Posted by: 1000fish | November 27, 2016

Bungle in the Jungle

Dateline: May 18, 2016 – Ayuttayah, Thailand

Call me what you will, I don’t like camping. I feel that deliberately staying outdoors and sleeping in tents insults our forefathers, who fought to give us indoor plumbing and Hyatt hotels. Still, there are times when camping is required, and this would be one of those times. My amazing connection in the region, Jean-Francois Helias, had recommended an excellent river for Thai exotic species, but it would require several days of camping. Jean-Francois, who could sleep on a mechanical bull in the middle of a food riot, is amused by my reluctance to experience the great outdoors, but cobras and tigers worry me.

Jean-Francois had an excellent locale in mind for this visit – the Petburi River in western central Thailand. This is supposed to be a very scenic place laden with exotic fish … and tigers and cobras. It would require three nights under the stars, but looking at the photos of previous trips to the area, I had to chance it. Jean-Francois sent me out with an old friend – top guide Kik, who had fished the area and would take care of all the arrangements. But those of you who know me well know that I must really want to go fishing if I’m going to camp. Locations like this normally offer outstanding fishing … normally.

The day before the big jungle drive. Kik and I decided to fish the Chao Phraya river in Ayuttayah, about two hours north of Bangkok. He figured there were a couple of things there I had never caught, notably the swamp eel. Yes, that’s right – I did a four hour round trip for a swamp eel. If this surprises you, you must be a new reader – welcome! It’s an easy drive on big freeways, and there are 7-11s and McDonalds everywhere, which give me a comfortable feeling of civilization. We got out there mid-morning – it’s in the middle of a big city that’s quite a tourist destination. The place is loaded with temples, which I noticed vaguely as we headed for the ramp.

I have had boat ramps blocked many times, generally by inexperienced anglers who do not understand that there are other boats. These people are idiots and they deserve our sympathy. But I had never seen a boat ramp blocked by … an elephant. As a matter of fact, several elephants. I do not particularly trust elephants – one cornered me on a beach in Africa in 2006, and I can tell you that they’re a lot bigger than they look in zoos. Luckily, the only casualty that day was my underpants.

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Elephants being taken down to the boat ramp. Yes, you can hear their footsteps from some distance away.

In this case, the pachyderms were not wild – they were residents of a nearby preserve, and they were being brought down to the water for water and food. Yes, they smell like an elephant, and bugs swarm off them when they enter the water, but they are still awesome. They are friendly, curious, and I could always hide behind Kik if something went wrong.

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And they have their own built-in snorkel.

After that slight delay, we got on the water. The swamp eel came quickly – we dabbled worm baits in likely crevices, and the action was instant.

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My swamp eel – the day was already a success.

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Adorable.

In the same spot, but fishing out away from the rocks, I got a bite and a spirited little fight. Lifting the fish into the boat, I was thrilled to see a tiger botia, one of the largest loach species. I had seen these in books for years, and now I had one on my list.

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The tiger botia loach. Not related to tigers.

The rest of the day passed pleasantly, with plenty of fish and one more new species – the borneen catfish.

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There are plenty of nondescript catfish in the area, but this was one of the identifiable ones.

We also got featherbacks – I’ve gotten these before but they’re so cool that I always put up pictures when I get them.

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With his French accent, Jean-Francois calls these “fizzerback.”

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An elephant follows us up the ramp.

I was up three species and this was before the main trip had really started. Things were looking very good.

The next day, we set off early for the Petburi. Most of the drive is on big, modern freeways – meaning that there are 7-11s and McDonalds. (I made sure to load up on every possible fast food, as I would be existing on freeze-dried camping food for three days.) It was only the last 50 miles or so that were on a rural dirt road, but this seemed to take forever. I was, of course, very eager to go fishing.

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It was a beautiful place, but a long, long road.

Somewhere in there, we lost cell signal, which is the new indicator of whether we’re truly in the boonies. (It was sobering to realize I would not be able to check baseball scores for three days.) I had to admit it was a beautiful place – increasingly steep hills, endless jungle, an occasional glimpse of some amazing bird. The road had a few rough stretches, but mostly, it was just long. After a couple of hours, we started seeing the river, and it was GORGEOUS. Small, clear, and loaded with fish that were big enough to see from the road.

We made a quick stop to fish a riffle and pool. I caught a few small barbs, but the highlight was the one that got away – some kind of huge barb hit a floating fruit bait but the hook pulled out.

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Our first fishing stop of the day.

I was very psyched thinking about the next couple of days. We pulled into the camp – a platform on the back of a local villager’s hut –  and I raced to get my stuff unpacked and my rigs ready. I stared balefully at the tarp-covered tent where I would sleep, or not, for the next three nights.

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The platform might keep cobras away, but that’s an easy jump for a tiger.

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There were puppies. I like puppies, but so do cobras and tigers.

Just when all seemed right in the world, the skies darkened, thunder roared, and it began pouring in that tropical way that it only can in the tropics. It did this for about four hours, and I sat forlornly under the tarp watching the river rise and cloud up. Hopefully, it would settle out just as quickly. As soon as the storm tailed off into a steady drizzle, which was about an hour before sunset, I went down to the river and fished some of the edges. Although the water was depressingly murky, I scraped up one new species, which goes by the catchy Latin name of Opsarius koratensis.

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An Opsarius. Collect them all!

I gave up as it got dark, as the tigers and cobras would be stirring. I joined Kik back up at the tents and ate one of my freeze-dried camping meals – chili and macaroni is a favorite. This is when I had to face sleeping in a tent in the middle of a jungle that never quite cools off at night. Kik had gotten me a first class tent and an air mattress, but the temperature and humidity hovered over 90. I could open the vents on the tent, but I certainly wasn’t sleeping outside with the insects – and cobras and tigers. This meant that inside of the tent got rather sweaty and I felt exactly like the inside of a steamed dumpling. No matter how much benadryl I took, I never really dozed off that well, so I was wiped out by the next morning. Luckily, I brought lots of Red Bull.

I was still half asleep when we met our guides – very nice local guys with the typical Thai homemade narrow wooden boats, powered with outboards that feature a very long prop shaft.

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The standard Thai fishing boat.

Nothing wakes a person up like a solid dose of terror, and that was next. The Petburi is a narrow mountain river with a steep grade, and that means lots of rapids. As we motored up to the first set of impassable, roaring whitewater, I presumed that we were out of river and would stop there. But no. They sped up, motors roaring so loudly that I couldn’t hear myself scream.

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Yes, they drove a boat up this with no warning.

One guy sat in the front – the “goalie” – and used a pole to deflect rocks and direct the motorman, who kept the throttle floored as I held on in sphincter-knotting terror.

