GIVE A MAN A FISH 

Catch'em Lake is a fish fry waiting to happen.

Ask any serious weekend angler and he'll tell you straight-up: I only work to support my nasty fishing habit. But what about the guy who has made fishing his full-time job? What does this lucky fellow dream of doing when beer-o'clock rolls around on Friday?

"Well, just to tell you the truth, every now and then I go fishing," says Hugh Tate. A lean, gangly fellow with freckled skin, beet-red from too many seasons in the sun, Tate is the longtime commercial fisherman who opened Catch'em Lake on October 1, 2003, at the Agricenter.

Now ask any serious foodie, and he'll tell you straight-up: There is no substitute for a fresh fish. The less time it's been out of the water, the better it's going to taste, no question. Catch'em Lake is a group of generously stocked ponds filled with grain-fed fish just waiting to be caught, cleaned, battered, and fried up by anybody with a pole, a couple of bucks, and an hour or two to waste in the sun.

"These two ponds are stocked strictly with one- to eight-pound catfish," Tate says. "I'm working on a farm back here that I'll stock with bass, brim, and crappie. I'm also working on another pond where, in the wintertime, I'm going to offer rainbow-trout fishing." And that's not all.

"I'm going to do crawfish also," he says. "That's about my number-one priority -- getting the crawfish in here and getting that going. I'll purge the crawfish before you take 'em home, so they'll be ready to go."

Etouffée, anybody?

It costs two bucks for an adult to fish at Catch'em Lake and only a dollar for kids under 12. There's no catch and release. You catch it, you've bought it for $1.45 a pound. If you want to have your fish cleaned, that's an additional 25 cents a pound.

"Cleaning is mostly a public service," Tate says. "Because 25 cents a pound isn't anything to clean a fish. Not if you've ever done it before. Nobody wants to take the fish home and clean them, and they don't want to hold the guts around in the garbage can."

"There used to be a fish farm here a long time ago. I used to work for the people who ran it, and I've always wanted to come back and get all of that going again," Tate says. "The Agricenter had some commercial fish farmers that wanted to lease this property to raise fish, but [the Agricenter's board of directors] wanted to make something on the property that was more family-oriented with a lot of public involvement. And that's what I wanted to do. So I submitted my proposal to the president of the Agricenter, and he submitted it to the board. They said go with it, and that's what I've been doing ever since."

It's a job that Tate, who once ran hoop nets on the shallow back channels of the Mississippi River, clearly loves.

"Tell the truth, I almost live out here," he says with a laugh. "And everybody who comes is great because they're already in a good mood. They're going fishing."

According to Tate, Catch'em Lake is starting to catch on with Memphians.

"Things are growing pretty steadily," he says. "I already had to go ahead and open this second lake to accommodate all the people. They've got [fishing] reels that are so much better than what they used to have. You had people casting all the way across the water, and lines getting crossed. We had to have more room."

In addition to maintaining the fishing ponds, Tate is starting to grow his own catfish. He has 40 spawning cans -- five-gallon plastic buckets -- submerged in one pond. The female catfish goes into the bucket to lay her eggs. The male then fertilizes the eggs and fans them with his tail until they hatch.

"What I do is pull the eggs out before they hatch," Tate says. "I take them up to a vat with a current going in it and an aerator, and I hatch them out of there. After they hatch and have used up all their feed sacks, I'll move them over to the big pond. If I run all the cans and I've got half my cans with eggs in them, that's pushing 50 to 100,00 eggs. That's an estimate."

Even if the hatchery is a success Catch'em Lake's fishing ponds will continue to be stocked with grain-fed fish raised on Mississippi farms.

"Feed costs are so high," Tate says. "And it would take two years of feeding [the fish I raise] before I could transplant them to the [fishing] pond. I'll probably just raise fish to fingerling size then sell them to people who want to stock their ponds."

Is there a secret to pulling the big one out of Catch'em Lake? Not really. According to Tate, all anybody needs is some 20-pound test line and some chicken livers.

"Catch'em Lake's mostly about having a place where a family can have fun," he says. "But you should be able to catch something."

Remember, fish fans: Before you can fry it, grill it, poach it, bake it, or mount it on the wall, somebody's got to catch it. Might as well be you.

Catch'em Lake is open dawn to dusk seven days a week. For those who like to do their fishing at night, Tate plans to keep the facility open 24 hours on the last Saturday of every month. There's no fishing license required, and Catch'em Lake offers a full-service bait shop.

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