What really swims beneath the murky deep?

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In honor of this year’s Kid’s Fishing Derby, here is a reprint of a “Wild Side of Canyon Lake” column written by Ken Cable in July 2005.

Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water; 97 percent of that number is salt and three percent is fresh. Almost two-thirds of all fresh water is locked up in ice caps and glaciers, leaving just a bit more than one percent in rivulets, rills, brooks, creeks, streams rivers, lakes and ponds available for drinking, fishing (freshwater, of course), water skiing, irrigating, flushing – and lake monsters. Canyon Lake contributes approximately four-fifths of a square mile to this available dimension.

Canyon Lake has been a popular fishing hole since the construction of the dam in 1929 trapped the San Jacinto River behind it. Not much has changed piscatorially since the Railroad Canyon Dam fishing hole grew up to become Canyon Lake. Fishermen and women still roam its waters and cast their lines into its green depths in pursuit of Northern Big Mouth Bass, Channel Catfish, Crappie and Blue Gill. Some have even banded together to form the Canyon Lake Bassmasters, a diverse group whose uniting passion is the pursuit of lunker bass lurking in the coves, under docks, in the shadows of shoreline trees, around the lighthouse, off Diamond Point, near shoals and down the rocky faces of underwater cliffs. This is serious business for anglers worldwide. Annual tournaments produce hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money through a series of events culminating in the naming of champions based on the collective weight of fish taken in the finals. Thousands of bass participate; they are temporarily pulled from their habitat, weighed, photographed and released. Canyon Lake Bassmaster tournaments are conducted in the same way.

This community-involved club also sponsors the popular Kid’s Fishing Derby each summer at Holiday Harbor. When we first came to Canyon Lake, I occasionally saw 30-inch catfish on stringers. That’s a big catfish (perhaps not the biggest in our lake.) Mike Wiley told me we stock catfish, bluegill and crawdads in the lake, but not Northern bass; the bass fend for themselves reproductively. This is part of what makes catch-and-release so important, he says.

Bluegills are the traditional fun-fish for kids learning the art of angling. While the record bluegill weighed more than four pounds, most are bite-size for cormorants and bass, says Mike. He told me a cormorant can also consume a bass weighing a pound and a half! This is not a popular bird among fisher folk, he added. This year’s cormorant invasion is light compared to prior years,

Another popular sport fish in Canyon Lake is the crappie. It’s been a long time since I fished for crappie; I do remember that it was great fun.

Of course, other creatures live in the lake. Small shad provide forage for the game fish. Three kinds of turtles, the Red Eared Slider, the Pacific Pond Turtle and the Soft Shelled Turtle (an immigrant from the Colorado River) are occasionally seen around the edges of the lake. None of these are native to Canyon Lake and have been introduced by accident – or design.

Everyone with a television knows that many strange creatures live in the water realms of our planet. The oceans regularly reveal new creatures from way down deep; some still surviving from eras preceding the dinosaurs. The Coelacanth, for example, swam the ancient oceans long before the dinosaurs took over. Previously known only from the fossil record, this astonishing creature was thought extinct – until 1938 when one showed up in a fisherman’s net at the mouth of the Chalumna River in South Africa. Since then others have been netted in different parts of the world, proving that the mere passage of time doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a species.

Myth and lore abound with stories of creatures living in the depths of fresh water bodies around the world. Perhaps the most famous of these “monsters” is Nessie, notorious denizen of Scotland’s Loch Ness. Lots of “monsters” are reported throughout other parts of the world – including North America. Ogopogo, a 20 foot long “water demon” is regularly sighted in Lake Okanogan, Canada. “Champ” occasionally raises his horse-shaped head above the waters of Lake Champlain between Vermont and New York and Tessie is said to live in the depths of Lake Tahoe, shared by California and Nevada. (Famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once descended into Lake Tahoe in search of Tessie, only to return to the surface stating that the world was not ready to know about what he found.)

Does an unidentified creature inhabit Canyon Lake? I have a friend I’ll call Marvin (not his real name) who lived in East Bay. He owned a small, fixed-oar watercraft he regularly rowed up and down the bay. His habit was to troll a baited hook as he moved along. This normally non-productive fishing method produced a strike one morning; he shipped his oars, tightened the drag on his reel, and began to “play” his catch. There was no fight. The quarry rose behind the boat to just below the surface and fixed two large eyes, set 18 inches apart, upon Marvin.

After gazing at his captor for awhile, the creature sank below the surface and began towing Marvin and his little boat toward the tunnel at the Main Causeway. Upon arrival, said Marv, it turned in a wide, lazy circle and towed him back to the point of its capture and broke off. Marvin swore it was a giant catfish.

A catfish!? Catfish don’t get that big!

Oh yeah?

On May 1, this year (2005), two fishermen set their net in the Mekong River in the Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand and caught a nine-foot, 646-pound catfish. This catch was documented by a National Geographic Society project designed to conserve large freshwater fish around the world. Sadly, attempts to keep the fish alive failed and the villagers ate it.

Okay, so what towed Marvin’s boat? Was it a transplanted Mekong catfish (scoff if you will, but those turtles and stripers got in our lake somehow.) Or was it a local channel cat suffering from runaway growth hormones? Or was it a catfish at all? What DID Cousteau find deep in Lake Tahoe?

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Ken Cable