Posted by: 1000fish | April 20, 2015

The Road Trip – “Bird Flu”

Dateline: June 29, 2014 – Ocean Springs, Mississippi

We were exactly one armadillo shy of an epic day. (Long-winded explanation HERE) We covered four states, fishing in two, added two new states for my fishing list, taking me to 44, caught two new species, and witnessed Martini do a convincing if historically inaccurate impression of Colonel Sanders.

We came into Louisiana exhausted, and barely made it to a Cajun seafood restaurant and motel in Baton Rouge. Martini had scheduled the 28th as a day off, so we could rest and refresh before hitting the Gulf Coast. Texas had lived up to every possible expectation, but we needed to sleep more than three hours a night. However, our night of quiet reflection happened to fall in a location perhaps not ideally suited to quiet reflection. We were headed to New Orleans.

Flu Cart

Two idiots we saw playing on a luggage cart in the parking lot.

We slept in that morning, despite Kyle’s persistent snoring, and we hit the road right before lunch. Driving into New Orleans brought back a lot of memories for me. The last trip I had taken here was with my Mother, the year before she passed away, and, despite the obvious risks of bringing one’s Mother to New Orleans, we had a fantastic time. (And I caught a batch of new species – see “Hoodoos, Bayous, and Beignets“)

We pulled into the French quarter around noon, and found an excellent Cajun lunch, which in my case was equal parts gumbo and Tabasco sauce. This sort of diet has consequences, but I was not to be dissuaded.

Flu Mothers

Best diner in N.O., hands down.

Flu Tabasco

Yes, I bought it. Tabasco goes well on everything from chicken to breakfast cereal.

We played tourist for an afternoon, seeing the sights of New Orleans – Jackson Square, the riverboats, the proud old houses, and the stumbling drunk tourists. But looming over the day was the fact that we needed to be up at 4:45 the next morning to drive to Mississippi and go fishing.

Flu Cafe

The group at Cafe du Monde.

Flu Beignet

This is a beignet. Fundamentally fried dough with powdered sugar, it may be the perfect food. 

At some stage of the evening, around 10, because I am old and boring, I went off to bed. At that very same hour, the guys, because they are young and unable to calculate the amount of hours until 4:45 AM, went off to the French Quarter.

Flu Bourbon

The heart of the French Quarter.

To be clear, I have no personal knowledge of what happened to them after 10 and before 4:45. There were no known photos, no stories were shared, and there was nothing in the newspaper.

Therefore, I can only presume that they both caught bird flu overnight, because when 4:45 AM rolled around, they were both disasters – wretched, pathetic, bleary-eyed, looking ready to throw up. They flinched at loud noises, like when I blinked. I’m sure something was going around, because some locals sleeping in the gutter looked to have the same condition.

Flu Sunrise

The sun rises as we head to Mississippi. Kyle moaned “Turn it off. It hurts my head.”

For the first time on the entire road trip, I was called upon to drive. It was nice in the front seat. I felt important. It was very, very quiet in the car, with just the occasional gurgle or bleat from Martini. Kyle’s bird flu seemed a bit less severe than Martini’s, but he was still awfully quiet, and he smelled like a bus, which I am told is a symptom of bird flu. We stopped at a 7-11, and the boys wanted small bottles of water and some white bread.

Flu Martini Flu

The ravages of bird flu. Martini insisted that he wanted to eat white bread, but most of it ended up in his hair.

We would be fishing that day in Mississippi, in a small Gulf Coast port called Ocean Springs. The guide would be one Captain John Swartz of Shallow Draft Charters. (Shallowdraft@cableone.net) John would be assisted by his grandson Jordan, who was visiting from Texas. It was a gorgeous morning as we motored out into the coastal waters.

Flu Bayou

Cruising through the bayou on a beautiful morning. The motor was a bit loud for the boys – Kyle quietly begged me to kill him. 

We anchored up on a shell bed, and it didn’t take long for me to add a species – the sand seatrout. (Related to the spotted seatrout and the weakfish.) This would also mean that Mississippi was the 43rd state where I had caught a fish.

Flu trout

The sand seatrout. This pleased me.

Kyle was half-heartedly casting a leadhead jig when he got a savage wakeup call – a big redfish slammed him and took off for Mobile. Considering his case of bird flu, he did a nice job during the long fight, and we finally netted a beast of a redfish for him.

Flu Redfish

Kyle steps up and goes Jaime Hamamoto on me. Even though the fish was only on board briefly, it complained about the smell. 

I had been musing for two weeks about how the least experienced of us caught the first fish, the biggest fish, the most records, bla bla bla. And I thought I had been relatively gracious about this, but something about this redfish just set me off. Really, Kyle? Really? Are you going to leave anything for the rest of us? Aren’t you too busy talking to Jaime to catch more fish?

As the day wore on, the flu symptoms seemed to ease up – you see what happens when young men eat a healthy diet and take such good care of themselves. Soon, Martini was eating solid food and speaking in complete sentences.

We fished hard the rest of the day and caught loads of stuff – drum, trout, sheepshead, sharks, rays, kingfish – and I got one other new species, the underappreciated striped burrfish.

Flu Burrfish (2)

The striped burrfish – a puffer relative. And Kyle just had to be unfriendly.

Toward the end of the day, we moved inshore to try for some gulf flounder. The boys had recovered well – a monument to their moral fiber – but the gulf flounder was nowhere to be found. The gulf flounder is starting to make me mad. But we did catch some very nice sheepshead and redfish.

Flu Sheephead

Steve and John with a nice sheepshead. You can find John on Shallowdraft@cableone.net or 228-234-2401. Great guy – I highly recommend fishing with him if you’re in the area.

Flu Martini Red

Martini and a nice red. His recovery was nothing short of remarkable.

Late in the afternoon, we docked, packed up, and hit the road – we had two more states to visit before we would rest.

It was on the way out of Ocean Springs that Martini made his one mistake with the beans. The can was sitting there on his seat as it had every day for two weeks, but perhaps because he hadn’t driven earlier, or perhaps due to the lingering effects of the bird flu, he didn’t look before he sat down. “#&%# %*&%!$%!!” he yelled as he sprang up and likely banged his head on the roof. “What kind of IDIOT would do that?” Sheepishly, Kyle and I both raised our hands. We giggled most of the way to Mobile. I can’t necessarily explain it now without sounding mean-spirited, but at the time, this was one of the single funniest things I had ever seen.

Flu Beans

The only known photo of the beans.

An hour or so later, we crossed into Alabama. We had no formal stop planned there, but I had never caught a fish in Alabama and was determined to do so. Driving around Mobile bay, we found some likely-looking spots near the USS Alabama museum. As a big-time war history buff, I have to say it was amazing to see this proud WWII veteran – she was at most of the main engagements in the Pacific, from shelling Tarawa to landing some of the first occupation troops in Japan.

Kirk Bama Closeup

The USS Alabama.

In the shadow of this monstrous old battleship – now retired for almost 70 years – I set up with a light rod and fished a sandbank until I caught an Atlantic croaker. This made Alabama the 44th state where I had caught a fish, and as fun as it was to add two states in one day, there was actually a day in 2009 when I added three states within six hours. (Details HERE.) I acknowledge that this is not normal behavior.

Flu Croaker

The Alabama croaker. I was very pleased by this.

I got back in the car, thrilled at the catch. I suggested that we get a beer at dinner to celebrate. Oddly, at the mere mention of beer, both Kyle and Martini broke into a sweat and said nothing.

Later in the evening, we crossed the border into Florida – the tenth and final state of the trip. There was still much to be done, and we drove off in search of lodging, with Blake Shelton blaring on the stereo, and the three of us singing along at the top of our lungs, each in our own key.

Heyyyyyyy Romeo, let’s go down to Mexico …

Utter poetry.

Steve

 

Dateline: June 27, 2014 – Lake Livingston, Texas

There is something intimidating about driving into Texas and seeing the sign that tells you exactly how long you will be in Texas. It was the crack of dawn when we departed Silver City to begin the longest single drive of the trip – 590 miles, which Rex had estimated as “just a few miles.”

Kirk TX sign

We all fell silent at the sight of this sign. That’s a long time to be in one state. 

Kirk Map

The plan for the day. I didn’t say it was a good plan.

There is something about 12 hours in a car that defines relationships. You really learn what’s inside someone, doubly so after a huge Mexican lunch in El Paso. Note to self – when driving 600 miles, save the Mexican food for dinner.

Kirk Road 1

It became apparent that the scenery wasn’t going to vary. Editorial by Kyle.

Somewhere on this endless rerun of bland highway, the guys introduced me to something called “internet content.” Mind you, I’m not completely lost on the cultural possibilities of the internet – I even found some old Carol Burnett skits on Youtube – but the depth of knowledge these two had was astonishing. There is some hysterical stuff out there – e.g. CollegeHumor.com’s Batman series – and people from my generation just don’t appreciate the breadth of this resource. I was alternately amused, astonished, and horrified – in an order which might surprise you. We’re not talking about anything (too) gross here – get your minds out of the gutter – but when we weren’t talking about the next fishing trip, we were laughing our heads off. Who knew Natalie Portman could rap?

Kirk Road

This photo was taken hours later.

Conversation ranged far and wide. Kyle is a senior at Central Florida and an officer in a fraternity. Martini is applying to grad schools in marine biology. (I am hopeful he will get a PhD in marine psychology, so he can tell me how fish think.) We talked about families, girlfriends past, present, and future, jobs, sports, and, or course, Kate Upton.

Kirk Nap

That’s Penguito, official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip.

When things got dull, we put ice down Martini’s back. And of course, if anyone got a phone call, especially something that required any level of conversation, the rest of us would make animal noises in the background.

It was late at night when we arrived in Junction, Texas. It had everything we needed – a Dairy Queen and some sort of motel which felt like it was not quite completely converted from a 19th century state prison.

After waking up on the 26th and discovering that Taco Bell does indeed have an excellent breakfast offering, we fished the Llano river at a culvert in Junction. Two species came quickly – the Rio Grande Cichlid and the longear sunfish.

Kirk 1 Cichlid

The Rio Grande cichlid. It’s cool.

Kirk Longear

The longear sunfish. Finally. I thought I had caught these a bunch of times but they always turned out to be some other sunfish.

We then moved over to a spillway west of town. Our main target was a local largemouth derivative known as a Guadalupe bass. We caught some nice bass, which I, in my infinite wisdom, judged to be spotted bass and threw back without photos. Martini caught some even nicer ones, making me flash back to his spotted bass on the Cosumnes. (As featured in “A Bridge Too Near.”)

Martini Beastalupe

Martini and his beastly Guadalupe bass.

In the meantime, I added two shiner species to the list – the Texas and the blacktail. Four species and counting – already a great day.

Kirk Texas

Texas shiner. Not much can dignify this photo, so just move on the the next one.

Kirk Blacktail 2

Blacktail shiner. A monster by comparison.

In the early afternoon, we packed it up and drove to Llano, Texas, to fish below a dam on the Llano river.

Kirk Llano

The dam in question. Another gorgeous location courtesy of Martini’s incredibly thorough research.

Fishing was reasonable – a lot of small bass, but, in my infinite wisdom, they all looked like spotted bass to me. Kyle told me to take a photo of one of them – I declined, but then he snapped the picture below.

Kirk Guadalupe

You know where this is going.

A few days later, an email came back from Dr. Timothy Bonner of Texas State University confirming that this was in fact a Guadalupe bass – they all were. It hurts to admit it, but I owe this species entirely to Kyle – ironic that the least experienced among us would have the foresight to think of taking the photo. He is forgiven for the Utah sucker … but not for what happened in Mississippi a few days later.

That evening featured the one home-cooked meal we ate on the entire trip. Kyle’s grandparents live in Waco, Texas, and they graciously invited us for dinner. These were good people – salt-of-the-earth Americans – and a large and loving family who were thrilled to see Kyle and welcomed me and Martini as family.

