Posted by: 1000fish | July 2, 2020

Spring Training

DATELINE: NOVEMBER 4, 2019 – SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH

The stupidity of others sometimes has unintended good consequences. For example, the Detroit Tigers personnel moves, although competitively tragic, have caused celebration in Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City. The same might apply to some of our western hot springs. They used to be a destination for a few locals to go swimming, but over time, for reasons I have yet to understand, a group of reasoning-challenged people have been dumping aquarium fish in them. Some springs are practically overrun with tropical oddities – witness the isolated Idaho pothole Martini and I visited a few years back.

Though this must be confusing for the fish and certainly can’t be good for the environment, there is nonetheless opportunity in having a variety of unusual fish relatively close to hand. In this case, the unusual fish were in Utah, in a couple of springs on opposite ends of the state, but that’s what road trips are for. Every road trip needs a partner, and in this case, the road partner and indeed the person who found all the fishing spots was Mr. Gerry Hansell, who you may remember from “Ben and Gerry.” He has become such an expert on these western springs that he risks being nicknamed Gerry Springer, but I am guessing Gerry has never seen an episode of Springer, so the joke would be wasted.

Gerry and his beastly sauger from 2018.

Interestingly, or not, I actually saw “Jerry Springer, The Opera” in London’s west end in 2004. It was an epic evening with a co-worker buddy who had never been to London, so we did my famous four-hour running tour, still caught a show, and then it got weird so we’ll leave it at that.

I even got the t-shirt.

Fishing trips like this are usually planned with very little notice, and Gerry and I both have jammed schedules, so I was thrilled that it worked out. Gerry flew in the night before me, so he could take a morning crack at some Bonneville cutthroat. (Which I am pleased to report he caught.)

A lot of these trout sub-species look starkly different from each other. I am hoping Martini will get them all declared full species, so I can add a bunch of new ones from the couch.

My flight landed late morning. Gerry and I connected at the airport, and we set off on a two-hour drive to the Utah/Nevada border. This took us through at least an hour and 45 minutes of salt flats, a place where people seem to like to drive cars very fast and die in spectacular crashes. There are not a lot of more desolate locations on earth, but it does have a certain beauty.

Miles and miles without so much as a Burger King,

The spring in question was supposed to contain “Giraffe cichlids,” a Lake Malawi wonder that has always fascinated me. I just thought the name was cool. There were also supposed to be Jack Dempseys, and I am downright tired of not catching Jack Dempseys. Everyone else has caught one. I figured it had to be time.  When we approached the spring, it was hard to miss the fish – there were hundreds of them concentrated on a couple of small rockpiles. We each picked an opening in the reeds and set to it, casting bread and the red worms that Gerry had brought all the way from Chicago. He thinks of everything.

The water was gorgeous.

You have to give the guy credit for planning out every single detail, one of the reasons he is a senior executive in the consulting world. Gerry only began his species quest in earnest a few years ago, when he decided to wipe his slate clean and start over with a strict set of catch and ID rules. He has the engineer’s outlook on everything, whereas I approach fishing more like a demented artist. It’s like putting Linus Pauling and Jackson Pollock in a car together with six beers and some finger paints, but somehow, the partnership works.

The lake was jammed with African jewel cichlids, and these would not stay off the micro hooks.

Fish are only beautiful the first 100 times you catch them.

We could see some larger shadows a bit off shore, so we both worked more substantial baits in that direction. The very first fish from the deeper water was the intended cichlid – a gorgeous little thing. Apparently these are females or juvenile fish – large males have a bright blue head.

That was species 1900, if you’re playing along at home.

The triumphant anglers.

I seem to have shared quite a few of these milestones with good friends, and this was a special one. I was 100 fish from 2000, if I’m doing that math correctly. It was nine years and change ago, on a chilly fjord in Norway, that #1000, a coalfish, came over the rail. In an ill-advised frenzy of enthusiasm, I immediately set a public goal of 2000 for myself, and I have been trying to live up to that ever since. It’s been a long and amazing journey, marked not so much by the fish but by the friends I have made and places I have seen along the way, but I also knew the next 100 were going to very hard. I figured that I could get it done by the end of 2020, just so long as there wasn’t, I don’t know, a pandemic or something.

The next few fish were tilapia, genus Oreochromis, the most widespread form of life, not just on earth, but in the universe. I guarantee you that when that flying saucer actually lands in Roswell, the first thing off it is going to be a tilapia, and probably some kind of unidentifiable hybrid. After the third or fourth one, I had a closer look – the two main Oreochromis species, the Blue and Nile tilapias, are fairly hard to tell apart, but one of the characteristics is supposed to be vertical bars in the tail. This fish had vertical bars in the tail. Looking back at my catalog of tilapia photos, I found several others that resemble this, and I was finally comfortable counting both species. I am sure someone is going to poop on this ID. Let’s party. I’m on lockdown, Marta is on another four-hour conference call, and I have absolutely nothing better to do right now.

The tilapia in question.

We also brought in quite a few red devils – action was non-stop for the next few hours.

A red devil. I caught my first one in Hawaii with Wade and Jamie.

Then it was then back into the car for three hours to Provo, where we set up for the night at some form of Marriott. Everyone working at the hotel, the restaurant, and the convenience store was young, blonde, polite, and had perfect teeth. There were no bars or clubs open, the streets were quiet and safe – it was like a town full of Stepford children, minus the cutlery.

The next morning, we drove two hours south through towering mountain scenery to yet another spring. It was unsettling to be looking at snow-covered mountains while fishing for tropical whatsits, but as soon as I saw the water, non-fishing thoughts left my head.

Meadow Hot Springs.

It was gorgeous, clear blue, deep, and positively stuffed with fish. The banks teemed with what looked like mollies and jewel cichlids, but there were some very large shadows that eased out to the deeper water as soon as we poked our heads up.

I often get overwhelmed by the pure variety involved in such a place. There were several species right in front of me I hadn’t gotten – mollies, yellow cichlids, the &%#$ Jack Dempseys, plus the bigger stuff. I had no idea what to do first. Gerry, on the other hand, approached things with a plan. He was going to fish a micro hook for so long, then a bigger rig for so long, etc. – and he set an alarm on his watch to remind him. And he stuck with it. I was impressed, but my brain would explode if I tried something like this.

Gerry gets stealthy. I didn’t try this, for fear of not being able to get back up.

I started micro-fishing and discovered the place was lousy with convict and jewel cichlids.

Beautiful, yes. But pestilential. They may have evolved from locusts.

There were definitely Jack Dempseys, but it was almost impossible to present to them without a jewel cichlid crashing the party. This was deeply troubling to me, but after some persistent sight fishing, I managed to get a molly (either shortfin or a Mexican) and an Electric Yellow cichlid on the hook.

The electric yellow cichlid. It may glow in the dark.

A molly. God knows which one. These things hybridize like drunk teenagers.

These were species 1902 and 1903. My grandfather, on my Mother’s side, was born in 1903. Al Cloutier – “Gramps” – was one of the funniest men I have ever met. Anything we didn’t like to eat tasted like, and I quote, “Sour owl vomit.” (Which could only be obtained from sour owls.) Gramps taught me the game of baseball and was still playing catch with me into his 70s. He taught me to blame unfortunate noises on ducks and the joy of “pull my finger.” I miss him still.

Al and Ruth Cloutier, my Mother’s parents, circa 1985.

I couldn’t leave the big fish alone for long, and I finally pulled away from the micros to set up a bigger “blind” rod to soak a suitable bait. The first two worms got nipped apart by the small stuff, but on the third try, I caught a nice little redhead cichlid.

I had gotten this species before, in Miami with Marty Arostegui and Alan Zaremba.

The next bite on the big rod was more substantial, and I found myself in a pitched battle with something that tried to run up under the sharp ledges and break me off. I managed to wrestle it out (always use a reasonably heavy fluoro around rocks) and could see it was a decent fish. My guess was tilapia, but as it got closer I could see it was something else. I landed the fish, and it took me a moment to figure out it was a big Oaxaca cichlid – not only a new species, but also, at 1.25#, a world record.

This is why I always have a certified Boga and a measuring tape handy, even in the bathtub.

That’s #206 if you’re playing along at home.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get a Jack Dempsey, and I’m not going to say any more about that. For what is supposed to be a ravenous little cichlid, they are starting to act a lot like spearfish.

Gerry even had an alarm for when to leave, and any of you who have tried to get me out of a fishing spot know how well that went over. We headed north, and checked out a few spots in the greater Salt Lake area, looking for Utah Suckers and other beasts rumored to be around. But Steve, I hear you say. We all know you already caught a Utah Sucker, in the “Audible” blog episode from 2015. True, I would reply, but the world record for the Utah sucker is very doable, and nothing would delight me more than to break Kyle’s record, to get even with him for all the farting.

Gerry and I had dinner at PF Chang’s, which is great because I can’t get Marta to eat there. (Oh, what I would give to go out to dinner somewhere, anywhere right now.) During the evening, both of us had work emergencies pop up, which is par for the course, so we would have a very short window to fish in the morning.

To keep it brief, we froze out butts off and caught no new species. Gerry did get a few beautiful brown trout, but that was it for the spot.

Beautiful fish, but it was COLD.

I then dropped Gerry off at the airport, and, looking at my watch, figured I had just enough time to take a shot at a mountain sucker. Chris Moore, a friend I met through Ben Cantrell, offered me a spot that was supposed to be full of them, but he warned me that he had spent hours there without a bite. Indeed, the mountain sucker has a reputation as a soul-crushing fish. I figured I had nothing to lose but my pride, and me worrying about losing my pride is like Telly Savalas worrying about losing his hair. I lost the last shreds of my fishing dignity in Sepitiba, Brazil, on May 3, 2010.

Where mountain suckers can be found, which isn’t often, they are usually in numbers. As a non-scientist, my theory is that they form large aggregations to not feed. Friends of mine who are competent fishermen, and Spellman, have spent hours presenting to them with no luck. Of course, Martini caught one, but he is, after all, one of the better anglers on the planet, and a scientist. What chance do the rest of us have?

At least the views were beautiful.

Martini’s mountain sucker catch, in June of 2013, also led to one of our most beloved pieces of wall art – a print Martini sent me of an underwater photo he took of them. That was the last sucker species he had caught that I haven’t, but many of this family on my list are only there because I was fishing with Martini in the first place. (Witness his gifting me a spotted sucker.) Interestingly, Martini wrote a scientific paper on the mountain suckers he observed – you can read it HERE. (Bear in mind that I have gotten as far as two sentences into one of his papers before I found a word I didn’t understand. This paper eliminates the drama by using “Lacustrine” as the very first word*.)

The print. It’s allowed in the house. My IGFA awards aren’t. Go figure.

I walked out to the creek that Chris had recommended, and it didn’t take long to find the fish. Each little pool had a few dozen of them, sunning on rocks, swimming slowly around, or nestled down in fallen leaves. I tied up a micro hook and tiny split shot, baited with a fleck of redworm, and crashed stealthily down the bank to have my heart broken. It brought back terrible memories of approaching the line of disinterested girls at a junior high dance. The first fish behaved according to the book – he completely ignored me, even when I lodged the bait right up against his snotty little nose. The second fish was cruising around and appeared to be grazing on algae. I eased the worm into his path. He worked around it for a moment, then backed up and ate it. I was so stunned that I didn’t set for a long moment, but when I did, I vaulted the surprised creature over my head on to the bank. I had gotten my mountain sucker, and I had gotten it in less than five minutes.

What’s the problem here? Of course, every fisherman who is reading this and is annoyed at me has probably caught a Jack Dempsey.

I had gotten species 1904, which would be my last one of what had been a very productive 2019. December was a blur of bad Christmas party outfits and dozens of holiday specials on TV, which is how it should be, and I looked forward to 2020, and the possibility of reaching 2000 species and then setting a more reasonable next goal, like 2001.

I got on a flight that afternoon, taking it completely for granted.

Flying out over the Great Salt Lake.

Flying in over San Francisco. Our house is somewhere on the lower left side of the mountain. 

Even as I got on that plane, people half a world away were already falling ill with a mysterious respiratory infection. My flight was probably late, and I was probably disproportionately annoyed, but oh what I would give to be flying anywhere right now.

Steve

* It means “In a lake.” It comes from an ancient Bulgarian word for “scrotum.”

Posted by: 1000fish | June 16, 2020

The Argentine Hat Trick

Dateline: October 17, 2019 – Mar del Plata, Argentina

For those of you without violent hobbies, a “hat trick” is when an individual hockey player scores three goals in one game. You who have seen me play hockey will be surprised to learn that I have actually scored a few hat tricks over the years. (Sean Biggs can bear witness to the very first one, in a Bantam playoff game in 1978.) As my career has gone on, most of my three-goal games have been limited to when the other team’s goalie didn’t show up, so the one you will read about below caught me by surprise.

It is a violation of the species hunting ethos to make a long trip in pursuit of a single species, but I did just that in this case. This past February, I had gone to Mar del Plata, Argentina, obsessed with catching Argentine Seabass, Wreckfish, and especially Argentine Sand Perch. As covered in “La Costa Dramamina“, it was a great trip. Despite horrible weather, we ended up with eight species and five world records, but alas, one of those species was not the sand perch. So I had to go back, because I WANTED THAT FISH.

This particular obsession began on November 23, 2001. I was fishing in Quintay, Chile, and caught a fish the locals called a “rollizo.”

The Chilean Sand Perch.

That night, we were had dinner with some friends, one of whom was Argentinean. He mentioned that the “rollizo” in Argentina get positively huge. (Argentina is the Texas of Latin America – everything is bigger there.) I researched this claim, and discovered that there was indeed a sand perch in the South Atlantic that grows well north of 30 pounds. For two decades, the fish stayed  on my wish list, until February, when I spent two days watching a deckhand puke and still didn’t catch the creature. Challenge accepted.

As I prepared for my second round with the beast, I kept a very close eye on every available weather resource. Surely, it could not get worse than it did in February, when we were blown out over half the time. For weeks, the forecast looked bumpy but fishable. As the big day got closer, the weather kept shifting more toward bumpy and away from fishable, but I also knew I needed one window, maybe six hours, to get my fish. I crossed my fingers and maintained my normal malignant optimism. (Which my therapist calls “denial.”)

