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South State Whiskerfish

South State Whiskerfish

If you want a shot at a state-record fish, target these Southland reservoirs for monster-sized catfish this summer. (June 2006)

This 101-pound blue catfish is the largest ever caught in California. Roger Rohrbouck of Lakeside made the record catch back in 2000 at San Vicente.
Photo by Jim Niemiec.

Southern California is home to many trophy catfish lakes that over the past decade have produced monster-sized catfish. The state-record catch exceeds the 100-pound mark and every year sees a number of big blue cats caught that weigh between 70 and 90 pounds. Over the past two decades, I've witnessed the release of 25 blue catfish weighing from 60 to 101 pounds, as well as the state-record channel catfish.

"As lakes transition from spring to summer and then into early fall, catfish start to purr," says Ronson "Catmando" Smothers, an angler who spends a lot of time fishing for huge catfish. "The water warms up in Southern California lakes, and catfish begin to feed heavily. Lakes that I consider to be prime catfish waters include Irvine, San Vicente, Lower Otay, Jennings, Buena Vista Lakes, Lake Casitas and Poway. To my knowledge, the lakes that offer the best potential of setting a new state record would be Irvine and Lower Otay. But San Vicente could break its own record as well."

Gearing up with the right fishing tackle and bait, knowing a lake, being patient and having a big net on board are all important when an angler sets out to fish for trophy blue or channel catfish. Ronson is a spinner-gear guy who uses 6- and 7-foot rods, rated for 14- to 20-pound-test line, in a medium or medium/heavy action, which allows for long casts. He likes the "bait runner" feature of a spinning reel that permits a catfish to swim off and swallow the bait before the angler sets the hook. Other dedicated catfish anglers use conventional reels that are matched to medium-action saltwater rods and spool up with nothing less than 20-pound-test line.

On the terminal end, catfish anglers can choose from basic bait-holder worm hooks when fishing smaller baits, while 2/0 to 4/0 octopus and circle hooks are ideal when fishing chunk baits. When fishing deeper water, anglers rig with a sliding egg sinker. Many regular catfishermen have discovered the effectiveness of fishing the shallows with no weight, allowing their bait to sink slowly and enticingly to the bottom.

Veterans know how important it is to anchor up with no fewer than two anchors out (one forward, one aft) and four anchors (one per corner) for pontoon boats. Keeping a boat positioned and not allowing it to swing in the wind or current increases your odds of getting big catfish to suck in the bait, because they won't be spooked by movement overhead.

Once a catfish picks up the bait and starts moving off, don't be in a hurry to pick up the rod. Let the fish take off a few yards of line. Then gently pick up the rod, put the reel in gear, take up any slack and strike back hard with at least three solid hooksets. If you're using circle hooks, merely tighten the line to set the hook.

Baits for monster catfish are pretty standard at all Southland lakes. Greenback mackerel, available at all local bait shops, is No. 1 on the list of preferred baits. Other baits that have caught record-class cats include gobs of night crawlers, shrimp, chicken liver and big chunks of bonito and skipjack. Scent attractants are used in combination with baits, as are commercial catfish baits. Berkley's packaged catfish bait chunks are popular, as are Smothers' Catmando baits. Hog Wild has been a catfish additive tradition for years, along with garlic and anise scents.


Irvine Lake, nestled below the Santa Ana Mountains, is perhaps the most popular Southland lake for consistent catches of trophy cats. The lake record stands at 89.65 pounds; an 89.1-pounder was caught and released in 2005 along with a number of 50- to 75-pound blues. Irvine is the only lake in Southern California that has never been drained and is quite possibly home to many catfish weighing well over 100 pounds.

Divers who venture into its murky waters to check out the dam often return to the surface with a very scared look on their faces and hurry to get out of the water. "I will never dive into this lake again," one diver told me. "I had something rub up against me in the dark that was huge. I couldn't get out of the water fast enough!"

Hotspots to target big catfish on Irvine include Rocky Point, Santiago Flats, along the buoy line and right in the center of the lake.

Irvine Lake is in Orange County off the 241 Tollway. A fleet of 125 rental boats, well-stocked tackle shop and this year's high water level make this a prime lake to fish for monster catfish this summer. Call Irvine Lake at (714) 649-9111 for information.

The state-record 101-pound blue catfish was caught out of San Vicente Lake, which is managed by the City of San Diego. Catfish were first planted there in 1972, and it's thought that this record fish comes from that original stocking.

According to lake biologists who monitor the fishery at San Vicente, large blue catfish tend to live in areas where large boulders are piled and "caves" are created. At San Vicente, some of the best areas to hook a big catfish are the back side of Lowell Island, the Barona and Kimball arms and the east side of the buoy line. Most San-V catfish anglers use cut mackerel, although each fisherman uses various secret techniques and processes.

Easy access to San Vicente is via Highway 67, just outside the city limits of Lakeside. The lake has a large fleet of rental boats, concession stand and a huge ramp for private boaters. For San Vicente Lake information, call (619) 561-1851.

Another trophy blue catfish lake is Lower Otay, in the foothills east of Chula Vista just a few miles from Mexico. It too is managed by the City of San Diego. The lake can be seen from Otay Lakes Road and is accessible off the 805 Freeway by taking the Olympic Parkway exit.

The lake record for Lower Otay was set this past summer when an 88.95-pound blue cat was caught on a chunk of cut mackerel in the east end of the Harvey's arm. This catch, it was determined, came from a 1985 stocking. Other spots that have produced big catfish include the Otay arm, the entrance to the Harvey arm and the buoy line near the dam. The lake is holding a high water level this year and all boat ramps are usable. Bait, tackle, rental boats and plenty of parking space make this an extremely popular lake. Lower Otay Lake can be contacted at (619) 421-9026.

Lake Jennings, in San Diego County, should not be overlooked as a possible producer of record-class catfish. The lake record sits at 68 pounds and Jennings has the potential

for kicking out even bigger blues. Hotspots are between the second and third buoys from the campground. A channel leads from the tower to the fishing floats that hold a lot of big catfish. The bait of choice is mackerel, but also try fresh sardines or anchovies you can purchase at San Diego Bay's bait docks.

In Hermit Cove and off Sentry Point, this lake has added spawning barrels for channel catfish. There is a map in the concession area and GPS coordinates for the spots where such habitat improvement projects are being installed.

Access Lake Jennings, just outside the city of Lakeside, by taking Interstate 8 east to Lake Jennings Park Road; follow the signs to the lake. Facilities include a county-run campground, bait shop, boat rental with 40 boats and boat ramp. They offer night fishing in the summer. Call (619) 443-2510.

Another Southland water that should be included in the list of potential record catches is the Santa Ana River Lakes off the 91 Freeway in Anaheim. These deep lakes hold the record for the largest channel catfish ever caught in California, a husky 52.10-pounder landed in 1993.

The Santa Ana River Lakes are drained annually, except for the eastern-most lake on this series of three small creek basins, but the lakes are stocked regularly with trophy class blue and channel catfish. Call (714) 632-7830.

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