Kirk Family

Kyle’s grandparents and other assorted relatives.

We had a big day ahead of us – alligator gar fishing in the Trinity River – but we still stayed around late for extra helpings of pot roast, and for multiple desserts. It was well after midnight when we got to sleep in some iffy motel. (The grandparents would have gladly put us up, but we needed to be close to the water for an early start.)

Well before dawn, we struggled from bed and headed for the Trinity River below Lake Livingston, where we would be spending the day with one of Martini’s all-time favorite guides, Kirk Kirkland. Kirk is an alligator gar specialist who has guided the Arosteguis to dozens and dozens of world records. Look him up at http://www.texasfishingguides.org/kirkland/.

We started up toward the dam, casting small lures for white bass, which were everywhere.

Kirk White Bass

Kyle and some nice white bass. The place was full of them.

When we had gotten our fill of this, we moved just downriver and set up to bait fish for buffalo. Kyle caught one first – ironic that the least experienced among us would get the first one – but then he also got the second.

Kirk K Buffalo

Kyle and a smallmouth buffalo. (Foreground.)

Then Martini got one. Kirk caught on to this, and instead of being kind and helpful as I have every right to expect, he mock-whispered to Martini “I thought you said this guy knew what he was doing!”

Kirk M Buffalo

Martini gets a buffalo.

Eventually, Kirk perched behind my right ear and yelled “MISSED ‘EM! WHOOO!!” every time I had a bite. I did not find this constructive. In my own defense, I did eventually catch one half an hour later.

Kirk S Buffalo

Finally, a smallmouth buffalo.

If you are whatsoever sensitive, liberal, or really anything to the left of Benito Mussolini, Kirk’s conversation isn’t going to be to your liking. That being said, the guy is hilarious and completely merciless, and every attempt I made to give him a hard time was met with a torrent of howlingly funny abuse. But even months later, I can’t think of many examples suitable for a G-rated blog, so I’ll leave it to your fertile little imaginations. His “Welcome to a Texas Prison” monologue alone was worth the price of admission.

Kirk Kirk M

That’s Captain Kirk at the helm of the Garship Enterprise.

We moved from the main river to a back bay and set out baits for spotted gar, another species I hadn’t caught. Again, Kyle got one first. Ironic that the least experienced among us would get the first one, and again, I couldn’t seem to get bites.

Kirk K Gar

Here we go again.

Was this to be another spearfish? Of course, I blamed Kirk, and of course, in good humor, Kirk blamed me. We’ll call it a draw, but we eventually had to leave and go look for alligator gar. My one consolation is that I got a red shiner, a small if new species.

Kirk R Shiner

Red shiner. It’s in my hand. Look closely.

We then set up to take a shot at alligator gar. These prehistoric leviathans grow to the size of defensemen and have a lot more teeth, so fishing for them is a complex business. We put out four rods with huge baits, each about 100 yards apart. Kirk set these with European-style strike alarms tied to a remote beeper, and we sat back to wait. We had agreed up front that Kyle would take the first fish – both Martini and I had caught them previously. This might have been instinctive to Martini, but I felt awfully darn generous.

Kirk Kyle

Kyle and Kirk wait for an alligator gar bite. They’re probably smiling because they said something mean about me.

We relaxed on a hot, pleasant Texas afternoon, and Kirk led a less-than-helpful discussion on his theories why I hadn’t caught a spotted gar. Most of these had to do with the influences of living in California, and none of them can be published here. Of course, Martini and Kyle sold me out and sided with Kirk, and after an hour of this unfair and likely Jaime-influenced abuse, we were mercifully interrupted by a bite.

Hooking an alligator gar is a complex business. We chased the float downstream about a quarter mile, waiting for the fish to eat the bait. When the fish finally came to a stop, Kirk told Kyle to set the hook, and the gar took off downstream like an annoyed submarine. From the fight, it was obvious that we had hooked something very, very big. Kyle is a very large and very strong person – think lineman – and he was pulling very hard, but the fish was pulling back harder. This went on for about half an hour, with Kyle slowly gaining, until the beast finally surfaced. Even though we all expected something big, we still all released involuntary bad words at the size of the thing. “Gee whiz!” I recall myself saying.

We then needed to invite the fish on board for photos. Even with an expert like Kirk in one corner, a wrestling match with a large alligator gar is an uncomfortably even proposition. He adroitly snared it, and lifted it in one impressive motion over the gunwale. The gar fully intended to kill him, but Kirk had it by the back of the head and didn’t let go. I have to imagine that the scene on Cousin Chuck’s wedding night was not dissimilar.

Kirk Gar Dance

Kirk does the gar dance. He’s amazingly agile, and because of this, he hasn’t lost any important limbs over the years.

The fish was well over a hundred pounds – much larger, indeed, than any alligator gar I have caught. Ironic that the least experienced one of us would get the biggest fish of the trip.

Kirk Kyle Gator

Clearly, Kyle can lift heavy things.

Kirk MK Gar

Don’t they understand that there are alligator gar in the water?

Still, this was a big moment for the whole team – we had gotten a truly memorable beast, so there would be at least one photo in the whole trip where people wouldn’t have to squint to see the fish. Kyle had done us all proud, and had landed the fish of a lifetime.

Kirk Big Gar

The fish was safely released moments later.

Kirk Gator 2

That’s Penguito, official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip.

Perhaps because he had felt sorry for me, Kirk took one more shot at the spotted gar. I put out every possible rod, and managed to tangle several of them. (Conventional wisdom says fish one rod and concentrate on it, and there’s a reason that it’s called conventional wisdom. I ignore this frequently and it drives guides crazy.) It was getting late – if the client had been anyone but Martini, Kirk would have been back at the dock, but he stuck it out, and just a few minutes before our third revised stop time, I got a bite. Kirk helpfully yelled “Don’t screw this one up, boy! I’ve gotta go home! Whooo!!” Mercifully, the fish stayed on the hook. Martini, normally world-class with the net, added a bit of drama when he forgot to slack the mesh before he lifted the fish, volleying the gar into the boat and just missing Kirk’s face. (Kirk blamed me.)  It was in fact a spotted gar – my third species of the day and my 8th in Texas. It was a gigantic relief.

Kirk Spotted

Kyle seems to thing my gar was smaller than his. 

Reluctantly, I had to thank Kirk. He smiled. He was a simply tremendous guide, and more than a match for any of us. It had been a load of fun.

Kirk Kirk 2

Steve and Kirk. Do not adjust your screens – he really is that tall.

We got back to the dock late in the afternoon, said our goodbyes with Kirk, and cleaned up and stored our gear. We boarded the Escape and headed east, finally exiting Texas early in the evening. We had driven over a thousand miles since entering the state just three days before, and we were exhausted. Our first task in Louisiana was to find a decent shrimp “po boy” sandwich, accomplished outside Baton Rouge, and then to get to get some sleep.

Our next day would be easy – The Big Easy – and while the day would be wonderful, the evening would turn out to be a minor catastrophe … for two of the three of us.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | April 8, 2015

The Road Trip – “Sexy Rexy Strikes Again”

Dateline: June 24, 2014 – Rural New Mexico

We got the band back together, even if it meant a largely pointless 10 hour drive over roads not intended for anything more delicate than a mule.

The road trip spent its third night in a ghastly northern Arizona motel. With three of us, we were constantly challenged by rooms meant for two. Sometimes this was solved with cots, sometimes it involved floors. I luckily avoided the floor in this one, because I am convinced it would have meant cuddling with vermin.

As I struggled to wake up the next day, Martini was outside on the phone with his family. He then greeted me with the single worst morning salutation I have ever gotten, far outpacing the previous winner, 1983’s infamous “Would you like breakfast before I go to women’s rugby practice?”

Martini waved pleasantly and said “If I start uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, take me to the hospital.” I spat out a bunch of Red Bull and coughed back “Good morning to you too.” Martini smiled. “From the sucker eggs in the stream in Utah – my Dad mentioned that water might have giardia. This made things clear but no less upsetting. Luckily, he was fine.

The majority of our day was spent playing tourist, but let’s face it, if we came through here and didn’t see the Grand Canyon and Route 66, we would have felt like idiots. And yes, at age 50, I had never seen the Grand Canyon. The place was fantastic; even I was left in stunned silence.

Rexy Canyon

Luckily, Marta did not come on this trip, because she would want to hike down into the canyon, which would cut into fishing time.

Rexy Canyon 2

It’s hard to describe just how BIG of a hole in the ground this is.

Rexy GC Peng

Penguito, the official mascot of the 2014 road trip, enjoyed the view.

Rexy Bonytail

Of course, there is a fishing tie-in. The Grand Canyon hosts one of the rarer chubs in the US. Martini saw me looking forlornly at this and said “No, no, no. Bad Steve.”

There is still so much of this country I haven’t seen, and in many of the places I have not been, there are fish. So I want to go to those places. Once we finished touring the canyon, we headed southeast and picked up Route 66, that unique bastion of Americana and days gone by when drives across the country were lengthy and personal, going through hundreds of small towns that have faded away since the big interstate highways were built.

Rexy Flintstones

OK, we just thought this was cool. I’m usually Fred, but I was Barney in this case.

Rexy 66 a

Williams, AZ. The last town bypassed by I-40. Still a charming tourist destination – we had lunch and watched a World Cup game in a local bar.

Rexy Mirror

Oh, and we also felt that Martini’s rear-view mirror needed some livening up. 

The next day’s agenda was complex – we would attempt, for the second time, and fail, for the second time, to get Martini his Apache trout at Lee Valley reservoir. (One of my first blogged species – details HERE) We then headed east, toward Silver City, New Mexico. It was on this long and lonely stretch of road that I first heard what was to become the official theme song of the road trip – Blake Shelton’s “Playboys of the Southwestern World.” Apart from being a catchy country tune and tale of lifelong friendship, it also featured lyrics that were pure poetry – Sylvia Plath-like gems such as

“Learned to drink Sangria ’til the dawn’s early light
Eat eggs rancheros and throw up all night”

Brings a tear to my eye even today.

The next major stop on the road trip was Texas, but getting from Arizona to Texas pretty much requires a stop in New Mexico, and if we were going to stop, we were going to fish. This where “Sexy Rexy’ – aka Silver City-based guide Rex Johnson – comes into the picture. Rex is an excellent guide and a great guy – his only flaw, as far as we know, is a comical inability to estimate distances. (As featured in “Elvis Has Left the River“) I have now gone to New Mexico twice to go fishing, and both times involved Elvis. (Actually, multiple Elvi.) This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds, although only barely. A good friend of ours, Gabriele Elli, lives in New Mexico and joins us on these trips. Gabi happens to be an Elvis impersonator.

Rexy Divide

Oh, and we got to cross the continental divide.

We drove into town early in the afternoon, and loaded up on a batch of Taco Bell food that was going to make us regret sharing a room. After lunch, we met Rex and headed out for an afternoon trip to a creek that featured a variety of trout and suckers. This area is stunningly beautiful, and we got a number of interesting creatures, including a few Gila trout. If we had caught Gila trout in this spot last time, we would have all been spared a dreadful and underestimated hike.

Rexy Group

That’s Rex on the right. He thinks it’s 14 miles from New York to Boston. Did I mention he is a math professor?

Gabi joined us that evening. There is something about the way he showed up in the lobby of a small-town La Quinta Motel in a white Elvis costume that radiates a joy in life, one that transcends the bewildered stares of the night clerk. We first met Gabi in “Blue Suede Sturgeon,” and he has been an angling friend and 1000 fish supporter for years.

Rexy Elvi

Gabi and Martini. I still can’t really explain this.

