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Lake Is Angling to Change Image

Contests: Promoters hope $1-million fishing derby will show that the Salton Sea is alive with promise.

May 24, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mack Brinegar thinks he has come up with the perfect bait to lure fishermen to a salty desert sinkhole better known as the Salton Sea: a fish potentially worth a million bucks.

Normally, the word "million" is associated with the Salton Sea only in terms of the number of dead fish washing ashore.

But Brinegar ("rhymes with vinegar"), who owns a lakefront restaurant, said the Salton Sea has gotten a bad rap in recent years as a putrid place, and he insists--as do other regulars--that the fishing in the saltwater lake is good. Really good.

To cast about for more seashore visitors, he and two partners are promoting a Memorial Day weekend fishing derby, and it will go like this:

Of the tens of millions of corvina--saltwater fish resembling largemouth bass--swimming in the sea, 20 will be tagged and returned to the water. The first 10 anglers over Memorial Day weekend to catch one of the tagged corvina--if any--must then hope their catch matches a single lucky tag number to qualify for the next stage of the contest. A contestant who gets this far must select the winning envelope out of 50 to land the $1-million prize.

An additional 30 fish will be tagged for lesser prizes, and any fisherman who catches any of the 50 tagged fish will qualify for prizes ranging from $500 to $10,000. If fewer than 2,000 participants sign up for the derby, only the lesser prizes will be offered and the $1-million contest will be canceled.

The chances of catching one of 20 super-tagged fish in a sea of millions, and having it match the lucky tag, and then surviving the final drawing are perhaps one in a gazillion. "We haven't done the math," Brinegar said.

Neither has the company that will pay out the $1 million over 40 years if anyone is lucky enough to win. Formal odds cannot be made because the behavior of the tagged fish is a huge variable, said Phil Sayles, spokesman for Odds on Promotions. The Reno-based company normally pays out money in contests in which, say, a golfer hits a hole in one from 165 yards, or someone sinks a basketball from half-court, or nails a football field goal from 45 yards.

But fishing is different, he said. "The odds [of a winner] are between slim and left town," he said. "We're really confident that we're not going to have to pay out." Derby organizers paid a $15,000 premium to guard against the risk that someone will win.

The Riverside County district attorney's office is skeptical of the legality of the derby.

"It may be an illegal lottery because, while there may be some skill utilized by fishermen to catch the fish, the $1-million prize is ultimately determined completely by chance," said Bill Mitchell, a supervising deputy district attorney. But since no one has complained to his office about the derby, his staff is not investigating it.

Sayles, of Odds on Promotions, said he has never heard of a fish derby with a larger grand prize, and it's just too enticing for some anglers to pass up.

Among the more than 800 fishermen who so far have coughed up the $35 entry fee is the Rev. Henry Green, pastor of the Brawley Tabernacle Church and a Salton Sea regular.

"My chances are about as good as anybody else's, I reckon," Green said.

But others think they do have an advantage--and are willing to travel a long distance for the chance to catch some corvina cash. Angler Frank Anglin (yes, that's his name) fished the Salton Sea for 30 years, and kept detailed records of the circumstances surrounding his catches--including the temperature and color of the water and the depth of his bait, from month to month. In 1990 he moved to Las Cruces, N.M., from Yucaipa, but will return for the derby.

"The biggest reason is the pure enjoyment of fishing the Salton Sea," he said. "But I actually think I've got a better chance than most people. I've spent five hours reviewing my logs. I'll know where to go."

The sea, which is 35 miles long and 17 miles wide, was formed in 1905 when an irrigation canal carrying Colorado River water broke and flooded the desert lowlands that straddle Imperial and Riverside counties. It loses water only through evaporation.

Dead Fish Offer Pungent Welcome

Today, the Salton Sea is 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and environmentalists have struggled for years to come up with a feasible plan to reduce its salinity.

Annually, millions of tilapia--a fraction of the estimated 100 million in the Salton Sea--die and are washed ashore, an unsightly and smelly welcome mat to greet visitors. Despite such scenes, the Salton Sea is widely considered the most productive fishery in the world.

Brinegar and his partners may make some money at this venture, but that's not their intent, he said. The idea is to introduce more fishermen to the Salton Sea and to enjoy the flavor of corvina (Brinegar prefers his smoked, but he says fried with butter is dandy, too). Contest entry forms are available by contacting the derby office at (877) 352-9977.

Businesses around the Salton Sea are hopeful that the derby will bolster its reputation, said Janna Brodie at the West Shores Chamber of Commerce.

"It's going to make everyone aware of us," she said. "It's wonderful. We've gotten bad press over the years, and we want everyone to see what great things we have to offer."

Brinegar said the derby is the best idea yet to promote the sea. Previously he considered constructing a remote submersible that would look like the Loch Ness monster, he said, but the cost was prohibitive.

Among the derby's rules is that the winner may be subjected to a polygraph test in case there is doubt, for instance, whether he caught the prize fish during the derby or instead caught it earlier in the week and kept the fish alive.

A polygraph, presumably, will betray any fish stories.

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