Posted by: 1000fish | October 1, 2014

Wicked Grandmothers of the Recoleta

Dateline: February 17, 2014 – Carmelo, Uruguay

I owe this trip – and the two species and two world records it produced – to a pigeon. And not just any pigeon, but a French pigeon. You have no idea how much it pains me to give the French credit for anything, but a fact is a fact, and to make it worse, the thing crapped on me.

I take you to Paris about five years ago. Marta and I were taking a stroll through Les Jardins du Surrendre, just as so many foreign armies have over the years. And just like France in 1940, I got a nasty surprise from the air. A pigeon crapped on my head. (For the record, Marta was less than mature about this and giggled incessantly.)  I relate this now because it will be important for you to know that I became aware of EXACTLY what it felt like to have a bird poop on me.

Salsa Poop

He even got my backpack.

Fast forward to Buenos Aires in 2014. I was wandering a tourist area and group of middle-aged women tried to rob me – by flinging salsa at my legs. I was walking down a side street in a tourist area, and a flock of dodgy-looking grannies moved in behind me. I thought something was odd, and then, something splattered onto the back of my pants, from a distinctly upward angle. The thieving bitties swarmed in with feigned concern, pointing upward and saying something about a bird. But because of the French pigeon experience, I knew immediately it wasn’t a bird, and that something was amiss.

Whipping out a bunch of napkins that they conveniently had for just such an occasion, they started patting me down. They were not a physically imposing group, so I just put my hand over my wallet and let them wipe the substance – which looked to be some type of salsa – off the back of my legs. They kept trying to move my hand off my wallet, and I kept not letting them move it. They exchanged glances and started to leave, but I kept pointing out spots they had missed. This went on for about 10 additional minutes, and by the time I let them finish, my pants were cleaner than when I had started. I even had them do my shoes.

Salsa Casa

The Casa Rosada, where the president/dictator/ranking colonel lives. Eva Peron – who traveled more after she died than while she was alive – gave speeches from the balcony. 

Salsa Eva

Evita is still revered here, even if they still haven’t found all of her Swiss bank accounts.

I breathed a sigh of relief back at the Hilton, as if the old bags had somehow gotten my wallet, it is unlikely I would have sorted things out in time to go fishing the next day, which would have been a disaster.

About the fishing … as you are all of course aware, I visited Argentina last year and came up with several great new species and several very bad Evita puns. (See HERE for details.) Argentina fishing holds a special place in my heart – it was here, in 1999, that I did some of my first true species hunting on a wild weekend that featured a 28-hour fishing session and a nine hour drive to get me back to the office on a Monday morning. I caught seven new species … taking my total at the time up to 85. (!) Argentina was my fifth country fished.

Salsa Vierrena

Steve in 1999, weighing in at a waif-like 202 pounds. We still haven’t identified the darn catfish I am holding. 

My guide last year was Oscar Ferreira, a fantastic fisherman who can find clients excellent action close to Buenos Aires. When I called him for a mid-February trip, he explained that his boat was being overhauled, but that we could go with Elias, a good friend of his. Oscar picked me up at the Hilton early in the morning, and as we drove out to El Tigre, I told him the story of the failed robbery. “They usually throw green salsa.” he explained – this was a well-known local scam. I was thankful again I hadn’t lost my wallet.

We arrived at the harbor just as the sun rose. Oscar introduced me to Elias – wild-haired and friendly, clearly a dedicated fisherman – and we headed out into the Parana delta.

Salsa Guys

Oscar and Elias – two top-notch local guides. You can reach Oscar at ichi_iana_pesca@hotmail.com if you are planning a trip to the area.

It was a breezy morning, and we took a long ride through the choppy main river to reach the Uruguayan side near, a small town named Carmelo. The area features a lot of open water and marshy islands – it looks a lot like our local Sacramento river delta, but of course instead of striped bass and sturgeon, it is loaded with exotic creatures like golden dorado and the ever-challenging Unidentifiable Catfish.

Salsa UnID

This is The Unidentifiable Catfish. I catch them every time I go to Argentina, and reputable scientists can never agree on what the heck it is. 

Salsa Delta

Parana River delta scenery. It’s like our delta, except there aren’t drunk teenagers on jet skis.

We set up on some deeper channels, and I immediately got a bunch of The Unidentifiable Catfish. After about half an hour, some solid fish started showing up. The first really good one was a big armored catfish, about six pounds. I thought for sure I had a world record – who else would travel all this way and fish for anything except dorado and surubi?

Salsa Armado

This was a big armored catfish. Who else could have caught a bigger one?

Salv Gran 2

Martini Arostegui, that’s who. His fish was more than twice the size of mine. Drat. I’m sure Jaime will catch one even bigger.

We kept at it, and after a few more big armored cats, I got a brilliant yellow Moncholo catfish – and this one had somehow evaded the Arosteguis. I had what would turn out to be my 89th world record. These were getting very hard to come by, and I still had 11 to go if I wanted an IGFA lifetime achievement award.

Salsa Yellow

The “Moncholo Amarillo” – Spanish for “Jaime hasn’t caught one.”

We moved spots a few times, looking for a freshwater stingray – a species I have coveted for years. We didn’t get one, but I did catch the lovely dorado below. They were jumping in the boat. Literally.

Salsa Dorado 2

I’m not kidding. This one jumped right into the boat. I wouldn’t have counted that as a legitimate catch, but luckily, I’ve gotten the species before. These things jump so often and so high that they can be dangerous to boaters.

As it got later in the day, we began to catch some small Pati catfish. In 2000, I stayed up an entire, mosquito-filled night to catch my first one.

Salsa 2002

Yes, my goatee used to be that color. I tell people it’s blond today, but we all know the truth.

I caught a few nice ones – two and three pounders. For some reason, I had always thought there was an existing world record on these, but during a break in the action, I had a look at the IGFA record book I carry with me for just such an occasion. To my surprise, the record was open, and the next one I got was more than big enough for world record #90. I had ten to go, but this seemed like more of a mountain than the first 90. Where would they come from?

Salsa Pati

The record pati. Marta is not usually big on fish photos, but this one seemed to be a favorite. She even asked me for a copy. Weeks later, I discovered the awful truth … when one of her friends asked about “the hot Argentinean fishing guide.” For the record, men are not just sex objects – we have thoughts and feelings and want to be appreciated for who we are inside our souls.*

As it got late in the day, we moved to a quiet back channel and took one more shot at the stingrays.

Salsa Delta 2

Our last spot of the day.

There were none to be found, but happily, my obsessive-compulsive sabiki-throwing habits paid big dividends. On a single cast, I reeled in two new species – two different types of (get this) astyanax. Is that a cool name or what?

Salsa Asty 1

Pellegrini’s astyanax. I could say that all day long. Astyanax. Astyanax. Astyanax. You get the point.

Salsa Asty 2

The two-spot astytanax.
I had a business dinner scheduled in Buenos Aires, so we headed back to port in the late afternoon and wrapped things up. It had been an unexpectedly great day – two species, and even more importantly, two world records. Around the time I had hit 950 species, I remember feeling like it was going to be impossible to get to 1000, and I was experiencing much the same emotion on the records. But I also knew if I kept fishing hard, the Fish Gods might give me a break now and then. In a week, I would be heading to Brazil, and although my last trip there had somehow offended the Fish Gods, I was hopeful they might not know I was coming.
But they did. They always do.
Steve

* Baloney we do.

 

Posted by: 1000fish | September 28, 2014

The French Correction

Dateline: October 25, 2013 – Vang Vieng, Laos

I had gone to sleep expecting a perfect tomorrow. I had an excellent dream, where I caught dozens of new species, Kate Upton handed me bait and cold drinks, I found a Morton’s Steakhouse right in the middle of Laos, and the Tigers won the World Series in three games over the Giants. That’s right, three games, because in my dream they beat them so badly that the Giants refused to come out for the fourth game.

The Fish Gods weren’t going to let it be that easy. At about 2am, a gigantic thunderstorm moved in and flooded the place. I awoke expecting to see a beautiful stream and was greeted with an angry torrent of mud. I was not pleased.

I must confess my behavior was not the best. I had come all this way only to end up with an unfishable river, and I had something of a snit. OK, more like a temper tantrum. Francois was wonderfully positive and told me we needed to make the best of the situation, but I would not tolerate this. I became completely, unswervingly morose, like Eeyore, but bigger and meaner.

eeyore-1

I couldn’t find a picture of him flipping the bird. That would have been perfect.

I might have pouted in the car all day, but Francois gently talked me into walking down under the bridge. The water was blown out – “too thick to drink, to thin to plow,” as they say on the steelhead rivers. It was running up several feet, and the racing current left very few breaks where a fish might hide. Eeyore loudly announced that there was no point in fishing.

At Francois’ urging, I reluctantly set up a rod and tried the lee behind one of the bridge pilings. (Which was normally on dry land.) And I did catch a mystus. Fine, I thought. One lousy little catfish. Everything else had obviously been washed downstream to the gulf of Siam. I continued as depressed as Charlie Sheen trapped at a prayer meeting. The turning point came half an hour later. My little float rig slipped under the water, and I lifted up a marvelous surprise – a bumblebee catfish. I had only seen these beautiful little fish in books, and now I was holding one. Grudgingly, I smiled. Francois took this opportunity to correct my snotty behavior – the “French Correction,” if you will. He didn’t say a word, but he did give me “The French Eyebrow.” I hate The French Eyebrow. This is when the French silently lift one expressive eyebrow and make you feel like an idiot, and Francois does this better than anyone I have ever met.

Vang Bumblebee

The bumblebee catfish, first new species of the day. There would be more.

Moments later, I got a Lao barb, another new species. Rather than face The French Eyebrow again, I decided to have a General Patton-like talk with myself and improve my piss-poor attitude. A Red Bull and an awkward self-slap later, I was determined to make the best of a bad deck of cards. That’s what good fishermen are supposed to do.

Vang Laotian Barb

The Lao Barb. That’s number two on the day if you’re keeping score at home. 

I then pulled up a blackmargin barb. Three species before noon. Rain? What rain?

Vang Blackmargin

The steady showers had eased into a sprinkle. The clouds started to lift, and the hills came into view. I moved down the river a couple of hundred feet and fished more into the main current. Francois cast a spoon and caught a nice mahseer, and moments later, I caught my own.

Vang F Big M

A beautiful Strachey’s mahseer. On a spoon. In that water. This guy is good.

Vang Mahseer

My mahseer, not as large as Francois’, but stay tuned. Species number four.

