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Casey Christie / The Californian

Lower water levels have not diminished interest in the annual Isabella Lake Fishing Derby.

There's no guarantee you'll catch one of the 500 tagged money trout at the 25th annual Isabella Lake Fishing Derby this weekend, but there is a guarantee of a good time -- and dinner.

That's according to George Stahl, who sits on the board of directors for the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce, which is presenting the derby. Catching a tagged fish can earn $50, $100, $500, $1,000 or even $25,000.

"Even people who haven't caught a tagged fish still say they had fun," Stahl said, noting that the fish participants catch are theirs to keep and enjoy later. "It's a family weekend enjoying what the valley has to offer."

After 25 years, the derby has become an integral part of the valley's economy, boosting business for local merchants, Stahl said. But with the lake's water levels getting lower each year (down to 60,000 acre-feet this year, compared to 63,000 acre-feet last year, Stahl said) putting on the fishing derby wasn't the sure-thing it had always been in previous years. Stahl said there were rumors it would be canceled and that even organizers considered it.

"But it's one of the biggest draws we have up here," Stahl said. "The local merchants count on it. To not have the derby would be detrimental to the valley and economy."

The decision go ahead with the derby came as a relief to participants and local businesses, Stahl said. A testament to the derby's importance to the local economy is evident in the 60-plus local businesses and merchants that have sponsored tagged fish, he said.

People come from all over the state to participate in the derby, Stahl said, including San Diego, Hemet and Sacramento.

"A lot of these people expect the derby to happen," Stahl said. "They plan and look forward to it. Canceling it wouldn't have been right."

Although the derby is a big draw to the area, Stahl said local tourism is doing well in other areas, too. People often forget that the Kern River Valley is the place not just for fishing but for hiking, camping, rock-climbing, shopping and scenery, too, he said.

"We're seeing some busy weekends, which is encouraging," Stahl said. "We have a lot more to offer than just the lake. (The valley) is a nice place to have a nice weekend."

Last year's derby saw more than 4,300 people enter to fish, catching 47 of the 1,000 tagged trout. No one caught the $20,000 trout during the derby, but Edward Davis, of Ridgecrest, caught the fish last May, earning him $10,000.

This year, Stahl is expecting around 2,000 entrants, based on registration so far. The prizes for tagged fish and longest fish, as well as the raffle prize of a 19-foot travel trailer, add up to about $100,000. Raffle tickets are $20 each or six for $100.

Attendance for the derby has been lower the past few years, but Stahl doesn't believe that has anything to do with the low water levels of the lake.

"(The lower attendance) is more due to the economy, not just because of the fees, but because of the time and money it takes to get away for the weekend," he said. "That's happening everywhere in the state; figures are lower everywhere."

On March 31, 3,000 trout were delivered into net pens from Calaveras Trout Farm in Snelling. On Friday, the fish will be released into the lake, 500 of them destined to make lucky anglers some money.

Whether the lower water level will help participants catch fish, Stahl can't say for sure. Even at a lower level, he said, the lake is "still a large body of water."

"It gives (fish) less of an area to hide in," Stahl said of the low water level, "but catching them is still up to the bait and the fisherman."