Posted by: 1000fish | July 31, 2015

The Myanmar Shoe Debacle

Dateline: January 18, 2015 – Salween River, Myanmar

“Damn it!” I yelled out into the Burmese morning. “Who the hell peed in my shoes?”

The answer would surprise me.

How was it that I ended up in Eastern Myanmar (or is it Burma?) with a pair of horribly violated low hikers? I suppose it is politically correct of me to call it Myanmar, but “Myanmar Shave” just doesn’t have the right ring to it.

It started, as it often does, with a business trip. I needed to be in Singapore and then Thailand for a few days in January, so naturally, I started hunting for some fishing options. Anything in this area is going to involve a call to Jean-Francois Helias, regional fishing genius and possessor of the most fearsome eyebrows in the business. (Details HERE.)

Vang Francois Red

Jean Francois Helias, fishing master and sartorial daredevil. You can reach him at fishasia@ksc.th.com.

Francois immediately suggested Burma. I counter-suggested that this would require a complex visa and had the risk of being carried off by local thugs, but Francois assured me that he knew an unrestricted border crossing where we could get me into the country. He did not mention getting me out, which worried me, but he also proved he had taken a number of clients there without mishap, as long as hangovers don’t count as a mishap.

Francois explained that this was not going to be the ideal time of year – the water would be relatively cool and fish would be harder to come by. Still, I was in the area, and there are only so many chances to add a new country for me – with 83 on the list, options where Americans are allowed to travel start to thin out. And I am NOT going to Iraq. I heard a rumor that there were fish of mass destruction there, but this turned out to be completely untrue.

We set the details. I would fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where Francois’ top guide, Kik, would pick me up and drive me the rest of the way, estimated at four hours. (Francois would not be able to attend this particular adventure, as his eyebrows were committed elsewhere, but Kik is a super guide.) I arrived on the appointed morning, and Kik and a buddy were there to get me. We piled into a pickup truck full of camping gear – did I mention we would be camping? – and headed for the border. The drive turned out to be a bit more than four hours, but not Sexy Rexian more. (Explanation HERE)

The scenery was sublime, as it always seems to be in Thailand.

Myanmar Farm

Passing through farmland as we head for the mountains in western Thailand.

We wound our way through miles of farmland, then more miles of foothills, then onto a narrow mountain road for perhaps the last hour.

Myanmar Steep

We drive along a small tributary of the Salween.

I was very rather eager to get fishing by the time we stopped in a small village on banks of the Salween. I realized that the mountains across the river were Myanmar.

Myanmar River 3

The wooded hills on the upper right are Myanmar.

Four locals came out to greet us – our boat crew. They were a friendly bunch, and loaded everything into a long, covered boat typical of the region. I was ready to fish and figured I had about two hours before sunset. This is when I found out that we needed to drive the boat two more hours up the river to our first spot. I am perhaps not the most patient human ever, and this did not sit well.

Myanmar Boat 1

The boat. We had seven guys and fours days of supplies on this.

The ride was, I admit, beautiful – this is truly wild country. The Myanmar side of the river is not controlled because there are no roads from here to the rest of Burma and it is a semi-autonomous Karen tribal region. Steep, forested mountains come up from both sides, and here and there, tiny villages are cut into the top of the riverbank.

Myanmar River 2

We had a bit of sunshine as we headed out.

Myanmar Village

One of the villages. The people were very friendly.

It was just getting dark when we pulled up on a sandbar and set up camp. The crew found a muddy bank and dug up worms – our main bait for the trip.

Myanmar dig

The bait gathering operation.

I set up two rods and began fishing, and fairly quickly, I figured out that things were not wide open. Even in this cool time of year, the temperatures only dip into the 50s at night. This might seem temperate, but for fish used to 80 degree evenings in the summer, it had shut things down. I did see some small fish in the shallows, and I was determined to get them. After a few hours of presenting micro-rigs on the shoreline, I had gotten two new species – small to be sure, but new.

Myanmar cat 1

The blackfin sisorid catfish.

Myanmar Cat 3

In a 24 font, the name would be longer than the fish.

Myanmar Trout

The Salween Baril. The ID on this one took three scientists and some drinking.

Mind you, these were caught from Thai soil. We would venture to Myanmar tomorrow.

Then it was time to get some sleep. This would involve camping. I hate camping. Call me soft, call me what you will, but there is something about sleeping outside with savage wild animals that insults our forefathers, who fought for our right to sleep at the Hyatt. I don’t sleep well when I know there is hostile wildlife out there, and all I have between me and serious issues is a thin layer of nylon. (Which also sounds like college.) The insects were especially horrible – there were big sand spiders the size of a 50 cent piece came out at night specifically to frighten me. And there was something walking around in the bushes that made a lot of noise and was therefore clearly out for human blood.

Figuring I would be safe in the tent, I set out to not leave until morning. So I stocked it with a full bottle of water, an empty gatorade bottle for calls from nature, and enough benadryl to knock out an elephant. I took my shoes off and left them by the entrance of the tent. Zipping up the door, I tried to make myself comfortable in the surprising chill, and drifted off to sleep despite the whoops of the boat crew, who had broken out a couple of bottles of questionable “Happy Animal Brand” whiskey and were having the time of their lives. (The only reason I didn’t freeze is that I had a sweatshirt with me that Marta had insisted I take.)

Somewhere in the predawn hours, I was awakened by nature’s call, and I cleverly used the Gatorade bottle. Thinking it would be bad to leave it in the tent, I unzipped the flap just a touch, reached the bottle outside, and poured it out. I slept intermittently while the boat crew carried on well into the night.

When I got up around 6:45, I moved to the doorway, unzipped the flap, and stretched my legs outside. I shook my left shoe to check for spiders. It was safe. I picked up my right shoe, and … oh heck. It was full of water. But how had it rained without me hearing it, and only in my right shoe? Then the smell hit me. It wasn’t water. Some idiot had peed in my shoe.

I was already yelling at no one in particular when it hit me – I was the idiot. My late-night bathroom improvisation had ended in disaster, and I wore my Tevas for the next two days while the shoes dried out. 1000fish readers! Learn from my bitter experience – never pour pee in your own shoes.

Our first task that smelly dawn was to officially catch a fish in Burma. This meant getting in the boat, going to the other side of the river, getting out of the boat so I was standing in Myanmar, and then catching something.

Myanmar Bank

Standing in Myanmar. If I had done this in 1988, I would have been standing in Burma.

This sounded relatively uncomplicated, even with the difficult water conditions, and it turned out fine. In the course of an hour, I pulled up several small fish, including two new species – a loach and a catfish. That’s country #84 if you’re playing along at home.

Myanmar Loach 2

The striped loach meets the approval of the team.

Myanmar Loach

A moment in the media limelight for a stunningly obscure species.

Myanmar Silver

I called this one the Burma Catfish, because I can’t pronounce Eutropiichthys burmannicus.

That afternoon, we parked the boat on a muddy bank and hiked up a mountain stream.

Myanmar Confluence

The stream where it meets the Salween. We hiked back about two miles, and per usual, I had a surprise encounter with wildlife.

It was amazing to me how quickly we went from a muddy, broad river to a crystal-clear creek that looked every bit the trout stream except for the stray elephant that scared the bejeezus out of me.

Myanmar Stream

The stream was gorgeous. I hadn’t expected to be sight-fishing small water like this, but after some re-rigging to a light jig, I passed a pleasant afternoon scouting out small pools and casting behind boulders and logs. I got a bunch of wild Thai and Strachey’s mahseer – fantastic fighters on light tackle – and a few cyprinids that looked suspiciously like rainbow trout but were not.

Myanmar Mahseer

A small Strachey’s mahseer. I have gotten these up to six pounds in Laos.

Myanmar Trout 2

The faux trout. I never did figure out what this species is.

Myanmar Eel

I even got a spiny eel – these are listed as one species across the region, but are likely actually several different ones. It would take a lot of work for an ichthyologist to sort them out, but I think there is a Nobel prize just waiting for someone. Dr. Carvalho? Martini? Anyone? 

As we got into mid-afternoon, we hiked back, got into the boat, and fished the Myanmar side of the main river for a couple of hours.  My big catch for that stop was a pig catfish – a close relative of a catfish I had gotten in Laos (details HERE) and oddly, the largest fish of the trip.

Myanmar Pig Cat

The Hemibagrus genus has been kind to me.

We closed the day fishing the bank near our campsite. I got a couple more pig catfish – great fun on very light tackle – and a barb that was a new species if not spectacularly large.

Myanmar Barb

Doesn’t everyone travel halfway around the world to catch fish this size?

The scenery was wild and unspoiled, and it was easy to see why people want to come here, even if they (gasp) aren’t fishing.

Myanmar Camp 1

Looking back at camp. I dreaded sunset because it would mean I needed to sleep in a tent.

Myanmar Scenery

Looking up the river, Thailand on right, Myanmar on the left.

I had dinner with the group as the sun set. I’m not sure what it is they had boiled up over the fire, but it was not pleasing to the western nose. I happily consumed another REI freeze-dried macaroni and cheese and called it a night.

 

Myanmar Camp

Camp.

Myanmar Pigs

Some wild pigs on the bank. These would figure prominently in an event later that evening.

I slept marginally better that second night, until 3:06am, when I was startled awake by snuffling noises and a nudge to my head. I reflexively threw a punch through the tent, figuring that the boat crew had downed an extra bottle of Old Overcoat whiskey. Instead of Thai swears, I heard an alarmed squeal and the sound of an upset wild pig racing off into the forest. What in the hell was I doing someplace where wild pigs would try to enter my tent? But I remembered that worse things with worse animals had happened in college, and drifted back to sleep, smiling at the memory of my old roommate Frank Lopez’s disastrous evening in September of 1982. I haven’t talked to Frank in years, but I’m still not comfortable giving all the details of that one.

In the morning, I was up very early and walked up the river, appreciating the scenery.

Myanmar Salween

The Salween at dawn, day three. The great outdoors was getting a bit old by this stage.

For most of the morning, we hiked another creek – even smaller than the first, but absolutely stuffed with small mahseer and an exotic cyprinid named “danios.”

Myanmar Danio

Brown’s Danio. Not the strongest fighter, but a new species nonetheless.

On the way up and down the creek, which was mercifully elephant-free, I caught dozens of fish and encountered birds I would never see anywhere else. Marta is much more of a birdwatcher than I am, and I couldn’t help but think of how much she would enjoy this place, minus the long trip and the camping and pigs and the spiders.

Myanmar Trickle

Even water this small was stuffed with fish.

While we were walking along the creek, I had a pig flashback and decided that I was not dealing with another night in the wilderness. Kik explained that as long as we got on the road around 5pm, that we could get to Chiang Mai and I could stay in a hotel there and catch my flight the next day for Bangkok. I had added Burma and seven species, so we decided to head out.

Emerging from the jungle, I saw one last spot to try – a small junction where the creek spilled into the main river. I was only half paying attention and casting a very light rig when the float disappeared and I was unceremoniously broken off. That got my attention, and I immediately tied up a heavier rig and began flipping a worm around to see if I could catch the culprit. Moments later, I got a beautiful little catfish – a new species but clearly not what had broken me off.

Myanmar Leather 1

Fishbase.org doesn’t list a common name for this, so I’ll call it a Salween catfish. I figure that’s catchier than Glyptothorax dorsalis.

Myanmar Leather 2

The guys understood and supported my bizarre fishing needs.

I kept casting even though the guys were getting ready to leave, and I got one more strike. It was a relatively larger fish, still not all that big, but a stunning new species.

Myanmar Goonch 2

Any guesses?

Myanmar Goonch 1

Hint – they fish for them in northern India.

I had caught a goonch. Perhaps the smallest goonch in the history of goonches, but a goonch nonetheless – a catfish species that grows to massive sizes in the north of India and was and is the target of adventure-seeking British gentleman anglers, like well-known writer Keith Elliott, who likely can’t believe I even published my picture.

Myanmar Keith

Keith Elliott with a proper goonch. He’s the good-looking one directly behind the dorsal fin.

We landed and said goodbye to the crew. They had been a good bunch, even if they never fully understood why I got worked up over some very tiny fish.

Myanmar Team

The group before we left the Salween. Kik is on my right.

The drive back to Chiang Mai seemed to go a bit faster than the drive out – at least I knew where we were going. It was a surreal feeling to walk into the lobby of the Shangri-La, perhaps the finest hotel in northern Thailand, wearing fishing garb, having not washed for three days, and carrying in my bag a pair of low hikers that held a terrible secret. There were clean sheets, room service food, and hot showers – about as far from a tent as one can get. There were no spiders or wild pigs, and no one poured pee in my shoes. It was paradise.