Click HERE for the video. It’s a bit long, but skip around and you’ll find the rapids scenes. Listen carefully and you’ll hear me screaming like a nine year-old girl covered in bees.

Kik explained it would have been even more dangerous with lower water. So I was a bit grateful for the rain, right until we started fishing. The water, which had come up about 2 feet, was muddy and cold, and this didn’t bode well. But I set to it, and after a few moments, I got some small bites. These went on for some time before I finally hooked a fish, and then the problem was obvious.

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The problem.

These were freshwater puffers – one of the same species I had caught a few years ago in Laos. (See “Shangri Laos” for details.) They are sneaky and have very sharp teeth, and although I tried baits large and small, this seemed to be the only thing that would bite. I would cast out a big bait for a catfish or jungle perch, then pass the time with small hooks catching puffers. I would then reel in the bigger rig to see that it had been cleared off by puffers. This went on for hours. Every so often, I would catch a small barb, but recognize it as something I had gotten at Srinakarin.

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A local barb. These were a welcome relief from the puffers, but I had gotten this species before.

Then we would move up another few rapids, leaving my throat sore from screaming and other parts sore from clenching. Kik cast lures endlessly, but the water was blown out. They figured it would clear in a few days, but in a few days I would be back in San Francisco.

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Then we caught more puffers.

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I did manage to get a zig-zag eel.

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But mostly it was puffers. I caught 83 of them in total.

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It certainly was a beautiful place. But you all know how much this matters to me if the fishing isn’t great.

Toward the end of the day, it hit me that we were going to have to go back down all the rapids that we had ascended.

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Steve gets emotionally prepared to do the rapids in reverse.

More screaming. More clenching. But these guys were good – they hardly ever even hit a rock, let alone spill water on me. (Which made the stains much more difficult to explain.) We returned to camp at dusk, and I ate my REI freeze-dried camping food quietly, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day.

I thought I would be wiped out enough to sleep well, but once the sounds of the nighttime jungle started, I was wide awake. More benadryl, more sweaty tossing and turning, and a really bad dream that Jaime showed up and caught a Caesar grunt. A long and sticky night blended into morning. I told myself that the fishing just had to get better. The guys ran us downstream this time – more rapids but I was too exhausted to scream or clench. We set up shop on a rocky ledge, and the Fish Gods threw me a curveball. The very first fish I caught was a new species – the blackstriped barb.

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Go figure.

This filled me with hope, but the Fish Gods often mistake hope for hubris, and the puffers came back with a vengeance.

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Apparently they don’t mind cold, muddy water.

It was approaching noon and I had caught nothing but puffers for three hours. If the fishing had been up to its potential, I would have braved anything, but as things were, the idea of another night in the sweatbox was not appealing. I decided that I would catch 10 more fish, and if they were all puffers, that I would bail out and head back to Bangkok.

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Ten minutes later …

Kik agreed with me, and we hit the road in the early afternoon. The trip was uneventful until I threw my fishing clothes into the tub at the Hyatt.

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My clothing soaks in the tub. This strongly resembles a soup my ex-wife used to make, although she didn’t use as many socks.

Of course, Kik and I weren’t going to give up so easily, so we decided to go back to Ayuttayah the next day. The drive seemed quick and familiar, and even allowing for some extra sleep, we were still on the water by late morning. Of course, there was an elephant at the boat ramp.

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Their eyes are amazing.

There were plenty of fish biting, and by lunch, I had gotten two new species – the yellowbelly barb and a catfish with no English name.

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The yellowbelly barb – nice fighters on light tackle.

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Pangasius macronema – a smaller relative of the Giant Mekong Catfish.

We spent the rest of the afternoon catching a variety of barbs and catfish – Ayuttayah is a great species location – and I closed up the day with a final new species, the duskyfin Glassfish.

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Kik and friend celebrate my final new species of the trip.

Even though the jungle trip hadn’t gone quite as planned, we had still bagged eight species, and these were eight that I wasn’t going to get anywhere else. I had to write off my two nights in the jungle to experience – if I’m ever going to reach 2000 species, this won’t be my last camping trip. Jean-Francois has already suggested another jungle location for next year, and while I am hopeful that Hyatt will open a location there in the next few months, chances are I’ll be back under the stars soon.

Steve

PS – Bangkok international airport has added some fine dining …

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Oh yes they did.

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 20, 2016

The Hengray

Dateline: May 8, 2016 – Ponggol, Singapore

Was Dave’s heng up to the challenge? Could Jimmy pull it off for a third time in less than a year? No one will know until the end of this post, of course except for me and Dave and Jimmy and some assorted friends I’ve already told. Oh, and the biologist who finally figured out exactly which stingray I caught, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. (And as you recall, heng is a Singaporean term for “luck.”)

I had been out twice with Dave and Jimmy, and apart from the fact that they bicker like an old married couple, the fishing had been great. Click HERE and HERE for the sordid details.) In an effort to catch a longtail stingray – one of the last identifiable creatures in Singaporean waters I had not caught – we had stumbled into six new species. (And quite a few nice fish – astonishing considering that I spend so much time targeting micros.) Since I have fished Singapore frequently over the past 20 years, finding anything new is a major triumph – but if anyone can do it, these two can.

It started, as it always does, with a business trip. I needed to be in Singapore for a week, which is not a bad thing. This city-state at the end of the Malaysian peninsula is smaller than San Diego, but it is a crossroads of commerce in Asia, and it thankfully lacks much of the “adventure” that marks trips elsewhere in the region. The streets are safe, the nightlife is vibrant, and it is full of restaurants I know and trust, like Black Angus, Pizza Hut, and Burger King. I’ve often heard Singapore called “Asia for Beginners,” and I believe this is a good thing.

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Singapore at night. Photo taken about two hours before we got on the water. I blame the vibrant nightlife and my vibrant co-workers.

A full slate of meetings inconveniently took up the week, but the weekend was mine. Saturday arrived, and I taxied to Ponggol Marina bright and early, having barely had time to stop at the Hyatt and get my gear. (See “vibrant nightlife” as mentioned above.) Dave and Jimmy were ready, and I dare say they both smelled better than I did.

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Jimmy, Steve, and Dave. It was a rough morning. If you’re in Singapore and want to get on the water, contact Jimmy at itsgreat7070@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/ItsGrRReat

Dave brought along another friend, Sean, who was certainly nicer and more awake than any of us. (Although roughly five months later, he did something horrible to me.)

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Sean displays the painfully good attitude that comes from being young and getting a full night of sleep. He may look nice, but wait until you read what he did in October of 2016.

The fishing started out slowly. It was a bit cool by Singapore standards, maybe 82 degrees, and my small rigs seemed to get nothing but tripodfish.

