Posted by: 1000fish | November 20, 2014

The One-Armed Bandit

Dateline: March 22, 2014 – Long Beach, CA

My collarbone snapped loudly when I hit the ice. The ligaments in my shoulder tore at the same time, which sounded like reluctant wet velcro.

In the post from my 50th birthday, I mused about how long I would be playing hockey with a bunch of kids who are more athletic and substantially younger than I am. (Details HERE) The answer arrived just after 10pm on March 13. It wasn’t a particularly clean play – the guy took my legs out from behind, but these things happen. 99 times out of a hundred, I would have jumped up, retaliated, and probably gotten a penalty. But whether it was age or bad luck, this fall went differently, and all 220 pounds of me landed on my left shoulder. I could hear my collarbone break, and as we got my gear off before going to the hospital, it was also clear that the shoulder was badly dislocated.

Bandit Hospital

Right before they hit me with the morphine. I apparently said some strange things later. When the registrar asked for my religion, I am told that I responded “Pagan.”

In terms of pain, I had thought ribs were the gold standard, but the collarbone is worse. You might use your ribs every time you breathe, but the collarbone is apparently involved in blinking. The next few weeks involved a lot of painkillers.

Of course, I couldn’t let this interfere with fishing.

I had a trip to Los Angeles scheduled with Martini eight days after this event. We had talked for four years about getting him out with Ben Florentino and catching the Southern California usual suspects, and I was not going to let a minor thing like a gruesomely dislocated shoulder spoil the fun. Three days after the injury, I walking gingerly down to my garage and picked up the casting rod I would likely use on a trip with Ben. The act of lifting it with my left hand made me almost black out with pain. This was not good. As a last resort, I know I could just go and NOT FISH, but with four more days to work on options, I was not ready to accept this.

The next day, I returned to the garage and tried a spinning rod. I found that I could cast it one-handed, close the bail with my teeth, then reel it by rotating my good arm around the handle, which I jammed into the space between my hip and my left hand. I practiced this in the driveway in my pajamas. My confidence grew. (Note from Marta – you can’t imagine the calls I got from the neighbors.)

Martini, as ever acting the part of the older brother, made the ridiculous suggestion of just cancelling the trip. In between vicodin tablets, I questioned his judgement and dedication to fishing. He smiled maturely and didn’t engage, and when the weekend came and I refused to cancel, he insisted on doing all the driving. It was a good road trip, and we mercifully dodged the legendary LA traffic. My shoulder was pretty darn sore, but I thought things were fine – but I apparently took one too many pain pills. Later in the evening, for reasons I can not explain, I apparently unraveled three full rolls of toilet paper and left it in a big pile on the bathroom floor.

We met Ben at the dock early in the morning. Martini generously carried most of the stuff down to the boat, thank goodness – although I did carry my own Red Bull and Vicodin. It was great to see Ben, and yes, he too questioned the wisdom of my going out on the water. Where, I ask, is the dedication? (Where, Marta asks, is the common sense?)

Among the many things I forgotten to consider was the bumpy boat ride out to the kelp beds. Ben ran the boat as gently as he could, but every bump was lip-bitingly painful. I said nothing, but my involuntary squeaks gave me away. We finally arrived at some likely-looking kelp beds and set to fishing. I had practiced my one-armed casting ritual and was comfortable with it, despite incredulous glances from Ben and Martini. I became rather smug about it – What broken bones? What torn ligaments? Those are for sissies. It was at that precise moment that the Fish Gods hit me with the one thing I had forgotten about – a fish. A solid kelp bass smashed my lure, and pulled back hard to my left. I tried to speak and stifle a distinctly unmanly scream at the same time, which came out something like “Motherfgarblewhimper!!” Martini, who normally never misses a chance to give me a hard time, felt so bad he didn’t say a thing. My arm hung limply in the sling as I held the surging fish with my right, and then awkwardly placed the reel handle against my hip and brought the fish in. Despite having a bit of a sore shoulder, I had landed a fish. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove to who, but I had proven it.

Bandit Calico

The kelp bass in question. Ben is still shaken up from my screaming. 

I sat down with a Red Bull and some Vicodin and let the able-bodied fish the rest of the morning. It was not a wide-open day like I had experienced in June of last year (Click HERE) but there were definitely some fish there, and that’s when a good guide really helps – the tougher days. Martini got a few nice calico bass on lures, and some other assorted kelp denizens. He has made so many amazing trips happen for me, so I was pleased that he was getting a shot at this fishery before he graduated.