I also knew that there were two or three more spots like this in Thailand, and that, camping and spiders or not, I would be back. I drifted off to sleep, content with a new country and nine species, but faintly wondering if I should just throw out the shoes.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | July 24, 2015

68 Very Bad Minutes

Dateline: January 5, 2015 – Pacific Harbour, Fiji

How could I catch 29 new species and still come away with the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth? One word – Marta. Now, I admit that living with me is a difficult proposition, doubly so during the NHL playoffs, but this otherwise wonderful woman takes sadistic delight at catching species that I have not, and she just had to pick our Fiji vacation to go completely Jaime Hamamoto on me.

Eels Red Coronet

Perhaps the low point of our relationship – July 3, 2006 – Marta catches a red coronetfish in Hawaii. This is the only red coronetfish I will likely ever see.

We had been in Fiji for four days, and while I had gotten 16 new species, there had been two close calls where Marta had caught a species hours before I managed to. This sort of stuff makes me nervous. She has seven species I do not, listed in black at the bottom of my species spreadsheet, and, late at night, I agonize over these seven lines.

On January 2, I was scheduled to fish with Sam again. The morning broke clear and sunny, which is not normally an omen for disaster, but on this day, it was, because the weather was nice so Marta decided to come along. It always worries me to have her fish in a new spot. She communes with the Fish Gods, and with Jaime, who is evil, and I knew she would bring all her ill will to bear for the hours we were on the water.

The morning passed uneventfully. I got a couple of new species, which was a nice beginning to the day.

Fiji Spotred Grouper

The dwarf spotted grouper. This is a huge one.

Fiji Unicorn

Bignose unicornfish – they grow a horn later in life. I was thrilled with this – briefly.

Just after lunch, things started to go terribly wrong. Marta pulled up some sort of reef fish, and said “This one is pretty.” I didn’t want to look. But I did, and sure enough, she had a bridled monocle bream, which I had only seen in books. Not to worry, I thought to myself – we had plenty of time, and I was certain I would catch one quickly.

Fiji Marta Monocle 2

Marta could use some work on her fish selfies.

I didn’t catch one quickly. I didn’t catch one at all. Then it got worse. Marta pulled up a green moon wrasse, a wretchedly rare and lovely reef species.

Fiji Marta Wrasse

Sam is just catching on that the day is becoming awkward.

Fiji Marta Wrasse 2

I must admit it was a beautiful fish.

Oh wait, it gets even worse. About 30 minutes later, while I was still trying to catch the monocle bream, Marta pulled up a checkerboard wrasse. I may have acted faintly displeased. (Perspective from Marta – Steve had a total meltdown.)

Fiji Marta Choris 2

Sam is having no part of this.

Fiji Marta Choris

Again, a lovely creature, but what would have been so wrong with me catching one?

Marta had gotten three species I had not in exactly 68 minutes. Are you #$%&#% kidding me? I knew she was triumphantly texting Jaime. I had managed to catch two new species for the day, but Marta had even gotten more new species than I did in a day – for the first time ever. I was in a very dark place emotionally, comparable to when the NHL cheated the Red Wings out of a title in 2009 or when the Tigers lost that squeaker of a World Series in 2012. And don’t even get me started on Charles White and USC and the touchdown that never happened, because you know if a USC running back got a fish within three yards of the boat they would have counted it.

Sam stayed out as late as he could and was very gentle when he told me we had to leave. At the dock, he quietly mentioned that if I wanted to go out tomorrow, he would be glad to take me. I nodded my agreement, but no words would come out.

The black section on my spreadsheet had grown by 43% in just over an hour. This was a very, very bad day, and Marta was just as helpful and constructive as she had been when she caught the plaice in Norway five years ago. (Details HERE.) She brought my Fiji fish book to dinner and read me the entries on her new species.

I didn’t sleep well, and was up a couple of hours before Sam came to the dock, casting poppers in the rain and hoping the Fish Gods would take mercy on me. Marta was fine with staying at the Pearl spa, and she also went back into Suva to do more cultural things, which was fine with me because it kept her away from the water.

Fiji M

Speaking of cultural, Marta met and hung out with Bernadette Rounds Ganilau, a well-known philanthropist, human rights activist, and former government minister. She’s darn tall.

The weather on the 3rd was vile from start to finish, but there was a steady trickle of interesting new species. Sam had sensed my pain from the day before and brought me a special surprise – a big bag of fresh shrimp, sure to attract reef species much better than the squid we had used before. The first fish of the day was by far the best – a slingjaw wrasse.

Fiji Sling

This is a slingjaw wrasse. Looks like a normal wrasse, you say? See below.

Fiji Sling Extended

Hence the name. Is that cool or what?

The rest of the catches were on the tropical micro side, but they were beautiful and they were new, so I had started rebuilding my confidence from the previous day’s disaster.

Fiji Sam Rain

Sam gamely trolls through rotten weather. Trips were booked through Callan at Xstreem Fishing – +679-363-2188 or email at info@xstreemfishing.com

Fiji Green

With the miserable sea conditions, you can imagine how difficult it was to land this blue-green damsel.

Fiji Jewel

And this jewel chromis. They are among the most savage fighters in the damselfish family.

Fiji Snooty a

A snooty wrasse. No idea how that name happened.

Fiji Fusilier

The yellowstriped threadfin bream.

Fiji Yellowfin swrasse

I briefly thought this one was a green moon wrasse, but it turned out to be the closely-related bluntheaded wrasse. A new species yes, but not the one Marta had gotten.

Fiji Sam Steve

Sam and Steve – of course the sun came out as soon as we landed. The count had gone up to 24, but none of Marta’s catches had shown themselves. This cast a pall over an otherwise solid day.

Our last full day, the fourth, marked the first time the weather broke enough to get out to the main reef. I was positively giddy with excitement, as I figured this offered a good shot at some big fish, new species, and possible world records. The main fish I desired on this jaunt was a dogtooth tuna, a vicious resident of deep dropoffs that can destroy even the stoutest tackle. I hooked one on the Great Barrier Reef in 2003 – it tore the hooks off the plug and disappeared.

For this adventure, I would be fishing with Mark, nephew of Callan at Xstreem fishing, who had plenty of experience jigging the offshore reefs for big game fish. The ride out was a bit lumpy to be sure, but once we got there, we were protected from the waves by the main reef, and we could set to fishing.

Initially, we waded through loads of lyretail grouper – not a new species but an excellent table fish.

Fiji Lyretail

I had caught these before in Jordan.

I got a few other things I had caught before, but they were still beautiful enough to share here.

Fiji Rainbow

An especially colorful cheeklined wrasse.

Fiji Red Trigger

A redstripe triggerfish. I have caught these in eight countries, but I never get sick of looking at them. 

After a while, I started to dredge up a few new ones. The first was a pastel ring wrasse.

Fiji Ringwrasse

The pastel ring wrasse – it missed being a record by less than an ounce.

I got three other new species – that’s four for the day (and 28 for the trip) if you’re counting along at home. We jigged our arms off but the dogtooth would not cooperate.

Fiji snapper 3

The whitespot snapper.

Fiji Barcheek

The barcheek trevally.

Fiji Wirenetting

The netfin grouper. Something tried to eat it on the way up.

The Fish Gods may have ignored our ride out to the reef, but they were paying attention when we started for home. The wind, which was already a concern, picked up quite a bit, and the waves got big – six to eight feet, right on our nose. A ride that normally takes 45 minutes took three drenched hours, and while I was never all that worried about our safety, I was quite concerned about keeping my lunch down.

Fiji Reef Team

The offshore team trying to dry out at the dock. That’s Mark on the left.

Fiji Dinner

Lyretail grouper for two.

On the 5th, we had half a day at the resort before our flight. We spent some time in the spa, had a great lunch, and wandered the grounds, with me discussing the pain she had caused on the 2nd, and her just smiling. Of course, I did spend a few more hours getting rained on, hoping to scrape up just one more new critter before we had to head to the airport.

Fiji Rain

Enjoying the Fiji weather.

I had ignored the mullet all week, thinking they were the same striped mullet I had seen everywhere else on the planet. But I brought out a loaf of bread just to make sure, and as it turns out, they were a new species – the hornlip. And Marta didn’t catch one, so the trip closed on a small note of triumph.

Fiji Mullet

Species 29.

Normal people would look at the trip as a smashing success – 29 new species is one of the best weeks I have ever had, rivaling epic journeys like Weipa in 2009 (42 species) and Koh Kut in 2006 (41 species.) And I would fondly remember each of these 29 fish, but as I flew home, the three fish I could not get out of my head were obvious – the bridled monocle bream, the green moon wrasse, and the checkerboard wrasse. My relationship with Marta would survive those 68 very bad minutes, because I am kind and forgiving, but I was already planning a trip back to Fiji.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | July 16, 2015

Bula Fiji

Dateline: January 1, 2015 – Pacific Harbour, Fiji

“Bula” can mean many things in Fijian. It can mean “Hello,” “Welcome,” “Good afternoon,” and apparently “Please don’t cook my shrimp.” It is a friendly word in a friendly country, and I don’t think I ever got it wrong, unlike my linguistic disaster in Morocco (Details HERE.)

This vacation was planned in the waning seconds of the last possible minute. We had been toying with the idea of just staying home in our new house for the week after Christmas like normal people. But one quiet evening, after watching “Scrooge” for the fourth time, we got talking. We got looking online. And the next thing we knew, we had booked a week in Fiji.

It seemed like a great idea – Fiji is one of the five countries I had visited without fishing, on a 68 minute layover en route from Honolulu to Auckland back in 1998. I had just enough time to buy a “Fiji” t-shirt, which I looked at wistfully for years, wondering when I would return and go fishing. Ironically, that exact same period – 68 minutes – would have unfortunate consequences for me later in this trip, but you’ll have to wait for Part II for that.

It’s a long way to Fiji, but of course I am never difficult to deal with when I am hungry and sleep-deprived. We did finally get there, and as I remember it, I was the picture of easygoing cheerfulness. (Perspective from Marta: Oh no he wasn’t. He wanted to fish in the airport fountain, and when he found out that the resort was two hours away, his head nearly exploded.)

I missed one minor planning detail – we had arrived in the rainy season. (As it turned out, we did have some sunny days, but I was happy I brought the Gore-tex.) The Pearl Resort was gorgeous, and the staff greeted us with a hearty “Bula!”, but by the time we got unpacked, it was raining at a Biblical level. Marta encouraged me to enjoy the spa and wait until the weather broke, but I was inconsolable. (Perspective from Marta – this is a self-serving understatement. He was ready to LEAVE.) We went for what I hoped would be a quick lunch at the hotel cafe, a lovely place overlooking manicured grounds and the beach.

The rain let up – sort of – after lunch. I talked the waitress into selling me the shrimp appetizer uncooked – the first of dozens of times I would get my bait in a pricey if convenient way. We headed over to the rock jetty on the edge of the hotel grounds. Part of it was shielded from the wind and rain by the restaurant and I could therefore fish in relative comfort, not that this matters to me.

Fiji Jetty

The jetty where I would spend much of the next week. Although it was windy and rained a good bit, the weather was pleasantly warm the entire trip. 

Moments later, I got a small snapper, and Fiji became the 83rd country where I had caught a fish.

Fiji Blacktail

The blacktail snapper. Ironically, Jaime Hamamoto holds the world record for this species.

Now there was work to do. Getting to 2000 species might be impossible, but of course they (well, mostly my family) said the same thing about 1000. If it was going to happen, I knew that this region – the western Pacific – was going to have to produce a bunch of fish for me. I had a week in a new spot, fishing possibilities every day, and an inexhaustible if expensive supply of shrimp. Although I didn’t say it out loud for fear of the Fish Gods, I was hoping to get at least 20 new species. Ambitious? Yes – but doable.

Moments later, the difficulty started. I made the mistake of putting bait on Marta’s hook, and she got the first new species of the trip – a reef-flat cardinalfish. I had never caught one, and I don’t like playing catchup, not that I am competitive. The rain started coming down harder, and Marta, feeling her work there was done, went to the spa and worked out. I stayed out in the deluge and luckily caught the same cardinalfish about two hours later. I had dodged a big bullet – if she had started the trip with something I couldn’t catch, it would have been a disaster.