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These bottom-dwelling oddities are as sharp as they look. There are several species in the area, but I’ve gotten them all.

Dave, as usual, refused to debase himself with bait fishing, and he cast high-speed jigs relentlessly. I sort of have to respect this blind devotion, just as Dave will grudgingly admit that my persistence on the bait rigs is bewildering and yet strange to him. Late in the morning, he got the first decent hookup, a solid Indo-Pacific ladyfish, which was a tremendous battle on his inadvisably light tackle. (The local anglers seem to stick with rods more suited to planter trout than tropical gamefish, yet they seem to land most of what they hook.)

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Dave battles a tenpounder as a 747 makes a landing approach into Changi. The roar of the jets didn’t help my headache.

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Dave’s first catch of the day. These things pull hard.

Moments later, I had a hard strike, and something heavy took my shrimp and headed for Malaysia. As I was using more suitable gear, my fight was substantially shorter, although Dave mentioned that his fish was bigger than mine.

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Another Indo-Pacific ladyfish.

In terms of species, nothing much else cooperated throughout the afternoon, and I stayed awake with a steady diet of Red Bull and Advil. We got a few more ladyfish, a variety of snappers, groupers, and sweetlips, as well as several dozen more tripodfish, but the rays would not cooperate. This was especially frustrating because I knew they were there – we had seen some commercial fishermen pulling in their nets that morning and they were positively loaded with small rays. As we got late in the day, Jimmy quietly stuck it out in that same area, and he mentioned that I should use a whole, live prawn. I had switched to smaller chunks, as the rays I had seen looked to be fairly modest in size. Moments later, and well past when Jimmy would have usually left, I had a very light strike – so light that I thought it might have been the bait moving. Then it went again. Breathlessly, I reeled tight on my line and started lifting up. The small circle hook latched on to something, and thus began a fight that was equal parts short, one-sided, and listless. As my weight surfaced, Jimmy swept in behind me with the net and scooped up the small stingray I had been trying to catch for years. We had done it. Jimmy and Dave’s heng had proven itself yet again.

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Steve, Sean, and Dave celebrate the latest species. Interestingly, or not, the fish turned out to be a dwarf whipray, not the longtail ray I thought it would be, so there is still at least one more species out there for me in Singapore. How the heck did Jimmy know something this small could inhale a whole prawn?

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Handle with care, and never, ever, put this in your pants.

I dare say my Saturday night was a touch less vibrant than my Friday. From what I remember, I went face down in a room-service Caesar salad at around 9 and that was it for my evening.

Dave had a interesting plan for us on Sunday. The destination was Palau Ubin, a small island on the north end of Singapore. Dave has a connection there who owns a disused shrimp farm, and these ponds, which flood and ebb with the tide, have attracted quite a variety of species, most of which Dave doesn’t care about, because they are small and do not attack expensive lures. This was the first place I ever fished with Dave, and while I had pulled two species out of the place, we also knew there were swamp eels – these would be the target for the day.

In order to catch the eels, I set up a couple of bottom baits and waited. I immediately had a false alarm – a small barramundi took off with the bait. As amped-up as I was, even I knew something that fast couldn’t be an eel, so I had fun fighting it and then set up the eel rods again.

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A barramundi. A 2005 line class record on this species was my first world record ever.

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May 25, 2005 – Thailand. My first world record. To be clear, this is not a big barramundi. They had just opened up 80# line class on the species, and Jean-Francois Helias rarely misses an opportunity like that.

While I was still waiting for the eels, I noticed some mudskippers along the shore. Mudskippers, a fascinating creature that can breathe in air as well as water, frequent muddy shorelines in the region and are maddeningly difficult to catch. They will chase baits for some distance, running on their modified pectoral fins, but getting them to bite is another problem. (And when they do bite, they often fall off the hook while you are swinging them up on the shore.) But I had plenty of time, and I worked at it for more than an hour, losing two that were inches from my hand. But finally, I launched one over my shoulder, chased it down, and took pictures. It turned out to be a yellowspotted mudskipper, and this was a new species. The day was a triumph.

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This made my day a triumph. And some people say I have low standards, at least until they meet Marta. Then they question her standards.

I went back to the eels for a couple of hours, but they would not cooperate. I recognized that this would be more of a nighttime thing, and I can’t necessarily say I was looking forward to braving the mosquitoes just to catch a swamp eel. As we were getting ready to head home, I broke out a sabiki rig and fished the shoreline for a few minutes. Along with the regular ponyfish and puffers, I got one very surprising fish – a duckbill sleeper. That was two for the day, three for the weekend, and life was good. My lifetime total had crept up to around 1518.

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The duckbill sleeper. I’ve caught members of this family as far afield as Thailand and Belize. The head is on the right. Look carefully.

And so we packed it in, grabbed some cold sodas for the road, and caught the 10 minute ferry back to the mainland.

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The guys waiting at the ferry dock.

Singapore had produced three more new – if unexpected – species for me, all through the kindness and tireless efforts of Jimmy, Dave, and their friends. I couldn’t wait to return and chase the longtail ray, and I even knew when I would be back – October. But before I could worry about that, I had other challenges to face. The next morning, I was heading out for five days in a desolate strip of jungle in western Thailand, where, I dare say, conditions would be a bit more difficult.

Steve

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 11, 2016

Breaking Even

Dateline: April 17, 2016 – Dania Beach, Florida

The Fish Gods giveth, the Fish Gods taketh away. But Martini and Val didn’t need to help them.

The giveth and the taketh tooketh place in South Florida, one of my favorite fishing spots on earth. Honestly, there isn’t a lot left for me to catch there. We’re down to some pretty esoteric stuff, but let’s face it, it’s a fun place to fish and I usually scrape up a species or two. Some of my best friends are there – the Arosteguis, for example – and, of course, so is the IGFA. Apart from the fact that the IGFA is just a great place to visit and is right next to a Bass Pro Shops location, they also hold the World Record Achievement Awards dinner every April. This is Oscar night for fishermen – and to Marta’s great dismay, I had managed to win Men’s Saltwater. Don’t act so surprised. That’s Marta’s job.

Marta would probably prefer that I stop bringing the trophies home. Just last week, she looked me right in the eye and said “Aren’t you going to run out of room in the garage?” I told her that I’ll buy a bigger garage. I want to be surrounded with these awards when I get old, and unlike the swarm of cats Marta secretly wants, I know the trophies won’t eat me if I doze off.

This year was the hardest one of the five, but also one of the most special. The first time I won, I was so shocked I don’t think it had sunk in until about a week later.

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I kept my first IGFA trophy very safe.

