Get Hooked on Cachuma Lake’s Fish Derby

20th Annual Neal Taylor Nature Center Fish Derby Goes Down April 18 and 19

<b>RAINBOWS OF SMILES:</b> Santa Maria resident Brook Totsi showed off the fish she caught recently at Cachuma Lake, which hosts its 20th annual fish derby this weekend; but there's never a bad time to check out the lake, according to Julie McDonald, who runs the Nature Center. 

Cachuma Lake is down but not out, and it still teems with recreational opportunities. That’s the message the caretakers of Santa Barbara’s major water resource want to deliver to the public. A case in point is this weekend’s 20th Annual Neal Taylor Nature Center Fish Derby on April 18-19.

“It’s still a big lake, though not the huge lake it used to be,” said Julie McDonald, director of the Nature Center. “There are lots of fish in the lake.” And there will be more in the days to come. Plantings of rainbow trout, suspended by the state last year, were slated to resume this week. Two plants totaling 6,000 pounds, including some trophy-size trout, are expected in advance of the derby, McDonald said.

Julie McDonald
Courtesy Photo

In prior years, the annual April fishing event was known as the Trout Derby, with prizes going to the anglers who caught specifically tagged rainbows. The state’s ban on trout plants — based on environmental concerns that were just recently ironed out — brought about the rebranding. The Fish Derby will offer more than $5,000 in cash prizes for catches in an array of categories, including the heaviest bass, sunfish, crappie, catfish, carp, and trout. There will be special prizes for the fish caught by boys and girls ages 11-15 and 10 and under.

“Fishing brings out the kid in you,” McDonald said. “Anytime you catch a fish, it’s pretty exciting.”

I’ll never forget the first time my pole stayed bent on the shore of Lake Arrowhead many years ago and I landed a mammoth crappie. Sautéed in butter by my mother, it was the freshest if not the tastiest fish I’d ever eaten. Although fishing has not been among my most frequent pursuits since then, that experience helped foster a lifelong appreciation of nature.

“I love being with a kid who catches his first fish,” said Mike Moropoulos, an avid outdoorsman who is a member of the county Fish and Game Commission. “They get big eyes, like they can’t believe it. I took a friend’s grandson out who was not a believer. You should have seen his face when he said, ‘Something’s happening!’”

Moropoulos was a friend of the late Neal Taylor, a legendary fly fisherman who founded the nonprofit Nature Center at Cachuma Lake. It is chock-full of hands-on exhibits that feature not just fish but all wildlife in the watersheds of the Santa Ynez and San Rafael rivers. “I’m a staunch supporter of what they do,” Moropoulos said. “It’s all volunteer. Those people work so hard.”

Open Tuesday-Sunday, the Nature Center has no charge for admission. “We depend on donors and fundraising to keep it free,” McDonald said. “The Fish Derby is our major fundraiser.”

There’s no denying that years of severe drought have had a serious impact on all watersheds in California. Both people and fish depend on Cachuma Lake for sustenance, and in its current state, the lake has about a year’s supply of water. Nobody should be more hopeful of rains to come, and more supportive of water conservation, than people who like to fish.

“We should be operating as though we’re always in a drought,” McDonald said. “JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] is studying planet Earth and sees our aquifers being depleted. We need to figure out ways to capture water when we get atmospheric rivers coming through rather than a steady rain season.”

A former backcountry ranger in the High Sierra, McDonald buttressed her experience with a degree in environmental studies at UCSB in 1999. She worked eight years in developing educational programs at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum before assuming her post at Cachuma Lake in 2009.

All science aside, the Nature Center is looking forward to a fun weekend at Cachuma Lake this weekend, hoping that 4,000-5,000 campers and day-use visitors show up. A flare at the marina will signal the start of the Fish Derby at 6 a.m. on Saturday. It will continue until noon on Sunday. There will be arts-and-crafts activities for children Saturday afternoon.

Based on recent reports, the fishing for bass, both smallmouth and largemouth, has been most productive at Cachuma Lake. The trout plants should bring about lots of trolling activity this weekend. Cody Uhrig at the marina said that half the fleet of some 60 rental boats has been reserved ahead of time, and the other half is available for walk-ups. Kayaks are also available for rent. He advised showing up shortly after the gates open at 5 a.m.

Many anglers may find success fishing from the banks of the lake. Choices abound, not only where to drop a line into the water but what baits or lures to use. Some anglers are devoted to worms; others like fancy artificial creations.

Moropoulos suggested checking with the folks at the marina. Near the start of Highway 154 in Santa Barbara, the Hook, Line & Sinker store is a resource. “I’d go to a tackle shop and ask them, ‘What would you do?’” Moropoulos said. “They want you to catch fish.”

Registration for the Fish Derby costs $40 for adults and $10 for youths ages 4-15. Fishing licenses are required for those 16 and older. They may be purchased at the marina. Call the derby hotline at (805) 693-8381 or visit

VIN SCULLY: Because I expressed the thought that this will be his last season in last week’s Independent, a headline stated factually that this will be Vin Scully’s last season as the voice of the Dodgers. The subjunctive mood — “might be” or “could be” — would have been a better choice. Scully could return for a 67th year; that will be determined by how he feels at the end of the current season. I wish he would go on forever, but his ruminations during his opening-day broadcast led me to believe that the end will come soon.


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