Fiji Cardinal

The cardinalfish that started a difficult week. Because Marta deliberately caught it first, I was cheated out of the triumphant rush of new species joy – all I got was a nauseated “Oh thank goodness” wave of relief.

I got one more new critter – a striped ponyfish, which put me at two for the trip. I had three days of charter boats ahead of me, so things looked pretty good.

Fiji Ponyfish

The striped ponyfish. I only saw one all week, and luckily, Marta didn’t catch it.

Early the next day, I boarded a small skiff with a local guide named Sam, who greeted me with a friendly “Bula!” A retired gardener with a ready smile, Sam had fished the area his entire life. Once he figured out – and could get over – the idea that I wanted to catch all the small, strange stuff, he stopped worrying about going for gamefish and set to catching me all kinds of stuff.

Fiji Sam Troll

Sam the guide. Unflappable, cheerful, kind, great local knowledge. We would become fast friends over the next week, and he shared my pain when Marta caught species I had not. Sam and the other charters were set up through Callan at Xstreem Fishing – +679-363-2188 or email at info@xstreemfishing.com

The wind was blowing hard, but inside the reef, the sea conditions allowed me to retain breakfast. One by one, I started getting new creatures.

Fiji Latticed

The latticed sand perch, diminutive but savage.

Fiji Sandperch Yellowlined

The yellowlined sand perch, a close relative.

Fiji Variegated Emp

The variegated emperor. The place was thick with emperors – many thanks to Dr. Jeff Johnson and Dr. Alfredo Carvalho for sorting out the IDs on these.

Fiji Emp Blackspot

The blackblotch emperor. Possibly my largest fish of the day. And no, my head is not misshapen.

Fiji Leopard Hind

Leopard Hind – a type of especially small grouper.

Fiji Orangestripe

Back to the emperors – an orangestripe in this case. And that’s the sun hood caught up in my hat. My head is perfectly normal. Really.

Fiji Emp Orangefin

The last of my four new emperors of the day – the orangefin.

Fiji Wolf

The wolf cardinalfish – the bully of the cardinalfish family.

Fiji Rubber Snapper

The speckled snapper – a thrilling close to the day. Mind you, my standard of “thrilling” might be different than yours.

I raced back to the room to find a note from Marta – “In Spa.” She walked in just as I finished with the ID book – I had gotten nine new species in a single day, bringing me to 11 for the trip.

Stunningly, we did not go fishing (much) on the 31st. We spent our time touring the island, visiting Fiji’s capital, Suva, and several museums and points of interest nearby.

Fiji Coconut

Breakfast on the way out. Marta makes friends quickly.

Fiji Palace

The presidential palace. Marta got the guard to smile.

Fiji House

A typical house in the inland hills. This is not a wealthy country, but the people are amazingly friendly and warm. Almost everyone we met invited us into their home for a meal.

Fiji Crab

A land crab Marta photographed. She kept me from snatching it for bait.

Fiji Tongues

These statues look like Jaime Hamamoto after she catches a lagoon triggerfish.

Fiji Pearl

The Pearl Resort in sunshine. Great place.

Fiji Yoga

Marta has a Zen moment.

That evening, we celebrated our 11th New Year’s Eve together.

Fiji Sunset

Sunset on New Year’s Eve as we head to dinner by the water. There were jacks splashing around in the estuary, just crying out for a popper, but Marta heartlessly insisted that we keep our dinner reservation.

Some of our New Year’s Eves have been quiet – like staying at home or sleeping through fireworks in Panama – but some of them have been a bit wilder than we had hoped. (We recommend against spending NYE in Amsterdam, for example, especially if you have an early flight on the first. The locals save up all year to buy industrial-grade fireworks, some of which could bring down a B-52, and then set them all off in a drunken, unregulated street fracas. The Dutch are somehow OK with this, but the French wouldn’t be. Every time there are that many explosions in Paris, they surrender.)

This particular night fell on the quiet side, which was fine with us.

We slept in on New Year’s day, but after a brunch that closed with my by-now requisite uncooked shrimp appetizer, we headed to the jetty. The clouds had broken up, and we had a beautiful day to start 2015.

Fiji Jetty 2

We finally learned that there were islands offshore.

We headed to the very end of the rocks – the only day on our trip when it was fishable, and Marta promptly did something rotten. She caught a Pacific dart – an inshore pompano relative that I had never even seen in person. She smiled.

Fiji Marta Dart

She’s like Jaime but taller.

Then, just for fun, Marta caught a blackspot emperor much bigger than mine.

Fiji Marta Emperor

We gave it to a couple of local guys who had it for lunch.

It was early in the day, and I figured if the darts were here, I should get one. I cast and cast, and one by one, I added a few other species, but not the dart. I got a seven-bar sergeant, then one of my best fish of the trip, a yellowmargin triggerfish. But no darts.

Fiji Sergeant

The seven-bar sergeant. The first bar is on the forehead if you’re counting along at home.

Fiji Trigger 3

The yellowmargin triggerfish – the largest thing I caught all week.

Later in the afternoon, as the tide came up, I got a gorgeous vagabond butterflyfish – the 5th member of this tropical family I have put on my species list. But it wasn’t a dart. I needed a dart.

Fiji Butterfly 1

Marta selfishly pursues new species and leave me to take selfies with the butterflyfish.

Fiji Butterfly 2

The vagabond butterflyfish.

An hour later, I was casting a jig from the windy side of the jetty and got smashed. (To be clear, the jig got smashed, not me. It was early in the day and this is not Hungary.) After a 15-minute fight, I landed a brassy trevally – another new species, but not a dart.

Fiji Trevally 2

These things pull hard.

Marta went back to the spa, but I stayed out several more hours, hoping against hope that I would get a dart. I did not want to spend an evening with this as our main topic of conversation. But it was getting late, I was out of Red Bull and potato chips, and I finally gave up.

On the long walk back, I saw some baitfish in the shallows and cast a sabiki to them. Predictably, something surprisingly big hammered the teensy hook. I babied it for about 10 minutes, expecting a breakoff at any moment, but as I finally landed the fish, I saw, to my great delight, it was a dart. (My 16th species of the trip.)

Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I could finally acknowledge it had been a great opening to the new year. But this was not the triumph I would expect from a new species – it was the adrenaline-filled, sweaty moment you get when you look the wrong way, step into the street, and a bus just misses you.

Fiji Steve Dart

Justice. Of course, Marta saw the photo and said “How do we know that’s you?”

I called Marta with this joyous news, and she responded with something snide like “Oh, I’ve already caught one of those. I’ve been getting a massage for two hours.”

Fiji Marta Spa

Marta, a.k.a. Miss Snotty Pants, awaits me at the spa.

Snotty though this may have been, she was right – I had dodged two bullets, and I quietly wondered how long I could keep this up. In less than 18 hours, my luck would run out.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | July 2, 2015

The Marching Band From Hell

Dateline: November 8, 2014 – Puerto Penasco, Mexico

This is a scary blog. It deals with frightening themes such as biker gangs, Mexican drug cartels, and yoga, but the most difficult part of the trip turned out to be an encounter with a high school marching band.

First, the yoga. Marta believes yoga is a good thing. I believe yoga hurts, and should only be used as an ethically iffy substitute for waterboarding. Therefore, it pains me to admit that something good came out of yoga – namely, ten new fish species.

Yes, this connection is tenuous, but it was the best I could do with a deadline looming.

To explain – Marta teaches yoga to a local couple. The wife, Jen (who wishes to remain anonymous, so we will call her Jen X,) has a brother named Dave, who lives in Mexico and fishes constantly. Dave is in Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point to us gringos,) a pleasant beach town with shopping, restaurants … and fish, which is three or so hours south of Phoenix.

Once Marta had mentioned my fishing problem, Jen was determined to introduce me to Dave. It took six months of schedule challenges, but we finally met up at their house for a marvelous dinner. While the Silicon Valley types prattled on about market caps (you apparently wear these when you sell stock,) Dave and I talked serious fishing. This guy is the real deal – he has spent years fishing the Sea of Cortez and has caught some monstrous grouper and white seabass. I was dying to catch a big white seabass, so that Jim Tolonen would stop making fun of me. (For more detail on Jim, click HERE. Look all the way at the bottom.) Dave invited me fishing in Rocky Point as soon as I could work it out.

This took over a year. I first had to overcome Marta’s fear that I would be seized by roving gangs of kidnappers. As we own a house together, she was concerned that if a Mexican drug cartel seized me, she would have to unload the dishwasher herself and that she might be out up to $12 in ransom. I did my best to convince her that northern Mexico is not Somalia, but she would not relent until I got some serious travel insurance – https://globalrescue.com/. (Global Rescue is AWESOME.) I also feel it turned things in my favor when my estate plan was shown to give everything to her in case I disappeared. (Note – Marta disputes this version.)

We then had to overcome schedule conflicts. Most of the time, I was committed somewhere else, and when I could make it, Dave wasn’t free, and when the schedules clicked, the weather went bad. (When the wind gets going down there, it gets unfishably rough in a hurry.) But finally, early November of 2014 started to look possible. We then had to figure out transportation.

This is where we introduce Jeff. Jeff, a good friend of Dave’s, lives in Phoenix and fishes Puerto Penasco constantly. There is no way I was ever going to drive myself into Mexico, even in this relatively well-traveled, “beginner” section – remember my fear of roving kidnapper gangs. But Jeff was heading down that weekend and agreed to pick me up at Phoenix airport, drive me to Rocky Point, and let me fish on his boat. It doesn’t get any better than that, and hell yes I paid for gas.

The drive has some amazing scenery, if you like that desert sort of thing, but mostly, it had great road signs.

Yoga Why

Don’t ask why.

Yoga Gringo

This is the town on the border. Really. Look it up.

We got into Rocky Point around sunset, and despite what we read about Mexico in the National Enquirer, it was a perfectly safe and uneventful journey, except when my gas station burrito had sudden consequences. Jeff eyed me suspiciously, but I blamed a nearby refinery and changed subjects.

Of course, even though we arrived in the evening, I couldn’t keep away from an hour or two in the harbor.

Yoga Port

My first view of Rocky Point harbor. Harbors have fish. Guess how I spent my next few hours.

If any of you doubt that I raced to the harbor to fish before I ate, unpacked, or even went to the bathroom, you must be new readers. Welcome! In a couple of hours, I added two new species – the smooth silverside and the Cortez grunt.

Yoga Silverside

A trophy-sized smooth silverside.

Yoga Grunt

The Cortez grunt. I am told these get larger.

Puerto Penasco looked like any other Mexico tourist destination – lots of bars and restaurants, plenty of shopping, and … thousands of bikers on Harley-Davidsons? Oh wait, that isn’t normal. Further research revealed that there was some sort of biker event, which sounds like a disaster in the making, because I wear LL Bean stuff and bikers frown on people who wear LL Bean stuff.

As it turned out, they were fine. They kept to the downtown, far away from Jeff’s condo, and the ones we ran into at Dave’s restaurant behaved like leather-clad Lutherans.

Jeff and I got back to his condo around ten and I was ready to crash. I was half asleep when a curious noise wafted into the room – it sounded like the Champs’ old song, “Tequila,” being played very, very badly by a high school marching band. I wrinkled my brow in bewilderment and wrote it off to a lack of sleep. The noise persisted. I got up and opened the window, and indeed, the local high school marching band was practicing “Tequila” over and over in a field inconveniently within earshot. They were certainly enthusiastic and persistent, and I’m sure they meant well and were trying hard, but they never did get all eight lines of the song right on the same attempt. Luckily, they stopped around 11:30.

In the morning, we connected with Dave bright and early and headed out onto the water. Even after my rather full day before, I was wide awake and rearing to go – adrenaline and Red Bull are a powerful combination.

Yoga Estuary

We head out the estuary early on day one.

Catching the bait was nearly as good as fishing with it. We threw some big sabikis around the shallows and caught all sorts of interesting things, which would then be kept in the livewell, transported some 50 miles, then put out as bait for much bigger fish. The first thing I landed was, improbably, a bonefish. Further research revealed it to be a Cortez bonefish, which my spellcheck kept trying to change to “Cortex bonefish,” which has a much larger brain. This was a new species – and a bonefish Jaime had never caught.

Yoga Bone

Hey Jaime – Nyah, nyah, nyah.

In less than half an hour, I tacked on two more species. First, I landed a Cortez pigfish.

Yoga Pigfish

The Cortez pigfish – a member of the grunt family.

I then got a truly cool surprise – a finespotted jawfish.