In the late morning, a wonderful act of charity from Jean-Francois had unintended consequences. A few years back, with his own money and donations he solicited from his circle of angling friends, Jean-Francois helped build a school for the local kids. The school was just a few blocks away from my spot below the bridge, and when class let out for lunch, I suddenly became the biggest show in town.

Vang Kids Bridge

The kids watch me from the bridge. They don’t see many Americans.

Vang Kids b

The kids begin migrating to the riverbank. Note the pilings from the previous bridge – which was destroyed by American bombers in the Vietnam War. While we weren’t officially conducting operations in Laos.

Vang Kids c

Soon, a few of them were willing to pose for fish photos. 

To be clear, they were good kids. They were having fun and wanted to see what I was doing down there. Soon there were dozens of them.

Vang Kids

“On the count of three, everyone show us your armpits!!”

By late morning, the rain had stopped, the water was dropping, and the fish were biting. Francois was quite gentlemanly about not rubbing this in my face, but The Eyebrow was there, patiently waiting in case I made any stupid remarks.

We took a break for lunch, which in my case was freeze-dried beef stroganoff and a Red Bull. We walked to the other side of the river, just above the bridge – and the higher ground gave us an otherwordly view of mountains and clouds. I set up on the other riverbank, steep but with access to deeper water. Somewhere in the afternoon, it passed the point from a great fishing trip to a ridiculously good one. It had just started sprinkling again, but I didn’t care.

Vang Panorama

Looking down from the high ground onto the bridge.

Vang Nase

Species five – a longnose barb. It looks a lot like the European nase, but is completely unrelated. I know this was the first thing you were going to ask.

The rain picked up a bit, but I could not have cared less by this stage. The fishing was excellent and exotic. I had set up two rods, one in my hand and one propped up on a stick. The small fish usually announced their presence with light taps, so imagine my surprise when the rod slammed down and headed toward the water. I dove and caught the handle just as it was going under water, so by the time I set the hook, I was losing line rapidly. I only had about 10 yards of bank to walk down, and with a relatively small reel, I thought I was going to get spooled. I remembered the words of fishing buddy Mike Rapoport – “It’s amazing how much drag you’ll use when you can see the knot on the spool.” I pretty much palmed it down. The light braid pulled taught, and I waited for the snap, but it never came. The fish had come to an eddy and stayed there. I had perhaps four feet of line on my reel.

This standoff continued for five minutes, which is a long time for this sort of thing. Slowly, I gained line back – the fish swam upstream on the opposite bank, where the current eddied upward. As he headed into the middle, he ran back down with the current, but came out sooner and sooner, so that after about six cycles of this, I had him at the bank. Boonmee had come down the hill to assist, and with his help, we netted a positively huge Strachey’s mahseer – over six pounds.

Vang Big Mahseer

It’s always nice to have at least one dignified-size fish in the mix.

It didn’t seem like things could get any better, but the species kept coming.

Vang Orangespotted

Orangespotted freshwater puffer.

Vang Mystus

The Kayeng Mystus, a type of small catfish. (As opposed to Kayeng Mistus, which is a typo of small catfish.)

On the ride back to Vang Vieng, I ranted and raved about what a wonderful day it had been – seven species in all – and Francois remained wonderfully, graciously, non-judgementally silent, albeit with a slight grin on his face. The Eyebrow stayed in its holster. We celebrated that night with a wonderful dinner and a few Beerlaos.

We made a return trip to the small village the next day – there were a few species Jean-Francois thought we had left behind. Our first stop was a small culvert above a cow pasture, which produced a lovely raspbora.

Vang Rasbora

The cows were confused by me, but they didn’t mind the smell.

Vang Cows

We then pulled up at a small guesthouse where Francois knew the owner. We fished off a rather rickety deck, and I pulled up a redtail loach. This was only my second loach of any type – the other was in Wales with Roger Barnes. (Click here if you’re really bored.)

Vang Loach

The redtail loach and the French guide.

The local people were tremendously helpful – opening up their homes, pointing out where they had seen fish, offering drinks. This area is largely Hmong, a group who supported the US during the war – and suffered terribly for it.

Vang Chief

The local chief of police. A good friend of Francois, he made sure were treated well wherever we went in his region. 

Vang Country

A local woman does laundry just downstream from where I caught my loach.

Vang Hills Sun

The river returned to normal level and clarity within 24 hours. Go figure. 

The Fish Gods saved the weirdest surprise for last. I hooked a small fish off the bottom, and it shot vertically up out of the water, just like a needlefish. I landed it, and it looked just like a needlefish. But my brain did not register this, because needlefish live in saltwater and this was not saltwater. But a look in the book confirmed the improbable – this was a lone species of freshwater needlefish. If this obsession of mine has a point, it is that the wonder of fishing comes from exploring the incredible, improbable diversity of species on our planet, and there is no better example to me than this fish.

Vang Needle

This is why I do this. This makes suffering through tropical butt itch and the hours on United Airlines all worth it.

Vang Sunshine

The sun came out to stay as we headed off for home.

As I got on the plane for the long flight to San Francisco, I looked back with a smile at what had been one of the most prolific species trips I have ever had – 18 new additions. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jean-Francois and his Laotian friends, not just for scouting out and sharing all these amazing locations, but also for keeping me on track on a difficult day. So I dedicate this post first to the people of Laos, but even more importantly, to Francois and his fearsome eyebrows.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | September 21, 2014

Shangri Laos

Dateline: October 23, 2013 – Nam Ngum, Laos

My first fishing trip to Laos did not leave me with the expectation that there would be a second fishing trip to Laos, or even the expectation that I would be allowed to re-enter the country. That fateful excursion in February of 2006 was poorly planned and badly executed, and while I did end up adding Laos as a country, I did so in a fashion that was, to put it lightly, tasteless. (And may mean that I will burn in hell.) I not only fished in a sacred pond, I also ruined my tour guide’s suit.

When I found out I would be in Thailand for business in October, I of course called my old friend Jean-Francois Helias, the French but otherwise wonderful Thailand-based guide who has found me so many exotic species. (Click here for examples.) When he suggested Laos and extolled its virtues as a species haven, I explained that I would rather put out my eyes with a fork.

Vang Francois Red

Where does he find those outfits?

But Francois pursued the idea with a passion. In the past few years, he explained, he had spent weeks in Laos, scoping out the top spots and finding species that I have only seen in sweaty late-night dreams. I was finally convinced, and I could only hope I didn’t run into any of the many people I offended in 2006.

The logistics are not simple. We flew from Bangkok to Udon Thani, then drove from there to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. No matter how many times I asked “Are we there yet?” we didn’t get there any faster.

Vang Sign

We had a spacious van and a Laotian driver – Boonmee – who was knowledgeable, polite, and safety-oriented. (All at the same time!) Once I had exchanged a couple of hundred US dollars for something like 1.5 million in local currency, we were off to Nam Ngum reservoir.

Vang Flag

Transiting in Laos is not easy. The main roads are paved enough but narrow, and as we got further from Vientiane, conditions worsened until we reached the national rural standard of packed dirt with potholes that could hide a water buffalo and often did. Boonmee was a skillful driver, but 20 miles an hour was about tops, and there was no possibility of sleeping due to potholes, water buffaloes, and late-breaking detours through yards and sidewalks. As we got out in to the country, the scenery started getting beautiful – I guess I hadn’t noticed this in 2006, because I was too busy trying to figure out how to buy my tour guide a new suit. With an eye toward the statute of limitations, I am not going to publicly explain what happened, but feel free to contact me privately. I had no idea he was going to take a shortcut through a rice paddy.

Vang Dam

Nam Ngum dam. Built by the French.

I approached the reservoir with great trepidation, as this was the exact place I had started in 2006, and I had not seen a single fish there.

Vang Monks

A group of monks by the riverside. It may have been their pond where I caught my fish in 2006. I should still feel bad about this. 

Vang Resort

The lake. Our lodge was quite a bit more modern than these dwellings. 

I wandered down to the dock and looked around skeptically, but then – two or three types of small fish appeared. Good enough for me, and out came the #24 hooks and bread. Moments later, I had my first Laotian species – the redtail barb.

Vang Redtail1

It’s always nice to catch something with defining features. 

Vang Lake House

A local fisherman returns from a day on the water. The hut on the left had a sign on it – “Vacation Rental.”

Other fish followed – catfish, barbs, and featherbacks. The guys from the lodge took great care of me – making sure I had bait, cold Coca-Colas, and even dinner down on the dock. Every time I caught something good, Francois would yell down “Well done, my man!” It was a pleasant evening until about nine, when it rained torrentially and I retreated to my bungalow.

Vang Hemibagrus

The filamented catfish – my second species of the day.

The owner of the lakeside lodge spoke perfect French. He was born in Laos but lived and worked in southern France for 17 years before retiring and coming back to his homeland. Francois was pleased to be with someone who could speak his native tongue. They spoke well into the evening, and after a few Beerlaos, Francois began to sing. These were old French songs, from deep in his heart, songs of love and war, which always end in heartbreak, surrender, and collaboration. Something brought a tear to my eye, whether it was the raw emotion of the moment or how far Francois had wandered off key.

Vang Nam Guide

My boat driver, who looks scary but was a nice guy. That’s the lodge in the background – very nice accommodations and they had plenty of hot water for my freeze-dried camping food. Some of you may think experiencing local cuisine is part of visiting a country, but I am willing to sacrifice this to avoid local microbes. 

The next day we fished the reservoir and some local ponds and streams. The lake, a disaster eight years ago, produced a variety of interesting creatures, none as fascinating as the freshwater puffers. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and I never would have found out if it weren’t for the ridiculously tiny hooks I brought.

Vang Puffer 1

The spotted freshwater puffer. This was unexpected.

Vang Lineside

The lineside barb. I only saw one of these in all my hours on the lake, but I caught it.

Vang Puffer 2

The longnose freshwater puffer. Now this is just cool.

We then headed off to explore some local ponds and rivers. We wandered around country roads in a 4×4, and one by one, knocked off a few more species.

Vang Barb Rhomboid

Rhomboid barb. One particular pond was jammed with these. 

Vang Glassfish

Siamese glassfish. Oddly, I didn’t catch this in Thailand. 

Vang River

Looking up the river toward the dam. The floating huts on the right were loaded with fish.

Vang Bonylip

My final species of the day – a bonylip barb.

As I sat down to a dinner of freeze-dried “chicken surprise” (the surprise comes in the morning,) it hit me that I had gotten six new species in one day, and we hadn’t even hit the best spot yet. I was beginning to like Laos.

