Posted by: 1000fish | January 15, 2018

The Wakkanai Road Trip Chronicles – Part One

Dateline: July 18, 2017 – Wakkanai, Japan

The bad weather didn’t follow us. We followed it. It was lousy enough in Tokyo, and Phil and I voluntarily got on a plane to go fishing in one of the most windswept, barren places on earth – Northern Hokkaido. This is Japan’s version of Siberia. Even the Russians passed on it after the war.

нет, слишком ветреный.

Still, there were loads of unusual species to be caught here, and weather or not, we were going to give it a shot. I had wanted to fish the Japanese northwest Pacific for years, ever since I noticed that they had Atka mackerel, which I have admired in books for years. There are also unusual rockfish, assorted flounders, and perhaps the most interesting of all, the Japanese Taimen, a river-dwelling trout cousin that grows to over 30 pounds and is closely related to the European Huchen. (Painful Huchen details HERE.)

Wakkenai is a 90 minute flight from Tokyo.

Sometimes, luggage tags are unintentionally funny.

As soon as we landed and got the rental car, we headed to the local tackle store. On previous trips in the area, Phil had gotten to know the proprietor quite well. The language barrier was not a problem for me, because the tackle shop owner communicated entirely in pessimistic noises. Phil asked him how the taimen fishing was. He bunched up his eyebrows, shook his head sadly, and said “Mmmmmm.” Phil then asked about the sea fishing. More scrunched eyebrows, and an even longer “Mmmmmmmmmmmm.” Apparently, there was some question whether our charter boats would even be able to go out – the seas were rougher than normal, and they’re normally pretty rough.

That first afternoon, we tried a taimen river. The scenery was stark but beautiful, and even in July, the temperature hovered in the low 50s with a wind chill reminiscent of western Ireland, where summer lasts 36 hours. I quickly understood why Phil demanded I bring waders and why he was concerned about my willingness to fight through steep jungle terrain. The river was fast and cold, with steep, overgrown banks.

And how exactly are we going to get down there?

I could have looked for a month and never found an access, because there really wasn’t one. Phil just crashed through the undergrowth, like a rhino but less graceful, until he either spotted or fell into the water. He is as dedicated an angler as I have ever met, and this is me we’re talking about.

Once we had actually gotten to a precarious ledge where I could aim a careful cast at a small section of water, I promptly snagged my lure in the trees. Phil helpfully advised me that Taimen do not live in trees. We left the river empty-handed, and I was not filled with optimism.

Our second stop was one that would become very familiar over the next few days – the Seicomart store, which I pronounced “Psychomart” – Hokkaido’s version of 7-11. There were some incredibly suspicious things on the shelves here.

I have no idea what was in this, but Phil ate one and survived.

Psycho had three items that kept me going: Red Bull, fried bird pieces, and, the best of all by far – cantaloupe ice cream. Apparently, Hokkaido is the main cantaloupe growing region in Japan, and cantaloupe ice cream is one of the greatest things ever. It is hereby declared to be its own food group, ranking somewhere between Haagen-Dazs and Taco Bell.

Oh, but it’s good stuff.

Speaking of unexpected foods, we ate dinner back in Wakkanai, at, of all the random restaurants to find, a Big Boy. The menu wasn’t quite what I was used to from Michigan, but they had very nice steaks. Phil would have been happy with local cuisine, but I was quite pleased to have western options.

A small taste of home.

Speaking of Japanese culture, one thing I will never get used to is the complexity of the toilets. In my opinion, a toilet should be a fairly simple device that requires no or minimal training. The Japanese apparently feel otherwise, and they have managed to add a bidet, deodorizer, and an assortment of other appliances I couldn’t figure out. I never even learned how to flush, so I always tried to go after Phil did.

These are the instructions for a basic toilet at a gas station.

That evening, which was windier, colder, and darker than the daytime, I tried my luck at one of the local harbors. The place was stuffed with redfin, but redfin species are almost impossible to tell apart from each other. I was, however, lucky enough to get a rather unusual new critter – the six-lined prickleback.

Pricklebacks are cool.

We finished up around 11. After I ate another load of cantaloupe ice cream, we crashed out for a few hours. Then it was time for Red Bull and fishing, and cantaloupe ice cream, which is close enough to fruit to count as a breakfast food. Our charter, as predicted by Mr. Grumpy-Pants, was cancelled. The alternate target was a harbor about an hour to the north, where the grumpy tackle store guy indicated that we might find something called a saffron cod. The drive along the coast was beautiful, but it was also obvious that sea conditions were brutal.

The wrong time and place to go out in a small boat.

We did get to visit the northernmost point in Japan. I can add this to my bucket list of directional extremes, like the southernmost point in the US (Southpoint, Kona, Hawaii,) the southermost point in South America (Godforsaken Island, Argentina,) and the point of no return with my ex-wife (Giving her a vacuum for Valentine’s Day.)

The northernmost point in Japan.

We drove into a small commercial harbor, and to my delight, there were quite a few locals already fishing there, meaning that either fish were present or that charters had been cancelled and the fishermen were desperate not to go home. Luckily for me, action was quick and we added two species in half an hour.

Doubles on the Saffron cod.

The Korean Rockfish. They are also apparently in Korea.

It was disappointing that we hadn’t been able to get out on a boat, but we were making the best of it. Phil took us to a local landmark for lunch – a restaurant that serves only scallops – and it was excellent. This was the closest I would get to authentic Japanese food on the trip, and even then I used a fork.

Phil with lots and lots of scallops.

We then headed back to the rivers. On the drive, I was surprised to see a fox standing by the side of the road. I said “I am surprised to see a fox standing by the side of the road.” Phil responded “I am surprised we hadn’t seen one yet. They’re all over the place.” From that point on, we saw dozens of them.

They were EVERYWHERE, including Phil’s shower, or so I would guess from the noises.

I was not rampantly optimistic, but every minute on the water is a new chance, so we donned our waders and headed down the steep, near-impenetrable bank. Phil was only a few yards ahead of me, but I couldn’t see him through the underbrush. I had just stopped to get my bearings when I heard a sound like a flat of concrete bring dropped from a great height into mud. An instant later, Phil shouted an expletive, but during that split second before I knew whether he was alive, I wondered how I was going to find the car keys. I certainly also slipped a few times, although not as spectacularly as Phil, but we finally reached the water.

We waded upriver, but it took at least half an hour to get through a hundred yards of deep, unfishable turns. At six feet, I am the shorter of the two of us, and I was millimeters from flooding my waders most of the time. But finally, we got to start casting, and this river had a lot more openings than yesterday’s venue.

The river, once we had reached the civilized part.

Phil has caught these fish previously, and he tried, gently but persistently, to correct two major mistakes I was making – working the lure incorrectly and casting to the wrong places. Mentally, I was fishing for steelhead, working lures at a medium-slow, very steady pace across open cuts and tailout areas. This garnered no strikes, because taimen are not steelhead. They act more like smallmouth bass, and eventually, it got through my skull that I needed to cast near structure and rip the baits aggressively.

After about half an hour of doing things correctly, I got a vicious strike and had a fish peel line off downstream, run me under a tree and break off before I could even start swearing. I was speechless with disappointment, but I retied as calmly as I could and stuck at it. About fifteen minutes later, a taimen hit me just inches from a fallen tree. I pulled hard on him and got him out in the main current, and Phil swept in with the net. I had gotten my fish. We whooped and high-fived, then took dozens and dozens of photos. This was not a particularly huge example, but it was a taimen and I was beside myself with joy.

The taimen, the rod, and the lure. I brought dozens of lures, but Phil would only let me use one bought locally.

Phil was due. He got a hit minutes later, and this was a much bigger fish. The fights were very strong but over fairly quickly – once the fish were out of the cover, they tired in the heavy current and we could net them.

And remember, Phil is a very large person, so the fish is even bigger than it looks.

This went on for another hour or two, and we each got two more fish – in other words, it was spectacular.

Another taimen, another locally-bought lure.

Late in the day, I got a smaller strike and landed a bonus species – a northern whitespotted char. (Close relative of the species I got in The Shameful Pay Pond Episode last year.)

It was nice to get one these in an unsupervised environment.

We rose early the next day, to the expected news that our charter was not going out. (“Mmmmmmmmmm.”) Phil had figured out a Plan B – a rocky shoreline that was relatively sheltered from the wind and might hold a few species. We spent most of the morning there, and I managed to add three smallish fish to the list – the so-called purple puffer and two different flounders. The scenery was amazing, but it would have been even more amazing from a boat. I was really dying to drop a jig into a few hundred feet of water.

It may look nice out there, but even 500 yards offshore, the wind was blowing hard.

The purple puffer. There were thousands of these.

The Kurogarei flounder.

The marbled flounder.

While I caught these beasts, Phil spent the morning hunting the beach for old glass floats. He has quite a collection of these.

These floats get loose from old fishing nets and wash ashore. 

Phil has found hundreds of them over the years.

After a Big Boy steak dinner, we headed to the docks near our hotel in Wakkanai. Using some Japanese sabiki/krill combos, we began fishing for rainbow smelt. (Also at the recommendation of the grumpy tackle store guy.) The fish bit quickly, and there was even a bonus rockfish species.

The rainbow smelt. Considered good eating locally, but they smell like cucumbers and I don’t like cucumbers.

The Japanese speckled rockfish. By this stage, I would take species when I could get them.

Out of the corner of my eye, I kept seeing a dog walk along the pier, but when I looked more closely, it was a fox. There were everywhere.

That’s a fox checking out Phil. They weren’t all that worried about us, except for the smell.

That evening, we went and spoke to the tackle store owner about the possibility of going on the boat tomorrow. He hung his head sadly and gave us his longest and most depressing pessimistic noise yet: “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.” We were officially out of ideas. The boats were not going out. We had tried the harbors. We had tried the shorelines. The rivers didn’t look great. But then, Phil dug deep in his tarnished soul and came up with one outlandish concept, which sounded close to idiotic at the time but ended up rescuing the last two days of the trip.

We haven’t had a cliffhanger on 1000Fish since July of 2010, and we haven’t had a good cliffhanger since, well, ever. So humor me that this one will have some bizarre twists and turns, and tune in next week for the sordid details.

Steve

 

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Posted by: 1000fish | January 2, 2018

Natural Born Krillers

Dateline: July 15, 2017 – Tokyo Bay, Japan

Betsey the cat was waiting for me. That alone was worth the trip to Japan.

Betsey the cat sporting her outfit of the day. She was glad to see me, once she figured out I had access to the cat treats.

Betsey is treated very well. This is her cat toy selection. This is all the doing of Phil’s wife, Hitomi, but most of you have not read this far and will naturally assume Phil is a cat lady, which was the whole point.

Phil and I had crushed it on my trip to Japan last year – 52 species and two world records – but Japan is a big country and has a lot of fish. I was convinced we could get another big haul, especially if we headed outside of Tokyo. This year, Phil generously invited me for a 10 day stretch in July, which must mean that he is very patient. Marta feels that even Mother Theresa would snap after no more than 48 hours with me.

On that 2016 trip, we were blessed with ridiculously good weather. Tokyo is generally windy in July, so Phil warned me we would lose a few days to sea conditions. But we didn’t. It started nice and just got nicer every day, so that on our final evening it was so dead calm that we actually complained we weren’t drifting fast enough. In 2017, the Fish Gods caught up to us. My United flight landed right over Tokyo Bay, and the water looked like an over-soaped washing machine. Deep dropping was out of the question in these conditions, and we had planned on a lot of deep dropping. Our drive home from the airport was filled with discussion of plans B, C, and D.

Phil would not to be undone by inclement weather – remember, he is a Navy officer – and he found us a great option for the first evening. About two hours south of Tokyo, there is a port named Shimizu. Phil explained that the area is protected from the prevailing wind, and that it has a steep dropoff, so the deepwater fishing is quite close to shore. The target would be oilfish, with an outside chance at an escolar or some kind of midwater shark. Although I had gotten a small oilfish last year, getting a dignified one was very appealing, and the idea of dropping bait down 1000 feet always makes me smile. (Until the reeling starts.)

It was raining and miserable when we got there, but NOT windy, so I was thrilled. The charter boat was big and comfortable, and as far as I could tell, the captain was very personable. (I speak NO Japanese, so I have to take Phil’s word for everything.) We boarded and motored out onto a large bay. The oilfish don’t bite until dark, so we spent the late afternoon fishing the bottom close to shore. The guys in the back of the boat got a few assorted bream, but just when I thought I would be left out of the fun, because my rig did not have a picture of the specific fish I wanted, which is very bad in Japan, but just then, I got a bite. It wasn’t big, but when I landed the fish, I was thrilled. It was an unusual threadfin bream – a Nemipterid, as I know you were about to ask – and I had my first species of the trip.

The yellowbelly threadfin bream. I swear it glowed.

The cloudy late afternoon tapered into darkness, and the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced, at least according to Phil, that we were going to begin fishing the deep water. We ran about a mile, out to where the bay drops into abyssal depths, and dropped big fluorescent jigs down anywhere from 600 to 1000 feet, counting out the color changes on our marked braid until we got to where the skipper recommended. The action was just stupid good. We both hooked up immediately, and it was at this stage that our otherwise mild-mannered captain went schizo. As soon as I had a fish on, he got on the loudspeaker and began shouting instructions. This was not helpful, because I speak less Japanese than Betsey the cat. Phil tried to translate – “set the hook, keep the rod up, reel, reel REEL! …” but he had a fish on too so most of it was lost. Within twenty minutes, we both landed solid oilfish. I was ecstatic.

Steve, Captain Yellatme, and the first oilfish.

Since I was busy fighting my fish, I only faintly noticed a loud crack on Phil’s side of the boat. In the back of my mind, I thought it might have been his underwear failing, but I was relieved to find out it was only one of his jigging rods shattering, which was still bad but less of a problem aesthetically. Nonplussed, Phil fought the fish to the boat with the reel and a short section of handle.

Phil’s first fish and the remains of his rod.

Note that this would not be an IGFA legal catch – the rod must remain intact. But imagine the hand strength it took.

We dropped again, and as soon as we got to the prescribed depth – slam. More oilfish. We each got six, all adult fish, great fights, easy to release, and for God’s sake, if you keep one to eat, invite lots of friends so that no one gets more than four ounces, because anyone who overindulges on oilfish will be counting the tiles on the bathroom floor for the next 36 hours. Ask Wade.

Another solid fish. Note to first time oilfish anglers – bring gloves. Oilfish skin is brutally sharp.

One of Phil’s fish that didn’t break a rod.

On perhaps my fifth drop, I got a bite fairly shallow in the water column, maybe 500 feet, and hooked up on something that ran more more side to side than an oilfish. After half an hour of head-shaking battle, a dark shape emerged into the light. Phil spotted it first – “Escolar!!” I went into sphincter lock and almost lost the fish, but I somehow managed not to rip the hook out or break the line until they lifted it onto the deck. I had gotten one of the true deepwater ghosts.

My escolar. The mark on the side is from a cookie-cutter shark, and don’t ask me which fish I would rather catch.

A random amusement park on the way back to port.

Then there was a lot of sleeping, followed by more sleeping, followed by morning, a Red Bull, and some local freshwater fishing. Well after lunch, Phil dropped me off at a small local creek and handed me a batch of micro gear and a tub of maggots – is there any better recipe for a perfect afternoon? I looked over the area. The water was at the bottom of a ten-foot concrete flood wall, and while there were ladders to get down into the ditch, this would mean walking through tall weeds which undoubtedly hosted large spiders and other unpleasantries.

