservoir could be drastic.
2013 will go down as California’s driest year in recorded history. Redding and Red Bluff both shattered their driest year records, Redding received just 12.8” of rain since Jan. 1 with Red Bluff getting only 5.42” of rain. On that note, as much as I despise Southern California for taking northern California water that we need for our own farming and consumption, I know that the lobby to preserve and enhance the movement of water from North to South is powerful, politically connected, and wealthy. San Luis Reservoir is the heart of that system and wont go dry as long as that lobby exists.
I think we have witnessed in 2013, the lowest water point in San Luis history. San Luis Reservoir low point elevation is 369 feet. At that level water is unavailable to federal or state pumping which results in interruption of groundwater supplies. Irrigation systems clog, water treatments begins to fail, and algae makes water treatment more difficult and expensive. In 2012, A Federal and State agencies complete the San Luis Low Point Improvement Project (SLLPIP) to identify ” a feasible alternative that will address the uncertainty of Central Valley Project delivery schedules and the water supply reliability problems associated with the San Luis Reservoir “low-point”.” On December 3, 2013, the United States Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau of Reclamation) released a draft Appraisal Report on San Luis Reservoir Expansion, which recommends restoring San Luis Reservoir expansion alternatives to the San Luis Low Point Improvement Project (SLLPIP) feasibility study. As of today (1-1-2014) the timeframe for completing the SLLPIP feasibility study has been extended pending the tunnel project. At its lowest point in 2013, San Luis Reservoir was 17 percent full.
Quagga Mussel Inspection
Does it make sense that if you don’t inspect boats in waterways that feed a specific lake, then the inspections are meaningless? What a waste of time and effort when minnow buckets are not inspected or float tubes launch almost anywhere on the lake.
To pass the inspection follow these simple steps:
- Inspect all exposed surfaces – mussels feel like sandpaper.
- Wash the hull thoroughly, removing all visible mud, plants and animal material.
- Drain all water from your hull, pull drain plugs and motor water lines and tip outboard down to drain.and dry all areas.
- Wash and dry everything that came in contact with water including trailer.
- Keep watercraft dry between launches into different fresh water areas.
If a boat moved from an infested area will be launched in waters that are not infested with zebra or quagga mussels, the general recommendation is to keep the boat out of water and let it dry for a minimum of 30 days after cleaning all equipment and draining all possible sources of standing water. However, such “quarantine” times may be reduced depending on local temperatures and relative humidity’s.
San Luis Reservoir can be a very scary place to boat. When the wind is blowing from the east, at 20 mph it can generate 4 foot wind waves that come rapidly. Many boats under 18 feet have been swamped by such waves and depending where you are on the lake, getting to shore can be tough if you are coming out of the water on rocks near the dam. San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area consists of three lakes: San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, and Los Banos Creek Reservoir. Each lake is susceptible to sudden changes in wind and weather conditions. Wind warning and lake closure lights are used on San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay to alert boaters of the current wind conditions. On San Luis Reservoir, watch for the 3 wind warning and lake closure lights near the Basalt entrance station, Quien Sabe Point, and Romero Visitor Center. On the O’Neill Forebay, wind warning lights are located near the old Medeiros boat ramp and above the South Beach area.
- Amber lights signify caution conditions for winds or other concerns.
- Red lights indicate the lake is closed to boating and all vessels are required to immediately vacate the lake when the red lake closure lights are on.
|Okay||All lights off|
|Closed to boating||Red|
Its wise to be as aware as possible about the wind forecasts as you can. RealTime Wind Information on San Luis can Save Your Life
Basalt Campground Ranger Station 800 444-7257
One incident still weighs heavily on my memories of San Luis – the death of Mark Harrup who perished flyfishing in San Luis Reservoir June 2006. Mark was a great guy, professional flyfisherman, and JV Golf Coach at Leland High School. He was as experienced a flyfishermen as I have known at 29 years of age and worked for San Jose Fly Shop. Mark who was fishing with Jeff Ketelson, who survived the incident, told the story of how it happened.
Apparently, Mark and Jeff had been fishing in the safer, less windy areas of the lake when the wind died down. They decided to make a run for their current favorite spot near the trash racks. For those that don’t know the lake, the trash racks are a series of structures near the face of the dam. They hooked a few stripers then got into a double. Neither one had notice a small amount of water splashing in the back of the boat. By the time they realized this, they were drifting close to the dam. They immediately tried to start the motor and bilge pump and both were failing. After a few minutes they were able to start the motor and decided to get the boat running fast so they could get the water out. With so much water in the boat, the engine was riding low and when it got wet, it failed. Soon the boat capsized and they were in four foot waves with the sun going down. For a while they were able to hang on the boat but the air bubble holding it up disappeared the boat was sinking. They had a small piece of debris and fuel tank to grab onto. Mark was struggling and Jeff pushed the piece of wood to him and made a swim for the fuel can that was quickly getting away…Soon after they lost sight of each other and Jeff made it to a cable near the trash racks where he hung on to life for the next three hours before being rescued just before midnight.