Vang Nam Group

The group from the Nam Ngum lodge. Great place – contact Jean-Francois if you want to arrange a trip -fishasia@ksc.th.com

The next couple of days were scheduled for Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a two and a half hour drive from Nam Ngum, but this only covers perhaps 50 road miles. Francois was very excited about this location – a nature preserve that only allowed catch and release fishing. Laos is a poor country, and most public fishing is picked over very thoroughly for food. In 2006, I saw people using dynamite to catch dinner in a local river.

On the long drive, I learned another evil effect of the humid climate – “trench tush.” Also known as “tropical butt itch,” this is when the hot and sticky conditions create an unfavorable underwear climate and you can figure out the rest. This is when you pitch the Preparation H and grab the oven cleaner.

I’m guessing that the first feedback on this post will be someone saying “TMI, Steve.”

The drive went through some amazing hills and jungles, but the town of Vang Vieng was sublime. This is true upcountry Laos – mountains shooting up out of the jungle, white water rivers, kind people. Vang Vieng is a base for a lot of trekking, so the hotels and restaurants were quite nice, even if they were crowded with annoyingly fit European 20-somethings. I was so confident in the accommodations that I even took a break from my freeze-dried camping food and risked some fried rice with chicken. This is my idea of being adventurous with food.

Vang Mountain

Looking out my hotel balcony in Vang Vieng. There were no fish in this part of the river. Believe me, I tried.

As soon as we arrived, we headed to the market to get bait. We found earthworms and two sizes of grub, all apparently intended for human consumption – the grub vendor even tried to give me recipes. Francois and Boonmee then headed up to scout the preserve and check in with their local contacts. Things looked perfect. The weather was perfect, the water level was perfect, and we were heading to a spot crowded with exotic species.

What could go wrong?

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | July 29, 2014

Old Man River

Dateline: July 29, 2014 – Twyford, England

Roger Wyndham Barnes died on a Tuesday, on a bright summer day west of London. We knew it was coming – he had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor a year before, and he had been on borrowed time for a good while. It was quiet when it came, peaceful. But the world is a sadder place because of it.

I got the news well into the California evening, when a grieving John Buckingham, one of Roger’s best friends who had been by his side every step of the way, sent me the email. I didn’t read it at first. I knew what it was going to say, and I cried before I read it and cried after. Roger was a fishing guide west of London, who I met in 2003 and who became a close friend, even though I only saw him a few times a year. He was a quiet, gentle man, a great friend, truly a kindred spirit, and he deserved more time than this.

Roger perch 1 03

My first fish and first new species with Roger, a European perch, September 2003. This was my 283rd species – I have caught more than a thousand more since I met Roger, and he patiently sat through pictures of almost every one of them.

This all began last summer. John sent me an email that Roger had been having some neurological issues and the doctors had found a tumor. They didn’t know much then – it could have been anything, from benign to worst case, and all we could do is wait. I had been fishing with him just a few months before this, and he seemed fine. It had been a great day – six solid pike despite a blustery spring cold front.

Roger 2013

My last pike with Roger, March 2013.

So we waited. There were tests, then scans, then surgery, then more tests, and waiting, and last August 13, the tumor got a name – Glioblastoma multiforme. I raced to Wikipedia, and the news was awful. Life expectancy less than a year, sometimes much less.

I couldn’t change this, even if I was richer than Bill Gates. There was no money, no anything that could make a difference. This thing was going to kill him. There was no one I could yell at, no one to pay, no second opinion. I felt angry and utterly helpless. Imagine how Roger felt.

We sent some cards, I called a few times. Roger sounded tired when I spoke to him, in as good of a spirits as anyone could expect, and as the months went on, he hung in there stubbornly. Christmas came and went, and Roger hung on through the spring. He is as quietly stubborn a man as I have ever met.

When I scheduled a trip to Europe in May, I took a detour to England to see Roger. We set aside a Saturday for a visit, and John told me we could even try to sneak out and fish a local pond for a few hours. He doubted Roger would be able to come along, but I could hope. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to see him, even if I knew it was to say goodbye.

I took the train out to Twyford from London, as I have so many times. I walked up that path from the train station, just a couple of hundred feet, and I walked up to the door I had knocked on so many times anticipating a great day. Katy greeted me – it occurred to me I had never met Roger’s daughter. She was lovely, a young woman just beginning her career and her life with her fiance Sam.

They brought Roger out to see me. Cancer scares the hell out of me, as it does all of us I’m sure, and I had never been close to it before. Roger was thin and moved slowly, hunched over a bit. He looked tired and in a lot of pain. He shuffled in on his own, gave me a hug, and whispered to me “You look terrible.” I smiled. Roger’s sense of humor was intact. He was still in there.

We moved into the garden, and sat down to chat. It was a warm spring day, the kind of day that never happened the first five years I tried to catch a tench. We spoke for a couple of hours. He could just barely whisper, but I hung on every word. He only mentioned the illness once – “This has been quite a blow.” Mostly, we talked fishing. He remembered so many of our catches – the one barbel late in a rainy October evening, the 21 pound pike on a perch jointed Rapala, the bream that somehow ate a swimbait.  He still made the same jokes, but he sometimes had trouble getting it out – things weren’t firing correctly, but Roger was still in there.

Roger Bream 2009

The bream that ate a swimbait. I am still confused about this.

When Roger took a nap that afternoon, John and I went to a local pond and gave it our level best to catch a Crucian carp, the one English species Roger and I hadn’t captured. John did his best Jaime Hamamoto impression and caught three right next to me, but I couldn’t get one on the hook. Perhaps I had other things on my mind.

Roger Carp

John caught this carp on a three pound leader. Roger once caught a 19 pound pike on similar equipment. 

We went back in the early evening and took Roger out to dinner. It is such a familiar drive over to the Land’s End pub, Steve Collier’s delightful place by the River Loddon on the edge of town where I have spent so many pleasant evenings and heard so much local fishing wisdom exchanged. Roger had a haddock fillet and mushy peas. I hate mushy peas.

Roger Lands End

A happier evening in 2012 – From the left – Steve Collier, the owner of the Land’s End, Roger, some big ugly American, and John Buckingham.

We stayed late and we talked. Roger struggled to walk and sit down and stand up. This was a terrible, unfair disease, and as sad as I felt for Roger, I felt angry at the cancer – angry and helpless. We helped Roger from the car and to the table, and I imagined how much Roger, as independent a man as I ever knew, must have hated that – but he never uttered a word of complaint. But as soon as we sat down and could talk, he got just the faintest twinkle in his eye. He was in there – the jokes were in a quiet whisper, but they were funny. (The man who walks into a pub and orders six beers and drinks them right away. And then he orders six more and drinks them right away. The barkeep asks him “Why are you drinking like that?” The man responds “You would drink like this too if you had what I had.” The bartender leans in and says “What is it that you have?” And the man looks him right in the eye and says “About 20 cents.”)

I wished it wouldn’t end, and thought on how a different night, I might have talked Roger into wading the Loddon with handlines, looking for a stone loach. But finally, he was tired and I knew we had to get him home. We said goodbye in the front room where my luggage always stayed when we fished. I knew it was the last time I would see him.

I sat in bed that night and couldn’t sleep, and the image of Roger, already so ravaged by his disease, haunts me.

They tell me that was a good week for Roger. He was in hospice shortly after that, and two months later, on that July afternoon, he died. When I got the news from John, I first thought back to May and that shadow of Roger I had seen. But that wasn’t fair, and it certainly wasn’t right. He was ill, but that is not how I choose to remember Roger. That would be letting the disease win.

So I choose to remember the quiet man who tried his level best to find me every bizarre fish I requested. The unassuming man who moved schedules and braved vile weather to take me out for a day on the Thames. The proud father. The musician who sang and played the blues harmonica. The historian who could explain every odd place name in the region. The artist who produced beautifully detailed drawings of the birds he could spot when I couldn’t even see the tree. This is how I choose to remember Roger. For the hundreds of jokes … and the three good ones. For patient explanations of British humor and the pre-decimal monetary system. For being one of the few people who knew the music of the Bonzo Dog Band. For sharing the tale of the saber-toothed gudgeon and the postcard in his bathroom that simply said “They got me trousers, Eddie.” I choose to remember Roger as the fisherman, the naturalist, the kindred spirit, the humble, simple guy who probably never guessed how much we all loved him.

In May, when I finally left Roger’s house that night after dinner, the last thing I said to him was “Thank you.” Not goodbye, but thank you. I couldn’t get it all out just then, but I hoped he knew why.

For 11 years of close friendship. For 44 days on the water. For 535 fish. For 167 pike. For 16 new species. For a dozen secret corners in England that will be part of my heart until the day someone has to send that same email about me. I hated to lose Roger, but I am a lot better off for knowing him. Godspeed you, old man.

Steve

 

Roger Katy

Roger and a very young Katy. This was the first photo he ever showed me. 

Roger Pike muddy

Another photo of Roger that is proudly displayed in his home. Note the name of the boat.

Roger Steve Pike first 03 0916

My first pike with Roger, September 2003. I would catch 166 more with him in the 11 years afterward.

Roger first double 03

My first “double” (1o pounds +) with Roger, September 2003. I would catch 46 more doubles with him.

RogerSteve

Steve and Roger, Marlow Weir, 2004. This is my favorite picture of Roger.

Roger Marta First Pike really 05

Roger liked Marta a lot – she never wanted to fish for 14 straight hours in the rain. This is her first pike with Roger, October 2005.

Roger Barbel 05

My first and only barbel. Driving rain, about 3 hours after any other guide would have left for home, October 2005. Roger called it “Finny Todd, the Demon Barbel.”

Roger Bisham

Bisham Abbey, October 2005. Sight like this were almost – almost – as treasured as the fishing.

Roger Twyford 08

On a frozen, flooded March afternoon in Twyford, March 2007.

Roger LE 07

Trying to warm up at the Land’s End, March 2007.

Roger Marta First 07

Marta and another pike with Roger, May 2007. As fellow musicians, they had a lot to talk about. 

Roger Blues

A video of Roger belting out a blues song. He was good. 

Roger grovel 08

Roger would risk life and limb to retrieve a lure. Marlow Weir, February 2008.

Roger Barrymore 08

One of Roger’s many connections in the music world – Barrymore Barlow, drummer for Jethro Tull, at Shiplake Weir, July 2008. I went to a Jethro Tull concert in 1980. Barrymore didn’t remember me. 

Roger Shiplake 08

Roger on a summer day at Shiplake. We got seven good pike, July 2008.

Roger tench 2009

Tench warfare, July 2009. I finally, finally caught one after six years of trying, and I had to hijack John’s swim to do it.

Roger John Steve 2009

We celebrate the tench, July 2009.

Roger Boat

Sometimes they wouldn’t even let me ride in the boat. Marlow Weir, July 2009.