This time, it didn’t even occur to me to try for it until about halfway through the season. Right around the time Santa was making his run to the Island of Misfit Toys, (all of which Marta wants to adopt,) I realized I didn’t have a single record for the season. I sort of figured that the big four-year run that got me to the Lifetime Achievement Award last year should have been enough, which would make sense to all of you who aren’t unhealthily competitive. And this sort of sat in the back of my mind until well into the spring, when a series of fortuitous business trips – Singapore, Qatar, and Australia – put me in the running. Things just seemed to fall into place from there, and I ended up obsessively travelling to a few more places that I thought would produce a record or two. This often comes at the expense of species hunting, and realistically, if I am ever going to reach 2000, I am going to need to focus on the species rather than the records, but I wanted this one and the obsessive nature of my approach to fishing may have helped just a bit.

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The fountain at the IGFA headquarters, Dania Beach, Florida. I want one of these in my yard.

I talked Marta into going by promising to visit a museum or do something faintly cultural, but she loves visiting the Arosteguis, especially Rossi (the cat.) Whether we go out or they cook at home, there is always a meal or two that is (gasp) even better than Skyline Chili, and it always feels like staying with family. We were there a day or two before the event, which we spent doing faintly cultural stuff, and then, on Saturday afternoon, it was off to the WRAA.

Apart from being able to rub elbows with some truly legendary fishermen, where I never feel like I belong, this event has also become a place to catch up with some old friends like IGFA guys Jack Vitek and Adrian Gray. This is the 6th WRAA I have attended, and no, it never, ever gets old. I recall my first one in 2011, when I knew absolutely no one, but now it seems like familiar ground.

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The best-decorated dining room ANYWHERE.

There was one horrible aspect to the event – Women’s saltwater was won by, and it hurts me to write this – Jaime Hamamoto. The good news was that she was busy being valedictorian or something and couldn’t make it, so at least we were spared that pain. But her presence was palpable.

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They even put her picture ahead of mine.

The specter of Jaime was somewhat offset by the presence of one of my best friends, Scott Perry. Scott and I go back a long, long time, when we both had thick hair and high hopes. He’s been to a couple of these events, and he always keeps Marta from being too mean to me.

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Scott and Martini pose for the camera. Come to think of it, Scott still has thick hair.

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Don’t let her good looks fool you. Marta was probably being mean to me in this picture. And yes, I picked that shirt out myself.

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Steve and Martini. The look on Martini’s face is the EXACT look he gives when he disagrees with your ID on a fish.

Perhaps the most special aspect of the evening, however, was watching someone win the Men’s Freshwater trophy, because that someone else happened to be Martini. We’ve shared a stage before, but it was just an awesome feeling to see one of my best friends add a trophy like this to his impressive collection. I have a lot of fishing buddies, but only one who truly understands the obsessive sacrifice and dedication it takes to pull this off, because he has lived it so many times.

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Martini with plaque, being applauded by Marty and Roberta.

Yes, I got to go on stage and say a few words, but as much of a ham as I am, this wouldn’t be the right place. There were too many people to thank – the guides, the fishing buddies, the Arosteguis, the fish, and even Marta – and then I got back to the table. I did take a moment up there just to stop and look around and remember the moment – these trophies represent, in the humble fashion of a couple of pounds of wood and fiberglass each, years of hard work, good fortune, great friends, and a whole lot of fun. For better or for worse, the eight trophies I have brought home over the past six years, plus 1500-odd fish species, represent my life’s work, and I wanted to take it all in, because tonight was about stopping and recognizing this all, but tomorrow would be about catching the next species and the next record. A lot of people ask me – how much will be enough? I don’t have an answer – I just love to do this.

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They always remember to smile, but then again, they have done this a lot more than I have.

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Marta wonders where in the garage this will go.

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Scott and Steve. He supports placing these on the wall above the fireplace.

The party went on well into the evening, and I allowed myself one night of reflecting on what I had done so far and how fortunate I have been.

But then came morning. There I was, in a gorgeous tropical fishing location with one of my best fishing buddies, so I am sure Marta understood that fishing the whole day was a moral imperative.

The first idea was to head to Lauderdale by the Sea and that fantastic pier. It has such a variety of fish, and there is a Skyline Chili nearby. But the weather was against us – a stiff wind pushed up heavy waves that made things difficult. We stuck it out and got a few assorted oddities, but the usual experience akin to fishing in an aquarium was not to be. Still, it was great to be out on the water with Scott. He has adult responsibilities that I don’t, like a family, and we don’t get out that often, but I was secretly thrilled that he didn’t catch another Caesar grunt.

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A spot-tail pinfish. I can never seem to get the silver porgy, which looks quite similar.

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A smooth puffer. These can get positively huge.

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Like I said, they can get enormous. This one is from Rio de Janeiro in 2004. Interesting (or not) side note – I had thought the black jacket in the picture was waterproof. It wasn’t, which made for a long day.

After a few hours, we bailed out and I nagged everyone into eating at Skyline Chili – certainly not Marta’s favorite, but I paid off Scott to vote for eating there. He’s from the south. He’ll eat anything.

After lunch, I remembered that we did have one semi-weatherproof spot on reserve – a boat launch in Boca Raton that produced a couple of species for me last year. (Details HERE.) Before we set up there, I tried to find a few other spots using iPhone email and google maps, which didn’t go well, but I of course took this calmly and in stride. (Perspective from Marta – “Steve was unbearable, and at one stage, he got mad at us because we wouldn’t park in a towaway zone. He thought some sort of damselfish was nearby and was not concerned with details like walking back to Coral Gables.”)

Despite Marta mistaking my enthusiasm for petulance, once we set up at the ramp, things went well. There is a small park we could enjoy, we had cold beverages, it was a pleasant afternoon, and there were plenty of fish for everyone. We made friends with some of the local folks who were fishing there, sharing bait and tips, and the three of us caught loads of local critters, ranging from grunts to porgies to snappers to triggerfish.

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Marta and her new fishing partner with a keeper-sized mangrove snapper.

Some of the fish were beautiful – the porkfish is one of my favorites. Even though I had caught them before, it never gets old to see something that colorful come out of the water.

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A porkfish. No idea why it’s called that.

As we were starting to wind things down, I got a hard strike and lifted up what I thought, at first, was a wrasse.

igfa-parrot-2

Not a wrasse.

Moments later, it hit me that I had a parrotfish. I thought it was likely the redtail I have caught there many times, but it didn’t look quite right. I sent photos out to a few trusted sources, but identifying this creature turned out to be quite a chore. The scientist that Val trusted the most on this group was on vacation for a couple of weeks, and Martini was also ready to help, but I managed to not send him the one picture that would have made the ID clear. Weeks later, when I finally did send him the right photo, and Val’s connection returned, both agreed I had caught something quite unusual – a yellowtail parrotfish. Yes, I know it has a red tail, but I have learned not to argue with either of these people.

igfa-parrot

The triumphant angler with his new species.

