Posted by: 1000fish | January 17, 2021

Exploring my Intertidal Side

DATELINE: JUNE 13, 2020 – BROOKINGS, OREGON

The calico surfperch is another fish that just pisses me off. It’s there. I know it’s there, because many of my friends have caught one, but every time I try, I fail. In surfperch terms, they are widespread, ranging from British Columbia to Southern California, but they seem to gather in very specific areas that they do not publicly disclose. I like surf fishing, and I had come to just hope I would eventually catch one by accident, but late at night, I would lay awake and agonize about how to target one.

The Great Western Road Trip had given me some confidence that I could travel without dying. As I settled into a Covid routine and the toilet paper supply chain stabilized, Marta again began hinting that it would be nice if I got out of the house so she could get some work done. (She claims that my constant interruptions prevent her from focusing on projects. Ridiculous.)

Species hunters talk to each other a lot, because we rarely have other friends. In one of these conversations, with old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard, he actually referred to a calico surfperch as a “slam dunk.” In most cases, I would have dismissed this as inexcusable hubris. But Luke is a tremendous fisherman, so I had to take him seriously, even though his statement made me spit Pepsi all over my keyboard. As we discussed further, I had to remember he lives in Oregon and can get to the coast fairly easily, and over the years, he had consistently caught calicos in the region.

This would need to be an overnight trip – the Oregon coast is at least seven hours away from my home. It would also be ideal to attempt a few other species in the area, because even though I have done 14 hour round trips for one species (heck, I’ve done 14,000 mile round trips for one species,) it would be nice to have some backup options. As Luke and I discussed further, it became apparent that the Oregon coast is a hotbed of tidepool critters, and I figured that this was worth a weekend.

In my ideal world, Marta and I would have made a getaway out of this, but in her ideal world, me being out of the house IS a weekend getaway. Young men – consider your emotional needs before you move in with someone. Young women – picture that man 30 pounds heavier and wearing sweatpants, with stains you can only hope are coffee.

The drive, long though it may be, is a gorgeous route filled with memories. A few hours north on 101, I entered the Redwoods and passed the Benbow Inn, a lovely Tudor-style inn where I first stayed in the mid-1970s with my stepmonster’s parents. (They were lovely people, which always confused me.) There is the Avenue of the Giants, where Marta and I chased each other through the woods back when we could run fast. Further north is Miranda, on the Eel River, where Ed Trujillo guided me and Mark Spellman to our greatest day of steelhead fishing.

Just before Eureka, the road leaves the mountains and runs along the ocean. It’s often cold and foggy there, but the scenery is sublime. I smiled as I passed Patrick’s Point, a state park where, in September of 1982, I went camping with a college girlfriend. I am really bad at camping, so bad that the relationship ended shortly thereafter. (And that’s all I’m going to say, except that our friends called it the “Camping Without Sharp Objects” trip. Hi Cindy.)

Trinidad, California – one of the north coast ports.

Just north of there, Martini and I had an epic day on surfperch in Orick. I’ve only ever caught two redtail surfperch, but one of them is still the world record. North Coast anglers – this one is easy to beat. Go do it. Just leave me the Tiera Batfish.

I pulled into Brookings at around 4pm. I had a couple of hours of daylight, a rising tide, and a big tub of pileworms. The spot was easy to find on GPS, but parking was another story entirely, and I ended up walking a mile in waders. This is a recipe for sweating and chafing, but I’ll put up with sweating and chafing any time to go fishing.

That’s a long walk in waders.

The beach was perfect. The surf was calm, the wind was light, and I could see rock and kelp structures within easy casting distance. I clipped on a weight, baited the hooks, and cast. I was fishing. It’s always a great feeling to have made a plan, taken a long drive to a strange place, found the spot, and actually gotten a bait in the water.

I waited for the sinker to hit bottom so I could set the rod in my sand spike. It never hit the bottom. A fish took off with it, and after a moment of sphincter lock, I set the hook. “Ha ha.” I said as I reeled in something spunky, expecting a barred surfperch. “Wouldn’t it be funny if this was a calico?”

It was a calico. A nice one. I had been fishing less than a minute and had my target. Go Luke. I bellowed in triumph.

Immediately post-bellow.

With the pressure off, I could just enjoy myself until dark and then run out for a nice meal. I scaled down to eight pound gear, and got nine more calicos. I love surf fishing, especially now.

Beautiful fish, but I should have shaved.

I had two doubles.

I got lucky. It isn’t always this nice in Oregon.

Starting the chafy walk back to the car.

I then headed to the Superfly Martini Bar and Grill and had marvelous fish and chips. They were seating people at tables back then, which felt odd but somehow reassuring. I hate eating in my car.

And they had chocolate cake.

I got to sleep in the next morning, as the low tide wasn’t until noon. I love tidepool fishing. You never know what you’ll find, especially in Australia, but at least in Oregon nothing could come out from under a rock and kill me. Luke had caught quite a few species in the area, although his favorite tidepools, a bit north of here, were closed due to the pandemic. God forbid we give Covid to an oyster.

The tidepools. Every single rock hides a potential species.

I started on the south side of the point, and eased myself into tidepool mentality. It’s a very detailed visual process that involves entering a Zen space where you are trying to spot tiny parts of well-camouflaged small fish, and, even more importantly, places where they might be hiding. You are concurrently trying to see where they are and where they might be, and my expectations were high.

Of course, anyplace I fish is going to have a dominant pest – a creature I have caught before, usually with great effort, that suddenly becomes viciously aggressive and gets caught in droves, to the exclusion of whatever I am targeting. Introducing today’s dominant pest – the wooly sculpin. I caught eight of them to start the morning, and this had me close to apoplectic. My visions of exotic sculpins and pricklebacks were being dashed. So I had a talk with myself, but still proceeded to catch a few more wooly sculpins. Then, a miracle happened. As I explored a likely crevice with my micro hook and bit of shrimp, a distinctly different head popped out and grabbed it.