Bandit Martini

Martini’s first calico. He used two hands – almost cheating.

Martini also did something gross. After catching a nice Pacific mackerel – his first – he just had to chop it up and eat it.

Bandit Mackerel

Yes, I eat sushi, but this is different. And gross. 

Bandit Group

If you’re planning to be in the LA area, look Ben up at 310 779-0397 or rek1ess@hotmail.com

After a few hours, we moved back into the bay and put some baits down. Martini promptly got a hit and a screaming run – unquestionably the “mud marlin” – a California bat ray. I was not quick to get my rod out of the water, so we couldn’t chase it, and consequently, the fish is still going – Martini was spooled in less than a minute.

Bandit Spooled

Martini poses heroically as he gets spooled.

We picked up a few assorted perch and sand bass inside Long Beach harbor. It was pleasant enough, but as it got later in the day, we hadn’t gotten anything truly noteworthy. That all changed in five minutes. Martini went first. Casting a small bait on a light rig to the rocks, he got a big hit and a wild fight. As he brought the fish toward the boat, I thought it had to be a decent perch, but when Ben netted it, I was stunned. It was a rock wrasse. A huge rock wrasse. Not only was this a new species for Martini, it was also an open world record. This might not seem like that big of a deal for someone with 170+ records like Martini, but for the past several years, Martini, third in the record standings overall, was on a focused quest to claim second – to be one and two with his father. So if there was going to be one record for the day, I was glad it was his.

Bandit Rock

The behemoth rock wrasse. Rock wrassezilla. 

But there was to be another world record that afternoon. I was sort of halfway fishing, with a squid/jig combo under the boat in about 10 feet of water, so if I hooked something I wouldn’t have to reel all that much. I got a strange bite, slow and cautious, and after a few minutes, I finally set the hook. I was rewarded with a fight that had all the energy of a sedated boot, and as I raised it one-handed to the surface, I saw I had gotten a California skate – big enough to break my own record. This would be my 96th. I was getting awfully close.

Bandit Skate

I should have left the sling on for the photos. How do I make that face?

So just like that, a decent day on the water had turned epic. There were whoops, man-hugs, and high-fives (all right-handed.) We had both gotten records, and just as I was the first person to set an IGFA record while naked (18+ click HERE,) I likely became the first person to set one in a sling. It was great to see Ben, great to have Martini catch a few of the Southern California kelp creatures, and best of all to just survive the whole thing.

I was curiously proud of myself on the ride home. “Well,” I said. “I toughed it out.” Martini sighed with equal parts of patience and bewilderment, reminding me very much of his father. “Steve, there’s a fine line between tough and stupid, and you’re playing hopscotch with it.”

Steve

 

Bandit Moon

And just as we pulled out to drive home, a full moon came out.

Posted by: 1000fish | November 10, 2014

Return to Salt River

Dateline: March 10, 2014 – Salt River, Arizona

Martini warned me not to look. But I looked.

But wait, I hear you say. There was never a Salt River blog in the first place, so how can we be returning there? This is what I like to call “editorial magic.” This is when I botch something really badly and don’t report it to you until I have gotten it right. It’s not an ego thing – I’m just trying to respect your time. Or it’s an ego thing. I forget which.

The destination this time was the Salt River in Arizona, where, in mid-2013, the Arostegui clan had caught two species of suckers – and of course, set records on both of them. In November of 2013, Martini and I paid a visit to the same spots, hunting for the same fish, but the results were unfortunately not as successful.

This is exasperating fishing. Exasperating. On the drive from the airport, Martini tried to warn me it was going to be exasperating, but I paid no heed. He especially warned me not to look at the water as we walked up to our spot.

Of course, I looked anyway. “Holy $#@%” I said out loud. Martini said “You looked. You shouldn’t have looked. ” But I had. There were fish everywhere. In groups on the rocks. Cruising the surface and the midwater. Everywhere. Right out loud, I said something very stupid and downright offensive to the Fish Gods. “This should be easy.” Martini winced – he had been here before and knew how hard it was going to be. Just because they were there didn’t mean they were going to bite, but I hadn’t put this together yet.

Hours later, as it got dark, I shook my head and looked back on a day of utter failure – a truly ugly fall off the cliff of hubris. I had seen hundreds and hundreds of suckers. I had eased bait within millimeters of their little snouts, and I had been ignored like I was trying to give Miley Cyrus good advice.

Martini caught a couple of suckers, because he is a good angler and because he did not upset the Fish Gods.