Shortly after all this, however, Martini turned against me. We were talking about other improbable Florida species, and the Grass Porgy came up. I informed him I had caught one – indeed it was with him in the Bahamas in 2011. He got that skeptical look he gets, went to my blog and pulled up the photo, and shook his head sadly. “That’s a juvenile sheepshead porgy.” he said. “But it has the v-shaped mark on the tail” I countered. I got that sick feeling, because I never do well in these arguments. Martini informed me that most porgies can have that marking, as they can change color patterns seemingly at will based on stress, moon phase, and desire to annoy me. So just when the yellowtail parrotfish – the one with the red tail – had given me an unexpected moment of triumph, here was an unexpected moment of humility. I appealed to Val Kells, who spitefully pointed out that Grass Porgies don’t even live in the Bahamas.

Well phhhhhhhht on both of you. Now I have one more reason to return to Miami. And I will get that porgy, and the darn Caesar grunt, even if I have to spend weeks on the pier, which doesn’t really sound all that bad.

Steve

PS – just for the record, I have caught a beastly sheepshead porgy. Nyah nyah nyah.

igfa-porgy

Cagarras Islands, Brazil – November 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | October 4, 2016

Greece is the Word

Dateline: April 9, 2016 – Nafplio, Greece

Who knew there was an Oracle before Larry Ellison?

So we went on vacation to Greece, which is not exactly a sportfishing mecca. Don’t feel bad for me – I knew I wasn’t going to get away with going to Kona or Bimini every time. Besides, a trip to Greece had been a long time in the making, pretty much since Marta graduated college, which was at least 12 years ago. She had studied Classics, a major with an only slightly higher employment rate than my English and History degrees, and this means she knows a lot about ancient Greece and Rome. (My knowledge of these places is limited to “The Guns of Navarone” and “Life of Brian” respectively.) At least this would be a chance to add country number 88, and there is supposed to be some decent touristy stuff there. Sometimes, sacrifices must be made. And so, with a few calls and a modicum of planning, we were off …

Despite the best efforts of United Airlines, the flights were on time. We arrived in Athens just as the sun was setting, dropped off our luggage, and headed out to explore. This was another one of these places that I felt like I was walking around in an encyclopedia – I has seen photos of the Acropolis since I was a kid, and here I was looking up at it from my table at dinner. The food was excellent – at every single place we ate. Especially notable was the saganaki – fried cheese – because it incorporates two of my favorite things, cheese and fried.

greece-salad

The saganaki is on the left. Best appetizer EVER.

greece-night

The Apocalypse, as photographed from our table at dinner.

We spent the next day wandering around the major sights – and although I will never admit this to her, it was fascinating to have Marta narrate the locations. We efficiently hopped from museum to museum, and it always amazes me that some small decorative object that sat on someone’s shelf collecting dust 2500 years ago is now viewed by thousands of people every year. I wondered who the person was, who made the pottery, and whether my aunt’s Franklin Mint cat plates would ever end up the same way.

greece-chicks-2

The Caryatids. They were very popular in ancient Greece.

greece-marta

Marta and the Katydids, which sounds like a good name for a band.

greece-amphi

The auditorium at the Acropolis. Neil Diamond played here. When it was new.

greece-a1

There’s a Christmas Card Shot.

greece-uniform

In the military museum. I personally think the IGFA should give one of these away with the lifetime achievement awards.

greece-mail

In the days before email, they had chain mail.

I did get to say something I have been waiting 40 years to say. We got into a cab to go to the Polemico Museum. The cab driver was a nice enough guy, but he didn’t speak any English. We showed him where we wanted to go on a map, but he responded with a long speech in Greek. We do not speak the language, so I turned to Marta and said “It’s all Greek to me.” I reveled for a moment, satisfied that this verbal bucket-list item had been completed. Marta looked at me and said “You’re an idiot.”

greece-bears

Beware of Greeks gifting bears.

Day two was devoted to a road trip to Delphi, to see the fabled Oracle and some other ancient stuff that has nothing to do with fishing. We caught up with our new friend George the cab driver, and we headed north to visit one of the most important places in any ancient civilization.

greece-taxi

George the cab driver. He became our buddy and local connection for the whole trip.

It’s about two hours of driving, but the scenery gets increasingly stunning as you get into the mountains.

greece-village

The town of Arachavo – the gateway to Delphi.

Then we arrived at the actual site – a place where ancient Greeks had gone to make their most important political and military decisions. As it turns out, these were mostly based on the musings of inebriated young priestesses, but they managed to do fairly well right until they went on the Euro.

greece-oracle

The Orifice at Delphi.

greece-pillars

Standing by the Temple of Apoplexy.

We returned to Athens for the afternoon, and took in a few more sights, including the original Olympic stadium.

greece-stadium

If you look closely, you can see Ryan Lochte firing his PR guy.

greece-jewel

Marta also discovered the jewelry stores. Ouch.

greece-a2

We became close with Anastasious the jewelry store owner, Double ouch.

greece-acrop-4

Another view of the Apocryphal from another restaurant.

The next day was the important one. Finally, we got to head south and go fishing. My spots were from an unlikely source – my semi-nephew Charlie. (Details HERE.)  He had gone to Greece with his family last year, and somehow, my sister permitted him to go fishing, often for 10-15 minutes at a time, despite the terrible risks of disfigurement and disease the sport carries. Charlie kept good notes and passed them on to me. This, I will now confess, is the reason I pushed Nafplio so hard.

As we got close to Nafplio, Marta claims I may have gotten a bit antsy.

greece-nafp-town

Approaching Nafplio.

greece-coast

I guess it was a bit scenic, but I was too busy looking for shrimp to notice.

For three days, I had been good, or at least what passes for good in my case. I had embraced our time in Athens and not tried to fish while Marta was showing me around some of the most amazing ancient history on the planet. But now we were within a few miles of fish, and, understandably, I was a bit eager. I began pestering the driver about bait, tackle stores, charter boats, and a few dozen other details that I likely wanted that very second.

(Perspective from Marta – He was unbearable.)

Finally, after what seemed like several hours but was probably more like 15 minutes, I had rods together and I raced out to the jetty in front of out hotel, which was to be my home for most of the next 48 hours.

greece-n-view

The jetty of Nafplio.

Yes, our hotel had a jetty in front of it, which I may now confess was a key reason it became our hotel. I began with high hopes, even being presumptuous enough to cast out a whole squid on a bigger rod. And, to be fair, the action was quick. Sabikis in the rocks produced a few bites, and then a hookup – a rainbow wrasse – a species I had gotten before but the one that had now put Greece as #88 on my country list.

greece-rain-2

Greece fits right between Gibraltar and Guatemala.