The drive down was fast and easy, courtesy of Ruben Gimenez, who had taken me up to BA last year.

That’s Ruben – if you ever need a ride in this area, email me and I’ll connect you.

Sunset on the way down to Mar del Plata – we got there in less than four hours.

It’s much easier to drive than fly if you’re carrying any luggage, and I travel with a lot of fishing gear. I got to Mar del Plata in the early evening, and still had time to have a nice Italian meal in my hotel and put all my gear together. Then I just had to wait and see what the weather would do. Mariano and Franco both texted me throughout the night,

Mariano de la Rua and a friend. You can find him on https://www.aquafish.com.ar/.

Franco DeLeonardis. There is no better deckhand.

While the Friday and Saturday were starting to look bad, the day in question – Thursday – was a go. The tide was a little later, so we didn’t have to leave at sunrise, but there was no way I was going to sleep that well anyway.

The view from my room on Thursday morning.

The group gets together. From left, that’s Steve, Franco, Daniel, and Mariano. Nice hat on Franco, and yes, Marta, he’s good-looking. Stop asking if I have more pictures of him.

Heading out to sea.

We ran about two hours, perhaps 10 miles further than we had been able to go last February. I enjoyed the relatively smooth ride, and Mariano was supremely confident that there were sand perch down there. Now it was all up to the Fish Gods. I set up a big dropper loop rig with a hefty cut bait, lowered it down about 125 feet, and waited. For about an hour, we got a mixed bag of red porgy and a few Argentinean Seabass – steady, solid action.

The seabass – a member of the grouper clan.

Mariano moved reef to reef, and on perhaps the third one, I got crushed the moment my bait stopped. It was a tough fight, tight to the bottom, and it took a few minutes to get it away from the structure. Franco told me it wasn’t big enough to be a perch, and as it surfaced, I saw I had a big seabass – easily bigger than my world record from February.

The new world record Argentinean Sea Bass. At 7.75 pounds, it crushed my February mark.

That was a good start, but I was of course focused on the perch. We made a few more drops on the same reef, using large slabs of porgy and other cut fish as bait. About 10 minutes later, one of the rods I had put in a holder slammed down and started spooling out line. I grabbed it and set, and whatever it was, it was big and pounding hard. The entire crew gathered quietly behind me, and I didn’t need to be told it was a perch. Once I got it off the bottom, I backed off the drag and played it carefully, so it took a while, and the entire time, the crew was completely silent – it was just me, the fish, and the wind. I kept peeking over the rail, and after what seemed like forever, I could see color. Perch color. I walked up across the back of the boat and Franco made clean work of it with the net. I had my sand perch. Nineteen years had passed since I had first lusted for one, and finally, on an increasingly breezy Thursday in the South Atlantic, I had one.

The silence, needless to say, ended.

Do not put this in your pants.

Before I reset the rods, I weighed the fish. It was just over 11 pounds, which would not quite make the 50% of maximum for a world record. (A couple of resources say they reach around 30 pounds, so you would need a 15 pounder to qualify.) But I had the species, and that was the important thing. Of course, I also kept fishing, with a newfound respect for exactly how big and strong these fish were – easily the equal of our local ling cod. Was it worth the wait and all the travel? Of course it was. Whenever I actually have the fish in my hands, all is forgiven. This was also species 1899 for me, so my thoughts also turned to milestones – if I could scrape up one more oddball creature, I would hit 1900.

I set up and dropped another big cut bait, on my favorite Tsunami travel boat rod and an Accurate 870, spooled with 40# braid. I bumped it along the bottom – it was a fast drift but not impossible, and I was very grateful to have a day like this, even if I had to fly here twice to get it. Mar del Plata is a lovely little seaside town, and with the perch pressure off, I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of it. I began thinking of what sort of steak I would be getting that night, and so it caught me completely by surprise when something down there tried to murder my bait. I was barely able to set the hook, because it was only a split second between bite and a screaming run. I just held on and hoped it wouldn’t bury in the rocks. The Accurate can produce a lot of drag, and I was using a 60# leader, so I was confident enough to pull back hard. Franco guessed big perch, I guessed shark – it was that much bigger than the first fish. The fight went on for about 15 minutes. The fish was still making runs even when I had it well off the bottom, so I kept the pressure on and focused on making short pumps to keep it coming toward me. I had lost track of things until I felt the leader knot slip on to the spool, but then I started peeking over the rail. A shape emerged from the depths, substantially bigger than the first, but clearly a perch. Franco took one look at it, dropped the net, and picked up a substantial gaff. I backed off on the drag in case anything went wrong, but nothing went wrong. Franco flipped it up over the rail, and the reverberating thump it made on the deck told me I had a world record.

At 22 pounds, this would be world record #204. I have very few records that weigh more than 22 ounces, so this one was special.

I had now accomplished everything I wanted to do on the trip – anything else would be a bonus.

We stuck it out until late afternoon, landing a bunch more seabass, and one more perch that weighed a few pound less than the beast. At the end of a long day, we started steaming home, full of grins and random high-fives.

The team lines up in reverse. From left to right, that’s Mariano, Daniel, Franco, and Steve. Franco apparently turned his hat inside out.

As soon as we had cell signal again, we started checking the weather. It was not a pretty picture. The wind, which had originally been unappealing but fishable all weekend, had degraded into storm conditions. We were looking at 40+mph for the next two days. I breathed a sigh of relief that we had gotten out onto the water at all, and looked forward to dinner at Lo de Fran, where they made a brilliant, multi-course feast out of our catch.

The best seafood place in Mar del Plata, and that’s a high bar.

I forgot all about steak for a few hours.

We celebrated well into the evening, but by the time Franco had dropped me off back at my hotel, it was pouring. Always a light sleeper, I was awakened several times by rain driving against my window, and when I got up in the middle of the night and looked out, I couldn’t even see the shore.

This is what it looked like Friday morning.

Martini would call this “A little sloppy.” Marty would call this “Sailfish weather.” But I called it “Breakfast buffet in the hotel.” The weather had gone completely dreadful. There was no need to try to read a forecast – it was now, and it was bad.

Friday’s wind readings. Red and yellow are bad. Hell, even green is miserable.

As the morning wore on, it became clear that no one was taking a boat anywhere for a few days. Resigned to this, I began calling United and looking for an earlier flight home. But Mariano and company were not so easily defeated. After a substantial lunch at Lo de Fran, they invited me to rainsuit up and join them for some shore fishing in the harbor. It’s a rare guide who is as stubborn as I am, but these guys just don’t give up.

The harbor jetty where we froze our soggy butts for several hours. 

There were two fish captured during this adventure. One of them was a smallish whitemouth croaker, but the other was a surprise. Toward quitting time, I had what was only verifiable as a bite because I reeled in my rig and discovered a fish on the end of it. It was clearly an eel, and upon closer examination, I recognized it was an Argentine Conger – a species I had gotten in February. This one was slightly larger, and at Mariano’s suggestion, I weighed it. It was over a pound, and I had my third world record of the trip.

The beast.

A moment later, it hit me that I had gotten three world records in around 30 hours, and all of their common names started with “Argentine.” Hence, the Argentine Hat Trick, which I believe the IGFA should immediately recognize with a fancy patch and appropriate publicity. They could also venture out into other country-themed fishing trifectas, for example, a Brazilian codling, a Brazilian whitetail dogfish, and a Brazilian wax, which I would also qualify for, except that I didn’t do in 30 hours. I could do these all day – how about a Sacramento sucker, Sacramento perch, and Sacramento Blackfish? (As if anyone is ever going to catch a blackfish.)

Of course, every time I feel even slightly proud of a conger, I think back to my English friend Nigel’s personal best from the murky waters of the channel.

Nearly a hundred pounds of steaming perspective.

That was it for the fishing – the weather somehow managed to get even worse overnight. But I slept well, knowing that I had finally gotten my perch, and my Argentine hat trick. (Which didn’t even include a Greater Argentine, but aren’t they all?) Ruben picked me up the next morning, and we made our way through the showers up to Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires. United was on time, and I started the long trip home. Taxiing out to the runway, I could swear we passed my Gol flight from Sao Paulo, which was likely just arriving in Argentina, probably with the wrong luggage.

Steve

 

SPECIAL UPDATE – IGFA MEMBERSHIP EXTENSION

The IGFA recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping many of us off the water and unable to fully utilize the many benefits of an IGFA membership. During this challenging time, they are offering three free months as an IGFA Digital Member, with member benefits and exclusive angling content. (If you start right now, you might have just enough time to read through all the Arostegui family records.) You can sign up at https://igfa.org/join-igfa/. Feel free to email me at S_Wozniak10@Yahoo.com if you have any questions.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | May 20, 2020

The Jau of Steve

Dateline: October 13, 2019 – Entre Rios, Argentina

The main point of this trip was to get back to Mar del Plata and catch the Argentinean Sand Perch I had missed in February. But there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Mar del Plata, and even if there were, I don’t think my company would be very thrilled sending me to a resort town that has no customers nearby. (Never mind what the sales and marketing people do.) So I had several stops in Latin America before I got to the South Atlantic. The first of these was Sao Paulo, Brazil. I increasingly struggle for fishing ideas close to Sao Paulo. It’s an amazing town, especially if you’re single, but I have caught almost everything that can be caught within a day trip of downtown. Fish I mean. Get your minds out of the gutter.

My old contact Ian-Arthur Sulocki is never at a loss for ideas, and he steered me to a pond that was supposed to harbor some local cyprinids I hadn’t caught.

Ian-Arthur. Yes, he looks like John Travolta, and no, Cousin Chuck, you cannot have his Instagram.

Most notable among the fish he mentioned was the corimba, a bream-looking thing that rarely eats. Still, it was a shot. I connected with Dennis, my trusted driver in the area, and we headed to the Santa Clara ponds. There are very few places I go regularly that have big batches of new species available, so one or two targets is worth an afternoon if I’m in the neighborhood anyway. It was about an hour out to the pond, where we met the manager, Emerson.

We arrive at Santa Clara.

Despite the language barrier, Daniel managed to communicate my special needs, and Emerson did everything he could to find my fish. The corimba did not cooperate, but I kept busy catching all kinds of neat catfish. Sometimes it’s just nice to bend a rod, and the pond was stuffed with unusual species. The first thing I got was a “pintado” – a spotted sorobim. It took me years to catch my first one of these. I hooked and lost one in August of 1999, but it wasn’t until March of 2002 that I finally put one on a boat, on an otherwise miserable trip to Paraguay.

This is the sorubim. I would have traded my aunt for one of these in 1999. I still would.

An African Sharptooth catfish, quite a bit larger than the examples I caught in Ethiopia. That’s Emerson on the right.

Emerson doesn’t speak a ton of English, but my Portuguese is a disaster. I know the names of the best cuts of beef, my two favorite drinks, and, of course, all the fish. While Emerson and Dennis were chatting, one word grabbed my attention – “Jau.” A Jau is a monstrous catfish that lives in the Amazon, one of those special “short list” fish I have always lusted for. Emerson was asking if I had caught one. I used the universal signal for “no” – I said “No.”

It was also quite clear, either from my panting or my drooling, that I wanted to catch one very badly. Emerson smiled, and he and Dennis spoke at some length. It turns out that there is a special, private pond nearby that they have stocked with Jau and some other trophies, which is available only for select groups. Generously, he invited me over there for the rest of the afternoon. First, we had to gather the bait – two dozen one pound tilapia. This was an excuse to break out the light tackle and have some fun, and then we got in the cars and took a short drive. The new pond was gorgeous – set up for overnight camping and barbecues – and it was jammed with fish. Emerson threw a handful of feed into the water and it was immediately swarmed – you could say the fish were packed in there cheek by jau.

The rigging was impressive – 10/0 Octopus hook, 60 pound leader, 50# class jigging rod, and a Stella 8000 with 60 pound braid. We flipped live tilapia out against the far bank, and it was a bad day to be a tilapia. The redtail catfish were relentless, and my first dozen or so bites were pirarara.

It was awesome to get something pulling hard on my new Sportex jigging rod, (courtesy of old friend Jens Koller.)

As the tilapia started running low, I got a vicious bite and hookup. Whatever it was, it was strong, fought differently than the redtails, and didn’t want to meet me. It broke me off in the pillars of one of the patios. Emerson announced “Jau.” I was sick to my stomach. We had only a few tilapia left, and each of these, in turn, got eaten by a redtail. The only remaining bait was a ragged one that had semi-survived a redtail bite earlier in the day. I tried casting it and working it along the bank, and on the third toss, something picked it up and ran hard. I gave it about 10 yards and locked up, and the fish took off like Martini running from a Dairy Queen. I had screwed the drag down as tight as advisable and then some, and miraculously, the rod didn’t snap. The fish banged up against the structure, and I just kept yanking it out, fearing a breakoff at any moment. It finally took off into open water, and I started breathing again and backed off the drag. The fish was heavy, plowed into the bottom, and wasn’t a redtail. It took about five more minutes to get it close, and the water was murky enough where I couldn’t see the fish until they netted it.

Oh yes it was. That’s Daniel on the right – none of this would have happened without him.

They are designed to eat big stuff. Like noodlers.

It wasn’t a particularly big Jau – at around 40 pounds, it was less than half of the monstrous 109 pound world record.

Russell Jensen’s world record jau. For perspective, he’s not all that tall.

But it was a Jau, and this was a major triumph for me. I even forgot the corimba – briefly – and celebrated that night in Sao Paulo with an assortment of steaks and caipirinhas. I had a trip to the Amazon planned for this summer, but that will need to wait until next year now. I will be very happy to get a jau “in the wild” – this is always preferable in the Tao of the species hunter – but it was great to get it on the board. A huge thanks to Emerson and Daniel.

Emerson – all around superstar.

Sunset on the way back to the Hyatt Sao Paulo, which has the most neurotic maids this side of Germany.

I think she alphabetized my socks.