The next day was supposed to be our big adventure on the water. To be fair, we threw a lot of requirements at Rex. We were looking for new species, but also for decent fishing for Gabi and Kyle, who should not be victims of my obsessive issues. We wanted to keep it fairly close to home, not violate any major federal laws, and to avoid drug lords and chupacabras. Taking all of these requirements into account, Rex settled on taking us to an isolated fork of the Gila River, which he felt was three hours away from Silver City. This area was apparently thick with smallmouth but also held a variety of other fish, including suckers, catfish, and trout. He especially felt that we could get smallmouth in big numbers. It sounded like fun.

Rexy M Elvis

Martini showed up ready to fish. He is holding Penguito, official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip.

We were more or less prepared for an ugly drive, and Rex did not disappoint us. It turned out to be five hours, often at 2mph while we prayed our way over boulders.

Rexy Sign

Some subtle hints that the road would not be good.

Still, we had Gabi’s Elvis CDs, especially the highly-regarded Volume XXII. (Totally overlooked at the Grammies.) For much of the drive, he led us in song through the entire Elvis catalog, plus some country gems like “All my exes live in Texas,” and Mel Gibson’s classic “All my exes live in Vladivostok.” This, and a bunch of Red Bull, kept our enthusiasm up until we were at the spot.

The best guide in the world can’t always tell when the fish are going to bite, and while this area was absolutely beautiful, it was also apparent that this was not going to be a wide-open day. I got a couple of smallmouth right away, but the creek just didn’t have the right feel. Rex assured us that there were some bigger pools downstream – “about a mile.” Recognizing that this could mean walking to El Salvador, I decided to split from the group and work upstream.

Rexy 1 Canyon

The group heads off downstream.

The area was beautiful – low bluffs boxing in the creek against a bright blue sky. There was wildlife everywhere, including a rattlesnake that added some excitement to a bathroom trip.

Rexy Gila

The scenery. The guys would enjoy it pretty much undisturbed by fish. 

I actually had a nice day of fishing. Working from pool to pool, I found a few more smallmouth, then stumbled through groups of small Desert suckers, some much bigger Sonora suckers, and then a small catfish. The catfish looked at first like an ordinary channel cat, but but I took photos just to be sure. Later on, in the car, a quick count of the anal rays told me I had something unusual, beyond the urge to count anal rays. I had a rare relative of the channel catfish known as a Chihuahua catfish, and this thrilled me to no end. I had an unexpected new species.

Rexy Chihuahua

The Chihuahua catfish. I have one and Paris Hilton doesn’t. 

Continuing up the stream until late afternoon, I kept getting occasional bass and suckers. I saw one trout, which made sure I saw it and then bolted downstream, not to be seen again.

Late in the day, I saw a satin cape fluttering it the distance and wondered who it was. The fact that I could be in rural New Mexico and not know which one of my friends was wearing a red cape should tell you how weird this all had gotten. Moments later, it became clear that it was Martini, at a dead run. Barely panting, he trotted up to me and said “Time to go.”

Rexy 1 Cape

Something you don’t see every day.

Their day had not been as fulfilling as mine – just a couple of bass – and it was time to leave. I was bummed for them, and especially for Rex, who I know tried his heart out. (If you go trout fishing with him, his true expertise, you’ll almost certainly do well.) I took in the scenery one more time, then headed for the car. We would be spending a lot more time in the vehicle, and it was certainly cozy with me, Gabi, and Rex in the back. Then someone had gas. It may or may not have been me, although I had pretty much peaked at a steakhouse two nights before, when what I thought would be a quiet effort to annoy Martini slipped into a polysyllabic thunderclap that terrified everyone, and I mean everyone, in the restaurant.

In a final leap of faith, we trusted Rex’s “shortcut,” ironically back through Truth or Consequences. It was not a shortcut, and just about when we thought we were going to get there, we saw a sign saying we had another 156 miles to go.

Rexy TC

Yes, there really is a town named this.

We toyed with the idea of throwing Rex from the vehicle, but decided it would be rude to deprive New Mexico of a fine math professor, so we instead passed the time telling ribald stories, musing about the trout in local streams, and farting.

The evening in Silver City was a quiet celebration involving fried food and Elvis music.

Rexy Elvis 2

Unwinding over some beers and a private Elvis performance. (We were asked to leave the lobby.)

We had survived the western leg of the journey, and we would be beginning the most fishing-intensive portion of the trip in just a day. Between us and our stops in Texas, however, lay over 600 miles of open road. (135 if you ask Rex.)

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | March 28, 2015

The Road Trip – “The Audible”

Dateline: June 21, 2014 – Fish Lake, Utah

I usually write about something I’ve caught or at least the place where I caught it. But this post won’t just mention a fish I didn’t catch – it will mention a fish I will never catch and never even try to catch, and the amazing thing is that I’m OK with that.

Western Nevada has some desolate places – some of them worse than Las Vegas, or even New Jersey. After we left California’s eastern Sierra foothills, we headed – deliberately – through some of the vilest desert this side of northern Africa.

Audible DV sign

Why do people voluntarily visit something called “Death Valley?”

I had never been to Death Valley before, and while it is unlikely I will visit again, because it has little water and therefore few fish, I must say it was a startlingly beautiful landscape.

Audible DV 1

Coming over the hill from California.

Audible Penguito

The barren landscape and Penguito, the official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip. Don’t ask. Neither Martini nor Kyle could explain it, yet it was apparently extremely funny.

Audible DV 2

More desolate scenery further east. The last time I drank this much fluid was right before a colonoscopy.

Martini insisted on turning off the air conditioner, because he wanted to see us suffer. I can think of no other reason, and I will not be responding to comments from you MacGyver types who think there’s a reasonable explanation.

Audible Furnace

We stopped for the sign because it was the only shade for miles.

Audible Therm

I think this about says it all. And I repeat, Martini would not run the air conditioner. 

From Death Valley, we headed toward our stop for the evening – Las Vegas. But before we got there, we had one more destination – Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts some very endangered species of Pupfish.

Martini had emphasized to me that it would be unacceptable to even talk about fishing for these species. Apart from it being some sort of major Federal crime, it would also be a burn-in-hell kind of wrong thing. There were several varieties there, and one of them is apparently the rarest fish in the world.

We first stopped at a tiny lagoon, half the size of a backyard pool, and looked around. Martini saw them first – Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish. Electric blue, tiny, swimming from rock to rock with no knowledge that their whole world was the size of my dining room – and these weren’t even the rarest ones. I first thought of the wonder of it all, then, briefly, about the #32 hooks I had in the car. Martini saw the look on my face. “No, no, no.” he said. “No. No. Bad Steve. Don’t even think about it.” This is why people joke he is my older brother. At least I think they’re joking.

Audible Pond

Steve looks forlornly at the pupfish pond.

Audible Pup

The critter. Photo by Martini Arostegui – I was too busy looking for security cameras.

We went to the Devil’s Hole overlook to view another species – the Devil’s Hole pupfish. We hiked up a rock path and, through a fence and in full view of a lot of security cameras, we saw them. A little hole in the rocks, perhaps the size of a hot tub, was their entire universe.

Audible Devils Hole

Devil’s Hole. The entire universe for one species.

In good seasons, there are perhaps 350 of them swimming around in there. When conditions are not as good, the numbers can drop to around 150. It would take one really bad winter, one idiot tourist with a mishandled soft drink, one farmer angry about the water table required for the species to survive, and they would disappear forever. Yet they went about their little pupfish lives, blissfully unaware of how precarious it all really is. And even I was unwilling to think about disturbing this smallest of universes.

Martini bought me a pupfish hat, so I could be reminded that I will never catch this species. It’s the sort of thing Jaime would have done. I’m not paranoid, but I’m sure they are in constant touch and plan these things together.

Audible Pupfish Hat

The pupfish hat. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to a pupfish.

We went on to Vegas from there. I don’t like Vegas. It’s crowded, expensive, and they didn’t build those billion-dollar hotels by paying money to gamblers.

Audible Caesers

“In Las Vegas, they kill the weak and deranged.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Knowing we would be up early, I was crashed out by 10:15. This was Kyle and Martini’s first trip to Vegas together, and while they were 21 and excited to be there, I can only presume that they went to sleep around 10:30. I have no evidence to the contrary. Sure, they didn’t look all that great in the morning, but let’s face it, they didn’t look all that great the night before.

Six AM came quickly, and we were back in the car, listening for someone to shout one of those phrases that means a Vegas weekend has become truly unforgettable, like “Who the hell is SHE?” or “Oh no! I married a goat!” or worse “Oh God no! I married a Kardashian.” What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as long as you get to the doctor in time.

Our next destination was the Virgin River in southern Utah. There was just one target here – the speckled dace – but the place also apparently has spectacular trout fishing. I’ve obviously caught trout before, but being able to cast for good fish on light gear in a clear, remote stream still is quite a thrill, and we planned to spend our day doing just that.

The drive up is through Zion National Park, and the place is gorgeous.

Audible Zion 1

Your basic Zion National Park scenery.

Audible Zion

Even more Zion scenery.

We hiked down to a couple of likely-looking pools, but to our dismay, the area appeared completely devoid of fish life.

Audible Virgin 2

The Virgin River.

It was early in the day and perhaps a bit chilly, so we decided to wait it out and see if the trout would come out from under the rocks. In the meantime, I brought out the micro gear and started fishing likely crevices, and after a little while – success. I pulled up a steaming ounce of hard-fighting speckled dace.

Audible Speckled

The savage speckled dace – released safely right after this photo.

I put my rig back down, and caught what I thought was another one, but Martini pointed out that I had accidentally gotten a Virgin spinedace – a rare and protected species. We released it unharmed after a quick photo, and put away the micro gear.

Audible spinedace

The Virgin spinedace. Nice to see that they’re here.

While the two fish may not have weighed an ounce in combination, there were still two new species on the board AND I had added Utah to my state list – #42 if you’re playing along at home.

Kyle kept himself amused by drifting night crawlers in the rocks and catching some nice trout. I could not get one – ironic that the least experienced among us was getting the most fish.

Audible trout 1

Lovely scenery, but Kyle managed to hold the trout at the exact angle where the glare would wash it out. Guido could learn a thing or two from him. 

I kept looking for trout – the presumption had been that the bottom would be covered with them, but as the sun got a little higher, it was starting to look bleak.

Audible Re 1

Steve and Kyle stubbornly wait for a fish.

We were considering options for the rest of the day when I got a surprisingly hard strike. I hooked the fish and announced I had a big trout, but a moment later, while the fish was still deep, Martini and his amazing eyesight corrected me. “That’s not a trout.” It was a flannelmouth sucker, possibly the only one in the river – an unexpected third species for the day.

Audible Flannel 1

My flannelmouth sucker – quickly and safely released. I also kissed it for good luck, which has nothing to do with being locked up with men for three weeks.

Now we had a conundrum. We had some fish, but the trout were not showing, and we didn’t want to risk messing with any of the protected species. It was still early, and I could see the wheels turning in Martini’s fertile brain. “I have an idea. It’s going to involve 400 extra miles of driving and may or may not result in another species.” Our first official audible. We were in.

The destination was Fish Lake, a higher elevation spot known to have a big run of Utah suckers this time of the year. We drove on through the afternoon, stopping for lunch – the worst Subway meatball sandwich I have ever had. Seriously, how hard does someone have to work to mess up a meatball sandwich? It’s a formula, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include sawdust.

We arrived at Fish Lake around six. The drive had been taken up by mature conversation about meaningful topics, and of course, farting. Martini had been to Fish Lake before, and knew exactly where to look.

Audible Fish Lake

Fish Lake, Utah. It looks desolate, but we were not alone … even as this picture was taken, mosquitoes were massing against us.

We stopped about 50 feet before a culvert that let a small stream under the road. Jumping out of the car, he ran ahead, looked down under the bridge, smiled, and said “They’re here.”

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. There were dozens and dozens of big Utah suckers, holding in place in the fast current, jostling for spawning spots. It may have been hard to get to, but the fishing was pretty much automatic.