Yes, people fish in places like this.

I decided to fish from the ledge. The fish were everywhere, and foolishly, I thought it would be easy. The problem was, and this isn’t the first time this had happened to me, that if you can see the fish, they can see you. Every time I leaned over and dropped a bait down, the critters scattered to the four winds. So I got stealthy. I dropped a float rig with just the last few inches of the rod over the fence, and finally got a few fish.

Note for the linguistic purists who are reading this – I do not speak Japanese. (Not even the three critical phrases – “Where is the bathroom,” “Are there testicles in the stew,” and “No one that tall is really a girl.”)  The common names I report here are cobbled together from poor translations and wild guesses from Fishbase.org, but if anyone wants the scientific names, just write me.

The first catch turned out to be the Aburahaya minnow, a dace-like creature that was surprisingly difficult to get on the hook.

This is apparently a large one.

Working my way downstream to the curious and not unamused glances of the locals, I got another species – the Nagoya goby.

Dignity is not an issue.

Phil joined me toward evening, and after examining my photos, he declared that there was another goby to catch. We fished in a long, slightly deeper run for about an hour with no luck, but right before we were going to leave, I got a spirited bite and pulled up a beautiful pond loach.

A relative beast.

This is my fourth species in the family, and the other three – in England, Laos, and Myanmar –  have been rather memorable.

Our next item was to try for an eel, but we had a couple of hours to kill before it got really dark. This left plenty of time for dinner, and to what I am sure is your collective horror, I skipped anything cultural and opted for Red Lobster. That’s Red Lobster, as in the mediocre American seafood chain. It’s exactly the same food in Japan, it just costs three times as much. I have to acknowledge Phil’s patience on the food topic – he would have been just as happy with something Japanese, but if I can’t read the menu, I am generally a coward.

We then returned to the scene of last year’s eel failure, an urban canal somewhere in greater Tokyo. We cast out bottom rigs with night crawlers and sat down with some cold beverages. There was no drama this time – I got one quickly.

Species number six of the trip.

This would be, however, the only eel we got. The next day was some sort of Japanese holiday, and ironically, eel is the required dish on this holiday. Phil’s wife had put quite a bit of pressure on us to bring home a good catch, and we had failed. But after he dropped me off at the house, Phil went back out and dipnetted a regular eel feast, so he was, at least as of that moment, a good husband.

On the 15th, we got enough of a break in the weather to make taking the boat out marginally safe. This was not to imply it was going to be pleasant, at least for me, because it was still windy and the seas hadn’t fully calmed down, but it was worth it to take a shot at some of Tokyo Bay’s weird and wonderfuls. There are basically no water conditions that bother Phil, because, as we have covered, he is a navy officer and is used to doing involved technical tasks, like keeping complicated IT systems running, or playing solitaire, on board a destroyer in the middle of a typhoon.

We hit the water bright and early, and as soon as we anchored, I was confronted with yet another bewildering Japanese terminal rig. We would be using krill for bait, on something resembling a European feeder rig. The leaders that were attached below these small baskets were lengthy – some seven feet – and contained three hooks at the tail end. (So this would not be IGFA legal – max two hooks on bait – but catching a record was not my top priority.) Baiting each of these hooks without lassoing myself was going to be a concern. I knew better to ask for a simpler rig, because, as we have covered, the Japanese are very, very specific about their terminal tackle and any changes typically result in no fish.

Phil was not nearly as intimidated by the setups, and showed me that the boat had a set of small strip magnets on the rail so the hooks could stay put while I filled the basket with krill and then baited the hooks with the same tiny shrimp. The bait then had to be lowered to a precise depth, using the marked braid, because too shallow would get no fish and too deep would get the wrong fish. I got the hang of it after about eight hours, but in the meantime, I did manage to get six new species.

The first new species was an anthias – a type of fish faintly related to groupers that always seems to come in bright colors. I’ve gotten relatives in Hawaii and Gibraltar, and I am more or less randomly calling this a Sakuradai, because that name was on Fishbase someplace near this creature.

That’s Phil’s best attempt not to look bewildered.

New rockfish are always welcome on the species list.

I’m calling this the Togotto-Mebaru.

Mercifully, the scorpionfish below had a clear identifying characteristic – the spot on the cheek.

Hence, the spotcheek scorpionfish.

They call this next one a chicken grunt.

No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. My Mother always tried to get me to eat unacceptable things, like weasel, by telling me they tasted like chicken. My question always was – why not just have chicken? Weasel is expensive.

I usually leave the scads alone, but this Japanese scad was actually identifiable.

A big thanks to Phil for pointing out that this was a new species. I was about to throw it back, thinking it was another horse mackerel.

And finally, a lovely half-lined cardinalfish.

Half the fish has lines, hence the name. If these were out, we knew it was getting late in the day.

We took our time cruising home, trolling for cutlassfish in a couple of spots. I had passed on these last year, when there was a wide-open bite, but in the course of subsequent late-night bathroom reading, I discovered that the Japanese cutlassfish is a different species than the ones I had gotten elsewhere. So, since I now want to catch one, they have become scarce, a la the Klamath Smallscale Sucker. I have to give Phil a big thanks here – he would really rather be out trying to get a marlin, which, from his relatively small boat, would be quite an accomplishment.

The count for the trip had reached 12 – already a worthwhile adventure. It was a shame we hadn’t been able to get out to the deep water, but as some tottering uncle of mine always said, “Them’s the breaks.” The real test would come in the morning, when we would – on purpose – fly to one of the most barren, windswept places on earth, and try to fish there. So tune in next week for our trip to Hokkaido, which is Japanese for “Your charter is cancelled.”

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 18, 2017

Conan the Librarian

Dateline: June 28, 2017 – Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

I finally have a reason to visit my sister. Who knew there was actually great fishing moments from Laura’s house? I may have missed this because most of my visits to Northern Virginia have been during the holidays, when it is cold and there are great incentives to stay indoors, like the fact that it is cold and that if I leave the house for even 10 minutes my niece will eat my share of the Christmas cookies. But there I was, in Springfield in early summertime, and this meant I was going to get on the water. I had high hopes, as I always do, but truthfully, I had very little idea what I was going to encounter.

Unlike many of my adventures, this was not a business trip. It was purely a family thing. Somehow, 18 years had slipped by and my nephew was graduating high school and heading off to college.

Many of you remember Charlie from this photo.

Others may remember him as the little %&#% who caught a leopard searobin when I did not. See “I Have No Nephew“)

But he looks like this now.

In any case, whatever he has caught, somehow, he is suddenly a legal adult and can vote and and serve in the military even though he, like many of our current 18 year-olds, is a communist. His first job should change all that, but who knows when that will happen. Kids can stay in college for decades now.

Off to college? It seems like only 18 years ago, he was wetting the couch. (If he does that now, at least he gets stuck with the laundry.) That means I also got 18 years older at the same time, which gives me pause for digressive thought. Did I get everything done I wanted to in those 18 years? In 1999, the year Charlie was born, I caught my 100th species. I would not set a world record for six more years. I was still legally married although in the process of getting legally not married, and working for a Silicon Valley startup with hopes to become fabulously wealthy. But I digress.

I like digressing.

In 1999, it would be five more years until I would meet Marta, and eight years until I was emotionally ready for a relationship with her. My Mom and both of my grandmothers were still alive. I could call my Uncle Stan and get verbally abused any time I wanted to, and Cousin Chuck was slightly less objectionable. I remember how complicated and rushed everything seemed back on the day Charlie was born, but now it seems like such a simple and good time. So many more things were possible then, but so many things hadn’t been accomplished yet.

Fast forward 18 years. Some of it happened, some of it didn’t, and here we are.

I certainly knew there were creeks around Laura’s house, and I am game as anyone to go splashing around a stream with a micro rig in hand. Of course, micros can be maddeningly difficult to pin down, and if you don’t have specific information, it is highly likely that you will encounter either creek chubs, striped shiners, or that silvery thing that no one can really identify. This is where Patrick Kerwin came into the picture. A locally-based expert species hunter, Patrick knew every creek in the area and “had the numbers” – specific spots where things that were not creek chubs could be caught. Both Ben Cantrell and Martini know Patrick and had introduced him to me, and when I found out I would be in the area I gave him a call. Generously, he offered to take me out on the water for a day and volunteered some prime spots for assorted stuff I had never caught.

On the first morning of the trip, I took my communist nephew and my niece, Elizabeth, who does not seem to be a communist, out to investigate some local creeks. We ventured to a spot just a few miles from my sister’s house, and while Charlie and Elizabeth amused themselves with panfish, I scraped up four new species.

The swallowtail shiner.

The satinfin shiner. I briefly thought this was a small fallfish. See below.

A river chub. Not a creek chub.

And finally, the cutlip minnow. Charlie is still not sure about celebrating fish this size.

The next day, under the auspices of family bonding, the kids and I headed about 20 miles north, to a creek where Patrick told me I might find a fallfish. The fallfish, a larger, less-common relative of the creek chub, had been a species in the back of my mind since a beautiful New England afternoon in August of 2005. On that otherwise magical day of smallmouth fishing, guide Mark Ewing mentioned that there was something called a fallfish in the river, which meant that I could think of catching nothing else. Never mind the 50 bass to six pounds.

That’s Mark Ewing. If you want to catch smallmouth on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, I can put you in touch with him.

Back to the present. We hadn’t been in the river five minutes when I hooked a nice fallfish on a spinner. Of course, I lost it, causing waves of anguish and nausea. Then the panfish took over. This was great for the kids, but I was beside myself. It’s one thing searching a river for something that might randomly be there, it’s another to see the target and lose it. We worked our way down the creek, enjoying a warm summer day and catching endless bluegill.

The creek. If you look closely, Elizabeth appears to be barfing.

I probably should have appreciated the time with my niece and nephew instead of fretting about the fallfish, but hey, it’s me. About half a mile downstream, I spotted some deeper holes around tree roots, and began casting baits into them. After a false alarm or two, it happened.

Heck yes.

I had finally gotten it; not a big one, but a fallfish. Right after I had thoughts of gratitude for Patrick providing the spot, I also thought about Mark and those glorious days on the Connecticut River. I need to get back to New England.

Charlie got one too, although he couldn’t keep his eyes open for the picture.

Elizabeth’s was bigger.

That evening, I went over the IDs so far, and it hit me that I was only four species away from 1700. I would be fishing the next day with Patrick, a true species expert, so I knew there was a chance. A milestone without an Arostegui present would feel a bit weird, but I’ll take them when I can get them.

I picked up Patrick early in the morning, and we headed south on I-95. Astonishingly, traffic was moving, but we still had a couple of hours to kill even at the speed limit. It is on these road trips that fishermen truly get to know each other, and Patrick was even more amazing than the guys had told me. A North American freshwater specialist, he seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of everything that swims in the Eastern US, native or not. It all began to make sense when I asked him what he did for a living. Turns out he is a librarian – in the Library of Congress. I immediately christened him Conan the Librarian, and he did not strenuously object, hence the title. His capacity for detailed research is limitless, and he knew species upon species that I had never heard of. The drive went by in an instant.

Interestingly – or not – we took the same exit I did to for my first ever fishing trip in Virginia. That was in November of 2002, when I spent a beautiful fall day on Lake Anna catching landlocked striped bass with local guide Gene Hoard. Those crisp autumn days are one of the few things I miss about living someplace with four seasons, but I snap out of that reverie every time I see someone shoveling snow.

Well out into the countryside, we parked and began to walk down a fire road. About a mile into the woods, we came across a small culvert and a hot-tub sized pool, which apparently contained some of the species on page 87 of Peterson’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes. This page covers a whole batch of lesser-known sunfish, and I have often read it late at night. Patrick advised me to fish the very shallow edges under leaves and other cover, and quite quickly, I added a species – the flier. (A close relative of the crappie.)

The big controversy – is it pronounced “flier” as in “one who flies,” or “fleer” as in Fleer baseball cards? For that matter, there is no “o” in crappie, but most people say “croppie.” As a kid, it was great fun to say “crappy” and get away with it.

Moments later, things got even better. I caught a banded sunfish – one of the rarely-caught species from page 87. I was extremely proud of myself, and very grateful to Patrick. He mentioned that he had never caught one in this spot – he had to travel out of state for his.

This was 1698.

We fished the pool a while longer, and I got one additional, very cool species – the bluespotted sunfish. That’s two from page 87.

Luckily, Patrick had caught plenty of these. And I was at 1699.

Patrick clearly earned his Conan status. He went crashing through the bushes, which were potentially laden with ticks, snakes, spiders, weasels, and who knows what other horrors, to explore a tiny side channel, no more than 18 inches wide, because he firmly believed that a mud sunfish could be living in there. Although he did not return with said mud sunfish, he did manage to attract dozens of ticks. He managed to remove (most of) them, but he has some ugly stories about places they have wandered only to be discovered much later, often in the shower. I should probably stop right there.

I didn’t dive as deep into the brush as Patrick, but I caught just as many mud sunfish.

Patrick with a beastly bluegill.

Steve with a dignified flier.

We then headed to a more traditional stream. The place was jammed with sunfish of the non-page 87 variety, and had quite a few of those unidentifiable silver things. We gave it a solid try, and I was beginning to think 1700 would have to wait for another day. But Patrick, sharp-eyed and indefatigable, spotted some darters in a riffle, and in a matter of moments, we had both added the shield darter to our lists. 1700 had come less than 11 months after 1600.

A perfectly worthy milestone fish.

Patrick works the creek while I celebrate the catch.

My day couldn’t have been any more complete, unless there was a Dairy Queen nearby, which would have been too much to ask. We then fought our way back up I-95, talking exotic species the entire way. You will definitely be reading about Patrick again soon.

That evening, I foolishly mentioned the tick thing to my sister. Never missing a chance to be a Mom, she immediately freaked out and wanted me to exchange my rental car, burn my clothes, and head to the nearest free clinic for a cavity search. I managed to get by with washing my hands.

I had blocked out the next day to do important family stuff, like bonding with my sister, but Pat left me with numbers for a creek in Alexandria that is supposed to have mummichogs. I told myself (and my sister) that I would just do a brief trip and get the target species, but we know how this ends. The place was stuffed with mummichogs, and I got one quickly – the first step on the way to 1800.

The rather unelusive mummichog

But I also noticed that it was a beautiful spillway that seemed to be stuffed with bass and, of all the odd things to see during the day, catfish. I called my sister, and after substantial negotiations, she drove the kids down so they could join me for the afternoon. We live on opposite coasts, and I never do see them as I much as I imagined I would when they were born. But this was an afternoon I always imagined I would have with them – I just wish there had been a lot more of them over the years. It was beautiful out, the fish were biting, and my cell phone battery died so I had no idea how many times my sister called to remind me to put sunblock on the kids. (Did you know sunblock actually can expire? My sister does.)

Charlie starting things off with a nice catfish. He still didn’t open his eyes for the photo.

Elizabeth kept up and got her own catfish, and she kept her eyes open.

Elizabeth also got her first largemouth. She’s growing up to be a pretty young lady. Intimidating to think I will need to go through all this again in two years when she graduates.

The following day I had arranged to recognize my nephew’s 18th birthday by taking him on a real fishing trip, on a boat, all day. (See “Two and a Half Menhaden” for background.)

It was as much a present for me as it was for him, as throwing lures for smallmouth is one of my favorite ways to pass a day. When Charlie was born, I imagined us taking dozens of these float trips, and yet here we were, taking our first one the day before his 18th birthday. We have done plenty of other fishing before, but there is something special about an adventure like this, and I was glad we were doing it.