It was a tidepool sculpin, species 1940. (A good milestone for me, a bad year for Winston Churchill.)

Shortly thereafter, I got a rosylip sculpin, species 1941, and now I felt like I was in business. Spots were standing out to me, and the wooly sculpins started thinning out.

The rosylip sculpin.

I worked my way along a set of pools at the edge of deeper water. At this stage, I was having the best luck blind fishing. I had crawled up to a small ledge in a hot tub-sized tidepool, and something kept poking its head out to inspect my bait. It was very cautious, and I was careful to raise and lower the bait slowly. As I lifted it past the top of the crevice, something astonishing (at least by my standards) happened. A small head appeared from the underside of the ledge, completely upside down, and nipped at my bait. It was a northern clingfish, and it was on the prowl. I have always pictured these improbable little beasts as completely sedentary, and here was one charging at the micro-worm. And the split shot. It hit four times and finally got hooked.

I was completely beside myself, and as excitable as I am, that’s saying something.

The Weipa hat was a gift from Scotty Lyons during a particularly epic trip to the Gulf of Carpenteria in 2009. Sadly, that was a few months before the blog commenced, but I’ll get to it sooner or later. The high-level summary – 41 species, lots of amazing fish, very little personal hygiene.

That’s the sucker disk that they use to cling to rocks.

And they’re cute.

I returned my attention to the fish at the base of the crevice, and moments later, it came out and attacked. It was a prickleback – a small, eel-like creature that comes in several flavors. Being large and fast by tidepool standards, it was actually quite a fight. It got lodged under the rock twice, which is delicate when you’re working with one-pound leader. Luckily, I eased it out and we had the fifth and final species of the trip, the Rock Prickleback.

Their marketing people asked me to tell you all that pricklebacks are not eels.

They are beautifully marked. I need to learn to take Ben Cantrell-level photos.

That’s number 1943 if you’re playing along at home. A good number for me, a bad year for Van Paulus. (Free pizza for the first reader who isn’t Lee Sullivan who gets this reference.)

The tide crept up, and soon the pools were covered up and I was done.

I still drool when I look at this photo.

I headed back to the car, switched gear, and made the sweaty, chafy walk back to the perch spot, just for the joy of it. I figured it HAD to be great – I had the same tide, the same time of day, and the same weather. I caught one small one. The Fish Gods sometimes giveth, and the Fish Gods sometimes don’t giveth, and it’s completely on their terms. We’re just along for the ride.

But I had five new species in a difficult year, some ideas to get even more in the same area when things returned to normal, and the ride home was even more beautiful than the way up. My next socially-distanced adventure, which would also involve an elusive surf fish, would be coming up in less than two weeks, and was already fully approved by Marta.

Steve

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – NEW WORLD RECORD SPOTTED SUCKER

I was thrilled to hear that 1000Fish friend and frequent fishing buddy Tyler Goodale has booked his first individual IGFA world record, taking a monstrous 5.25 pound spotted sucker from Duck Creek, MO, where I have never caught a damn thing.

If you plan on fishing the Ozarks, you have to fish with this guy. You can reach him on 573-714-9256 or etheostoma83@gmail.com.

Posted by: 1000fish | November 19, 2020

The Mucus

DATELINE: JUNE 1, 2020 – SOMEWHERE IN UTAH

It was time. I had been in the house every night but one for three straight months. The virus caseload was stabilizing, at least according to Fox, and most importantly, Marta wanted me OUT.  Although I wouldn’t be going to the Amazon this year, there were still species to catch throughout the western US, mostly discovered in sweaty late-night sessions with the Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes.

The sacred text.

Before the pandemic, my buddy Chris and I had talked about meeting in Salt Lake and fishing our way to Vegas. But I was not in the mood to fly anywhere, and when I looked at driving, out came the books. The east coast has a great deal more biodiversity than the arid west, but there are still a few species out here. The drawback, and it’s a big one, is that these places are very, very far apart. My trips are usually built around efficiency, and that was out the window. But I had time, a reliable vehicle, and a partner who was encouraging me to leave the house right away, tonight if possible, and take my time coming back.

Mentally, I had to look at this as less of a species hunt and more of a fishing trip. Utah, for example, has tremendous fishing – but mostly for “normal” fish. I was ok with this. Some trout wouldn’t hurt me, and there would be a few chances for a new species or a record. And I could see some parts of the country I had missed. Indeed, I would be seeing these parts for a long time, because the route added up to some 3500 miles.

I headed out on a Sunday morning, and drove north to Alturas, California – the same place where, as you doubtless recall, I caught a world record on the Hardhead last May.

On the way, I saw one of the saddest signs I have ever seen.

And some amazing scenery.

The Pit River was low and clear, which I presumed was good. (It had been high and muddy last year, which made the fishing challenging.)

Low and clear turned out to be bad.

There were very few fish, but the Niles hotel was still lovely and Antonio’s carryout Italian food was great.

The first fish of the trip – a northern pikeminnow.

The next morning, I met up with old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard to poke around for a few California micros. I am proud to report that I captured one – the Northern Roach – recently differentiated from several other roach species.

Dr. Peter Moyle of UC Davis had sent me this excellent news.

We saw a few trout and tried a couple of other spots, but this would be it for the day. I was then off on a 500 mile drive to Ely, Nevada, to meet up with Chris Moore and his sons. Driving 500 miles through the middle of Nevada, it becomes clear why they tested atom bombs here.

This will be Chris’ first time in the blog. He is a Phoenix-based species hunter who, through many adventures with his sons, has managed to put together three quite respectable 200+ species lists. They have accomplished this with hardly any flying, so you can imagine the road trips. I, for one, can’t think of a better Dad than one who will drive two kids 10 hours each way to try to get a whitefish. And Chris is a high school teacher, so he’s ideally suited to deal with me.