Salt Duo

One of Martini’s fish. I was smiling because I at least got to touch a fish.

As the sun set, wild horses came down to the water to drink.

Salt Horses

But they couldn’t drag me away.

I was completely aghast as we plodded through the twilight to the car. “What the $%#&?” I asked. Martini responded “I warned you.” I countered “But there were hundreds of fish.”

Salt Sunset

The Arizona sun sets on my dignity.

“I warned you. I WARNED YOU!” he continued into a Scottish accent like Tim the Enchanter from Holy Grail berating the knights who survived the rabbit attack. “But oooooh no, you wouldn’t listen to me …”

Salt Tim

John Cleese as Tim the Enchanter. This is culturally important.

“What the %#^.” I mumbled, to no one in particular. The conversation went on like this for most of the evening, including our dinner at a spectacularly misplaced Falafel house in the middle of the Arizona desert.

We also had a spectacularly awkward moment at our hotel. We were staying at some sort of ranch, where city folks go and somehow get a kick out of doing chores and wearing chaps, and one of their greatest selling points was apparently their regionally famous “hearty cowboy breakfast.” When Martini and I were arranging our 5 am checkout so we could get fishing early, the ranch hand didn’t get it at first. He politely told us, in just the slightest cowboy twang, “But breakfast starts at seven.” Then he added “It’s a hearty cowboy breakfast.”

We politely explained that we really needed to leave at five. His face fell and kept falling. It was then we realized that we had hurt this man down the very core of his being. “You’re … (long moments of processing time) not going to make it to breakfast?” The only other person on earth who has ever been this disappointed would be Cousin Chuck’s wife, 90 seconds into their honeymoon. “But … but …” he stammered. “It’s a hearty cowboy breakfast. You work it off during the day!” He was proud of this breakfast, and he sounded almost, but not quite, ready to cry. Martini and I felt like bad people.

We excused ourselves as quickly as we could and left him in the lobby, still mumbling about “a hearty cowboy breakfast.”

The morning represented a fresh challenge. Our target would be the roundtail chub, an extraordinarily rare species that lives in a few isolated creeks in Northern Arizona. The main issue was whether we would able to reach the creek without a halftrack. The creek, you see, was at the end of some 15 miles – that’s 25 kilometers at today’s exchange rate – of “road” that hadn’t been maintained since Nixon was trusted. It appeared to be designed without motor vehicles in mind, and we had left our donkey at the hotel. (Long story.)

Salt Sign

How about “never maintained – EVER?” 

The only advantage of getting someplace that difficult to reach is of course that it was completely unspoiled beauty. We had reached a perfect, aqua blue creek in the far reaches of the high desert. There are very few places like left anywhere, and we took in the scenery for a moment and made sure not to dump any toxic waste. (Despite breakfast at Denny’s.)

Salt Fossil

The nameless mountain creek, northern Arizona. It was almost worth the drive. 

Salt Creek 2

They do this without chlorine.

At first, no fish were in evidence. After about 30 minutes of fruitless angling, I began to get that horrible feeling I get when I have just driven 15 miles on an alleged road and there are no fish. But we kept at it, and finally, a small, silvery shape shot out from under the bank and grabbed my tiny jig. I flipped it up on the bank and took a quick photo – I had just added one of the rarer species I would ever catch.

Salt Headwater

The roundtail chub. 

Just as I released mine, Martini hooked up. Suddenly, the chubs were everywhere. They had apparently stayed in tight cover until the water temperature got to their liking, then they came out all at once. I cast again and got one, resulting in the photo below, which, to species hunters, is extraordinary. To everyone else, it’s two unattractive men holding small fish.

Salt Double

This may be the only picture in existence of two anglers with roundtail chubs.

Salt Scenery

We got to enjoy this scenery at very low speeds.

We called the day a success after another hour or so, and began the long ride back to Phoenix and the flight home. I was pleased to get the chub, but still aghast about the suckers. Martini texted me as his flight took off – “I warned you.”

Fast forward four months and about ten inches of water level in the Salt River. I had a business trip to Phoenix in March, and I was determined to make good on the sucker species. I flew in to Arizona in the morning, got a car, and was out at the scene of my humiliation well before lunch.

Peering down from the bluffs, it was clear there was more water in the river than there had been in November. There was nice flow at the head of the pool, which hadn’t been the case before, and local rumor has it that the fish bite better when the water is moving. The fish were still everywhere, although I made a point of not looking at them as I walked along the bank to my first spot.

