Jay Cowan mugIt’s drizzling, but Jay Cowan is on duty at Lake Wohlford.

But not for long. At the end of his shift today, he will have officially retired after 35 years on the job at the historic little 140-acre reservoir.

Jay actually started in 1974 on a part-time basis, but when the City of Escondido opened nearby Dixon Lake in 1977, it created a full-time ranger staff. Over much of that period he was my direct phone contact to the lake when I served intermittently as associate editor for both Western Outdoor News and Fishing & Hunting News, beginning as well in ’77.

Still his time (and mine, too) covered only a small period of the lake’s history. After all, the reservoir was first created in 1895 and later the dam was raised to its present height of 100 feet. Cowan, then, was still not present when trout were first planted in 1952, nor later in 1959 when Florida bass were first introduced from Upper Otay Lake.

But you would have to agree, he was also present for virtually the entire “modern era” of bass fishing in this part of San Diego County, and I asked him about things, like the evolution of baits.

Wohlford setting“Wohlford was always known as a crawdad and plastic worm lake,” he said. “They’re weren’t a lot of hot plugs–until the swimbait craze.”

Before the age of the bigger outboards, San Diego clubs often held tournaments here, like the Picses Bass Club, with “Lunker Bill” Murphy. Murphy, the most storied bass angler in San Diego, caught a 15-pound, 3-ounce fish largemouth circa 1973 here that held for decades as the largest taken in competition. The spot, as legend had it, became “Murphy’s Rock,” and as Cowan said, “It was already called that when I started.”

Cowan also related a bit of history I didn’t know. “The lake didn’t have shad until the 1970’s when they were introduced on purpose for fish feed source.” In the mid 80’s he noted, “All of a sudden the fish got a lot bigger. We used to see 15-pound fish (caught) all the time, and we had a couple of 20-pound floaters.”

Cowan was also on duty on Feb. 3, 1986 when Steve Beasley of Vista set the lake record at 19 pounds, 3 ounces fishing a golden shiner off Bass Point. “I took the picture,” he said, as well as the previous record of 17-1 taken by Scott Fromm.

More recently, history found Cowan. When he was needed to work at Dixon Lake, it turned out to be the same day when the 25-pound “Dottie” was foul-hooked and photographed.

Tracking such a fish as the one at Dixon could not happen on Lake Wohlford, Jay explained. “There have always been a lot of big fish, but with the water level and clarity changes (creating very murky conditions mean) there is no sight fishing at Wohlford. They come and try, but they always go home disappointed.”

Yes, Wohlford has had its problems from issues over water rights to a dam now deemed unfit to meet modern earthquake standards (leaving Murphy’s Rock and several manmade habitats high and dry). But Cowan chooses to look back at the brighter moments.

“There was a time,” he mused, “if they caught a 10 pounder, they kept it. They were skin mounts back then (with some still on the wall of the cafe). But there was a fishing revolution with the new style mounts made from a picture and measurements of the fish. That ethic was almost instant at Wohlford; catch and release took hold fast.”

Finally, Jay told me, “The highlight of the job is when a kid catches his first fish with dad or uncle or family members. I’ve shared that major family moment with hundreds of families.”

PHOTO: Looking eastward, a piece of Murphy’s Rock at the left on the bank (left of dock in the back of the pocket) and in the center background is Bass Point where the lake record was taken.