Chris has two teenage sons, and for some reason, I couldn’t remember their names to save my life. It turns out that the 17 year-old is Carson and the 15 year-old is Brayden, but that just wouldn’t stick with me, so, for convenience, I originally called them Thing One and Thing Two.

Steve with the Moore gang. From left, that’s Steve, Chris, Carson (Thing 1), and Brayden (Thing 2.)

After we met up in Ely (pronounced “eeeely” rather than “Eli”) and checked into our respective hotels, we decided to go out for dinner. It was a weird, weird feeling to actually sit down in a restaurant, and any chance it could seem normal went out the window when the waitress showed up in a mask and sprayed us with sanitizer.

The next morning, we made a lengthy reconnaissance into desolate central Nevada, looking for guppies and similar transplants. We failed. The failure was compounded, because Thing 2, whose sole responsibility was carrying my bag of micro gear, left it by the side of a spring. Interestingly, when I noticed it was not there, I said “Hey guys – I don’t seem to be able to find …” Brayden cut me off before I could even explain what was missing and insisted “It wasn’t me.” I pointed out that I had not yet announced what was gone, but Thing 2 repeated that he was not at fault, whatever it was. Sigh. We were two days in and already someone was on my last nerve, mostly because he reminded me of what I must have been like at that age.

Somewhere in there, for reasons that are not completely clear, I changed Brayden’s nickname from “Thing 2” to “The Mucus.” It just seemed right. (It stuck, by the way. Now even his mother calls him “The Mucus.” I am very proud of this.)

He is also almost impossible to photograph.

Part of graduating as an English major is picking a lifetime grammatical pet peeve, and mine is misuse of the word “literal.” The Mucus uses some form of this word in every sentence. Literally. I spent much of the trip trying to explain the difference between “Literally,” “Figuratively,” and “Really, really,” but he never did master it. He caught on quickly that this annoyed me, and tripled his use of the phrase every time I was in earshot. He once stated “I literally don’t know what ‘literally’ means.”

Meanwhile, the older child, Thing One, was relentlessly polite and respectful. He almost made me regret that we had never had children, but then The Mucus would say something and I would come to my senses.

In any case, I had plenty of spare gear, and we got to our target area – Blue Lakes, Utah – by mid-afternoon. (You may recall this location from fabled “Spring Training” blog episode.)

There were still several species remaining here for me to pursue, notably the Jack Dempsey. To limit the drama, I didn’t. But, the fishing was still amazing, and among other catches, I got several fully lit up male Giraffe Cichlids. Apart from being a personal best, these were gorgeous.

I never stop musing at finding a Malawi fish in rural Utah.

The biggest one. Heartbreakingly close to 16 ounces.

We pulled in to Salt Lake late that night, and set up for a couple of days of trout fishing that had some chance of producing an oddball sucker or sculpin. When we got out on the river the next day, Carson caught lots of suckers, ON A FLY ROD, which made me wonder if I should have given him the unfavorable nickname.

Carson casually fights another sucker. ON A FLY ROD.

Seriously, Carson. It’s not funny when you make something I can’t do look so easy. Like running.

I did catch a western slope cutthroat trout.

I do not generally add subspecies to my list. (Especially in the case of trout in the US, which, depending on the source, can be divided into squillions of subspecies. I once had a guy in Weaverville tell me he had caught over 300 USA trout species. On a FLY. Because if you didn’t catch them on a FLY, you may as well have used a pitchfork. I generally respect the heck out of fly fishermen, except Brian Smith, but let’s all enjoy our version of the sport without getting snotty with each other.

I got some nice browns.

And a deformed brown. which I actually caught twice. We named him Troutimodo.

And, finally, a sucker. But this was a Utah sucker, which I had caught previously, in the fabled “Audible” blog episode.

I accepted my trout and enjoyed being outdoors, where things seemed almost normal, until I got asked to leave a gas station because I was WEARING a mask. How did we end up with sides during a pandemic? The normal arrangement is that it’s us vs. the virus.

Utah has some striking views. Too bad this canyon didn’t have any fish.

It did have an impressive rattlesnake.

We slowly worked our way south, stopping at various hot springs and isolated creeks. There were two triumphs and a lost pair of shoes to report, and luckily, they weren’t my shoes.

This picture sums up their personalities perfectly. Unfortunately, it also sums up my personal hygiene. Some of that hair is coming out of my ears.

Our first stop was Meadow Hot Springs, where I got the record Oaxaca cichlid last year with Gerry Hansell.

Chris and Thing 1 work the shoreline.

What I remember more than the fish I caught last year was the Jack Dempsey and the Sailfin Molly I didn’t. On this trip, I am proud to report I got the sailfin. Don’t ask about the Dempsey. When I finally catch my first Jack Dempsey, I’m going to use it for spearfish bait.

My favorite Molly since Ringwald.

There were also all kids of cichlids. This is the redhead, a species I first caught with Marty Arostegui in 2012.

For the longer drives , we alternated kids so I had some company. I learned quickly that Thing 1 was interesting to talk to – he loves fishing, will listen respectfully to my college stories, has an encyclopedic knowledge of “The Office,” and he’s an elite long-distance runner. (I did some long distance running in college. I hit a triple.)

Carson even manages to be polite when he photobombs us.

Riding with The Mucus was an entirely different experience. The Mucus is normally, how shall we put it nicely … chatty. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, he has no unexpressed thoughts, whether or not the idea is fully formed. “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if … there was this thing … that did stuff …” I would helpfully respond “Perhaps you should think that through – to yourself – and come up with a more cogent presentation.” And he would reply “I literally should do that.” I’m sure I said similar things at his age; in hindsight, it’s a miracle my father let me live. But unexpectedly, when The Mucus got into my car, he suddenly clammed up, and conversation had to be dug out like a severely impacted wisdom tooth. You would think this is a blessing, but on a five hour drive where the only radio station plays nonstop Pat Boone, it wasn’t.

Did I mention that he’s really hard to photograph?

But sometimes you just have to hug him. 

