There isn't much rough in this Diamond

New Riverside County lake rich in fish potential

HEMET - Department of Fish and Game biologist Mike Giusti knew the day eventually would come.

"I'll be losing my private lake," Giusti deadpanned.

Giusti established the fishery for Diamond Valley Lake, which opens to the public Oct. 3.

"I do get spoiled," the avid bass angler admitted. "There's no challenge anymore. But I knew when I first started doing this what it is all about. It wasn't for me. I's like a gift to the people. Hopefully, they will appreciate it."

Diamond Valley is a $2 billion project to store Metropolitan Water District water. The lake can hold up to 800,000 acre feet, or 260 billion gallons of water. It is 4.5 miles long, more than 2 miles wide and up to 260 feet deep. The three earthen dams that enclose the Diamond and Domenigoni valleys are the longest in the United States and seventh largest in the world. It is one of the largest lakes in Southern California.

And anglers seemingly can't wait to get on the lake. Opening-day tickets sold out in four hours on the first day they were available.

What began as an 80-acre holding pond with 257 Florida-strain bass taken from San Diego's Lake Hodges is now more than 200,000 strong. Smallmouth bass, trout, bluegill, redear sunfish and catfish, and a small striped bass population are in the lake. The original bass now weigh 10 to 15 pounds and their offspring weigh up to 5 pounds.

"There are 5 to 10 million fish, easy," Giusti said. "I think many fishermen are going to be happy with their catch. It should be easy to catch 10 to 20 fish. Of course, some people won't catch any. It just depends on their skill level."

Two weeks before the opener, Giusti and San Diego Bay guide Bill Schroeder were throwing plastic worms, spinnerbaits and swim baits. Even with a full moon in the sky, the pair landed about 70 bass in four hours of fishing.

"It turned out better than I ever thought," Giusti said. "I knew it was going to be good. But for a 3-year-old lake, this is exceptional."

Giusti was able to plant 5,000 brush structures. There are ceramic pipes all over Rawson Canyon. Water eventually will fill it, and the pipes will be a catfish's home.

The plan is for the entire fishery to be sustainable.

Giusti credited the lush undergrowth for the spectacular bass count. He said that when the MWD began filling the lake in 1999, the plant life became exceptional nutrients for Silverside, and the bass have been devouring the abundant Silversides. Giusti said that instead of the typical 1 to 2 inches of annual growth, the Diamond Valley bass have grown an average of 12 inches annually.

The fishery project is rare among government entities in that the MWD and DFG shared in its development.

"It was unique and productive," MWD spokesman Bob Muir said. "We had a partnership very early in the lake."

The partnership, Muir said, helped clear the way to avoid litigation when it came to wildlife issues.

"If we dealt with the habitat issues up front, we knew it would be less expensive," Muir said.

The lake -- which is 70 percent Colorado River, 30 percent California Aqueduct water -- is as high-tech as officials could make it. Key fishing points have been pinpointed by a Global Position System. Near the base of the West Dam, which is 280 feet high, 1.6 miles long and more than 1 mile wild, there are temperature gauges embedded, allowing for the MWD to know water temperature at a specific depth, and where the thermocline is.

An 11-lane boat ramp is located on the east end of the lake, closest to Hemet. There is room for 250 vehicles with boats and 50 other parking places for those who rent a boat or fish from shore. All areas of the lake, except around the water intake area, will be open for fishing. Shore angling will be only a 1-mile area around the launch ramp.

Eventually, a west boat ramp is planned, and hiking and equestrian trails also are in the works. A trails system is planned between Diamond Valley and Lake Skinner, another MWD-owned lake. The trails will provide access to the 9,000-acre Southwest Riverside County Multi-Species Reserve.

Once the lake starts feeling fishing pressure -- Giusti has thrown back every fish he has caught so far -- the fish population might drop to 2 million or 3 million.

"Not every angler will throw back every (bass), and the lake will go through natural mortality," Giusti said.

In 10 to 15 years, he said those 10-pounders in the lake could top out at 20 to 25 pounds. Could one of them be a world-record bass?

"I have no idea," Giusti said. "But genetically, it's possible."

The lake is a key water source for Southern California, so anglers will need to tread carefully, Muir warned. No water skiing, personal watercraft, float tubes or body contact of any kind will be allowed. Also, only gasoline free of the additive MTBE is allowed, and boaters might be required to show receipts. Two-stroke engines that comply with CARB 2001 or later years and four-stroke or direct fuel injection two-stroke motors will be allowed. Electrical, sail or human-powered boats also are OK. Boats also must have a registration sticker.

"We have flexibility to reassess the situation," Muir said. "When we designed this, recreation was always part of the plan. But water quality is of utmost importance. It would be nice to have Jet Skis and swimming, but it is not possible."

The first chance to fish the lake will be this weekend, in a benefit for the Center for Water Education and Valley-Wide Community Park, which will be built adjacent to the park. Tickets for the Friday-through-Sunday event start at $250 for boat anglers by calling (909) 487-6833.

A few spots remain for the opening weekend. Rental boats are not available until Oct. 6. l=8s=8 Keith Lair, (626) 962-8811 IFYOU GOWhat: Diamond Valley Lake Where: Hemet !When it opens: Oct. 3 Hours of operation: 6:30 a.m.-sunset Fees: $7 to enter; $6 to launch a boat; $3 to fish Rentals: Bass boats, $92 half day, $117 full day; pontoons, $117 half day, $152 full day Directions: Interstates 10, 60 or 91 east to 215. South about 15 miles to Highway 74. Go east about 15 miles to Highway 79. Go south about 5 miles to Domenigoni Parkway. Go east 4 miles to Searl Parkway, which is the entrance to the park Phone: (800) 590-5253 Web site: