Noe Valley Voice April 2003

Family Adventures: Fishing at San Pablo Reservoir

By Janis Cooke Newman

I am standing beside the Smelly Jelly bait display when I overhear a mom ask her 9-year-old son if he's looked at "that dam menu."

"Yeah," her son replies. "I want that dam combo."

"Do you want me to see about a boat?" asks the woman's husband. He is wearing a fishing license in a little plastic case pinned to the brim of his hat.

"Sure," says the woman. "Go talk to that dam company."

Anyplace else, I'd consider this a family in need of a good talking to from Miss Manners. But this is San Pablo Reservoir, where all the concessions are run by That Dam Company--a group of folks who might be a little too much in love with those dam puns.

San Pablo Reservoir is 35 minutes in distance and a million miles in ambience away from San Francisco. Turn off San Pablo Dam Road and you're suddenly in the wilderness--albeit, wilderness with a picnic area, a boat dock, and a playground. Still, all these amenities sit amidst 860 acres of trout-filled lake and rolling green hills--you'd never know you were within fly-casting distance of Orinda.

It's the trout that brings the families to San Pablo, lugging tackle boxes filled with rubber worms and rooster tails. From mid-February to mid-November, the reservoir is stocked regularly, and it's stocked with really big trout.

I'm checking out these really big trout in Polaroids displayed on the window of That Dam Company's snack bar and general store. Any fisher man, woman, or child who catches a trophy trout--anything bigger than 5 lbs.--gets themselves and their trout immortalized in a photograph. I can't help but notice that every monster trout on the window was caught in the last two days, and though I know it's bad fishing karma to get too cocky about catch you haven't caught, I'm already thinking we're going to need two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc to wash down our trout dinner.

In the general store, my husband buys a yearly fishing license for himself, which he attaches to his fishing vest, next to the line clipper, knot-tyer, hemostat, and sheepskin fly patch. I get a two-day license, which I pin to my sweatshirt. My son, Alex, who at 8, doesn't need a license, buys a little rubber squid, which he names Bob.

The three of us hike through a forest of oak and manzanita on the optimistically named Whopper Trail to a shady cove. There, we bait our hooks with globs of yellow Powerbait--a substance with the consistency of Playdoh and the aroma of Vietnamese fish sauce.

"Cast into the shadows," instructs my husband. "Fish like the shadows."

Since he's the one in the vest, we do as he says. Then we wait for the giant trout that will land our photograph on the window of the general store. A pair of Canada geese make a honking landing on the surface of the water. A line of green-headed ducks parades past our lines. Alex catches a bunch of weeds. My husband gets his line tangled in the branches of a tree while executing a flashy cast, a development which gives him a good excuse to use at least three of the tools attached to his vest.

After an hour, a small fishing boat anchors at the mouth of our cove, and a dad and his teenage son drop their lines. Within five minutes, the son pulls out a big silvery trout.

"What are you using?" my husband shouts.

"Chartreuse Powerbait," says the dad.

We rebait our hooks with globs of chartreuse Powerbait and cast back into the cove. After 45 minutes, Alex catches another bunch of weeds.

"We need a boat," my husband says.

We hike back up to the store, where several large men are posing with several equally large (at least by fish standards) trout. The men all wear serious expressions and hats that say "Whopper Club."

"What'd you use?" my husband asks them.

"Fluorescent-orange Powerbait," they tell him.

"We'd like a boat," says my husband to the man behind the counter. "And fluorescent-orange Powerbait."

We rent a small motor boat, and after the dockhand instructs us to "have a dam good time!" we cruise across the reservoir to a cove, where several other boats are pulling in trout as fast as they can throw out their lines.

We fish for about half an hour, during which time I hook Alex's line, and my husband gets to use another couple of tools on his vest. Then, my husband calls over to a patio boat filled with kids in puffy orange life vests.

"What are you using?" he shouts.

"Hot-pink Powerbait," the kids yell back.

We change from fluorescent orange to hot pink, and return our lines to the water.

"You know, they stock this lake with 250,000 trout every year," my husband tells me.

"Then how come we can't catch one?" I say.

"I want to try another color," says Alex, reeling in his line.

"They're using pink," my husband warns, pointing to the kids on the patio boat, who are dancing around a freshly caught trout.

"I don't like pink," Alex says.

Alex wipes the pink Powerbait on his pants and replaces it with rainbow. Five minutes later, he pulls in a wriggling trout--not Polaroid-in-the-window size, but enough to require at least one bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

My husband examines the fish, and then changes his own bait to rainbow.

"Here," he says to Alex. "You wear the vest."

That Dam Trout

Whether your San Pablo trout is trophy-sized or barely legal, this is the way to prepare it. Make a marinade by mixing together:

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh parsley

2 tablespoons fresh basil

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 chopped shallot

Whisk in 1/2 cup olive oil, and add salt to taste. Marinate the trout for 15 to 20 minutes, then grill, basting frequently with the marinade.

The Dam Details

Getting to San Pablo Reservoir:
Take the Bay Bridge to 80 East. Exit at El Portal Drive. Turn left onto San Pablo Dam Road until you see the sign for San Pablo Reservoir. The recreation area is open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. in April (after Daylight Savings Time), until 8:30 p.m. in May, and until 9 p.m. in June and July. The general day use fee is $6. There is also a daily fishing access permit fee of $3.50 for anglers over 16. If you're over 16, you also need to have a valid California State Fishing license. An annual license costs $30.70. A two-day license is $11.05.

The general store at the reservoir sells fishing gear, bait, sunblock, ice cream, drinks, T-shirts, etc. They also rent boats. A four-person motorboat runs $21/hour, or $40 for a half-day. Call the store at 510-223-1661 for more info. You can also rent a picnic area for birthday parties and other fishy celebrations. The Oaks Reserved Picnic Area costs $225. Contact That Dam Company at the number above. For general information on San Pablo Reservoir, visit www.ebmud .com /services/recreation/east_bay/ san_pablo.

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at