Buenos Aires was my next destination. It’s supposed to be an easy four-hour flight, and United wasn’t involved, so you would think I would be safe. But this was before I met Gol Airlines. Gol must be the global dumping ground for airline employees who are too incompetent, too rude, or too indifferent for even the low standards we expect. Gol’s breathtaking lack of operational and technical competence, combined with aggressively poor customer service, puts them light years behind any other carrier globally, including Air Yak. I grant you, there was a storm in Argentina, but other airlines somehow managed to get all of their aircraft through, even with some delays. But Gol took off, flew two hours south, then turned north again. I noticed the turn, and began asking the stewardess why we were heading away from Buenos Aires. She, and all the other flight crew I approached, responded with shifty-eyed evasiveness, even when it was clear we were approaching Sao Paulo again. When we landed and GOT TO THE GATE, the crew finally announced that we were “delayed” and directed us to get off the plane and get our bags. (Hint – if they make you get your bags, you aren’t “delayed.” You are “canceled.”) That was the last I heard of Gol. Their customer service lines were some 4-6 hours long, and the people who actually got to the front of it were given a warm bottle of water and told to come back in the morning.

Perhaps a touch more experienced than the average traveler, I went looking for another airline. Qatar Airways had a Buenos Aires flight that evening, and they treated me like an actual paying customer and got me there. There were two people who suffered through all this with me – the concierge at the Hilton Buenos Aires, and Oscar Ferreira, the fabled fishing guide, who was trying to get me out onto the Parana River the next day. The concierge was extraordinarily patient, and kept up with my ever-changing itinerary, until the moment I walked into the lobby, when he met me in person and handed me a Pisco Sour. (One of the great drinks in bartending history.) Oscar was equally patient through dozens of “it’s off again/it’s on again” texts, and he organized a day trip for us to hunt whatever would bite in the river delta above Buenos Aires.

Morning came quickly, especially because my dinner consisted of more pisco sours. Oscar planned to run about two hours north into Entre Rios and go after white sea catfish. Because very few people care about sea catfish, I actually have the world record on this species, but Oscar had seen some huge examples in the area, so it was worth a shot. From the moment he picked me up, it was clear the weather wasn’t going to cooperate – it was dark and blustery, a holdover from the storm that confused Gol so badly. Still, I was here, and a day fishing is a chance to catch something new, and I wasn’t going to miss it. It was a long run up to our spot, but the wind was at our backs, so we didn’t get beaten up too badly.

When we finally stopped and set up, I was encouraged by the fact there were a lot of boats there. We dropped big squid baits, and began drifting the channel edges. We got nothing. The other boats got nothing.

We got uncomfortably close to a couple of freighters who were avoiding boats illegally anchored in the channel. The Spanish word for someone who anchors in a channel is “Dumbass.”

I did what I always do in these circumstances – downsize. While we kept running one rod for the sea cats, I dropped a baited sabiki to see what else was down there. About an hour later, I got some bites, and finally hooked into a few yellow suckermouth catfish, a species I had gotten with Oscar in 2012.

We celebrate not getting skunked.

Do not put this in your pants.

This was progress, although the bigger fish seemed to be taking the day off. The wind picked up hard around noon, so we moved into some calmer sloughs and back channels.

Typical Entre Rios backwaters.

As my hangover waned, I began to notice that I was very hungry, and that the single bag of chips I had brought from the hotel minibar wasn’t going to cut it. There are no 7-11s in this part of the river. Oscar again saved the day, with an unexpected and lovely spread of cold cuts, cheese, and bread.

I began to feel human again.

More importantly, the bites picked up. For about two hours, we had constant action, with plenty of decent-sized fish to match up on light tackle.

One of the first catches was a solid South American catfish – a dignified version of the creature I got in Miami last year.

Imagine my surprise when I found out I would need one five times bigger to qualify for a world record. So it goes.

We got bogas, a few different catfish, small dorados, and a lovely jacunda that turned out to be a new species.

A moncholo amarillo catfish, not quite big enough to beat the record. I would love to break this record – the guy who has it is a JERK, at least according to Marta. Oh wait – I have the record.

The Pike Jacunda – species 1898.

Any day with a new species is a worthwhile day, and it was great to catch up with Oscar. I highly recommend him if you ever have a day free in the area. The ride back to port, however, was a challenge – the same wind that had pushed us north was in our face for two-plus hours, and it ended up like Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon – cold, wet, and nauseating.

Oscar and the Ichi Iana.

Still, we ended up safely back in El Tigre, and shortly thereafter, to the Hilton Buenos Aires, where another ill-advised Pisco Sour was waiting for me.

It didn’t wait long.

Then dinner with some of my Argentina co-workers, who kindly came out on a local holiday to eat with me. From left to right, that’s Max, Agustina, and Chris.  (Chris is Miami-based and runs all of Latam in my department. You can tell he is dynamic and fearless because he wore a white sweater to a steakhouse.) None of them are single, so stop asking.

Buenos Aires is a lovely, cosmopolitan town, often considered the most European in Latin America. In its heyday, it was positively stuffed with world-class restaurants and shopping. Argentina’s economy has struggled badly in the past decade, with triple-digit inflation and businesses collapsing faster than they can spring up, but it was reassuring that my favorite steakhouse, Las Nazarenas, is still there and still serves an amazing filet.

A pound of meat. This, and some sort of potato, is all the food pyramid I need.

This was the check. Thirty bucks – and this place is as good as any steakhouse in the USA. Not a bad idea for a vacation when we can travel again – the dollar is going to go pretty darn far.

After a few days of meetings in town, I would be heading to Mar del Plata for my rematch with the sand perch. Naturally, I started checking the weather. It couldn’t possibly be a disaster two trips in row, right? Especially when I was making a 14,000 mile round trip each time, right? Right?

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE FARLOWS HAT

The aforementioned Farlows hat.

Over the past year or two, I had gotten a number of questions on my Farlows hats, so I thought I would take a moment to explain. Farlows (https://www.farlows.co.uk/) is an amazing tackle store in Central London, a place I usually visit before getting to any other cultural stops, like the Imperial War Museum or my favorite Polish restaurant. Almost all of my European-style travel gear was purchased here, along with a number of my heavier travel setups – they are truly set up for the global angler. The staff is amazingly knowledgeable and has helped me with everything from my Atlantic Salmon to emergency pike lures when United sent my tackle to Nepal. Terrifyingly, they always remember me, which makes the place seem even more like home – sort of like Hi’s Tackle Box without Michelle’s vicious attacks on my haircut.

That’s Fred Richardson on the left, and Sam Edmonds in the middle. They have both sold me a lot of tackle, as well as the very hat that started this whole discussion.

I even took some of my employees there on a recent trip. At least Gary pretended to be interested.

And yes, we did go to some other points of interest. Interestingly, the building across the river on the right is the London Aquarium, which, in my defense, we did not visit, because we would still be there if we had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | May 5, 2020

Requiem for Dr. Fish

Dateline: April 26, 2020 – Honolulu, Hawaii

It is with great sadness that I report that Dr. Jack Randall, a true giant of the ichthyology world and one of the great heroes of my species hunting quest, passed away on April 26. He was 95 years old. Dr. Randall, who never let me call him Dr. Randall in emails – he was just “Jack” – described and named 830 fish species in his lifetime. That’s over 2% of all known fish, and that number will undoubtedly rise as the scientific community goes through his numerous papers that are still pending. In the taxonomy world, he is Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretzky rolled into one. Notice Tom Brady doesn’t get mentioned here, because all of Dr. Randall’s pufferfish were fully inflated.

Dr. Jack Randall – 1924-2020.

Jack at work. Yes, I’ve caught everything in the picture, except a diver.

My fish ID library is jammed with his books, and there aren’t nearly enough in there, so I just bought a few more.

The latest Randall book to join my collection. This one is sort of a romance novel, because that’s a Harlequin Tuskfish on the cover.

These are tomes, hefty “go-to” fish bibles for when you’ve caught some off-brand hogfish in the Maldives and it doesn’t fit anything in the tourist guides you buy at the airport. This is dorsal spine and anal ray counts, opercles and caudal peduncles, vomerine patches and premaxilla, and where VIII + I,20-22 actually means something. Dr. Jack Randall was the man who made me study and love science – something I spent my entire college career avoiding.

I know this one pretty much page-by-page.

By no means are these works of dry academia – many of the entries have hidden nuggets of humor. One of my personal favorites is in Reef and Shore Fishes of the Hawaiian Islands, under the Yellowmargin Moray – “Divers who repeatedly feed morays often have scars on their hands from feeding that did not go as planned.”

A yellowmargin moray from Kona.

Other remarks speak to the risks taken to document a species. The Undulated Moray account contains the following observation – “More prone to bite than most morays. (One I was trying to photograph underwater lunged out to bite my camera housing.)”

Martini with an Undulated Moray. It repeatedly tried to kill him.

I was first introduced to Jack’s works by Wade and Jamie Hamamoto.

A day so wonderful that even Jamie couldn’t ruin it.

We were on some perfect North Shore beach together, well into the evening, right about the time when Wade and I would start talking about pizzas. The conversation turned, of course, to fish. I asked about the differences between two flagtail species, and they both said, “You have to get Dr. Jack’s book.” I’m pretty sure they stuck a copy of it in my tackle bag the next morning, and I’m even more sure Jamie put a dead crab right next to it.

A few years later, I was stuck on a parrotfish ID, as many of us often are, because juvenile parrotfish are the next worst thing to tilapia for IDs. In a fit of desperation, I actually emailed Dr. Randall. This was the functional equivalent of asking Arnold Palmer for advice about the windmill on your local miniature golf course. But he responded. He responded quickly, set me straight on the ID, and opened up an occasional correspondence that went on for many years. Over time, as he retired and focused on writing his memoirs, he made sure to refer me to many experts in his network, such as Dr. Jeff Johnson, who is a superstar in his own right. Jack and I always talked about getting a drink when one of us was in the other’s neighborhood, but alas, time flew by and it never happened. I regret this as much as never seeing Roger Barnes play music.

In the time since I first opened one of Jack’s books, those books, plus the emails and correspondence with other academics Jack sent me to, have helped me identify 311 fish. That’s over 16% of my 1919 total species, tied to the efforts of one man. Of my 206 IGFA world records, 108 of them were identified with resources from Dr. Randall. I love to read these books – they are a source of inspiration for future trips, and are especially treasured now while we all can’t travel.

A record surge wrasse. I had initially thought it was a Christmas wrasse – Jack gently corrected the ID. 

Marta also will occasionally read the books. She especially enjoys the section on the red coronetfish, which, she reminds me almost daily, she has caught and that I probably will never catch.

Oh, how I hate this picture.

Thus, it does not always bother me as much as it should when she trips on the pile of Jack’s books I keep near the bathroom door. It happens in the middle of the night, when she stops snoring long enough to go take a Sudafed, but somehow thinks she is being redeemingly considerate by not turning on the light. I wait, and seconds later, we get the sound of a heavy book being kicked into the door by a curiously large foot and a loud “$%@&!!! WHO THE #%$& PUT THAT THERE??” I pretend to stay asleep and smile quietly in the darkness.

Marta’s first world record, a Peppered Moray, was also identified through one of Jack’s books. (And some detective work by Dr. Alfredo Carvalho.)

Did I mention I broke her record two days later? You can read the details in “The Eels of Justice.”

John Ernest Randall Jr. was born on May 22, 1924, in Los Angeles, California. He took an early interest in the ocean, and after a stint in the US Army during WWII, he graduated UCLA with a zoology degree in 1950*. In 1955, he earned his ichthyology PhD from the University of Hawaii. He held positions at the University of Miami and the University of Puerto Rico before returning to Hawaii in 1965. In 1967, he started working for the Bishop Museum and, though he officially retired in 2009, he continued to describe species – I would guess just for the fun of it.

Dr. Jack Randall.

In 1951, he married Helen Au, and she was his lifetime partner both at home and in the scientific world. She frequently assisted him on expeditions and with manuscripts. Helen’s commitment to her work can be summed up in single sentence from Reef and Shore Fishes of the Hawaiian Islands. “Helen Randall received a wound from the preopercular spine of this species in Moorea and experienced severe pain, indicating the presence of a venom.” In addition to his wife, Jack is survived by two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Through his entire career, he visited and dove hundreds of exotic locations, braved unknown and sometimes hostile wildlife, and established a career so legendary that he became known as “Dr. Fish.”

On Fishbase.org, they give “Randall” as the example in the author search.

Although he never sought out attention for himself, his accomplishments meant that the scientific community was going to recognize him. At the moment, there are at least 51 species — and two genera — that reference him. One of my favorites is Randall’s Snapper, which Captain Dale Leverone has caught and I haven’t.

At least Jamie hasn’t caught one.

I look at all of this, and I see a life well spent, a life that has inspired countless others, including myself, and a life that has made us all more aware of the wonders we know and have yet to know in our oceans. (If we can manage not to destroy them.) In his honor, I am setting a personal goal to catch at least 10 of the fish named after Dr. Randall. Whoops – I should have called him Jack.

Thank you and God bless you, Dr. Fish.

Steve

 

*Biographical facts in the sections above were pulled from the obituary written about Dr. Randall by Christie Wilcox of the Washington Post.

Posted by: 1000fish | April 15, 2020

Black is the New Redhorse

Dateline: September 12, 2019 – Poplar Bluff, MO

This type of fishing trip could land me in a lot of trouble. I had promised Marta a weekend getaway in St. Louis, where we could see a baseball game, get plenty of local cuisine, and finally fulfill her deep, lifelong desire to visit The Arch. But me being me, and recognizing that St. Louis is only a few hours away from Poplar Bluff, I made a pitch to squeeze in some fishing, for a day … or two … in what has become a rewarding and yet frustrating destination for me over the years. Southeastern Missouri has produced 29 species for me, and yet each time I have gone there, I faced unseasonable heavy rain, and many of my main targets – black redhorse, pealip redhorse, current darter, and the elusive blue sucker – remained uncaught. My luck had to change sooner or later. It just had to. (Stop emailing me explanations of how probability actually works. No one likes a smartass.) So I begged and bargained, and Marta, with great reluctance but a huge windfall in shopping and meal credits, agreed to visit “The Gateway to the Ozarks.”

