The question was: What kind of fish can you catch in a canal? So asked Andy Howell, PinalCentral’s assistant managing editor.

He had a point. You think of a canal as a ditch that carries water for crops. Maybe it delivers water to towns and cities, after it’s been treated. Canals weren’t created with fishing in mind.

Still, that didn’t stop David Whitaker. He fled Pinal County Sheriff’s deputies, who received a report he allegedly had sexually abused a minor. He made himself a desert hideaway, living off the grid. Surviving on javelina and rabbits he shot and fish he caught in a nearby canal.

Whitaker managed to live wild for more than three months. The law finally caught him, though. Sheriff’s deputies, the Border Patrol and the Arizona Department of Public Safety closed in on him March 15.

As of Friday, he was in Pinal County jail, awaiting trial. He was booked on three counts. Indecent exposure, sexual abuse of a minor and sexual conduct with a minor.

Before the law closed in, Whitaker, 43, made his home away from home in the desert, about a half-mile north of Missile Base Road, near the Central Arizona Project canal. That’s where Whitaker fished, says Lauren Reimer, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.

He caught carp and catfish.

Case closed. Well, not quite.

I’m familiar with that stretch of CAP. In October 2019, Kent Taylor gave me a sneak preview of a trail that runs alongside the canal, from Nona Road — east of Interstate 10 — south to the area known as Missile Base. Taylor is Pinal County open space and trails director.

The county is developing a hundred miles of trail along the canal. It will tie into the CAP National Recreation Trail. When completed, the national trail will run the entire length of the CAP.

The Nona trail is the first segment in Pinal County. It’s now open to the public.

Don’t look for the CAP fishing docks, though. There aren’t any. What’s more, the canal is lined with a high chain-link fence, guarding it from the trail on one side and the desert on the other.

Somehow that didn’t stop Whitaker. He apparently found a place to drop the fish a line. He already faces serious charges. But the CAP could pile on, if so inclined. Fishing in the CAP canal isn’t permitted.

Nor is swimming. Here’s a warning from the CAP website:

“The sides of the canal are very steep and the water moves up to 3,500 cubic feet per second. If someone were to fall in, the current would quickly sweep them away and the slope of the canal sides is too steep to climb out.”

In other words, you could end up getting fished out yourself. You probably wouldn’t put up much of a fight.

Whitaker didn’t fall in. But he could face up to a thousand-dollar fine and 90 days in jail, if he fished in the CAP, says CAP spokeswoman DeEtte Person.

I doubt Whitaker gave the legality of it much thought. He caught the carp. He caught the catfish. But why just two kinds? The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in a 2015 survey, listed 17 different kinds of fish swimming up and down the CAP. Most are striped bass and bluegill.

I learned this from a 2018 article by Scott Bryan, CAP senior biologist.

The CAP fish have a tough time of it, Bryan writes. They live in a fast-flowing concrete-lined channel. No place to lay eggs really. They’d just get swept away. Most of the fish are hatched elsewhere and end up in the canal through no fault of their own.

They do get a lot of exercise, as they’re constantly swimming to “avoid be sucked into the pumping plants.”

They become small and lean. It’s like CrossFit for fish.

CAP stocks the canal with three species. They do important work. Channel catfish control pests like caddisfly. Grass carp keep the vegetation in check. And redear sunfish go after quagga mussels, which specialize in gumming up the works.

The carp and catfish that Whitaker caught were just doing their job. If he knew that, he’d throw them back.

Not all canals ban fishing. If a canal’s open to the public, you can fish it. A number of smaller unfenced canals run near Whitaker’s desert hideout, CAP’s Person said. He might have fished in one of them.

It wouldn’t be hard. He could just walk up to an irrigation ditch and drop a line in. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re not trespassing. And have an Arizona fishing license.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department puts it this way: A fishing license is required “for any publicly accessible water in Arizona.”

So, if the city stocks the public pool with bass, you can’t reel one in without a license.

I live less than a mile from a canal. It’s owned by Salt River Project. I could fish there, with a license. I’d likely catch one of two kinds. White amur and the common carp.

SRP says you can keep the common carp. But you have to toss the white amur back. It eats plants that can clog a canal.

I wouldn’t know the difference. So I’ll just save myself the cost of a license and settle on a taco. Preferably chicken.


Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at