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There's Almost Always a Catch


SILVERADO CANYON — Sunlight pierced through a parting in the clouds and bathed Frank Vargas' upturned face with instant heat. He closed his eyes, adjusted his headphones, put his hands behind his head and swirled the surface with a flap of his fins.

Vargas, of Whittier, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his first float-tube fishing trip to Irvine Lake. And why not? He was bobbing along with a buddy and a collection of local waterfowl, catching fish and catching some warming rays on a cool spring morning.

Fishing from float tubes has become one of the most popular ways to enjoy Irvine Lake, which was built as a reservoir in 1933. The lake drew modest activity as a warm-water fishery for self-sustaining bass, catfish and sunfish until private operators recognized its recreational potential in the 1980s and regular stocking began.

"Float tubes have been around quite a while, but they've really exploded in the last three or four years," said Dave Tigges, operations manager at the lake. "We allow float-tube fishing seven days a week now, with pretty much no restrictions on where they can go."

The float-tube industry is popping out new and better designs every day, with prices ranging from $70 to more than $300 for elaborate tubes that have multiple compartments and built-in ice chests.

Add waders, fins, a pole, tackle and bait and you're set.

And, because Irvine Lake is privately owned, you don't even need a license.

"Float-tubing is a really fun way to fish," Vargas said. "I've been doing it for six months now. It's relaxing, but it's also good exercise. It really keeps your legs in shape. And it doesn't cost anything for gas, insurance or registration."

As Vargas soon discovered, however, the motor can still break down.

"The first time you do it, you can really cramp up," he said, wincing. "I sure did."

For those who prefer sore shoulders to sore thighs, Irvine Lake has also introduced kayak rentals. The kayaks, which run from single models up to boats that will carry four passengers, are another way to get some exercise and catch some fish.

Because even if you're like Vargas, who releases all the fish he catches, there is really only one reason to come to Irvine Lake.

One of the lures of fishing is the ever-present element of luck. A big, fat trout can make anyone feel like a lottery winner. And fishing at a lake that has 2 1/2 tons of trout dumped into it every week considerably improves your chances of good fortune and a fish dinner.

Still, there is an element of science involved in trout fishing.

For instance, the right tackle is very important: usually a size 18-20 treble hook on the end of a 12- to 18-inch length of two- to four-pound test leader hung from a swivel or split shot that holds a quarter- or eight-ounce sliding sinker in place.

"The fish swim about six to eight inches off the bottom," said Irvine's Bill Cook, who had enough plump trout dangling from his stringer to prove he knows what he's talking about. "The question is how long the grass on the bottom is where you're fishing. Usually, it's about eight inches or so, so I go with a 16-inch leader."

Bait? Here's where the quest for the perfect fishing program gets a bit sticky. Some of the favorites:

* Some traditionalists refuse to part with proven favorites like salmon eggs, marshmallows and Velveeta cheese.

* Most popular are one of the numerous floating Play-Doh-like baits that come in a wide variety of colors, scents and, yes, flavors. Topping this list is Power Bait--which supposedly smells and tastes just like the food the trout are fed back home on the farm--and outsells all other baits five to one, according to the lake bait shop staff.

* Nightcrawlers and meal worms often produce good results (affixed to size 10 single-snelled hooks). Most anglers prefer to inflate their worms so they float, using a syringe-like device called appropriately a "worm blower."

* Any combination of the above.

No combination of tackle and bait is better than being lucky, though. And maybe good karma even counts.

On Jan. 21, 1991, Spinner Brown of Anaheim caught a 9 1/2-pound rainbow trout at Irvine Lake.

Spinner was 5.

And he was using a piece of his mother's meatloaf as bait.

Trout are the trophies for most fishermen here, but the lake is teeming with other species, some of them huge.

Five of the 10 largest channel catfish caught in California have been pulled reluctantly out of Irvine Lake. The second-biggest blue catfish caught in the state--a 76 1/2-pounder--was caught here.

Sturgeon, which were introduced as an experiment in 1987, still thrive and many get hooked during trout season. Few are landed, though. It's tough to pull in a 40-pound fish when your hook is connected to two-pound test line.

Sometime next month, when the surface temperature reaches 70 degrees, the trout-stocking season will end and every week two tons of catfish will slide out of the trucks and down the chute into the lake, joining a large natural population that exists year round.

There are also Florida-strain largemouth bass, bluegill (which are also stocked), crappies, red-ear sunfish and plenty of shad. The best fishermen in this bucolic little corner of Orange County are the pelicans and cormorants, which periodically drop from the sky and usually return to it with a wriggling silver prize in bill.

If, for some reason, you can't pull a fish out of this lake, you can always make a quick stop at the Catch Out Pond, a square concrete pool teeming with big fish that was designed so youngsters would have happy early memories of rod and reel.

There is no age limit, though, so--for $3.50 a pound--no one has to go home without a how-I-landed-a-lunker story, however humble it might be.

"The idea was a way for kids to have what is basically guaranteed fishing," Tigges said. "But we get our share of 'big' kids, especially if they get skunked out there . . . which really doesn't happen very often here."

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