Any trip to Poplar Bluff is going to involve ace local guide Tyler Goodale. Tyler has spent years finding “Plan B” fish for me when “Plan A” got carried away in a flood. Could this finally be the time? The weather report looked good – suspiciously good – just as it had on several other trips. I also had to deal with Marta continually attempting to renegotiate the terms. Quite reasonably, she wanted to be in St. Louis rather than in the more rural areas of the state. She began exploring … “So what would you have to catch on the first day to cut things off and head to St. Louis early on Friday?” Recognizing that a lot of what I wanted to catch was just going to take time sitting by the riverbank, I cleverly tossed out what I assumed was an impossible list –

  1. Black redhorse
  2. Current darter
  3. Pealip redhorse OR blue sucker
  4. Any other new species
  5. Any other new species

I figured if I pulled off five new species anywhere, I was way ahead of the game. We left it at that, but I presumed we would be fishing late on Friday. Las Vegas had the odds somewhere around 100:1 against me. On the black redhorse alone, I have spent at least 50 hours casting to them without success. Still, call me an idiot, but I was optimistic about this particular trip. (This is when Jamie says “OK, Steve. You’re an idiot.”)

Bizarrely, the United flight was on time, and we started the three-hour drive to Poplar Bluff in late afternoon. Marta attempted to divert us into St. Louis for barbecue, but I was resistant to this concept, as it could take away fishing time in the morning. We compromised by finding an excellent BBQ place on the way down, starting a weekend where this genre would represent over half of our major meals, including breakfast.

Dinner on night one.

They had some interesting dessert options. Read to the bottom.

We got into PB around 9:30, giving me plenty of time to put my gear together and then lay awake because I was too wound up to sleep. Water levels looked perfect, and there was no rain in sight. When dawn finally came, I had already given up on sleep and was up rechecking my gear, to Marta’s great annoyance. (Note that she is completely wrong to be annoyed here. She is the one who sets a 5am alarm each workday, and then snoozes it for an hour, guaranteeing that I will not get back to sleep.)

Tyler was there at the appointed hour of 6:20, and we headed off into a beautiful morning. Our first stop was a daring one – Sam A. Baker State Park, a location where I had repeatedly struck out on black redhorse. Tyler reasoned that since we knew the fish were there, and that others had caught them in this very place, that we may as well eliminate those variables. This made me uncomfortable, because the remaining variable, angler skill, was firmly on me. Sam A. Baker is a special place, and the particular creek we fish on is almost always a fisherman’s dream – low, clear, full of structure and full of fish. It was gorgeous, and it struck me I had never seen it at the crack of dawn, with no direct light on the water. I threaded a redworm onto a #12 hook, and started walking the bank.

Sam A. Baker at dawn.

About eight steps later, I saw my first group of black redhorse, brazenly cruising the bank as they always do. I held my breath and cast, beginning what I assumed would be another long day of this ritual, but hopeful that it would go well for once. I landed the cast perfectly, three feet in front of the fish, directly in their path. They cruised right by it, but I could swear one of them hesitated and looked at the bait ever so briefly. I reeled up and cast once more, and while I’m no Martini, I got it right in their path again. They cruised along, happily feeding, and inched ever closer to my rig. Years of disappointment in my troubled memory, I waited for them to suddenly change direction.

But they didn’t. The biggest of the three was now just inches from the hook. He casually swam until he was parallel to it, perhaps three inches from the actual bait, and then he stopped dead. He seemed to get an idea. And just like that, he suddenly turned on his flank and went for the worm. The sound of my intestine knotting up echoed through the still morning, as the redhorse went tail up, flared his gills, and carried the bait about six inches. Operating on pure adrenaline, I gently reeled the slack out of the line and snapped back. There was a brilliant silver flash in the water as the fish felt the hook and started the fight. It was a good-sized black redhorse, and it pulled hard on six pound line, running out for the deeper water. I walked along the bank, backed off the drag, and let him get tired. Tyler saw I had a fish and raced for the net, but when I had the fish in the shallows, completely worn out, I could see it was solidly hooked in the upper lip, and I just slid it up onto the bank. I had caught my black redhorse, just 15 minutes into the day. I bellowed in primal triumph, took dozens of photos, and sent the first one to Martini, who congratulated me.

The sound of my intestine unclenching echoed through the still morning.

The black redhorse was the 1892nd species of fish I have caught in my career, and there are very few that have given me more trouble and taken more time and effort. I am rarely satisfied with anything, which helps in fishing but is more curse than blessing, but I had a moment by that riverbank where I was happy and thought of nothing else.

Tyler has been there for the majority of my failures on this species, so it was great that he was there for the catch.

Here’s another gratuitous shot of the fish just because I’m so proud of it.

We fished another 45 minutes or so, while I looked for a stray madtom and Tyler helped Marta work on her species list. With the redhorse in the bag, we needed to look for some other newbies, and the most obvious of these would be the current darter, an hour away in Van Buren. It took exactly one Red Bull and two bags of white cheese popcorn to get there, and, to my surprise, we set up in a small stream I had fished previously with Tyler. (Nabbing a redbelly dace and a fantail darter.)  We waded slowly up the narrow channel, and I started spotting rainbow darters, which are the most common animal in nature. After passing on a few of these, Tyler whispered from a few feet ahead of me “Current darter. Big one.” I crept up beside him, and there was a much lighter-colored darter, about rainbow-size, perched next to a rock. I presented a micro-bait to it, and after a few false starts, it hit.

Species #2 of the day.

Well ahead of any reasonable schedule, we went to the main river to see what was biting – I knew there were a few resident oddball darters, and there was always a chance at a pealip. We got set up, and Tyler, who has the best fish-spotting vision this side of Martini, found an Arkansas saddled darter. I missed it. He found another, and I missed that one too. They are a skittish species that lives in relatively deep, fast water, and it was not to be. Tyler helped Marta nab a few other cool fish, like Mooneye, while he was pointing out a variety of local birds, each of which he could identify by call alone. While this was going on, I managed to land a Mississippi silvery minnow – an unexpected third species of the day.

I had no idea these were even here.

It was tough to leave the Arkansas saddled darters, but we needed to get back to Poplar Bluff and the main event at Wappapello spillway. The water levels were supposed to be absolutely perfect, and I was going to give it a good, long try for blue sucker and pealip redhorse. Marta mentioned that we were 60% of the way toward an early departure, drawing chuckles from both of us – the blue or pealip would be a tall order.

As we drove across Wappapello spillway, I held my breath and looked down, half expecting to see the roaring, muddy conditions I have gotten used to. Instead, it was a faint trickle, and the channel was low and narrow – I could see every current break, every rock, every back eddy. After all these years, it was fishable. It was also blazing hot and windless, and as we scrambled our way down to the bank, it occurred to me that there were no comfortable places to sit – just hot, sharp rocks. We loaded up on sunblock and hoped for the best. Note from my buttocks – bring stadium cushions next time.

My normal experience at this spillway involves heavy weights and lots of snags, but with the delightfully low flow, we could cast to obvious current breaks and hold with very little weight. It was wonderful, like visiting my Aunt when she has laryngitis.

This is at least 20 feet lower than I have ever seen it.

The bites started immediately – bluegill, white bass, and then some more exotic stuff, like bigmouth buffalo. As the sun got lower and my buttocks got less roasted, the fish got more interesting. The buffalo got bigger, and I started getting stray oddities like flathead catfish.

A bigmouth buffalo. They get a lot bigger than this.

One of my larger flatheads ever. I need to correct this.

Steve and Tyler wait patiently for a unicorn.

Marta hooked what was likely a big gar, which she had to scramble a hundred yards down the bank to battle. Just before she got broken off, I got THE bite. It was a subtle pumping, not the frantic rattle of a bluegill nor the steady run of a catfish or buffalo. I let it go for a moment and set the hook. The fish took off, and it felt like the right size. I backed off on the drag and took my time, and moments later, I saw some red fins surface. I started to shout for Tyler, but he had seen the whole thing and was waiting there with the net. It was a redhorse – but which one? He netted it, and we scrambled to flip it over. And there it was, clear as could be – the pea-size swelling on the lip.

I had my unicorn.

For you sharp-eyed gear enthusiasts, yes, that is a Sportex rod, courtesy of dear friend Jens Koller.

As a bit of an afterthought, I weighed the fish. At two pounds, it would be more than enough to put in as a world record, which would put Tyler on the IGFA scoreboard as the guide. (I was able to get him the guide certificate on Christmas Eve, which hopefully made it an even better holiday.)

Gratuitous extra shot.

We stayed another couple of hours, Marta enjoying the action and me silently wishing for a blue sucker, which would have been quite a stretch.

For the record, my bigmouth buffalo was bigger than hers. She stole a page from Martini’s book and responded “You’re a bigmouth buffalo.”

Moonrise over the St. Francis River.

The day had been perfect. We took Tyler and his family out for a nice steak dinner,

From left to right, that’s Marta, then Tyler’s girlfriend Sarah, who is holding their son Barrett, then young and energetic Dalton, Ralph the Bear, Tyler, Steve, and Kelsey, Tyler’s daughter.

While we were chatting over dinner, Marta mentioned leaving early in the morning for St. Louis. “Hold your redhorses.” I responded cleverly. “That promise was based on FIVE new species, not four.” And that is how I found myself banished into the mosquito-filled night to search out another fish. Tyler and I ventured forth, headlamps at the ready, and explored a few local streams, looking for something, anything, that would allow me back into the Holiday Inn. Well past midnight, after missing a few odd-looking darters and shiners, we stumbled onto a small darter that didn’t spook in my headlamp. I hit in in the nose a few times with my bait, and then it pounced. I swung it up onto the muddy bank, where it flipped off the hook, leaving Tyler and I scrambling to tackle it. When we finally subdued the creature, Tyler was stunned. He explained it was a saddleback darter, definitely a new species for me, and as far as he knew, for anybody.

The saddleback darter.

I had my five species for the day – an almost impossible feat for me at this stage of my quest, and a tribute to Tyler’s amazing local knowledge.

To be fair, Marta did let us fish a little on the way up to St. Louis the next morning, but the Fish Gods made it clear I was pushing my luck. The next few days were what normal people might regard as a nice weekend getaway – we met up with dear old friend Steve Ramsey, toured St. Louis, watched the Cardinals, and ate more barbecue than anyone should ever eat in two days. It’s a great town, and I look forward to visiting again, because that blue sucker is still out there someplace.

Steve

Special Bonus Section – The St. Louis Photos

This is a very worthwhile town to visit, even if I didn’t do any fishing nearby.

The Arch at night. No, I did not go up in it. I am not good with heights.

Interestingly, Steve Ramsey does not own a smartphone. We tease him about this endlessly, but he claims he can get by just fine without one. I can’t wait to see him on a street corner, yelling “Uuuuuuuber! Uuuuuuuber!” 

Much barbecue was consumed.

The low point of the weekend – in blazing heat, Marta death-marched two disinterested males through the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is massive.

The Budweiser brewery tour was phenomenal. Try to book in advance.

We did not book in advance, and only got in through the good graces of Steve the guest services manager.

Sad but true.

The greatest soft-serve ANYWHERE. This includes Culver’s, and that’s a high bar.

Posted by: 1000fish | April 2, 2020

Casting Down Memory Lane

DATELINE: AUGUST 31, 2019 – BIRMINGHAM, MICHIGAN

This one is going to have a very low fish-to-text ratio, so if you’re just here for fish, here it is: I added a Johnny Darter to my species list. Yes, that’s it, so you can skip the next 2700 words – unless you are locked in and bored out of your skull, in which case, even this might seem entertaining. For me, of course, it is always a longer story, with a heavy dose of my childhood memories, which, for purposes of preserving my self-esteem, will not include such unfortunate incidents as my losing the 8th grade spelling bee to Amy Clayton. (“Colossal” only has one “a.” Who knew?)

In recent years, old friend Steve Ramsey and I have started organizing larger and larger gatherings to tour a random midwestern city, eat random midwestern food, and take in local sporting events. The first official one of these, the so-called “Deja Brew Tour 2018,” took place in Milwaukee. The attendees included me, Marta, Ramsey, his good friends Ron and Carol, and no one’s good friend Cousin Chuck, plus Chuck’s long-suffering wife Joanne. We ate a lot of sauerkraut and then watched the Brewers dismantle my beloved Detroit Tigers.

Going clockwise from me, that’s Cousin Chuck (really,) his long-suffering wife Joanne, my long-suffering Marta, Steve Ramsey, Carol, and Ron. Ramsey is not a childhood Tigers fan – he has current home and away jerseys for most MLB teams in his closet, ready for well-dressed game attendance at a moment’s notice.

We also made the pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to watch the Packers play. This is an 81,000 seat stadium in a 105,000 person town, and it is a must-visit for any serious sports fanatic.

The group goes cheesehead. I grew up hating the Packers, because they always find a way to beat the Lions, but you have to respect the tradition and the trophies.

Where else can you get a bloody Mary with summer sausage and a mini-bratwurst?

For the summer 2019 edition, the group would head to Michigan, take in a Tigers game, and also see the Toledo Mud Hens – Corporal Max Klinger’s favorite squad.

Many of you are too young to remember M*A*S*H, one of the greatest shows ever. Look it up. You’ll have plenty of TV time in the next few months.

I lived in Michigan from 1972 to 1979, and I formed my sports loyalties and my love of fishing there. This would truly be a trip down memory lane, one which almost no one except me would possibly care about. If you haven’t stopped reading by now, you must be my niece, or, as we mentioned, really, really bored.

I managed to identify one potential new species – the aforementioned Johnny Darter – that was conveniently close to where we were staying. It apparently lives in the fabled Rouge River, the same place I caught my first fish on my own sometime around summer 1976. The process of discovering this began with John Leisen, he who helped me get my smallmouth redhorse,

Josh Leisen. There isn’t a lot to do in Northern Michigan.

Josh introduced me to Bob Muller, a NANFA member who also works with “Friends of the Rouge,” (https://therouge.org/), a group that promotes cleanup and conservation of this amazing waterway.

Bob Muller with a white sucker.

Bob has become quite an expert on what species live where in the Rouge, and he immediately pointed me to some nearby spots that had large darter concentrations. With the big crew we had in town, I was going to have only a few short windows to fish, but I kept thinking to myself “It’s a darter in shallow clear water. How hard can it be?” Any species hunters reading right now are laughing at me.