We fished the upper Potamac, near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I set the trip up through White River Fly Outfitters, and despite the offputting “Fly” in the name, they were outstanding. The whole area is gorgeous.

Our guide was Doug Boyles, and despite his disturbing resemblance to my friend Scott Williams, he was great. We set up on a pontoon raft, got Charlie rigged up with a buzzbait, and we were off to the races. With some expert instruction, mostly from Doug, Charlie was quickly reading the water like a pro and started racking up solid fish.

His first fish of the day.

Doug and Charlie.

This left me free to do the same, and we had constant action on decent smallmouth all day. Although Charlie loves almost all fishing that doesn’t involve Dramamine, he has always had a fondness for bass on lures, and this would be his most productive day ever on the water.

What a magnificent river.

It was a joy just to watch, and I got to go use dozens of lures I have bought over the years just in case I ended up on a smallmouth river.

Yes, I got a few. Dozen.

About 50 bass later, it was late afternoon and we had to head home for dinner with the family. We had about an hour in the car together, and now that he was heading to college, I tried to share as much of my hard-earned adult wisdom with him as I could. (“Don’t take any wooden nickels, be nice to your mother, and park in the shade.”) I started to talk about doing homework before going to parties and how to spot loose women, but I realized that 18 year-old me wouldn’t have listened to me either, so we just talked about our next fishing trip.

The next day – Charlie’s 18th birthday – was the last one of my visit, so naturally, as a nod to building family togetherness, I blocked out the morning to fish the creek that runs right by my sister’s house. It has been there the whole 18 years my sister has lived there, and I had only ever fished it one other time, on a cold, rainy November day where only the creek chubs and that silver thing would come out. But it was low and clear and warm today, and I had high hopes.

I could prowl creeks like this all day. And all night, except for the mosquitoes.

I got out of the house just in time to avoid doing the breakfast dishes. I donned my water shoes, picked up a rod and micro-gear, and headed off. It was a quick walk, down the street, then down into a park, then to the stream. It was small but loaded with rocks, and I knew every one of those rocks could be hiding the next critter on my species list. I could see tesselated darters everywhere, but they didn’t want to bite, so I moved to a bit deeper run and immediately got a blacknose dace.

It’s got a black nose.

I finally got my tesselated darter by poking a bit of worm blindly under a rock, looking for madtoms. He raced out and snatched the bait, and luckily, I had brought my heavy micro-rod and managed to wrestle him out.

Tesselated of the D’Ubervilles

I also caught a bunch of the usual suspects – minnows, shiners, sunfish, and small bass. I was getting ready to head home, but turned over a few rocks just to see what was there. One of the last ones had a madtom under it. Of course, the madtom bolted to cover under another rock. The trick here is to track it to the new rock, then present a bait to the side you believe its head is pointing. This didn’t seem to work, so I picked up the rock, and the madtom bolted again. Rinse, lather, repeat for about an hour, and just before the cramps got really bad, the thing finally bit. I had captured the 13th species of the trip, the margined madtom. I sent a photo to Patrick, and he mentioned he had never caught one of these either. I felt like a turd.

Briefly.

We actually did get a bit of family bonding time that afternoon, reminding me that Laura is almost like a sister to me. We had one more evening, Charlie’s birthday, and we celebrated with a big meal out at his favorite restaurant, which, sadly, is no longer Chuck E. Cheese’s. Then it was time to throw my stuff in a suitcase and get ready for an early flight back to California, so I could find clean underwear and pack for the next trip. It had all gone by too quickly, just like the last 18 years.

Steve

The group at dinner. Laura is checking Charlie for ticks.

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 6, 2017

Our Own Private Idaho

Dateline: June 11, 2017 – Boise, Idaho

I am told Idaho is a beautiful place, but I can’t necessarily verify that, because I didn’t have my glasses for more than half the trip. So instead of a Biopic, this blog will be more of a myopic, but let’s stay focused.

As you all recall, my last Idaho trip with Martini was a disaster. (See “The Snowman Dies,” which actually covers a couple of disasters. Not every fishing trip works out spectacularly, or we’d all do it.) I had quietly stewed about this for 11 months and was determined to undo the pain of that July 2016 misadventure, and to finally add a largescale sucker to my list.

Martini, equally determined and more organized, had used the time wisely and done some actual planning. Through the shadowy underground that is the North American species hunting community, he had met Matt Miller, a Boise-based outdoor writer and experienced species fisherman. (Some of Matt’s work can be found HERE – he’s quite a writer.) Matt kindly volunteered his time to take us and check a couple of his prime spots, and with that in hand, we booked airline tickets. This would be a month earlier in the year than our last outing, and we were sure this would place us in the middle of the sucker run.

Amused at our confidence, the Fish Gods convened with the Weather Gods and arranged rain. In the weeks preceding our trip, it rained biblically in the area, raising the river flows well above normal. Matt warned us that this was happening, but having nothing better to do, Martini and I stuck with our plan. We met at Boise airport, found an excellent local grill, and then settled into an endless discussion of the fishing possibilities in the area. Of course, there were the suckers to pursue, and a few other endemics like chiselmouth and Utah chub, and if things went just right, Martini had a couple of truly weird things scoped out. (One of which could save me a trip to Africa.) We avoided all discussion of precipitation and water levels.

I slept fitfully, haunted by flashbacks of the miles and miles of suckerless water that we suffered through last July. We met Matt at his home bright and early – Matt was bright and we were early. Matt immediately mentioned water levels, which kind of killed the mood, but we had to face the fact that the rivers were muddy and high. We drove up a creek for miles as Matt inspected his “go-to” spots, each of which was under water. He remained optimistic, but, as in Egypt, I remained in denial. We finally stopped at Matt’s best bet – a rocky point that created enough of a slack area where we might have a chance.

Martini took the drama out of things quickly.

Matt, Martini, and the first sucker of the day. Note that Martini has caught this species previously.

I struggled a bit, and Martini thoughtlessly caught a few more before I finally hooked my largescale.

I finally, finally got one. Now, on to the bridgelip!

Matt was relieved we had gotten the main target. He needed to head off to handle some adult responsibilities, so Martini and I thanked him and he was on his way. Despite some challenging water conditions, I had finally gotten my largescale sucker, with a huge assist from Martini and a huger assist from Matt.

This left us much of the day to fish. With a bridgelip sucker in mind, we began exploring some other spots. We went up and down the creek and found some inviting pools, and most of them gave up a largescale or two – great strikes and a nice fight.

A typical largescale. We got these all day.

Yes, they are adorable.

After seven or eight fish, we had not seen a bridgelip. These are supposed to be less common than the largescales, which I was thrilled I had gotten, but we were beginning to get statistically concerned. So we kept moving, roaming well up and down the valley. We finally settled onto a point where a small side stream joined our creek, and this was there Martini and I sat down and worked through one of our fundamental philosophical differences. Martini, you see, is quite disciplined about changing spots quite quickly. I, on the other hand, will tend to stay someplace far too long once I have caught something, because I just hate to leave biting fish, even if they have stopped biting, because I firmly believe they will start again. In this spot, the fishing was good – we were getting constant suckers, a few trout, and the occasional oddball, like the nice northern pikeminnow Martini landed.

Yes, they get bigger, but not that I’ve caught.

It was a perfect, sunny, warm day, we had cold beverages, and the fishing never slowed down. I was just certain that the next fish was going to be a bridgelip, although Martini kept having visions of heading off to some other venue. Perhaps due to my whining, perhaps because it was a beautiful day and the fish were biting, or perhaps because his butt was asleep, Martini stayed. And for once, my approach paid quite a dividend – late in the day, Martini landed a mountain whitefish, a species that had eluded him for some time.

Martini adds a difficult species.

As the sun set, we hit the road – our destination for the next day was some 200 miles distant, and we had to find some kind of fast food and a hotel. This ended up much more difficult than we expected. Everywhere we called was booked up – which was bewildering to us because we were, after all, in Southern Idaho. We learned later that the Special Olympics were going on in the very town we wanted to stay, so there was nothing available in hundred-mile radius. Luckily, we figured this out while we were far enough away to still find a place to sleep.

It was on this evening that the individually-packaged dill pickle joined our road trip.

The individually-packaged dill pickle. I imagine you too are wondering exactly how durable that packaging is.

I purchased the individually-packaged dill pickle at an off-brand convenience store, figuring it would be a funny thing to leave on Martini’s seat in the car. Just as he had with the can of baked beans, he spotted it. It showed up later in my tackle bag. I then placed it surreptitiously in one of his rod cases. This juvenile exchange continued for the entire weekend, but I did note that we both seemed to have enough respect for each other, or at least enough common sense, not to hide it in the other one’s suitcase. The idea of it bursting in a tackle box was funny, but not so much in my underwear, so if you ever really want to know if someone respects you, hide an individually-packaged dill pickle in their fishing gear.

That same evening, Martini and I were maturely watching YouTube clips with the general theme of “Motion Sickness on Roller Coasters.” Somewhere in this process, I was laughing so hard that I rolled over on my glasses and destroyed them. At least I had my prescription sunglasses to use, but this meant that Martini would do the night driving.

In the morning, we had one quarry in mind – the elusive (for no one but me) Utah Chub. We headed to the Snake River, which, needless to say, was extremely high. We tried one highly-recommended boat launch, and this didn’t work out, although I did hook something large and obnoxious that broke me off. We then moved to an extremely scenic dam.

The extremely scenic dam.

The extremely scenic dam was also running very high, but it did feature enough structure to give me a chance. After I caught roughly one squillion juvenile smallmouth bass, I hooked something slightly larger and was delighted to see my Utah chub.

Species #2 of the trip, a Utah chub ironically caught in Idaho.

We spent the rest of the day driving through some of the more remote parts of a remote state, checking out locations where Martini thought we might find some truly exotic species, but where we found mostly that Apple Maps has a very loose definition of “road.” The scenery was stark but beautiful, and we figured out that we were going to end up driving well over a thousand miles in just three days.

Martini got some nice wildlife shots. For those of you who care about such things, the bird is a Killebrew’s Predatory Warbler.

I did catch a nice rainbow late in the afternoon.

Dinner was memorable that night, but for all the wrong reasons. Martini and I have different philosophies on restaurants. I will look for the name brand fast food – think Carl’s Junior. Martini prefers more local cuisine that features the occasional salad or vegetable – think brew pub with a real chef. (And he usually ends up finding great places.) As we headed home from the river, Martini spotted a local bar and grill – the kind of place that is often a hidden gem. He talked me off the Dairy Queen ledge and into this place, insisting it would probably be nice. For once, he was colon-clenchingly wrong. It was one of the most ghastly cheeseburgers I have ever gone up against, and indigestion is a bad idea on a long road trip. At least I have ammunition for the next time he objects to Burger King.

The next day would be the last of the trip, and we had an ambitious plan that involved hundreds of miles of driving and one of the most bizarre fishing spots in the continental US. Idaho is dotted with small hot springs. In one of these hot springs, which is about as far away from anything resembling civilization as you can get, somehow, someone had stocked a set of exotic warmwater species, and somehow, these had survived and formed breeding populations, much like the Polish in Detroit.

The paved portion of the road to the hot spring. I remember it as a lot darker, but I was wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day.

The spring. For scale, that’s a picnic table on the right.

This was one of the most unlikely places I had ever fished – a glorified hot tub exactly in the middle of nowhere filled with African fish. I’m not sure if it’s weirder that someone put the fish there, or that someone figured out they were there and could be caught. Once we got out of the car, the fish made themselves rather obvious, swimming en masse to the shoreline to determine if we could be eaten. Out came the very small hooks and a bag of white bread, and we were off to the races. The main inhabitant of the spring was some type of blue African cichlid, and we caught dozens of them, each bluer than the next.

The very first one.

The second one, just as the sun began to come out.

One of Martini’s fish – perhaps the bluest of the day.

Some of them had apparently cross-bred. Shameless.

The place was also loaded with tilapia, but I had caught this species previously. We also spotted swordtails, which were small enough to be a serious challenge, but I was determined to get a male with the eponymous “sword tail” so I could end any controversy on my ID of this species. It took quite a while to maneuver the bait around the cichlids to the smaller fish, but we both got it done.

Male and female swordtail together. Martini thought of doing this.

Another one of Martini’s photos.

The proud angler.

The place was also jammed with goldfish, and I couldn’t help myself.

Not as pretty as the fabled Walldorf goldfish, but a lovely catch nonetheless.

Before we left, Martini just had to go snorkeling.

Normal people do not bring a mask and snorkel to Idaho.

No, these were not in the pond, but I did get your attention. Martini noodled these in Oklahoma – yes, BY HAND – this summer.

Underwater photo at the spring, courtesy of Martini.

Swordtail underwater, again courtesy of Martini. As if I would get into a swimsuit in public.

Once we had finished this amazing destination, we planned to drive several hundred miles back to the Boise area and give the bridgelip another shot. I nearly derailed this by underestimating exactly how isolated we were and almost running out of gas. During this drive, Martini, who sometimes loses focus and wants to visit once-in-a-lifetime NON-FISHING destinations, took us to see Craters of the Moon National Monument.

It looked like someone had put a little part of Iwo Jima right in the middle of Idaho.

Martini ran up and down this hill for no apparent reason.

But despite this NON-FISHING detour, we made it back to our original creek in the late afternoon. We set up well south of where we had fished on Friday, in a spot that had both the current seams where we hoped we could find a bridgelip, and some more vertical structure where we hoped to find a chiselmouth. We set up, tossed out some crawlers, and the suckers started to bite quickly. We landed several each – but none were bridgelips. I began to wonder if this was a real species. Perhaps an hour into the session, as darkness and rain were setting in, I got a light bite and a head-shaking fight that didn’t feel like a sucker. Reeling it up, I was thrilled to see I had finally gotten a chiselmouth.

Another western endemic on the list!

This is how they got their name. Something like a freshwater parrotfish, they mostly feed by scraping stuff off of rocks.

Moments later, Martini had a big pulldown and hooked up on a much larger chiselmouth. He recognized immediately that it was a possible record, and I jumped into action to assist him. Unfortunately, my sunglasses jumped farther than I did, and they were never seen again. I was now down to the frame from my regular glasses, which I strapped to my head with fishing line and hoped for the best.

Martini begins his trek to 300 records.

I was actually thrilled for Martini to get the record – that’s his thing. I was less thrilled, however, when, just as we were ready to leave, he pulled up ANOTHER unusual sculpin that I would probably catch unless I moved here. I would have stayed until midnight looking for another one, but hunger drove us out, and while Taco Bell was scant compensation for a missed species, I was still ahead five for the weekend.

The Columbia sculpin.

It rained torrentially on our way back to Boise, but we had managed to get most of our main targets and a bonus world record, so much of last July’s pain had been erased. (And replaced with Columbia sculpin pain – why couldn’t Martini have just put the pickle in my suitcase?) But for the evening, it was good to just enjoy a great weekend on the water with a great friend who has become family. I had reached 1690 species, and with two more big trips coming up in the next 30 days, 1700 was sounding like a possibility before the summer was out.