Roger Temple

Temple Weir, July 2009. The weed patch in the background has produced dozens of pike for me. 

RogerHat

Getting under the hood, July 2009.

Roger Lands End 09

At the Land’s End pub, October 2009. Roger had haddock and mushy peas. On the left is Dave Harding, bass player, angler, and great friend of Roger’s.  

Roger Barton 09

Barton Court, October 2009. This quiet chalk stream is where Roger introduced me to float fishing for trout.

Roger Barton

Barton Court, October 2011. Roger refuses to lose a float rig.

Roger Wyndham

“Wyndham in the willows.”  Undated, from the Buckingham collection. 

Roger Dee

Roger with Dee, November 2009. (Dee is Roger’s girlfriend – not a younger niece as people often guess from the photos.)

Roger Marta

Marta’s biggest pike with Roger, 11 pounds, July 18 2010. 4pm.

Roger Monster

My biggest pike with Roger. 21 pounds. July 18 2010, 4:01 pm. Take that, Marta.

Roger Fog

In rain or shine – motoring through the fog at Bisham Abbey, October 2011.

Roger Stickle

We celebrate a three-spined stickleback, Ewell, October 2011. 

Roger Creek

Roger at one of his childhood fishing holes, the River Mole, October 2011.

Roger Greek

Wait! That’s no Greek statue! Temple Weir island. June 2012.

Roger Chair

Roger in the front room at home. I rarely saw him out of fishing kit, but he cleans up nicely. From the Buckingham collection. 

http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/countdown-to-1000-the-compleat-angler/

http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/countdown-to-1000-a-visit-to-seasickshire/

http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/rogers-magic-culvert/

http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/alls-welsh-that-ends-welsh/

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | October 13, 2013

The Cats of St. John’s

Dateline: October 13, 2013 – St. John’s Island, Singapore

We established a long time ago that I have no shame when it comes to fishing. A species is a species, a country is a country, and a fishing buddy is a fishing buddy, even if he puts live crabs in the pocket of your raincoat.

I have fished Singapore hard over the years with buddies Alex and Jarvis, (see Singapour) and it’s realistic to say I have very few species left to catch there. Still, I am sent to Singapore on business quite a bit, and if I am there, it’s not like I’m going to spend my weekend in a museum, unless it’s an aquarium with no surveillance system.

This trip was at the end of the season and was risking iffy weather, so Alex thought we should try something local. In November of 2009, we tried to squeeze in a three day trip to Indonesia late in the year, and we paid a stiff price in constant wind, persistent cold water, and occasional barf. This time, Alex suggested that we try a local island, St. John’s. It is a short ferry ride from downtown, and Alex thought it might have some interesting small stuff – “panty species,” as he calls them. (See “Angry White Man“)

When I got to Singapore, it was raining hard. The kind of rain where you have to hold your hand up over your mouth so you can breathe, or, if you are smarter than I am, you just stay indoors. I made sure that I had the Gore Tex in my equipment bag, and prepared for a difficult day.

We set out very early – something like 5am – and caught a small ferry over to St. John’s Island. The guys were all set up to cast high-speed jigs and plugs around the island. It’s not as good as Malaysia, but there is still an occasional big jack or queenfish to be had.

St guys

The guys on the ferry ride over. Who the heck is this enthusiastic at 5am?

Despite the vile weather, enthusiasm ran high – not that Alex could ever be anything less than unrelentingly cheerful. He just loves to be near the water – almost as much as he loves putting wildlife into my clothing. (More on that later.) His positive attitude, when it isn’t annoying the heck out of me, has kept me going on some tough days – and we have put some very nice fish in the boat together. (Along with his dark and sinister companion, Jarvis, who couldn’t make this particular adventure.)

St Sign

We set up under a small concrete pier that hung out over some promising mangroves. It had an awning, which was important, because it kept raining. The guys spread out and cast. I put out a larger bait in the middle of the lagoon and then started working the shoreline with tiny sabikis. I caught a few glass perch, which are ubiquitous in this area, but then I got a cardinalfish that looked unfamiliar.

St Cardinal

The humpback cardinalfish – species # 1243. 

The guys were bewildered at my joy over something small enough to be used as bait to catch baitfish, but they smiled quietly and kept fishing. Just then, something furry and warm brushed against my leg. Naturally, I thought it was Alex, but it wasn’t. It was a stray cat. It looked at me imploringly, as only cats can, hoping I would share a squid with it. I have always had a soft spot for animals, and I started to cut it a small meal. That’s when I noticed that it had friends. Dozens of them. In Hitchcockian fashion, they began moving in.

St vertical cats

The cats move in.

I had to shoo them away quite assertively, and it was clear that they were retreating only to consult with one another and come up with a better plan. As I turned back to fishing, they would creep in and stalk the bait, so I had to hold the pail with one hand and cast with the other. The cats were not aggressive, but they were very opportunistic, and any prawn or squid that was even briefly unguarded was quickly snatched.

St alex cats

The cats approach Alex. They apparently didn’t mind the smell. 

Alex noticed some small mudskippers on a stretch of sand by the mangroves. Naturally, I spent much of the day trying to catch one. They took a lot of concentration. They were aggressive, but very skittish, and they only seemed to like a moving bait. So I had to cast perfectly onto the small beach, give it a moment for the mudskippers to calm down, then twitch it quickly enough to get their attention but slowly enough where it didn’t go into the water where they would lose interest. I was at it for more than an hour, and had a couple of hookups but nothing landed.

Finally, in the driving rain, one of the mudskippers stayed on the hook and I flipped it up on the bank. A species! It wriggled off the hook and landed on the ground behind me, and when I was getting my camera to photograph it, a cat raced in and snatched it. Sigh. So I had to spend another 30 minutes catching one for pictures.

St skipper

The second barred mudskipper I caught that day.

St skipper 3

They are adorable if frustrating … kind of like Marta.

Late in the day, during a break in the rain, I took a sabiki rod and one prawn – which can last a long time on # 20 hooks – and headed off to the end of the breakwater. I set up and began catching a few wrasses and damsels, and then, wonderfully, one of the damsels was completely unfamiliar. It turned out to be a silver demoiselle, my third species of the day.

St chromis

It’s at least prettier than the other two. 

I got quite occupied photographing the beast, and when I looked up, my prawn was gone. The feline miscreants had followed me, snatched it, and scampered off. I was facing a half-mile of walking to get more bait. Sigh.

St Gato

The prawn-snatcher. 

That about wound things down for the day. The guys hadn’t gotten much on the jigs, but they were a pleasant bunch, except for Alex, who was even more pleasant. As I repacked my gear, the clouds darkened again, so I put on my rainjacket. I was walking to the ferry dock when I felt something heavy in my pocket, likely a weight I had left there. So I reached in with my hand, and to my surprise, the weight bit me. It was a crab.

I would like to think I uttered a simple, manly grunt – but the fact is I screamed like a little girl and danced around until I had gotten the jacket half off and spun the crab out of its hiding place. Alex and crew, almost 200 yards away, were all laughing hysterically. Jerks.

St Alex

Alex does his crab imitation. Ha, ha, ha.

Alex, because he is an idiot, had put a crab in my pocket and was waiting for my reaction. I didn’t disappoint him. Pranks like this are juvenile, sophomoric, immature, slimy, and Jaime Hamamoto-like, but what upsets me most, what REALLY makes me mad –  is that I didn’t think of it first.

And let’s face it, by the time I got back to Hilton, I was already looking forward to my next trip with these guys. But I’m keeping a close eye on all of my gear and taping my pockets shut.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | September 16, 2013

Feeble Redemption for Santiago

Dateline: September 16, 2013 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Santiago was a proud man. He could hold his head high as he came back to the village after his epic battle with a ton of angry marlin, even if he was left with just some scraps of forensic evidence and a moral victory. For me, I had no marlin, no victory, and arguably, no morals.

Five bitter months had passed since my April attempt at an Atlantic Blue marlin. (Details HERE)  This had not been the prime time for blues, and as much as I enjoyed catching white marlin and dorados, this was a hunt for THE Atlantic Blue, and I had failed. Captain Corey Hexter had been a superstar, trying every possible option and location, but it was not to be. Still, I was not going to let this fish defeat me.

Dom tzzer

That’s Corey on the right. Contact him at captcoreyfish@comcast.net – if you follow his advice, you’re going to catch fish.

As soon I stopped weeping, I called Corey to discuss a return trip. He told me that the week before a full moon in September is THE time, and I trust this guy. I booked it, and I had a second chance that Hemingway’s finest protagonist never did. I dedicate this trip to Santiago.

I called up trusted booking agent Anna Lisa Brache – serviciosmultiples_sa@hotmail.com – and set up accommodations at Cap Cana. The flight from Miami is quick, and the logistics from the airport to the luxury condo were seamless. The resort is fabulous, and as this is not the summer high season, there was no crowd and I got upgraded to a three-level villa I never did fully explore.

After I checked in, I raced down to the marina to touch base with Corey. He was on the T-zzer, rigging marlin baits, checking gear, changing lines, tying leaders. He was in a great and optimistic mood – I could tell this was going to be a different trip than April. We chatted strategy for an hour or so, then I headed off to dinner. I was awash in positive marlin vibes.

That evening began a three-day game of cat and mouse with the resort security staff. Before I signed up to stay here, both now and in April, I had repeatedly verified that it was OK to fish from the shore. (I had gotten a new species and a world record from the beach in April.) You see where this is going.

My first night on the rocks, a soft, pleasant topical evening, began well. I was casting a small jig and thinking back about the huge bluestriped grunt I had caught here in April, when I caught a huger grunt. No, a hugerer grunt. The hugerest. A pound and a half of steaming bluestriped grunt, breaking my already improbable record. Things were looking good.

Marlin Grunt

Bluestriped grunts aren’t supposed to take line.

My reverie – and a perfectly cold Red Bull – were interrupted by a frantic security guard who sprinted out onto the rocks and announced that fishing was “impossible” and insisted that I go with him. I tried to explain that I had been told fishing was OK, but there are pets who speak better Spanish than I do. He was so wound up it was actually hard to take him too seriously – somewhere in the discussion, he actually demanded my passport. It was getting late anyway, so I went in with him. As he headed briskly to the resort security office with what likely the most important criminal collar of his career, he got quite some distance ahead of me, and as we passed by the garage for my condo, I figured I would make a night of it and I slipped away. I got upstairs, peeked outside, and saw several guards running around looking for me. I felt loved.

In the morning, I checked with the front office about the fishing situation. The manager sighed. She explained that the night security manager was a bit “overenthusiastic” and had invented some rules, but that fishing was OK and I could not be arrested or beaten. This put to rest any worries I had about a small room with a metal chair and one light bulb.