I knew the very bridges and riffles that Bob mentioned, and I faintly remember small fish darting out from under the rocks when I splashed through the area as a child. I was confident enough that I didn’t even go fishing on the first day – Marta and the group had already made plans to visit the Henry Ford Museum, and this is not to be missed. This sprawling complex in Dearborn, Michigan houses a world-class collection of vehicles and culture, from steam-driven times to the present day, with the notable exception of the Ford Pinto.

Henry Ford. Not as good as the Disneyland statue.

See?

The vehicle collection at The Ford is a must, ranging from the historical to the absurd.

An original Model T. My grandfather drove one, and is still probably waiting on a warranty claim for the transmission.

We actually got to ride in one.

I always wanted one of these.

This DC-3 was donated to the museum on May 28 1975. I was on a school trip to HFM that day, and witnessed its final landing.

The actual chair that President Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot. They also have the JFK car. I was a bit disappointed that there was nothing on Garfield or McKinley.

We then toured the Greenfield Village part of the complex. This outdoor area hosts a large collection of historical buildings moved from all over the world, ranging from colonial workshops to Thomas Edison’s laboratory. (Marta, a Tesla fan, was somewhat skeptical.) Every building has a few docents to explain the unrecognizable artifacts, like wall phones and children paying attention.

Marta makes friends easily.

On the way home, we visited my childhood home, which I am sure is going to be bought by Greenfield village any day now,

Sean Biggs and I use to climb on the roof and throw water balloons at my sister.

The group made the mistake of letting me choose the restaurant, so needless to say, it was Polish food.

The group, in a good mood because the sauerkraut hadn’t kicked in yet.

The Polka Restaurant on West Maple Road. Highly recommended.

I awoke the next morning with high confidence, but a certain regret that I hadn’t eaten more fiber. I made the pilgrimage to the Manor Road bridge, one of the places Sean Biggs and I used to fish. On the way, we passed by the Kensington culvert, the exact spot I had gotten that first fish on my own, more than 40 years ago.

It was just behind the overhang on the right. Marta asked if there was a historical marker in the bushes. She also asked why there wasn’t a statue of me outside the Birmingham Ice Arena. 

It was still stuffed with creek chubs, but despite a thorough look under all the rocks, I spotted no darters.

A Rouge River creek chub. One of my personal favorite fish.

Armed with knowledge from Bob, I headed to the Willits Street bridge near downtown. Sean and I rode our 10-speeds across this zillions of times in the 70s, and I never once imagined that adult me would be here years later trying to catch a three-inch fish.

The riffle in question.

And let’s emphasize “trying,” because as soon as I got in the water, I saw dozens of johnny darters, all of which fled in terror and refused to look at a bait. I had very little time before I needed to join the group and head to Toledo, and I was confronted with an uncooperative micro? Such are the Fish Gods. I presented to every likely-looking crevice and overhang, and while I saw a few darter heads peek out, nothing would bite. This was inconvenient. My time to meet the group came and went, and when I started getting text threats from Marta, I relented and left the creek, utterly defeated.

We spent the evening in Toledo, first at Tony Packo’s for a chili-dog dinner, then taking in a Toledo Mud Hens game. Minor league baseball is a wonderful way to spend a summer evening, and as I looked at the group, I realized how darn old I am. I’ve been with Marta 15 years, counting continuous service. I met Sean Biggs, my Bantam hockey teammate and owner of a head-removing slapshot, in 1975. I’ve been swinging and missing at Dave Hogan’s curveball since 1989. Steve Ramsey has been a great friend since 1990, and he has known Ron and Carol Freeney since their IU days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. That’s 118 combined years of friendship if Marta and I are still friends at press time.

Steve, Marta, Sean, Steve, Ron, and Carol. Dave Hogan took this photo so he isn’t in it. He is too old for selfies.

This one includes Dave Hogan. See if you can figure out which one he is.

The next morning, I showed up at the Rouge with a bit more respect. And a lot more fear. Again, I only had a few hours available, but I tried to approach the rocks with Pat Kerwin-like stealth and  present baits at likely ambush points. It still went badly. I saw a few fish poke their heads out, but couldn’t get one to attack. This went on for two hours, and I was apoplectic. I tried all the identified fish spots several times, then began gently tipping rocks over to at least find some more targets. Of course, there were fish, but they fled in terror, and I firmly believe Johnny darters are faster than sailfish. I followed a few and presented to them repeatedly, which is not a high-odds approach but at least let me get a bait in front of a fish. That went on for another hour or so. I began cursing whoever Johnny was.

As it got time to leave for the Tigers game, where I would go watch more failure, I had one fish spook but then settle in a little deeper run beside a rock. I watched him from a distance for a few minutes, and saw him actively go after a few passing particles of food. This had to be my darter. I eased up to the spot and drifted the micro hook down toward him. Stunningly, he took all the drama out of the situation by sprinting 12 inches up the pool to attack the worm. He hit it twice, got hooked, and then stayed on for those slow-motion seconds that pass between hookset and getting the fish on the bank.

Species 1891. I was beside myself with joy.

A closeup of the beast.

The Tigers game was an unlikely experience. They were playing the first-place Minnesota Twins, who I still hate because of the 1987 ALCS, during which I believe they turned down the Metrodome lights when the Tigers were batting. We showed up prepared to see another Detroit loss, and hoped for small victories, like keeping the opponent under 20 runs. True to form, the Tigers gave up six homers, including one that broke the MLB record for home runs in a season. Completely out of form, however, the Tigers somehow still won the game.

We attended the game with an even bigger group, adding species-hunting buddy Josh Leisen and, of all people, Cousin Chuck. You should know the others by now. That’s Chuck on the far left, in case you don’t recognize him without the orange jumpsuit, and Josh is 4th from left in case you don’t recognize him without the turkey costume.

An historical display at Comerica Stadium. Norm Cash was a Tigers first baseman, a feared slugger, and my childhood hero. I wore his #25 in tee-ball, even though batting order was set on jersey number. I even tried to learn to hit left-handed, until someone pointed out I couldn’t hit right-handed either. 

Yes, there is a Cousin Chuck. It was nice to get a photo where the ankle bracelet didn’t show.

On the way home, I gave an impromptu tour of the odd street names in my old neighborhood.

Always loved this one.

Say it out loud.

With the fish captured, I could enjoy our last day in Michigan with a bit less pressure. The high point was visiting Frankenmuth, a town two hours north that boasts a Wal-Mart sized Christmas store, Bronner’s. No matter that you’re into, there’s an ornament to commemorate it, subject to family-friendly limits.

It’s nice to wear a Red Wings shirt and not have people stare.

Late that evening, we boarded a packed jet, bound for San Francisco.

During the whole flight, we probably washed our hands once or twice, didn’t fret about hand sanitizer or toilet paper, stood and sat close to people, and Marta hugged everyone including the stewardess when she found us an extra bag of pretzels. It was only seven months ago, and it seems like a much simpler, more human time. I hope we can get back to it quickly.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE IGFA CAUSES MARITAL STRIFE

The IGFA has brought a great deal of good into the world – ethical angling practices, conservation, and a place for the Arosteguis to store some of their trophies. But this past September, I watched a world record quest place a great strain on a marriage, and I was grateful it wasn’t mine. Sam and Kate Clarke are well-known to the 1000Fish community as the heartless Brits who stained our Christmas with Raymond Brigg’s “The Snowman.” They visited us again this summer, which was a win/win because it was too early for them to show us any more awful British Christmas TV and it was warm enough to take them fishing. I had taken them a few years ago, but the December cold had left us with slim pickings. This time, we had a perfect tide and weather to fish Tomales Bay for sharks.

The complication came when I mentioned that there was a potential world record available, on the Pacific Spiny Dogfish. (I have the current record at 12.5 pounds, but there are clearly bigger fish out there.) They both exhibited a strong interest in catching a world record, and an even stronger interest in the other one not catching one. This was going to be an interesting day.

I always warn people that Tomales can be a windswept mess, because it always is when Spellman and I go. But the weather turned out flat and lovely, which it always seems to be for first-timers, and they both looked at me skeptically when I put all the foul weather gear in the boat. The fishing was excellent, although we didn’t see any spiny dogfish for most of the day.

One of the five sevengills we landed that day. Damn they’re adorable. The couple I mean.

Sam with his first “Mud Marlin” – the mighty California Bat Ray.

The day went by quickly, with constant action from sevengill and leopard sharks, and plenty of bat rays. The dogfish were being a bit shy, but I had faith that they would show eventually.

A word to the wise – shark skin, even on a small fish, can give you a nasty scrape. Luckily, it was me.

Like most women I know, Kate is not pointlessly competitive, but she enjoys watching the reactions of people who are. Sam wanted this BAD, so Kate just wanted to see the look on his face if she caught it. I, of course, would have been thrilled if I got the big fish and left everyone else disappointed. I know that isn’t gracious, but if you think I’m gracious about fishing, you must be a new reader. Welcome! Around the time the tide started slowing down, the dogfish showed up. Sam and Kate each got one around 11 pounds, but they needed 12.5 to tie me. I got one right at 12.5, but it’s tasteless to tie your own records, so I let it go. They each got one more, again in that 11+ range, and as the last of the tide ran out, Sam got one more bite. I watched with perverse interest as he fought the fish. It seemed just a bit stronger than his other two, and as I carefully grabbed it, I could tell it was clearly big enough. I said a silent prayer that it wasn’t 13 pounds, and raced to the shore to take an official weight. It was 12.5, so it worked out well for everyone. Except Katy.

Sam and his first world record. Well done – Roger would be proud.

A sobbing Katy has to be carried back to the boat.*

Luckily, they are young and I am sure they will visit again. As of press time, they seem to have moved past this and are speaking again.

*Not really.

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | March 23, 2020

Rascal Approves

DATELINE: AUGUST 24, 2019 – SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

Last summer seems like years ago. My Mother once told me that time goes a lot faster when you get older. I was young then and thought she was full of crap, but the older I got, the smarter Mom turned out to be. So here I am, somewhere in the post-Christmas dead of winter, just going through my notes for a blog about last summer, which is already separated from us by three major holidays, and I’m not including Valentine’s Day, which hopefully hasn’t happened yet, (whoops,) because I haven’t been to the jewelry store, and believe me, a vacuum, no matter how nice it is, is a bad Valentine’s present.

Now, back to the subject – cats. The 1000fish blog has introduced us to a number of remarkable felines. Cora the cat and her memorably awkward photo with Ben Cantrell is a fan favorite, and perhaps the greatest cat of all time, Rossi Arostegui, has appeared in these pages. This summer, a new kitty coughed a furball onto the fishing scene, and his name is Rascal. Rascal belongs to Ben’s girlfriend, Katy. and since Ben and Katy cohabitate, and Ben works from home, Ben and Rascal spend a lot of time together.

Rascal takes a selfie with Ben.

On a WhatsApp group Ben set up for some species-hunting friends, when fish photos are posted, he enjoys sending a photo of Rascal with the caption “Rascal Approves.” We all consider this to be a badge of honor.

Remember – we are species fishermen and weren’t normal in the first place.

I managed to avoid business trips in July and August, so naturally, I planned some California fishing excursions. There are some excellent closeby options – my “go-to” fishing – but you rarely read about them because they do not meet one of my four blog prerequisites – a new species, a world record, or someone getting seasick, or naked, hopefully at the same time. (Molnar, we’re thinking of you.) There are precious few species options within a day trip of my house, and by now, those tend to be stupid rare (e.g., sixgill shark) or just stupid (e.g., Sacramento blackfish, which won’t eat anything.) So, in this episode, we’ll cover a few trips of note this summer, some of which involve new species, but all of which involve fish.

Speaking of seasick, the first trip involves my on-again, off-again nephew, Charlie. Chuckles somehow wrangled some sort of lame internship out here on the west coast, which gave us a rare chance to get fishing together where his mother wouldn’t try to keep it to 15 minutes and make him wear a suit of armor. Our first adventure was pier fishing in Tiburon, an excellent way to spend an afternoon, especially when there is Waypoint pizza for dinner.

The first thing Charlie caught was a brown rockfish. This is going to upset Pat Kerwin, who couldn’t get one to bite for a whole miserable day in December.

I love to hide Charlie’s sunglasses.

A Tiburon landmark, and truly one of the best pizzas anywhere.

But the main event for Charlie was to go to Clear Lake, one of Northern California’s bass meccas, and try to get a big largemouth. Charlie defined “big” as five pounds or more, and I felt confident that he could get one. I signed up guide Tom Guercio, a good friend of 1000fish regular Jim Larosa.

Tom and Charlie. Where did those sunglasses go? (By the way, Tom is on 925-813-0792 for Clear Lake bass fishing.)

We were blessed with calm, cloudless weather. Those early hours, before the sun hit the water, gave us exactly what we wanted – constant bites on plastics. We both got a few solid fish, including a nice three-pounder for Chuckles.

This was his first fish of the day.

Around 8am, Charlie got the hit he wanted, and after a spirited battle, Tom expertly netted Charlie’s five-pounder. Charlie has managed to grow up into a 20-year-old high school junior, but we have still had precious few of these moments. It was quite a privilege to be there.

Charlie and his beast. I made him wear the hat for the photo so his mother would think he cared about sunburn.

He got a bit cocky about catching the biggest fish of the day, so I thought I’d include this shot of a slightly larger beast from my portfolio.

Rascal was still not impressed.

It wouldn’t be summer unless I made a couple of trips to Tomales Bay to fish for sharks and rays. In mid-August, I ran up there with old friends Michael and Cooper. Michael is the Creative Director at a premium design agency that does work projects with Marta. While he is an awesome guy, I generally get to see him during some high-pressure consulting emergency where everyone except me is obsessed with a website launch. This is how I have gotten to know Cooper so well – he and I have no idea what the adults are talking about, so we talk about important stuff, like fishing and baseball.

Tomales can be a miserable place. It is prone to fog and wind that can turn even a summer excursion into a shivering test of willpower, but the place is full of fish. I had warned Michael and Cooper about this for years, so naturally, the day we chose to go was flat calm and beautiful.

Cooper is the one with the magnificent hair.

Not only was it sunny and still the whole time, but the fishing was excellent. We boated a load of leopard sharks, spiny dogfish, and bat rays, all safely released with a free squid lunch.