Steve

Special Bonus Section

Longtime 1000fish reader Charlie Walsh is celebrating 80 pounds of amberjack, which he landed after an epic fight off Jacksonville, Florida. Charlie is a passionate freshwater lure caster, but got a chance at the big game on Captain Scott Anderson’s boat this September. (Charlie’s father, Rob, arranged the trip – what a great Dad – on the condition that Charlie keep up amazing grades this year. So if the grades slip, dude, I swear I’ll edit this section out.) Rob is a co-worker of mine and is actually an OK guy, considering he is in sales. Well done, Charlie.

That’s Charlie on the left. The kid on the right is Captain Anderson’s son, Wade. No one is sure who the kid in the middle was, and he disappeared shortly after the photo was taken.

Posted by: 1000fish | October 8, 2017

The Red Sea Trolls

Dateline: May 10, 2017 – Marsa Alam, Egypt

“My God, there really is a BFE.” – Marta, upon viewing the desert between Dendara and the Red Sea.

Exotic yes. But next time I’ll fly.

As much fishing as there was in the tourist part of the trip, the last three days in Egypt were dedicated solely to the great species hunt. The Red Sea is full of endemic species (which means that they are only found there, or that they feed their young with milk, I forget which.)  I had only fished here two days in my life – a glorious weekend in Aqaba, Jordan, where I ran up 26 species and a world record in 32 hours of maniacal fishing. (All Marta got to do was tour Wadi Rum in a jeep and meet a day-old baby camel.)

The mother camel was very protective.

That was just before I started this blog. If I had written an article on that trip, the title would have been “Lorance of Arabia.”

So back to Egypt. Through the wonders of the internet, I had found an excellent guide – Amin Abu Rehab. (You can view his website and details HERE.)  He is based on the Red Sea in very southern Egypt, about 120 kilometers north of the Sudanese border. According to my collection of fish ID books, I could expect some truly rare and awesome creatures here. (There were. But Marta caught them.)

But first, we needed to get from Luxor to Marsa Alam. Like any drive in Egypt, it took a lot longer than estimated. Things simply do not move quickly here, but as long as you enjoy endless, desolate, arid scenery, eight hours will pass by like 480 minutes. As it got dark, I stared at the side of the road, hoping to see a fennec fox, because fennecs are one of the coolest animals EVER. But I never did. Annoyingly, Marta saw several on her way to Abu Simbel.

This is a fennec. They are a travel-size fox that thrives in inhospitable places.

We left Luxor mid-morning, and after a tourist stop in Dendara – which features a super-creepy subterranean tomb and some of the very rare representations of Cleopatra that survived a thorough Roman effort to expunge them.

That’s Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. I never liked his music.

We arrived at the Lahami Bay Resort well after dark, stiff and hungry, and I still had to assemble my gear for an early start the next day. The resort was a mixed blessing. It was civilized, the food was steady, and there was amazing snorkeling, but there was NO FISHING. Luckily, I would be spending most of my time on the boat. Marta, who didn’t mind the fishing ban as much, would be there for two days. (She would spend the last day on the boat with me, which I should have avoided, for reasons that will become clear shortly.)

The Lahami Bay Resort. That bird is going to wait a long time.

Early that next morning, I took a van over to the harbor at Hamata. After all the hours I had spent emailing with Amin, it was great to finally meet him in person. He seemed as excited as I was to get out and get after the fish we had been writing about for months. Bannoura was a beautiful boat, large and comfortable, capable of taking several anglers on an extended safari. There was a big crew – a skipper, a cook, and two deckhands.

Most of the crew and Steve – from left to right, that’s Ahmed the cook, Amin the owner and host, Steve the obsessive fisherman, and deckhands Maghraby and Mostafa. Great guys.

For this first day, the idea was to pound the reefs for species, troll a bit, then anchor up and fish the bottom all night. I was positively wound up, and the Red Bull didn’t make me any less so.

This is when I noticed that the harbor was jammed full of fish. Out came the sabikis and small jigs, and I happily amused myself while the crew looked on in bewilderment and people on other boats also looked on in bewilderment. I am used to this. To the great amusement of Amir and the crew, I added a new species – the threeline damselfish.

There must have been 40 people staring at me when I took this photo. And I wasn’t even naked.

After I had spent at least an hour chartering a boat so I could sit in a harbor and fish small stuff, reason caught up with me and we were off into the Red Sea.

We opened up trolling, and this filled me with a great deal of hope. There are dogtooth tuna in the Red Sea, and they eat trolling plugs. I want a dogtooth more than I want a full head of hair – I have gone where they live – repeatedly – and been avoided – repeatedly. (Like in the Maldives.)  The lures hadn’t been out five minutes when we got a screaming strike, but as screaming as it was, I still knew it wasn’t fast enough to be a dogtooth. (Picture dogtooth hits as savage, drag-destroying violence that forces even high-end reels to make unnatural noises.) I happily boated a double-lined mackerel – a species I first encountered on the Great Barrier Reef in 2005.

These pull hard.

We then set up for the main event – reef fishing. This area of the Red Sea is dotted with coral outcroppings, each one a veritable aquarium of exotic fish. I knew that just one solid session could run up quite a score, and the water looked absolutely perfect.

The skipper – Hassan – looks out over a typical reef.

Moments after we anchored, I got my second species of the day, which was an emotional one for me. It was a Red Sea lagoon triggerfish, a close relative of the lagoon triggerfish that had brought me and Jamie so close (details HERE), and SHE DOESN’T HAVE ONE.

I never get over how beautiful these fish are.

The rest of the afternoon, on a combination of sabikis and small bait rigs, we checked off all kinds of things I had only ever seen in books.

The redbreasted wrasse. These never got quite big enough to be a record.

The Red Sea sailfin tang, with Amin in the background. We would find record-sized examples of this species in less than 24 hours.

The chiseltooth wrasse. They travel in pairs, and I indeed caught two at once. Both were safely released.

The Red Sea black unicornfish. Hard fighters, and a new world record, my first on the boat.

Blacktip fusilier. Plankton feeder, so difficult to catch, but they will eventually hit a sabiki after they annoy you for hours by swimming under the boat in large schools.

In between reefs, we trolled some more, and while the species were not new, the action was amazing. Whether barracuda, skipjack, or mackerel, I was fighting pelagic fish from the moment we started until we had almost anchored again. None of these fish were dogtooth tuna, which bothered me, but they were still fish, and a lot of them, which is always a good thing.

The haul after 45 minutes of trolling – cut baits for the evening.

The evening started very well. Casting lures and lightly-weighted baits, I got a couple of very nice gamefish – a one-spot snapper and a positively huge sky emperor. Both were new species and both were world records, so I was suddenly running up quite a score on both ledgers.

The one-spot. 

The sky emperor – the best fight of the day on light tackle.

Dentition reminiscent of the Mu.

Sunset over the Red Sea.

As it got fully dark, I pulled up a crescent bigeye, part of a nocturnal family found in seas worldwide. I prepared a bag of REI freeze-dried beef stew and set up two eel rods. The Red Sea is full of eels, and morays are usually an open world record, so I looked forward to a long, caffeinated evening.

The crescent bigeye.

My luck ran out a bit after the bigeye. I lost one big eel, and that was it for the evening except for dozens of squirrelfish. The score for the day was 10 species and 3 world records, so I was thrilled and even got a few hours of sleep. Amin mentioned that he had never seen anyone fish for 19 straight hours. I told him I was worn out from traveling or I’d have gone longer.

The following morning, We pounded the reefs again, and while I didn’t get anything new, the fishing was spectacular. Snappers, grouper, emperors, assorted reef fish – everything was biting nonstop. I switched off between lures and bait, and I was either fighting or unhooking fish so often that I forgot to eat until around two.

Yes, that’s a small Mu – bigeye emperor. Now that I finally got one in Hawaii, it seems I can catch them anywhere.

Sailfin Tang, this time in record size. That’s four so far.

Then came a record coral hind – a type of grouper. This was my fifth record on the boat, and my sixth in Egypt. This boded well for the IGFA competition this year.

As the sun began to go down and we headed for port, it occurred to me that I had not added a single new species for the day. Amin anchored the boat on some shallow weedbeds outside the harbor to try for small stuff, of which we caught loads. Months later, due to the patience and expertise of Dr. Jeff Johnson, I discovered that I had added one new critter – the dark damselfish.

It’s a damselfish. It’s dark.

I had been fishing for 36 straight hours, so it was good to get a break, have a meal that didn’t come out of a foil pouch, and see Marta. She had spent her time enjoying the resort and snorkelling, but she did end up with an impressive sunburn.

Marta assured me that she graciously refused some Marcello Mastroioanni look-alike’s offers to put sunblock on her back. I think she just forgot.

The next morning would be our last day in Egypt, the end of an unforgettable two weeks. Foolishly, I had invited Marta to spend the day on the boat. I say foolishly because Marta tends to repay my generosity in cases like this by catching species I don’t have. This hurts. (Examples HERE.)

We got to the harbor just at dawn, and Marta was the least surprised person in Hamata that I wanted to fish around the pilings before we headed offshore. It was a good thing we did, because I got two new species.

The Red Sea toby – a type of puffer.

Dusky damsel. I was pushing my luck on identifiable damsels.

Striped humbug – not a new species but so cool I thought I’d include it anyway.

As soon as I started catching the small fish, we heard a piercing meow. A small cat came right up to the back of the boat and gave that expectant look only a hungry cat can give.

The source of the meows. We initially christened her “Bottomless Pit Cat.”

I threw her a fish. She ran off for a moment and then reappeared, meowing again. I threw her another fish.

There is no focus like cat focus.

She took it and ran off. And again. And again. When she reached 10 fish, we realized there was no way she could have eaten them all herself. So Marta followed her, and there was quite a surprise.

 

The video isn’t that good after the first 10 seconds, but the executive summary is that she had two kittens safely stashed under the pier and was feeding them. We renamed her “Mama Cat.”

If Marta won the lottery, she would likely adopt every stray cat in Egypt.

We headed offshore, and after a bit of trolling, anchored up on a reef. I noticed some bright yellow fish below us, and tried the most minuscule of my sabiki rigs. Instead of the yellow tang I expected, I came up with another new species – the sulphur damsel.

No, they do not smell like rotten eggs. That was me.

This is when things started to go sideways. Marta was getting an interesting assortment of reef fish, but suddenly, all I could catch was an endless parade of Klunzinger’s wrasses.

They’re beautiful, but I got over 50 of them in two hours.

Marta showed me everything she landed and asked “Have you caught this one?” I would tell her I had, and she would raise her eyebrow and cast again. Now and then, she would spitefully snag up in the rocks just so I would have to take precious time away from fishing and retie her rig. Shortly after 1pm, the inevitable happened – she got something I had never even seen. You would think I reacted kindly and maturely and congratulated her on a fine catch. Well, actually, you would think that only if you’ve never met me and had never read this blog before.

The broomtail wrasse. Marta had now gotten seven species I had not.

Tell me that isn’t a look of sadistic joy.

Amin thought this was very amusing. Once this was explained to the crew, they also thought it was one of the funniest things they had ever heard. But it gets worse. Less than five minutes later, Marta reeled in a Red Sea ring wrasse.

You have to be %#$&ing kidding me. Two in five minutes? She was up to eight, and I was ready to leave Egypt.

Amin and the crew burst into laughter. I took a deep breath and kept casting, but these creatures would elude me, at least for the day. After I had a quiet hissy fit, I began throwing a minnow lure over the reef and had some fun. And while I continued to eat my REI freeze-fried camping food, Marta enjoyed the culinary expertise of the onboard chef. She still claims it was some of the best Egyptian food of the trip. In fact, she has agreed to a return trip, solely to visit Ahmed’s galley.

The goldspot goatfish – which has quite a range. I have the record on this – from Hawaii. 

A relatively small estuary cod – great sport on light spinning gear.

Marta decided she wanted to throw a lure, which I suggested would be a disaster, but she persisted, and wouldn’t you know that she somehow managed to catch a lionfish. I had gotten these before, thank goodness, but not that easily.

 

I briefly thought about telling her to hold it by the spines, but Amin probably would have said something.

Late in the day, we were fishing over a deeper reef structure, and I was just hoping to finish up without Marta getting another weird species. She was catching a variety of bottom fish, and then she hooked something that buried in the rocks for a few minutes before she ripped it out and up to the surface. I was sort of thrilled to see a big coral hind – I knew immediately it was the right size to tie the record I had set yesterday. In this case, I could live with sharing.

Marta’s third world record. I shamelessly broke her first two, but this could take a while.

In the same spot, I landed a couple of smaller coral hinds, and then brought up a fish that was the same basic colors – orange with blue spots – but I was suspicious. A quick look in the book – and I always have a book – revealed that it was a vermilion hind, a different type of small grouper. This was my 15th new Red Sea species, my 21st overall for the trip, and would would be the last new one on what had been a spectacular expedition.

The vermilion hind. This made me feel slightly better.

As the sun started to set, we headed for port.

Marta with the crew – Amin called her “The Queen.” Hassan the captain was busy driving the boat, so he did not get in the photos.

Hassan with a sailfish they got on the Bannoura. Note how close they are to the reef. Note – I have no idea what this says in Arabic, so I’m trusting Amin. It would be just like me to put something rude in the caption if the tables were turned, but he’s a much nicer person than I am.

We were greeted in port by Mama cat, and we fed her sumptuously as we put my gear away. The crew was sad to see Marta go, and I couldn’t help but think there were quite a few species left for me to get in the area. I am certain there will be a return adventure, especially because Amin also guides trips to Sudan. (Less than a hundred miles south, and yes, the fishing is supposed to be excellent.)

The following morning, we did something Moses never managed to do. We departed the Red Sea.

Steve

Random camels we saw in the desert. I smelled them before I saw them.

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | September 22, 2017

Tut, Line, and Sinker

Dateline: May 6, 2017 – Luxor, Egypt

This vacation began, as many do, in the nightmares of an 11 year-old. My Mother was fascinated with Egypt her entire life, and devoted years of study and several trips to this passion. She had an extensive Egyptology library, and as my sister and I got older and gained familiarity with relevant highbrow fare, such as “The Mummy,” we began poking around these books in our spare time. Late one evening, by myself in our basement, I came across a photo of King Tut’s mummified face. I did not sleep for the next three nights. Naturally, the first thing I did was show the picture to my sister. She reacted badly, and somehow I got in trouble.

I hope I look this good in 3000 years.

I always knew I would go to Egypt someday. There are countless sites from antiquity to visit, and any bucket list that doesn’t include the Pyramids pails by comparison. Marta was very enthusiastic about the trip, as she had studied quite a bit about Egypt herself, and so off we went. Of course, I negotiated a few days fishing, at Aswan and the Red Sea, so I owed her big time. She flew directly from home, but I connected in from a business trip in Germany, so by the time I arrived in Egypt, Marta had been there 36 hours. In this time, she managed to find and befriend every jeweler in Cairo, (notably Azza Fahmy jewelers,) and had planned out our main tourist stops.

The first thing I noticed that that the Cairo Marriott was right next to the Nile. Perhaps because she wanted to butter me up before we visited the jewelry stores, Marta was accepting of this, and armed with a float rod and the same Berkeley Gulp bloodworms that had caught my sterlet, (sordid details HERE) I set up to try my luck. Moments later, to the astonishment of the locals, I got a small tilapia and added Egypt to my country list – #89. Note that this was done before I had visited a single pyramid or smelled a single camel.

And it was a new species – the redbelly tilapia.