Audible Steve Utah

Steve adds a species, courtesy of Martini.

We all hooked up quickly, and Kyle’s was big enough to break the existing record. (Held jointly by Martini and Marty Arostegui.) I caught four or five, but I couldn’t quite get one the right size. I mused that the least experienced of us would get the record – his second of the trip.

Audible Record

Kyle and his record fish. We can’t publish the photo of him kissing it, because, frankly, things got out of hand. It’s lonely in Utah. 

Martini then did something really, really gross. (Even grosser than WHEN HE ATE THE RAW MACKEREL.) Insisting that caviar was caviar, he actually picked eggs from a spawning fish out of the net and ATE THEM. I still get nauseated every time I think about. (Although the Fish Gods would repay him with a nervous moment a day later – stay tuned.)

Martini had one other spot he wanted to try, so I reluctantly left the culvert to head for a small wooden bridge over another feeder creek. It got positively freezing as the sun headed west, but this did not stop a swarm of vicious and organized mosquitoes from pestering us until we left. It was still worth it – we caught trout, perch, redside shiners, and more suckers. The decision to diverge from the plan had paid off handsomely.

Audible Rainbow

Martini and a typical rainbow. He also got a nice brook trout out of this spot.

It had been quite a day – four new species and a new state, but now we had to face a lengthy drive to northern Arizona to put us back on schedule. We sprinted to the car just ahead of the mosquitoes, opened a round of Red Bulls, and headed south.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | March 19, 2015

The Road Trip – “And So It Begins”

Dateline: June 19, 2014 – Bishop, California 

It began with the gentle strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” the 60s anthem of self-discovery through a trip across the states. And that was pretty much the last song I recognized for the next three weeks. This is because I had signed up to do a cross-country fishing road trip with two 21 year-olds, both of whom would sit closer to the radio than I did. The idea sounded perfectly idiotic, which is exactly why it was so appealing. Drive across the country for almost three weeks, hopping from fishing spot to fishing spot, searching out oddball species and world records.This was Martini’s trip – his present to himself for four years of relentless work at Stanford, and he had asked his best friend Kyle and me to go along. We had talked about it for almost a year, and with Martini’s post-obsessive penchant for detailed research and planning, he had scoped out each day for target locations and species. It would be some 4000 miles of driving over nearly three weeks, but if things went well, it could be a bunch of species for me that I would never catch any other way. We would be specifically searching out some truly undermarketed creatures – anonymous beasts like the Guadalupe bass and the grayfin redhorse. Before any of you start thinking how hard it would be for me to be the adult supervision for that long, it is probably fair to admit that I would not be the adult supervision. Indeed, out of of the three of us, I might be the biggest risk  to do something memorably stupid. The guys spent the pre-launch night over at my house in Alamo. I had met Kyle a few times, and even though he is not as intense a fisherman as me or Martini (who would be?) he does have a gift for catching the biggest fish. (Details HERE) This ability would lead to some annoying moments later in the trip. Even though we would be in a car together for untold days, we still stayed up late talking about the trip. The western portion of the agenda would be heavier on driving and some mandatory sights, such as Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and the Bellagio restroom in Vegas. The fishing was planned to escalate in intensity as we entered Texas, which seemed an awfully long way off, and then wind through New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and end up in Florida and finally back home for the guys. It was early when we got into the Ford Escape. I failed to call shotgun and moped about the prospect of facing 4000 miles in the back seat. Martini made a u-turn and, at around 7am on June 19th, we were off. Road Escape Kyle calls shotgun while I was barely awake. Many road trips begin with a surge of energy that fizzles out after about 90 minutes and settles into “Are we there yet?” Whether it was the Red Bull or the anticipation, we didn’t seem to lose momentum. It all seemed like we couldn’t miss. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my college road trips, which seem so long ago yet strangely entertaining to people who are not Marta. Road college Road trip, circa 1983. That’s Tim Bacon in the Nixon mask, me in the jockstrap, Kevin Gurney in the hat, and Mike Wilcox trying to hide his innocent face. I haven’t talked to these guys in years – I need to change that. On road trips, some things never change – the endless conversation focused on intellectual topics, not inane things like sports and swimsuit models; the healthy food, not like Red Bull and Cheetohs; and the farting. I was getting a chance to re-live college, and get it wrong all over again. The day had one fishing target – the elusive Owens sucker, which is alleged to live in the Owens River watershed. Martini and I had taken a crack at this beast last year, and had been humiliated. (Peripherally mentioned in “The Road to Orick.”) This time, we would be going during the height of their spawning run and should have found quite a selection. At least that was the plan. We had a six hour drive to the first fishing stop, but our route took us straight through Yosemite, some of the most sublime scenery in all of California. Road Yosemite The first group shot of the trip. This is the best we would smell for 20 more days. I have been to Yosemite only three times, including a trip in the 1970s with my stepmonster’s parents, who, as I may have mentioned previously, were inexplicably kind and stable. Road Yosmite 2 General Yosemite scenery. My prose can do it no justice.  Well before lunch, the first enduring prank commenced. For no good reason, I purchased a can of baked beans and left them on the driver’s seat. (Unopened, for those of you who wonder.) Martini nearly sprained his buttocks avoiding a hard landing on them, turned to us, and said “What kind of idiot would do THAT?” Sheepishly, I raised my hand. For the next three weeks, at every stop, we placed the beans on Martini’s seat. He forgot about them only once – more on that later. The first place we went was a creek off the Owens river that was supposed to have a spawning run of the suckers. It did not. We did, however, get the first fish of the trip – a nice rainbow trout pulled up by Kyle. I smiled faintly that the least experienced one of us would catch the first fish. Road Kyle Trout On the scoreboard – first fish of the trip. A bit Guidoesque on the photo, though – see “The Minefield Road Martini trout Martini followed up with a trout that might not have been larger but was certainly better-photographed. We then headed to Convict Lake. The fish just HAD to be there. We just couldn’t open the trip on a sour note. Road Convict Convict Lake. The Eastern Sierra is full of scenery like this. The hike to the back of Convict Lake is not particularly brutal, unless you happen to be fighting a nasty chest cold and are not used to any altitude. So it was that Kyle suffered through the walk, beautiful as it was, but not nearly as much as we suffered when we got to the creek and it was utterly devoid of anything but beautiful trout. Road Rainbow 1 The creeks were full of trout like this. Naturally, we left. This would have made anyone else but us three happy, but we packed up and pretty much had to admit defeat. Road Deer Martini snapped this shot of a deer on the way out of Convict. It was getting to be a late summer afternoon in the eastern Sierra, and the view was marvelous. Martini had one more spot to examine – a bridge on the Owens that “looked” good on Google Earth. This was not Martini’s normal standard of planning. Martini’s planning skills would make even the Germans say “Wow, that guy thinks of everything.” Road bridge The bridge. It didn’t look like much at first. I was the one who actually got out of the car to look in the water. It looked empty and sterile, but I stared for a few minutes, and then, for a precious few seconds, a fish head eased out of the shadows, giving the classic white flash of sucker lips. That was enough for me. Martini and Kyle had expressed their doubts and headed out to investigate other spots toward the lake, so I raced to the bank and began casting. There were two guys fishing below the bridge, and we began chatting. Over the next hour or so, I got two small trout.  They had caught only one trout – I gave them mine so they would have a fish fry – but they told me they could see dozens of big trout in the creek just downstream from the bridge. They invited me to their spot for a look. There were dozens of big fish in the water a few yards downstream of the bridge. But they weren’t trout – they were Owens suckers, and I had found their mother lode. There was no cell signal, and Martini and Kyle were out of shouting distance, so I set up just out the shadow of the structure and cast. It was quick – as soon as my bait hit the bottom, two or three suckers would ease over toward it and I would get a bite. I missed a couple, then hooked up. Just as I was landing the fish, Martini and Kyle showed up. Martini netted my fish, and before I had even thought of it, he had pulled out his Boga Grip and weighed it. The Owens sucker was an open record, and my fish qualified. Road Steve Owens The day suddenly turns good. The next hour was a team effort to get Kyle and Martini their fish. Martini got one first, not record size but a rare new species for his collection, which I felt was moral judgement from the Fish Gods. Kyle’s came shortly thereafter. I played “goalie,” standing downstream to net their catches. Road MK Owens Kyle, Martini, sucker, and scenery. Not necessarily in that order. Things were now really good. Just before we closed up shop for a well-deserved dinner, Martini got one more fish that was much larger, so while we all three would get credit for a record that day, Martini’s would stand as the current one, which he may have felt was moral judgement from the Fish Gods. (Or not. He isn’t nearly as spiteful as I am, as long as he’s had enough sleep.) Road Martini sucker Martini’s big fish. The day was now officially epic. Road intimate An awkward moment. I quietly mused that it was going to be hard to match today for pure epic – a new species and three world records. There were many high-fives and some quiet moments enjoying the view before we headed off for a well-deserved steak. A slow start had turned into an epic day. The trip had a high standard to keep up. Road Meadow 1 Looking across the valley to the eastern Sierras. Once we caught some fish, I noticed the scenery a lot more. We crashed out that evening, three of us jammed into a room meant for two people who liked each other a lot. The next day, I would be doing one of the strangest things I have ever done – making a long detour to look at a fish  – a fish that even I would never try to catch. Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | March 1, 2015

100

Dateline: June 2, 2014 – Kona, Hawaii

I have had battles with fish that have lasted over four hours, but none ever seemed so long as the 60 seconds I spent reeling up an orange goatfish on June 2, 2014. It was a big for an orange goatfish, just over two pounds, and for the few of you who care about such things, it was a world record orange goatfish. And not just any world record, but a milestone. I had just set my 100th IGFA world record and had earned the IGFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

100 GOAT

The orange goatfish in question. I had a matching hat just for the occasion.

I called Marta right away. The first thing she said was “The trophy goes in the garage.” Then she laughed and said “Congratulations.” I called Martini next. “Congratulations, bro. You earned it.” I stared off into space, looking back at the past nine years and realizing I wouldn’t have spent them any other way.

It’s not like I expected Kona to produce a bunch of new species. I have fished there for months of my life and caught loads of fish – it is one of my favorite destinations on earth – all the charm of Hawaii and still an hour away from Jaime Hamamoto. The Big Island has also produced quite a few records for me, so I would hopeful I could squeeze out two more, hit the Lifetime Achievement Award, and start sleeping normally again.

This trip was also about domestic tranquility. Marta’s job is demanding and nowhere near as flexible as mine, and getting her away on vacation without her laptop is a challenge. Kona is one of those places where she can truly unwind, and our favorite hotel has lousy cell service, which I view as an advantage, because it keeps her pesky co-workers away.

100 Xmas

Marta and a Christmas wrasse on the Keahou rocks – one of the few places so beautiful she will put up with fishing for extended periods.

I set up two days of fishing with Captain Dale Leverone, my trusted species-hunting partner in Kona.

100 Sign

If you’re in Kona, fish with these guys. They can catch anything you want to – unless I am on the boat and you want a spearfish.

On the first day, we focused on trying to get me my spearfish, which would complete my IGFA Royal Slam on billfish. We trolled and trolled, but I seem to have the gift for repelling spearfish, and none were to be found. We did get a batch of solid skipjack – these tuna pull hard for their weight and kept things exciting.

100 Skipjack

That’s Dale’s son and first mate, Jack Leverone – a solid guide and angler in his own right.

We also devoted a couple of hours to bottom fishing, but the tides weren’t quite right and the bite was slow. I had another trip coming, and I knew records could come quickly here, so I didn’t pout too much.

As always in Kona, I did plenty of shore fishing near the hotel. One of my favorite spots is the rock jetty at Keahou harbor, the very place where I shattered Marta’s peppered moray record – and the very same place where the yellowmargin moray shattered my hand. (Click HERE for a really gross picture.) That night, I wandered down to the harbor and set up. I lost a couple of eels in the rocks, then got an unexpected new species – a smallscale soldierfish.