Yoga Jaw

These creatures build nest by moving rocks with their powerful jaws.

Yoga Jaw 2

The local nickname for these things is “big mouth b***ards,” which certain relatives also called me when I was young.

Yoga JS

Steve and Jeff, at the end of the bait session.

Somewhere in there, Jeff decided that we had enough bait. We then ran the boat for what seemed like forever. The good reefs here can be 50 miles away, but the fishing is great, so it’s just part of the deal. We talked a lot of shop on the way out, and I was excited to drop a line someplace where everything could be new.

Yoga Dave

Steve and Dave as we started catching reef fish.

We set up to fish live baits on the bottom in relatively shallow water – still around 5o feet. While I was waiting for a hit, I fished a lighter rig and got two more new species – a sargo and a gold-spotted bass. I got very busy photographing them, so much so that I didn’t pay much attention to the big rod I had down with a live bait. You know where this is going.

Yoga Sargo

The sargo. I saw one of these in Ventura, but I couldn’t afford another Buddha statue. Details HERE.)

Yoga Gold

There was no second photo of goldspotted bass, as I accidentally dropped it overboard. You’ll see why in a moment.

In the middle of me doing a fish selfie, my big rod wrenched down in the holder and started paying out line hard against the clicker. Whatever was hooked, it was darn big – lifting the rod out of the holder was a two man job. (By the way, this would disqualify an IGFA record, so remember that you need to lift the rod out yourself if you’re on the record hunt.) I would have guessed grouper, but as I slowly got the fish off the bottom, it was still making some long runs. Even on heavy standup gear, the fight went on for 15 minutes. As the fish surfaced, I was stunned. It was a positively huge white seabass – many times the size of my relatively puny personal best. (Details HERE) I contemplated how to take it on board. Net? Gaff? Harpoon? I couldn’t wait to send the photo to Jim Tolonen and stop his hurtful abuse. I finally decided to reach down and get it with a big Boga, and as I swung it across my lap for the photo you see below, my jaw hit the deck. I thought of several things to say, but all that came out was “Wrong croaker.”

Yoga Croaker

The wrong croaker.

It wasn’t a white seabass at all. It was a totoaba, the largest member of the croaker family, a rare and endangered beast that once grew over 200 pounds and had dominated the Sea of Cortez. Between commercial fishing and the diverting of water out of the Colorado River, the species was driven to the brink of extinction years ago, but with careful management, it is just coming back in the area.

Yoga Three

The group celebrates releasing the totoaba.

Jeff and Dave were positively giddy – this is a rare catch and they were thrilled that I was the one who got it. And I was thrilled that I had landed it unharmed. I quickly set it back in the water and let it fin in place for a moment to get its bearings. It swam off quietly and I had added one of the rarer species I would ever see.

I hardly noticed the run home – the adrenaline from the totoaba kept me going much of the evening. We ate at Dave’s restaurant – Capone’s. Look it up if you’re in Rocky Point – tremendous food and great service. It was truly epic meal, and Dave, Jeff, and I talked fishing well into the night.

Yoga Group

The guys at dinner. I have a feeling this place would be great even if we weren’t eating with the owner.

Yoga Bikers

Yes, there were bikers everywhere, but they behaved impeccably.

We got back to the condo around ten, and yes, the band was still rehearsing and had made scant progress. I went to bed with a new appreciation for Pee Wee Herman – I never liked him, but at least he used a recognizable version of the song.

Yoga Cat

The harbor cat greets us at the beginning of day two. He expected fish.

We began day two with more bait fishing, which, as I mentioned, was as much fun for me as the big game fishing, and did not have the drawback of a fifty mile boat ride. I tried quite a while to get a larger bonefish – a pound would be a world record. I couldn’t find one quite that big, but took solace in the fact that Jaime has never caught one of any size.

Yoga Beach

With the bikers and the marching band fast asleep, morning is a peaceful time in Puerto Penasco.

Then came the long run.

We pulled up to a deeper reef mid-morning and began soaking some big live baits. We got a nice assortment of fish, but the highlight was a huge bite and run on my heavy bottom rod. I knew this had to be a grouper – it hit hard and stuck stubbornly to the bottom, but heavy braided line and a standup rod have a way of dissuading this behavior. Slowly, I got him out of the reef. It turned out to be a leopard grouper, and a big one.

Yoga Grouper

They just dropped it on my lap and took photos while I tried to get up.

We spent the afternoon poking around rockpiles at varying depths, and we got several more nice fish, including sharks, a smaller grouper, and an orangemouth corvina, the final new species of the trip. We started the journey home, and as we got within 30 miles, I could swear I heard badly-played strains of “Tequila” floating over the water.

Yoga Corvina

The corvina get much, much bigger, but a species is a species.

Yoga Gold Big

A much more dignified goldspotted bass. These are related to the calico bass in Southern California, but tend to hand out in deeper locales.

The weather report for the next day showed the wind picking up, so we decided to call it a trip. Ten species was a great haul for two days, and Jeff offered to drive back to Phoenix that evening so we could avoid another band rehearsal. After another excellent meal at Capone’s, we headed north. I thanked Dave and Jeff profusely – even though our only connection was a yoga class, they had organized a fantastic weekend for me and some species I’ll never forget.

Jeff and I raced through the desolate Mexican desert, and my mind did wander again to roving bands of kidnappers, and how awful it would be if Marta had to empty the dishwasher herself. I can just see her on CNN saying “I have never seen that man before in my life.” But nothing happened. A few bikers passed us on the road, but they were courteous and waved as they went by. This had been a safe and easy getaway, despite my varied prejudices. Indeed, the worst thing I faced on the trip, apart from the gas station burrito, was that God awful high school band. So if you’re heading to Puerto Penasco, be prepared for them. By the time you visit, they will likely have perfected “Tequila” and moved on to “It’s a Small World After All.” (Go ahead – hum it once. I dare you.)

Steve

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | June 16, 2015

The Secret Species

Dateline: October 19, 2014 – Ventura, California

Karma is very strong with Marta. While I scoff at superstition, in the heat of a deeply spiritual moment, like a Stanley Cup game or a bad day of fishing, it never hurts to have Karma on your side. I often find myself asking Marta “What would it take for you to actively root for the Red Wings?” or “Can you use your influence with the universe to get me just one new species?”

Karmic or not, Marta is nobody’s fool, and her response is often “What’s it worth to you?” And foolishly, I often find myself bargaining to engage her influence on something that rational people realize will happen or not no matter what rituals I perform. This was bound to cause trouble, and last October, it finally did.

Autumn 2014 was a season of weddings in our circle of friends. We attended two in Southern California, necessitating two road trips. It’s always nice to get out on the road together, and it was a chance to see some parts of California we don’t get to very often, in this case Ventura and Palm Springs.

The first wedding, in Ventura, was ridiculously nice. Mike has been a dear friend of Marta’s for years – he is an awesome guy if for no other reason than he reads 1000fish religiously. His bride, Kirsten, seems equally awesome, although I am not sure if she reads the blog. They are one of those couples who are so smart, good-looking, and successful that I wouldn’t believe they were real if I hadn’t met them.

Secret Portrait

The photos of these two look like they came with the frame, and not the kind of frame you get at CVS, but the type you get in those high-end little shops in Carmel that are never there for long because their frames are too expensive.

Secret Group

The four of us together, just to prove we were there. I am undoubtedly telling a fishing story.

Secret Rocket

The wedding had rockets. All wedding should have rockets. 

Secret Sunset

They paid extra for a perfect sunset, and who could look at this without thinking that the shortfin corvina were likely biting?

The morning of the wedding, we explored Ventura, a seaside town fashionably north of Los Angeles. This meant that I explored the local pier and that Marta found some new-age, yoga-type stuff to do. She texted me several times with photos of a Buddha statue she thought would look nice in our home. I ignored those texts and hoped the topic would go away. Around lunch, she joined me on the pier and asked if I had caught anything new.

Secret Pier

Ventura pier, the scene of the controversy.

“Caught anything new?” she asked. I responded that I had not. “Perhaps,” Marta replied, “this is because you have not welcomed the Buddha statue into our home.” I pointed out that this would cost more than an average reel and leave less room in our home for IGFA trophies. But the fishing was not going well, and she pressed the issue. I finally agreed that if I caught a new species, I would buy the statue. This agreement was made on Saturday, October 11, 2014. In the opinion of myself and a friend who owns the complete set of Perry Mason DVDs, this means that the agreement was only valid on October 11, 2015 … and maybe the 12th … but that’s it. I did indeed fish at Ventura pier those days and caught nothing of note.

Fast forward a week. We attended a wedding in Palm Springs.

Secret Portrait 2

Steve and Marta in formal garb. Yes, I do own clothing that doesn’t say “Sport Fishing Magazine” or “Hi’s Tackle Box” on it. Of course, now you’re all wondering if I’m wearing Shimano underwear, but some things should be private.

I had not been to Palm Springs since I was a kid, when my grandparents lived near there so that my grandfather could complain about the heat there rather than the cold in Michigan.

Secret Tram

Looking down from Mt. Scaredofheights onto the Palm Springs Valley.

Secret Palm

Sunset on the hills. There are definitely Palms there, but I didn’t see any springs.

The next day, we agreed that we would go home through Ventura so Marta could attend some sort of exotic yoga class and I could take a second crack at the pier.

Secret Ventura

Another perfect day in Southern California.

Marta ran off to yoga and I got to fish Ventura pier on a pleasant fall day. I got some of the usual suspects, such as perch, brown sharks, and thornbacks.

Secret thornback

A small thornback – a member of the guitarfish family. I have an ugly history with this group of fish – click HERE for details.

And then I got something new – unmistakably a queenfish. Not a big one, but size pride is not part of the species hunting game. I was quite pleased with myself, and I knew Ben Florentino was breathing a huge sigh of relief because now he wouldn’t need to find me one.

Secret Queen

A Queenfish. Not to be confused with the tropical predator, these small croakers are supposed to be everywhere in Southern California, but I had never gotten one until now.

Marta got back from yoga and wandered out onto the pier. “Did you catch a new species?” Seeing where this was going, I hesitated. She continued “If so, we are getting the Buddha.” I attempted to explain that the agreement was only valid on the 11th and maybe the 12th, but she dismissed me as only a woman you have been dating for 11 years can dismiss you. I therefore changed strategies and decided to tell her … nothing. “Well? Did you?”

I acknowledged that I caught … something. I explained that scaenids are often difficult to tell apart and that I would need to consult with experts. She is clever and she asked me to send her the photo, so she could check it herself. I refused, explaining that the chain of evidence would be broken and my constitutional rights were at stake.

As you can imagine, this topic dominated the conversation for the five hour drive home. To cover her bases, she stopped and bought the Buddha, and is expecting me to pay her back if the fish was indeed new. And so, for the past few months, I have been changing the subject, which is hard to do with Marta.

Marta will get this blog along with everyone else. She insists that she reads the 1000fish blog thoroughly, so this will be something of a test of her love for me. If she reads this and raises the subject within 12 hours of publication, I will pay for the Buddha. Otherwise, no. Jaime, if you text her a warning, you can pay for the Buddha.

The clock starts … now.

Steve

 

Special Bonus Section – The Taiwanese Limo Fish

Dateline: October 7, 2014 – Taipei, Taiwan

It may amaze you – or not – that there are actually a few countries I have visited where I have not caught a fish. Six, to be exact – Russia, The Vatican, Venezuela, El Salvador, Fiji, and Taiwan.

It so happened that October found me on a business trip to Taiwan, and I was determined to right this great wrong and make Taiwan the 83rd country where I had caught a fish.

This would not be easy. I had one morning of free time, so I pestered the concierge at the Hyatt – and after a few emails, they found what looked like a dreadful pay pond on the industrial outskirts of town. (The concierge is always a great resource for this sort of thing – another example HERE.)

Transportation was my next issue. The pond was quite some distance from the hotel, and a taxi, especially for the return trip, would be challenging. But this was my chance to add the country, so I just got a hotel car for the morning, which cost about as much as a taxi and came complete with Glen, the English-speaking driver.

Secret Driver

Steve and Glen. That’s the Mercedes in the background.

The drive took about an hour, and as we got further away from downtown, the scenery became relatively green and hilly. I am told Taiwan is a beautiful island – I need to explore more of it.