Salt Pool

I closed my eyes while I took this photo. If you look closely, all of the dark shapes in the middle of the river are suckers. And they were a lot denser further down the pool.

With what passes for great stealth on my part, I crept up to the bank, keeping as low a profile as I could, and cast into the mass of fish. Breathlessly, I watched the worm slowly drift through the groups, and sadly, I watched the fish ease away as the offering came near them. Would it be an ugly repeat of November? Just then, a Sonora sucker swam across the riffle with great purpose and slammed the bait. I was so surprised I was very late on the hookset, but the Fish Gods were merciful and I had a fight on my hands. A few moments later, I netted a beautiful Sonora, a new species, and, at three and a quarter pounds, a new world record – #94.

Salt Sonoroa

Now that’s a way to start the trip.

It was a very different experience than last November. The Sonoras bit quite reliably, and I got several more as the afternoon went on.

Salt Big Sonora

All the rest of them seemed to be exactly 3.24 pounds.

Salt Sonora Mouth

But aren’t they adorable?

So the Sonoras were cooperative, but as the afternoon progressed, it occurred to me that the desert suckers had remained elusive. I sight cast, and sight cast, and sight cast, moving baits right on to their noses, but they wandered off with stunning indifference. I have only seen that level of indifference from one other animal – Rossi, the Arostegui’s cat, when I try to pet him.

I moved all along the bank, and there was no shortage of targets, but they all ignored me. I had gotten quite cynical about the whole thing, but stubbornly continued dropping baits in front of their upturned little noses. Around four, I was lowering a piece of worm on to the snout of a fish just a yard or two off the bank, when it suddenly decided it was hungry and pounced on the bait. I almost fell over in surprise, which was sufficient to set the hook, and I had a delicate fight on my hands as I had left the net upstream. I finally landed it in a shallow pool, and then had a moment of drama as I got out my Boga grip and weighed the fish.

It was exactly one and three-quarter pounds. The world record was exactly one and three-quarter pounds. I had tied it, which counted as record #95, and I would be sharing this record with none other that Dr. Marty Arostegui.

Salt Desert

The lone desert sucker. I was ecstatic.

I fished until late in the day, satisfied and in a bit of disbelief.

Salt Clouds

The sun goes down over the desert. And this time, there was no one yelling “I warned you!”

I had checked off two more species on my lift list. More importantly, I had added two world records – numbers 94 and 95. Now it was seeming possible. I needed to get five more before August 15 to get the Lifetime Achievement this year, and I had a big trip to Asia coming up in April. It had taken two forays out to the Arizona desert, but I had transcended my own hubris and caught the suckers.

And the next time Martini tells me not to look, I won’t look.

Steve

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 1, 2014

The Worst Valentine Ever

Dateline: February 28, 2014 – Bujama Mala, Peru

I’ve had some questionable Valentine’s dates over the years, but none more so than in Beijing on February 14, 2005. Nic was not only surly and unattractive, he even stuck me with the check. It took him nine long years to redeem himself, but half a world away, in February of 2014, Nic, although not much of a fisherman, managed to organize an unexpected gem of a fishing weekend.

Peru Beijing

Steve and Nic outside the Forbidden City, February 14, 2005. 

Nic has been a friend of mine for a long time – we have worked together for something like 15 years. A former US Marine and current IP lawyer, Nic speaks something like nine languages (four of them English) and has been to more countries than I have. He’s the closest thing I know to an international man of mystery, even if he’s more suited to International House of Pancakes.

Our adventures, most of which cannot be repeated here for reasons relating to good taste, are the stuff of sad legend, and in one unfortunate incident, we were mistaken as a Valentine’s day couple in Beijing. Before you start rewriting Brokeback Mountain, here is what happened: We had been sent to Beijing for business on very short notice. Bleary-eyed and crazed with hunger, we went into the first American-looking restaurant we saw, which happened to be an Outback Steakhouse. In our jet-lagged stupor, we had forgotten it was Valentine’s day, and when we requested a table, the staff couldn’t stop giggling at the two six-foot unshaven Americans. We made them take down all the flowers and balloons.

Peru Ick

Nic and Steve, Buenos Aires, 2014. I grant you we would not have beautiful children.

Nic was the son of a diplomat, and spent much of his teen years in Lima. Thus, when my South America business trip continued to Peru, he was a great source of local knowledge. One of Nic’s Peru-based employees, Jose Larranaga, is quite a keen fisherman, and it was Jose’s connections – Hector and Chris –  that made most of this trip happen. We’ll get to meet them about 500 words from now. So thank you Nic, but you can stop sending me cards every February 14.

