Fall Return to San Luis

During my time in central California, I made a lot of trips to the San Luis reservoir in search of stripers and largemouth bass but there was one fall trip in particular that always rises to the top of my memories of the massive San Luis reservoir and O’Neil forebay. I’m guessing that the year was around 1986, and it was a late fall weekend of fishing with the backdrop of barren rolling hills and cool-crisp mornings around the reservoir. The kind of mornings that you can see your breath and the familiar smell of campfires drifted around the shores of the lake at dawn. Back in 1986 things were very different than they are now. We didn’t have the luxury of cellphones or debit cards like we do today, with most folks using cash or check for purchases and pictures were somewhat rare unless someone in our group was a photo buff. I doubt we took any pictures of our trip, but I still have my memory and this one was a doozy, that’s why I still remember it. Oh, I had made a few trips to San Luis with my good friend Sonny since checking into the squadron 3 years earlier, but this trip was probably the best I had made in terms of numbers of fish and the size as well as shear laughter and fun we had that weekend. Here’s the way it went down….

We had been planning the weekend for a while and it just so happened that our plan all came together for a weekend of camping and fishing at San Luis reservoir, located in central California. It was going to be myself, Sonny and Tom, all from the squadron and all somewhat avid fishermen. As I remember, Tom wasn’t quite as avid a fisherman, but nonetheless he was a musician with an acoustical guitar and an interest in fishing with Sonny and I, so I saw the entertainment value right away. That came into play later on in the story, but Tom was a good friend of mine and our wives also hung out together, so he was a shoe in for our trip. Sonny had the truck and the boat, which was a 17-foot Bass Tracker that he personally picked up from the factory and towed out west to its new home in central California. Sonny and I put a lot of miles on his Bass Tracker and his little Ford Courier pickup truck. His little truck had an aluminum camper shell over the bed, and he had a big handmade wooden camping box inside the covered bed, where he kept all his camping equipment/supplies and kitchen type equipment. Common items we generally had in the back for the trip was at least 1 Coleman lantern, we generally had mine and Sonny’s. We also had a couple Coleman stoves for cooking/deep frying, as well as a few tents and sleeping bags so needless to say, with all that equipment the little truck was loaded down. For that reason, Tom agreed to ride in the floor of the boat for the duration of our trip up to San Luis. Looking back on that decision, I’m not sure that would fly by today’s standards, but we really didn’t see the harm and it was less than 2 hours away. Besides, it gave Tom a chance to wrap up in a sleeping bag and sleep a bit down in the floor of the Bass Tracker on the trip. It was Friday evening, and we were off for our trip shortly after finishing work and getting everything ready. Tom met me at my house and Sonny picked us up curbside with the boat and gear in tow. Tom crawled into the floorboard of the Bass Tracker and covered up with his sleeping bag. It wasn’t long till we hit the I5 interstate, and we were cruising north for the next hour and a half, blasting music and chatting about fishing.

Sonny and I had been up to San Luis a month earlier on a bass fishing trip and we had a good time, not only with the bass but we both caught some nice stripers as a bonus. Before San Luis, I knew very little about striper fishing and I never really thought about targeting them at the time. Sonny and I were mainly interested in bass fishing, that is until I caught my first big striper on San Luis. I can’t remember if I had caught some smaller stripers prior to catching a behemoth right before dark on our last trip, but my fate was sealed, and I found a very large interest in striper fishing from that evening on.

I can remember that Sonny and I were fishing the forebay and there was a long stretch of grass parallel to some rip rap, and we were concentrating on throwing topwater along the edges of the grass. We had caught a few nice bass along with a few smaller stripers and the sun was setting fast. State Park rules said we had to be off the lake at sunset, and we only had another 30 minutes or so to fish. I got a bad wind knot in my reel, and it looked like the reel was done for the evening. It looked like a re-string job, so Sonny told me to grab his little spinning rod with a Pop-R tied on it to finish out the evening. I grabbed Sonny’s little spinning rig and made a long cast out the back of the boat, away from the weed line and out into deeper water. I just wanted to see how the rod and reel felt before working the Pop-R down along the edge of the weed line. Sonny got his topwater snagged in the weeds and I turned to watch him work his topwater out of the obstruction. I heard a large splash in back of the boat and turned around to see a large boil and circular swirl right where the Pop-R has landed. I was confused because I could no longer see the Pop-R on the surface, but my line was very slack. I looked at my slack line and wondered if the Pop-R had somehow broken off or it had come untied. I was baffled so I started taking up the slack on the reel and when I looked down at the remainder of the line where it entered the water, I saw it slowly tighten on a very dark shadow under the water swimming towards the boat. No sooner than I saw the fish, the fish saw me, and the boat. At that point the big striper made a quick turn away from the boat and the drag started screaming off the reel. The big striper was headed for the middle of the lake with the little Pop-R and I was hanging on for dear life. The pile of line wrapped around the spool was getting thin and the striper showed no interest in slowing down, so we had to chase him down. Thankfully there was very little structure and the fish stayed near the surface for the duration of the fight. He must have pulled the Bass Tracker around for 10 minutes before we finally landed the 31lb monster and called it a day. Back then we kept everything for table fare as long as we were within our legal limits and that big striper provided a lot of meat for us Navy folks on a budget. A month had passed since that trip, and Sonny, Tom and I were returning to San Luis in search of stripers for the freezer.