100 Soldier

The smallscale soldierfish. It’s called that because the scales are small.

Toward the end of the evening, my eel rod bounced once, then the line took off away from the rocks. I set the hook and realized I had something big that was behaving decidedly NOT like a moray. As I got it under control and pulled it up the boat ramp to land it, I realized I had a Hawaiian conger eel, also known as a mustache conger. This was not only a wonderful new species, but also an open world record. That’s #99 if you’re playing along at home.

100 Conger

Photo courtesy of a bewildered 10 year-old local kid.

I was stunned to get another record in the harbor, and even more stunned to realize that I was finally right on the doorstep. The next one was the biggie. I stayed out until the middle of the night trying to get something else – anything else – but there was still another day on the boat coming up. Marta tries to tell me that this is all I would talk about, but I am sure you all don’t believe that.

We spent the next day touring the island, viewing everything from a volcanic crater to the sweeping cliffs at Waipio. (The steepest hike Marta has ever dragged me on – I think it’s Hawaiian for “Puke Mountain.”) Sure, I wanted to be fishing, but these sorts of activities mean that Marta will continue speaking to me for at least a few more weeks.

100 crater

Volcanic crater on the south end of the island. 

100 Waipio

Waipio, on the north side. Marta, please stop making me walk up this hill.

Then came the next day with Dale and Jack.

As I have learned over the years, the big events never happen how you imagine them. Although most of my records are of the “no one else knew that was a species” variety, I had always harbored a secret hope that #100 would be something uncharacteristically epic, like a 1403 pound blue marlin. Hey – it could happen. A number of the marlin records, including the all-tackle Pacific Blue, were caught right here in Kona.

And we did troll that day, although I had spearfish in my soul much more than a possible marlin. In one of those sadistic ironies that the Fish Gods love to create, we did brilliantly – four wahoo, two mahi, and a small blue marlin. Everyone in the harbor would have loved to have had my day on the water, but I would have traded them all for one small spearfish.

100 Marlin

First off, the marlin tore a gill and died on the line, so we had to keep it – Dale would ordinarily release. Worse, some guy walked up to me and said “Wow, what a day you had. I trolled all afternoon and just got one lousy spearfish.” I didn’t know whether to cry or slap him.

Distraught as I was that we hadn’t gotten a spearfish, I was still looking very forward to the session of bottom fishing at the end of the day. The tides looked good, and I had gotten plenty of records in the area we set up. I felt surprisingly calm, but Jack pointed out that I had a bit of an itchy trigger finger and that my first few hooksets looked like Spellman’s, or even worse, Guido’s. (Click HERE for an explanation.) I took a deep breath and dropped to the bottom again.

It happened quickly, and I knew the moment I hooked it that I had the right fish. It was a hard, bottom-hugging fight, and when I saw it come up bright orange, I knew right away it was big enough. I didn’t wait for Jack with the net, I just held my breath for a split-second and swung it onto the deck.

100 Goat 2

World record #100. Now I can get back to trying to catch 2000 species.

There were high-fives from Dale and Jack, and just like that, it had happened. Even though almost record I had set was on a fish no one else had heard of, I was going on the same wall in the IGFA museum as some very famous anglers – as the 15th individual angler to ever win the award. I sat in the fighting chair, stunned – and, for once, quiet.

The quiet lasted all too short of a time. I got up just to take in the scenery, looking up Mauna Loa and out on the open Pacific. I made eye contact with Dale. He glanced down at the sonar, and gently said “There are fish down there.” I didn’t need to be told twice. After hooking and losing a few fish, I got a solid take and I was back in the game. I jokingly said “This will be #101.”

When the fish surfaced, we all sighed. It was a pinktail triggerfish, which can swarm these reefs and which all seem to be the same 16-20 ounce range. I weighed it out of habit, and the Fish Gods had clearly taken the day off. It was a pound and a half, and it WAS world record 101.

100 pinktail

Record 101. Do you think they’ll give me another trophy if I get to 200?

I had several months for it to sink in – records can take a while to be officially verified. The actual confirmation came late on an October evening. I had been checking the IGFA website frequently, and on that day, the status changed from “pending” to “approved.” I woke up Marta to tell her. She simply said “Garage.”

I felt a lot of things – little bit of relief, a little bit of accomplishment, a little bit of pride. This was my small piece of history – my name will be on that wall long after I am gone. I hope a father and son see it together around 2114. I hope the son asks who I was, and the father tells him “Steve Wozniak was a fisherman in the last century. He had the mark for most species of fish caught for a long time, and he was the first ever to 1000. His record of 1999 species (he never got the spearfish) stood until Martini Arostegui broke it on July 10, 2061. Martini’s grandson – Martin Arostegui-Upton IV – broke it again last year. Wait until you see the Arostegui wing of the museum!”

This was a long journey – Nine years and one week from start to finish, 16 countries, hundreds of thousands of air miles, thousands of hours on the water and in the library. There are so many people to thank over the course of 100 world records that I’ll never get even close to doing justice to the list. But a big thanks to Jean-Francois Helias, who got me started on records back in 2005, to Scotty Lyons, who found records when we had run out of species, to the Hamamotos, my Hawaiian family, who shared their secret spots, to Dr. Alfredo Carvalho, who helped with so many IDs, to Jarvis and Alex, who opened their Singapore connections to me and put unpleasant things in my luggage, to Ben Florentino, a bass expert forced to fish for “googly gobs,” to Marc Inoue, who believes I bring bad weather, to Jens Koller, who helped me explore Europe, to Dale and Jack Leverone, marlin experts who never stopped trying to find bigger goatfish, to Oscar Ferreira, who found me a pati catfish in the shadow of Buenos Aires, to Ed Trujillo, the steelhead guide who found me a Klamath smallscale sucker, to Jeff Kerr, a dedicated fisherman who should never be left alone with my camera, to Dr. Jeff Johnson, who has pinned down so many exotic Pacific species for me, to everyone at Hi’s Tackle Box for the gear and advice, to Robert Armstrong at Shimano for his unflagging support, to Doug Olander at Sport Fishing Magazine for my first national writing gig and all the cool shirts, to Spellman and Scott Perry and Stefan Molnar, whose quiet days off are often hijacked by my adventures, to the Arosteguis, who guided and inspired me when 100 seemed out of reach, to Marta, who put up with me, to the obscure fish, who are the real stars of this story, and to all of you, who patiently read along as it all happened.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | February 21, 2015

Minister of Fishing

Dateline: May 3, 2014 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin

It was the most exciting world record I had seen to date, and it wasn’t even mine.

I can relate to obsessive, all-consuming, lifelong quests. I spent 11 years, 10 months, and 18 days chasing the 1000 species mark – the time from when I got my hundredth and really identified my quest, to that quiet day in Vangshylla, Norway. (Details HERE.) It was what I did, and nothing was going to get in the way. Martini Arostegui’s quest is much more around world records. As of April of 2014, he was #3 in the world – astonishing for someone who was 21 at the time.

One would think this would be enough, but Martini, ever since I have known him, wanted more. Strangely enough, he wasn’t chasing #1 – his own dad, who has a somewhat unattainable total well over 400. He was chasing #2, a fishing legend named Herbert Ratner Jr. – the first man to hit 100 records as an individual angler. (A feat thought nearly impossible until he did it.)

Minister Ratner

Herbert Ratner Jr. – everyone who has tried to chase numbers of IGFA records followed in his footsteps.

This would mean Martini and his father would be one and two in the world. Theirs is a relationship I have always admired – I am not particularly close to my own father, and the idea of sharing this kind of a passion at this kind of level has always inspired me. I would have settled for just playing catch.

This adventure involved an untapped potential gold mine of freshwater species – Wisconsin. In his endless deep research on fishing opportunities, Martini had stumbled onto a species-hunting enthusiast in Eau Claire named Mike, and Mike had told him that white suckers were biting at the beginning of May. There were also supposed to be other fish available, but most importantly, there were line class records open a couple of the sucker species in the area. Wisconsin was also one of the 10 states where I had not caught a fish.

I came in to Minneapolis directly from Miami – with a quick stopover in Chicago to renew the restraining order against Cousin Chuck.

Minister Chuck

Cousin Chuck – actual photo. Nicest halfway house I’ve ever seen. 

I spent two days hanging out with a very dear old friend – Bob Reine, a former co-worker at Macromedia in the early 90s. A passionate outdoorsman and hockey fan (even if he follows the wrong team,) Bob and I fished constantly when he lived in California. When he moved back to Minnesota, likely still in culture shock from five years in San Francisco, we caught up now and then, notably for trips to lake Vermilion, where I caught – with Bob as my witness – three, count ’em, THREE muskies in one day.

Minister BS

Bob earns $12 the hard way.

Bob and his wife Shari have two children, who were still both in the incontinent phase the last time I saw them during a Lake-of-the-Woods trip. Both kids have grown into responsible teenagers, although I still have trouble forgiving Benjamin for disrupting a walleye fishing trip by removing his own diaper and using it as a weapon.

Minister Ben

Benjamin, circa 2003. Sure, he was cute, but throwing diapers isn’t normal. 

Despite miserable weather, Bob and I snuck out for a day on the water. While we didn’t get anything noteworthy, we got dozens of nice bluegill and chuckled our way through some old stories, all of which were nixed by the editor. (With comments like “Normal people don’t do that.”)

Minister Bob

Bob and Steve, present day.

Martini, busy as ever with schoolwork, took a redeye to arrive Friday morning, when I picked him up and headed to Wisconsin. It was a short drive, around an hour, and we discussed two topics of note.

First, it was plain to see that the weather had been horrible and it was not only freezing cold, it was also flooded in many places. This was going to be a challenge. Martini also mentioned “Oh, in case I hadn’t told you, Mike is a minister.” I coughed a bit of Red Bull up my nose. How was I going to spend three days with a minister and not burn in hell?

There was certainly some trepidation around whether I could maintain a G-rated conversation and stay on appropriate topics, especially if the fishing was bad. I considered buying a pair of shin guards, anticipating a barrage of kicks under the table.

We met Mike at the Minnesota/Wisconsin border on the St. Croix river. A big guy with a kind face and a ready smile, Mike was thrilled to meet two fellow species hunters, and it was clear he had followed some of our exploits online, which I was not entirely sure was a good thing. Still, Mike put me at ease and we set to fishing.

Minister Mike 1

Mike Channing, local pastor and species-hunter extraordinaire.

The river was flooded into the parking lot, but Mike was sure we could still get suckers in the relatively quiet margins. He seemed to know these rivers as if he had designed them. We had to use plenty of weight and cast carefully, but after an hour or so, we got bites. Mike was the first to hook up, but then both Martini and I both got silver redhorses, a sucker relative that frequents these parts. It was the first fish I had ever gotten in a parking lot.

Minister First Silver

My silver redhorse.

Minister Martini Silver 1

Martini adds the silver.

We then drove in to Eau Claire, and Mike took us to one of his secret spots on the Eau Claire River. Normally a lovely small waterfall, it had blown into a raging torrent of cold, muddy water, but Mike knew a few side seams where he was confident we would catch fish.

Minister Falls

This area is normally a nice, calm little waterfall. 

And we did. Martini knocked off a white sucker and a shorthead redhorse. The redhorse was an eight pound line-class record, which put Martini in a tie for second place overall with 181 overall records.

 

Minister Record Short

Martini’s record #181.

He was amazingly calm, but he also knew his next record would be a very big one. He was very guarded even discussing it, as if he would hex himself.

I added a white sucker to my list but the shortheads avoided me completely.

Minister White

My white sucker.

Minister Silver Short

I also caught some nice silver redhorse while everyone else was catching shortheads. 

