A stone’s throw from home

Fisherman Freddy Heidler relaxes with his pole in the water as he waits for a bite Saturday morning at McAlpine Lake.

McAlpine Lake is nature at its unnatural best. Aside from the obvious – a 40-foot-deep ecosystem holding 90 million gallons of artesian spring water tapped from below – the manmade fishing hole and accompanying park near San Juan Bautista are a haven for wildlife and landscaped as if evolution took a favorable, gradual toll on the property.

What sets apart McAlpine Lake from other outdoor attractions in the region is its unnatural evolution, which also makes the budding business a huge regional draw – not only for avid fishermen, but also for beginners who don’t know a rod from a stick.

Over the last 13 years, McAlpine Lake & Park has evolved from an old commercial campground and neighboring apple orchard into a refuge for fishermen and families. It is designed with structure – the lake manmade – yet anchored by its respect for the wild.

“We try to keep it all natural, basically,” said Randall McAlpine, whose father, a Morgan Hill resident, opened the business in December 1999.

The lake and accompanying camping areas about 10 miles from Hollister or Gilroy might display nature’s calm, but the combination of native species and human ingenuity gives McAlpine Lake its identity. Plant species here are indigenous, and predators – such as bobcats – sometimes march down from the nearby hills. Ospreys and blue herons that called dibs on McAlpine Lake on day one haven’t left since. There are also the coordinated elements that seem to bring everything together – the wood chip-covered pathway around the lake, several abandoned ships washed ashore, the old-fashioned General Store at the entrance, playful signs pointing the way to gold panning or fishing, a banquet area for groups and reserved parking for RVs, the owners of which can choose between weekly or monthly stays.  

Being a private lake doesn’t hurt, either, when it comes to differentiating from the competition. Visitors don’t legally need a California fishing license to fish at the lake, and the owners make sure to let customers – or potential customers, such as travelers that catch a glimpse of the lake off Highway 101 and stop out of curiosity – know that everyone is welcome. Expert or novice, it won’t matter at McAlpine Lake. Plus, nobody goes home empty-handed.

The McAlpines made sure of that in 2003 when they transformed a small pool behind the General Store – where they offer all the bait and tackle accessories customers will need – into what they call the “Sure Catch” pond to “make sure you leave with something.”

In other words, dinner is served whether the fish are biting like crazed mosquitoes or roaming less than a rotary phone.

“You don’t have to be a professional fisherman,” said McAlpine, who resides on the grounds.

But you certainly can be – or else match your skills against the best in the region.

The biggest catch

McAlpine Lake doesn’t shy away from its competitive spirit. Aside from its unique standing as a private, commercial, manmade lake – its main competition was Parkway Fishing Lakes in San Jose, which closed in October – it also caters to those who like to put the “sports” in “sportsman.”

Among its most prominent features are the trout derbies and catfish derbies held on scheduled Saturday mornings throughout the year.

The derbies last from around 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Participation can vary from 20 people to 100 people, depending on the weather. At the end of the day, fishermen weigh their catches, and whoever has the biggest fish – as documented on a leaderboard placed in the General Store – wins the competition and a $300 prize.

McAlpine explained that for trout derbies during winter and spring months, the entry fee is $35, with the same 4-pound limit as on a regular adult pass priced at $20.

It’s slightly different for the catfish derbies. The entry fee is $30, while competitors must catch and release the catfish. With trout, as is the case for regular visitors to the lake, they have to keep them because the species face likely death after a release, McAlpine said, due to the hook getting caught or the fish losing its equilibrium.

Catfish derbies are held after sundown at the lake and during warmer months.

“It’s a summer thing to come out tent camping, and you just use the grounds,” said Randall McAlpine, who surmised the idea of catfish biting at night is really “more of a myth.”  

Year-round recreation

Visitors certainly aren’t limited to summertime for relaxation at the lake – not in South Valley’s mild climate. There are plenty of potential visitors, too, particularly with McAlpine Lake’s centralized location allowing it to oftentimes draw outdoorsmen from Santa Clara, San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Merced counties.

Despite the rainy weather in March, a relative rarity this season, Darren Hammel and his 10-year-old son Jakob visited on a recent Saturday. The Hammels trek north 65 miles from King City to McAlpine Lake every other weekend for the past two months.

While the lake allows shore fishing only – no outside boats are allowed, which prevents the need to worry about invasive species such as the zebra mussels that have kept the nearby San Justo Reservoir closed for three years – the Hammels were enjoying the lake to themselves, casting from one of the many docks.

Darren Hammel said his son loves fishing and has been doing it since he was 4 years old. The father has 16 years of experience himself. So what draws them to their newly preferred spot just off Highway 101?

“You catch a lot of fish,” Darren said.

The McAlpines make sure there are enough catches to go around. They stock the lake with 800 to 1,000 pounds of trout every three weeks. With the trout, “We know how many pounds we’re putting in and we keep track of pounds out,” McAlpine said, noting that fishermen can exceed the 4-pound limit but have to pay $5 per pound after doing so.

Balancing the trout population is the main factor in regulating the lake’s ecosystem and ensuring it is adequately stocked. As for bass, he said they “reproduce like crazy.” Blue gill are “all over the place” – from minnows to 2-pounders.

Having a well-stocked lake plays into the all-inclusiveness, and McAlpine Lake’s  emphasizes giving younger generations a chance to learn.

“What I see most often, and I think this is part of the idea behind building the lake, is teaching kids how to get outside and to experience it,” Randall McAlpine said. “When I was young growing up, we always went camping, to Redding or the Sierras. I know my dad spent a ton of money. Here, you have a place to come and not have to spend those thousands of dollars.”

He said the unique family experience was “definitely my dad’s inspiration” when he chose to bypass an initial idea to build a lake in the family’s Morgan Hill backyard in favor of the San Juan spot. The elder McAlpine found the spot and bought it in early 1999.

The landscaping they’ve done “gets better with time,” McAlpine said.

“It kind of works,” he said. “It’s all just kind of natural without being natural.”