“I had the winning fish on my line, I swear. It was my only hit all day. This fish was a good 28 inches, no kidding.”

Rick Perry, a 46-year-old construction worker from Atascadero, spread his hands wide to impress upon his audience the monstrous size of the fish and continued with his tale of woe, making animated gestures as he narrated.

“I got it to the back of the boat and went to scoop it up with my net, and the moment that net hit the water that fish just gave a little shake, and, like that, I lost him,” Perry said. “He didn’t take off right away, neither. He hung around for a couple of seconds just sittin’ there lookin’ at me. Swear to God, I almost cried.”

Wearing a sleeveless “Shift ‘N’ Gears Pit Stop” T-shirt that barely concealed his beer gut and proudly displayed a fading tattoo, while sporting a dingy baseball hat covering matted hair pulled back into a ponytail, Perry lamented his “one that got away.”

“I could make up some fish stories better’n that one,” he said. “But that, man — that was a heartbreaker.”

Perry was among the approximately 850 trout fishing enthusiasts that amassed at Cachuma Lake last weekend for the 10th Annual Cachuma Lake Nature Center Trout Derby, a two-day charity fishing competition that offered $5,000 in cash prizes. The proceeds from the volunteer-run event, which cost $35 to enter, are the main source of funding for the Cachuma Lake Nature Center, a nonprofit facility that provides natural history education services.

Neal Taylor, a retired Santa Barbara County naturalist and member of the Nature Center board of directors, was one of the volunteers who helped organize the derby. Taylor said the Dept. of Fish and Game planted 250 tagged trout in the lake Friday night for the derby, and the participant who registered the highest tag number would receive $2,000 — the biggest single cash award of the tournament.

Taylor said 200 tagged trout were planted each year for the first eight years of the derby, but the number was increased to 250 for the 2004 derby.

“Nobody knows exactly how many tagged trout are in the lake,” Taylor said. “There are tagged fish from the past 10 years out there, and only a handful of tags are registered during the derby each year.”

In addition to the tagged fish, Taylor said the Dept. of Fish and Game released approximately 15,000 untagged trout into the lake during the week preceding the derby, ensuring that anglers in search of the $1,000 “longest trout” prize would have plenty of fish to go after. The remainder of the prize money would be divided up between the runners-up in the two main categories and the winners of several other age-specific categories.

Lynda Terres, treasurer for the Nature Center’s board of directors, said the derby is difficult to organize with an all-volunteer staff, but she said numerous local businesses and individuals have been very generous in their support, donating money, prizes and materials to help make the event a success.

“We all look forward to it and enjoy it,” Terres said. “It’s a lot of work, but the community has been very supportive.”

The derby, which commenced at 6 a.m. Saturday after Taylor fired off a signal flare, got off to a rough start. High winds quickly made the lake’s surface too choppy for many of the smaller fishing craft, forcing the event’s organizers to put a restriction on launching any boats less than 16 feet long and eliciting moans from many of the competitors.

“Right now there are 35 mile-an-hour winds blowing out on the water,” Taylor said Saturday morning. “We have patrol boats out checking on some of the smaller craft, and we may have to start pulling boats off the lake if the winds get much stronger.”

Braving the wind and waves that left many derby entrants high and dry Saturday, one group of seven anglers — five of them UCSB students — set out in an 18-foot powerboat that morning in search of a winning trout. With fifth-year business economics major Nick Langer at the helm, the boat cruised along the shore with the wind at its back, eventually weighing anchor in a small cove.

The group cast flashy lures, hooks armed with night crawlers and Power Bait and one plastic trout medallion — for good luck — into the poorly sheltered waters of the cove. For these men, fishing primarily meant drinking cheap beer, listening to country music, cracking jokes about each others’ mothers over the noise of the wind and occasionally reeling in a line and flinging it out again.

After roughly an hour of catching only tree branches and various other plant parts — and, amazingly, a dropped pair of sunglasses that seemed destined for Davy Jones’ locker — the group decided to risk life and limb in a voyage directly across open water to the opposite side of the lake.

The passengers seated in the front of the boat became thoroughly soaked in the first few minutes of the trip, as the craft collided with waves several feet high hitting at roughly one-second intervals. One of the waves even swamped the bow, raising concerns that the boat’s out of commission bilge pump could prove to be a handicap.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” Langer assured the group. “We’re just going to sink.”

Better sheltered from the wind on the far side of the lake, the group opened new beers, turned the music back up, and resumed trading insults. As time wore on, casts became fewer and farther between, and the rest of the day proved to be wholly unproductive from a fish-catching standpoint.

Based on the group’s carefree attitude, it would be difficult to say that anyone really minded.

Rick Taylor, a 46-year-old Sunland resident, would eventually take home the coveted $2,000 prize for catching the trout with the highest tag number by the end of the derby at noon on Sunday. The relatively unimpressive fish – tag #400 – which he said he caught early Saturday morning, turned out to be his only catch of the tournament.

“It was a pretty small fish with a big tag,” Rick Taylor said. “I didn’t think there was any chance I was going to win. I caught it pretty early in the competition, and I thought the tags went up to something like 1,000.”

At the awards ceremony Sunday afternoon, the crowd greeted his victory with raucous cheers and applause. Eager to help Rick Taylor spend his winnings, one audience member yelled, “We going to Sizzler?”

Don Pederson, 43, from Orcutt, said he shared a similar surprise when his wife convinced him to take a trout he caught Sunday morning — which he had planned on eating — to the weigh station for measuring. Pederson said he was shocked to discover that the fish, which measured 19.75 inches, placed him at the top of the leader board in the longest trout category.

Pederson’s catch would go unchallenged for the rest of the derby, netting him a $1,000 prize — the first time he has won anything in the seven derbies he has attended, he said.