Many miles down featureless Utah highways, we arrived at a spot Luke had given us for wild guppies. It was a tough pin to find, and involved climbing a fence or two, but when I saw the stinking swamp he wanted us to slog through, I was out. The Mucus and Thing 1 went right at it, and while they did eventually find their way, Carson lost his footwear in the ooze, which looked less like mud and more like dragon vomit.

After Chris brought him replacement shoes.

In the meantime, I pulled out my phone and examined the map. It looked a lot like I could get to the same spot by walking down a clear, dry path on the riverbank. Most shortcuts lead to disaster, but this worked just fine and I caught several guppies by the time the kids showed up, panting and covered in mud. Those of you who knew me in the 80s know that I also was once found panting and covered in mud, and that’s all we’re going to get of that story.

A guppy. Yay.

Both kids smelled like decomposing skunk, so I drove the next few legs alone. Our final stop that day was Rogers Hot Spring, another place loaded with confused aquarium fish. There were thousands of mollies and some sort of Rio Grande hybrid, but we also spotted some sort of brightly-colored thing I didn’t recognize. Naturally, these didn’t want to bite, but after an hour or effort and switching baits a few times, I got one.

It turned out to be a truly weird one – The Taiwan Reef Cichlid. You know – the one in the Protomelas genus.

We then made the long haul down to Phoenix. Mercifully, it was Thing 1’s turn in my car, so the time went quickly, and now I don’t need to actually watch “The Office” because I know what happens. (Daenerys has a temper tantrum, jumps on her dragon, and kills everyone in King’s Landing.)

Wait! I finally got a decent picture of The Mucus! He was farting.

My plan was to stay in Arizona a few days and track down a couple of species I had missed over the years. In looking at my remaining targets in Arizona, I kept coming up with a spot that I didn’t want to drive to – New Mexico. We’re talking 10 hours round trip, but I had a shot at a critter I had always wanted – the Bluehead Sucker. It was a shame I couldn’t catch up with “Sexy Rexy” Johnson, but at least my walk would be shorter.

The sucker was not so cooperative. There were dozens and dozens of them, in shallow, clear water, but shortly before I arrived, they held a meeting and determined that they were not going to eat. In the grand tradition of the creek chubsucker, they zoomed giggling around the pool, often examining but never touching my offerings. This went on for hours, far past that blurry line that separates optimism and stupidity. But I still believed the next one was going to bite. Somewhere well into the evening, one of them made a beeline for a micro-bit of Gulp and grabbed it. It held on to it so long that even my slow and stunned reaction still hooked it.

A fish picture often delineates persistence and insanity.

I resented that fish, because I didn’t get back to Phoenix until the wee hours of the morning, and the gas station where I planned to eat dinner had already closed. I dined out of the hotel vending machine at 3am, which actually made me miss Marta’s chili.

Despite Marta imploring me to take a few more days, I decided to head home on June 2.

It’s a long drive from Phoenix to San Francisco, and I decided to break it up by stopping at the Salton Sea and trying – AGAIN – for porthole livebearers. There are no %#&@ porthole livebearers here. This may be a prank that the rest of the species hunting community is playing on me, but I stuck it out for hours. And hours. Because of this, I didn’t make it all the way home that night, and ended up sleeping in Bakersfield for the first time in many years. (If I had kept driving, I would have gotten home at 3:30am, and I can’t imagine Marta would have greeted me very warmly.)

And I got to have a bonus breakfast at the Willow Ranch.

When all the scores were tabulated, my species total had risen to 1936. (The year when Jesse Owens spoiled the Olympics for Germany.) It was progress – it wouldn’t match what I would have done in the Seychelles, but I was making the best of things, and that’s all we can do right now. The important thing was that I had gotten out fishing for a week, and I had gotten to go with two very good friends.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | November 3, 2020

Fishing in the Time of Covid

DATELINE: MAY 16, 2020 – DAVIS, CALIFORNIA

Great. Some idiot eats a pangolin and now I can’t go fishing. Marta often whispers “Steve, it’s not all about you,” but I was feeling pretty sorry for myself as I cancelled trips to the Seychelles and the Amazon.

Canceling trips was not easy. It took American Express over four hours to answer the phone.

After some difficult self-reflection, supervised by Marta, I realized that a lot of people – indeed, most people – were much more affected by the pandemic than I. I can work remotely, it’s relatively easy for us to quarantine, and, since Marta is always planning for nuclear winter, we had plenty of toilet paper.

Failing that, I have a laundry basket full of mismatched socks.

And I always wondered why Marta took so many wedding napkins.

While I was still in Brazil, Marta ventured to Safeway for some good old-fashioned panic buying. The good citizens of Alamo had snatched up a lot of staples, but Marta did find a ham. It was a big ham, and we sheltered in place with that 14-pound monstrosity. We will never eat ham again.

The empty shelves of Safeway. Those mismatched socks were looking pretty good.

Speaking of mismatched, think of poor Marta. She has been trapped in a house with ME for two months. We have been together for 16 years, and I have never been home more than 29 days in a row. Marta often says “My relationship with Steve only works because he travels four months a year for work. And eight months a year for fishing.”

Drinking helps.

One upside – we did cook together a great deal. Several marvelous new recipes found their way into Marta’s repertoire, including the best chicken soup ever. Of course, not all experiments succeed. Our most notable culinary fail, apart from the “fortnight of ham,” was an attempted chili. It caused some voluntary social distancing and indirectly destroyed our microwave. The recipe did call it “spicy chili,” but this was an understatement akin to calling France’s 1940 military “unprepared.” By the time we figured out that it was useful only for self defense, we were late in the game, but Marta looked online and discovered that starch cooked from a potato could dull the acid. Unfortunately, she chose a military-grade potato that caught fire in the microwave.

For days, the house smelled like burned potato and ass.

Realizing this was going to be a long haul, we started looking for home projects. The most obvious for me, apart from maybe doing a load of laundry, would be to organize the garage.