Peru JAL

Jose Antonio and a couple of fine corvinas. 

The debacle in Brazil had put a damper on my enthusiasm. There is something about looking up at 20 feet of water that can discourage even the heartiest of breakfasts, but still, I was in Peru and I was going to make the most of it. If I could manage to catch a fish, I would reach the 80 country milestone – a level not reached by any smart person.

The serious fishing was planned for the weekend, but our first day in the office turned out to have the afternoon open.  What else was I supposed to do? Nic and I went to a restaurant right on the beach, had a beautiful ceviche lunch, then put Nic’s fluent Spanish to work with the busboy. He wrangled five fresh prawns, more than enough bait to explore the area for a few hours.

It was a pleasant afternoon, warm but not oppressive, a bit of breeze, and a calm sea. We lounged on the seawall, enjoyed the view of Lima, and I began casting. It was a bonus session – I hoped to catch something small and interesting, and put Peru on “the list.”

The fish came quickly, and while their size was yawn-provoking, the variety was not. I managed to scratch off four new species in just a few hours, which already made the trip more than worth it. I had added my 80th country; a journey that had taken me through 79 other countries and then this one. Nic and I enjoyed the afternoon, and revisited a number of stories, especially an unfortunate evening in Saigon, that are best left untold in case my nephew is reading this.

Peru Chalapo

Species #1 – the Chalapo clinid. These critters are called klipfish in South Africa and Kelpfish in the US. 

Peru Smooth

Species #2 – the smooth stardrum. Nic may be smiling now, but he was not so amused when he found his rear end had fallen asleep and he couldn’t get up.

Peru Minor

The minor stardrum. They are called this because they do not live to 18.

Peru Shortnose

The shortnose stardrum. I had never caught a stardrum species before, but now, I had three. Collect them all!

As the day went on, Nic made a beverage run back to the restaurant. I asked him to bring me a Red Bull. Nic has a strange sense of humor – hence the Valentine’s cards – and he couldn’t help himself here. As he walked back to our spot with a bag full of Red Bull and beer, he yelled, in perfect Spanish “¡Senor Wozniak, Yo he obtenido tus laxantes!.” Everyone stared at me. Nic smiled, and after about 15 minutes, he admitted that this meant “Mr. Wozniak, I have obtained your laxatives.” And he stuck me with the check at Outback. Why do I hire these people?

Peru Pier

Nic returns from the beverage run. Idiot.

Mercifully, we will not hear about Nic again until the last paragraph. That evening, Jose visited me along with Hector, and I got the pleasure of talking fishing with two professionals. Jose was heading for a family holiday, or he would have joined us, but Hector, who is both a tackle dealer and a guide, was a fantastic contact. Over some pisco sours, we talked shop well into the evening. It took some time to convince Hector that I would rather have two new species than one big corvina, but he seemed enthusiastic to help with my quest.

Peru Corvina

Hector (on the right) with a corvina. Hector has perhaps the coolest name of any guide ever – Hector Garcia de los Heros. If you’re planning to be in Lima, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him. 

After work the next day, Hector picked me up at the Westin and drove us to Pucusana, a port town about an hour south of Lima. It was an after work thing, so we only had a couple of hours to fish, but this was new territory and anything could happen.

Peru Beach

The local beach – quite the hotspot. 

Pucusana is a small, colorful place, a working harbor on the edge of the desert. This is not a country big on planning. We simply showed up at the docks and found a local boatman who was willing to head out until sunset. The water was a touch sloppy, but after the perfect storm in Brazil, it felt like a bathtub. We slowly motored out to some rocky headlands, and started casting plugs and spoons after corvina. Corvina are the big game fish here, and this was the critter I hoped to catch the most.

Despite our efforts, no corvina were found, but I did spend about an hour dropping baits over some rocky dropoffs. I was rewarded with two more new species – the Cabinza grunt and the Valparaiso chromis – as well as the bewildered stares of the boatman. I don’t think Hector fully got it either, but he was thrilled that I was thrilled.

Peru Cabinza

The cabinza grunt. Yes, I was ecstatic.

Peru Chromis

The Valparaiso chromis. Another plain brown damselfish, but luckily, the only one in the area. 

Peru Sunset

Sunset at Pucusana.

We talked fishing the entire drive back to Lima – this guy really lives and breathes fishing 24 hours a day. Apparently, the very best fishing in Peru is off the beach for corvina and big flounder about 300 miles south of Lima – not a possibility for this trip but definitely a reason for a return visit.