The long drive to San Luis went by quickly and it wasn’t long till we were pulling into a local San Luis gas station, store and bait shop just a couple miles from the entrance of the state park where we were camping. On this trip we were only interested in stripers and the best way to catch them at the time was using cut bait in the form of frozen anchovies. The store sold frozen anchovies by the bag and there were a few dozen in the bags so we wanted to get enough to last us through the next day’s fishing. I wanted to stretch my legs and I was pretty sure Tom wanted to stretch after riding on the floorboard of the boat for a while. When Sonny and I got out of the truck we were chatting about something and I watched as Sonny reached into the bed of his truck, over the side and it dawned on me that something wasn’t right. Tom was walking up after climbing out of the boat and I realized that we no longer had a camper shell on the bed of the truck. Sonny was busy digging in a bag for cash and I asked if he noticed anything out of place? Right away it dawned on him that his topper was missing. Nothing in the bed had blown out and nothing was out of place, the topper was just gone. We asked Tom if he had heard anything, but Tom said he fell asleep and didn’t hear a thing. On further inspection, we found that the shell had hit the corner of the windshield on the Bass Tracker and did minimal damage. We debated on going back up the freeway to see if we could locate it but it was getting late and interstate 5 is a big interstate to try and find a small camper shell, so we let it go for the night, citing that we would look for it on the way back home. Money was pretty tight back then and we all pitched in for groceries and gas. After buying supplies, bait and gas we were on our way to the park to set up camp, grab a quick bite to eat and get some rest. After unpacking, pitching tents and heating up some supper we called it a night and hit the tents.

It was a brisk morning on the water and the ramp was lined up with boats waiting to launch. We got there a little late and by the time we were on the water and moving the sun was up and it was warming up to be a nice sunny morning on the lake. We found an area that had a long tapering point, and we dropped the anchor on the crown of the point in 20 feet of water. We cut the anchovies into 2-inch chunks and put them on a single hook 1 foot leader with a 1-ounce weight 2 feet below the leader. That got our cutbait about a foot off the bottom. We just dropped the baits straight down under the boat till the weight hit the bottom and we brought up the slack which brought the bait suspended a foot off the bottom and dangling from the leader. We just sat and waited for the stripers to show up. It didn’t take long, and we were all three bring in nice 2-5lb stripers. Every once in a while, one of our rods would pull down and another striper would come to the boat. Over the course of the morning, we boated 5 nice stripers a piece and headed back to the launch to trailer and have some lunch. We had 15 very nice stripers, and we were pretty happy with our catch. We cleaned the stripers right after lunch and decided to drive down to the Oneil forebay for an afternoon/evening of more striper fishing. The launch at the forebay was about 15 minutes from the upper lake and the state park where we were staying. Legally we could catch 5 more stripers a piece to finish off our daily limit and there were plenty of stripers in the forebay for us to catch. We used the same method of suspending the cut anchovies and in the course of the afternoon through evening we accumulated our limits again, including a few bigger teenage stripers. We were having a blast and it was by far the best trip that Sonny and I had been on. We had a total of 30 stripers for the day and we were going to be eating deep fried striper for our supper along with some fried potatoes to go with it. When we got back to the camp Sonny broke out the cooking equipment and I started fileting out the stripers from the afternoon trip to the forebay. Tom broke out his guitar and we built a nice fire in the firepit in the center of the camp. Tom played music as we ate fish, drank beer and sang songs into the chilly October night before hitting the sleeping bags for some rest. Nights like that have always been some of my best memories while on fishing trips.

The next morning was Sunday, and our plan was to fish the morning before breaking down camp and heading back home in the afternoon. The morning was a copy of the morning before, and it was a little chilly to start the morning. When we got to the ramp, we realized that none of us had enough cash to pay the launch toll. It was pretty ugly as we pulled up in line to launch but had no money. We had to move out of the way of the other boaters waiting to launch and we were just sitting in the parking lot with the boat trying to figure out what to do. We would need to drive to town and write a check for cash as this was before ATM machines and cash withdrawals. It was really going to screw up our morning, but Tom came up with a plan and took his hat off, broke out his guitar and just started playing songs right there at the top of the ramp with his hat turned over on the ground in front of him. It didn’t take long until a couple of the boaters dropped a few dollars in Tom’s hat and Sonny, and I stood back and watched as more boaters donated to Tom’s hat on the ground and within 15 minutes, we had enough money to launch the Bass Tracker for our morning run. It worked out just the same as the morning before and we all got another 5 fish limit of stripers before calling it a morning and heading back to break down the camp and pack for the ride home. We cleaned the stripers and packed the gear for the ride home in the early afternoon. Tom covered up on the floorboard of the boat again and we had an uneventful ride back home, not finding Sonny’s little camper shell on the way back down Interstate 5.

We made several trips back to San Luis over the next few years, but we never experienced a 45-striper weekend like Sonny, Tom and I had on that October weekend. We didn’t know much about striper fishing at the time, and we only had a flasher for electronics, but we had a blast catching those stripers and I was hooked on chasing stripers for years to follow. We also fished a lot of other lakes for stripers after that and we caught some nice ones out west including the Colorado River, the California Aqueduct and the Delta but the San Luis Reservoir and Oneil forebay is where my striper roots begin.