I then headed over to the boat. Corey was there, smiling broadly and saying “Let’s go get one!” My mind was wandering to topics like how MANY marlin I would catch. The Fish Gods don’t put up with this. We reached the trolling grounds quickly and set out our spread, and within minutes, nothing happened. The radio crackled with reports of other boats landing blues – 100, 125, 140 – and almost everyone was getting multiple fish. The boat a mile off our stern got a double hookup. It couldn’t be long for me, I figured. But the hours dragged on, and to my complete astonishment, no marlin. Disbelief settled in. I had upset the Fish Gods, and we weren’t going to get a blue marlin today. But I refused to give in to depression. I had two more days to go, the fish were here, I had a great skipper, and it was going to happen, dammit.

We did some bottom fishing on the way in and jigged up more beautiful snappers. This caused me to forget the marlin situation for a few minutes, but the idea of facing Marta after a second unsuccessful and pricey DR trip terrified me.

Marlin Dog

The place is LOADED with snappers like this. 

Marlin Chub

I also caught a big Bermuda chub. One of these pooped on Spellman once.

I set up in stealth mode for the second night of shore fishing. I walked out to the furthest rockwall away from the security office, wore dark clothes, and minimized my flashlight usage. This bought me a couple of hours of good fishing – I got some nice snappers and a surprise new species – the purplemouth moray.

Marlin Eel

Yes, the mouth is really purple.

Just when I thought the security guards had found something better to do, a brilliant beam of light started playing across the jetties. They had brought out one of those German prison camp spotlights, and they were sweeping it over each section of rock and sand, looking for me. I made myself as flat as possible behind some of the boulders, but my Loomis spinning rod turns out to reflect light really, really well. Several excited voices started shouting in Spanish, and as I could hear them coming closer, I realized the jig was up, so to speak. I stood and waited for them to walk all the way out onto the rocks before I acknowledged them. This time, two of them marched me back toward the security office, one in front, one behind. I was in no hurry, however, and they eventually both got well in front of me. We passed by my garage, and that was it for my night with security. I was starting to feel a bit like the Road Runner.

When I got upstairs, I sat on the balcony with a cold Pepsi and watched the guards running around the complex and felt faintly unsettled but faintly amused. I talked to the front desk again; they smiled and told me not to worry about it.

The morning came quickly, and Corey had arranged for us to leave early to get us to the prime fishing areas before everyone else. It paid off. We had trolled for no more than 15 minutes when the port outrigger snapped and a fish started greyhounding downrange. Corey shouted “It’s a blue!!!” and the fight was on. I took the rod and went into battle mode, just me and the fish, total focus on the rod and the line, trying to stay one step ahead of a very athletic, very smart animal. It was not a huge fish – about a hundred pounds, and after about 30 minutes, we got him close to the boat.

Marlin float

My first blue marlin. Don’t worry – the gaff is just for grabbing the leader. 

In marlin fishing, the mate touching the leader is considered a good release. These were fairly light leaders – 80 pound fluorocarbon – so grabbing a fish is a bit of a delicate operation, and most times, when the mate grabs the leader, it snaps off for a clean release. That is exactly what happened. Corey ran up and hugged me and said “You got your blue!!” and I was thrilled, but faintly unsatisfied because I did not have the great picture I had always imagined I would have of my blue.

So we put the trolling gear back down, and shortly, we got another hookup. Again, great photos of the fish in the water, but not the one in my lap.

Marlin swimming

My second marlin.

Foolishly, I told Corey we should get one more, and try to leader it delicately and bring it up for a really good picture. We wouldn’t have to hurt the fish to do this, but it would require some fancy wiring work by the crew. It apparently wasn’t enough for me to catch the darn thing, now I needed to put conditions on the photos. The Fish Gods would punish me severely for my hubris.

We put the lures out again, and right on queue, a pair of 100 pound fish nosed into the spread. We were so intent on them that we didn’t see the big one that grabbed the long bait on the port side. The rig, a mere 30 pound setup, folded over and screamed drag. I wrestled it out of the rod holder, jammed the gimbal into my fighting belt, and assumed the fish battling position.

That is how I spent the next three hours and one minute of my life.

For the first hour, I could deal with the situation. I knew it was a bigger fish, well over 200 pounds, and we had her close enough a couple of times to convince me that she was tired. I was wrong. She was just getting started. In the 75th minute or so, was had already drifted a couple of miles, and she had run the line around a buoy. Corey had to guess which side to run by it, and we were all keenly aware that if he was wrong, the 30 pound line would break in an instant. He guessed right, and we were back at it.

Marlin backing 2

We drove backwards a lot that day.

By the time 90 minutes had gone by, it was getting a bit old. I was tired of water splashing up over the transom as we backed down, and who knew toes could cramp?

The last hour was just a weight-lifting contest. No strategy, no subtlety – just the fish hanging hard about 200 feet down and refusing to budge. I would gain three feet, then lose four. Gain eight, lose six.

Things began to hurt. Other things began to hurt. The things that had begun to hurt initially began to hurt even more. The seas were choppy, so I was having to maintain balance and pull hard on an angry fish. I gulped water and still sweated like a pig in a sauna. They poured water over my head and on the reel, two things I had on my bucket list – and they actually used a bucket! My shins cramped, and my back, normally not an issue, warned me that disks were going to go flying if I didn’t stop this stupidity. I labored on.

A range of emotions went through my head during the whole process. I started out in awe of the fish – the raw power, the wildness, the will. Then I got mad at it. It was making me hurt. And then I felt stupid, because it was hurting just as much and I’m the one who started the fight. I finally lapsed into my default emotion – stubbornness. I was going to finish this because, well, I started it. Why would anyone stay in this position for three hours? Was a picture really that damn important?

Of course it was.

Four feet up, three feet down. Six feet up, seven feet down. Three feet up. I was making agonizing progress, but I was not sure if I would make it. My hands cramped and my fingertips were turning odd colors. The outcome was very much in doubt. The marlin was not epic size – perhaps 250 pounds – but I was fighting it on tackle better suited to big striped bass, and tiring the fish out required a lot of consistent pressure but also some degree of finesse – 30 pound line isn’t as hard to break as one might think.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, we saw the fish. She was about 40 feet down now, electric blue, swimming along with us, giving up a foot at a time.

Marlin Action

The last few moments of an epic battle. 

The moment the fish swung up to the side of the boat, Corey was on it instantly. He somehow reached over, cradled the leader, and got hold of the fish’s bill. He then held on for dear life, as the marlin wasn’t as tired as we thought. One of the deckhands got a grip on it, and I knew we had landed it. The other deckhand and I got on the swim step and grabbed the tail, and all four of us swung the fish up for the picture you see here.

Marlin Marlin

There were high-fives all around, and instead of the primal bellow that I was too tired to utter, I let out sort of a contented whimper as the fish regained her strength and swam off into the depths. I collapsed into the chair and laughed most of the way back to port.

I went to sleep looking at that picture of the Atlantic blue marlin, giving the guards the night off.

Marlin Flag

The final day, we had the luxury of being able to focus on bottom fishing. Corey, a marlin expert by trade, had researched a bunch of bottom spots and we planned out a day of deep dropping and jigging. It was all gravy from there – I had my marlin.

The best cast of the day was before we left the dock. I fired a sabiki into a school of baitfish, and as it turns out, got TWO  new species, the scaled sardine and the mackerel scad.

Marlin bait

Two species on one cast. It doesn’t get much better, although my personal best is four new wrasses on one sabiki rig in Belize, December 2005.

The day was a pleasant one. The water, normally choppy, laid down nicely for us, and we had hours of pleasant drifting over reefs shallow and deep. We loaded up on snappers – which made for a marvelous dinner back at the marina – and I added one new species, the black jack.

Marlin Black

I caught just one black jack. The limit is 21.

Marlin Corey

Steve and Corey with an assortment of snappers. 

That evening, after a celebratory dinner and a few beers, I decided to give it one more round with the security guards. It was late and my flight was early, so I wasn’t going to fish, but my inner child – the 12 year-old who makes most of my decisions for me – hit on a plan. One of my flashlights was getting a bit old, so I took it and some heavy mono and snuck out to the rockwall in front of my condo. I tied the flashlight to a piece of driftwood that was sticking up, and found the light swung perfectly in the wind, about 5 feet off the ground. I turned it on and ran.

From the safety of my living room window, I watched the flashlight twinkle off on the end of the rocks, looking a whole lot like someone waving it around. Moments later, two groups of four security guards came trotting out, hunched down in the combat position, and raced out to the end of the jetty, where they arrested my flashlight. This pleased me a great deal.

Just to show I am a good sport, I bought a case of beer for the night security crew, to be delivered through a thoroughly bewildered concierge, along with a note that will likely never be adequately translated.

Marlin Note

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | September 12, 2013

Coconut Rum and Oreos

Dateline: September 12, 2013 – Bimini, Bahamas

My last trip to the Bahamas was the most important vacation I ever took. It was July of 2011, and I had just spent three weeks trying to come to grips with my mother passing away. I needed to be anywhere but Michigan, and I needed to be on the water. My family had been shattered, but 2011 was also the summer I seemed to be accepted as the tallest but least attractive Arostegui. (Click HERE for details.)

The fishing on that trip was a bit difficult – a lot of things that we expected to catch were off the bite. Still, I got some important species, including two beautiful golden tilefish, but to tell the truth, and I don’t say this very often, but it wouldn’t have mattered if we didn’t catch anything. It was great to be out on the water. I also knew we would go back.

It took a couple of years, but the schedules aligned in September of 2013, and armed with three pair of travel underwear and 30 pounds of jigs, I set out to revisit Bimini, as a guest of the Arostegui family. We spent a couple of days in Miami getting ready, getting bait and groceries, poking around for oddball local species, and packing and repacking my boxes of jigs.

We got a very early start on the ninth. It was a couple of hours of smooth sailing over to Bimini – a low, reefy island that sits just above the clear Caribbean waters. We checked in with the hotel and customs, then raced out to the first reef and tied on some big jigs.

Ahhh, jigs. There is nothing I love more than dropping a big lure down someplace where something is actually likely to eat it. I had quite a backlog of big leadheads, grubs, scampi tails, and similar things that have been accumulating around my garage since the Lions were respectable. And I brought them ALL.

I hooked up immediately, and I thought to myself – now this is going to be a trip to remember. I guessed the fish as a big grouper – a powerful fight but not fast, slugging it out deep but not racing off to the horizon. I pulled on it hard for about ten minutes, and as it gradually surfaced, my jaw dropped. It was a shark, hooked fair and square in the mouth on a jig. A Caribbean reef shark, one of those species that I had inexplicably missed in 2011. I felt better already.