The really big day of fishing came on the last day of the trip – an adventure south to Bujama Mala to meet Hector’s friend Chris, who has a boat and a lot of experience in that region. It would be a brutally full day, with a 4am wakeup call, a two hour drive, a full day of fishing, another two hour drive, and then an 11pm flight back to San Francisco.

Hector got me bright and early, and he may have been more excited to head down to Bujama Mala than I was. He positively loves to cast lures, and this is apparently a top spot. We filled up on gas station empanadas – the local version of UMF – and got to our destination just as it was becoming best not to be locked in a small car with each other.

Peru Hector Steve

Hector and I celebrate fresh air. 

Peru Beach 2

The Bujama Mala beach at dawn. A fantastic day awaited us. 

Chris was just as pleasant and enthusiastic as Hector, and we talked over the species he thought would be available and set up a basic game plan.

Peru Chris Hector

Chris and Hector as we head out to the islands. 

We worked our way over to some rocky cliffs, where the surge washed over a steep, boulder-strewn shoreline, and began tossing soft plastics into the white water. It reminded me very much of fishing Catalina Island for kelp bass, (details here) and little did I know that we were actually hunting for a close relative – the Peruvian rock bass. They were out in force. I got a bite on my first cast, then hooked up on my second. The fish ran hard back to the rocks, and for a moment, I regretted going with my lightest spinning rod. But the Fish Gods smiled on me, and I landed not only a new species, but also a world record. My 92nd world record, on a fish I hadn’t even known existed until I caught it. Eight to go.

Peru Bass

The Peruvian rock bass. At three pounds, this one was big enough to enter in the IGFA books. 

That would have been enough for the day, but we had many hours to go, and the fishing stayed solid all day. I checked off three additonal species – four for the day, which is pretty much epic for me. Action was steady and great fun, and there was the occasional big surprise thrown in, like a triggerfish on a #3 sabiki. Each new species was greeted with cheers and high-fives.

Peru Clinid 2

Peruvian clinid – second species of the day. 

Peru Pucusana

Oh yeah – it was also scenic. I keep forgetting that because I rarely look up from the water.

Peru trigger

This was quite a surprise on three pound leader. 

Peru Blenny

The giant blenny. This is the beast of the blenny world. 

The final species was another surprise. Both Chris and Hector had caught Peruvian morwongs – a colorful inshore fish reminiscent of California’s surfperch. I had just about given up on this one – there will always be at least one you don’t get – when I got a small one on a sabiki.

Peru Morwong 2

The Peruvian morwong. My Mother’s favorite color was orange, so she would have liked this picture, or at least the part with the fish.

Thrilled at the species, I kept fishing the area with a larger bait, and about half an hour later, got a bigger one, north of a pound. Several weeks later, after quite a bit of research, the fish turned out to be a world record. Number 93. Thank you Dr. Carvalho!

Peru Morwong 3

The bigger morwong. A lucky catch, even if it left me wondering where I was going to find seven more records. 

We fished until late in the afternoon. It was a calm and pleasant day, and the scenery, where desert meets ocean, was stark but beautiful. I knew I would be back. I had gathered up five records on the South America trip, as well as 15 new species. There were dozens more waiting for me, and Hector and Chris had been incredibly welcoming and generous. (And both now have credit as guides on two IGFA world records.)

Peru Chris Steve

Chris and I in front of his vacation house in Bujama Mala. 

Hector got me back to the Westin on time – what a fantastic day of fishing. I raced to shower and pack, and then, as I went through the lobby, there was an ugly surprise. Nic was there.

We had a quick drink before I headed to the airport. He’s not much of a fisherman, but he politely inquired as to my results and even more politely looked at the pictures. Jokingly, I told him “You’re forgiven for that Valentine’s Day in China.”

He looked me right in the eye and said “We’ll always have Beijing.”

“Shut up.” I replied.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE LLAMA SWEATER

Peru Sweater

My new favorite sweater. It has llamas on it. 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | October 24, 2014

The Brazilian Turtle Paradox

Dateline: February 24, 2014 – Praia do Forte, Brazil

I can’t say the turtles saved this trip, but at least they made me feel better.

My relationship with sea turtles is complicated. I will stop almost anything I am doing to watch one of these beautiful creatures swim by, but from time to time, we are also competitors, hunting the same waters. They are also outrageously cute, far more so than sea lions, so the risk of hooking one accidentally is something I take quite seriously, and when they show up on a reef, I usually will leave and let them frolic.