Now it was about species. I cast baits large and small near the jetty and as far as possible, but the only the sabikis produced for me. I got a nice variety of stuff I had gotten on previous Mediterranean trips – see “Yo, Adriatic“.

greece-rainbow

More colorful wrasses.

Marta got in on the action, catching, among others, some planehead filefish. Yes, I have caught them.

greece-m-file

Marta adds Greece to her country list.

 

greece-file-s

See, I told you.

It was getting late in the day when I pulled up what I thought at first was a small wrasse, but a closer examination – and I ALWAYS do a closer examination – revealed I had gotten a Mediterranean parrotfish. This was new, I was thrilled, and I was filled with hope for tomorrow.

greece-parrot

If you were only here looking for new species, you can stop reading now.

On this basis, I finally agreed to come back to the hotel, wash the shrimp off my hands, and go to a lovely dinner with Marta. The town is beautiful and ancient, the restaurants and people are wonderful, and if there were more fish, I might have never left. One thing I was glad to leave, though, was the retsina, a local distillate that tastes like Pine-Sol but worse.

greece-n-hotel

A view of our hotel as I reluctantly headed back for dinner.

greece-street

The streets of Nafplio. Charming, but they could have used more bait stores.

I spent the next day much in the same place, with brief breaks for food and social interaction. I was certain that the Fish Gods would reward me with at least one more new species, but this area has been fished so hard for so many thousands of years that it’s tough to get anything. I certainly had fun – that second morning featured a run of horse mackerel that were decent sized and hit lures, but the species hunting remained thin pickings.

greece-horse

These things fight hard and hit lures. But the area has been overfished for millenia, so this was about it for dignified creatures.

Still, I was on the water in a lovely Greek seaside town, Marta was bringing me salami and cheese for lunch, and life was good.

We made a brief side trip in the afternoon to a few fishing villages down the coast. I was hoping to charter a local boat to try some deeper water, but this just was not to be, pretty much no matter how much money I offered. These guys seemed deeply rooted in tradition, and the tradition seemed to be sitting on benches near the boats.

greece-point

Another view of Naflpio, from the top of a hill where Marta forced me to hike when I could have been fishing.

I only fished a couple of hours on the last morning – I had promised Marta that we would do some touring on the way back to Athens. Here I must share with all of you a bad thing I did. We were in a small museum, and the women’s restroom on the main floor was closed. Marta agreed to use the men’s – a one-seat affair – if I would guard the door. So I let her get comfortable, then started shuffling across the room and mumbling nonsense Greek phrases – “Oikos saganaki souvlaki Acropolis oikos” in my best old-man voice. I then knocked on the bathroom door, expecting Marta to say, “Ha, ha, you idiot.” But she didn’t. She thought I had abandoned my post and let an old Greek guy in. So she timidly said “Occupied.” I said “Oikos! Saganaki!” In a small voice, she ventured back “Occupied.” I shuffled out, mumbling “Oikos!” (Oikos is a brand of yogurt.)

Moments later, she came racing up to me in the museum and said “You idiot! You wandered away and some old guy came in and tried to use the bathroom!” I smiled and said “Oikos” in my old man voice. She actually laughed … after she smacked me in the temple. Speaking of temples, we visited Mycenae on the way back to Athens. (Yes, I know it’s actually a palace and not a temple, but go with the pun here.)

greece-gate

The Lion’s Gate at Mycenae. For those of you who have read the Iliad, Agamemon lived here. For those of you who haven’t, never mind. If he was that big of a deal, Brad Pitt would have played him.

Marta and I flew to Germany the next morning, where we played tourist for a day before I headed into the office and she headed to New York for a business trip of her own. We would meet again in only four days, for a little getaway I had planned at one of the most romantic locations on earth – the IGFA headquarters in Dania Beach, Florida.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS UPDATE – GERMAIN VISIT

Just a couple of weeks before the Greece trip, we were … blessed … with a visit from my sister and her family.

greece-germains

The Germain family – never quite prepared for the camera.

greece-g-kids

Yes, the kids are growing up. Yes, I’ve caught one of these. 

Of course, we did some fishing, or I wouldn’t have mentioned the whole thing. We headed to Tiburon, scene of so many surfperch records, just hoping to get the kids a decent assortment of San Francisco Bay critters.

greece-g-walleye

Charlie chipped in with this solid walleye surfperch.

greece-g-ebbitt

Elizabeth got several jacksmelt that approached – but didn’t quite make – a pound.

And just before we used up our whole 15 minutes, I stumbled into a big striped surfperch – a 1.75 pounds, it tied the current record. Even five years after the run of perch records Martini and I got here, the place is still producing – and there are certainly worse places to spend an afternoon.

greece-g-striped

An unexpected record.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | August 5, 2016

La Salsa Peligrosa

Dateline: March 12, 2016 – Sonora, Mexico

What the heck was I doing in rural Mexico with “Sexy Rexy” Johnson, and more importantly, how had we gotten there without a major navigational mishap?

For those few of you who do not have my blog memorized, Rex “Sexy Rexy” Johnson is an outstanding trout guide based in Silver City, New Mexico. He has helped me catch a number of unusual species and was the indirect cause of Martini wearing an Elvis costume in the wilderness. Twice. Even on that first trip, Rex had mentioned a friend’s ranch in Sonora, Mexico that had a small river featuring several species I would never get anywhere else. He claimed it was just a few hours from Silver City, but knowing Rex, I figured this was somewhere on the border with Guatemala, or even on the border with Ecuador, and for those of you who paid attention in geography, Mexico doesn’t even have a border with Ecuador. The ideas of the species fascinated me; the idea of the trip terrified me – but new species and good judgement do not always go hand in hand. Marta wasn’t exactly thrilled with my last trip to Mexico, (Details HERE) and this place had even less infrastructure, but with my estate plans and insurance in order, she reluctantly consented. Rex and I worked out some logistics on the phone, and like that, it was settled. I was going to rural northern Mexico. Hurray?

It started, as it often does, with a business trip. This one was to Phoenix, which put me close enough to Mexico to make this worthwhile. Phoenix is within shouting distance of one of my favorite pieces of water in the southwest – the Salt River – a place I can go if I am feeling good about myself and want to get really, really frustrated. (Details in “Return to Salt River“) I did an afternoon here before my meetings started, and the river flow, which had been up a few inches the last time I was there, was down a few inches, and the fish just sat there and started at me. Stubbornly, or stupidly, I stuck it out until dark, and I was rewarded with two bites, and one fish – a Sonora sucker, which was just big enough to break the record on that species and make the afternoon completely worth it.