Judging by the stares, the clientele at the suburban pay pond hadn’t seen too many westerners pull up in a Mercedes. Trying to be as low-key as possible, I walked in, paid my two dollars, and set up some gear. Just to cover my bases, I had bought a loaf of white bread in a 7-11 on the way in, and this turned out to be exactly the right bait. Moments later, I caught a carp and Taiwan was on the country list.

Secret Carp

The carp. A popular fish worldwide, possibly because they can live in conditions like this.

I got a nice blue tilapia later on, and the pond manager came out for the photo.

Secret Tilapia

The blue tilapia, another globally popular fish.

That was about all the time we had, so I packed up the travel rods and we started driving down the hill toward Taipei. It was then I noticed a concrete spillway with a small stream splashing over it. Although it was crowded with refuse, including a washing machine and the remains of a 1970s Chevy, I just had to look.

Secret Stream

The anonymous Taiwanese stream.

Sure enough, I could see fish in there. Some were obviously tilapia, but I couldn’t make out some of the smaller ones, so out came the rod and the white bread. It took longer to get the bread on the #24 hook than it did to catch the fish, and several weeks later, to my great delight, I discovered that I had caught a new species – the Candidus Lake dace. Glen was bewildered at my joy, but some 20 years after I had first visited Taiwan, I had managed to catch a fish there and even add a species, so it was a good day.

Secret Dace

The Candidus Lake dace. This took some of the sting out of a painful afternoon of meetings.

 

Posted by: 1000fish | June 8, 2015

The Spam

Dateline: September 13, 2014 – South Lake Tahoe, California

I rarely open my spam folder. All it ever contains is correspondence from Nigerian princes, requests for companionship by curiously airbrushed Russian women – which will only lead to divorce, trust me – and solicitations for the kind of medications that I am sure every other man over 50 needs but I of course do not.

So I can’t explain why I opened my spam on that particular Sunday. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I wanted to meet a Montenegran beauty – oh wait, I already have – or help the manager of the National Bank of Llasa Apso embezzle a few million dollars.

But what I found instead was a simple cry for help. It was from one Seth McNaught, and it was titled “Fish ID question from one of your readers.”

Spam Seth

Young Seth McNaught, the hero of this blog. Note that he was not asking for help on the ID of this particular fish, which we all know is a rainbow trout.

Now if this was a spam, it was a good one. I braced myself for a laptop-crashing virus, but instead, I got something wonderful. There was a photo enclosed, of a fish caught in the Sierras near Lake Tahoe. I like fish photos. And there was the same cry for help that I have made so many times – “What the heck is this?”

To tell the truth, I had no idea. But I knew who would  – Dr. Peter Moyle of my alma mater, UC Davis. So I wrote Dr. Moyle, and he immediately pegged the beast as a Tui chub. I was thrilled for young Seth, but I was also intrigued, because this was a species I had never gotten. Indeed, it was a fish that brought a slight bitter taste to my mouth, because I had become aware of its existence through a friend – Kevin Fried – who had caught one. Kevin is a nice guy and a tremendous financial mind, but he’s just this side of Guido on fishing skills.

SPam Kevin

Kevin Fried. (Pronounced “Freed” as in “Freed the fish before he ever saw it.”)

If he had caught one of these, surely I could? And yet, despite my dedicating a trip to this species, (details HERE,) Kevin had one and I didn’t.

I wrote back to Seth with my congratulations. I then asked him about where he caught it, and he generously filled me in on every exact detail, down to standing on the right of the big rock rather than the left. The locale was Upper Angora Lake, near Lake Tahoe. There was a new species just waiting there only four hours away, and, in the words of Seth, only a “short hike” from the parking lot. (Of course, if he was related to “Sexy Rexy” Johnson, this could be a disaster.)

I needed a co-conspirator for this adventure, and Mark Spellman has been a trusted co-conspirator for more than 20 years.

GTW Sign Spell

Mark Spellman, lifetime fishing buddy, right before our Cottonwood disaster.

The idea was to get up to the lake mid-morning, get whatever hike was needed out of the way, and stick it out as long as it would take us to catch the fish in question. Of course, the last time Mark and I planned on getting a short Sierra hike done in a morning, it turned out to be an epic disaster – The Cottonwood Death March – which ranks as the worst example of advance planning EVER. (Details HERE – warning: If a lack of common sense offends you, please do not click on this post.)

The drive to South Lake up highway 50 is a beautiful one. I’m not much of a skier, but the route still brought back memories – driving up to meet Mike Rapoport so we could fly his plane down to Mexico, and trying a number of trips, which always seemed to have bad weather, before I finally got my lake trout in Tahoe. My father owns a place up on the north shore, and we spent a lot of weekends up here in the 70s and 80s – I remember that we were there on the Bicentennial and my father botched some homemade fireworks, but his eyebrows did grow back. It was a sacred place because I could use my bb gun out in the woods, and no, I never put an eye out. Well, not mine.

We got up to South Lake around ten, ate something fried, and headed for Upper Angora, supposed to be another 20 miles or so on back roads. I remembered the name of the main turnoff, and from there, I had asked Mark to map it out. He forgot. I had given him one task and … sigh. We were out of cell range, so we were just going to have to rely on good old-fashioned map reading. A quick check of the 15 year-old road atlas that lives in my back seat along with a half-eaten bag of Fritos gave us some idea, and after a few fits and starts, during which I roundly abused Mark and finished the Fritos, we found Upper Angora Lake.

We parked in a lot lined with tall pines. As my nephew Charlie might say, the whole area smells like a candle that smells like pine trees. Then there was the indeterminate hike to Upper Angora lake. We had packed good shoes, spare socks, proper underwear, spare provisions, an EPIRB, and a coin to toss just in case we were trapped and starving and one of us had to eat the other to survive.

Like Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon, it was something of an anticlimax. The total hike was less than a mile, and had no elevation gain to speak of. We were there in 20 minutes, and there was the lake, a classic, high Sierras crater, sapphire-blue clear water, rocky shoreline.

Spam Lake

The Sierras are full of lakes like this, but this one apparently held Tui chubs, which made it special.

It had actual civilization – a small cafe, canoe rentals, even a beach with chairs.

Spam Angorra

Yes, the lemonade was good. 

Following Seth’s detailed directions, we worked around to the right for about 200 yards, following a shoreline path, and came to the big boulder in the corner of the lake.

Spam Lake 2

That’s the big boulder on the right.

We set up two light rods with small hooks and bits of night crawler and began casting, pretty much how I did when I was seven. The action was instant. First I got a Lahontan redside, then Mark did. (I had caught this beast previously.)

Spam Redside

The majestic Lahontan – I had mistakenly ID’d this one as a redside shiner, thanks to sharp-eyed reader Bryan for spotting this.

My second cast produced a Tui chub, causing whooping and celebration that echoed out onto the lake and likely frightened the canoeists. Then Mark got one, and we re-whooped. We stayed at this for about an hour, catching a couple of dozen fish and whooping frequently. The day was a success.

Spam Chub

The Tui chub. For the record, Kevin’s was bigger.

And that was it. We both had the species, it was still early, and Burger King in Truckee called us. This means we got to drive all the way up highway 89, the ridiculously scenic west side of Lake Tahoe. I don’t make it up here very often, but if someone could tell me how the heck to catch a Tahoe sucker, I would come more often.

Spam Tahoe

Emerald Bay, on the west side of Lake Tahoe. There are Tahoe suckers in this water, which makes it even more beautiful.

We decided to head for Putah. All early days in Northern California seem to end up rerouted to Putah Creek in Davis, taking another shot at the Sacramento sucker record, which Martini had ingraciously snatched from me earlier in the year. (With me in attendance and cheering him on – he had worked hard to catch this species.)

Spam Sucker

Martini and the current record Sacramento sucker, which he caught in broad daylight. I never catch them in broad daylight.

Spellman and I wandered down to the appropriate pool as evening was setting in on a glorious late summer day. I went to college in this town, and I regaled Mark with tales of late-night dormitory misbehavior and fraternity softball heroism, all of which he seemed to know by heart, meaning he is either clairvoyant or has heard these stories 97 times, take your pick.

Spam Pikeminnow

There are photos of me in this same creek from 30 years ago, which I will not publish for artistic or editorial reasons, I forget which. I had a lot more hair back then, but I did not have that totally cool Akubra hat.

As is generally the case, the suckers were not cooperating, even though we saw them everywhere. We did get a couple of big Sacramento pikeminnows, so it wasn’t fruitless, and we did get to spend a late summer afternoon splashing around a creek, which is still just as much fun as it was when I was seven.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | May 31, 2015

A Midnight Swim in Eau Claire

Dateline: August 24, 2014 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin

It’s risky to ever think the Fish Gods owe you anything, but after the disastrous weather we faced on our May Wisconsin jaunt, it was tough not to think they might give us a break. (Prerequisite reading HERE.)

I knew Martini and I had to come back to Wisconsin. Even though it had been freezing cold and all the good spots had been under water, and I sprained my tongue trying not to say bad words in front of Mike the Pastor, we had still had a lot of fun and it was also obvious that the state had a lot of species left to offer. So when Mike offered us a weekend in August, we made the schedules work.

Travel went smoothly, and on the drive from Minneapolis to Eau Claire, Martini and I mused over how different things were three months later. It was high summer in the midwest – warm, humid, still. Water levels had receded from the biblical levels we found in May, and all the Dairy Queens were open late. Dairy Queens sell fried things and soft serve ice cream, essential foodstuffs for the unsupervised male.

We caught up with Mike early the next morning. It was great to see him – he is a true brother in the species hunting fraternity, and one of the few people who understands it is perfectly normal to drive thousands of miles to catch a Utah sucker. We drove about an hour out to some unpronounceable river and set up on a country bridge, just above a sweeping bend on a fast-running, medium-sized river.

Before my first cast, I smiled back at my inability to catch a shorthead redhorse in May. I wondered if the curse would continue. The answer came less than a minute later – I got a solid bite and a hard run in the current. As soon as the fish surfaced, I could see the red fins and the, well, short head of the shorthead. I had added a species.

Swim Shorthead

The shorthead curse is ended.

It was good. It was beyond good. It was stupid good. Every fish we didn’t get in May came back and brought its friends, and we caught dozens of redhorse, as well as the occasional catfish and walleye.

I got a silver, followed by a few more shortheads, and then a bigger fish latched on and gave an even stronger fight. I walked it down to the bank, and as it surfaced, I saw I had gotten a golden redhorse – another new critter. The weather was pleasant, the fish were biting, and I was on the water with good friends.

Swim Golden Steve

The golden.

We noticed that there were some small fish on the shoreline, so we set up micro rigs and caught what turned out to be common shiners.

Swim Common

This fish made my life difficult.

This small fish caused a disproportionate firestorm of ID controversy. I believed it to be a common shiner, which would have been a new critter for me, but at the same time as I was working through this ID, sharp-eyed 1000Fish reader Brandon Li went through “A Mourning on the Water” and pointed out that one of my fish in Michigan was actually a common shiner. But he didn’t stop there – he also noticed that I had misidentified the shiner in “My Old Kentucky Bone.” Some research showed that one NOT to be a creek chub, but rather a lined shiner – a new species almost five years after the fact. Both blogs have been updated for your reading pleasure, and a big thanks to Brandon.

We kept at it for a few hours – the fish would taper off for a bit, then we would get a run of five or six, then just enough time for a Red Bull. Martini, just because he does this sort of thing, casually caught an eight pound line class record silver.

Swim Martini record

And yes, his shirt is a sucker ID chart.

It was awesome, and then, at least for Martini, it got awesomer. He hooked a noticeably bigger fish on the left side of the bridge, and as it surfaced, he and Mike let out some primal whoops of triumph. Presuming that Martini’s pants had split, I walked over to discover that he had instead caught a Greater redhorse, a rather rare, larger species in the family. Sure I was thrilled for him, but as of that moment, a Greater redhorse became the one thing I wanted even more than I wanted to see Jaime Hamamoto break off a big bonefish.

Swim M Greater

Martini and the greater redhorse. The day was now officially epic, and we weren’t done.

Swim Lamprey

There were a few lamprey about. Do not put this in your pants.

Mike explained that the greater redhorses were were rare – he had only caught a few in his life. So I didn’t have high hopes, but it was inspirational to know they were there. We moved spots in the early afternoon, to an isolated bridge on a smaller river. Mike proved how rare the greater redhorse was by promptly catching one. Sigh.

Swim Mike Short

You have to be kidding me. I was the only guy in the car who hadn’t caught one.