The garage. There are 152 fishing rods, Amelia Earhart’s skeleton, and a piece of the true cross in there someplace.

My garage would terrify even the most enthusiastic hoarder, because it is all the stuff from the garage at my last house thrown hurriedly into boxes then randomly unpacked, plus whatever fishing gear I have acquired over the past six years. There is also hockey equipment, bikes, and construction supplies just in case our remodel ever gets off the ground.

So I bought some plastic storage bins and a label maker.

Everything needs a clever label.

That got boring fast. Handling fishing gear reminded me that, more than anything, I wanted to be fishing. There were two problems with this. The first is obvious – most of my fishing requires travel, and travel was going to be complicated for a while. (Two months if you watch Fox, 15 years if you’re on CNN.) With all the nights at home, we got to catch up on movies about vile contagions, like “Outbreak,” “The Cassandra Crossing,” and “Home Alone.” That also got old quickly. I even finished “The Simpsons,” all 639 episodes, so now I actually know Mr. Burns’ full name.

In my humble opinion, Mr. Burns has the single funniest line in the whole series – “We both made shells for the Nazis, but mine WORKED!” Look it up for context.

After all that distraction and denial, I started to research if I could actually go fishing. I reasoned that there couldn’t be a sport with more social distancing, important because my personal hygiene slipped precipitously as soon as I didn’t have to go into an office.

Covid Homeless

I’ll use this one when I need a new employee badge.

California loves to interfere with any sport that vegans don’t like, and rumors were flying around about cancelling all sportfishing. (Which would move me into proud civil disobedience.) I first had to work through my grief about cancelling the exotic trips. By the time I sat down to write this, it was clear that I was not going to the Seychelles in April, not going to Miami in May, not going to Hawaii in June, and not going to the Amazon in July. This is my life and my passion – and it’s what keeps me out of the house and therefore getting along with Marta.

2020 was supposed to be the year I would hit 2000 species, but it had turned into the year I might not even be able to fish. This was also supposed to be a big world record year, where I would hope to keep up with some of the Arosteguis. Yes, other people have much bigger problems, but they can write their own blog.

I quickly made a list of the species that I could possibly add within a socially-distanced day trip. This meant no boats, no piers, no guides. There were ten fish on the list, and let’s face it, they were on this list because they were difficult to catch in the first place.

Covid List 3

There’s a lot of pointless optimism on this list.

The most obvious targets were the Chameleon and  Shokihaze gobies, which are supposed to live in Suisun Bay, about 40 minutes from my house. This location also offers Sacramento Splittail, a potential world record.

I packed suitable gear and drove off for what became an almost-daily pilgrimage. I tried a variety of baits and rigs. I caught lots and lots of gobies, but not the right ones. Still, this was progress – I could at least catch something reliably. Among my many OCD fishing lists, I have caught a fish in every calendar month since April of 1992.

My first Covid shutdown catch. The streak was intact.

I didn’t even sniff a splittail, and somewhere in all this, Al Kaline died.

Covid Kaline

WTF, universe?

One of the other species that made the list is a kelp surfperch. These maddeningly obvious creatures live in – stay with me here – kelp. There are squillions of them in Monterey, purposely living just far enough off shore where they can’t be caught from a pier. Old 1000fish friend Daniel Gross volunteered to lead a socially-distanced kayak trip into the kelp, and I inadvisably thought this would be a slam dunk.

Daniel catches some amazing fish from his kayak.

Covid WSB

I mean some ridiculously amazing fish.

I wasn’t too sure about paddling out where there are great whites and krakens.

I failed. I saw kelp perch, but senorita wrasses were the dominant pest of the day and got there first – every time. I also managed a spectacular sunburn on my legs.

Sunblock, people – even if it’s foggy.

The sunburn was bad – it hurt to walk for a few days. And then the peeling started. I’ve had bad peeling before, but this time, it was actually noisy – imagine the sound of velcro and screaming. Just for fun, I left a bunch of Pringle-sized skin shreds on Marta’s part of the couch.

She was not amused.

After two months in the house, I was hurting to expand my horizons, and Marta was deeply supportive of anything that might get her a night off. There was so much conflicting information on Covid that it was hard to figure out if it was reasonable to travel and stay in a hotel. One side is telling me that there is no epidemic and I should head to spring break in Florida, the other side is telling me I will die if I open the curtains. Why the hell are there sides in a pandemic? In the old days, it was everyone against the virus.

The desire to go fishing won, although Marta gently telling me “GET OUT” also helped. I caught up with old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard, and we agreed to meet in Yreka, California – not to be confused with Eureka – and go hunting for the Siskyou sculpin. It was a gorgeous day for a drive. If I didn’t turn on the radio, things felt almost normal … until I pulled into a gas station and someone made fun of me for wearing a mask.

The next morning, we discovered that the Klamath River was high, muddy, and weedy. We were going to need a Plan B. We looked at a creek in Hornbrook, California, but while we were still rigging up, a series of dentally-challenged locals confronted us and announced that the creek was “private property.” No it isn’t. No navigable waterway in the USA is private – it’s one of the things that makes us better than Germany. But these guys were aggressive and quite clearly had something to hide. We decided to let it go for the time being, because there is almost – almost – no species worth getting shot over.

So what to do? Northern California pickings looked slim, but then we thought about Southern Oregon. The Rogue River was only 90 minutes north, and it is supposed to be thick with Umpqua pikeminnows, one of the two Ptychocheilus species I haven’t caught. We made the drive, found a socially-distanced spot, and cast. I caught one immediately, and the action was so steady we kept at it for a couple of hours. Fishing is fishing, and it was good to be outdoors.

The triumphant anglers.

The Umpqua Pikeminnow.

Ducks did not do social distancing, but they all live at the same address.

We headed to another river where Luke had caught some sculpin species, but they were not daylight-friendly and I was facing a long drive home. I couldn’t thank Luke enough for figuring out something to catch, and when we headed to the cars, reflexively, we shook hands. I hadn’t shaken hands with anyone in two months. Luckily, there was a quart of hand sanitizer in the car.