We then spent a couple of days doing tourist stuff. I cannot emphasize two things enough – the pyramids are much, much bigger than you can imagine, and camels smell much, much worse than you can imagine. The pyramids were the first thing we visited. The Great Pyramid at Giza is over 4500 years old, and is the only extant wonder of the ancient world. It is visible for miles, and can be seen from almost any tall building in Cairo. It was humbling to see it, and we forgot that it was 100 degrees outside and that we were on camels that smelled so bad it could sterilize us both, and we just stared in awe. I couldn’t help but think of what FDR said when he visited here – “Man’s desire to be remembered is colossal.”

The pyramids are more than a mile behind us. As it turns out, so was the lens cap for my camera.

We had lamp Cheops for dinner.

Marta couldn’t help herself.

The Sphinx. Evidence of the first botched nose job in history.

And then there were the camels.

They smell worse than hockey gear, they burp, they spit, and they hate me.

They also make godawful noises – see video below.

 

Nikki the camel seemed to like Marta. I had no such luck with my ride.

I was also keenly aware that I was crossing historical paths with my mother, who visited the pyramids twice in her life.

From my Mother’s Egypt travel album.

We did a lot of walking in Cairo. For those of you who ask, we felt perfectly safe – there were police and soldiers on almost every corner, and the people were absolutely wonderful.

Steve hangs out with an Army Officer.

It didn’t hurt that Pope Francis visited the same week we did, but Cairo seems a lot less dangerous than Berkeley. I will say that the street vendors and tourist service hawkers can get a bit exhausting, but their business is down some 90% since the Arab Spring mess, so you kind of can’t blame them. Of course, with what I do for a living, I am comfortable saying “no” repeatedly, but Marta is a classic soft touch and ended up buying a duffel bag full of King Tut towels, small pyramids, and sphinx carvings. Stores could appear out of nowhere at a moment’s notice, so always be on your guard.

We made friends with a local guide named Yasser – let me know if you want his contact information – and he showed us quite a few insider spots in town, as well as the main attractions like the Egyptian Museum.

Yasser showing Marta a replica Rosetta Stone. The real one is somehow in London.

The figures on the right were in a tomb for 3000 years, and they were creepily realistic. Marta and Yasser thought they were being funny.

A rack of mummies.

Statue of Akhenaten – “The Heretic King.” He declared that Egypt would change from a popular polytheism to worshiping only the Sun God. Imagine if we only cheer for the Detroit Lions. There would be chaos.

After Cairo, our next stop was Aswan, the far south of the country, but “Upper Egypt” in the ancient parlance. (Because the Nile flows south to north.) This location is full of temples, statues, and contains many relics from civilizations that eventually merged with the Egyptian kingdoms, such as the Nubians. It also has possibly the best hotel in the world – the Old Cataract.

The view from our room. Marta wants to live here.

Dinner at the Old Cataract. It was worth bringing a suit.

Of course, with the Aswan High Dam nearby, I wasn’t going to miss a chance at a Nile Perch. These legendarily large barramundi cousins inhabit the Nile and many world records have come out of the Nasser reservoir above the dam. Through Tim Bailey at African Angler, I set up an overnight trip on the lake, knowing the odds were against any huge fish, but hoping that I could at least add it and perhaps a tigerfish or vundu catfish to the list.

Early the next day, the guide service picked me up and we headed off for 36 hours on the lake. Marta headed for the Abu Simbel temples, considered some of the finest in Egypt, but this isn’t the first major antiquity site I’ve missed to go fishing. (See “Venus Visits the Temple of Diana; Mars Goes Fishing.”)

They moved this entire temple, piece by piece, so it wouldn’t be underwater when they filled Nasser reservoir.

African Angler was outstanding – I had Hani as my expert guide in a fast fishing boat, and a crew followed us around in a houseboat that had a full kitchen, an air-conditioned salon, and bath facilities.

Hani, professional fisherman and all-around good guy.

The fishing boat.

The houseboat. This was a very comfortable base of operations.

The scenery was stark but amazing. I didn’t expect to see this much water in the middle of a desert.

We ran for about an hour, then set to trolling with impossibly big lures, hoping to get into one of the monster perch that still inhabit the lake. Most of the big fish are caught on longer trips that head further south, but I had to make do with what was available in my schedule. We gave it a game try all morning and into the afternoon, but the fish were not cooperative. We took a break and began casting lures for tigerfish.

These tigerfish are not the monstrous Congo species, but, like the Kardashian sisters, they are numerous and none too bright. Any shiny lure retrieved at wahoo speeds was going to get hit, and we had constant action for a couple of hours. The tigerfish hit hard, jump like tarpon, and best of all, were a new species.

My first tigerfish.

Wire leaders were a must.

We then trolled again, but to no avail. Still, just being able to use some of my Rapala 26 collection was satisfying. As the sun went down, I put out a catfish rod and also started fishing for the small stuff in the weeds. Apart from tilapia, there was one other small species in the weedbed, but I didn’t recognize it. These were much more skittish than the tilapia, and shied away from both my offerings and especially from my headlamp. I finally just left a small bait in the dark, and went about eating the very nice dinner the cook had whipped up for me. When I lifted up my light rod, I was surprised to find a small fish on it. I pulled it over the rail and into the light to have a look, and instantly, I was overcome by dual emotions of joy and shame. It was a Nile Perch, but was so small that it would be classed somewhere between “juvenile” and “fry.” I had the species, but if the trip finished with this as my only one, there was no going to be no way even I could put a dignified spin on it.

This is about as small as they get.

I actually slept fairly well that night, despite the risk of scorpions and fennecs crawling onto the boat. We had one hit from a catfish, which I missed, and then it was time for breakfast. I was facing the unfortunate fact that while I had caught a Nile Perch, I would likely go down as the only person in history who had caught a Nile Perch and a Pile Perch and had somehow managed to have the Pile Perch be the biggest of the two.

Breakfast was fit for a king, or two or three.

Like Marta’s Mother, these guys couldn’t stop feeding me. 

I began casting a squidgee swimbait off the back of the boat, working along a weedline about 100 feet behind us. I had a couple of taps I presumed were from ambitious tigerfish, then a solid hit that hooked up, held in place, and shook its head. I knew right away it wasn’t a tigerfish, so I fought it carefully. Hani came forward to help me land it, and as I got the fish to the surface, I was thrilled to see it was a bigger Nile Perch. Note I said “bigger,” not “big,” but at 5 pounds, this was at least not a microfish and was certainly larger than my pile perch, so I was ecstatic.

Some measure of dignity restored.

We trolled a couple more hours on the way back toward Aswan, with one small hit, possibly a catfish. We then spent the rest of the day casting for tigerfish, because, well, it’s a lot of action. I got at least 20 more, and a couple of ambitious tilapia in the mix.

One of my larger tigerfish. I need to go to the Congo.

Do not put this in your pants.

Speaking of tilapia, if any of you out there can reliably discern between a Nile Tilapia and a Blue Tilapia, please, please email me. If you can reliably differentiate the species AND I have both, you get a steak dinner on me.

Tim Baily had cautioned me that the odds of a big fish go up substantially on longer trips, so I was thrilled to at least get the species in a 36 hour venture. If you are going to do this yourself, I would suggest doing at least a five day trip – the big fish are there.

Marta met me back at the hotel, where we had a driver waiting to take us to Luxor, some 100 miles to the north. (I thought this meant two hours driving, but it was more like four. Traffic in Egypt, even in rural areas, is formidable.) I figured that the freshwater fishing portion of the trip was over, but when we got the Luxor Hilton, I was thrilled to see that it was right on the Nile. But we had a say of playing tourist ahead of us, so we enjoyed a marvelous meal at a local restaurant, and it was quite a relief to sleep someplace where there were no wild animals.

The following day was one of the most important of the trip – the Valley of the Kings. This desolate canyon became the royal burial place during most of the New Kingdom period. It was in use for more than 500 years, and it sprung into world headlines in 1922 with the the first-ever discovery of an undisturbed royal tomb. The tomb, that of a minor king who had taken the throne as a child and had died at age 18, gave modern society their first glance at the riches of a royal burial. This was the tomb of Tutankhamen – King Tut – and it is arguably the most famous archaeological find of all time. My Mother did not consider her life complete until she had seen this place.

We drove west across the Nile. In ancient times, the area west of the river was reserved for the dead, who were often referred to as “westerners.” The hills are dotted with tombs, temples, and historical sites.

At the temple of Hapshepsut, one of the great landmarks of ancient Egypt.

Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, kept her stepson Thutmosis III off the throne for many years, and when he finally took over, he was mad enough to try to have her face chiseled off of all statues and monuments. Sure, I’ve taken photos of my stepmonster out of a few albums, but this pretty much sets the standard.

Succeeding pharaohs tended to make carvings very deep reliefs to prevent this sort of editing.

Of course, they got lost and did their excavating in Memphis, Tennessee, but it was a noble idea.

Then we drove in to the actual valley. It is a remote, arid place, but it has only one entrance so it was easier to guard from tomb robbers.

The Valley of The Kings.

We finally reached it, so I could deal with my childhood trauma.

Tut’s tomb was fairly plain, a relatively short shaft down into the hill, and several small chambers. In one of those chambers, he is still on display, resting there for eternity. He didn’t freak me out so badly this time, but if the lights had gone out down there, I’d have wet myself and everyone standing near me. But I had finally seen King Tut in person. I have never felt closer to my Mom, even six years after she went west.

That evening, we had a couple of hours to kill, and we were right on the Nile, so Marta gamely permitted me to cast a line while we enjoyed some cold drinks on the bank of the Nile.

The Hilton. Marta noticed the pool. I noticed the river.

Looking across the Nile at the Valley of the Kings.

A couple of local cats came out of the bushes to watch us. It’s a rough life being a cat in Egypt. In ancient times, these animals were considered sacred, and they have never gotten over the fact that this hasn’t lasted. The resident felines at the Luxor Hilton were a scrappy bunch, and as soon as they discovered I was catching small fish, they were very interested in my every move. Naturally, Marta insisted that I feed them, and we soon had a squad of furry friends. The fish were a new species – a type of barb.

My hooks were not barbless.

I believe this to be in the genus Enteromius, (thank you Dr. Carvalho) but if any of you have more specific ID information, please contact me.

One particular animal, who we christened “Scrappy Cat,” dominated the proceedings and got most of the fish, but Marta hand fed the less aggressive ones. (Which I suggested was anti-Darwin, but this fell on deaf ears.)

Scrappy Cat.

The next day, we covered the eastern bank of the Nile – the town of Luxor itself. This is home to two gigantic temple complexes that were centers of religion and culture in their prime, some 3000 years ago. Whatever else drove these people, they wanted to be remembered. Ramses III, one of the great military leaders of the time, had a 90 foot tall likeness of himself installed at the city gates. Even in ruins, it is awe-inspiring.

The statue, long since collapsed, provided Shelly the inspiration to write the poem “Ozymandias.”

Paint on a temple ceiling. 3500 years old without so much as a retouch. We’ve been in our place four years, and Marta wants me to paint the bathrooms. 

By incredible coincidence, we again had a few more hours to kill before dinner, so I set up to fish the bank by the hotel. I started catching the barbs again, but I also saw some bigger fish wandering in and out of sight. I put out a bigger bait and let it soak. Perhaps half an hour later, something crushed it and took off for the other shore. I stopped it after a couple of runs, and as I worked it back toward the bank, I was stunned to see it was a huge freshwater pufferfish. I had caught related species in Asia (as immortalized in “The French Correction,” but those fish were tennis ball size. This was gargantuan, like a tennis ball the size of a housecat, and it now occurred to me that I would need to crawl down the steep concrete bank to land it. If I slipped, there was a trip to the hospital and many antibiotics in my future, but I was going to get this fish.

I do not like swimming with microbes.

With Marta giving helpful advice like “Throw me your wallet,” I edged down, grabbed the fish by the gill, and pulled it up to the bank. It wasn’t just a puffer, it was a five and a half pound puffer – my biggest fish in Egypt so far, and a new world record. I was ecstatic.

The beast.

Yes, he was safely released.

The cats reappeared as soon as I caught small fish. Before we went to dinner, I got a catfish that was both a new species and dinner for the felines.

The golden Nile catfish. I was hoping for a Vundu, but a species is a species.

When we moved to the outdoor cafe for dinner, the cats, sensing that Marta was an easy touch, followed us. Naturally, Marta ordered an extra plate of chicken so we could feed them. If they had been selling little Sphinx statues, she would have bought all of them.

That’s Scrappy Cat at the top of the photo and his friend Orange Kitty below. They could eat a lot of chicken.

The next day, we would be heading southeast for three days fishing on the Red Sea. We spent the evening by the riverside, and I was in what passes for deep thought in my case. We had seen a week of ever more fantastic monuments – temples, statues, tombs. As we all do, these people wanted to be remembered, so badly that they spent their entire lives and fortunes in that pursuit. Here we were, 5000 years later in some cases, still remembering these people, learning about them, admiring them, trying to connect with some shred of commonality that has survived the millennia. I looked at my own life, and the obsessive quest that has filled up so much of it, and never being able to fully answer why I do it. It hit me then, that there is something deep in humans that wants to leave something behind that future generations will learn about, and that perhaps, in my own small way, the great species hunt is mine. Because it’s unlikely Marta will let me build a pyramid in the back yard, especially before the bathrooms are painted.

The sun goes west, as we all must someday.

Steve

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | August 28, 2017

The Bitterling Truth

Dateline: July 25, 2008 – Luxembourg. Or …

Dateline: April 28, 2017 – Gersfeld, Germany (Explanation below.)

Sometimes, I just drop the ball. This will be no secret to anyone who has played baseball with me, although some of them, such as Scott Kisslinger, might gratuitously add “Anybody might drop the ball. But Steve would pick it up, rush the throw, and launch it three rows deep in the stands.”

Although I was quick from home to first, I was even quicker from home to the mound.

The dropped ball in this case involves the ID on one of the smallest European fish species, the bitterling. In retrospect, it is clear how I made the mistake. All along, I had unknowingly been looking at photos of the Japanese bitterling, Rhodeus ocellatus. This species, which is smaller and more durable than its European counterpart, is also quite attractive. So every time I fished for bitterling in Europe, I was looking for this fish:

This is what I thought I was looking for.

But there are several bitterling species, and although I didn’t know that at the time, the European Bitterling, Rhodeus amarus, it somewhat more homely than its cousin from the Orient. So I never caught the fish I was looking for, because I was fishing about 6000 miles too far west, or 11,000 miles too far east, depending on which airline you fly.

The actual target. I want to catch them both, so I can tell someone “This ‘aint my first Rhodeus.”

Our old friend Stefan Molnar (famed for blog appearances such as “Uncle Beef” and “A Quappe for Steve“) was amused by my plight, and in discussing the matter with some of his fishing buddies, he came upon Roland. Roland, a co-worker and passionate angler himself, was also amused by my plight, but he had a connection that could solve my problem. It turns out he was good friends with the owner of a bitterling hatchery in Northwestern Germany.

Let’s get this out of the way – if the idea that I might fish in a hatchery surprises you, you must be a first time reader. Welcome!! Yes, this is undignified, but if you are coming to this blog looking for dignity, you’ve had seven long years of disappointment, sort of like Cousin Chuck’s wife during the first six years of their marriage.

I was in Germany for a business trip in April, and so Roland volunteered to take an afternoon off and drive me up to the hatchery. It was a pleasant drive, filled with fishing conversation. Roland is quite the expert on rough fish in Germany, and has an impressive portfolio of carp and other catches.

When we showed up, everyone was polite, but it didn’t need to be said that they thought this was a bit weird. The owner in particular did not believe that there were hooks small enough to catch them, or that they would eat anything but the hatchery food. (Purina Bitterling Chow looks something like grainy dust.)