It’s not like you can target these things – they all live in the same places, and they eat the same things. You put a worm on the bottom and take your chances. And about an hour later, a great day entered my small pantheon of legendary days. I got a greater.

Swim Greater

And it was bigger than theirs, not that I care about such competitive tripe, but it really was quite a bit bigger than everyone else’s. And Jaime has never caught one, and if she did, it wouldn’t be this big.

We were out of Red Bull and superlatives, which is a shame, because I could have used one of each less than five minutes later. My rod, set with a crawler in mid-river where it could have caught anything from a redhorse to a walleye to a catfish, went down hard. It was a nice fish; a very solid fight. I had gotten around 20 redhorses for the day, and this one was definitely a good one. I brought it up out of the current and toward the bank, and it surfaced.

Mike’s eyes shot out of his head, and Martini grabbed the net and leaped off the culvert and down to the water. I wondered what all the excitement was when Mike yelled “It’s a River!” It took a moment before I spit out my Pepsi. The river redhorse is rare – listed as threatened in Wisconsin. Obviously, we couldn’t target or not target a bottom species, but it was an extraordinary and beautiful fish. Martini gently scooped it up so we could remove the hook and let it be on its way.

Swim River

A river redhorse. The day was now just ridiculous.

We headed back to Eau Claire, thrilled with our success, and enjoyed a delightful meal of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream. Five redhorse species in one day. I think I went to sleep mumbling about that. Or Kate Upton, I forget which.

The next day, we floated the Chippewa river. We had wanted to do this in May, but the water was simply too high and we would have been swept away never to be seen again. This time, the day was perfect – low water, a bit overcast, warm, and still.

Martini got a great species – the northern hogsucker – while he waited for me and Mike to shuttle the cars.

Swim Martini Hog

Sometimes, the selfie just gets awkward.

Swim Guys

The guys. Martini is smiling because he had just caught a northern hogsucker.

We drifted from spot to spot, catching some beautiful smallmouth along the way. At one of the first sand bars where we stopped, I got a mooneye, adding my 5th species of the trip.

Swim Mooneye

A mooneye. We got a bunch of these. 

Wandering down the river, we picked up more smallmouth, plenty of redhorses, and a couple of nice catfish.

Swim Martini Cat

Martini got this one some sort of trout rod.

Swim Cat 1

I was not displeased with this fish. Mike knows his stuff, and he unhesitatingly shared all of his secret spots.

With only one species for the day so far, I was still thrilled as we got off the water and ordered a pizza at the ramp so we could keep fishing.

When we finally made it back to the original put-in, Martini and I stayed to look for a northern hogsucker for me. It didn’t take long, and after a false alarm from a small catfish, I added the species.

Swim Hog

These things are just cool.

We headed back to Eau Claire, thrilled with our success, and enjoyed a delightful meal of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream.

The next morning, we hooked up Mike’s boat and headed to the Mississippi River. On the way, we had a delightful lunch of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream. We had one main target – the sauger – which had successfully eluded me for years. These creatures are ridiculously light biters, like all of their walleye-related ilk. (See “The Goulash Archipelago“) We arrived on one of the dozens of dams along the river and launched on a perfect summer day.

Swim Dam

There are loads of these dams. There are fish at all of them.

We had to work for the sauger, but we each got one, and I texted Bob Reine and told him he could stop giving me crap because I had caught one. He responded – “But have you caught a burbot?” Twit.

Swim Sauger

I didn’t say it was a big sauger, but I was thrilled with it.

Swim Emerald

We also added an emerald shiner in the shallows. 

The real highlight of the day was the panfish bite on a rocky shoreline. We got dozens of solid bluegill and rock bass on light tackle – this is how a lot of us start fishing as children, and it never gets any less fun.

Swim Bluegill 2

A bluegill.

Swim Bluegill

Another bluegill. Yes, Martini’s is bigger.

We fished until dusk, enjoying the river and the weather, watching the endless trains roll by. Trains will always remind me of my grandfather, who used to drive seven year-old me around Detroit looking for them.

Swim Train

We must have seen two dozen trains in a few hours. Seven year-old me was thrilled.

That evening, after a delightful meal of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream, we decided to give the catfish a shot below the dam in town. There are some big flatheads there, and while I have gotten the species, I have never gotten a big one, and Martini has never gotten one.

I cast my setup, put it into into a rod holder, then walked 50 feet over to Martini and Mike to give them some weights.

It took me less than a minute to walk up to Martini and Mike, give them the weights, and walk back. In that time, my rod had apparently gotten snagged. The tip was down and rhythmically bobbing, so I picked it up to clear it. I reeled down, and reeled down, and after a moment, I realized that my line had drifted almost straight upstream. I quickly reviewed what I had learned in college physics, and it dawned on me that I had either hooked a fish or the Eau Claire River was running backwards. I set the hook, and felt the faint pumping of a big fish at the end of a lot of line. I was hoping for a big flathead. It would be a long time before I found out.

The fight dragged on over an hour – this was not all that heavy of a rod, and I was battling a lot of current as well as something beastly. Whatever it was came close to shore twice, pushing up big boils before heading deep again. My rig didn’t have muck lifting power, and I was getting concerned that my light leader was going to snap.

Swim Idiots

Martini and Steve battle the mystery beast, moments before Martini did something that both inspired and terrified me.

When the fish got close for the third time, Martini did something that I admire to this day, as much as it made me question his judgement. He jumped into the water. If you even wonder if someone is more of a brother than a fishing buddy, see if they will dive into an unfamiliar, fast river – at night – to land a fish of indeterminate size and disposition. There is a fine line between brave and clinically insane, and Martini had leaped across it.

There was a lot of thrashing and water thrown in the air – like a dog fighting a fire hose – and for a moment, we weren’t sure who was winning. Somewhere in there, my line broke, so I had even more incentive to hope it was Martini. At one stage, we could see the fish, Martini’s head, and Martini’s sneakers all at the same time. With an armload of thrashing animal, Martini regained his footing and presented my catch. When I saw it, I completely forgot that Mike was a pastor and said the things we usually say when we see an unexpectedly big fish. (Interestingly, when he broke off a big flathead later in the evening, Mike also may have briefly forgotten he was a pastor.)

Swim Wrestling

In a narrow decision, Martini defeats the sturgeon.

I had gotten a big lake sturgeon, on a ten-pound class steelhead rod. The fish was out of season so we released it quickly, but at least I had finally caught a dignified example of the species.

Swim Sturgeon

At last, a decent laker. As you recall, my May sturgeon was all of 14 inches.

It had been a fantastic fish to close out my day. I sat by the riverbank, enjoying the summer evening and sipping a Pepsi. It brought back memories of so many nights by the Scioto River when I lived in Columbus, except that I actually caught something this time and no one threw up in my car.

There was a heat lightning show that went on most of the evening – constant flashes long and bright enough to read by. These summer displays can go on for hours without rain, and I had presumed we were safe. But as we looked to pack up and be on our way for more fried food and soft-serve ice cream, the clouds absolutely broke. We sprinted a few steps, but realized it was pointless and we were going to get drenched, so we just laughed through it and got soaked to the skivvies. It had been a great evening; a great trip – but at this last hour, the Fish Gods reminded us that they were still in charge.

Steve

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | May 24, 2015

Last of the Thames Rivermen

Dateline: August 12, 2014 – Twyford, England

Roger was gone, and we came from all over to honor him.

Roger tench 2009

Roger Barnes with one of his most demanding clients.

I had said my goodbyes in May when Roger was alive, but when I mentioned to Marta that I was thinking about going to the funeral, I hadn’t finished my sentence when she told me “Go.” United Airlines, normally a difficult and snide group, were actually remarkably flexible and found me a ticket for the days I needed. I let John Buckingham know I was coming.

On email, I asked John if it would be OK to slip in a few hours of fishing. He responded “It would be inappropriate not to.” So when I flew in on the 10th, I got to the hotel, unpacked my gear, and met John at a small pond out in the countryside near Marlow. Roger never liked these stocked venues, calling them “ditches,” but this ditch had a population of crucian carp, and I was determined to catch one – the only reasonably common English freshwater species Roger and I hadn’t gotten together. Roger’s funeral was in two days, and I was determined to have that fish on my list before the final goodbye – a tribute to him.

Thames Finch

The ditch in question. Reasonably near Maidenhead and Windsor, it’s a nice way to spend an afternoon.

Thames Finch Pond

The front side of Finch Farm. Most of our angling was done in the back, to the left.

This sort of delicate float fishing is one of John’s specialties – he has spent a lifetime doing it, and he is extraordinarily skilled. He did his best to assist me, bringing all the right baits, gear, and rigging, but I still did not seem to have the gene to set the hook at the right time.

Thames John Finch

John in his element. Float fishing, I mean – not the stock pond. And the double rainbow wouldn’t be the last one I would see that week. 

We went all afternoon, catching beautiful common carp, roach, and giebels, but I could not get the crucian. John got several, and was increasingly distressed each time he landed one. We traded some of our favorite stories about Roger, and each one brought a smile.

Thames John Crucian

John with one of his crucians. There is pain in that smile – he desperately wanted me to get one. He is pretty much the opposite of Jaime.

It was fair that I suffered to catch this fish. They are extraordinarily delicate biters – their strike makes the float look as if a fly has landed on it – and I have the attention span of a caffeinated ferret. I didn’t really understand until late in the evening, when John, with uncharacteristic directness, asked me to please, please put away the multiple rods and focus on one float, intently and without blinking.

It was getting dark, we were both late for dinners, and we stuck it out as long as we could, but it was not to be. John couldn’t come the next day, but he left me with enough knowledge and strategy to give me a shot in the morning.

The next day, I got a car back out to the pond and set up around 9:30am.

I hadn’t been there long – maybe half an hour, just enough time to get a good trail of bread in the water. I had caught two small gibel carp, and was watching my float intently, as John had instructed me. The float dipped a fraction of an inch, and with reflexes tuned from years of dodging line drives off my inadvisable curveball, I set the hook. The fish was the right size, and it fought somehow differently than a gibel or roach. When it floated to the top, I saw the golden color and red fins, and got the net under it. I had my crucian.

Thames S Crucian

Finally, a Crucian carp.

I set the rod down, and I shed a tear. This was a moment I would have given anything to have shared with Roger. I could swear I heard him say “Well done, old boy,” or singing “Crucian … on a sunny afternoon …” Roger loved musical puns.

Thames Crucian

Roger always said they looked like a new penny.

I stayed for a while and caught a few more nice fish – carp, tench, roach, and gibels. Jumping into a cab, I ran over to Twyford and managed to sneak in a couple of hours of perch fishing with Steve Collier, proprietor of the Land’s End pub.

Thames Collier

Steve Collier – a fine man except when he tries to feed me mushy peas.

That evening, I had dinner in Marlow with Katy and Sam. She was remarkably composed for having gone through the year she just had, and Sam was flat-out a great guy. Roger, ever protective of his only child, always spoke glowingly of Sam, and it was plain to see why. The first thing they asked was whether I had caught the crucian. I told her “We caught the crucian.”

The next morning was the day of Roger’s funeral. I was up early, and I was determined to catch one more pike from the Marlow weir in back of the hotel.

One of my most beloved fishing spots anywhere is the back lawn of the Compleat Angler hotel, throwing lures for pike. Roger and I did so much fishing together, but this was always the place I valued the most, the place that was the most sacred. The place that left me slack-jawed with wonder on my first trip here in September 2003, and a place that still comes into so many fishing dreams.

Thames Angler

A view of the Compleat Angler from the churchyard across the Thames.

This was the fish that all those lures in my father’s old Plano tackle box were meant to catch; this was the fish my father and I never caught together. I wanted to get one more before we all headed to the small church in Twyford.

It was an unsettled morning; some clouds and wind, the threat of rain but breaks of sunshine. August is not prime pike time, but I walked down to the retaining wall and pulled out a favorite spoon. Beginning my ritual, I started casting from the bottom of the walkway and worked my way toward the weir.

After perhaps half an hour, I got a sharp strike. No hookup, but a strike. I might normally swear at this, but I smiled. This was Roger’s message to me, and fish or no fish, I just closed my eyes and treasured the place and the moment.

I moved up toward the weir, just outside the hotel restaurant. I was throwing a a big rubbertail spinner – a “flying condom” in the local parlance. The wind was right, and my casts were sailing well across the first weir and into the gates. I let the lure sink deep and swing across a lot of very good water. Just as I let one cast finish sinking and started to reel, I got crushed – a no-doubt-about-it, violent strike from a pike that seemed equal parts hungry and hateful.