I guess the message here is that not only do things happen fast; they are usually a series of events that create a catastrophic ending. Mark was not a strong swimmer and was wearing jeans and heavy shoes. Mark’s boat, a 15 ½’ Cobia, was not a “floatable”. Even I assumed it was. It’s easy to say they should have done XYZ. Jeff told me they knew there were some problems mounting. The thought was that they would be able to take care of it. Not until the boat was capsized did they realize how serious the situation had become. I asked about the life jackets. He said that when they realized the boat was going to flip it was too late to grab them. They thought they could float with the float safely back to shore, not knowing it was going to sink.
The current IGFA world record of for striped bass of 81.88lbs was caught in 2011 in Connecticut, but there are many stories of bigger fish caught that were never officially recorded. The largest of these was an 87lb striper caught in 1912 in the Petaluma River Watershed. There are some guides and old fishermen who believe that sportsfishing has killed the San Luis Fishery . In reading the diary of my mentor, and comparing them to my fish counts and observations, Ive noticed that maybe the fishery in San Luis is better! Stripers grow fast–five inches long in the first year, 11 inches at the second, 16 inches at the third, and 20 inches at the end of the fourth year. According to Dan Blanton, A striper weighing 108 lbs was verified by the DFG in San Luis Reservoir. Since 1982 the all-tackle angling record fish, taken in New Jersey, in the salt and weighed 78.81 lbs. In August of 2011, an 81.88 striper was taken in Connecticut and is the current world record. These are as big as a Striper gets in the salt. The Stripers caught in San Luis are classified as freshwater Landlock Stripers and San Luis held the world record for that in 1992 with a 67 1/2 lb striper. In 2008, a baitfisherman caught a 71.5 lb striper out of the forebay on a pile worm and ate it before it was recorded as the states largest striper. The current world record for a landlock Striper was caught on Feb 28, 2013 by James Bramlett on the Black Warrior River in Alabama weighing 70lbs (45 inches long with a girth of 37.75 lbs)
Seems to me like the fish being caught are bigger and as abundant as they were in the 70s with sportfishing being the only real stressor other than drought. But perhaps Ive just become better at catching them and it’s an illusion. Some fisherman believe that San Luis today has radically changed for the worse from 30 years ago from overfishing. Dan Blanton recently caught his PB stirper out of San Luis in 2020 after fishing it his entire life. Maybe the large fish are less abundant or smarter, but they are still there and occasionally you will hook one. Be ready…
Migration and Stocking
The migratory behaviors of coastal striped bass are more complex than those of most other anadromous fish, which spend most of their adult lives in the ocean but migrate up rivers and streams to spawn. Striped Bass seasonal movements depend upon the age, sex, degree of maturity and the river in which they were born. Even though Strippers are anadromous, scientist believe that the damming of rivers has led to some species becoming landlocked . There are very few successful spawning populations of freshwater striped bass that retained a landlocked breeding population . I have talked to some biologist who believe that the San Luis Stripper population is one of those freshwater sustained systems with the fish moving to and from the San Joaquin river watershed and in and out of the lakes through the aqueducts that connect many of those reservoirs. . San Luis Reservoir has never had a formal stocking program in its history. Although some talk about an attempt to stock stripers in the Lake and Forebay in the 80’s that resulted in an orgy of feeding by the large stripers in the lake resulting in no net gain in the fishery.
An entry in Len Bearden’s Diary states on 6-26-1992:
“Had a call from Al that they had stocked 4-6 inch stripers at San Luis Creek Launch ramp. The fishing had been hot Wed. and Thurs.. Big fish had moved in to feed on them. He had caught many fish last night from 5-18 lbs. The fish were still there but not in the same quantity. I took one good fish 30.5 inches about 10 lbs. Dave hooked three and lost all of them. One seemed to be a really good fish. He almost got spooled before it came off. Al took 3 from 6-11 lbs. There was a 5 lb and one about 21 lbs also taken by other anglers.”
I believe that the populations in San Luis parallel those in the delta reaching equilibrium populations with its Delta San Joaquin water source. Save the delta and you save San Luis. Although some people believe that the good old days of San Luis are over, I have the feeling that the lake is as good as it has ever been. Maybe that is just wishful thinking, but then I am an optimist.