Cooper and his first leopard shark. This photo made him the most popular kid in school for weeks.

That’s Cooper’s Dad, Michael. He is smiling because he isn’t talking to Marta about 472 design changes she needs done in the next hour.

Rascal approves.

Watching a kid do this for the first time reminds me of how darn exciting it is to be on the water, so I really had Cooper to thank. Fishing with him gives me all the joy of a kid without having to get barfed on. Again, I’m thinking of you, Molnar.

Speaking of people barfing, Marta and I celebrated 15 years together last summer. People have lost millions of dollars in office pools over this.

We then move the show to Southern California. I had been giving some thought to a San Diego road trip, and there was never going to be a better time. In hindsight, I could have chosen a better route, because I drove down there via the Salton Sea, in the vain hope of catching a porthole livebearer. Everyone else catches them, yet I never do. It’s a lonely twelve hours to San Diego when the (1.5 inch) target fish was nowhere to be seen.

Once I got a night of sleep and had eaten my fill of Taco Bell, it was time to get to the serious fishing. San Diego is a gorgeous place – temperate, green, and everyone is young and good-looking. (As opposed to Los Angeles, where everyone is young, rich, annoying, and has a boob job. Even the guys.)

Illinois native Ben Cantrell has figured out a lot of the local species, and I still have a decent list of them left to catch. One of the most troubling is the horn shark. This shy beast is a close relative of the Port Jackson Shark I got in Australia a few years ago. It’s a sit and wait kind of thing, and I have done plenty of sitting and waiting without so much as a decent bite. Ben had a spot in Mission Bay he wanted to try, and we planned an evening of soaking squid by some bridge pilings. Ben had two big targets that evening, because he not only needed the horn shark, but he was also looking for a diamond ray. (The ray is a lot more common, and Ben was rightfully annoyed he hadn’t caught one yet. (I got my mine in Puerto Vallarta in 2013.)

It was a gorgeous night, which is par for the course in San Diego, and we cast out two rods each and let them sit.

San Diego is insanely beautiful.

The dreaded round stingrays, which must be stacked on every square inch of the bottom, moved in and began gnawing the squid. We caught quite a few; they are dangerous to unhook and take away from quality fishing time, but they have a right to eat too. After half an hour of this, I got a comparatively bigger bite. When I set the hook, whatever vaguely annoyed animal was at the other end was clearly not a round stingray. I announced to Ben “I have a horn shark.” “Ha ha” he replied. Moments later, Ben helped me land a horn shark, and just that quickly, I had added species 1889.

Oh hell yes.

The triumphant anglers.

They are adorable, but look closely at the dentition.

Ben is a good guy and a good friend, but he couldn’t help but mention that he had spent countless hours fishing this spot without a horn shark, and I had spent about an hour there and gotten one. This was not in any sort of spite – it was more in the spirit of mathematics and how statistical probabilities are not useful if I don’t follow them. But before I could even muse on how unfair the universe is, something raced off with my bait. I spent a few minutes battling whatever it was – decidedly not a horn shark – and announced I had a bat ray. I was wrong. I had a diamond ray – the other species Ben was after. Ben handled everything with good humor. “Nice, Steve. The horn shark wasn’t enough, huh?” I felt awful, but the competitive side of me, which is both sides, was faintly amused.

The fish in question.

Rascal did not approve.

We kept busy with round rays and small gray sharks, and the tide started slowing down. Ben was not thrilled, but he certainly didn’t blame me. As we enjoyed the warm evening, Ben’s rod folded over hard. Whatever it was, it was the biggest fish of the night, which made me feel a little better. Ben called bat ray, I called diamond ray, hoping that it was and that Ben would forgive me. Ten minutes later, Ben put 17 pounds of steaming diamond ray on the beach. He was thrilled, I was relieved, and the evening closed out as a rousing success.

Ben’s ray. Yes, he caught it on that rod, and no, he did not let it spine him in the calf.

We had a few targets for the next day, mostly small stuff in harbors and backwaters. Notable among these was the longjaw mudsucker, a goby species that is popular for striper bait that I can never seem to find in the wild. Ben felt that we could find them in the same slough where I caught my California killifish, and it turns out he is something of an expert on this, as he is helping the Scripps Institute write a paper on these beasts. I’m not bad at spotting fish, but Ben has excellent eyes and he saw a dozen of them before I found one. (Martini does the same thing to me.) It finally hit a bait after a few fits and starts, and I was 10 species away from 1900.

Species 1890.

That evening, Ben trusted me enough to introduce me to Katy. She is awesome. They are aggravatingly young, attractive, and fit, and she is remarkably patient with Ben’s fishing “hobby” (= “obsession.”)

I can’t find a picture of them NOT doing something healthy and outdoors.

They have 6% body fat. Combined.

We tried for some other sharks and rays that night, but the elusive banded guitarfish remained elusive, and I cut it off fairly early because I had a long drive home the next day. It was still San Diego, we were still out on the water, and there would always be another trip down here. Rascal approves.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | January 16, 2020

The Baja Pool Bar

Dateline: July 23, 2019 – Baja California Sur, Mexico

It all started with Heather Spellman wanting Mark out of the house. I get it – I don’t even live with Mark and I want him out of the house. Heather deserves a weekend by herself now and then, and I get to go fishing, so it’s a win/win, like when your mother-in-law drives that 12 year-old BMW off a cliff. Mark and I got talking about tropical destinations, and Cabo, or more specifically the Buena Vista resort on the East Cape, came to mind. This place holds a lot of good memories for me. Back in the 1990s, when I was certainly a passionate fisherman but hadn’t yet organized it into a push for species or world records, this was the first exotic fishing destination I ever went to. Buena Vista is where I got my first yellowfin tuna, my first striped marlin, my first Pacific blue marlin, and my first Pacific sailfish.

My first Pacific sailfish – July 21, 1996.

This is also where I got my first roosterfish, jack crevalle, African pompano, and triggerfish. That’s right, I listed triggers in the same sentence with roosterfish.

My biggest rooster, June 12, 1998.

My first triggerfish of any kind, July 20, 1996. I was desperate to get one at the time, but they lose their luster after the first 15,000 or so.

The guy I went with on all these trips, Mike “Rapo” Rapoport, was a passionate big game fisherman, but he did not share my love of bottom species.

Mike, who manages to look epic in any photo.

There was often conflict between our two type-A personalities over what to fish for, which we resolved by taking separate boats. I didn’t have as much of a sense of species hunting as I do today, but I still managed to catch some interesting stuff between trolling sessions. I always wondered what it would be like to go there just for bottom fishing, especially in the deep water that is so close to the resort. I starting checking recent reports from local contacts, and thumbing though my collection of Sea of Cortez field guides, and it looked like there was a lot of potential. Mark and I booked four days, figuring this would get us a shot at a balance of species hunting and gamefish. I also reasoned that at least one of the species would be an open IGFA world record. That next record would be my 200th – territory explored only by the Arosteguis. I was heading into the trip with 1881 species, so I knew a spectacular showing could put me to 1900, but the record milestone was on my mind big time.

Somewhere in there, we invited Martini along to add that touch of professionalism and basic hygiene we would lack otherwise. The trip fit his cramped schedule, and I hadn’t fished with him in far too long.

On arrival day, there was a dark omen – the airline destroyed Martini’s luggage. The contents were fine, but this delayed us getting to the resort. You can’t imagine my impatience, as I was positively frantic to get to the beach and fish the rockpiles I remember so well from 20+ years ago. Mark and Martini both rolled with the punches much better than I did, which will surprise no one. We finally got there in the late afternoon and raced to set up equipment. It was windier than I wanted, so the sight fishing on the rocks was limited, but we still all got some nice tropicals.

First fish of the trip – a Panamic Sergeant.

The first evening on the beach.

None of the fish were new for me, but it was great to be out on foreign water, and I stuck at it into the evening. The East Cape was just as beautiful as I remembered it.

Sunset at Buena Vista.

At dinner we met Resort Cat. Resort Cat would accept Martini’s fish, but not my pork carnitas.

In the morning, we boarded a cruiser and headed out, full of optimism and breakfast burritos. I had gone to the trouble of buying Mexico charts for Marta’s GPS unit, but it was Martini who actually figured out how to use the thing. He is, after all, a scientist. On our way, we fished some medium-deep bottom grounds – maybe 200 feet. I remembered catching all kinds of cool stuff in this area back in the early 90s, and as I shared these memories with Mark and Martini, it dawned on me that we weren’t catching much. A few sand perch here and there, and some nondescript flounder to add to my unidentified list.

These things are as bad as shiners to ID. Any ideas?

I did get a small African pompano – a great fight on light tackle.

These are fabulous eating.

We were about 300 yards from where I caught my first African pompano, on June 15, 1998.

From the old photo albums. On that very same day, Rapo lost a HUGE dorado because he was rushing to get a rig into the water before me and tied a bad knot. I still smile every time I think about it, because I am a bad person.

By mid-morning, we decided it was time for the deep water.

Martini’s expectations on deep drop fishing are justifiably high. He has spent many days carefully studying potential locales and many days dropping baits down on them. He is relentless and meticulous in all aspects of the game, and his results speak for themselves. We need only look at some of the beastly mystic groupers he has pulled up from well below 1000 feet in the Bahamas.

He caught this without breaking a pelvis or even a sweat.

It follows that our expectations would reasonably include some fish this size, and hopefully a decent variety.

We set up over some very attractive deep ledges, and down we went. Letting a rig drop 1000 feet gives a man time to think, mostly about how deep the water is. Bites were immediate, and the first creature I hauled up counts as half a species. It was a bighead tilefish, a creature I caught here in June of 1997.

The old photos were less than optimal, so this cleared up any possible ID issues.

On our second drop, I hit the first new species of the trip – a speckled scorpionfish. I was delighted to see what I presumed would be the first of many interesting creatures to come up from the deep.

Surely this would lead to dozens of species.

We dropped again. We got more scorpionfish. We dropped another time, because we just knew that something different would come up. We just new that the deep water could not possibly turn out to be a place stuffed with scorpionfish and nothing else. There was no way this could possibly happen. It was early in the trip and we were still filled with joy and optimism.

After around 50 scorpionfish, we moved back toward the beach and fished some shallow water, picking up a good batch of triggerfish and other assorted inshore critters. Martini tirelessly cast a jig after a gamefish he was certain would bite. I had personal knowledge that Pacific Crevalles were in the area, or at least that they had been 21 years ago.

June 12, 1998. My first ever fish on a metal jig.

Spellman had a good pulldown, and at the end of his battle, he landed a huge bullseye puffer. At two pounds, it crushed the existing world record, and so the first record of the trip went not to me or Martini, but to Spellman, who now has four.

How hard could it be?

My first bullseye – July 7, 2001. That purple Hi’s Tackle Box shirt disintegrated in the wash a few years later.

Once we docked, I raced to fish the shoreline – which was also curiously devoid of marine life. A couple of hours later, I was ready to throw in the towel, which left me wondering – when bricklayers quit, do they throw in the trowel? Bemused by this conundrum, I cast my small white jig a few more times, and moments later, I got a crushing hit. Whatever it was peeled line off at high speed and headed down the beach. Twice, I thought I would be spooled or rocked up, and twice, the fish grudgingly came back. After 15 minutes of fantastic light-tackle battle, I beached a gafftopsail pompano, a high-speed permit relative that frequents shallow, sandy areas. I was ecstatic.

But it wasn’t a record. I still just had one to go. This weighed heavily on me.

Still, it’s beautiful place.

Saturday’s dinner was a fiesta on the beach. The outdoor grill and bottomless margaritas were fine, but the musical stylings of “Paul” reminded us that fiesta and fiasco are only a few letters apart.

Day two started out well. We ran north, to an area Martini had scoped out on the GPS.

We ignored the morning red sky. It didn’t ignore us.

We started out in a rugged area that ranged from 100 to 150 feet, and it was there I had my best 10 minutes of the trip. (Except for that magic moment at 3:10am on the 22nd, when Spellman briefly stopped snoring.)

Proof of Spellman’s nighttime grunts.

We dropped the rigs to the bottom, being careful to stay above the jagged rocks, and got immediate bites. Just as the scorpionfish ganged up in the deep water, puffers owned the shallow reefs. We all got a few, and before the novelty wears off, it is fun to take pictures with them.

How do these things mate? I mean the porcupinefish of course.

My second or third puffer was a sharpnose, still a relatively common species, but it struck me as being a rather big one.

The beast.

Martini with a sharpnose. Adorable.

There are very few people in the fishing world that would care about the size of a sharpnose puffer, but two of these people were on the boat. I checked the record, and it was open. I weighed the fish, and it showed as the required pound. But would it still be a pound when we got back to harbor and could get an official weight? I don’t do well with drama like this, but some of the suspense ended in spectacular fashion moments later. I hooked what I figured to be another puffer, but as it surfaced, I saw a brilliant flash of yellow. It was a King Angelfish.

I had never caught an angelfish of any kind before, and believe me, I have tried.

Many of my friends have caught angelfish and mocked me because I had not.

Best of all, this was an open record and a clear pound, so I knew that if the puffer didn’t check out, I would still reach 200, four and a half years after number 100. I was ecstatic. The angelfish was also species 1882 for me. Marta’s father was born in 1882. This is not a typo, and bear in mind Marta is a good bit younger than me.

So, things were looking up. Martini continued casting a metal jig after the big jack we just knew had to be there. It wasn’t, but we still headed to the deep water with the highest of hopes. (In this blog, I often point out that the line between optimism and stupidity can be fuzzy.) We made one drop and caught – you guessed it – scorpionfish.

We laughed it off, albeit nervously.

That would be our last drop of the day. A south wind went from unnoticed to savage in just a few minutes. We had no chance to maintain a controlled drift, so bottom fishing wasn’t going to happen.

As a desperate plan Z, we put out the trolling lures in the hopes that Spellman might hook a decent gamefish. We wallowed home with big waves breaking over the bow. Blam. Blam. Blam. For almost three hours. And nothing bit on the troll. When we did dock, which was a rather difficult affair due to the high waves, I raced to the beach to weigh the puffer. It did reach the magic one pound mark and thus went into the books as my 200th record. The more glamorous angelfish would go down as 201. Martini was the first to welcome me to the club.

