Back in the early 1980s, Isabella Lake began putting out some giant largemouth bass and, when the word got out, anglers from all over the U.S. began visiting the Kern River Valley impoundment in hopes of tangling with some of the lake's vaunted bigmouth. From 1981 through 1985, hundreds of giant Florida/Northern largemouth hybrids over 10 pounds were caught and kept, some into world class weights, and the thought that a true all-tackle world record lived in its depths kept fishermen returning day after day.
Bass weighing in excess of 16 pounds became regularities and by the end of 1985, the lake record stood at 18 pounds, 14 ounces, still well short of the 22-4-needed to break the mark. Anglers kept coming, but by the end of 1986, the glory days and the F-1 hybrid wall-hangers were all but gone. Isabella bass fishing went from world class to mediocre at best and the crowds all but quit coming.
Twenty-eight years later and probably due to the extended drought and drawdown, the bass bite has gone nuts again, and though no one can put a finger on a definitive why, the big fish are once again on the prowl. While no one expects the lake to boot out a record-sized bigmouth or even come close, anglers are still taking advantage of the best bass fishing in years.
Thirty-fish days and five-fish limits weighing well in excess of 40 pounds are showing up with an astounding regularity, and most weekend tournaments are being won with at least 30 pounds (a 6-pound-per-fish average). These weights are rivaling even the best known U.S. bass waters, including Lake Falcon in Texas or Okeechobee in Florida, well-known giant bass Meccas. Right now, huge Isabella bass in the 6- to 14-pound range are slamming anglers' lures all over the lake and some are calling the bite the best in nearly 30 years.
The bass are very shallow right now, due to environmental conditions that defy explanation. A shallow bass is a vulnerable one and most fishermen are catching the fish in less than 6 feet of water, meaning that the fish are in jeopardy of being overfished, much like the debacle back in the '80s when so many fish went home on stringers or in the livewells of boats. Nowadays, most fishermen thankfully practice CPR: catch, photograph and release, but enough anglers are keeping their catch, which can significantly impact the future status of the lake.
Now, there's nothing wrong with keeping an occasional fish to eat, but most people know that the smaller fish eat far better than the lunkers do. Releasing a big fish to fight again takes a whole lot more gumption than killing one of these prized specimens, and hopefully, with the word out, the CPR trend will continue.
A giant bass is a survivor, the only one left out of thousands of other fry that earlier succumbed to life's rigors and predation, and as far as I'm concerned, this single fish remains far too valuable to catch only once. While no one is suggesting not to fish for them, I am suggesting that everyone carefully handle each fish they catch in order to return it to the water still full of life.
So what are the fish biting on? The list of lures attracting the fish runs from A to Z. Any shallow running crankbait that appears to act like a live shad, trout or crawfish will probably get bit as it passes by one of the many holding areas in the lake. A well-placed jig flipped or cast next to any type of cover should draw a strike and a large, 8- to 10-inch-long plastic worm fished slowly through the trees will get sucked in as it passes the cover. Any slow-falling plastic lure will also draw savage strikes by fish hiding in rocky crags and boulders, and early morning top-water action will draw a lot of strikes.
This is not the time for finesse fishing--leave the crappie gear in the rod locker unless you want to get your feelings hurt in a hurry. Most anglers are plying the waters with flouro-carbon lines testing from 12-20 pounds in order to stop the behemoths from wrapping around trees or cutting them off on the sharp rocks near where they are holding.
Most anglers refuse to fight the infamous and dangerous Isabella winds that can come up in a hurry, but to tell the truth, the best fishing seems to be when the lake whitecaps and waves crash along the shoreline, activating the fish to bite. Even so, people are warned that the best bass fishing in the country isn't worth the life of you, a friend or a family member.
The limit on Isabella bass is two, 15 inches or longer, and boaters must obtain a county use permit.