Giving a new meaning to the term `trophy cat'

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WHERE BIG CATFISH COME FROM -- Jim Matthews column 12jun02

Giving a new meaning to the term `trophy cat'

The four men slipped into the waist deep water, wading around in the dark with huge nets. The muddy bottom sucked at their feet. Tropical birds shrieked out their night calls and then a lion roared. A huge Egyptian goose, flushed from its night-time bed, startled by the men struggling with a large fish in the net. Repeatedly, the night sounds would send fear into the men's throats, goosebumps ran down their spines. Were there crocodiles in the muddy water? Hippopotamus?

The four were netting huge catfish that would be transferred to one of four popular fishing lakes in urban Southern California -- Santa Ana River Lakes, Anaheim Lake, Corona Lake, or Irvine Lake.

But they weren't in Africa or Asia doing their netting, they were in Southern California. The catfish were 30 to 60-pound fish that were to be the centerpiece of summer angling for several years at these lakes, and some are almost certainly still swimming in these waters today. But the true story of where those trophy catfish came from could never be told before because the men catching them were sworn to secrecy.

Today, Bill Andrews, who along with his partner Doug Elliott, own and manage the recreational fishing programs at Santa Ana River Lakes, Anaheim Lake, and Corona Lake, and formerly ran Irvine Lake as well, will tell the story of those trophy cats.

Do you remember Lion Country Safari and its water rides? Well, all of the canals where those boats cruised were filled with huge catfish. Sometimes the cats would get caught between one of the boats and its rail track, damaging the boat and tipping people into the drink. The big catfish also would horrify visitors by eating ducklings in the spring. Kids would be feeding the birds, and "sploosh" a duckling would disappear in a swirl and splash.

"They wanted us to get them out of there but didn't want anyone to know because some people treated them like pets and fed them. So we would get in those canals at night with seines and catch those huge catfish. It was the eeriest darn thing to catch those fish with all those birds calling and lions roaring," said Andrews.

"We got tons and tons of fish from them, and I don't think there was anything under 25 pounds and there were 50 and 60-pounders. They wanted them out, so we eventually cleaned `em out," said Andrews.

The story can be told since that Lion Country Safari closed its doors. Anglers now know those big trophy cats they caught at Santa Ana River Lakes and Corona grew up listening to the calls of African wildlife and eating baby Egyptian geese and mallards. Hot dogs and popcorn made them heavyweights.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.

Because of the size of those fish, many of them have survived for years in Corona Lake, which continues to produce a few monstrous cats each year. The biggest catfish caught at Corona was a 55-pounder landed by Mike Bradshaw of Riverside, and Smokey Wilson of Los Angeles nearly broke Bradshaw's record with a 54.6-pounder. The same week Wilson caught his fish in Oct. 1999, a 68.4-pound cat was found dying at Corona Lake. The fish had an array of lines and hooks in its mouth.

At Santa Ana River Lakes, the record catfish was a 67 1/2-pounder caught by Lee Porter of Los Angeles -- one of those Lion Country Safari cats. That fish that might have made the trip back and forth between Santa Ana and Anaheim Lake a time or two before it was finally landed by Porter. Both of those lakes are drawn down for maintenance each year and fish are netted and moved to the other lake. There are still a few big ones that make the trip each year, but the numbers have grown fewer each year and most of the super trophies are almost gone.

Andrews is nostalgic about those old days when he, Doug Elliott, his brother Craig Elliott, and Louie Cervantes netted those Lion Country cats.

"There were a couple of summer's there where we had 40 and 50-pounders caught each week," said Andrews.

Now the biggest catfish he can buy from suppliers are mere 10 pounders. No one is raising bigger fish.

"We're going to put in the biggest fish we can find this year," said Andrews. But then he sighed. "But the best we can get right now are only 10 pounders -- and they're rare. The fish growers we work with in the state grow lots of two and three pounders, and we can get lots of five and six pounders, but those eight to 10 pounders are rare."

Now most anglers are thrilled with five and six pound catfish, but Andrews and Elliott have spoiled anglers with their stockings of Phil Mackey's Mt. Lassen Trout Farms rainbow trout. Each of the past two years, Santa Ana River Lakes tackle shop alone weighed in over 500 rainbows bigger than 10 pounds. In fact, there were over 1,000 trout over 10 pounds at SARL last season and right at 600 this season, including six trout bigger than the current state record rainbow of 23 pounds. Add in Corona Lake's whoppers and there have been around 2,000 rainbows over 10 pounds caught at the two lakes the past two years.

So you can understand why Andrews is little wistful about catfish season. He'd like to have 20-pound and bigger catfish available for his fishing customers. Andrews will hint that Phil Mackey is working with catfish now and expects that Mackey will be growing 60- to 100-pound catfish someday.

Hundred-pounders! It won't be this year, but it will happen. This year anglers will have to be content with fish up to a mere 10 pounds -- along with one of those occasional Lion Country Safari fish that has managed to survive over the years. Perhaps these veteran fish pull harder and fight harder than regular hatchery fish -- after all, they did grow up in the jungle. These were catfish listening to the roar of lions.
 

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