The official weighing of Record #200. No, you do not get another Lifetime Achievement Award. Yes, I asked.

The water was roiled up, but I still insisted on giving it a shot from shore that evening. My smarter companions enjoyed beers by the pool.

The guys eat dinner at the bar. Yes, those are fried scorpionfish.

It hit me that I had been fishing a lot with both of these guys individually, but never with them together. Martini was not pleased with the conditions, but he knew this was part of the game. Spellman, as always, was just happy to be out on the water. More disappointed that anyone else, I was likely an insufferable jerk, but kept at the water day and night in the hopes my luck would turn around. The smarter 2/3 of the group hung out at the pool bar, enjoyed some cold beers, and relaxed, which is what vacation is supposed to be about in the first place. I’m sure I was surly by the time I joined everyone for dinner. Luckily, my friends are generally forgiving.

Resort Cat refused my fish that night, because she sensed my surliness.

By the time day three opened, our optimism was waning. We made a long run south to some deep spots, hoping to find the larger and more exotic bottom species I just knew had to be there. We found the mark, and noticed to our great joy that the wind had faded. We drifted perfectly in 800+ feet of water, and hauled up, say it with me, scorpionfish.

This had gotten officially old.

On perhaps the third pass, as we boated our loads of smallish, red beasts, Martini noticed that one of them looked a bit different. A closer look revealed that we had finally, FINALLY gotten something new out of the deep water – another species of small scorpionfish.

The red scorpionfish. Yay.

It wasn’t exactly a glamour catch, but by this stage, I wasn’t picky. Moments later, Martini pulled the one non-scorpionfish animal we saw from the deep water – some sort of lost croaker that defies identification to this very day.

Whatever it is, it’s really cool and I didn’t get one.

That was it for our day on the boat, and I had officially decided that the East Cape had slipped a bit from its glory days. Nothing from our youth ever turns out to be as good as we remember it, except Heather Locklear.

The view from the pool bar. Spellman took this photo.

I of course skipped the pool bar scene that afternoon and stubbornly cast the shoreline. So, while Mark and Martini relaxed and enjoyed the scenery, I managed to drag up one lonely croaker. I had dismissed similar croakers as yellowfins, but this looked a bit different, so I photographed it. Thanks to ID help from John Snow of Mexican-fish.com, the beast was later identified as a Cortez Croaker, the 5th species of the trip.

It wasn’t what I expected, but every one counts.

Our final day was another blur of small red scorpionfish.

The guys gather their thoughts on the way out.

I really, really hate speckled scorpionfish.

We tried some shallower water, where Martini fired the metal around for another fruitless hour. In the midst of this excitement, I had the slightest of bites on a small rig and reeled up what I was certain would be a small sand perch – another shallow water pest. Martini recommended that I photograph this one, and lo and behold, it turned out to be a longfin sand perch, one of the lesser known members of this widespread and aggravating genus.

It was also species six of the trip, which was some consolation, but 1900 seemed further away than it had four days ago.

It was with not insubstantial relief that we docked the boat that afternoon. We had still gotten a few fish, but it wasn’t anywhere close to what I thought it could have been. Even now, some months later, I look at my old photos from the mid-90s, and I stand by my assertion that it was great fishing back then. On our last evening in Mexico, of course I was going to give the rocks one more try, and surprisingly, Spellman left the pool bar and joined me. It was a beautiful evening on the Sea of Cortez, but nothing would bite apart from the usual triggerfish and puffers. Spellman was poking around about 50 yards above me, and he suddenly called me – “Steve – get a small sabiki and get over here.” I trotted up the shoreline, and Mark was on a rock, about 10 feet into the water, pointing straight down. I joined him, and there was a swarm of colorful little fish right at his feet. I dropped the sabiki and instantly caught a Cortez Rainbow Wrasse, species number seven of the trip.

The aptly-named rainbow wrasse.

Just as a photographed it, Spellman waved me back to the rock. He was holding a small serranid in his hand – the fish was later identified as a Barred Serrano. He explained that these were sitting under a ledge about six feet in front of him. I never would have found them otherwise, but I got one quickly.

Species eight of the trip and 1887 lifetime.

With two quick species gifted by a friend, I decided it was finally time to hit the pool bar.

Steve

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 29, 2019

Phantom of the River

Dateline: June 8, 2019 – Southwestern Virginia

There is an eerie specter haunting the rivers of the Eastern US, and it is named Pat Kerwin. Imagine having this conversation all week:

Pat: “Hi Steve.”

Steve: “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!”

Legendary species hunter Pat Kerwin, and one of his legendary t-shirts.

And how did we get where legendary species hunter Pat Kerwin was scaring the daylights out of me? That story begins a year ago, in the wilds of North Carolina. It was on the Appalachian Barbecue Tour trip with Martini and Pat, and someone made the mistake of mentioning the tangerine darter, one of the largest and most beautiful darter species. Strong on impulse and weak on planning, I decided that we needed to go catch one immediately. Pat patiently explained that tangerine darters live in Southwestern Virginia. I replied that it couldn’t be that far, as the states share a border. Later than evening, using advanced teaching tools, like maps, Pat educated me that the very left hand side of Virginia is extremely far from Raleigh. In fact, it’s extremely far from anything, and would need to be explored on its own trip. Common sense and fishing are a difficult mix for me.

I don’t forget these things, and when Pat and I started talking about doing a week somewhere on the east coast this summer, the tangerine darter became my main focus. We planned a few days in the wilds of southwestern Virginia, which seems closer to Phoenix than Springfield. Marta finds it amazing that I never forget a fish species I want to catch, and yet I can’t remember to empty the dishwasher.

Our trip began early on a Saturday morning. I picked up Pat in Alexandria and we headed southwest, and headed southwest, and headed southwest some more. It’s a big state, and our first fishing stop was some four hours from home.

That first stop was the Holston River, a clear, gorgeous stream in the middle of rural Virginia.

A huge thanks to Pat for finding spots like this.

Pat had scoped out some micros, and I scored immediately on a saffron shiner, the first species of the trip.

The saffron shiner – species 1865. That’s the year the Civil War ended, unless you live in some parts of Texas.

We should have left right away, because I spotted some redhorse and insisted on casting to them for quite a while. I caught all kinds of stuff – hogsuckers, bass, even brook trout – but no redhorse. This blog also could have been called “No Redhorse,” and if I had known that, I could have spent my time more productively.

A northern hogsucker. Not a redhorse.

At Pat’s gentle urging, we packed up and headed for the Clinch River. This watershed is not only home to the elusive tangerine darter, it also hosts a batch of other desirable micros, as well as some larger stuff, like, you guessed it, black redhorse.

The Clinch River. Did I mention there are black redhorse here?

We got there late afternoon, and started poking around a spillway. When that didn’t produce the desired tangerine darter, we moved to riffles about a mile downstream. We tend to fish separately to cover more ground, so when we reached the water, I wandered upriver and Pat stayed and looked at some likely darter hideouts. I caught my second species of the day – the redline darter.

I was thrilled with another darter. These are difficult to catch.

A while later, I was busily glaring at an uncooperative darter. Pat, with no ill intent, walked up to a respectful distance and said “Hi Steve.” I jumped out of my skin – “Aaaaaaaagh! You scared the $#!& out of me!” I don’t think Pat is trying to sneak up on anyone – he is just naturally stealthy, which is handy while fishing for skittish creatures. I have all the grace and stealth of a vertigo-stricken walrus, and when I am focused on a darter, I wouldn’t notice that same walrus until it bumped into me. (Or said “Hi Steve.”) When I stopped screaming, Pat let me know that he had caught a bluebreast darter, a rare and marvelous creature that I have tried and failed for many times.

Gorgeous. His photos are always better than mine.

Pat has amazing focus and hamstrings, because he can hold the “Darter Crouch” for hours without screaming or accidentally soiling himself.

The “Darter Crouch.” Photo taken by a mature person.

The “Darter Crouch.” Photo taken by me.

The next morning, we headed downstream on the Clinch and set up across a big, fast riffle. Almost immediately, I had a triumph – a gilt darter, the same species Ben Cantrell caught in front of me in Missouri a few years ago.

A gilt darter. Ben’s was prettier, but they all count the same on the scoreboard.

Ben Cantrell. (And Cora the cat. Note that Ben’s current cat, Rascal, is far cooler than Cora.)

Rascal. You’ll be reading more about him next month.

After that, the morning was soul-crushing. I spotted black redhorse, so those were on my mind, but I had also seen a quillback, and even more importantly, I saw and missed three different tangerine darters. I felt awful, and I have a hard time leaving a place that I suspect holds fish, even to move somewhere that could be much better. (Ask Martini.) Pat finally talked me into moving a few miles, to a river that was alleged to hold quite a few redhorse. When we got there, we could see dozens of them, even from the parking lot, and I had high hopes that I would finally get my black.

I walked into the water, armed with some red worms on a #10 hook and a six-pound spinning outfit. I would pick out a redhorse, cast to it, and watch it carefully avoid the bait and swim upstream. To no one’s surprise except mine, this went on for quite a while, and, as you can imagine, I was exasperated. I left the bait sitting at my feet while I was looking for targets, and was startled by a small but definite bite. Reflexively, I lifted up and felt a small fish. I flipped it up through the air and dropped it into my occasionally-reliable glove hand.

It was an impossible explosion of color – neon green, neoner yellow, and electric tangerine orange. It was a tangerine darter, completely by mistake, but it was species four of the trip, and species 1868 lifetime.

Is that cool or WHAT?

I would have done the trip for this species alone.

We fished the Clinch again in the evening, and I still did not get a black redhorse. We did meet a very nice game warden, who couldn’t believe we were fishing for something that wasn’t a bass or catfish.

There were better versions of this photo, but the look on Pat’s face in this one is priceless.

Our dinner was something special, even by the low standards of unsupervised men on the road. We found one of the few remaining Long John Silver’s in America, and, I am proud to say, gorged ourselves on fried stuff.

Oh how I love fried stuff.

Pat wrestles down the Admiral’s Platter.

We spent the next morning hopping from creek to creek, searching for assorted micros that Pat had researched. I added two to the list – the Tennessee shiner and the Western blacknose dace. I also may have gotten some sort of recently split sculpin, but these IDs give me a headache.

A Tennessee shiner.

The western blacknose dace. Species six of the trip.

Any ideas? Thor? Val?

I also caught a teensy stripe-necked musk turtle. (Thanks to reader Thomas from VA who spotted the correct species.) It was cute until it bit me.

Late that afternoon, we pulled up to the legendary New River. Ironically one of the oldest rivers in the world, the New is supposed to be loaded with species, and from the bridge, it looked fantastic.

I had read about this place for years.

When we fought our way down to the water, however, it looked sterile. We searched riffles and rocks, and saw … nothing, as if there had been a toxic spill. Pat took it in stride, but I was apoplectic. I had read about the New River for years, and now that I was finally here, it was going to shut down on me? This is a legendary smallmouth haven … but of course, I wasn’t fishing for smallmouth. And if I fished for river bass, I was giving up on new species for the day. But I love smallmouth fishing – I remember my Uncle Jim talking about them back on early 1970s trips at Port Sanilac. I figured I might as well return to my fishing roots for a couple of hours. I took a sturdy spinning rod and a box of lures, and waded up the rocky, slippery passages until I arrived at a perfectly gorgeous spillway.

Tell me that doesn’t look full of fish.

I tied on a classic Panther Martin and cast into the edges of the white water, just as Uncle Jim taught me all those years ago.

Bang. Instant, big hit. I knew it was a smallie without seeing it, and it battled me in and out of the current until I beached it. It was a beautiful, strong two-pound fish. I released it, and cast again. Bang. I caught fish on my first five casts, all around two pounds.

This is what it’s all about.

They were everywhere.

I was in an isolated section of the New River, catching nice smallmouth. I was back at my roots, and loving it every bit as much as I love catching anything. I ended up with 14 smallies, ranging up to three and a half pounds. It was truly one of the golden moments of this or any other trip.

The beast of the group.

My day was complete.

Then it happened. “Hi Steve.” followed by “Aaaaaaaagh! You scared the $#!& out of me!” Pat has somehow walked all the way up the river without me noticing. Luckily, my pants were already wet.

We checked into some local motel that evening, and had a nice conversation with the night clerk. She noticed we were fishermen, and, unsolicited, she mentioned that she had done quite a bit of fishing in the Clinch. “Oh yes,” she said. “We used to get a lot of bass, and catfish, and that other thing … redhorse! We caught a lot of redhorse.” Pat tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back laughter and ended up making cough-up-the-hairball noises. I know the lady didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but I hated her nonetheless.

The next morning, we continued our way through the western part of the state.

And it was all scenic.

I added one species early in the morning – the mountain redbelly dace. This is another one I missed in North Carolina last year, so I was thrilled.

Species 1871.

Our next move was a long one, down what felt like a hundred miles of country road to a beautiful creek near a small church. When we got there, there was no parking to be found. The church lot was plainly marked as church parking only, and I tend not to do anything to mess with churches, as I am always worried I will cause them to burst into flame. Some local guys were volunteering their time to shore up the rockwall next to the building, and as soon as they saw we were fishermen, they invited us to park there. The kindness of strangers had saved us again. Pat and I got into the water and fished most of the afternoon – it was gorgeous. There were darters all over the place, although when I finally caught one, it turned out to be a fantail, a species I seem to get in every state.

Why is it always a fantail? Anybody have data on the Chesapeake split of the fantail?

I did get a crescent shiner moments later, species eight of the trip and 1872 lifetime.

The crescent shiner.

After that, it was mostly darter hunting, and just enjoying whatever wanted to bite in a small creek. Pat was off doing his own thing, spotting and catching stuff I didn’t even know was there. As we closed out the day, I had one lucky catch – it didn’t give me a new species, but it did give me a photo I’ll never forget.

A spawning crescent shiner. I think this was the only thing I caught all trip that Pat didn’t.

It was getting late and was time to leave, but of course I was still locked in on another darter than turned out to be a fantail. Pat walked down the stream and gently said “Steve?” I responded “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!”