With 60 yards of line out already and the fish running hard with the heavy current, my Stella 3000 was getting dangerously low even early in the fight. I ran down to the end of the wall to gain a few precious yards back, and then, as the fish reluctantly turned and began making a looping swing in toward the shore, I had to run back to keep a reasonable angle on the fish. When I got back up to the weir, a lovely older couple had come out on the lawn. “Are you playing a fish?” the husband asked politely. “Yes, sir.” I responded.

Moments later, several more people had come out from the hotel to watch the contest. They were as quiet and respectful as a golf crowd, and one mother even shushed a child who asked what I was doing. The fight went on close to 40 minutes, and this is the real reason I didn’t shave all that well before the funeral. The crowd got larger and larger as people streamed in from the restaurant to see what was now regarded as something rather entertaining. I prayed that the fish was hooked well and that my knots were all good.

Finally, she got in the back eddy just by the weir; I knew she would hold here until she came to the top. After a few minutes of coaxing, she surfaced, just by the wall where only I could see her. It was a private moment, her finning in the current, as clear a message from Roger as I could have ever gotten.

I reached down and landed her, and the crowd oohed and aahed and broke into light applause. She was 18 pounds – one of my largest pike ever. We took a few photos, then I released her to fight another day.

Thames Pike

A lovely Marlow Weir pike. 

It was then I looked up. I am not an intensely spiritual man, but for today, I had to be. The sky was filled with not one, but two rainbows.

Thames Rainbow

I told you we would have another double rainbow.

I had to race to get ready in time, although I remember thinking that if I was late to Roger’s funeral, this would have been a very good reason. I went up to my room, and as tempting as it was to wear waders, I put on a suit.

I met the group at Roger’s house. Katy and Sam, John, and Dee were there. The front room was a jumble of Roger’s fishing equipment, as they began the long job of sorting out a lifetime of odds and ends. I found myself staring into the pile, recognizing so many things – a single action reel, a float, a box of hooks. We fishermen will never use all these things, but we are compelled to buy them.

Thames Floor

The centerpin reel in the middle of the photo gave me hours of enjoyment. I am the only American I know who owns one. Roger once caught a 20 pound pike on it.

We made the short walk over to the church. It was a marvelous turnout. Well over a hundred people were there, fishing friends, music friends, art friends, family – a wonderful group there for a sad occasion.

I met dozens of people I had never seen before, and quite a few people recognized me. “You’re the American species hunter.” People I had never met asked me if I had caught the crucian. An entire town, it seemed, had been pulling for me to catch this fish.

It was a lovely and fitting service, featuring some heartfelt speakers and music from his band. They carried him out to the churchyard to the strains of “Morning has Broken” by Cat Stevens. I will never be able to hear that song with a dry eye again.

I said goodbye there at the graveside, and if there was any chance I might stay composed in public, that went to pieces – along with me –  when I saw a thin, orange object on the casket. Someone had tossed a float into the grave, to be with Roger for eternity.

We then headed over to Steve Collier’s Land’s End pub. He had volunteered it for the evening, so the group could eat and chat and remember Roger. More people came up to me and said “You’re the American species hunter.” As we got a few more drinks into the evening, it sometimes came out in a most un-British fashion – “You’re the species freak.” Roger had told all these people about our adventures. I had no idea. Many were of course passionate fishermen – it was like being at a British expert anglers convention (minus one of the best.) As you will see in future posts, several of these new friends become involved in the great species hunt.

Many of Roger’s musician friends, from local bar band guys to some big names, had come for the service. After we had eaten, had a few drinks, and looked at the photo board that showed so many facets of Roger, they set up a stage in the corner of the dining room. They played the blues and rock and roll and everything in between far into the night. I had never seen Roger play – it was always something I would do the next time. This was a regret I would never be able to fix.

Thames Lot

Sunset at the Land’s End Pub, as I walked out and headed for home. It had been a long and sad day.

I flew home the next morning. There wasn’t time for an early fishing session in the weir, but I walked down to where the boat had been moored all those years, then up to where it had been dragged under the trees. It stood there like a kind ghost, full of memories. I knew that the pre-war Volvo station wagon would not pull up at 8:15, and that Roger would not be unloading gear and setting up until 9, when we would have started out for the willow on the far side, or the middle weirpool, or the old millrace. Roger Wyndham Barnes, last of the Thames Rivermen, was gone.

Steve

RogerSteve

Posted by: 1000fish | May 17, 2015

Yo! Adriatic!

Dateline: July 20, 2014 – Dubrovnik, Croatia

When will I get the hint?

We had come here before and had weather that was TOO good. (Details HERE) We had come here before and had weather that was positively vile. (and HERE.) Could the Fish Gods finally allow me one decent weekend of big game fishing in the Adriatic? Would Stefan Molnar stop having horrible luck every time he accompanies me south on a European adventure? In less than 2000 words, we’ll know. (Obviously, I already know, but I still read through for the pictures.)

After Marc, Stefan, and I got back from Montenegro, we fished for a few hours in Dubrovnik harbor. Dubrovnik is a gorgeous place, a river valley with steep sides jammed with quaint old buildings and traditional liquor stores.

Adriatic Harbor

The estuary on a summer afternoon. At least half of the buildings are liquor stores.

Because these stores were so convenient, there may have been a few beers before dinner. And during dinner. The highlight, from what I can remember, was my capture of the savage rock goby, a new species.

Adriatic Goby 1

The rock goby. Savage, by goby standards.

I also got some nice gilthead bream, but none on the right line class stuff, so no more records were set.

Adriatic Gilthead

Sure, it’s a nice fish, but these things get over 15 pounds.

The guys spent their time casting lures for seabass – they both caught fish and we all had far too good of a time well into the night.

Adriatic Bass 2

A proud Stefan’s first seabass.

Adriatic Bass

A proud Marc’s umpteenth seabass. This guy can fish.

The next morning featured a very early wakeup call. As slow as we were moving, we were all very wound up to finally be getting out onto the Adriatic in conditions that gave us some chance to catch a really big fish.

Adriatic Bridge

Heading out of Dubrovnik to the open water.

We left Dubrovnik with high hopes. The weather looked great, although Marc warned us there was a storm to the south. With any luck, it would stay south and we could get a monster tuna and a spearfish. We got miles out onto the open water, and it was flat calm and beautiful. We set up a chumline and began chunking for tuna. Molnar didn’t barf, so you know it was dead calm. (Click HERE for what happens to Stefan when it isn’t dead calm.)

Adriatic Chumline

Marc works the chumline. The smell comes out of your hands after two weeks or 350 washings, whichever comes last.

While we waited for a big fish, I dropped a rig to the bottom and tried my luck. Quickly, I got my second new species of the trip – a Mediterranean hake.

Adriatic Hake

The Mediterranean hake. Not exactly a tuna, but then again, I’ve caught bluefin before. Such is the perverted psychology of the species hunter.

Adriatic Weever

I also got a beastly weever. The spines are poisonous, so if you catch one, let Marc handle it.

The tuna weren’t cooperating on the drift, so we set up to troll. I knew this could result in a spearfish, and I quietly rehearsed the strike in my head, especially the part where I wrench the rod away from Stefan. Trolling was quiet but I find the entire process maddeningly suspenseful, like going for a long bike ride right after eating a seafood burrito.

Somewhere late in that afternoon, as we stopped trolling and set up for another chunking drift, I noticed a gentle zephyr play across the water. Then there was a gust. And another. We watched the wind go from zero to 30 in about an hour, and when Marc looked at the weather report, he said bad words in four different languages.

Adriatic Sunset

Trolling off of one of the islands, just before the weather hit.

The storm had shifted north. Marc told us we needed to find shelter quickly or we were going to have a very bad time of it. We set course for Lastovo, one of the outermost Croatian islands, and by the time we got there, it had clouded up and was blowing close to 50mph.

Adriatic Seas 1

This is how I remember things as we got to Lastovo.

We slipped inside the port – as scenic a location as one could hope for – and looked back. One glance outside the breakwater made it very clear that staying outside would be suicidal – waves were breaking over a 15-foot barrier.

This would be our home for most of the next two days. We were trapped, and the main part of the trip was basically screwed. The weather wasn’t supposed to last more than a day or so, but while the wind was blowing, we couldn’t go anywhere. We found accommodations, and after a beautiful seafood dinner, we headed to our rooms and slept.

Morning broke clear but still very windy. We had an excellent view from our hotel, and I surveyed the square mile or two that would be my home for the next day and a half. Molnar seemed to take it pretty well – for an occasionally tense German guy, he seemed strangely serene. I cannot say the same for myself.

Adriatic Socks

The harbor at Lastovo. The are plenty of reasons to visit here, but none of them apply to me.

Taking a deep breath, I figured that there had to be at least one new species in that harbor. So I scoped out all the spots where I could access reasonably deep water – pretty much the end of the dock – and set to it. I remained there for most of the next 30 hours, with minimum breaks for the bathroom and occasional food, plus a modicum of sleep. I must have caught 200 striped combers.

Adriatic Comber

A striped comber. This particular one was the 1000th fish (not species, just fish) I caught in 2014.

We met people from all over Europe who were in the same predicament, even if they weren’t on a schedule as tight as ours. Indeed, many of these people thought that staying here was a perfectly nice vacation and didn’t view the situation as a predicament. Shocking. They just sat around on nice boats, enjoying the sunshine, grilling lovely meals, chatting, and taking in the scenery. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??

Meanwhile, I parked at the end of that dock and fished hard. There wasn’t much variety. I got comber after comber, a few mullet, a scorpionfish, and some bream, but nothing new. Ironically, there was a new species in there, but #&%*!%# Molnar caught it. A sharpnose seabream. I have always wanted to catch one. Oh, I was sullen.

Adriatic Bream

You have to be kidding me. This is Jaime-level behavior.

Adriatic Molnar Scorpion

He also got a scorpionfish. It took me years to catch one of these. He got one in five minutes.

 

Adriatic Octopus

Molnar even caught an octopus. The child in his armpit is Phillip. Phillip never slept, followed us everywhere, and asked, by my count, 3,267 questions. This is exactly what I needed while I was desperate to catch Molnar’s bream.

Finally, we took a break for dinner. Even I have to admit that the dinners were special. The island had excellent seafood, and with nothing but time, we made a huge production out of the evening meal. Both nights featured huge plates of shellfish, mixed grills of local fish, and plenty to drink. There are plenty of people who would consider this to be a very nice vacation – boating to a beautiful location with good friends, having great food and a good bar, but let’s face it, if you think I was happy with this, you must be a new reader. Welcome!

Adriatic Dinner

Yes, I did take some of the shrimp before they cooked it and used it for bait. It didn’t help. 

Adriatic Dessert

I’m not sure what’s in the shot glasses, but Marc poured the leftovers into the gas tank.

We talked fishing with Marc until the early hours. He was so passionate about this area and the beastly fish it had produced for him, and he was in pain that we couldn’t get the right days. He wanted us to get the fish more than we wanted to get the fish, and that’s a lot.

Adriatic Tuna 2

This photo haunts my dreams. If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, contact Marc at marc@maguro-fishing.com.

On the 22nd, it was still brutally windy. I was beginning to wonder whether we were going to miss our flight out of Split on the 23rd. I dutifully went down to the pier and caught more combers. Marc kept an eye on the weather reports, and he thought we had a good chance to get out in the afternoon. It looked like it would stay sloppy for a week, but Marc told me that once the wind stopped, it would be fishable almost immediately. Right after lunch, just like that, it laid down. The wind dropped from 40 to a gentle whisper in less than an hour. Marc smiled quietly, and we were ready to depart in record time. Heading outside after 42 hours of confinement, I expected the sea to still be rough, but it had smoothed out to just a light chop.

Adriatic Lighthouse

We finally leave Lastovo behind.

We ran to an island a few miles north, and began fishing the bottom. Molnar caught a beastly scorpionfish, and I kept catching the striped combers, which apparently had followed me out of the harbor and would catch the plane back to Frankfurt and sit in my seat if they got the chance.

Adriatic Scorpion

Molnar’s pig of a scorpionfish.

20 minutes later, I finally got a non-comber bite, and hoped as I always do to see something weird come up. I was not disappointed. Peering into the clear water, I saw a flash of bright yellow, then I said something I rarely do when I got it on the deck – “What the heck is that?”

IMG_3082

Species #3 for the trip.