That’s the owner on the right, and he couldn’t stop giggling at me. The guy on the left was a random visitor who happened to be from California.

I was armed with micro hooks and Gulp bloodworms, and I was confident that I could get it done.

When I say micro hooks, I mean micro hooks.

 

I’ll grant you I’ve fished in more scenic locations.

To the great surprise of all present, I caught one immediately.

The beast is captured.

Roland and Steve celebrate the moment. Anyone who thinks this wasn’t worth four hours of driving is … well adjusted?

But to my astonishment, it was the not the fish I expected. It was much plainer-looking and less deep-bodied, and with the bizarre way my memory works, I instantly clicked back to a July day in 2008. I was fishing in Luxembourg with old friend Jens Koller, moments after I had landed a big barbel. I was plying the rocks with a micro hook, and I caught a plain-looking fish I assumed for years was some sort of deformed dace, because it didn’t look like the Japanese bitterling, which I thought was the European bitterling. It was part of a crazed long weekend in which we drove halfway across Europe so I could add Luxembourg and Austria to my country list, and apart from the occasional road rage incident, it was glorious. So let’s reminisce to that weekend, nine years ago, before I had started blogging, back when I had more hair and fewer world records, when my species count was at 774, when I had caught fish in exactly 50 countries. When my relationship with Marta was only four years old, so the Las Vegas odds of it going five were stacked against me.

Jens – a.k.a. “The Autobahn Werewolf” – seemed to enjoy setting up these road trips across Europe. On different occasions, we did Switzerland, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic, but this trip was about countries in two opposite directions from Germany – Luxembourg and Austria. We started with a day on the River Enz in Germany, catching some nice trout and chub. Notably, this day marked the one time (knock on wood) that I have ever put a hook through my finger.

Jens nearly fainted when I pushed it through, flattened the barb, and pulled it out. Note that I did not cut the hook – that would have wasted fishing time.

The next morning, we headed to off Luxembourg, a quick few hours from my office in Walldorf. Traffic was light, and Jens was calm.

I was so focused on fishing that I didn’t go see Patton’s grave. This probably makes me a bad American.

We got there in the afternoon, and set up for some bottom fishing. That was slow, so we moved to a smaller creek and tossed some lures. It was here I got my fish – a perch – adding Luxembourg as my 51st country.

My first fish in Luxembourg. The far side of the creek is Germany.

We fished well into the evening, and got into quite a batch of European eels.

Marta says this is my sexiest eel photo, ever. Taylor Swift says this is my sexiest eel photo ever, ever, ever, ever.

The next morning, we fished a short session on a small river just inside the border, and I hooked up on a beast of a barbel. It wasn’t quite as big as my 10 pound first barbel in 2005 with Roger Barnes, but a magnificent fish nonetheless.

One of the hardest fighting fish in fresh water. 

In the afterglow of this trophy, I did a bit of microfishing in some rocks on the bank, inspired by what I thought was a glimpse of a stone loach. I caught a few minnows, and then a silver fish I wrote off as an odd-looking dace because it didn’t look anything like what I was mistakenly picturing a bitterling. And so it was photographed and filed away.

Steve unknowingly catches a European bitterling – July 25, 2008.

We hit the road for Austria, about 7 hours back across Germany but featuring a stop at a Karlsruhe pub that put on a Friday night barbecue. There was sauerkraut. There was pork. There was more sauerkraut. It was awesome until we had been back in the car for a few hours – men never think of these things. Well, men think of these things as contests, and I would say Jens won.

The next day, we arrived at Fuschl am See. (Lake Fuschl.) I loved saying the name – Fuschl Fischl Fuschl.

No, they weren’t trolling.

It was certainly one of the most beautiful alpine locations I had ever visited, and we had the privilege of staying with one of Jen’s great friends, Robbi, who just happens to own a very nice resort on the lake – the Pension Huber.

The hotel. Worth the trip just for the scenery.

We had the full run of the place, including the delicatessen and tackle store, for 48 hours, and it was awesome. We did long stretches of fishing in their own private mountain pond – the target was tench, which I would not get for another 355 days. But we had a blast with roach and some nice carp, and the nighttimes were filled with sausage platters, good Austrian beer, and endless fishing conversation.

The pond, hidden up a narrow mountain road.

Steve and Jens. He’s about as tall as I am – I just always seem be standing uphill.

Steve and Robbi. We caught over a dozen carp like this.

It was a bit muddy. But no problem – it was Jens’ car!

Jens and I then fought through European holiday traffic to get back to Germany, where we fished one more day and I caught my first (minuscule) asp. It would be eight more years before I would catch a reasonable one, but a species is a species.

My first encounter with an asp was still better than Cleopatra’s.

Oh, how I enjoyed those maniacal runs through summertime Europe with Jens, and I smiled. Just then, a cold breeze brought me back to 2017, and like that, my flashback was over. So yes, there is a new species to report, but I’m about nine years late.

But returning to the present day, there was one more surprise in store. Bitterling were not the only creatures being raised at this place. They also had big tanks laden with exotic sturgeon – Belugas, Siberians, and a couple of others. Yes, I briefly considered getting a rod and putting a Beluga on my list – this is one of the great unicorns of the species world.

Fish, barrel, I get it. But there were three rare species of sturgeon in one pen.

But I have an obsession with catching my Beluga in the Volga River, preferably near Stalingrad, or Volgograd, or Putingrad – whatever they’re calling it this week. But then I saw some small, white shapes at the bottom of one of the pens.

There was no way I wasn’t fishing for these.

Roland explained that these were sterlet. Albino sterlet. I had spent a couple of days trying to catch a sterlet in Slovakia (As covered in “The Basilica.”) They are almost gone in the wild, and I realized this might be my one chance to even see one. So, without much of a thought to the horrified look you are giving right now, I took my original handline and Gulp bit and drifted it down into the pack. They ignored it, but I skillfully kept maneuvering the bait for a heart-stopping 20 minutes until one of them stumbled onto it. The battle was on, and I wanted to get it over with quickly because people were watching, with that same look on their face. It took a moment on one pound test, but I got him – and without a net or gaff!

A sterlet. Sure, I’ll feel better if I catch one in Slovakia, but this is a start.

I figured this was about as much as I could get away with in a day, and so Roland and I bid the hatchery farewell, and started on the two hour drive back to Walldorf. I was grateful he had taken his time and effort to help a fellow angler – these sort of things seem to transcend international boundaries – and I was even more grateful he understood my obsession well enough to volunteer the location. But I was most grateful of all that, on the entire ride home, he never once judged exactly how shameful the whole episode had been. That is the measure of a true species-hunting buddy. Vielen Dank, Roland. And Vielen Dank, Jens, even if it is nine years late.

Steve

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | August 20, 2017

Homonyms, Pomfrets, and the Pier Panther

Dateline: March 25, 2017 – Heeia, Hawaii

This is a cow.

She says “Moo.”

This is a Jamie.

She says “Mu.”

A “Mu,” you see, is the Hawaiian word for bigeye emperor, and the bigeye emperor is a fish that has caused me a lot of trouble.

It all started in Kona on September 2, 2008. Marta and I were fishing on our secret ledge on a soft summer night, and all was good with the universe. I had added two species that day – a brown surgeonfish and the beautiful raccoon butterflyfish. The butterfly had been a huge relief, as Marta had actually caught the species before me. We had eaten a lovely meal at Jackie Rey’s, then headed out to the rocks for what I insincerely promised would be a short trip. Shortly before 10pm, disaster struck. Marta, who had filched my custom medium spinning stick and Stella 5000, was flipping a whole shrimp around the wash. Of course, she got a massive strike and had something run hard into the rocks. She did a good job of steering it out, and moments later, a strange and wonderful fish surfaced. Marta had captured a very big Mu.

I see this photo in my sleep. A lot.

A Mu is a rare creature, and even local experts like Jamie don’t get them very often. In the nine years since this debacle, Marta has gotten untold mileage out of those photos, which she trots out at social gatherings, usually right when I’m telling a good fish story.

I have made many trips to Hawaii since 2008, and on each one, I have made a sincere effort to catch a Mu. I have scrambled over wet rocks in the middle of the night and spent hours trying to gather shore crabs for bait, but I may as well have been trolling in the Dead Sea. Marta and Jamie think this is funny. They randomly put Marta’s Mu shots on Facebook. I am too old to be on Facebook, but my friends are not, and I get dozens of derisive emails every time those photos appear.

So when Martini and I headed to Hawaii this March, this fish was definitely on my mind – but I had plenty of other humiliation to address. Although I have not caught a spearfish, Hawaii is the place where I have not caught it the most. There are also three other species there which Marta has caught and I have not – the red coronetfish, the longtail snapper, and the highfin chub. Sure, my Hawaiian glass might be full of more than 100 species, but that’s not what keeps me up at night.

This Hawaii trip, on a spring break for Martini, was set up with four days in Kona on the Sea Strike with Captain Dale Leverone and soon-to-be Captain Jack Leverone, and then three days on Oahu with Wade and Jamie. The idea was to get Martini a big batch of Hawaiian species, and at least three world records – so he could get his mind-boggling 200th. For me, I figured I could scrape together a few species, and hopefully get a record or two. Hawaii is one of those places that’s so beautiful I’m glad to fish here no matter what the species prospects.

We arrived on a Saturday, and after a Taco Bell run, we set up at the Kona pier and started fishing. This is a great location, not as private as Keauhou, but it has produced some interesting species for me over the years. (A few details HERE.)

First fish of the trip – threadfin butterflyfish. Not a new species, but I never get over how beautiful they are.

Among the dozens of assorted reef creatures we pulled up during the evening, I got a crown squirrelfish – the first new species of the trip.

This counts as a good start in my book.

The next morning, Dale and Jack were set up and ready to go at 7am. Jack is suddenly 18 years old and is close to getting his captain’s license, and will take over the Sea Strike whenever Dale goes into a well-deserved retirement. We headed out onto a bit of a bumpy morning and put in our trolling time. You all know what didn’t happen, so let’s skip right to the bottom fishing, which featured some curious role reversals. My thing is species, but I won’t turn away a record. Martini’s thing is records, but he won’t turn down a species. But right away, I started getting records – a positively huge Pfleuger’s Goatfish (the species that was also my 100th record,) followed by a nice oblique-banded snapper, which is one of the most attractive of the deepwater snappers.

Do not adjust your monitor – it really is that big. In the Goatfish world, this is Shaquille O’Neill, and it may be better at free throws.

Martini responded by catching a Hawaiian grouper, a ridiculously rare species I had never even seen. Then he caught a rusty jobfish. We would both have gladly swapped catches – but he still probably enjoyed the look on my face.

Oh how I want to catch one of those groupers.

He caught this just to annoy me. Seriously. I’ve fished here steadily for 12 years and he gets one on his first trip?

Martini then got a nice record – his 198th – on the spotted unicornfish, which was supposed to be more how things should go.

I caught my first one of these in 2006, so I was fine with this.

That evening, things got weird again. Jack took us to a back area in the harbor to fish for eels. Just as it got dark, two nice morays came out of nowhere and hit our respective baits. Mine turned out to be a record whitemouth moray, a fish I would have gladly deferred to Martini.

But that’s what he gets for catching the rusty jobfish.

Still, there was plenty to celebrate that evening, and we dined well on island cuisine and fished the pier some more. I am pretty sure we got some sleep, but I won’t swear to it.

The next morning came quickly, and before we went out to not catch a spearfish, we tried some bottom fishing. Martini, tossing a metal jig, opened up the scoring with a smalltooth jobfish that put that species into the record book.

Courtesy of Martini. My photos never turn out this well.

This was his 199th, and I sort of figured that no matter what else happened on the trip, there was a good chance I would see history made in the next day or two. I had been there when Martini got #182 to go into second place overall, and it was an amazing moment, especially when Martini got his butt soaking wet in the grass.

I just wanted species, and in between constant action on triggerfish, snappers, and big wrasses, I got a huge bite that hooked up, peeled off about 20 yards of line, and pulled off. I said some choice words, re-rigged, and dropped down two more pieces of squid.

Whatever it was must have followed us, because, almost immediately, I got crushed again. Crushed. It was a hard, head-shaking fight with plenty of runs along the bottom, and I was certain I was going to lose whatever it was in the rocks. Slowly, I got it off the bottom. and so I backed my drag off, recognizing that the rig was likely fairly beaten up. The fight still went on for a good while, and all I could guess was a big gray triggerfish. Eventually, a big, silver flank showed under the boat. I focused on fighting the fish and let Jack take care of the landing, so he got the first look at it. “It’s a #&%# Mu!” he yelled. It took everything I had not to freeze up. Everyone on the boat knew the story and what was at stake. The fish made a couple of more dives, and then Jack got it in the net. I had gotten my bigeye emperor.

Finally. Finally. And in an unexpected place.

They have an extraordinary set of teeth.

As a bonus, the fish was just big enough to qualify as a record. But, as was immediately pointed out by Jamie the moment I texted her the picture, Marta’s was still bigger.

We did the obligatory trolling, which featured the obligatory missed strike from what was likely a spearfish, and then we got back to the bottom creatures. Martini pulled in his first uku – also known as a green jobfish, and I managed to best my old record on the largehead scorpionfish.

Largehead. And scorpionfish.

Martini’s uku. My first one was in March of 2006 in Mozambique.

It was mathematically unlikely and morally wrong that I would have five records at the stage Martini had two, but he had the rusty jobfish and the Hawaiian grouper, both of which he had caught without spite, I think, but I still longed to switch his toothpaste with Preparation H.

Late in the day – and Dale fished some late days for us – Martini had an insane idea. He wanted to catch a pomfret. Pomfret live deep – like 1600 feet and more, which, according to Dale, is 266 fathoms at the current exchange rate. This is doable on an electric reel, but the idea of cranking one up manually sounded like a bit of a stretch. But not to Martini. And so, armed with a TLD 20 2-speed and Dale’s best guess as to where the pomfret lived, we set to it. The record on a pomfret was positively huge at 17 pounds, so I wasn’t really considering that as an option for #200. Martini had other ideas.

It takes a long, long time to drop a weight down a third of a mile, and much longer to reel it back up when there was no bite. Martini was relentless – lift up, reel down, lift up, reel down. He freshened the baits and dropped for a second time. A few minutes into the drift, the rod tip shook visibly and Martini started reeling up quickly to set the big circle hooks. The tip kept bouncing, and I guessed Martini had gotten a small pomfret. He was moving it off the bottom fairly easily, and he started coming up with the same relentless rhythm – lift up, reel down, lift up, reel down, no slack, no pauses. Even after 15 minutes of this, Martini showed no signs of wavering – if anything, he sped up. He did not ask for beverages or Advil. I did notice that the rod tip was shaking more aggressively as the fish got higher in the water column, and I was reconsidering my weight estimate. Martini stayed at it with no break, no commentary – just steady, focused, perfect reeling.

We were not surprised that a pomfret showed up at the end of the line, but we were surprised at the size. It was big – perilously close to the record – but we wouldn’t know for sure until we could weigh it on dry land as per IGFA regulations.

But would it break the record?

We headed for port immediately, but adding to the drama was the fact that I had forgotten my 30# Boga grip, so we would need to weigh it with two 15# Bogas and then DO MATH. If anyone’s smartass kid ever asks when they will use math in real life, point them to this blog. There was addition, subtraction, fractions, and even lowest common denominators, and a world record was at stake. After some tense moments of calculation, during which we both had to show our work, we arrived at the same number – 17.75 pounds. Martini had his 200th record as in individual angler. One other person has ever accomplished this – Martini’s father Marty – and he was a lot older than 25 when he did it. Oh, to be that young and that good at something.