“It’s always a blast,” Pederson said. “Even if you don’t catch anything, it’s for a worthy cause. Everyone wants to go out and fish for trout anyway, and being able to win some money doing it is just an added bonus.”

Taylor said the derby draws competitors of all ages and backgrounds, offering prizes for competitors ages 10 and under, and a $50 award for the oldest angler to catch a trout. The Nature Center offered arts and crafts for children Saturday, and he said the atmosphere is ideal for family groups.

“We get families and individual people from all walks of life,” Taylor said. “There’s something for everyone to do, and everyone has a great time.”

Ernie Alcorn, a 45-year-old Santa Barbara resident, said he fishes the derby every year with his daughter and father.

“I’ve only missed the derby once in 10 years,” Alcorn said. “I think it’s a great event. The prize money is nice, but it’s not so much that the competition gets out of hand. The big bass tournaments with something like a $1 million prize definitely have a little bit different atmosphere.”

Ollie Alcorn, 85, won this year’s Dutch Wilson prize for the oldest angler to catch a trout.

“I taught [Ernie] how to fish here when he was six, so it must be at least about 40 years that I’ve been fishing the lake,” Ollie Alcorn said.

Ernie Alcorn’s 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, the youngest of the trio, has already shown her winning potential.

In the 2003 derby she was the only Alcorn to nab a tagged fish, besting both her father and grandfather and taking home a $100 cash prize. Not yet a teenager and already a seasoned angler, Lauren said she plans to keep entering the tournament in the years to come.

Garret Bean, a senior geology major at UCSB and one of the seven fishermen who braved that Saturday fishing expedition, said the weather improved dramatically Sunday, making it possible for him to land two — albeit untagged and relatively small — trout.

“Sunday was so much better, it was unbelievable,” Bean said. “At least we caught something. That’s better than nothing, for damn sure.”

Bean said the group’s experiences chatting with other derby participants on shore were overwhelmingly positive.

“We had a lot of fun talking to people on the docks,” Bean said. “Everyone’s super friendly — it’s really a great atmosphere.”

Overall, Bean said, the derby was more about relaxing and hanging out with friends than actually catching fish — although the opportunity to win prize money sweetened the deal.

“It’s a great opportunity to go out on the lake with some buddies, drink some beers, drop some lines out and just chill,” Bean said. “That’s what the tourney was all about for us. Plus, you’ve got a better chance at winning some money than you do playing the lottery.”

Ken Rossman, a 47-year-old Santa Ynez resident, caught both the second and fourth longest trout of the day, taking home $500 and a package of fishing gear for his efforts. Rossman, who entered the derby along with his wife and daughter, said the two prizewinning fish were his only catches of the weekend.

“The wind was so bad Saturday that we couldn’t go out onto the middle of the lake, and we didn’t get a single bite all day trolling along the shore,” Rossman said. “On Sunday, the weather was much better and after half an hour on the lake we caught a fish. We got extremely lucky.”

Rossman, who has been fishing the lake for 41 years, said his family has finished in the money for the past three years in a row.

“This is my backyard,” Rossman said. “I know this lake better than anyone I know.

While the rivalry between anglers tends to turn more serious once they are out on the water, Rossman said even the most serious competitors tend to be good humored back at the docks.

“When I’m out on the lake, I’m not out there to make any friends, but back here on shore I’ve got a ton of them,” he said. “I think the camaraderie is awesome.”

Neil Holliday, an 11-year-old Santa Barbara resident, walked away from the tournament with $300 in cash and various other prizes after he managed the impressive feat of reeling in two tagged trout with the third and fourth highest tag numbers.

“I didn’t think my chances were that good,” he said. “It’s kinda challenging.”

Holliday said he had fun participating in the derby, and now that he knows he can do as well as or better than most adults he hopes to have a shot at taking first place sometime in the future.

With roughly $25,000 in proceeds from this year’s derby going to the Nature Center, Neal Taylor said he felt that it was a success despite the adverse weather conditions.

“I think it has turned out very, very well,” he said. “We’ve had a pretty darn good turnout, and everybody congregates and has a good time and they understand that those are the things that make this worthwhile.”

Even with the few complaints he received about the decision to close the lake Saturday, Neal Taylor said he felt it was the best course of action.

“I think there’s no question that the grumbling that went on was only due to the weather, which isn’t something we have any control over,” he said. “Some people were very disappointed, but it’s better to have them complain than to pull them out of the lake in a body bag.”

On Sunday, after the end of the derby, Perry, the quintessential fisherman storyteller, also related the story of an unlucky friend who reeled in a 32-inch fish — “he was shaking” with excitement, Perry said — and placed it on a stringer, only to throw the fish overboard without securing the stringer to the boat.

Neal Taylor chimed in with his theory on why the “ones that got away” in fishing stories are almost invariably bigger than the ones that stay caught.

“Some of these guys, when they get a bite, they set the hook so hard that it stretches the fish out,” he joked, pantomiming a strong jerk on a fishing pole. “That’s why they look so much bigger in the water, but then they shrink back down to normal size by the time you get ’em back to land.”

Despite his fishing troubles, Perry said he enjoyed the weekend immensely, and plans to attend the derby every year from now on. He said he and several of his friends arrived at the lake Friday, drinking and playing poker at night and fishing the lake during the day.

“Last year, I caught two fish the whole weekend,” Perry said. “I didn’t win anything, but I had so much fun catching fish that I had to come back. One of my buddies has been doing this for five years, and in five years he’s never caught a single fish.”

Perry then moved on to regale the next willing listener with tales of his adventures, the fish in question growing larger with each retelling.

Neal Taylor said Perry’s experiences at the derby, and his enthusiastic narrations thereof, are exactly what keeps people coming back year after year.

“That’s the thing that’s infectious about all of this,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”