It was a gorgeous drive home.

A new species in the time of Covid! It could be done. That, and the fact that Marta would make sure we had decent food and toilet paper, was enough to keep me going.

Later in May, a bizarre set of coincidences put me on the trail of another difficult species. The Sacramento blackfish is on the my target list, and it’s on there for a good reason – it’s a filter feeder and won’t readily take standard baits. Still, I have caught other stuff that wasn’t supposed to bite, like a European bream on a swimbait, or a mountain sucker on anything. I had heard rumors that blackfish had been caught on baits as ordinary as corn and as esoteric as spinners.

I am in constant touch with the UC Davis biology guys, and they had given me great information on where I might find a blackfish. (Notice they said “find,” not “catch.”) As a bonus, they had also clued me in that largescale logperch were hiding in Putah creek, so I thought I would try for those as well. I headed up to my alma mater with Mark and Connor Spellman, who drove in their own car and fished an appropriate distance away, mostly because of the smell.

Covid Connor

That’s Connor Spellman on the right.

We tried for the logperch first, and that went badly. While we failed, we chatted with a number of students who were floating down the river on various inflatable devices.

One of these students asked me what I was fishing for. I told him what I always tell curious onlookers – “A small imported fish you’ve never heard of.” Astonishingly, he asked if it was a largescale logperch. My jaw fell off. It turns out that this student, Aaron Sturtevant, was studying marine biology at UCD and knew all the same people I did, including Dr. Moyle, Teejay O’Rear, and Dylan Stompe, the UCD student who helped confirm my hardhead record from 2019. Small world.

Aaron and a beautiful carp from the wild section of Putah Creek.

Covid Moyle 2

That’s Dr. Peter Moyle, one of the true giants in the freshwater fish world and an ongoing inspiration for my species quest, third from left. The remaining good-looking people are Daniel Gross and his father.

Teejay O’Rear with a hardhead.

Covid Dylan

Dylan and a nice striper. These guys have been a huge help over the years.

Aaron and I got talking, and he shared that he had netted some large blackfish on the eastern part of campus – nowhere near where I had been planning to try. We took directions, and headed off to hunt this particular unicorn. It’s a lovely part of the campus, with a narrow, groomed waterway passing through a series of small weirs. Before we started, I couldn’t help but take a shot at some of the carp that frequent the larger pools. Ancestors of these same carp were one of my college “go-to” fishing targets.

A sample Putah carp. I caught my first one in 1982.

Once we got to a likely-looking weir, Mark and Connor occupied themselves catching endless green sunfish and black bullheads.

Mark with a bullhead.

A highly-focused Steve looks for blackfish.

There was not a blackfish to be seen, but I knew they were here and I can go on hope alone for days at a time. We met all kinds of pleasant people, most of whom were curious about what we were catching. We also met one unpleasant person, who might have been more at home in Berkeley, who loudly demanded that we stop the “illegal murder” of fish. I invited her to check the regulations for herself, and that didn’t go over well – facts and fanatics are often at odds. She huffed off, mumbling about “murder” – ironic because we were releasing everything.

About half an hour later, as I still struggled to find a blackfish, the police showed up. Our activist friend had called 911 and filed a false report, alleging, among other gems, that we were “killing ducklings” and “brandishing firearms.” The UCD campus police were legendarily polite and diplomatic back when I was a student, and they still are. Somewhat embarrassed, they told us what had happened and made a cursory inspection of our stuff to make sure we didn’t have any AK-47s.

Then things got weird. While we were finishing up with the cops, Connor pointed to the opposite edge of the water and said “What’s that?” It took me a moment to see what he was looking at, but there was a dorsal fin sticking out of the water, moving slowly along the opposite bank. A moment later, a caudal fin appeared. It was a blackfish, and big one – well over a pound, which would make it a world record. After a moment of sphincter lock, I grabbed a rod and gently eased a worm right in front of the fish.

Nothing. It wasn’t interested in the worm, but it seemed to want to stay where it was, so it just eased away from the bait. Connor ran back to the car and got the net, just in case. After a while, I switched to bread. Nothing. But the fish still didn’t spook. Finally, I even tried a piece of corn. No interest whatsoever. I do not have words to describe the frustration of having a new species and world record right in front of me and it being completely unwilling to bite. But it wasn’t going to eat.

In utter exasperation, I channeled my inner Roger Barnes and tied on a small trout jig. Many years ago, I had learned from Roger that cyprinids will occasionally hit a lure when they are in territorial spawning mode. It was a longshot, but worth a try. The fish hit immediately, got hooked, splashed around, and came off. I was sick to my stomach, as generally, once fish are hooked, they don’t come back. When the water settled, Connor noticed that the fish was still right where it had been. I couldn’t believe it. I lined up for another try, net close at hand. With Mark and Connor peering over my shoulder, I dropped the jig and held my breath.

The fish went for it – I paused a split second and set gently, and he was on. I steered him away from the reeds and netted him, and I had one of the unlikeliest species and records I will ever have.

Yes, I know I look homeless.

The net – a beautiful handmade wooden piece – was a gift from Wade Hamamoto. Jamie is still wondering where it went.

Back then, I had no idea how long the pandemic was going to last, and months later, I still don’t. But for that moment, things felt normal. I was with good friends and catching fish, and that’s all I can ask out of life. We headed over to Carl’s Jr. – my first fast food in two months. Apart from eating in the cars, things felt normal, until I ran out of ketchup.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | August 17, 2020

Caipirinha 21, Corimba 0

DATELINE: MARCH 8, 2020 – BERTIOGA, BRAZIL

No, it’s not a lopsided soccer score. It’s the number of drinks I had compared to the number of a certain cyprinid that I caught. (Cause and effect at its worst.) Portuguese is a confusing language, and I mix up the names of drinks, fish, and dangerous snakes. I once thought I yelled for a guide to watch out for an anaconda, and it turns out I warned him about a cocktail.