Martini was remarkably calm about this, right until I turned around. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, this was when the gravity of the situation sunk in on him, and he let out a guttural bellow of triumph that is still, as far as we know, echoing around Mauna Keana, and inside my skull, because it scared me out of my wits.

Still, stuff like this doesn’t happen very often, and it has been a privilege to just be there. Of course, if I wasn’t a klutz, he would have gotten his 200th on the moray, but all was forgiven once I bought the celebratory beers. It didn’t help that the bar had a mounted spearfish.

Martini thought this was very funny.

The evening saw us back at Kona town pier, where I had one of the best three minute spans of my fishing career. Sure, I’ve caught almost everything that lives near that pier, but I still keep seeing stuff I haven’t. Notable among these is the longnose butterflyfish – the lau wiliwili nukunuku oi oi –  which is Hawaiian for “We don’t have enough consonants.” I was dropping a small sabiki, catching loads of wrasses and filefish, when one of these somehow managed to get on the hook.

I was beside myself with joy, to the great bewilderment of tourists and locals alike.

Moments later, I cast the rig again, and immediately landed a spotted boxfish.

Species 1660.

This was the best three minutes anyone has had since Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon. Later in the evening, I reeled in a Hawaiian squirrelfish – the fourth new one of the day, and third from the pier.

I’m running out of squirrelfish.

The third day on the water was a very long one. We intended to do a regular day trip, take a nap, then go out all night after thresher shark and whatever else would bite. The day portion of the trip, although completely lacking in spearfish, was good fun. We focused most of our effort on deeper water – 900-1000 feet – and in between some hard-pulling almaco jacks and snappers, I caught one of the more bizarre creatures I have ever gotten – a boarfish.

Ironically, they’re interesting.

Look closely. It’s not an amberjack.

Martini did well on species, running up a few of the regular deep-water suspects like ruby snapper.

Martini’s was bigger.

The overnight portion of the trip was a gamble – we would be looking for some big game “home runs.” Just as every trip to Vegas doesn’t work out, neither did this one, but at least no one ended up arrested or pregnant. (Although Martini ate most of a live squid right in front of me.) We did a bit of reef fishing on the way home at the sun rose, and oddly, I broke my own record on Maori wrasse. This made me feel marginally better.

When this is the only (family-friendly) photo from 12 hours of fishing, you know it was challenging. Dale and Jack did their best, but the Fish Gods always have the last word.

After breakfast at Taco Bell, a much-needed nap, and then lunch at Taco Bell, we did some shoreline fishing south of Kona. While I didn’t get anything new, this is still one of the most beautiful places in the world and I always love coming here.

Of course, now I can catch them at will.

Martini ran up a few new species, including peppered and undulate morays.

The undulate – one of the grouchier morays.

This is why we do not put this in our pants.

Then it was time to face one of the unpleasant realities of visiting the Hawaiian islands – Jamie Hamamoto. We had more or less made nice last year, and at the very least, I was really looking forward to seeing Wade. Martini and I caught the short flight to Honolulu, rented a car, and headed over to Heeia pier. (A fabled location mentioned most recently in THIS BLOG.)

As we worked our way through dozens of parrotfish, wrasses, and butterflyfish, there was a noise from under the pier. It sounded an awful lot like a snarling large feline, although odds are it was just creaky piping. We looked at each other. It snarled again. We both said “Pier panther,” and immediately, another joke that will be funny to exactly no one else had entered our private if indecipherable lexicon of hilarity. And every time the noise happened, we said “Pier panther” and laughed and laughed. We were tired. Don’t judge.

Wade and Jamie showed up just in time for dinner, which was truly awful because they didn’t let me choose the restaurant, which would have been Denny’s if I had not been outvoted. Instead we went to some Godawful local dive, which was called “Zippy’s” but should have been called “Island Horrors.” I’m not sure Jamie enjoyed the food so much as the look on my face.

Martini ate whatever that is in the bowl. Terrifying.

We spent the next two days visiting some of the familiar and beloved Oahu spots we have fished over the years – Heeia, the west side, even the soul-crushing research pier. We couldn’t get to some of my favorite North Shore spots like “the aquarium” and “the reserve” because of high waves, but you won’t catch me complaining about getting to fish anywhere on Oahu.

I didn’t have much species mojo during this portion of the trip, but it was great to see the Hamamotos and it was great to see Martini check off a bunch of species – he nailed an astonishing 38 in the week.

Martini wades a suspicious-smelling creek to get jewel and convict cichlids.

That evening, he added a Hawaiian conger to his list.

What was no so great was the food. Martini is adventurous on cuisine. I am not. I would be perfectly content to eat at Pizza Bob’s the rest of my life, but Pizza Bob’s is regretfully closed and we were doomed to lunch at Iggy’s Tropical Terror Diner and some sort of Korean Barbecue that may not have even been a restaurant.

The menu.

This is the only thing I can do with chopsticks.

Our final day was a whirlwind tour of Oahu. This place is bigger than it looks on a map, and we had quite a bit of car time as we started at the west side, where we saw an amazing sunrise and Jamie caught a bunch of stuff while we sat there not catching a bunch of stuff.

Somewhere on the leeward side of Oahu.

Jamie reels in yet another bluefin trevally.

We hit a few more locations, and decided to close out the day at reliable old Heeia pier. We got quite a variety of local critters and passed a pleasant afternoon.

I tell her not to talk with her mouth open.

I had to talk Wade out of taking this home to eat. He claims he knows how to clean them, but this is the same man who has had a case of ciguatera and an oilfish overdose. (Both of which landed him in the tub for a weekend.)

Among many others, Martini got a coronetfish. Thank goodness it wasn’t red.

We fished well after dark, because I was trying to avoid dinner. The pipes started snarling again, which Martini and I thought was extremely funny. Wade gave us a quizzical glance and said “Watch out for the pier panther,” so we all laughed hysterically, except for Jamie, who suggested that we were idiots.

Steve

Aloha oe.

Posted by: 1000fish | July 11, 2017

Life After the Big Green Boat

Dateline: January 27, 2017 – Port Hacking, Australia

Seventeen years is a long time in guide years, which are much, much longer than dog years, and in general, the food’s worse. A lot can happen in that much time, especially when we’re so busy living life that we forget to stop and appreciate how much has happened.

I met Scotty Lyons seventeen years ago. This makes me feel old, so imagine how it makes him feel. I met him before I met Roger Barnes. Before I met Jean-Francois Helias. Before I met Marta. The day I met Scotty, I had caught 119 species in five countries and had exactly zero world records. In the time since, I’ve added over 1500 species, and about 100 of those are courtesy of the man with the big green boat.

Yes, it’s a horrible photo, but I swiped it from Scotty’s website, so blame him.

I arrived in Sydney on a beautiful summer Saturday. I would have normally fished with Scotty, but he was on vacation. (The nerve of him.) I had figured I could wait for a week, but when I saw how gorgeous it was, I knew I had to get on the water. (Although I felt a bit unfaithful going with another guide.) A quick web search later, I found a suitable boat – Deep Blue Charters. They normally take big groups bottom bashing off the coast for snapper, so it was a bit of an adjustment for them to host one angler who wanted to catch anything but snapper. They were good guys, although deeply bewildered at the idea of dropping #18 hooks down onto the reefs outside Sydney head.

It was a glorious day. I needed to go fishing or I would be struck by lightning.

It wasn’t all microfishing – I dropped plenty of bigger baits, and my very first fish of 2017 was a solid morwong.

Blue morwong. I got my first one on October 28, 2007 with Scotty. I remember these things.

There were also two noteworthy catches later in the afternoon. The first was a straightforward new species – the streaky lizardfish. (Identified by Dr. Jeff Johnson – which saved it from a trip to the mystery file, because this species isn’t in any of my books.)

The streaky lizardfish and a bemused crewman.

The other fish resulted in a new species, but only after significant introspection and a humiliating public confession, which you are about to read. You see, I caught a whiting that looked new.

The whiting that looked new. So far, so good.

I dug into the books, and it turned out I had caught an Eastern School Whiting. I was thrilled, albeit briefly, to get two new species in an unplanned trip. I gave it little more thought, as I then went to Melbourne for a week. (Featured in “The Melbourne Ultimatum.”) But you’ve already read about that, unless you’re my sister, who is terribly behind on the blog. Oh, the shame.

So when I proudly showed the photo to Scotty, he said something completely unexpected – “We’ve caught that one before. The day we got all the big leatherjackets.” He was talking about a day nine years ago … and he was right. I, who can remember nearly all the lines from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” by heart, I, who can remember the Detroit Tigers lineup from 1972, I, who can tell you the line score from hockey games I played in 1978, had just flat out missed one. But this blog is about two days with Scotty, not about my failing middle-aged memory, so let’s move on.

September 20, 2008. Botany Bay. Scotty took this picture and remembered the species instantly nine years later. And I’m the one who prides himself on his memory.

I was looking forward to fishing on the Big Green Boat – Scotty’s “Bullfrog II.” (I am one of the few living people who has also fished on the original “Bullfrog,” which was also an awful bright green.) For many years, I had thought I had caught everything in Botany Bay, but even on my May 2015 trip, (see “The Hook and the Cook“) we managed to squeeze out a few newbies. Either way, it was a chance to fish with a great friend, and certainly a good shot a some records, but my expectations on species were very low.

The morning of our first day didn’t do much to change this. It was overcast, a bit blustery, and a barometer settling downward. We moved around some comfortably familiar places – the floating drums, the north head, the oil pier. We got a few of the usual suspects – small banjo sharks, snappers, tarwine, breams – but nothing new. We smiled, knowing we had a very difficult task in front of us, but glad to be on the water. We stuck at it, just as we have for 17 years.

The conversation went in many directions – fishing plans for the next hour, fishing plans for tomorrow, and of course to families and life. Both of Scott’s sons are out on their own, and Trudy is still speaking to him, which is a major triumph after all these years. (In which she has seemingly never aged.) He has worked his tail off as a guide, kept up some work as a carpenter, and redone his house into something of an Architectural Digest showplace. Two years ago, his best friend Paul “cashed out” of the insane Sydney housing market and moved to Queensland, where a decent sized piece of property can actually be afforded, and where living expenses have stayed reasonable, and I got the feeling Scotty would like to do this someday as well. We were actually talking about life after the Big Green Boat. When did I get so darn old?

NOTE TO THE WORLDWIDE ANGLING COMMUNITY: SCOTTY IS NOT RETIRING ANY TIME SOON. DO NOT DESPAIR. KEEP YOUR BOOKINGS WITH HIM.

Around noon, we moved to the container wall – my favorite structure on the entire bay. I dropped a couple of slab baits to the bottom, and started casting a sabiki toward the pilings, expecting a mado or some other familiar creature. But as they have so many times in this location, the Fish Gods smiled on me. I caught a ladder-finned pomfret, a creature I had just seen in Sea Fishes of Southern Australia the night before. We celebrated like we had just won a war against France. (Since this is an international blog, I figured most cultures could relate to that.)

The power of positive thinking.

The pressure was off. We could just have fun, and Scotty now had a chance to get home before dark. We pulled anchor and moved down the wall, to a heretofore secret flat spot Scotty had hidden from me all these years. I put down a rod for a moray, just in case, and started casting small baits into the structure. Moments later, I pulled up a goatfish. Only it wasn’t the normal bright red goatfish I have gotten here. It was something new.

The blackspot goatfish. Now we had two species. That’s twice as good as one.

As we pulled the anchor, I reeled up the eel rod, and after I dragged it out of a snag, it was suspiciously heavy. I warned Scotty to have the net ready, and as my leader surfaced, I indeed – finally – had my yellow moray. I have tried for this species on almost every trip for the past 17 years, and I had been the only fisherman in the area who had never caught one. I am, however, perhaps the first person to catch one deliberately.

My 20th moray species. 

The obligatory “Put that thing down, you idiot” photo. Scotty would be drummed out of the guide community if anyone saw this.

Then things just got stupid good. We moved on to some sand flats most of the way back to the dock – a place where Scotty had once caught a “cobbler” sea catfish and therefore became a place we tried fruitlessly for this species over the years. While the catfish remained elusive, I pulled up not one, but two new species in the next 20 minutes.

A somewhat lost stout whiting. Scotty had never seen one either.

 

I would call this a mojarra. They would call it a silverbiddy. But no matter what it’s called, it was species five of the day.

I made my way back to Sydney for a night of low-key celebrating.

I personally believe five new species deserves fireworks, but it was also Australia Day. You be the judge.

Nighttime view from Circular Quay. If you look carefully, there are more fireworks.

I have been waiting years to put this photo in a blog.

The next morning, I got to feel even older, because we got to go fishing with someone I have known even longer than Scotty. Indeed, Steve Baty introduced me to Scotty. Steve and I worked together in the mid-90’s, (he was the smart one) and it was he who introduced me to Australian fishing. (Which has resulted in 208 of my 1653 species to date.) Steve is a passionate fishermen, but is rather busy running a successful company and being married and  raising what seems like a dozen children, so he doesn’t get out quite as often as I do. Still, every time we go, we pick up like we had just gone yesterday.

Steve and Steve on the original Bullfrog, May 2000.

Steve and Steve, April 2009, best hair day ever.

20 years on, we hit the water again. That’s a smallscale bullsye, my first fish of the day, and yes, it was a new species. 

Our venue was Port Hacking, one of the most beautiful locations in the Sydney area. It can be a tricky place, but on the good days, there are some amazing fish here. Moments after we stopped, I got a new species. This was a good omen.

After loading up on live squid for bait, we motored outside the bay and anchored up on one of the nearshore reefs. These areas are loaded with fish – snappers, wrasses, mackerel, and dozens of others. But I was there to settle a score with the Port Jackson shark. This member of the horn shark family is one of those scavengers that seems to get caught by everyone who doesn’t want one, and it was an open record that had avoided me for years. This had to be my day. But the first thing to eat the scad fillet wasn’t a fish at all – it was a positively huge cephalapod. (For those of you who have seen “Arrival,” no, this is something different.)

The biggest cuttlefish I have ever seen. This was strangely pleasing, and yes, it was safely released.

I put another big bait on the bottom and waited. While I did that, I passed some time dropping some smaller hooks and catching an assortment of reef creatures. It was great fun until I got snagged up. So I broke off and re-rigged. Then I got snagged again. I tried all the tricks to get it loose, but finally resorted to yanking up on the rod a few times. Scotty looked at my quizzically. “Mate, I think that’s a fish.” he said. “Bull@#&%” I replied. Steve weighed in – “Yeah, we’ve drifted about 30 feet and it’s still straight under us. “Bull@#&%” I replied. I was just about ready to break the line when the fish took off, peeling out 10-pound braid powerfully but slowly. I was pretty sure I had my Port Jackson shark. But I didn’t – about 15 minutes later, Scotty reached down and netted a big Fiddler Ray – at 16.5 pounds, it would break the existing world record of 14.75. I was stunned, and lucky that all my mishandling hadn’t pulled the hook out.

The snag that turned into a record.

I want to take a moment and pay tribute to the man whose record I broke. Marcel Vandergoot set this record in South Australia 27 years ago – and he did it on FOUR POUND TEST. (He also probably knew he had a fish on the whole time.