Bimini Shark

The Caribbean reef shark. I was completely OK with letting Martini do the wrestling with it. 

Bimini Shark Jig

Note the jig just at the end of the gaff handle. Go figure.

Then it got weird. I have to do weird things to find new species, and deep dropping is one of those things. Deep dropping is miserable work. It starts with the unbridled optimism of loading gobs of bait onto circle hooks, attaching these rigs to two or more pounds of lead, and letting fly. It takes about six minutes for one of these rigs to hit 1000 feet, and about three minutes in, you begin to realize it’s going to take a lot longer than that to reel it up. Most drops do not result in a hookup, which seems grossly unfair considering the amount of work involved.

Our first few drops followed the statistical pattern mentioned above, and my arm was ready to fall off. But the fourth drop – down some 1200 feet, which is a lot of feet, resulted in bites. Martini hooked up first and, because he is young and athletic, got his fish off the bottom and toward the surface much more quickly than I did. This meant that the shark saw his first and ate it, and mine came to the top unscathed, which is terribly unfair but worked out fine as far as I’m concerned.

Bimini Scombrops

The fish turned out to be an Atlantic Scombrops, a great species and an even better dinner. Martini got one shortly afterward. Doug Olander, editor over at Sport Fishing Magazine, holds the world record for this species and was aghast that we would try to break it. 

To close out the day, we anchored up and started fishing the shallow reefs, and although I had caught many of the critters before, let’s face it, this was fun. In the middle of all this, I caught a black durgon – a type of triggerfish that frequents the area, and unwittingly entered into a bizarre five-way tie for the all-tackle record on this species. Someone needs to get a bigger one to free up space in the book.

Bimini Durgon 2

Two of the five record holders on the black durgon.

The next day, we got on the water early and hit some shallow reefs. The jigs continued producing. I got some gorgeous groupers, including the big strawberry below. Note the size of the jig it ate.

Bimini Strawberry

Strawberry grouper. Another very good dinner. 

We moved off the deeper reefs mid-morning and anchored up on some shallow rockpiles. As we chummed behind the boat, I noticed some baitfish with bright red tails streaking in and out of the trail. Breaking out one of the 316 sabiki rigs I carry for just such an occasion, I soon hooked a redtail scad, and added species 1233.

Bimini Scad

It’s a small fish, but it’s bigger than many other small fish I’ve caught, AND Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught one so there.

A lot of the fun, as always, was back at the dock. The harbor in Bimini is jammed with fish, anything from tropical mini-critters to respectable sharks and cobia. Of course, this means that I was completely rude to my hosts and raced off the boat and rushed through dinner so I could be on the water as much as I could. If any of you are surprised by me choosing fishing over general good manners, you must be new readers. Welcome!

I focused on the smaller stuff, and a few shrimp later, I landed a beautiful surgeonfish. These little fellows are called surgeonfish because they have a scalpel-like blade on their tail, a fact I found out the hard way a few years ago in Hawaii.

Bimini Surgeon

The ocean surgeonfish. Supposed to be vegetarian, but this one liked shrimp.

Bimini smallmouth

I also got a smallmouth grunt, yet another species. This trip, with five species already, was quickly becoming epic. I hope the Arosteguis can forgive me for rushing out on dinner and probably not even chewing my lobster that thoroughly.

The next day, I added a species, but it wasn’t the one I thought I did. If this confuses you, that makes two of us.

From time to time, I mess up an identification. Eight years ago, in Belize, I caught a nice-sized jack. I identified it as a bar jack because it had a &^%$ bar on the back like the book says. I have been trying to catch the similar yellow jack ever since but had not connected.

As we anchored up off a beautiful reef and dropoff, a school of big fish slashed through bait right behind the boat. Marty said “Yellow jacks! Get a plug in the water!!” I fumbled around and tied something on, then cast. After a few misses, I latched onto something big and solid, and the fight was on. After a few blazing runs, I brought a beautiful jack on board and said “Darn – another bar jack.” Martini said “No – that’s a yellow jack.”

Foolishly, I said “Bar jack, it has a bar on the back.” And Martini said “They both have a bar, but the bar jack’s bar comes all the way onto the lower lobe of the caudal fin and it doesn’t have YELLOW marks like the yellow jack you are holding.” Oops. In retrospect, it was inadvisable to pick this fight with a marine biology student who has been fishing in this area for 20 years, but just as in hockey, I plowed ahead heedless of common sense.

Bimini Yellow

Marty separates us and holds up my yellow jack.

In a conciliatory tone, Martini told me there were some bar jacks on the reef and told me to get casting. You know what happened next, and nobody likes a smartass.

Bimini Bar

My bar jack. Yes he was laughing at me. I would have laughed at me. I had probably thrown back three dozen small ones over the years thinking I had already caught the species.

Just to be snotty, I am going to publish a childhood picture of Martini.

Bimini Martini

Maybe this will teach Martini to correct me. You might point out that he was completely right, but don’t change the subject. 

The fishing was wide open, with big jacks chasing jigs and poppers everywhere behind the boat. It was a full-on feeding frenzy, and the Bahamas had shown what a special place they could be. We stuck at it for a couple of hours, and the fishing was once-in-a-lifetime. Martini went down in his snorkel gear and speared a monster hogfish.

Bimini Hog

Yes, this is a real fish. Dr. Seuss did not invent it.

On the way back to the harbor, Marty parked us on one more reef, and the fishing, which had already been spectacular, got even better. Indeed, for roughly a golden hour, it was just stupid good – every jig seemed to get slammed, every bait seemed to get eaten. It was like the fishing shows you see on TV, only we didn’t need to film for three days to get the action.

Bimini Black

Black grouper. I don’t even remember if I caught this or Martini did. It doesn’t really matter – we all got big fish.

Bimini Mutton

Mutton snapper. Not as beastly as the one in Brazil that I had hoped was a stingray, but nice. (Click HERE for the ugly details. Parental advisory for nudity and Ricky Martin music.)

That evening, I didn’t fish. I did something even more important. I wasn’t rude for once. The Arosteguis are a marvelously close family. Martini’s relationship with his father I truly admire – I was never close to my Dad, and while I have managed to reach adulthood and be a productive member of society, this is still something that leaves a void. There is something just plain nice about seeing people who care about each other this much, and sometimes it is the smallest things – like cooking dinner together – that are the most important.

Martini had captured a couple of lobsters, and as soon as we docked, Marty set to creating a stir-fry of epic proportions. I knew it was not the night to fish, and for once, I sat around the boat and was sociable. The dinner was simply outstanding, and I took seriously my role of ensuring that there are no leftovers. We spoke well into the evening, and as it got late, I was included in an important ritual. Roberta produced a bottle of coconut rum and a bag of Oreos. Although both are excellent on their own, in combination, they are transcendent, doubly so after a few shots of the rum. We talked well into the evening, and I didn’t want it to end. These are truly special people and a special family to make me stop fishing for a few hours.

Bimini Lobster

Marty and his world-famous lobster stir-fry.

Our last day, we started by working our way around some shallows near the harbor. Roberta nailed a nice bonefish on a sand flat, just to show us she could catch something beside world record black durgon. (I jest of course. Roberta has more world records than I do.)

Bimini Bone

Just your basic bonefish before breakfast.

Heading west toward Miami, we stopped on a few reefs, shallow and deep. Martini pulled a bizarre soldierfish from about 1200 feet down, and we got a few other nice snappers. And then, just as in 2011, the last spot produced a miracle. About 150 feet down, one of my last leadheads got smashed. My guess was another nice strawberry grouper, and as I peered into the depths looking for the first hint of color, I saw red and thought I was right. But then it got redder. And redder. And redder. It was a yellowfin grouper, one of the most colorful fish in the ocean, and a species I had once bitterly lost at boatside. The trip had a perfect ending, and we motored back to Miami without the grins ever leaving our faces.

Bimini Yellowfon

This is not Photoshopped. I think they glow in the dark.

The next day, as I left Miami, I couldn’t help but feel a bit out of sorts. This is a group where I feel completely welcome, and while I am not quite at their level of fishing skill, they still put up with me and make me feel part of the family whenever we are together. I could not wait for the next visit.

Heading to the airport, my focus changed. I wasn’t heading home – not just yet. I was heading east, a thousand miles out into the Caribbean, for a shot at getting one of the most elusive big game species on the planet. A species that had flat-out humiliated me in April. But with luck, in a day or two, I would have a date with destiny – and an Atlantic Blue Marlin.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | September 7, 2013

Miami’s Real Big Three

Dateline: September 7, 2013 – Miami, Florida

Sports Illustrated will tell you that Miami’s “big three” are basketball players – Bosh, Wade, and LeCramp. But these people have never heard of the REAL big three in that town – Salvin’s Cichlid, the Green Severum, and the true star of the bunch, the Striped Mojarra. And unlike the basketball players, these stars will stay in Miami*.

To be truthful, I didn’t expect to do much fishing in Miami. I was there because the Arosteguis had generously invited me to join them for a few days in the Bahamas, and I wanted to give United Airlines plenty of time to find my luggage. But Martini always has something fishy up his sleeve, or his underpants, and it usually involves incredibly detailed research on obscure species.

In this case, two of the species were old friends of the family. But one of them – Salvin’s cichlid –  took Martini hours rooting through the shadowy world of online fishing chat rooms, until he found a site  – Roughfish.com – that is both reputable and filled with species-hunting kindred spirits. The first time I pulled up the site, the first four posts were for fish I have never caught, from people who get just as excited as I do about creatures that will never be on an LL Bean catalog cover. This is awesome.

In between getting the big boat ready for the trip across to Bimini, we had a free morning to run out and chase these critters. Marty, Martini, and I got into the car and headed north, up to a park somewhere south of Orlando, armed with some light rods, worms, and a bag of Publix enriched white bread. As we arrived, Martini got out his notes and directed us to a very specific 25 feet of shoreline. We cast out some small float rigs, and immediately, we got bites and pulled up some attractive cichlids – Salvin’s cichlids, according to the books. I have no idea who Salvin was or why he cavorted with cichlids, but I was grateful for the species. Thank you Roughfish.com!

Three Salvin S

It is possible that Martini’s tongue is bigger than my fish, but a species is a species.

Three Salvin

They are a good-looking thing.

With that task accomplished, we drove back down to Coral Gables and picked up the Arostegui’s small boat. We launched in one of the many canals that criss-cross the area, and again, headed to a very specific corner of a back channel where they had seen green severum. I set up a light float and bread and waited while Marty and Martini looked for the fish. After a few moments, Marty pointed and said “There he is.”

