ANAHEIM–It might sound like an oxymoron to describe the water conditions at a stocked lake system just off the Riverside Freeway in Anaheim as “natural,” but you could get away with it in the case of Santa Ana River Lakes. Check that. Make that the “newly improved” Santa Ana River Lakes.
To the veteran SARL trout angler – and there are thousands spread throughout the L.A. metro area – last summer’s shutdown of the three-lake, pay-to-play lake system on La Palma Boulevard probably seemed like business as usual. All of SARL’s business (and stocked fish) was transferred to neighboring Anaheim Lakes for the season and the “under construction” signs came out.
Nothing new, this.
“We’ve had to move out every three or four years in the past to replenish the underground aquifer,” says SARL owner Craig Elliott. “The silt would back up and plug up the drainage, so we’d have to go in and ‘break the crust’ and scrape the lake bottom to clear it all out. It wasn’t a big, new deal that we closed up for the summer and moved everything over to Anaheim Lakes because we’ve done it before.”
Ah, but this summer closing was different. Not only was the goop scooped off the bottom of all three lakes (Big, Small and Catfish), but a new drainage/water-movement system was installed. That new series of pipelines will now transfer “settling water” near the bottom out of the lake, which replenishes the entire system and makes the habitat much more friendly to SARL’s stocked trout.
“The neat thing about it this construction work they did and the re-channeling of flow through these huge, huge pipes at bottom of the lakes has completely changed the flow of the water and made the fishing at Santa Ana River Lakes phenomenal,” Elliott says. “Unlike in the past, where the only water that flowed out of the lake was up near the surface, now the first water purge out is the stuff at the bottom. The fresh water flows in, it sinks to the bottom, and then it’s automatically purged. That old stagnant water was where the fish weren’t. This fishery is now replenished on a constant basis.”
The improvements to the fishery were apparent immediately when SARL reopened in early November.
“Santa Ana had possibly the best opener ever,” Elliott says matter-of-factly. “Lots of big, beautiful fish and plenty of action for almost everybody.”
Ridding the lake of ‘hot spots’: In previous years, a handful of locations (Sandy Beach, etc.) would inevitably produce the majority of the action at SARL because those areas held the most trout-friendly, oxygenated water. The improved movement of water through the new 8-foot drainage pipes virtually eliminates those hot spots and spreads the bite over more of the system.
“Fish were always looking for the best water, and they’d almost always search out these hot spots and just stay there,” Elliott says. “With overall better water, it changes everything. Those three or four hot spots are still good places to fish, but there are so many other areas that you’ll find fish in now.”
Back to the old school: Back in the heat of the “Trout Wars” days, metro L.A.’s handful of pay-to-play trout spots would all take pride in sheer poundage, and would publish stocking numbers as a means to attract anglers to their location. Elliott has peeled away from the Trout Wars mentality and now says simply: “People catch more big trout out of our lakes than the entire state of California. We’re still stocking a lot of big fish, but along with that we’re putting a lot of catchable size fish in, too. You still have the quantity to catch limits, and, man, jackpot fish over 10 pounds, up to 20 and maybe even larger. The biggest so far was around 18, and we’ve had a lot of 13- to 17-pounders.”
The bottom line is that there’s plenty of trout and catfish biomass to go around.
“We’re probably the largest buyer of trout and catfish in the nation,” Elliott says. “For both the quantity and size of trout, nobody stocks as much, anywhere.”
The family’s fish lineup: SARL and its sister lakes, Corona Lake and Anaheim Lake, are stocked with fish from Mount Lassen Trout Farm. Mount Lassen fish wizard Phil Mackey’s “Sierra ’Bows”, which were developed specifically for SARL, are raised in earthen ponds near Payne Creek, in rural Lassen County, which makes them about as close to a natural trout as possible.
“There are no concrete runways there – they’re raised where the bears could come scoop them up,” Elliott says of the Mount Lassen facilities. “These are farm ponds out in the pine trees and snow. That’s why they have such beautiful fins and tails. They’re absolutely gorgeous fish with pink meat.”
Corona Lake also stocks Mount Lassen’s “Lightning Trout,” which are a cross-bred strain with a recessive color gene. The fish, which are stocked in limited supply whenever they’re available, are orange-skinned with a bright crimson stripe down the side, and blood-red meat.