Buy Photo

John Harte / Special to The Californian

Vern Alford of Lake Isabella displays a tagged trout he landed during the Isabella Lake Fishing Derby in 2012. This beauty fetched $100.

If catching a $20,000 fish in Isabella Lake seems like finding a needle in a haystack, good news: the haystack is a lot smaller this year.

The lake is about 18 feet lower -- and 3 square miles smaller -- than it was this time last year, said Kern River Water Master Chuck Williams.

"Last year was a dry year," Williams said Wednesday. "And this year is drier."

But an uncooperative snowpack is not enough to pre-empt the 24th annual Fishing Derby on Saturday, say organizers.

"To put it in perspective, everyone was used to the water level being really high, said George Stahl, who sits on the board of directors for the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"Now that it's lower, it looks a lot different, and it gives the appearance that there's a lot less water than there is. But even as it stands now, Lake Isabella is still one of the largest bodies of water in Southern California."

It's not just anglers who look forward to the derby, one of the largest amateur trout fishing competitions in the country.

The event is a boon to the Kern River Valley economy.

"The fishing derby is one of those events that affects the entire valley," Stahl said. "Clothing stores depend on Christmas to get them through the year, and that's what the derby is like for a lot of the merchants up here, which is why the chamber would never cancel something like this -- it's too important."

But Stahl and Williams agree that lower water levels increase the need for caution. When the lake was created for recreational purposes more than 60 years ago, the decision was made to leaves trees and other matter on the lake bottom for protective habitat. When the water is low, those obstacles are closer to the surface and present an even greater hazard, especially to boaters.

"They could hit a snag and rip the bottom of their boat out," Williams said.

Stahl echoed that warning:

"Boat safety is always a big factor, and at any derby we have, all California state boating regulations apply. But this year there are a few places to be careful of, because there could be rocks just under the surface that would normally be a lot deeper."

On the bright side, less water means "fewer places for the fish to hide," Stahl noted, so the odds of catching one of the big-money fish should be ever-so-slightly greater this year.

"Don't get me wrong -- it's still going to be competitive," he added. "It's not like people are going to look down and the water will be so shallow that they can see the fish. They'll still have to camp on the edge and put in a little time and patience, just like any other day of fishing."

Last year, the chamber handed out $47,850 in prize money. It's been a few years since anyone has managed to land the $20,000 winner.

All you need is the right bait (Stahl recommended Berkley garlic power) and a little patience, and your chances of going home with some winnings -- or, at the very least, dinner -- are fairly good.

"Oh yeah, a beginner's chance of catching a tagged fish is just as good as anyone else's," Stahl said.

"But more than that, their chance of having a good time is just as good as anyone else's. There's nothing like doing this for the first time -- when you catch your first fish, tagged or not, there's a thrill that comes with that you can't put money on."