 

Marcel Vandergoot and his record fiddler ray. Our collective hats are off to you, Marcel.

So we kept at it, with both Steve and I catching dozens of assorted reef creatures. A while later, the slab rod started bouncing. I picked it up and set into something that wasn’t quite as big as the Port Jackson shark I wanted. When Scotty netted it, though, he was again stunned. It was a beastly Sergeant Baker – a type of lizardfish that locals regard as something of a pest. At three and a half pounds, it handily beat my previous record. This was becoming quite a day.

The vicious and inedible Sergeant Baker.

Still, I wanted that Port Jackson shark badly, which is not a sentence you often hear in Australian fishing circles. Noon passed, and while we couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant (or productive) day, I couldn’t believe that my main target wouldn’t cooperate. Scotty finally made his own custom slab rig on one of his kingfish rods, as he has always been suspicious of my hand-tied California bat ray leaders. Needless to say, we got a bite immediately. I set into the fish. It was big, which encouraged me, and somewhat more sluggish than the average tuna, which also encouraged me. I held my breath when Scotty picked up the net, but a moment later, a big Port Jackson finally hit the deck. I had my third record of the day.

Steve and Steve with the beast. It came in at 17.5 pounds.

Another thing not to put in your pants.

With this triumph, we headed back into the bay, to weight the fish on dry land and get a well-deserved beer. I looked around at the scenery – it was a perfect, sunny afternoon, just like it had been on my first day there years and years ago when business travel was still fun and no one was talking about retirement.

Port Hacking. Every one of those dark, weedy patches holds flathead.

Fishing for those flathead, circa 2001. This is the first known photo of me taken with a digital camera. I didn’t think digital cameras would catch on.

Moments before that photo above was taken, I had nearly stepped on a small stingray, and that species would become our final target for the day. We anchored up on a mud flat in the back of the bay and fanned out some big cut baits – Steve Baty provided us with more mackerel than we could use in a week. It was glorious out there – perfect weather, a bit of tide going past us to keep the fish biting, and two great mates giving me a hard time because I was so excited over local bycatch.

Before I could even start in with the Arostegui “ugly fish” defense, my Pfalzer jigging rod doubled over and the Calcutta 400 started paying line out fast. I had a ray – but could I keep it on? The battle went for some 10 minutes, in and out of the anchor rope, but we got it. An estuary stingray, it was not only a new species, but a world record at 13 pounds. This was a day for the ages.

I love how the green on the boat matches with … nothing.

That was a fitting end to what had become one of my best days ever on Port Hacking, But we weren’t quite done. Scotty had a wan smile on his face as we tied up the dock. “Aren’t you going to try for a stripey?” He asked. I sighed. The stripey, you see, is a creature that is often the first fish caught by young Sydney anglers. It lives in large groups under any dock as long as I am not there, and I expected to see none of them here, even though the local kids reported catching them earlier in the day. This has been a running joke with us for many years, and don’t think it didn’t bug the heck out of me.

A stripey. They have hated me for years.

I donned sunglasses and peered into the water. There were hundreds of stripeys just sitting there under the dock, mocking me. I tossed in a few bait scraps – not sure what they were, as they weren’t mine, but the fish reacted to them. So I grabbed my sabiki rod and dropped it down, expecting whatever bream or tailor was going to jump in and ruin my stripey fantasy. But they didn’t, and the stripeys went into a feeding frenzy, which was more savage than it probably sounds. I caught at least 10 while Scotty was hosing down the boat, improbably running the trip species total to eight.

The stripey finally joins the list. Next up, the old wife. Yes, there really is a fish called that, and Scotty is likely already asking around for hot spots.

This was a fitting end to one of my best fishing trips ever. I knew to be humble when the Fish Gods take the day off, and it was enough for me to have fished with two great friends I don’t see all that much, but the eight species and four records were a definite plus. I’m sure it will be a few months at least until I come back, so take heart, Scotty – you have a bit of time to find that old wife, or a teraglin, or a cobbler, or a John Dory, or a green razorfish, or a pink basslet … they’re out there someplace.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE – THE HENG CONTINUES

We have now scientifically confirmed that Jimmy, rather than Dave, is the source of the Singapore species Heng. Nonetheless, Dave has tremendous trophy Heng. On my brief trip through the country in February, I only had one day to fish, and Jimmy was not available. But Dave kindly still arranged for he and I to go out on a different charter boat and try some of the Southern Islands. (An area immortalized in such blog posts as “Angry White Man.”) While there were not any new species to report – unsurprising considering I have been fishing this area solidly for almost 20 years – we still managed one rather noteworthy catch – a fingermark snapper right at 10 pounds, which is about nine pounds bigger than my previous best. So Dave definitely has the trophy Heng. And Alex has good Heng finding dresses on sale.

Remember the rule “big bait, big fish.” Dave is holding what’s left of the live trevally we used.

 

Posted by: 1000fish | June 24, 2017

The Melbourne Ultimatum

Dateline: January 25, 2017 – Hastings, Australia

On my last trip to Hastings, I didn’t do as badly as King Harold, but it was close.

King Harold gets the point. Look it up – it turns out the English are more French than they would like.

You might point out that this is a different Hastings, but I am pretty sure it was named after the town in England that became famous in 1066. (1066, as you know, is significant because the English won the World Cup exactly 900 years later, which would have been a more appropriate ending for the Bayeux Tapestry*.) In any case, that trip to Hastings, Australia in May of 2015 (“I’m Here For the Gummy“) sounds nice until we consider two factors –

  • It was winter in Australia.
  • The weather in Melbourne is always bad.

I could tell that the area had loads of opportunities, but despite the efforts of top-notch guide Shaun Furtiere, the wind was miserable and we didn’t get a lot of what would normally be there. It was heartbreaking, because we knew if we could only have gotten to certain spots, we would have scored a lot more species and possibly records, but this is one of the risks of fishing. (Perspective from Marta – Steve wasn’t nearly this philosophical at the time. As a matter of fact, he is NEVER philsophical.)

The vagaries of business travel being what they are, I found myself back in Australia in January of this year. I would need to consider two factors –

  • It was summer in Australia.
  • The weather in Melbourne is always bad.

Still, this was my chance. This is a very long way from home, so I told myself I needed to get a lot of of the missing species or I couldn’t come back – the Melbourne Ultimatum. (To Marta’s disappointment, Matt Damon was not involved.) This time around, Shaun kindly picked me up and drove me down the peninsula. It was clear and breezy, but he was confident that at least the next couple of days would have good water conditions. He dropped me off at the Harborview Inn on the edge of town, and I took some time to set up all my gear. Shaun had volunteered to take me out eel fishing that night, so I passed the afternoon back at Hastings pier, the spot that had produced the amazing ornate cowfish for me the year before. It produced more cowfish, which were just as ornate the second time out, and close to 50 puffers, which was not so astonishing. The smooth puffer had been the dominant pest on my last visit, and it looked like they were out for blood again.

The ornate cowfish. I will not show a picture of the puffers – this would only encourage them.

But since you asked, here’s a picture of Shaun with a puffer.

The eel adventure was unsuccessful, but how many guides would spend an evening doing this? Australians are wonderful people, with the exception of one guy in my office, but this was really above the call of duty.

The first morning, we were joined by Shaun’s friend Warren. Warren is a local tournament fisherman, and although he will poo-pooh me on this, he is something of a local legend. Having him along was like having a second guide. Shaun is quite the expert on the game species in the area – snapper, whiting, and gummy shark – and Warren added some great knowledge on some of the lesser-known critters I would be after.

On our way to the harbor, we had an amazing wildlife encounter. We saw something waddling across the road, and a closer look revealed it was an echidna – sort of an Australian porcupine. I walked up to it, and it made no effort to run away. It simply dug into the ground and raised its spines – an intimidating sight. At my request, Warren dug it out, which was quite a chore, and I actually got to see one more up close and personally than it probably liked. (This creature is somewhat sacred in our household – Marta has a stuffed echidna named Spike, and Spike hates me.) So first, the video of the echidna we saw, and then a photo of Spike.

 

This is Spike. He takes Marta’s side in everything.

We launched on a sunny and windless morning, which is what I felt the Fish Gods owed me after the debacle 19 months ago. We were able to get outside of the coastal islands and head for the open water, and a gorgeous ride later, we were fishing.

Oh, what I would have given for weather like this in May of 2015.

Warren immediately showed that local experience was important. He caught a couple of King George whiting immediately – and we were fishing the same rig in the same place. But after a respectful wait, I had a hard strike and a battle all the way up, and I landed my whiting.

This is the largest of the whiting species, reportedly attaining some eight pounds.

We pounded the reefs the rest of the afternoon, and this is when the Fish Gods reminded me that they owe me nothing. I was here, it was summer, and there was decent weather. But all those species I had seen in the books, like Elephantfish, were not jumping on the hook. We got dozens of fish – blue throated wrasses, senator wrasses, and the occasional snapper, but nothing new for a couple of hours. Then I got a very dark wrasse, which turned out to be a purple wrasse, so we had two in the books. It was then followed by a brownspotted wrasse, so I was up to three.

The purple wrasse.

The Brownspotted. Dr. Jeff Johnson figured this one out, or it would still be in the mystery file. There are 27 fish on this unfortunate list, most destined to stay there forever.

Toward evening, we got a blue-throated wrasse that easily beat my existing record, so there was one on that scoreboard as well.

The first world record of the year. Marta loved my hat with the point and the seagull.

And on our last stop, a shallow bank near the harbor, I landed one of the species that I had admired in books for years – the blue weed whiting.

It actually isn’t a whiting, it wasn’t in the weeds, and it’s not even blue.  Australians do some bizarre things with common names. For example, they call threadfin “salmon” and groupers “cod” and beer “a food group.”

That evening, Warren took me out for a pizza in Hastings. It was awesome.

The next day was similar to the first – perfect weather. We headed out into the open ocean and down the coast. Anchoring up on some shallow reefs, we got steady action on wrasses and leatherjackets. Among perhaps three dozen fish, I got two new ones – the Sea Sweep and horseshoe leatherjacket.

The sea sweep. Closely related to the silver sweep I have caught so often in Sydney.

Note the horseshoe pattern on the fish. That’s Warren on the right.

I also managed to break two of my own records – the bluethroated wrasse and sixspine leatherjacket. At two and a half pounds, the bluethroat was a beast. Speaking of beasts, I had the educational pleasure of watching Warren fight a 10 pound-ish yellowtail to boatside on six pound line.

The beastly bluethroat.

This is why they are called bluethroats. Cousin Chuck, call me. I’ll explain.

My first record on a six spine was with Scotty Lyons in 2009.

As the day went on, we moved back into the bay to do some ray fishing – I had lost a huge Melbourne skate here last May and I intended to make up for it. We didn’t get a ray bite, although we got a few sharks, my biggest pink snapper ever, and a surprise new species. When I went to swing the fish over the rail, Shaun and Warren both dove for cover. It was a common gurnard perch, and it’s all kinds of venomous. I of course knew this and was able to handle it without harming anyone, but they didn’t know that at the time.

Do NOT put this in your pants.

My personal best pink snapper. Yes, I know this isn’t one of Shaun’s bump-headed monstrosities, but it’s going in the right direction.

We closed up for the day ahead seven total species and three records for the trip.

Sunset at Rocky Point.

The next morning, Shaun had planned a new location – north of the peninsula and onto the main bay, where we could look for some odd species and also take a shot at some big snapper. It was glorious when we launched, but Shaun warned me that some nasty weather was brewing up for later. I put that out of mind and just fished, and we ended up with three great new species –

Little Weed Whiting – it is indeed little, but still not a whiting.

Shaun gets selfie-ambushed.

The Bridled Leatherjacket.

Southern Garfish – this brought Shaun back to his childhood. He spent an appreciable amount of his younger years fishing for these on a float rig.

We fished on the wreck of the HMS Chunder, a 19th century relic.

We cut it off mid-afternoon, and after some sort of fast-food adventure, we launched again out of Rocky Point for an evening of ray fishing. Toward dark, one of the rods had a screaming run, reminiscent of our Tomales Bay bat rays. I set the hook and began a battle with what was unmistakably a Myliobatis species – long, powerful runs, then circling the boat, then running some more. About 15 minutes into the fight, just as I was getting the fish toward the boat, the hook pulled. This NEVER happens on rays. But it did. I said bad words.

I couldn’t be too upset – I figured we had plenty of time ahead of us, and I was sure that if one ray would bite, we would have several more chances. We had plenty of baits out, a large bag of gas-station snacks, and the tide looked perfect. It was at this exact moment the wind came up. This was not a subtle process – it went from almost perfectly still to 30+ instantly. Shaun saw it first, bearing down on us, and said “Ahhhh #%$&.” We were done for the evening. And while this gave me a chance to have yet another delicious pizza, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to catch an eagle ray. I was still up to ten species for the trip, exceeding last years total with two days still to fish, but guess what was on my mind all night?

I passed a fitful evening, as it was obvious that the wind wasn’t laying down – it sounded like the roof was going to come off. Shaun had planned for this as well, and he came up with a shore-based option. We headed over to Mornington harbor, which involved quite a scenic drive through the local wine country.  The harbor was perfect – one side of it was completely protected from the wind. I broke out the sabikis and set to seeing what was there. In between dozens of leatherjackets and wrasses, and fishing next to a bunch of kids with equally short attention spans, I managed three new species. Two of them were run-of-the-mill harbor micros – the southern hulafish and the yelloweye mullet.

The Southern Hulafish.

The Yelloweye Mullet. I had my doubts, but Shaun called this one right.

But the final one was a surprise that made the whole day worth it. A caught a zebrafish, which is a strikingly-colored relative of the opaleye. Shaun was amused at my excitement, and to be fair, my dance of joy across the wharf may have been a bit overboard. Australians aren’t used to seeing people act that oddly before happy hour.

They’re supposed to be vegetarian, but nobody told this one.

We gave the eels another try that night, and struck out again. How is it that we can catch as many eels as we want to if we are trying for something else, but as soon as we target them, they are as rare as objective journalism?

That left us one more day to get a ray. I had pretty much accepted that we weren’t got to get all of the available species on this trip, but I wanted at least one ray – there are several really amazing species down here. We got a bright and early start out of Rocky Point, and anchored up in one of the channels. After a couple of less-definitive bites, one of the rods went off with the screaming run I was hoping for. I picked it up, reeled into the circle hook, and started a lengthy battle that was made more dramatic by the self-doubt created by the hook that pulled out two days before. The fight went on for perhaps 30 minutes, and the most self-doubt happened when the leader appeared. Shaun was calm the entire time, and he netted the fish on the first opportunity. I had my eagle ray, the 14th and final species of an excellent trip.

They look like a bat ray with a better paint job.

At long last, a ray in Melbourne.

Shaun was kind enough to drive me back up to Melbourne airport. I had gotten many of the creatures left on the table from the previous trip, but there were quite a few still out there. This is the nature of the species hunting game, and another trip here didn’t sound like such a bad idea – especially for an Elephantfish. In the meantime, I had a plane to catch and some rigging to do. I would be spending the next 48 hours fishing down memory lane, with two old friends in Sydney.

Steve

* I have always wanted to open a Spanish appetizer restaurant in Normandy. I would call it “The Bayeux Tapas.” The Norman conquest has always held a special fascination for me, as some of our common linguistic expressions trace back to this event. For example, King Harold was the first person to say “Fire at Will!” We also got the first definitive example of what happens to deposed English monarchs – they get throne away.

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