What Can You Eat from the Delta and the Lake
The Organization that is in charge of determining safe levels of fish to consume is the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment California Environmental Protection Agency or OEHHA. The conclusion of the last three studies have shown elevated levels of Mercury, PCBs and heavy metals in Stripers especially those over 27 inches. Current guidlines are as follows
When consuming fish from San Luis Reservoir, women 18-45 years and children 1-17 years may eat two total servings per week of Tule Perch or one total serving per week of American Shad. They should not, however, eat black bass species, Common Carp, or Striped Bass. Women 46 years and older and men age 18 years and older may eat 5 total servings per week of Tule Perch, or two total servings per week of American Shad, or one total serving per week of black bass species, Common Carp, or Striped Bass. When consuming fish from O’Neill Forebay, women 18-45 years and children 1-17 years may eat six total servings per week of Inland Silverside or one serving per week of black bass species, catfish species, or Striped Bass. Women 46 years and older and men age 18 years and older may eat seven total servings per week of Inland Silverside, or two total servings per week of black bass species or Striped Bass, or one serving per week of catfish species. One serving is an eight-ounce fish fillet, measured prior to cooking, which is roughly the size and thickness of your hand. Children should be given smaller servings.
A Serving is defined as the size and thickness of your hand.
Pretty Scary! Release the really big fish (over 10 lbs) and eat only the little ones (less than 10lbs-aprox 27 inches) to be health safe and fish conservative. A Ten lb fish is aprox 5 years old.
The Good Old Days
My Dad in 1964 (I was 8)
My first anchovy caught Striped Bass in 1970. I was 13 years old .
Back in 1972, when I started working at the Millpond Fly Shop, I started flyfishing San Luis off the shoreline primarily for American Shad. The Shad in those days would swim in large schools around the lake . Some were as large as 6 lbs. I have seen dead stripers in San Luis with foot long Shads sticking out of their mouths choking them to death. The American Shad if a forage food for giants and thus the large size of San Luis Strippers. I remember when Kay Mitsioshi (who worked at the millpond back then) showed me how to prepare and eat the roe of large female Shad–it was a japanese delicacy and he encouraged me to bring him back some hens. It was also in the 70s when my boss, Len Bearden, started to seriously fly fish San Luis for large stripers. He made San Luis his home water. By 1975 Len had accomplished the Grand Slam of Saltwater Sailfish Flyfishing–having caught every species of sailfish on a fly when saltwater flyfishing was in its infancy. Len approached fishing San Luis like a scientist. He started keeping detailed records of the wind weather conditions. He kept detailed records of fishing days on the water and recorded all of Al’s observations when they spoke. Fishing it almost twice weekly for over 5 years, Len knew every nuance of the Lake. When we fished with him, it was not unusual for him to be the only guy in a line of float tubes constantly hooking fish. Everyone who fished with him accept Al, was at a disadvantage because he knew things that other did not. I watched him fish next to Dave Whitlock, and other famous fishermen and embarrass them on that lake. He use to tell me I was holding my lip wrong which back then meant I was not smoking a cigar. Len’s friend Al Whitehurst lived in the bay area and would come into the store and buy materials for all sorts of odd flies to fish the lake. He too was enamored with the stripers of San Luis Reservoir. They would communicate weekly about the fishing on the lake and between the two of them their knowledge of the lake compounded. In the next thirty years, the two of them would own all the IGFA Fly Caught line class World Records for Landlocked Stripers. Al eventually moved to Los Banos and remains there to this day–in my opinion, he is the world’s authority on San Luis fly fishing. The fly of choice back then for Len was yellow clouser minnow
It’s all about the weather! If you read the diary carefully, some of the best days Len had were in some of the worst weather–storms, wind and fog.
Len Beardend Striper Fly Fishing Diaries 1991-1992 Bearden Striper Diaries 91-92
Recent Landmark Catches
The Trifecta of 2016
The month of November 2016 was the month I broke the 20 lb mark that I eluded me for years. Conditions were ideal – water down to 18 percent, good weather and solonar. Big Flies, Big Fish. Don’t give up targeting big fish no matter what.
Steve Santucci’s 40 lbr October 2016
We were on the water by 7:45 and heading across the lake to the rocks of the dam. I hooked into the first fish within 5 minutes and the bloody thing was into my backing 100 yards in 30 seconds or less. We knew it was a good one.
When we saw color, Ed says to me that it’s over 30 and I say don’t know about that but it’s a damned good one. Turns out it was 32 pounds – yes, I weighed it on the boga; we took a few photos and I took plenty of time to be sure she was properly revived. She swam away in good shape heading downward for deep water. Needless to say that I was stoked. It’s the best one for me in quite a while. I managed two other nice fish, an 8- and 9-pounder and a few smaller fish. Ed ended up with 18 fish from 18 to 20 inches; and we both dropped a few. Only a few days ago Ed hooked a monster that got into his backing more than a hundred yards before rocking him off.