The following day would be our last one on the road. Pat had to go back to work at the Library of Congress, and I had to face my sister. We hit a number of attractive spots on the way back up the DC area, and one of these, a spillway on the Roanoke River, produced a wonderful surprise. At first, I thought I had gotten a juvenile logperch, but when I showed the photo to Pat, he immediately recognized it as a chainback darter. This was my 9th and last species of the road trip, and my 20th overall darter species.

My first darter was in 2015, a rainbow with Martini and Ben. 

I also caught a large cutlip minnow, which I thought was worth sharing.

This is a behemoth of a cutlip.

Adorable. 

Our last spot was a creek known to host longfin darter. The results were a microcosm of the whole trip – Pat got the longfin; I got fantails.

No missing this ID. Pat’s photo of course.

As we were getting past time to leave, Pat kindly walked in my field of view for at least 20 feet and called out “Steve?” But I was focused on another fantail, so naturally … “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!” The Phantom of the River had struck for the final time. Or had he?

The ride home featured dinner at Zaxby’s, a regional fast food place that everyone should eat at before they die. Preferably just before, if you have the gravy.

Best fried chicken this side of Chick-fil-A, and no protesters!

Once I was back in DC, Pat had a couple of local trip ideas, allowing me to get out of the house and avoid my sister. The first species should have been easy – it was a sculpin that Pat had found in a particular set of rocks below a particular bridge in a particular stream.

The particular stream.

Unfortunately, I don’t always read instructions. I bashed around the creek for a couple of hours with no success, and finally, in desperation, I reread the email and noticed I had gotten it exactly backwards. I waded to the correct spot and caught the fish in 30 seconds. I had just finished taking photos and was quietly enjoying the scenery when Pat called. I had accidentally taken my phone off silent mode, so “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!” The River Phantom had struck – remotely.

The Blue Ridge Sculpin.

The following day, I gave it one more try. This spot took me all the way to the backwaters of Chesapeake Bay, through some gorgeous hiking trails and into a wadeable lagoon alleged to contain a population of naked gobies.

The ledge was crawling with micros.

I set forth with light gear and had a ball. There were lots of micros, like killifish and sheepshead minnows, but the naked gobies were especially abundant.

Sheepshead minnow. They’re cute.

A naked goby. They do not wear pants like other gobies.

I then went after some interesting-looking killifish, one of which turned out to be a rainwater killifish – species 12 of the week and 1876 overall.

1876 was the year Custer screwed up. (But he still got a monument. Sometimes I think this could confuse our children.)

Speaking of confused children, this trip was also to recognize my niece Elizabeth, who quietly managed to graduate high school with all kinds of honors and to do so without catching any species that I have not.

Roughly 17 years ago, I was the only family member to witness her first steps.

That’s Elizabeth on the left, and some vagrant photobombing us.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – WORLD RECORD 199

After substantial confusion, mostly caused by me, we have a good count on my IGFA records. It stands at 199, and it stands there instead of 198 because of an almost unknown California native fish – the hardhead. It started with a road trip. Marta is always game for a weekend road trip, especially someplace with steep hills and a yoga retreat. This time, we drove five hours to get to Alturas, a charming mountain town in remote Northeastern California. The hailstorm that broke my windshield was not as charming.

Also dented my hood and roof.

The aftermath. That’s a pile of hail on the shoulder.

Rumor had it that there were big hardhead and a few other species in a nearby river, so I gave it a shot.

The Pit River, central Alturas.

Luke Ovgard, he of blue chub fame, joined us. I trusted his guidance, as he happened to hold the world record on hardhead. Unfortunately, the river was completely blown out, but luckily, this did not stop the hardhead from biting. We had great action through the evening, interrupted only for an excellent Italian meal. The next morning, while Marta hiked a local mountain, I unintentionally but gleefully shattered Luke’s record.

Luke, and his record fish from 2018. It was one pound.

Mine was two. So that’s like catching a 3100 pound black marlin, although I suspect I won’t get as much press.

Enjoying the scenery. In the Bay Area, that barn would cost $3,000,000, more if you’re a Republican.

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 7, 2019

Hail Caesar

Dateline: May 12, 2019 – Boca Raton, Florida

This episode should really be three separate South Florida blogs, but the complaints would be overwhelming. Miami is always a great place to visit, but, like any spot I have fished frequently, the opportunities get more and more specific over time. This trip was not just about species, however – it was also about seeing some friends and keeping some promises.

My first fishing trip to South Florida was on August 9, 1999 – the day I caught my 100th species – with legendary guide Vinnie Biondoletti. (So you older species hunters can take some solace in this late start, and yes I mean you, Gerry Hansell.) In the 20 years since, the area has always produced, and when I had a business trip to Miami come up, I had a few targets to get after – notably the brown hoplo and the dreaded Caesar grunt – fish that everyone but me seems to have caught.

Even Jamie has caught a Caesar Grunt. Boo.

But first, I needed to get there. United Airlines, who should adopt the slogan “We Make Things Unnecessarily Difficult,” undercut even their low standard. I was flying to Miami through Houston. There was a huge storm heading to Houston.

It didn’t take a degree to figure this out.

There was an alternate flight through Chicago with plenty of seats available, so I asked United to move me. The agent, apparently a meteorology minor at Ohio State, spent 15 minutes insisting that the weather in Houston was fine, and refused to switch me. Of course, Ohio State’s meteorology program is only there for the football team, and Houston was chaos.

But United just couldn’t see this coming.

United was completely unprepared for an airport full of stranded passengers – there were three customer service reps and thousands of people waiting in line, so I just got my own hotel room, at, dare I say, the vilest crackhouse of a Motel Fungus I have ever stayed.

My motel’s soda machine. I think this says it all.

And the frequent flier miles I earned for the trip are worth about half of what they were when I earned them, because United keeps “enhancing” and “evolving” their mileage program. (Which means “making the program even more inconvenient.”) I know air travel is going to have occasional difficulties, but I’ve flown over 2 million miles with United. Silly me for expecting more.

My late arrival into Florida meant that I could not roam north Miami hunting bluefin killifish and sailfin molly, which, in hindsight, was probably for the best. I picked up my intended schedule with an evening venture into the Everglades, where old friend Pat Kerwin had given me one of his inexplicable, “How-the-hell-did-he-find-that” spots for brown hoplo. (My first attempt at a brown hoplo cost me an impressive piece of jewelry for Marta.) There was also supposed to be an oddball South American catfish in the area, so that would be a great bonus if it happened. After covering myself with a mayonnaise-like coating of bug repellent, I hopped in the rental car and headed west, to a dreadful-looking ditch that was already hazy with mosquitoes.

Lovely sunset, but the place was full of insects.

I met another buddy there – Dom Porcelli, a local species hunter and kindred spirit. We instantly saw hoplos jumping, or at least that’s what I believe was jumping – other, more experienced anglers have suggested these were walking catfish, which would have made my optimism unfounded, but in my ignorance, I took it as a good sign. We tried a few different rigs – floats, unweighted, ledgers, but the bluegill were vicious. I finally got a leadhead rig to settle in some of the deeper water, and continued playing with a float. (I even caught a small jaguar guapote, a fish that had caused me to humiliate myself in front of Marty Arostegui a few years ago.)

The savage jaguar guapote.

Moments later, my other rod slammed down and headed for the water. I grabbed it and set the hook, and the fish responded with a surprisingly strong fight. I said hoplo prayers, and as a dark form surfaced, I swung it up onto the bank. It was a hoplo, it had taken less than 10 minutes, and I didn’t have to buy Marta any jewelry.

The hoplo and Dom.

Solid armor. It was only nine inches long, but it weighed almost a pound. Almost.

I expected that I would get dozens of the little beasts, but they seemed to disappear after that one fish, which didn’t please Dom. (He did finally get one about an hour later.) We stayed for about two hours, until the mosquitoes learned to ignore the repellent. In that time, I got a bunch of Mayan cichlids, which are fun but not a new species, and one South American catfish, Rhamdia quelen, which was not fun (four ounces of listlessness) but definitely a new species.

Hey, it counts.

Dom and I had a pleasant conversation about upcoming fishing adventures, including one planned in just a couple of days, and then I headed back to the Hilton and a few hours of sleep.

The next day was about keeping a promise. Of course, you all remember Cris, the Brazilian co-worker with the impossibly good-looking family.

Cris and his impossibly good-looking family. I have trouble figuring out who is the wife and who is the daughter, so use your judgment. There is a son, who is also good-looking, but he is a teenage boy, so he is always out of the house doing homework or helping the community or whatever it is that teenage boys are doing nowadays.

It had been years since Cris and I had gotten out onto the water together – every time I was in Miami, I seemed to end up with something else urgent to do, which, to my lasting resentment, often was not fishing. This is not how we should treat friends. Cris is a dedicated fisherman who has done a great job of learning the local waters, and is always sending me photos of everything from snook to tuna.

Cris’ personal best snook. I think he used my personal best snook for bait.

I was looking very forward to getting out and doing some offshore kite fishing. When we got going early the next day, everything looked perfect. It was warm, it was spring, and it was Florida. We were joined by Cris’ good friend Ricardo, the owner of the Brazilian pond where I caught a 19-pound tiger suribi on trout gear last year. But the Fish Gods rarely put everything in your favor, and when we got outside the protected backwaters, it became clear that we were going to have some wind. The nasty, all-day kind of wind that makes drifting offshore unpleasant. Cris and Ricardo were game and didn’t complain a bit, but it was sloppy out there.

The guys, right before we got into the wind.

We got some bites and landed a tuna or two, and I kept busy fishing the bottom. I got a couple of truly weird catches, like a flying gurnard, but alas, none of them were new.

Despite the name, it doesn’t fly. Sort of like United in Houston.

This happens when you have been fishing an area as often as I have, and truthfully, a good day fishing with an old friend beats a new species. (Mostly. If there had been a spearfish at stake, I might not have been so philosophical.)

When we got back inshore, fishing actually got good.

Tell me that doesn’t look full of fish.

Cris had scoped out the local mangroves for ladyfish, and we spent about an hour casting lures and getting constant strikes. Ladyfish hit hard, jump all over the place, and hunt in packs.

What’s not to love?

When we finally docked and cleaned the boat, the best part of the day was still ahead of us – a home-cooked meal. Remember, these are Brazilians, and all Brazilian food, with the exception of capybara, is really, really good. We ate and talked well into the evening, when it occurred to me that I had another predawn wakeup call coming the next day.

That next day, the plan was to fish the reefs north of Miami with Dom Porcelli. Even though I have explored this area many times, there is always something new to try for, and in my case, the Caesar grunt loomed large. This modest grunt has caused me endless pain, because everyone I have been fishing with in Florida has caught one, generally right in front of me. We’re talking Jamie Hamamoto here. Scott Perry I can forgive, because he rarely fishes and didn’t mean to catch it. Martini, I can forgive, because he is a frighteningly awesome angler and couldn’t help himself. But Jamie?

The weather had not improved, and when we motored out of the intracoastal waterway, it was sloppy. The anchor would hold, as long as we didn’t want to stand up, and as always, there were plenty of fish down there. Dom had caught plenty of Caesar grunts, generally on the Ides of March, and we had the right bait in the right areas. Naturally, I caught everything but a Caesar.

Not a grass porgy. It’s never a grass porgy.

And everything is attractive.

A puddingwife wrasse.

A normal person would be thrilled to be catching reef fish after reef fish on light tackle. Dom knew the areas rock by rock and reef by reef, but to ask for a particular grunt in an area swarming with hungry fish is more luck than skill. At least that’s what I tell myself late at night when I am justifying why I haven’t caught one.

Dozens of fish into the morning, just long enough after my Red Bull where I was getting a little fuzzy, I pulled a smallish grunt on board and was in the process of unhooking it when Dom’s eyes popped out like I had turned into Kate Upton and my top had fallen off. With great relief, I realized Dom was not staring at me – he was staring at the fish. It was a Caesar Grunt, and I might have thrown it back if he hadn’t noticed what it was. It was eight ounces of scaly joy, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who I texted first.

“Hello, Jamie. Guess what I caught?” “Hello Steve, Mine was bigger.”

The day was complete – I had gotten my 1862nd species, and an emotionally important one. Indeed, if I ever start bringing an emotional support animal on airplanes with me, it would be Jamie.

The day wasn’t complete. We were on the water, we weren’t throwing up, and there was plenty of shrimp left. So we just fished, for whatever happened to be down there, no worries about anything exotic. And usually, when you are being pure to the sport, something unexpected happens. This unexpected thing happened about an hour later, in an oddly familiar location – the end of Anglin’s Pier. (The very same place Scott Perry got his Caesar.) I had just released two nice juvenile rainbow parrotfish, and as my bait settled out of sight, I got hammered. It was an above-average reef fish, and it took a minute or two to get it near the boat. It was a relatively plain parrotfish, but I know these are often odd species, so I photographed the heck out of it. (Val Kells’ book would later show it to be a queen parrotfish, another new species, putting me at 1863.)

The day was officially epic, partly because I knew Skyline Chili awaited me for dinner.

Skyline Chili. It’s a food group.

I couldn’t thank Dom enough for taking the day out with me. The species hunting community is very closely related, and all of us have shared our secret spots with a stranger – I wouldn’t be nearly as far along on my list without a whole lot of help like this. Even from Jamie.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THERE’S A NEW DOCTOR IN THE FAMILY

As a group with a dearth of meaningful accomplishments, my family will take any excuse to celebrate – whether it’s passing junior high school, a birthday, probation, or toilet training. (In Cousin Chuck’s case, all four happened on one magical evening in the early 90’s.) But shortly before the Florida trip, I was invited to share a truly special moment for Martini and the Arosteguis. In what had seemed like only a few months, Martini, Stanford grad and general fishing wizard, had transformed himself into Martini Arostegui, PhD. That’s Dr. Martini Arostegui, with yet another degree, this time from the University of Washington in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. I was invited to watch him present his dissertation and then to celebrate with the family.

Let’s see … I know what a “trout” is, but the trail goes cold from there.

You have to be good to defend a PhD. But you have to be VERY good to do it in that shirt.

When you figure this guy isn’t close to 30 yet, it’s pretty amazing, and I was humbled to be there. People ask me – “What’s this guy going to do next?” I answer “Anything he decides to.” Congratulations Martini.

How does Roberta keep getting younger?

 

 

 

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