Yaqui Sonora 2

The Sonora sucker. There is no fish you will ever see more and catch less, except perhaps the desert sucker, which lives in the same place.

Yaqui Salt

The Arizona scenery is always stunning, but if you’re taking scenery photos, it usually means the fishing is bad.

Then we had three days of work, which you would find boring. (I’m sure my employees did.) But Thursday afternoon came, and I was off on a long and desolate drive to a town just north of Mexico. It was in this border town that Rex and I connected, ate dinner, and then sacked out for the evening. (Separate rooms, I might add.)

We met a buddy of Rex’s early the next morning and headed in to Mexico.

Yaqui Signs

We go south of the border.

Although I half-expected roving gangs of ruffians to be around every corner, the worst thing we saw was a very aggressive bus driver. Rex’s friend lives about an hour from the border crossing, and we got there uneventfully. The scenery was classic high desert, arid but beautiful, miles of open scrub with mountains in the distance. We reached our accommodations mid-morning – it was a comfortable place, we had food and Red Bull for a couple of days, and now all I had to do was catch the fish.

Yaqui Mountains

Typical scenery as we came to the end of our drive.

The creek itself was the thing of sweaty late night fishing dreams. It looked like what all of us would think would be a perfect trout stream – fast, clear water, plenty of rocks and trees. It was located in a steep canyon so there were shadows on the water most of the time, it was isolated and rarely fished … absolutely beautiful. But what was even more beautiful was the fact that there were no trout here. Give it a rest, trout snobs – native fish deserve a chance to live. Most of these creeks have long since been eradicated by thoughtless cattle ranchers, and only through the efforts of a few dedicated environmentalists have any of these original streams been preserved. This was truly a special place – a snapshot of what things were like before we stepped in and screwed things up.

Yaqui Creek 1

The creek. The seam on the right had about 15 fish in it.

We hit the water at around noon. It was a pleasant day, warm enough for wet wading, and we headed upstream looking for whatever might be biting. The first couple of fish I spotted were micros, so out came the teensy hooks that require a frustratingly teensy fleck of night crawler. The first critter that came up was a Mexican dace. If I only had a bottle of Merlot and some flowers, it could have been the dace of wine and roses.

Yaqui Dace

I should apologize for that pun.

The second micro was a bit tougher – it took about 45 minutes of coaxing, but I finally got one. The photos won’t do this critter – the ornate minnow – justice. It had gorgeous, bright blue fins under water, but I just couldn’t get this to come through on camera. Still, I had two species in the bag, and these were creatures I wasn’t going to see in many other places.

Yaqui Ornate

The ornate minnow.

We continued a leisurely hike up the river, with Rex going ahead to scout out the pools, and in case we encountered a mountain lion. (Rex could defend himself by giving the mountain lion directions back to the cabin – it would be so confused by the time he was finished it would just give up.) There were long, bubbling riffles and the occasional pool formed by boulders or a downed tree. It was these pools that held great fascination for me, for in these pools could be two species that were my main targets for the trip – the Mexican roundtail chub and the Yaqui sucker.

The chub is a close relative of the fish we caught in the Fossil Creek excursion mentioned in “Return to Salt River.” It’s a predator, and I had high hopes that I would be able to get a few on lures. About half a mile upstream, we ran into a big pool behind some timber, and I gave it a try with some small jigs. It didn’t take long. Keeping a low profile behind some branches, I let the jig drift along the deep edge of the pool and four or five chubs raced out to fight over it. I hooked up, dropped, then hooked up again and landed my third species of the afternoon. The chubs were everywhere, they fight hard, and they are more than willing to take lures – pretty much an ideal fish. I saw some that looked close to a pound, which would give me an unlikely world record, but these were a bit more cautious.

Yaqui chub 1

My first Mexican roundtail chub.

We worked our way further upstream, catching dozens of chubs along the way, all the while keeping an eye out for the Yaqui suckers.

The sucker was a bit of a different story. We looked and looked, and Rex finally spotted one on a rocky undercut. It was a beautiful fish, with bright orange fins clearly visible under water, but every time I drifted a bait by its nose, it ignored me. It ignored me like Marta ignores me when I say things like “We should take a vacation to Rwanda – they have huge tigerfish.” So we kept moving along, enjoying the scenery as the sun got lower, and catching at least two dozen more chubs. I kept seeing the stray example over a pound, but these continued to ignore me.

Yaqui chub 2

A chub in spawning colors.

I was casting a piece of crawler under a big boulder when I got a small strike and pulled a fish out of the water. Anticipating another chub, I had flipped it up into my hand and was preparing to remove the hook when I noticed it was not a chub at all. I had gotten my sucker. Everything I had read on this species indicated they didn’t get very big, a la the Rio Grande sucker, and anyone who thinks I’m worried about the size of a species is clearly a new reader. Welcome!

Yaqui sucker 1

Steve and Rex with the Yaqui sucker. This is my 19th sucker species; Martini has the Mountain sucker, which I do not, and Jaime doesn’t have either one.

This was a beautiful fish in a beautiful location, and I was thrilled. I was up four species that I wouldn’t find anywhere else, and the trip had already been a success, presuming that I got home safely tomorrow. Sure, Mexico has had its share of issues, but with everything going on in the world right now, it felt as safe as anywhere except of course my garage, where I can hide behind all the fishing awards and hockey gear. The hockey gear makes me feel especially safe, because it smells like vomit and even a hardened terrorist would run screaming.

We got a few more chubs, and then began heading downstream toward what promised to be an excellent fajita dinner. (Little did I know that my choice to take French instead of Spanish in high school would cost me dearly that evening.)

As we got to the house, we both agreed we had about 30 minutes of daylight left, and we could fish a while longer with no fear of chupacabras. We went downstream, picked off a few more chubs, then got to a lovely pool above a pile of branches.

Yaqui pool

The pool in question.

I approached it cautiously, as it was getting to that perfect few minutes of dusk and I didn’t want to spook anything. That’s when I saw it. In hindsight, I got perhaps a bit overexcited, especially when I grabbed Rex, physically lifted him into a vantagepoint where he could see it, and whisper-shouted into his eat “Holy **** will you look at the size of that chub!!” This one was clearly over a pound, and I was going to get it.

This is where bad planning came into play. I had two rods with me, one set up for micros with a #22 hook and a one pound leader, the other set up for larger fish with a #12 hook and a 6# leader. Moments before, I had broken off the larger rig. Light was fading, and I didn’t think I had time to re-tie, so I just cast the micro setup. I threw it four times, each time drifting it in front of the beast, which just sat there and watched it go by as the evening grew more crepuscular. (Look it up, Cousin Chuck.) But on the fifth cast, when I could barely see the bait tumbling down the current, the fish made a definitive movement toward it. The line jumped. I lifted back gingerly, and all hell broke loose.