Salv Green

Your basic sea turtle. I did not take this picture. You can tell because there is not a fish in it. 

Salv Baby 2

Gratuitous cute baby turtle photo.

This makes what I am about to tell you all the more shocking. Of course, you all know that Jaime Hamamoto is a bad person who will stop at nothing in her vicious, competitive quest to catch more fish than me. But even I was shocked to discover, through apparently reliable if inexpensive sources, that Jaime not only fails to share my compassion for these wondrous creatures, but that she actually considers them a food item. That’s right – JAIME HAMAMOTO EATS SEA TURTLES.

Salv Jaime (1)

This fact is less verified than it is relevant, but I still think it is important for you all to know.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog. You will all of course recall my last fishing trip to Brazil – an unmitigated disaster in 2012. I didn’t end up naked, which is a plus (don’t click HERE) but that was just about the only upside.

After that debacle, the first person to console me was Dr. Alfredo Carvalho. Dr. Carvalho, who insists that I call him Alfie, is a world-class ichthyologist who has identified dozens of nearly impossible species for me. He takes it as a personal challenge to track down anything I send him, whether it’s from his back yard in Brazil or halfway across the world. It was Alfie who suggested that I try fishing in Salvador, where deep water is close to shore and there are a lot of species I have only seen in books, mostly the ones written by Alfie.

Salv Book

One of my favorite books ever, and it’s in Portuguese. 

Rio Carvalho

Dr. Alfredo Carvalho – the good-looking one on the right.

Two years later, in February of 2014, that I had another business trip to Brazil. I called Alfie and let him know I was coming, and he organized everything from there. We would go to Salvador, at Praia do Forte, and fish on a research vessel that chases deep water-species. The boat was owned by Projeto Tamar, a non-profit group established in 1980 which is dedicated to preserving sea turtles in Brazil. (www.tamar.org.br/)

It looked so good on paper. It would be a chance to re-establish some good feelings in my bumpy relationship with Brazil (Details here,) catch up with some old friends, and make some new ones. And there appeared to be a huge batch of species and world record opportunities. What could go wrong?

Of course, every time I ask that question, something goes terribly wrong.

We showed up at Praia do Forte on a Saturday morning. It was a a beautiful, palm-studded piece of tropical paradise, with the Projeto Tamar facility right on the water. The station itself is quite a tourist attraction, with beautiful displays of sea life and conservation programs. Alfie made me promise not to fish in the aquariums.

Salv Beach

This picture is deceptive – this is the only calm corner of a small harbor. 

Salv Hotel

The view from my room.

At the station, Alfie introduced me to his good friend, Guy Marcovaldi. Guy is the Director of Projeto Tamar, and he is about the best friend a Brazilian sea turtle could have.

Salv Tamar

Guy Marcovaldi with one of his fans.

Salv Group

Guy at the office. 

He and his wife have spent much of their lives heading conservation efforts for these gentle creatures, and in the last two decades, the group has released over eight million hatchlings into the wild.

Salv Babies

Hatchlings head for the sea. There is nothing cuter than a baby turtle.

Salv Gisele

Well, maybe one thing. Yes, that’s Gisele Bundchen, well-known offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.

How could Jaime eat these gentle creatures?

As I had flown in the night before for some business meetings, things had looked great, but I wasn’t staying right on the coast, so I didn’t notice that it was really, really windy. I was also unaware that it had been really, really windy for the better part of a week, and the seas were pushed up to a positively gigantic state. Oops.

This was guaranteed seasick weather – big waves, some up to 20 feet – plus solid wind to push the boat in all sorts of nauseating directions. The heavy current would also be almost impossible to fish in anything but very shallow water – the drift would be fast enough to troll for wahoo, and I’ve already caught those.

Salv Waves

Yes, we went out in this crap. Did you expect anything else?

But I was here, and Guy and the crew were game to go. The Projeto Tamar interns take turns working on the boat – they were a great bunch of college kids, mostly Brazilian with one American thrown in. We loaded on the Teahupoo, which is Portuguese for “barf until you touch land,” and headed off into certain frustration.

Salv Teahupoo

The Teahupoo. We were on the boat for five hours, although most lunches stayed onboard for less than two.

About a mile out, we bucked our first 15-footer. Then it got worse. One by one, the crew went rail bunny. I began getting major-league nauseated – the kind of feeling you get when the Tigers turn over a one-run lead to their bullpen. About five miles out, which took the better part of an hour, we were over some modest 300-foot reefs and set up to try our luck.

