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Steve Merlo

I hate to keep kicking what seems like an already road-killed animal, but a lot of paying customers, myself included, are wondering just what happened to all the tagged fish released at the Isabella Trout Derby. According to the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce, some 500 trout were tagged and released just before the event this year and only 30 -- yes 30 -- 'came home to roost' for payment. Most of those, if not all, were caught during the event and some minimal hard cash paid out to lucky anglers.

Since the Derby, no other tagged fish -- especially the $1,000 fish and the sacred $10,000 golden boy -- have been brought into the headquarters for payment. My contacts up at the lake advise me that none of them have even heard of any tagged fish being caught since then, and that bugs me to no end.

I think it's a really good thing that the promoters of the event have extended the cash-in time for the $1,000 and $10,000 fish until Sept. 1, and they must get a pat on the back for that, but where the hell did the fish go?

So far, many friends and members of my family have driven up the canyon quite a few times to fish for any of the remaining 465 tagged specimens (that aren't worth a plug nickel), plus the five money fish, but we've all been unsuccessful, save for the occasional DFW planted rainbows put in to spice the action back in April. Of course, none of those were tagged and were put into the lake merely to complement the anglers' desires to catch a fish or two.

So what happened to all the tagged fish? Did they all die immediately after planting due to extenuating circumstances beyond the Chamber's control? Did predators like ospreys, pelicans and largemouth bass have a field day and eat them? Are they swimming around in the deepest waters of the impoundment? Did the tags fall or rust out like they did late last summer? Are they feeding somewhere where anglers cannot get to them? Will they begin showing up later in the months ahead? Were they roughly handled before release? Who tagged them and were the fish sedated enough to stand the rigors of tagging?

The magical 500 tagged fish were brought in from a commercial breeder. Did he tag them? Most were 1-2-pounds each, so predation should have been at a minimum, and yet, they've all disappeared.

I'd sure like to see a fisheries biologist do a report on what or where the fish are holing up and what seems to be the problem getting them to move shoreward to bite where anglers can get a pop at them.

The end result of the lack of tagged fish being caught will ultimately affect the Derby's chance at succeeding in future years. The number of anglers has already dropped to levels far below years past, and that's a shame, and it's not because of the low water conditions. The money collected at the event is used for a variety of charitable and civic functions and must be supported, but when the fish either aren't there or don't respond to all the hype, then the Derby will become a thing of the past.

I don't want to seem like a doomsdayer, but the Chamber had better figure things out fast why those trout keep "disappearing" or lose their title as the "World's Largest Trout Derby," not to mention their all-important sponsors.

Speaking of Isabella Lake ...

The third wave of spawning crappies is being worked over by lots of anglers fishing jigs and minnows all around the impoundment, even from shore. While weighing a fraction less than earlier spawners, plenty of giants in the 2-2.5-pound class are still being caught. The hot weather due this weekend and rising waters coupled with the full moon should bring waves of the good-eating fish into newly inundated areas in force. Look for the papermouths in the 5-8-foot range, or even shallower.

Nacimiento Lake hot for spots

Located just 20 miles northwest of Paso Robles, Lake Nacimiento's famed spotted bass have been on the prowl for the last few weeks and anglers aren't complaining -- they're just fishing. While not large, most of the fish are still over 13-inches long, with some to nearly three pounds each and provide incredible sport and great eating. Most anglers are reporting 50-75 fish days at locations up and down the lake. Best baits seem to be the Yamamoto Hula Grub on a 3/8-oz. jighead or a dropshotted worm cast into 10-15-feet of water. The water has cleared, so anglers using light line are faring best. Topwaters are also working, but fishermen need to be on the water early to take advantage of the bite.