I had a pretty good idea that this trip to Sao Paulo was going to be my last international adventure for a long time. The airports were desolate, the flights were nearly empty, and I could get seats at my favorite restaurant without any begging. There were only a dozen or so Covid cases in Sao Paulo, but we all knew it was coming. Hand sanitizer was suddenly popular, although it could still be found on store shelves when I was there. (By the time I got home on March 10, sanitizing gel – and toilet paper – were nowhere to be found in the USA. The Brazilians I know still don’t understand the US obsession with TP – they went out and bought all the booze, which makes a lot more sense. Toilet paper can’t make you forget vodka, but vodka can make you forget toilet paper.)

Sao Paulo from my room. That canal contains no fish. Believe me, I’ve looked.

This was a pretty standard run to Sao Paulo. Go in mid-week, do about three straight days loaded with customer and office meetings, stay on my own dime to fish on the weekend, then fly home.

Some of my Brazil co-workers at one of my favorite restaurants – Fogo de Chao, where they bring you large skewers of steak until you tell them to stop.

And I rarely tell them to stop.

Brazil has been an awesome destination for me over the years – I have caught 111 of my 1915 species here. BUT, and it’s as big a but as the one I saw in the mirror this morning – Brazil is a BIG country. I’ve been to the Sao Paulo area quite a bit, and my options here are increasingly thin. There are basically two day trip ideas – the ponds northeast of town, or the Atlantic coast in the Bertioga area with guide Thomas Schmidt, as covered in the well-known 1000fish blog, “Pictures of Other People with Big Snook.” In the freshwater, there is supposed to be a cyprinid called a “Corimba,” which is appropriately elusive. The saltwater is, well, saltwater. I’ll always take my chances in the ocean.

I decided to try a day of each, and this meant driving. There are certain places I will never rent a car and drive myself, like anywhere they drive on the left, and Brazil, because they might drive on the left just for fun. So I called Daniel, an old friend who drives people like me around for a living, and we were set for both days.

That’s Daniel on the right.

Saturday was the freshwater day. We didn’t hit it at the crack of dawn, which was nice, because a good portion of those 21 caipirinhas happened on Friday night. It’s a nice drive in the country, once you’ve escaped the Sao Paulo traffic. The whole thing took about two hours until we were at the Santa Clara ponds, which you may remember from “The Jau of Steve.” Emerson, the same guy who helped me get a Jau last year, was ready and waiting with advice on the Corimba. Basically, it was fishing a dough mixture in the shallow end of the pond and hoping for the best, and my optimism soared when someone landed a Corimba just as I was setting up.

The little girl caught the corimba. It’s always the little girl.

She caught a second one just as I was casting. It just had to happen this time.

It didn’t.

But I did have a great time – there were all kinds of fish biting, notably from the pacu family. These South American natives hit hard and are relentless fighters, and there aren’t a lot of better ways to pass an afternoon than catching a dozen of these.

There were loads of standard pacu. Imagine a 10-pound bluegill.

And plenty of tambaqui. I hope I spelled that right. There’s a drink named something close to that. And a snake.

More tambaqui.

It’s a gorgeous location.

I also caught, of all things, a Mekong catfish.

Oddly, my first pacu was in a pond in Thailand, and now, 20 years later, I caught this in Brazil. Somehow the universe has righted itself.

I enjoyed a day on the water, but I didn’t want to go home without a new species. I even got desperate enough to fish the decorative water feature at a gas station.

Yes, I did.

Alas, all that I could find were western mosquitofish.

So it was up to the South Atlantic to produce a species, and Sunday would be a very early start.

Bertioga is a beautiful seaside town, around 90 minutes from downtown Sao Paulo with no traffic, but there is ALWAYS traffic. Daniel navigated us skillfully through some detours and avoided a construction project that has been going on since I first visited Brazil in 1998. We got to Bertioga at 6:45am. It was great to see Thomas, and we were soon motoring out into the estuary. As we turned to head for the open ocean, we both noticed it was a lot windier than predicted. There were whitecaps, and there was no way a bass-type boat was going out there. But Thomas had an immediate option – he explained that the coastal waterways and rivers could easily fill a full day. I hadn’t done much fishing in this ecosystem, so I was good to go.

Rio Itapanhau. I always thought Itapanhau was a drink. Or a snake.

We started by giving an honest try at a big snook, casting plastics and live shrimp at dropoffs and holes in the river. I’ve caught three snook species, but never a big one, and I like the idea of trophies as much as the next guy. Just like last time, I caught a snook, and just like last time, it was not impressive.

Cris Bernarde catches snook he can hide behind, but this is all I seem to get.

He sends me a picture like this almost every week. Jerk.

My only catch on a plastic was an overambitious croaker.

The ground croaker – I caught my first one in 2010, shortly after the 1000fish blog debut. (Remember that if you’re ever on “Jeopardy” and “Great American Literature of the 21st Century” pops up. Alex, I’ll take Sciaenidae for $1000 please.)

I am certain that if we stuck to big snook tactics all day, we would have gotten one. But I have the attention span of a caffeinated ferret, and it wasn’t long before I was impatient to try for some new species. I wasn’t targeting anything in particular, but I know if you drop enough shrimp in enough saltwater on small enough hooks, you’re going to catch something cool. We worked our way south, hitting likely back bays and structures, but I have done so much fishing down here that everything I got was a repeat. We had reached Santos, about 20 miles south, and things were not looking good … until I brought out the Sabikis. These bait-gathering rigs are pure magic for species hunting, especially when baited with bits of shrimp. On my first drop, I struck gold. (At least in the species-hunting sense. You serious fishermen might want to skip this next part.)