Mike and Martini both caught several shortheads, and I was beginning to question if I had done something wrong in a spiritual sense. Mike assured me I had not. Then I had an awkward moment where I hooked a shorthead and got it close to shore before the hook pulled out. Reflexively, I started to yell something bad, then corrected myself mid-word, so it came out something like “Fffffffuuuu … udge.” Mike smiled quietly. He was a pretty regular guy and has become a good friend, even if I have given him material for a few sermons.

We called it a day and headed to a local barbecue place – absolute UMF*. Back at the room, I sacked out while Martini studied some sort of complicated biology. Not my idea of a fun topic – the book didn’t have a lot of pictures. As I drifted off to sleep, covers pulled up over my head to avoid any unfortunate pranks, it was clear Martini wasn’t going to sleep well. The record – and history – weighed heavily on his mind.

Day two was a tour of the places we could have fished if everything hadn’t flooded. Mike’s local knowledge was absolutely encyclopedic, but he was also heartbroken that we couldn’t get to most of his favorite spots.

Minister River

The Eau Claire running about 10 feet high. It was a miracle we found any fish at all. That may not have been the best choice of words.

The conversation was nonstop species hunting – Mike was the real deal and spoke of things like the blue sucker in the same hushed, reverent tones as Martini and I do. Interestingly, Mike had done a mission in Asia, and was well-acquainted with our old friend Jean-Francois Helias. Small world, although I doubt they met in church.

With only one record to go for Martini, we were impatient to just get settled someplace, and that someplace turned out to be the middle of town. Eau Claire – ironically named to be sure – has a lovely park at the confluence of the eponymous river and a tributary, and it was there we set up in the later morning.

Minister Park

Steve and Martini on the point. I spent all morning wishing I had brought my Tigger pajamas to wear under my clothing.

It was cold; right around freezing, augmented by a bracing wind. Martini, the Miami native, was half-frozen, and I was about 40% frozen, but I weigh more, so in total terms, I was actually more frozen. And I complained more.

The Fish Gods don’t put up with this, and they favored my companions. (Ironic because this sort of polytheism doesn’t play well in conservative circles.) By complete accident, Mike caught a lake sturgeon. Not a big one, but a nice one – and a species I would love to catch. They were out of season so we quickly and safely released it. Then Martini caught one. And I didn’t. I was not constructive about this. (Again the fish was quickly and safely released.)

Minister Sturgeon Mike

Mike gets a lake sturgeon, and I am thrilled.

Minister M Sturgeon

Martini gets a lake sturgeon, and I am thrilled.

As the morning warmed to a balmy 36, the redhorse began to bite. I got a silver, and then, after a less-than-dramatic fight, a stonecat – a new species that had given no indication it had taken my bait.

Minister Stonecat

The stonecat, one of the least exuberant species I have ever caught.

Martini was awfully calm for someone about to make history. He moved to the point and kept changing his baits, jogging in place in a futile effort to stay warm.

In the later morning, just shy of 11, Martini got a bite and hooked into a nice fish. It could have been anything – a sturgeon, a catfish, a gar … but it turned out to be a big silver redhorse. This fish needed to be four pounds; it looked big enough as Martini landed it. Without a word, he gently lifted the fish up and steadied it on the Boga grip. Martini looked up at me, his eyes absolutely noncommittal. He then broke into the biggest smile I have ever seen. The fish was four pounds even, and there was a new #2 in the IGFA standings.

Minister Record Silver

#182.

Minister MM SIlver 2

Mike and Martini celebrate the catch. And remember, Mike isn’t a pro guide – he was just doing this because he loves to fish.

There was the requisite high-fiving and man-hugs, but this was an intensely personal moment for Martini as well. This had been years of very hard work, late night planning sessions, endless research, thousands of hours on the water, telling swimsuit models “Not tonight, I’m fishing early tomorrow,” – and it had all paid off here, on a patch of frozen shoreline in Western Wisconsin. Martini, now oblivious to the cold, took a long moment to himself.

Minister Martini afterward

Martini composes himself, right before he called his family with the news. (Interestingly, the lawn was soaking wet and his rear was stained all day, to my great amusement.)

The rest of the day was a bonus. We got more fish, and I finally got my lake sturgeon, although it was the smallest one Mike had ever seen.

Minister Steve Sturgeon

I had prayed for this species. (Bad choice of words.) This again shows there is no room for shame in my species hunt.

Skipping around to a few more locations, we could tell the area had massive potential in good weather, and between fish, we planned a summertime return trip.

We held a celebratory dinner that night in a local steakhouse, and drank a toast to Mike, the newly-minted guide for two world records, to Martini and his Father, 1 and 2 in the IGFA world, to the Fish Gods, and to Herb Ratner Jr., who had made history all those years ago and showed us that this was all possible. On my next angling adventure, I would be trying to make a little history of my own.

Steve

 

* Unsupervised Man Food – the crap we eat when our partners aren’t looking.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | February 14, 2015

Et Tu, Jaime?

Dateline: April 28, 2014 – Coral Gables, Florida

It never stops. I keep thinking maybe, just once, she will behave herself, but she never does. I know you must all carry deep sympathy for me, because I am the innocent victim of a bad person here, but if Jaime Hamamoto catches one more species I haven’t, I’m going to put my eyes out with a fork. And on top of it all, she completely ruined one of my favorite days of the year.

This should have been a very good weekend. It was time for the International Game Fish Association’s annual awards, and I had stumbled in to two more plaques for the wall. (Clarification from Marta – the GARAGE wall.) This meant I would get to give a speech, and that Marta would have to listen politely, which would never happen if we weren’t in public. As a matter of fact, I actually had to give TWO speeches, but one of them was the shortest address I have ever given in front of an audience. More on that later.

The down side of all this, and it was a very big down side, was that I would be sharing the event with Jaime Hamamoto. “NOT THAT!” I hear you say. But it was true. She had set a bunch of world records in 2013, and had actually won the Women’s Saltwater title. Good grief.

Despite the best efforts of United Airlines, Marta and I arrived in Miami on the Thursday before the event. In the hours before Jaime descended on Miami, Marta found us an interesting tourist spot – The Coral Castle.

Caesar Castle

The Coral Castle.

The castle is a set of large structures built from solid coral in the early 20th century by a Latvian immigrant. No one can figure out how he moved the pieces into place. Some of the blocks weigh as much as 30 tons, and there is no evidence he used any sort of power equipment.

Caesar Coral

Marta at the original admission gate.

Caesar Leedskalnin

Edward Leedskalnin, who designed and built The Coral Castle – life-sized cutout.

We also headed out to the Everglades. The Everglades are cool, and there are some truly awesome animals there. The coolest among these, in my humble opinion, is the Roseate Spoonbill.

Caesar Spoonbill

The Roseate Spoonbill. This photo required a zoom lens of frightening proportions.

Caesar Hawk

A hawk having a snake for lunch.

Late in the day, we got back to the Arostegui house and met up with them and the Hamamotos. The Arosteguis have become family over the years. Wade, Alma, and even Jaime have become family over the years. This was the first time the full group had met, and Marty generously hosted us at one of his favorite Cuban restaurants.

Caesar Cuban

A family meal. Wade and I made sure to sit closest to the kitchen.

The food was outstanding, and stunningly, Jaime didn’t offend anyone. Indeed, she and Marty got along spectacularly, and even after dinner, they talked fly fishing well into the night.

Caesar Marty Jaime

Marty and Jaime. This concerns me. 

Still, I am sure Marty saw through her act and knows that she is viciously competitive and that I am the victim here.

The awards program was phenomenal – think of it as the Academy Awards for fishing, minus Gwynneth Paltrow in a bad dress. No matter how many of these I will ever go to, I still get butterflies. There are so many superstars in one room, and so much knowledge and so much passion around fishing – although I am never quite sure I belong there, I at least know that most of the people there can actually relate to my level of obsessiveness.

Caesar Winners 2

Photo of the award winners taken during the cocktail hour. Notice Jaime somehow managed to force her way front and center, because that’s how she is. 

Over dinner, Jack Vitek began his emcee duties and started handing out the awards. Every year, I am in simple awe at the stories – each one so full of determination and a true love for fishing.

Caesar Facepalm

Jack realizes that Jaime has won the Women’s Saltwater title.

Marty and Roberta both won awards, and each of them is a phenomenal speaker.

Caesar Marty

Marty gives thanks to someone. I don’t remember who it was, but you can be sure it wasn’t Jack’s stylist.

It was a wonderful evening, until Jaime got her award. Although her speech may have come across like a gracious and humble thank you to her family and the IGFA, I knew that she was actually venting her vicious competitive spleen on me. For example, she just HAD to point out that some of her records came from breaking mine. She even had the nerve to thank me for helping her get started on all this. Of course, people laughed to be polite but I could tell that they were horrified.

Caesar Speech 2

Jaime makes vicious statements in front of the audience.

The fallout of all this was that Wade also won an award – placing in the guide category. He went up to the podium and apologized to me, which was heartfelt, but it was brutal to relive the bonefish incident. (Details HERE.)

Caesar Wade

Wade explains the pain of being Jaime’s father and guide.

When my turn came to accept the Men’s Saltwater award, I did what I have always done for these – got uncharacteristically humble. It is a privilege to be included in this group, and I tried to be brief – at least by my standards – and thank everyone I could think of. Let’s face it, none of this would have been possible without so many people who supported me – Marta of course, the Arosteguis, the many guides who put up with me all year, and the friends who spent all those hours tolerating fish pictures.

Caesar Jack

Jack in an intense moment. Fill in your own caption here.

A few plaques later, it was time for the Men’s Overall. Amazingly, there was a three-way tie – me, Bo Nelson, and a little-known young man from Coral Gables – Martini Arostegui. Bo, ever-modest, said a few quick words and left me and Martini on stage. We stared at each other, as we really hadn’t planned much. More on that later. If you can’t wait, skip to the bottom.

Caesar Overall

The three-way tie for Men’s Overall.

Caesar Plaques

This may be my favorite photo of all time that doesn’t involve Kate Upton.

Caesar Jaime

And then I got photobombed.

Caesar Group 2

The full group at the awards dinner. Note that Jaime has shoved her way next to Marty.

The day after the awards program, Marty generously offered to take me out fishing, but sadistically invited Jaime along as well. I was too polite to say anything, but I knew things would go badly. We would spend the day reef fishing off Miami, so there was some chance of new species, but I dreaded having my teenage arch-nemesis along. I knew what would happen.

Caesar Boat

I think that smile says everything you need to know.

Caesar Scenery

It was a lovely day off Miami, until …

You won’t hear much about Wade on this particular day. This is because Wade gets seasick, and there was an unfortunate overestimate of the amount of Bonine it would take to keep his breakfast down. He was out like a light for most of the trip.

Caesar Aepnea

Jaime makes sure Wade is completely unresponsive before she heartlessly takes his wallet.

We pulled up on a reef, baited up, and dropped down. Jaime immediately caught a #$%@ Caesar grunt. On her first cast. You just can’t make stuff like this up. Caesar knew what it was like to have his friends betray him, but he never felt pain like this.

Caesar Caesar

We took this photo back at the dock, once I had stopped crying.

The uninitiated among you might say “But Steve, it was early in the day and you would surely have plenty of chances to catch one yourself.” And I would respond “It doesn’t work that way. Get your finger out of your nose.” I knew that was the only Caesar we would see all day. Brutus had done her work.

This took all the joy out of two new species I caught that day – a spotted moray and a blackline tilefish.

Caesar Tilefish

The blackline tilefish. This was species 1300 for me. Interestingly (or not) my 1100th species was caught on this very same boat and was also a tilefish. (Details HERE.)

Caesar Eel

A spotted moray. I love eels. They don’t love me. 

Caesar Puffer

Jaime caught this checkered puffer at the dock. It was laughing at me. I could handle this, because I have caught checkered puffers before … but not this big.