It was a cuckoo wrasse – a big one. And not only was it a cool-looking new species, it was also a world record. The day was looking up. I couldn’t help myself – I had been badly beaten up by the conditions, but had still pulled out some sort of victory. I yelled “Yo! Adriatic!” across the water to the bewildered glances of my boatmates, who had apparently never seen “Rocky.” We fished the bottom for another hour or so, then started trolling our way north toward the island harbor of Milna.

Adriatic Sunset 2

Sure it’s beautiful, but nothing is more beautiful than a spearfish.

We got to Milna just as the sun was going down.

Adriatic Harbor 4

Inside the Milna harbor. All of these places are worth visiting, especially if you’re not a fisherman.

Milna was charming, and featured a water’s-edge promenade loaded with good restaurants. The architecture was wonderfully quaint, although the 18th-century church needed some repairs. (They do say “If it ‘aint baroque, don’t fix it.”) Dinner was steak and seafood, looking over the harbor on a pleasant summer evening. Of course, I wolfed down my food so I could get back to the water.

Adriatic Cat

We were joined for dinner by a three-legged cat. I got him his own salmon carpaccio.

The next morning, we got in a few hours of tuna fishing. We saw three fish on the depth finder – good news – but we had no strikes. Molnar handled it much, much better than I would have. While we were waiting on a bluefin, I fished smaller rigs on the bottom and picked up a lovely striped picarel – a final species with just a few moments to go in the trip.

Adriatic Picarel

This is what passes for excitement in my world.

We cleaned and packed our gear, had a nice seaside lunch in Split, and took a taxi to the airport.

Adriatic Split

Split, Croatia. Highest divorce rate in the Balkans.

I was inconsolable. Marc had done his best, but the Fish Gods had spoken. I had thought the spearfish was finally going to happen, and one twist in the weather had brought it all crashing down. But the bitterest experience in the whole four days was likely the sharpnose seabream, which may be why Stefan was not quite as foul as I was. Indeed, I could swear he had a slight smile on the whole flight to Frankfurt. I could also swear he got a congratulatory text from Jaime.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS UPDATE – GERMAN PERCH FISHING

The week before the Adriatic mess, while I was still at my office in Germany, I got an unexpected fishing invitation. One of my co-workers, definitely not a fisherman, had arranged for me and Stefan Molnar to go out with one of his friends in a small local lake, about 10 miles from the office. There wasn’t much of a chance at a new species, but an afternoon of fishing is always a good thing.

Adriatic Falko

Falko, who set the whole thing up. Not a fisherman, but a superstar at work and somehow popular with the ladies. Must be the hair.

Of course, I always keep an eye out for records as well as species, and I was thrilled to see that a bunch of line-class records were open on European perch. This lake was supposed to have big perch. How hard could it be?

Falko’s friend was named Karl-Heinz – a great guy. (And a pro-level fisherman.) He knew the lake down to the last rockpile, but we actually ran into another one of those situations where the weather was TOO good. Hot, bright, sunny, and still may make for a nice day to sit by the shore, but the gamefish tend to go deep and off the bite in these conditions. Still, we got out there and enjoyed ourselves.

But the fishing was difficult. And no matter how nice the day is, tough fishing makes me forget things like sunshine and nice scenery. But we were nothing if not persistent, and by the end of a pleasant evening, we had both caught a solid European perch – mine big enough to set the 12 pound line-class record.

Adriatic Perch

A summer afternoon well-spent. That’s Karl-Heinz on the right.

So a big thanks to Karl-Heinz and to Falko for putting together a great afternoon on the water, and to Stefan Molnar for not catching any more rare fish right in front of me.

Posted by: 1000fish | May 10, 2015

Grahovo

Dateline: July 19, 2014 – Grahovo, Montenegro

I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in Grahovo – Anka’s village. I had heard stories for years, and now, via an unlikely path, I was standing there.

Grahovo Sign

On the outskirts of Grahovo, Montenegro.

Anka was born between the wars, in a small village in what was then Yugoslavia. A pretty girl with dark hair and big, hazel eyes, she worked on her family’s farm from a very young age. She loved animals, and could talk to them much better than Dr. Doolittle, because Dr. Doolittle didn’t speak Serbian.

Grahovo was a desperately poor place, but it was quiet and out of the way, and the family made do through the depression. Anything extra went to poorer villages nearby.

In April of 1941, the Germans came. There was heavy fighting on the approaches to the village, but the Wermacht pushed their way through the town and began four years of occupation. The unexpectedly hard fight in Yugoslavia delayed the German invasion of Russia by five critical weeks. A campaign that might have captured Moscow in the fall of 1941 teetered into a snowy stalemate, and then into a relentless, red tide westward, paid for with millions of Russian lives, that would end in the ruins of Berlin on May 8, 1945.

That same year, the communists took over, and the purges that followed dwarfed the barbarism of the Nazis. Tito’s men murdered a number of Anka’s relatives – her father, her uncle, her cousins. Anka spent her early adult years in various compulsory state jobs – working on railroad and highway crews, then in a factory, and finally in a state sawmill. She worked long hours quietly, too proud to complain. In 1958, she married and uprooted to California, where Anka had five children. The youngest of these children, an adorable but mischievous sandy blond girl, was born in 1965. Thirty-nine years later, through a complex series of coincidences, I met that mischievous little girl.

The little girl’s name is Marta. Anka from Grahovo is her Mother, and so has been my de-facto Mother-in-Law for something like 10 years. And I found myself standing in the village were it all started.

Of course, this somehow involves fishing. It was high summer and I had a business trip to Europe, so I called Marc Inoue, the fabled tuna guide based out of Slovenia who has led me to a number of countries and species, despite horrible luck with the weather. (See “The Minefield.”) Marc has also given 1000fish one of our most treasured photos – the one of him struggling out of bed at 4am after a particularly exuberant night in Serbia.

Serbia Vegetable

The photo is almost as good as the one of my brother-in-law being seasick.

Marc had suggested that we go troll for big bluefin tuna in central Croatia. Ever on the lookout for adding countries and species, I noted that Montenegro was quite close to our starting port of Dubrovnik, and we added one day on the itinerary for me to make the short drive and catch a fish just across the border. I asked Marc if he could get directions to Grahovo – he said he would figure it out. This guy goes way above the call of duty as a fishing guide, and has become quite a buddy.

Stefan Molnar, German fishing buddy and inventor of the fabled “Five Gram Rule,” joined me for the expedition. Hopefully he would finally have that epic trip I have been promising for years. We flew to Dubrovnik on a Friday night, and it was great to catch up with Marc. I confess that that we made something of a late night of it.

We struggled out of bed the next morning at the crack of noon, and assembled some Red Bull and cheese from a local shop. (Important safety tip –  this is a guaranteed recipe for constipation.) We then drove to Montenegro. It’s a quick hop, driving along the coast on a clear, beautiful summer day.

Grahovo Coast

The Croatian Coast south of Dubrovnik.

Grahovo Welcome

We enter Montenegro.

The first town across the border is a good-sized port, Herceg Novi, and Marc figured it was here I could scrape up some sort of small fish and add Montenegro to the country list.

Grahovo Harbor

Looking up the mountain from Herceg Novi.

Marc wrangled a parking spot – no mean feat this time of year in a seaside town – and we all raced down to the breakwater.

Grahovo Harbor 3

Steve investigates the harbor.

It was one of the rare times that the Fish Gods smiled on me. I had planned to use two rods – one with a larger bait on the off chance that something reasonable would bite, and one with sabikis to make sure I caught something. I cast the larger rig and set it up in the rocks. Just as I turned around to get the sabiki rod, the clicker on the big rod sounded with a short, sharp run. Amazed, I grabbed the rod, reeled out the slack, and went through that nervous moment where we figure out if the fish is still there. For a breathless second, I waited, then the fish took off and I reflexively set the hook. It was a solid fight, and it took me a minute or two to get it close. It was a gilthead bream, relatively small, but as I swung it up onto the rocks, I recognized that it was over a pound, and so, on the 12 pound line I was using, it was actually a world record.

Grahovo Bream

The only world record set in Montenegro to date.

I got a few other small fish, but basically, my work there was done.

Grahovo Molnar

Molnar tries his luck on the breakwall.

It was a lot earlier than I thought it would be, and I had sort of been thinking all night about making a quick side trip to Grahovo. I broached the idea over lunch in the harbor; Stefan and Marc both seemed up for it, and we headed off to cover what looked like only 25 miles on the map.

I’m not sure we went any faster than the Germans did in 1941, and no one was shooting at us. It was a beautiful drive, a sublime drive, full of mountains and ocean and rural scenery, but it was not a fast drive. The roads are winding and full of Russian tourists who apparently just had a bottle of vodka for lunch.

Grahovo Bay

We had scenery like this pretty much the whole drive.

Marc was sure he knew where he was going, but the signage was less than optimal. The more lost we seemed, the more determined I was to see the place where Anka was born. The guys never wavered, and about two hours later, we finally saw a sign for Grahovo. It was later in the afternoon, maybe three, which meant it was early in California, but I texted a few pictures. Marta is not prone to text abbreviations, but I think OMFG about covered it.

The village cannot be 200 yards long and comprise of more than a few hundred souls. We drove the length of the main street, turned around, and parked. I got out, not knowing what to expect.

Grahovo Main

Main street, Grahovo.

Grahovo Truck

One of the houses in town.

I certainly wasn’t going to announce who my girlfriend was, because the hospitality here would dictate that we stay for days. So I just wandered and took in the village. Much of it was in ruins – maybe a third of the homes were abandoned.

Grahovo House 1

This was once the house of a leading citizen.

Grahovo Ruins

Another ruin, interspersed among people going about their daily lives.

The cars were old – and mostly Yugos. Here and there, someone would wave a hello. These were Marta’s people, and undoubtedly, many of them were relatives.

Grahovo Street

A sign for a general store, closed years ago.

I didn’t need to look far to find some evidence of Marta’s family, even after all this time.

Grahovo Statue

A statue honoring Marta’s great uncle, who was killed in the closing days of the war.

Improbably, there was a small cafe – really, just a few chairs outside of a porch – at the end of town. We sat down and ordered a beer.

Grahovo Bar

The group has a beer in Montenegro.

Texts started coming in from Marta – “We have spent HOURS at that cafe. Looks like the same chairs as 1983. The waitress is a cousin.” There were a few guys at the other table. They raised their glasses; we raised ours.

Grahovo Bar 2

Marc and Steve in Grahovo’s hotspot.

Marta texted me “Buy them a round.” So we did. But then they bought us a round, and whatever they were drinking would scare a Hungarian. (Details HERE. It’s ugly.)

Grahovo Bar 3

The local boys pass a Saturday afternoon.

We passed a couple of hours this way. It seemed a bit of a shame not to announce myself, but Marc had the same thing to say. “If these people think you’re even a distant in-law, you’ll be here three days.” It was such a small place, quiet, proud, poor – but these were Marta’s people. We finished a final round – which was quietly a Coke for Marc as he was driving – and we took a final look around. The check was a total written on a napkin – perhaps eight Euros for the whole afternoon. I tipped her another 20, and gave her 10 more to keep the guys at the other table in turpentine for the rest of the night. I said “A gift from Anka in California,” but of course, the waitress didn’t speak English.

The drive back to Dubrovnik went quickly; we discussed the giant tuna we were going to catch the rest of the week.

Grahovo Goodbye

Heading back to Dubrovnik.

A few days after I came back from Europe, Marta and I went to see Anka and show her the pictures. Anka is 83 now. She has slowed down a bit, but still manages the household with cheerful ruthlessness. She is too old to make a visit back to the “old country,” as she calls it, but I felt a bit like I had done it for her. Of course, she would not  look at anything until we had been fed within an inch of our lives, because this is how guests are treated in the old country.

We looked at the photos on my laptop – a 21st century device to show photos of a 19th century village. Marta had been there in the 1980s, and they both recognized much of the landscape. They spoke for a good while in Serbian. Anka was fascinated but sad, her mind and memory still sharp, but the place itself had faded so very much.

Anka went through the photos again, slowly. She identified old houses, once occupied by neighbors, friends and relatives long since dead. She recognized farms and roads, and even the face of the cafe waitress. On one particular photo, a long, concrete building with a collapsed roof, she paused a long time.

Grahovo Sawmill

“That was the sawmill.” she said. “I worked hard there.” Her eyes were very far away. It had been over 60 years since she had worked there, time well-passed raising five children and living a new life in the US, but to see the place still brought her a terrible sadness.

Steve

 

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