I cast where I thought Marty had pointed, and asked “There?” Marty looked at me patiently and said “You only missed by about 10 feet.” We were 10 feet from the bank. Once I hit the correct spot, the float went down, but whether it was adrenaline or a lack of caffeine, I missed the bite completely. Then I missed the cast again. The Arosteguis looked at me patiently, as they always do. Finally, I got one. The green severum, another cichlid that has made its way into the canals from some foreign land via the aquarium trade, had joined my species list.

Three Severum

The green severum.

On the way back to the ramp, we cast for some peacock bass, and Marty, unassuming though he may be, but just because he really is that good, landed a seven pound largemouth.

Three Bass

It took me a long time to catch a largemouth this big. 

We had one more species to go after, and Marty had dreamed up this one. The saltwater canals in the area have a number of mojarra species, and I have not gotten a particular one – the striped mojarra. Marty recalled that he had seem some of these in the University of Miami campus canals when he was a student there. This is no mean feat – he graduated many years ago, when their football program was actually honest. We gave it a try, as students streamed by us, crazed with joy over the day’s defeat of rival Florida. We got quite a few small fish – mojarras, tilapia, and others, but we did not find the striped creature we pursued. So we packed it in and went home to prepare for Bimini and enjoy a nice dinner.

After dinner, the canal behind the boathouse called to me. “Steve, Steve.” it called. I knew there would be a few mosquitoes, but I have caught several new species in this canal, and I thought I would give it a try. Martini was watching some TV with his family, but he told me to call if I got anything good and he would be there quickly with a net. I had no idea how quickly.

I set up right by the boathouse and was soon catching solid mangrove snappers and even one of my favorite fish of all time – the lookdown. The evening went on, cooling , pleasant, very few mosquitoes, plenty of fish, no alligators.

Three Lookdown

The Atlantic lookdown. They’re cool.

I had a very light rod – four pound line – out with a #18 hook in case one of the striped mojarras happened by. I viewed these as a micro – something along the lines of the boathouse goby and other smallish creatures. At around 10pm, something that was not a micro got a taste for very small bits of shrimp and took off, peeling line off the reel and heading for the pilings. There is a lot of structure in the area, and I gave myself a Spellman’s chance of landing it, but the fish, which I presumed to be a decent snapper, shot perfectly back between the posts and the rocky wall, and after a few tense minutes, it surfaced.

It was a huge striped mojarra – about a pound and a half. I didn’t know they got that big, and I certainly couldn’t lift it up on the lawn with the gear I had. Holding my rod out as far as possible, I edged over to the cleaning table, and at full extension, I could just reach my phone. I texted Martini a single word – “Net.”

It is approximately 200 feet to go from the house to the garage for the net and then out to where I was fishing. If the speed net grab was an Olympic event, Martini would be the gold medalist. In what seemed like seven seconds, I heard rapid footsteps, and then Martini burst through the bushes at the top of the retaining wall, soared down five feet onto the grass, and scooped up my fish.

Three striped

Who knew they got this big? Next time, I won’t use a #18 hook and one pound – that’s right – one pound leader. 

I had added three unanticipated species in a single day. I know there won’t always be one available when I wander through Miami, but I know the Arosteguis will always give it their best shot, and that’s as good a chance as anyone could have.

Steve

 

1000Fish Reader Update -

Congratulations to Jim Tolonen, long-time 1000fish reader and fishing buddy, on his first IGFA world record. On August 21, 2013, Jim captured this beast of a sand sole off Santa Cruz, California and put his name in the book.

Three Tolonen

Maybe Jim will stop reminding me that he has caught a 40 pound white seabass.

* Obviously, the delay between the trip and publishing dates gave me some additional insight, but I always thought LeCramp would go back to Cleveland – the first person since 1932 to move there voluntarily without being part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | August 3, 2013

The Road to Orick

Dateline: August 3, 2013 – Orick, California

Road trips have formed the inspiration for countless adventure and “buddy” movies. Who could ever forget the classics – The Road to Rio … Easy Rider … Harold and Kumar … Harold and Maude.

Redtail HM

It was late when I wrote this. It all made sense at the time. 

Martini Arostegui and I are known to jump into the car at the slightest hint of a species within a day’s drive, and obviously, or not, the road trip I am about to recount must have been successful, or I wouldn’t be talking about it. Or would I? Well, partially. To be truthful, our first road trip of 2013 was a disaster, but luckily, this post is about the second one. In the interest of complete disclosure and getting this above 2000 words, there was also a third trip, which rivaled the first for utter futility. We were one for three, which might be good in baseball or venture capital but is not as good when you are 500 miles from clean underwear. Still, Martini knows the rules. There are no guarantees in fishing, or everyone would do it.

There isn’t much constructive to say about the first trip. We ventured ten hours from home into remote parts of the west that don’t have Burger King, and we did not so much as sniff the fish we were after. The highlight of the trip was my discovering that Martini could walk, for some distance, on his hands.

Redtail Gymnasty

Now that’s a talent. 

Redtail BM

Oh, and we saw one of the greatest road signs EVER. 

The second road trip happened in August. Over the past two years, Martini and I had put quite a hurting on the local surfperch species, racking up something like 18 records, which was lucky and a whole lot of fun. (Details HERE) But a couple of species had eluded us. One of these, the redtail surfperch, was a vacant world record and apparently abundant on the north coast, about six hours north of San Francisco.

We researched for hours, and through the kindness of some north coast fishermen, we found some promising spots near the tiny town of Orick. We headed out on a Friday afternoon, full of hope and caffeine. The drive up Highway 101 goes through coastal mountains and redwoods, places full of childhood and adult memories. It was here I saw my first redwood tree, on one of those amazing California summer exploration trips my sister and I used to take with my stepmonster’s parents. They were truly nice people, generous, kind, and mentally stable, which always makes me wonder if you-know-who was adopted.

Of course, once it got dark, my view was reduced to the path of my headlights and occasional glimpses – and smells – of Martini. We should have saved Taco Bell for the last night of the trip. The conversation on these trips leans heavily to fishing, and as the miles rolled by, we consulted on topics ranging from odd species like the silver redhorse, to our upcoming trip to the Bahamas in September, to exotic peacock bass in Suriname, to the Indian Ocean, where we both have a lot of fishing to do. We talked about my chances of an IGFA lifetime achievement award – he thought I would get to 100 records, but he warned me, from his own experience, that the last ten were the hardest. There are very few people in the world who can relate to my level of obsessiveness with fishing, but Martini is not only a kindred spirit, not only someone who can commiserate with me and offer moral support, but who can also teach me a thing or two. Especially about diet. I could have done without that second Burrito Supreme. Even though he’s 22, he is mature and focused well beyond his years – he’s like the older brother I never had.

It was very late when we got to McKinleyville, and even later when we discovered that there were no hotel rooms available there and had to retreat to Eureka, where we did finally find lodging, iffy at best, which required lasting through an awkward moment where the desk clerk and night manager got into a shouting match about whether the room was actually available.

Morning came quickly, and mornings here are cold and foggy. This is a beautiful but desolate place, and as we parked on the windswept beach and walked about a mile south, we wondered if it would all be worth it. As we reached our spot, we pulled out a container of Safeway shrimp. Conventional wisdom calls for digging sand crabs, but Martini has caught numerous records on Safeway shrimp, and I wasn’t worried.

Redtail surf

The rods are set up and we are ready to go.

It is always disquieting to cast into the roaring surf. It never seems like anything could be living in there, let alone feeding, yet surfperch can be there in droves. And this time, our target was there. In less than five minutes, Martini pulled up a beautiful one pounder – a world record for him, adding to his remarkable total. There are only two fishermen in the world with more records than Martini, and one of those is his father. (Marty has over 400 and leads the pack by far.) So even with a huge world record count, every one was important for Martini as he tried to join his father at the very top of the scoreboard – imagine being one and two in the world at something with your father.

Redtail Martini

Martini gets on the scoreboard – one pound and a new world record.

Just as Martini released his catch, I added the species with a smaller fish. I was so thrilled that I didn’t notice my wet feet and the freezing wind.

Redtail First Perch

Steve gets in to the act with species 1227.

Moments later, I landed a larger one that qualified as a record. (Note to the north coast surf fishermen – yes, there are many bigger ones out there. Turn them in!!)

Redtail Steve

A pound and a quarter of payback for a lot of driving. It was so worth it. 14 records to go. Three years ago, I would have a good idea of where the next 14 would come from, but at this stage, I have no idea.

The mission was accomplished, and we fist-bumped in quiet triumph. Normal, well-adjusted people would have enjoyed the rest of the morning catching large perch in the surf, but hey, it’s us. We raced for the car and drove south to Trinidad, fishing the scenic pier there for any of the coastal species that have eluded us, especially the rock greenling which hates me as much as spearfish hates me or possibly more.

Redtail Lighthouse

The lighthouse at Trinidad harbor. Gorgeous, but no rock greenling.

After an hour or so, we realized this wasn’t going to work, so we did something stupid. Calculating that if we drove really fast for six hours and didn’t stop for lunch or bathroom breaks, we could barely make Putah Creek at Davis in time for a shot at a Sacramento sucker. We raced out of Trinidad, zoomed our way through the coastal mountains, and arrived at Putah just in time to see a bunch of suckers race by us and not take any of our baits. A philosopher might wonder who the suckers really were.

If my 2013 road trips with Martini had ended here, this would have been a better story, but unfortunately, they did not. Two weeks after the Orick adventure, I messed up on a level that only United Airlines can approach with consistency. Martini wanted to catch a golden trout. Fair enough, I figured. We could re-enact the Cottonwood Death March – (sordid details HERE) – but bring adequate shoes and provisions. So we made the seven-hour drive to Lone Pine, and then the hour-long, terrifying cliff drive to the hiking area.

Redtail Eastern

The beauty of the Eastern Sierra, which we got to appreciate almost undisturbed by fish.

And then, for reasons I will never fully understand, I missed a detail and screwed up on an epic scale. Not realizing there are two trails with “Cottonwood” in the name, I took us up the wrong one, so we went up 5 miles and 2500 feet to Chicken Springs Lake – which contains no trout. That’s a ten mile round trip.

Redtail Chicken

Chicken Springs Lake. Ironically, it has neither springs nor chickens. And definitely no trout.

Luckily, there was a small creek on the trail that held smaller goldens, and it was here Martini added the species and I avoided permanent idiot status.

Redtail Golden SM

The fish that saved my bacon.