Still, it was great to be out with Marty, and Wade, and Alma, but NOT Jaime. Once, just once, I want to catch the weird fish before she does, or even better, to catch it and she doesn’t and I can politely and diplomatically point that out to her, all day. I remember laying in bed that night, with Marta saying comforting things like “Enough about the Caesar grunt.”

I had one more day in Florida, and Marty and Roberta graciously asked me along on one of their Everglades world record jaunts. Marty knew I was painfully close to 100 and wanted to help – he let me know there was a shot at a line-class record on Florida gar. We headed out the Tamiami Trail early and launched the boat before the alligators started getting especially active. I don’t like alligators. (Background HERE.)

Caesar Gators

Of course, there were alligators EVERYWHERE.

Watching these two work together was a thing of beauty. They are both so passionate about fishing that it never loses its fun, but they are also a well-oiled machine when it comes to catching and recording records.

Caesar Arosteguis

Apart from a lovely couple, you’re also looking at something like 600 world records.

The fishing was fabulous. I got bass, warmouth, bowfin, and loads of oscars – there was something going every minute, and all the time, Roberta was catching bowfin on a fly rod.

Caesar Bowfin

One of the many bowfin we got that day.

We took two cracks at the gar. This was not an easy proposition, as we had to set up where there were a number of gar, then identify an appropriate-sized fish, then sight-cast to it and hope for a hookup. Gars have mouths the consistency of concrete, so this is not easy, especially when I was needing to be alert lest the alligators come on the boat and eat me.

Caesar Gator

I had the paddle ready to defend myself. Marty and Roberta found this to be amusing.

The first round on the gars was not successful, because I apparently can’t set a hook. But when we came back in the afternoon, we saw one fish that was clearly big enough, and it decided to hang around the boat long enough where even I was able to get a good cast in front of it. I let him wander around with it for what seemed like an eternity, then finally set the hook. I have lost so many of these over the years that I was nervous until Marty netted him, but when the fish hit the deck, I knew I had world record number 98.

Caesar Gar

World record #98, courtesy of the Arostegui family.

Your mind plays tricks on you in these cases, because being at 98 felt somehow further away from 100 than ever before. But I knew I had a Hawaii trip coming up, so there was a good chance to get it done. This part of the quest, just as it had been for 1000 species, was keeping me up at night, occupying my thoughts constantly, affecting my eating habits, which are horrible anyway, and causing me to involve random strangers in talk about IGFA rules.

But I also had the strength of a lot of friends behind me. I thought back to my moment with Martini on stage, accepting the Men’s Overall together. Everyone expected me to have a lot to say, because I am, to be honest, a ham. Martini took the microphone first, and instead of the gentle ribbing I expected, he gave one of the more moving speeches I have ever heard. He thanked his parents, who have given him so much love and encouragement. He thanked everyone else who had helped him over the years – the guides, the friends, the IGFA. He joked that the only thing his parents never gave him was a brother. (Martini has two amazing sisters.)

Martini then turned to me and said something to the effect of “Over the past few years, I went from a freshman at Stanford, knowing no one in the state, to being part of Steve’s family – over the course of I don’t know how many early mornings and late nights on the water. Some great days and some horrible ones, a bunch of species and a few world records. There are only a handful of people in the world who know how much those hours on the water mean to me and share my obsession with being there. And I knew I had a brother and always will.”

Martini then gestured me to the microphone. I knew that the moment was perfect the way it was, and that for once, I should just shut up. I took the mike, and looked around the quiet crowd for a long moment. They expected me to go on for ten minutes at least, but I uttered the shortest acceptance speech in IGFA history, which consisted of three words:

“What he said.”

Martini and I shook hands and walked off stage together.

I had two records to go. Hawaii was in four weeks. I could pack and repack my gear and read Dr. Jack Randall’s thrilling Reef and Shore Fishes of the Hawaiian Islands over and over. But first, I had an appointment with a clergyman.

Steve

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | January 24, 2015

Karaoke Night at Srinakarin

Dateline: April 15, 2014: – Srinakarin, Thailand

The noise shocked me out of a sound sleep. I bolted upright, and I could only think one thing – “It’s me or the water buffalo.” I pulled out my Swiss Army knife and prepared to use it. The corkscrew is often handy in such situations.

Panting in the darkness, I wondered how I came to be sleeping in a place where this kind of problem could happen. And even once I figured out it wasn’t actually a water buffalo, I had to ponder the truly important question – what was a karaoke machine doing on a floating hut in the middle of rural Thailand?

Jean-Francois Helias, master of the Thai fishing scene who has found me more than 100 species over the past decade, had wanted me to go to Srinakarin for years, and we had finally worked it out. (For more on Francois, read HERE) Srinakarin is not an easy place to reach, but it is a pilgrimage required for devoted snakehead anglers anywhere. Many of Jean-Francois’ monster snakehead are from this enormous, island-dotted reservoir on the Burmese border, about 150 miles northwest of Bangkok. The clincher for me was that the lake had jungle perch. I have always wanted to catch a jungle perch.

Jean-Francois recommended that we stay for a week, but with a hectic schedule, I could only manage three and a half days – 86 hours. It would be a very high ratio of travel to fishing, but that’s nothing new for me.

The trip began at the always-painful hour of 4am. We drove three hours to Kanchanaburi, then bought supplies for three days. (Bottled water, Red Bull, Pringles, and Red Bull. I generally bring camping food and hope we can find boiled water.) I am not an adventurous eater, to say the least, so when I did eat something that wasn’t from REI, it was fried rice with chicken, topped off with a Cipro just in case.

Kanchanburi is the site of the infamous “Bridge on the River Kwai,” where thousands of British POWs – and tens of thousands of Thai forced laborers – died while building the Burma railway link for the Japanese in World War II. We took the time to visit the site, still a sad place full of so many ghosts, and I could not help but think of Sir Alec Guinness.

Karaoke Bridge Sign

You are all lucky I am not a fly fisherman, or this post would have been called “Midge on the River Kwai.”

Karaoke Bridge 2

Although the road surface is new, the pilings here are from the original WWII bridge.

There were four of us on the trip – Francois, his lovely wife Lek, myself, and an unflappable British fly angler named Richard.

Karaoke Group

The group, minus Lek, who took the photo.

After Kanchanaburi, we drove another few hours to a village on the south end of the reservoir, then boarded a boat that was somewhat more rickety-looking that I would have hoped for.

Karaoke Boat

This carried six people (including boatmen) and all of our gear and supplies.

We roared off on to the lake. It was huge – arms opened into coves, and coves opened into expansive bays.

Karaoke Scenery 4

Srinakarin. Note all the sunken timber, which was positively loaded with fish. 

Two hours later, we pulled up at the floating village that was to be our home for the next few days. Francois had warned me that the accommodations were a touch rustic, so I didn’t start crying, but I’m not much of a camper and wasn’t relishing the evenings in the wild. It was somewhat of a comfort that the houses were floating off the shore a bit, so tigers would have a harder time getting to me.

Karaoke Hut

My home for three days. We slept on mats on raised platforms, and while there were mosquito nets, these would not stop cobras.

The villagers were very friendly and helpful. The kids showed me where all the fish lived under the platforms, and I caught plenty of barbs, although regretfully nothing new. Francois and I went casting for a couple of hours without result, but he was confident that the morning would be much better. Although it was stiflingly hot, the scenery was lovely, and there was wildlife everywhere, including water buffalo.

Karaoke Buffalo 2

Small herds wandered the shoreline. The males would snort and charge if the boat got too close.

That night, just as I was considering trying to go to sleep, I heard music. Loud music. Loud, awful music. The locals somehow had gotten a karaoke machine, and they had revved it up and were singing at the top of their enthusiastic little lungs.

Sure, it surprised me to find a karaoke machine on a floating hut in the middle of rural Thailand. But what really surprised me was that no one there, not one man, woman, or child, could carry a tune. Still, they sang better than I could, and more importantly, they had fun. But this precluded sleep.

Then it got worse.

Around midnight, the floor show tapered off and I decided to turn in on my mat. It was not disastrously uncomfortable, and a Benadryl later, I drifted off to sleep. Forty minutes later, I was snapped awake by a terrible noise.

It was a noise unlike any I had ever heard, a cross between a failing sump pump and a water buffalo giving birth – for distance. I flailed around for my flashlight, well aware that my mosquito net would not stop a water buffalo calf. I looked around, peering into the darkness. Was the house sinking? Was a pig ejecting its spleen?

After a tense moment, I figured it out. Richard and Francois were having a snoring contest. We’ll call it a draw, but as I lay awake wondering if it would ever stop without violence, I came to appreciate the different styles that each of these artists brought to the field.

Richard was the consistent one, producing a deep rumbling, not unlike a mechanically unsound locomotive.

Francois was the artist – “La Cirque du Adenoids.” He did not snore steadily, but every 30-50 seconds, he emitted a phenomenal range of bleats and yips. One moment, a kitten with peas up its nose, then next, satan passing a gallstone. I dozed and mused in equal measure, and figured at least the noise would keep away the tigers and water buffalo.

Morning came slowly, but I had brought plenty of Red Bull and was ready to go. Jungle perch and snakehead awaited.

Karaoke Scenery 3

Early morning on the lake. I don’t remember taking this picture.

One of the local guides took me out just past dawn. It had cooled off to a bearable temperature, and the air was fresh and still. Unlike the previous afternoon, fish were jumping everywhere. We drove about a mile from the huts and started paddling the shoreline. Within five minutes, we saw some some fish slashing bait on the surface and raced over to them. The guide said “Jungle perch!” I cast a white X-Rap within two feet of shore, and at least four fish blew up on it, knocking it onto the beach. One of the perch flung itself on the sand and thrashed at the lure, and I hooked up the instant the plug re-entered the lake. It was a strong fight, but there was no timber nearby and I landed the fish in a few minutes. I had enough adrenaline going to keep me awake until lunch.

Karaoke Jungle

My first jungle perch. There would be more shortly.

We got several more fish, including one that hit three different times. This species is nothing if not enthusiastic. As we worked into a cove, the guide suddenly started waving excitedly and pointing at the water – “Snakehead! Snakehead!” I looked around and spotted a bubbling patch of water about 40 feet away. This was one of the famous balls of juvenile snakehead, almost always accompanied by two angry parents. I had heard about this for years, and now I was living it.

Karaoke Fry

The fry ball. 

I made a cast. Once I had retrieved the plug past the ball, I cranked it in as fast as I could to make another cast. It was at this moment I get THE strike – the single most violent strike I have ever gotten from a freshwater fish.

Some fish strike with vigor, others with anger, hunger, or desperation. The snakehead struck with pure hate. She came in so fast toward me that my line went slack. I stood there like an idiot for a split-second, and then she turned and snapped the line tight. She took off for the trees, scorching a tight drag like it was freespool, and my graphite rod made those pre-breaking noises they often do right before they break. All I could do was hold on. Somehow, the rod stayed in one piece and my knots held, and the fish scraped along a line of sunken trees. I expected the sickening feeling of a breakoff at any moment, but after what seemed like an eternity, she came out into open water and we eventually landed her. At over 14 pounds, it was the biggest snakehead I ever expect to see.

Karaoke Snakehead

I was ecstatic. What snoring? What water buffaloes?

Karaoke Face

Do not put this in your pants.

My hands hadn’t even stopped shaking when I got another one. This was likely the father – I made sure that both parents were released near the fry ball, and as the sun continued to heat things up, the activity dropped off. But that few hours in the morning had made the entire trip worth it.

Karaoke Snakehead 2

The second fish. My second-largest snakehead ever.

Richard checked in with us as we headed back to the village. The fly-fishing was not outstanding, and he had not gotten a strike. With classic British stoicism, he never uttered a word of complaint. As was observed in Monty Python, this guy could get a foot bitten off and just say “Oh dear. One sock too many.”