I caught fish on all six hooks of the rig, which is not unheard of, but two of them turned out to be new species, which is fairly special. Four of the fish were false herring, a common catch here, but one of them was an American Coastal Pellona, a new one for me, which looks pretty much like another herring. Young life listers – photograph everything. (In case you wondered, which you probably didn’t, my personal best on a sabiki is four new species on the same rig, a batch of wrasses in Belize in December 2005.)

It has a longer anal fin base than the false herring, and it also has a black tip on the dorsal. Thanks to Dr. Alfredo Carvalho for the ID!

I almost threw the other species back, because again, it looked like another herring. But when I was taking it off the hook, it bit me. Herring don’t have teeth. Upon further review, I realized I had a (teensy) South American Spanish Mackerel – a species I had actually caught on that same Belize trip and failed to photograph because I thought it was a regular Spanish Mackerel. Again, photograph everything.

Note the teeth.

Just for scale.

This is what they are supposed to look like – that’s the Florida species, December 13, 2003.

I was ecstatic – the pressure was off and I could just fish. I rigged up live shrimp on my lightest rod and started bouncing the bottom. I wasn’t thinking about species – I just wanted to catch stuff and enjoy the rest of the day. Those with pure hearts are rewarded. I caught a small ladyfish. I had caught many ladyfish in Brazil before, on some of those golden trips to Sepitiba bay in the late 1990s, but I had not been following the latest scientific classifications on them. So, imagine my surprise when Dr. Alfredo Carvalho informed me that the Brazilian ladyfish are now considered Elops smithii, differentiating them from the ladyfish we get in Florida. Hat trick.

One of three I caught in just a few minutes. They are great fighters. They jump.

They had a nice blue sheen fresh out of the water.

A much younger Steve with a Brazilian “Malacho” ladyfish. The original 1999 catches do not seem to be photographed – this is from the 2010 “Naked Stingray” expedition.

We stuck at it for another couple of hours, and the action was constant. I caught about 10 more decent fish, all stuff I had gotten before but very welcome for a quick stay in the boat. I got personal bests on southern kingfish and lookdown, and on 8# tackle, it was simply spectacular. And remember – this was the backup option.

It’s the same southern kingfish they get off the east coast beaches. This one was a quarter-pound shy of the world record.

My largest lookdown to date. My first was in the Arosteguis back yard.

One of the weirdest-looking fish ever. Which makes them cool.

Thomas and Steve head for home. When we can all travel again, he’s a great option very close to Sao Paulo.

And back to the Hyatt.

That night, I stayed up late, finished some emails, and looked at the view outside my room. I knew it would be a long time until I returned to Sao Paulo, but I had a steak and caipirinha, and looked forward to whenever it would be.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | July 2, 2020

Spring Training

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

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

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

Gerry and his beastly sauger from 2018.

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

I even got the t-shirt.

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

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

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

Miles and miles without so much as a Burger King,

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

The water was gorgeous.

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

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

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

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

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

The triumphant anglers.

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

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

The tilapia in question.

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

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

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

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

Meadow Hot Springs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful fish, but it was COLD.

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

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

At least the views were beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying out over the Great Salt Lake.

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

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

Steve

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

Posted by: 1000fish | June 16, 2020

The Argentine Hat Trick

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

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

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

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

The Chilean Sand Perch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franco DeLeonardis. There is no better deckhand.

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

The view from my room on Thursday morning.

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

Heading out to sea.

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

The seabass – a member of the grouper clan.

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

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

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

The silence, needless to say, ended.

Do not put this in your pants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I forgot all about steak for a few hours.

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

This is what it looked like Friday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

The beast.

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

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

Nearly a hundred pounds of steaming perspective.

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

Steve

 

SPECIAL UPDATE – IGFA MEMBERSHIP EXTENSION

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

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | May 20, 2020

The Jau of Steve

Dateline: October 13, 2019 – Entre Rios, Argentina

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

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

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

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

We arrive at Santa Clara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are designed to eat big stuff. Like noodlers.

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

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

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

Emerson – all around superstar.

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

I think she alphabetized my socks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We celebrate not getting skunked.

Do not put this in your pants.

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

Typical Entre Rios backwaters.

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

I began to feel human again.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pike Jacunda – species 1898.

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

Oscar and the Ichi Iana.

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

It didn’t wait long.

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

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

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

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

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

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE FARLOWS HAT

The aforementioned Farlows hat.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | May 5, 2020

Requiem for Dr. Fish

Dateline: April 26, 2020 – Honolulu, Hawaii

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

Dr. Jack Randall – 1924-2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A yellowmargin moray from Kona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, how I hate this picture.

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

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

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

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

Dr. Jack Randall.

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

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

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

At least Jamie hasn’t caught one.

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

Thank you and God bless you, Dr. Fish.

Steve

 

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

Posted by: 1000fish | April 15, 2020

Black is the New Redhorse

Dateline: September 12, 2019 – Poplar Bluff, MO

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner on night one.

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

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

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

Sam A. Baker at dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Species #2 of the day.

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

I had no idea these were even here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve and Tyler wait patiently for a unicorn.

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

I had my unicorn.

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

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

Gratuitous extra shot.

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

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

Moonrise over the St. Francis River.

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

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

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

The saddleback darter.

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

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

Steve

Special Bonus Section – The St. Louis Photos

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

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

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

Much barbecue was consumed.

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

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

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

Sad but true.

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

Posted by: 1000fish | April 2, 2020

Casting Down Memory Lane

DATELINE: AUGUST 31, 2019 – BIRMINGHAM, MICHIGAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Muller with a white sucker.

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

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

Henry Ford. Not as good as the Disneyland statue.

See?

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

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

We actually got to ride in one.

I always wanted one of these.

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

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

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

Marta makes friends easily.

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

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

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

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

The Polka Restaurant on West Maple Road. Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

The riffle in question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Species 1891. I was beside myself with joy.

A closeup of the beast.

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

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

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

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

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

Always loved this one.

Say it out loud.

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

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

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

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

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE IGFA CAUSES MARITAL STRIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Not really.

 

 

 

 

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