Guy never stopped smiling and he tried his level best to get me some fish. He tried to time the swells and power the boat to match the drift, but it was a confused sea and even with two pounds of weight on my line, I barely hit the bottom and was scoping out line to a difficult angle. We were bouncing 10-15 feet with every wave, and just hanging on was work.

I caught one fish – a wenchman snapper – which I had unfortunately caught previously. I knew there were deeper reefs positively loaded with new species, but there would be no way to reach these until the conditions improved. I was anguished – another feeling I get when the Tigers turn over a one-run lead to their bullpen.

Salv Snapper

The fish of the day. I thought this photo was horizontal when I took it. 

We got back in the late afternoon, shaken but thrilled to be in one piece. Sure, I was disappointed that the fishing wasn’t any better, but this was up to no one but the Fish Gods, who hate me. Evening featured a pleasant dinner back at the hotel – me, Alfie, and the owner, a Swiss national who had moved to Brazil many years before. A caipirinha or two improved my attitude, but I also knew the seas weren’t going to be appreciably better in the morning. We spoke well into the evening, and Alfie assured me that even if it wasn’t on this trip, Brazil held a lot of species for me in the future. His knowledge was positively amazing – I had gone from wanting to never visit Brazil again to realizing I could fish a lifetime here and still not get all the good spots.

Salv Carv

Well into a beautiful tropical evening. And yes, I went and fished the harbor until the middle of the night.

In the morning, Alfie and I wandered over to the lagoon in town. I had no idea what could live in there, but I love coming in to a new place and seeing what I can figure out. I had my two “go to” baits with me – shrimp and white bread. It was a lovely morning, and it was a relief to be on solid ground.

Salv Lagoon

Praia do Forte lagoon. It’s calm.

I suspected that I would catch tilapia, which have apparently been placed in every body of water worldwide through some dark conspiracy, likely involving Jaime. (Who eats sea turtles.) Tilapia irritate me because they are nearly impossible to tell apart, and just as I was working myself up into an anti-tilapia frenzy, I caught something that astonished me. I got a pacu, and a new one at that.

Salv Pacu

A type of pacu, and a new species. Suddenly, my attitude improved.

We fished a while longer, enjoying the scenery and chatting about other Brazil locations. When then had lunch and, with stubborn resignation, headed to the Teahupoo. The rest of the afternoon almost, ALMOST made me forget the sea conditions.

We motored out again, with a group of doomed-looking interns, and while the waves had gotten more predictable, we were still looking at ten-foot seas. I caught two fish, and one of them made the trip worthwhile – although I didn’t know this for sure until two months later. The first fish, pulled up out of 400 feet after a stiff fight, was a beautiful queen snapper.

Salv Queen

I had caught them before, but it was nice to have something dignified for a photo.

Then I got something weird. It would have been great to describe a dramatic fight here, but the plain truth is that I didn’t even feel the bite. We were pitching up and down so hard I was more concerned with hanging on, and it was only in the last 50 feet of reeling that I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was something small and undramatic in the line, perhaps a fish, perhaps a plastic bag. I flipped it up onto the deck – it was some kind of dogfish. I couldn’t examine it too closely, because if I looked down for very long, I was going to get sick.

Salv Cuban

The nondescript dogfish. Note the excitement from the deckhand in the background.

In the next two months, we struggled with an identification, but finally, after Herculean efforts from Dr. Carvalho and Martini Arostegui, the creature was pinned down as a Cuban dogfish. It was not only a new species, but it also solved a four year-old mystery on another ID, so it really counted for two. Best of all, it was a world record, because everyone else who had ever caught one had more shame than I did. I had stumbled in to world record # 91. Nine to go.

We spent the evening having a lovely queen snapper dinner, and I said goodbye to Alfie, who headed back to Sao Paulo.

The next day, I of course got up early and fished the harbor reef for a few hours, just to see if I could scrape up one more species. I worked my way through dozens of plain brown damselfish, and as I reached the end of the reef and was about to go in for lunch and my flight back to Sao Paulo, something cool happened.

There, right in front of me, was a sea turtle, just resting in the sun.

I spent about 10 minutes just looking at her, thinking about the improbability of her survival to get to this spot, and thinking about how amazing it was that all of the people at Projeto Tamar had come together to help these animals. (Even though lots of other people had done irresponsible things that had made this all necessary in the first place.) And the whole idea left me with some hope for humanity, except for Jaime, which made me feel better.

Steve

Salv J 2

No sea turtles were actually harmed in the making of this blog.

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

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