The Fish Gods paid me back big time – I had gotten a root canal done a few days before this hike, and one of my sinuses got infected. This is a bad thing to discover at altitude. Trust me.

Humbled, I took in the scenery on the seven hour trip home, swearing off golden trout for life. Martini was more than gracious and never mentioned the screwup, but it’s only fair to report it, because I surely would have said something if he took us up the wrong trail. Besides, in less than a month, I would be fishing with him again – 3000 miles to the southeast. And I was praying he would read the map correctly, because if he messed up like I did, we could end up in Haiti.

Steve

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | July 10, 2013

A Semi-Frozen Midlife Crisis

Dateline: July 10, 2013 – Keflavik, Iceland

I had been putting this day off for 50 years, but as Dr. Seuss said “It came. It came just the same.” For this day – Wednesday, July 10, 2013 – was my 50th birthday. Age 50. Middle age. When the doctor starts paying a lot of attention to tests, and the tests get more and more awkward. (You’ll understand when you have your first colonoscopy; my only advice is to stay very close to the bathroom once you drink that gallon of prep solution.) This is when hemorrhoids aren’t something that happens to other people. When men stop getting phone numbers and start getting restraining orders. When AARP mailers start showing up. When those gag gifts like adult diapers stop getting responses like “Very funny, you idiot” and start getting responses like “Wrong size. Is the receipt in the box?”

bday depends

If only they came in bikini briefs. 

For the more philosophical among us, this might be a day of reflection and remembrance, but hey, it’s me. I’m not all that philosophical, and I’m only spiritual when the Red Wings are deep in the playoffs. But still, there is something gigantic about turning 50 … something that makes you question if something is going to suddenly change. Things that are OK when you are 40 might suddenly turn not OK when you are 50, and I was determined that this wouldn’t happen to me.

So I lay awake that night, looking out into the 3am twilight that is summer in Iceland, and I talked to Marta. Eventually, she woke up. The very first thing she said, after the obligatory “It’s 3am, you idiot,” was “Fine – what are the six most important things in your life? Write them down quietly and we can discuss it in the morning.” I blabbered on, outlining a mid-life crisis right there in the middle of the night. Finally, she got up, and with semi-convincing compassion, said “You’re a little old for this.” Ouch. We started the list. To save an awkward moment, she correctly placed herself first. “I’m putting up with this, so you can put me down as committed.” So that’s one down. The other five things we came up with, in no particular order – fish species, my family, my friends, world records, and ice hockey. Would these all be the same? Could I still do the same stuff? Would I still wear the same underwear?

Bday Dep

Whoever thought of this ad should be fired. How about “Guard your khakis?”

In what seemed like three hours but was really 180 minutes, morning came and I was off to Keflavik for one more go at the open Atlantic. I was hopeful that this last day would be nicer and I would finally get my shot at the barn door halibut – or a plaice, because as weird as this is, I would rather catch a plaice than a halibut just so Marta could stop giving me a hard time because she has already caught one. (Read that sad tale HERE.)

The July weather remained uncooperative. The Fish Gods don’t care if it’s your birthday. Not even if it’s a major birthday, like your 50th. The breeze had slacked off to a mere 20 knots, but the seas were tremendous from a week of heavy wind. It was a quiet effort, just me and the guide, not much talking, which is unusual for me, but a lot of holding on and nausea, which is normal for Iceland. We tried every reachable spot a halibut might haunt, and while there were none to be found, I did keep catching some tremendous cod, including my biggest ever.

Bday Cod 2

Hallmark doesn’t have a birthday cod like this. A birthday COD! I crack myself up.

Despite the lack of species, it was still great fun, even if I had to concentrate very hard to retain my breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, Toggi brought me a cake. A real, homemade Icelandic cake, which was sort of like a cheesecake and had fresh blueberries all over it and I ate the whole thing in five minutes. What a nice people – I was reminded of another touching birthday gift in Germany four years ago. (Details HERE.)

Late in the day, the Fish Gods gave a faint nod to my big day. By this stage of the trip, I had caught at least 100 Atlantic dabs, but I still checked every flatfish carefully, hoping not to see the telltale curved lateral line and rough upper surface. Each new fish might, just might, be a juvenile halibut. And late in the afternoon, well after we should have been back at the dock, I pulled up one that looked different. I looked closer – it had a straight lateral line. It had to be something new, and it was. In a cruel irony, it was an American plaice – a type of plaice, but not the one Marta got in Norway. I had gotten my first species as a 50 year-old –  about 13 hours into the day. The second pillar was there.

Bday Plaice

The American plaice. Not the European plaice, which is far more sophisticated but can’t win a war without help.

As I got back to the house, my sister, my Uncle Ted, and the Arosteguis called and wished me a happy birthday. They are pretty much my family, at least until Laura’s kids are old enough to buy me a decent birthday present. But I also thought about all the family that wasn’t there any more. My Mom, who would have been leading the charge to give me a hard time about being 50, had been gone for two years. I miss her.

Marta and I had a lovely dinner in Reykjavik. We found ourselves reflecting, but we also found ourselves planning what we were going to do for the next 50 years. I have so much I haven’t accomplished yet – 2000 species, 100 world records, 100 countries, 50 states, and most of the royal slams. Of course, Marta and I also have a bucket list of trips that aren’t quite as fishing-oriented. (Her destinations always seem to involve climbing up hills.) So if she puts up with all this AND paid for dinner, that’s pretty good. She’s a keeper, as they say, and also as they say, I have outkicked my coverage.

Three travel-filled days later found us back in San Francisco, where Marta had arranged what I thought would be a quiet dinner with a few friends to mark the occasion. She sold me out. What happened was a celebrity roast, with a few dozen friends, in the best tradition of Dean Martin. With an open bar and encouragement to abuse me, this was a recipe for disaster. The presentations ranged in hilarity (Thor Grossen,) good taste (Kelly Porter,) and coherence (Spellman.) Everything that came up, including Kerr’s lunch, was truly from the heart or somewhere nearby. I am blessed with a tremendous group of friends, and a girlfriend, lovely and intelligent, patient and forgiving … who stuck me with the check. So the friends were there, and they will likely be there for life, or I will release the rest of the photographs from the party. Jeff, you know the one I’m talking about.

Bday Hat

Kelly Porter, who designed and produced my birthday helmet. For the record, I did not have a head injury during the party, so it must have worked.

Bday Kerr

On the left is Chris, quite a fisherman in his own right, Jeff Kerr, (the second best center on my hockey team,) Jeff’s Wife Sharon (details HERE,) and Sandra. Sandra has evil powers.

Bday Lee

Lee Sullivan, fellow war history buff, tries to think of something nice to say. 

Bday Martini

Martini tries to think of something nice to say.

Bday Spellman

Lee tries to keep Heather awake during Spellman’s speech. No one was sure what he was getting at, but we love him just the same. 

Bday Perry Vernon

Two very old friends from my days at Macromedia. On the left, Scott Perry, occasional fishing buddy and all-around good guy. On the right, Len Vernon, great friend and my boss at Macromedia. He used to say “Wozniak is a hell of a creative writer. Did you see his expense reports?”

Bday Joy

Joy, one of our dearest friends, who keeps asking us to take her fishing.

Bday Group

The group. Marta, at far left, is smiling fiendishly because she just handed the waiter MY American Express card.

So I had a species, some friends, a family, and a partner after turning 50. What about world records? And what about ice hockey?

Oddly enough, there is a possible world record about an hour from my house. In my old college stomping grounds near UC Davis, Putah Creek has Sacramento suckers, and this is another underrepresented species that no one had turned in to the IGFA. The problem – catching them. When I was in college, they were easy. Put a worm on the bottom. Wait briefly. But now, 30 years later, they have turned into some kind of super-spooky ghost that make permit look positively reckless. I had been going up there at least twice a week all summer, and had yet to get one over that magic one pound mark. But I could see them there, every damn time, and I just knew I could get one.

I decided to give it a try on Tuesday the 16th. Since they only seem to bite in the 38 seconds before dark, this was something I could do after work. Grab a quick dinner, then wait out the rush hour traffic on the way up to Davis and a favorite spot I have been fishing since 1984. I parked where I have parked for 30 years, walked the same half mile along the creek, and set up to wait for sunset. For it is only at sunset that the suckers, for about five minutes, materialize out of nowhere and begin running up a shallow riffle, leaving an unmistakable v-shaped wake as they ignore every possible bait and go someplace else that I can never find.

Bday Sucker

Finally. There may be one born every minute, but there is one caught every 10 years. 

Bday Teejay

None of this would have been possible without the assistance of Teejay O’Rear, Lab Manager at UC Davis, who gave us incredibly detailed advice on where to catch the suckers. 

A quick review at home revealed that this would be my 85th world record. 100 gets you a lifetime achievement award – a little piece of immortality in the IGFA books. It hit me that records were getting awfully hard to come by. Awfully hard. But this was something I have been determined to do since my first record in 2006. I decided then and there I needed to finish out the 100 within a year. I had no idea how I was going to do this, but I wanted that trophy in the worst way.

All that remained was to get on the ice and score a goal. Eight days after my birthday, I laced up the skates for my first hockey game as a 50 year-old.  I had been on the old side of my team for years, and while 40 seemed like a difficult thing, suiting up as a 50 year-old was a little intimidating. Was this finally going to be the year to hang it up? Could I still score despite my advanced age? (Not a word from you, Marta.)

The answer came on my second shift of the evening, courtesy of a talented teammate named Conan Fong. I was parked in the low slot, like I have been since I was a Squirt playing for Barnard Electric in Royal Oak, Michigan. It’s one of my few remaining skills – it’s difficult to move me. (Note from Marta – It’s true. Just try to get him off the couch.) Conan made a nice play to keep the puck in the zone, skated down the right side of the ice and cut toward the net. The defenseman covering me inexplicably fell down, perhaps because I cross-checked him in the kidneys, and Conan slid a crossing pass to me. This is the play we practice from the time we learn to skate. It was a carbon copy of the first goal I ever scored, and thankfully, I didn’t miss.

Bday Conan

Conan the defenseman. No relation to Conan the Barbarian. Or Conan the Librarian, who worked at my junior high school.

I had a goal as a 50 year-old, so I was good for another decade. Everything was in order, and I could stop waking Marta up at 3am.

In bed that night – I never sleep that well on hockey nights – I played it over and over in my head. As satisfied as I was with the game, I also knew I wouldn’t be playing when I reach 60. This was something I had always thought I would do forever, and now it had a time limit. Everything does – you learn that around the time you turn 50. But whenever that last game would be, it wasn’t tonight, and that was all that mattered.

To quote the philosopher Toby Keith – “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”

Steve

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