As we paddled the boat around one of the coves, I heard a splashing and snuffling in the water. Looking around in alarm, I spotted something that you just don’t see every day – a water buffalo out for a swim.

Karaoke Buffalo

They are surprisingly good swimmers.

We returned to the hut for lunch, and an eight year-old came out of nowhere and tried to get me with a squirt gun.

This was Songkran, the Thai New Year. Whereas on the western New Year, we spend one night trying to throw up on each other, in Thailand, they spend three days trying to throw water on each other. Think of it as the world’s largest outdoor squirtgun fight. There is no way to go in public without getting soaked.

We were in the jungle for most of the festival, so this was my only experience with the holiday. Luckily, we brought an enormous, battery-operated super soaker of the type used for putting out medium-sized fires and drenching surprised eight year-olds. Oh yes I did.

Karaoke Kids

A couple of the local kids. The one on the right pulled the squirt gun on me. He’ll never do that again. 

The afternoons were brutally hot. I spent my time making short trips to shaded areas, looking for new species, and I managed to pick up two interesting ones.

Karaoke Lined

The lined barb. These are apparently very good bait for featherback.

Karaoke Catfish

A hemibagrid catfish. Although not as large as some related species, their spines are remarkably poisonous.

I got back to the dock for dinner – REI freeze-dried beef stew, which, although stupefyingly bland, has never given me the curse. A light breeze picked up, and the stifling heat slowly gave way to a pleasant evening. Francois and Lek got massages from a local practitioner.

Karaoke Massage

This looked more like medieval torture than a massage, but I’ll take their word for it.

The sun went down, and the karaoke machine came out. I smiled along as the villagers struggled through dozens of tunes, each one still better than Jessica Simpson. This tapered off around midnight, and shortly afterward, the snorefest resumed. I tried earplugs. I tried benadryl and scotch. I tried benadryl, scotch, and earplugs, and believe me, it takes a lot of scotch to swallow earplugs. Nothing worked. I got a few snatches of sleep, but at least I knew that the cobras wouldn’t go near us.

Karaoke Scenery 1

Another sunrise, before the mist burned off the lake.

The morning started well, with two more jungle perch. At Jean-Francois’ urging, I had changed the hooks on my lures to sturdier models. The one unmodified lure I tossed has both trebles bent straight in a single strike.

Karaoke Jungle 2

Imagine a European chub on steroids.

We also cast at two more fry balls for snakehead, but only the juveniles would strike.

Karaoke Juveniles

Even the young snakehead were vicious, attacking lures larger than themselves and getting hooked two and three at a time.

I spent the afternoon hours fishing for smaller creatures, and I was rewarded with three additional species.

Karaoke Armatus Barb

The lined tailspot barb.

Karaoke repasson barb

The silver tailspot barb. I only caught one of these.

Karaoke atridorsalis barb

And the sixth and final species of the trip – the blackfin barb. Note that these are my names – most of these have no English common names, and the local Thai names take years of study to pronounce correctly, almost as bad as Norwegian. (Details HERE.)

The evening’s karaoke festivities cut off a bit early, but this meant that the snoring got going around 11. It was my last night at the lake, so I embraced it, and dreamed troubled dreams involving water buffalo and Cousin Chuck.

The next morning, we fished a couple of hours and departed for Bangkok – two hours by boat and six by car. We looked at scenery, dozed here and there, and discussed the trip. Somewhere in there, when Francois mentioned how well he sleeps on the water, I had to make a crack about the snoring. Francois looked at me with complete astonishment. “Oh my man, you snore like a water buffalo.” I texted this to Marta, expecting some support, but she made a similar observation. Preposterous.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | December 8, 2014

A Gift of Yellow Fluid

Dateline: April 11, 2014 – Prachuap Kiri Khan, Thailand

Sometimes, small gifts are the most heartfelt. Other times, they are the most awkward.

Like many awkward moments in my life, this story takes place in Thailand. I was on a business trip to Asia, and decided to take a few days with old friend Jean-Francois Helias. Francois is a miracle worker – he keeps finding new species for me to catch in Thailand, even after I have been there dozens of times. (An example HERE) This time, I decided to make time for the biggie, the pilgrimage to Srinakarin reservoir to chase monster snakehead. We had a few days to kill before that, so we did a hodgepodge of spots that Francois had always wanted me to visit. Thailand is a big place, and there are an endless variety of new opportunities for the intrepid angler, or, in my case, an angler with an intrepid guide.

Carp Steve JF

Jean-Francois Helias – master of the Thai fishing scene. (fishasia@ksc.th.com)

We started with the requisite trip to Ratchaburi. Sure, it’s a stocked pond. I didn’t claim I had any dignity around this – I’m the guy who has fished in hotel fountains. But the point remains that Ratchaburi has all kinds of stuff I have never caught, and the Thai mahseer is one of these.

Fluid Mahseer

The Thai mahseer. Hard fighters, even in hotel fountains.

The next day, we piled into a minivan and headed south. Francois will generally have a very specific place in mind, but in this case, we were exploring, looking for a small river that bordered an elephant preserve on the border with Burma. We drove for some hours through small towns and increasingly wild and hilly terrain, and finally came to the elephant preserve at Pa La U.

Fluid River

If this was video, you could hear elephants snorting in the distance. But it isn’t, so you can make the experience more authentic by making snorting noises while you read the next few paragraphs.

Elephants scare me. I never particularly felt this way until a trip to Africa in 2006 when one managed to sneak up on me on an open beach. Although he allowed me to live, my underpants could not be saved. So I was on guard all afternoon, my underpants doubly so.

We fished a few creeks outside the preserve, but the elephants can’t read the boundary markers and were crashing about in the forest all day. I caught a few glimpses of them in the jungle, which kept me distracted, but I did manage to land two new species – a blue danio and a tail-spot raspbora.

Fluid Danio 1

The blue danio, which I am sure was the original title of the Bobby Vinton song.

Fluid Rasbora

A species is a species, and this was something rare and wonderful, if not especially large. There’s a cousin Chuck joke in there someplace.

You can stop snorting now.

Once the jungle adventure was over, we saddled up in the van and turned south to Prachuap Kiri Khan, a port on the Gulf of Siam. Francois described it as a species haven – I had my doubts, as I have fished the area a lot, but I’ve learned not to bet against the Frenchman. (background HERE)

We got into Prachuap in the late afternoon. It’s a relatively quiet town – none of the beachfront party craziness you might find in Koh Samui. This suits me fine, as I don’t like to be disturbed by screaming barhoppers when I am fishing at 3am. I was in a low-key mood, so it took me a full 12 minutes to put gear together, find bait at a local market, and head out to the pier.

On the way over to the docks, the driver kept pointing at a religious-looking building on top of a hill and saying “monkey.” Kindly, I corrected him and told him “The word is Monk.” As we approached the base of the hill, I began looking for the familiar orange robes, and was surprised instead to see … monkeys. Everywhere. “Monkeys” said the driver again, and I felt like an idiot.

Fluid Monkeys

If they had only been wearing orange robes, I wouldn’t have felt so stupid.

It was very breezy, so I could only set up on the sheltered side of the pier. The scenery was spectacular – scattered islands down the coast as far as I could see.

Fluid Prach 1

Setting up on the pier. The wind was howling.

There were a few other fishermen, so I set up a respectful distance from them and started tossing Sabikis. I was immediately rewarded with a variety of small fish, one of which turned out to be new species.

Fluid Scad

The razorbelly scad. They were everywhere. 

The teenagers next to me looked astonished that I was catching fish – they apparently hadn’t gotten anything all day. Checking their equipment, the problem was evident – they were using 1/0 hooks, and the fish here, even the ambitious ones, had no chance of being caught on these. I pulled out a package of something more suitable, like a #14, and retied their rigs.

Fluid kid

One of my fishing buddies on the pier.

They immediately started getting fish, which all went into a bucket – this was dinner for their family. I gave them the hooks – I have plenty. They thanked me profusely, but their innocent good intentions led to an awkward moment.

Moments later, a little old lady came by with a cart, selling some sort of beverage. Before I could stop them, the kids pooled their coins together and bought two cups of some sort of yellow fluid over ice – one for me and one for them to share. With great formality, they presented it to me.

Fluid fluid

The yellow fluid. It was not exactly tasty, but it certainly was eponymous. 

Now this was difficult. One of my three inviolable travel rules is “no street vendor food.” (The other two are “no fishing during an armed insurrection” and “no one that tall is really a girl.’) Visions of food poisoning danced through my head, and I wondered if the Cipro in my toiletries could overwhelm whatever ill-willed microbes were doing the backstroke in my beverage.

The drink was the color and consistency of a urine sample, and the taste was less dissimilar than I had hoped. Still, I took what looked like a big swig and managed to give what I hope appeared to be a smile of approval while I tried not to cough it up through my nose. Satisfied, they went back to fishing, so I could pour the rest of the drink quietly into the harbor, where it likely killed some fish. They were good guys and meant well, and I hope they enjoy the hooks for a long time.

In the morning, Francois had arranged a charter with a local commercial fisherman and one of his Thai guides. The boatman used to taking out large groups, so he was surprised to see just one large American as his full load. The scenery was exquisite – exotic islands poking out of a powder-blue sea, and yesterday’s wind had been replaced with dead calm.

Fluid Islands

The islands in the morning calm.

Fluid boat

Our trusty craft. 

We had loads of squid, so I took some whole ones and rigged them up as bait. The guide – Kik –  was surprised by this, as most fishing here was done with small bits of bait on a #8 hook.

Fluid Kik

Kik – one of Jean-Francois’ most experienced guides. A fishing superstar.

The first few whole squid I put down came back ripped up by small fish, but about an hour later, that changed. As I reeled up the bigger rod, I was surprised to find that the line had moved quite some distance from where I had cast. Carefully, I reeled the slack out, and it became clear something was swimming with the bait. I let it pull tight and set the hook hard.

Whatever was on the other end was not pleased with this development, and it took off at great speed, right under the boat. I raced up to the bow and passed the rod under and over rigging and the anchor rope, and held on for dear life while the fish headed for the rocks. I figured it had to be a stingray. The fight went on for about 15 minutes, and as I gradually got the upper hand, I was even more sure it was a ray, which is why I was astonished when Kik netted the biggest painted sweetlip I have ever seen in my life.

Fluid Sweetlip 1

The beastly painted sweetlip. This is not the first time I was disappointed something wasn’t a ray. (Details HERE)

I have caught these all over the South Pacific, but never quite big enough for a world record. Yet here, in a place where sustenance fishing reduced the odds of a larger catch to almost zero, I had gotten one comfortably big enough to be my 97th world record. Three to go. This could happen.

We spent the rest of the day moving between shallow reefs, and one by one, I added a series of species to the list. I had fished extensively just a few hundred miles to the north and south of this spot, so I didn’t expect much, but by the time the day was over, I had tacked on five more new species.

Fluid whiting

Oriental whiting.

Fluid Weakfish

The Tigertooth Croaker. Now that’s a cool fish name. 

Fluid Pony

The splendid ponyfish. And this is a big one.

Fluid shrimp scad

A shrimp scad.

Fluid Grunter

The mighty saddle grunter. 

Fluid Sweetlip

Yes, this is the same sweetlip. I just wanted to put the picture in twice.

Nine species in three days, and the best part of the trip hadn’t even started. I was ecstatic.

The wind had picked quite a bit by 2:00, so we made our way in, weighed and documented the record fish, and packed up for Bangkok. Francois and I spent the entire ride talking about Srinakarin, the legendary reservoir in western Thailand that has produced some of the biggest snakehead ever wrestled into a boat. We had been talking about this spot since I met Jean-Francois, more than 10 years ago, and I had been quietly accumulating snakehead lures ever since. In just 36 hours, I would finally be putting them to use.

Steve

 

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