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Angler completes his catfish quest

ASHLAND — Amid the moonless darkness, Andrew Jensen plied the murky waters of Emigrant Lake last Thursday for the big blue beast that had consumed his life and his fishing gear for much of August.

A big channel catfish rumored to be in the lake's southeastern cove had haunted and eluded the 19-year-old Jensen with Melvillian drama. The big fish stole baits, hooks and even a $140 rod and reel while thumbing its middle fin toward Jensen, defying its Captain Ahab to capture him.

Once, the big fish came as close as Jensen's fingertips, only to escape.

"I've had him on the line two times, for sure, and maybe one other time," Jensen says. "I've had four or five bites where something grabbed it and took off."

Then, after a 15-minute battle Thursday in the darkness on a lonely fishing dock, Jensen rewrote Melville under the light of a single lantern.

This time, the captain won.

Jensen caught what likely is the largest channel catfish in Emigrant Lake since the non-native fish were illegally introduced there decades ago, landing the 32-inch fish whose eerie-looking image was snapped in the darkness on Jensen's cell phone.

"It took all month to get him, but I got him," Jensen says. "I think this fish definitely is older than I am."

The man-verses-fish genre definitely predates Jensen, whose obsession with the whiskered denizens of Emigrant was as intense as it was brief.

"I'm more of a bass fishermen, but I just started really thinking about catching catfish," he says. "Asking around, I heard Emigrant was a good place and that there might be some big channel cats in there."

For four or five nights a week throughout August, Jensen would drive down to the lake from his Phoenix home to the cove at the first earthen dam along the roadway into Emigrant Lake County Park.

Often alone and occasionally with a friend, Jensen would fish off the lantern-lit dock in his singular pursuit for this big catfish.

At first, he used 1/0-sized salmon hooks baited with trout guts, chicken liver or beer liver cast as far as 70 yards off the dock into the middle of the cove.

He caught a 14-incher and then a channel cat barely the length of his hand.

Then came his chance.

Fishing alone, the big catfish bit Jensen's 1/0 hook and took off. Jensen battled him for several minutes until the fish, half-exhausted, sat on the surface ready to be netted.

Except, Jensen had no net.

He stood on his rod and reached down with both hands. But the catfish never got closer than his fingertips.

"I was thinking, crap, what am I going to do now," he says.

Jensen tried to drag it ashore. But the fish bolted under the dock, snapping 15-pound braided line tied to the hook with a rare "World's Fair" knot.

That's when Jensen began to bring assistance.

One friend, Darren Tappin, cast a bait out into the darkness one night, then laid his $90 Fenwick rod and $50 Abu-Garcia reel on the dock.

What a time for the big fish to present itself one more time.

"The rod just shoots off the deck," Jensen says. "Gone."

By Thursday, Jensen had rid himself of most of fishing's pilot-errors, yet still did not expect success.

"It was weird, a moonless night," Jensen says. "Every other night when the moon wasn't out there, I didn't get a bite at all."

This time, the big cat bit a No. 12 treble hook spiced with a tiny chunk of beef liver. And after the requisite 15-minute tug-of-war, the 20-pound-test monofilament lived up to its billing and pulled the fish to netting range.

This time Jensen had with him Darren Tappin's younger brother, Josh Tappin, and a net.

After several errant stabs, Tappin put the cat in the net.

"I knew I had tangled with this fish before," Jensen says.

Jensen dug into the catfish's belly and found two of his 1/0 hooks tied with braided line and the World's Fair knot.

"I knew those were mine," he says.

Thus ended the last chapter on Jensen and his obsession.

Melville never did write a sequel to Moby Dick. And neither will Jensen.

This past weekend, he moved from Phoenix to Rogue River, closer to his mechanics classes at Rogue Community College.

His catfishing days are over.

"Now that I've finally got him, I'm done there," Jensen says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Andrew Jensen holds the 32-inch channel catfish he caught last Thursday at Emigrant Lake.