The fish took off for the timber, and I leaned back as hard as I dared, but with one pound leader there is very little margin for error. Branches thrashed back and forth on top of the water, and the fish rolled on the surface several times trying to get free. I expected the sickening feeling of a breakoff at any second, but then the fish bolted back out into the open water. It stayed there for several minutes, slowly tiring, and after what seemed an eternity, Rex took the $1.99 net I had bought at Walmart (ALWAYS have a net) and scooped up my fish.

It wasn’t a chub. It was a sucker, and a big one.

Yaqui record

I didn’t know they got this big, but they do. And so I entered an unlikely freshwater world record from Mexico.

There was appropriate whooping and celebrating, but then we realized it had gotten fairly dark and we didn’t want to attract any chupacabras.

Dinner was excellent, except for one minor hiccup. Being that I speak less Spanish than the average houseplant, I misinterpreted the written warnings on the salsa and had a rather bumpy first round. Who knew that “Yo Gringo! Peligroso! Caliente!!” represented a problem. (You would think the skull and crossbones would have tipped me off.) I adjusted to the milder option for my second plate, but this is still the kind of mistake that carries about 36 hours of reminders.

With no Milk of Magnesia around, it was a difficult morning, but I managed to struggle out of the cabin, slightly bowlegged, and get back onto the river for a few hours. The chubs were everywhere, and I managed to up my personal best up to around 12 ounces. They were hitting just about any small lure I could get in front of them. Rex had promised this place was going to be magical, and it was.

Yaqui Chub 3

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed I am wearing the Devil’s Hole Pupfish hat Martini gave me two years ago. Strange indeed that a hat representing a critically endangered species would give me so much luck, but I believe the fact that I have made peace with the idea that I will never catch one of these somehow pleases the Fish Gods.

We also got several more suckers, in smaller sizes but still in lovely colors. In the species hunting world, there are some who say you aren’t **** until you catch a sucker. So I guess I’m **** in Mexico, which I actually could have told you about 30 seconds after dinner last night.

Yaqui sucker 2

Another Yaqui sucker.

The fact this fish is still on earth is owed in large part to a very small group of environmentalists who have fought tirelessly to preserve the remaining native high-desert habitat. I’ll be publishing more on them in future episodes, so stay tuned.

At about noon, I was seized with one more reminder of dinner, and then we were off on the road back to the USA. The drive and customs went smoothly, although I am told the wrong day can see several hours of waiting time. There were no strip searches or removal of the fenders, and we were back in the US in the late afternoon. Rex and I parted ways there, so I could head four hours northwest to Phoenix for my flight, and so Rex could head “a mile or two” northeast to Silver City. Speaking of historic miscalculations, my drive took me through Tombstone, Arizona, one of our most infamous wild west towns and scene of the legendary Shootout at the OK Corral. (Where Kevin Costner shoots a bunch of local misfits because the director ran out of plotlines.)

Yaqui OK

This is across the street from the site of the shootout, but you could describe almost any corner in a major US city that way.

It’s amazing to think that just a little more than 100 years ago, our society was so chaotic that there was a major gunbattle on a crowded urban street in the middle of the afternoon. Of course, we changed things a lot since then.

Tombstone is also the site of Boothill Graveyard, a monument to both the short and brutal lives led by many in that era and also to their amazing ability to write clever epitaphs, often, I imagine, while under fire.

Yaqui Boothill

The gate to the graveyard.

My favorite marker memorializes one Lester Moore.

Yaqui Moore

“Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les, no more.”

Another favorite concerns one George Johnson, who apparently had very bad defense counsel.

George Johnson Grave Marker at Boothill, Tombstone AZ (8 January

“George Johnson, hanged by mistake, 1882.” Oops.

And of course, a classic that speaks to one of the lowest-budget funerals in history –

“Johnnie Blair. Died of Smallpox and a cowboy threw a rope over his feet and dragged him to his grave.”

After that cheerful little trip down America’s memory lane, I finished up the drive to Phoenix, where I would catch a flight home the next day. Although I could have eaten anywhere I wanted to, I ended up with a small salad and a glass of ginger ale. Fajitas would be off the menu for some time.

Steve

 

PS – A big “THANKS FOR NOTHING” to my Spanish speaking friends, who shall go nameless, except that Marta is one of them. When I asked for simple translations for titles for this missive, harmless things like “The Secret Stream” or “The Hidden Canyon,” I got back suggestions that ranged from “La Comadreja Enferma” to “El Calzoncillos Del Destino.” If it weren’t for Google Translate, one of these might have become the title.


 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | July 24, 2016

Porgy and Bass

Dateline: February 25, 2016 – Yu Tang, Taiwan

When life gives you lemons, throw them at someone. Of course, those of you who have played baseball with me might postulate that I couldn’t hit that someone, but you’re totally missing the point here.

I don’t always get to plan my business trips around fishing opportunities, and it happens from time to time that I get sent somewhere at the wrong time of year, (details HERE) or in horrible weather (details HERE), or where the fishing is just plain difficult. This trip managed to combine all three, but I still managed to catch a few fish. The only casualty was my pride, but if you think this is a problem, you must be a new reader. Welcome!

I like Taiwan. It’s a beautiful place. But I have never had much luck fishing there, and this trip had to be scheduled right in the middle of an especially blustery February. This killed most of the interesting options, like chartering a boat or at least fishing some of the rocky shorelines. This left me with the same choices I had last time (CLICK IF YOU DARE), namely, stocked ponds. Yes, I hear you – dignity, pride, blah, blah, blah. If I had any of those things, do you think I would have fished in the fountain at the Royal Hawaiian?

I was in town for an especially difficult business transaction, one that involved a lot of lawyers and yelling, so in short, I spent most of the week actually working for a living. (You can pick up your jaw now.) But I knew there was a good chance that I would have a day free at the end of the week, and so I went to my go-to planning resource – the concierge. These are the same guys who found me my first Taiwan fish in October of 2014, but I wanted saltwater this time. This took a lot more work than the normal carp ponds, but they found stuff.

After several days of lawyers and yelling, and some excellent Chinese food, Thursday rolled around. My main target was a port on the northeast of the island, but I had several stocked ponds marked on GPS as a backup. My driver this time around was Mike, who not only spoke solid English but was also a fisherman himself. We hit the road early, in steady wind and intermittent rain. Despite the low clouds, the scenery was still beautiful – Taiwan is a hilly, forested island once you get out of the big city.

PB Hotel

Whizzing by the Grand Hotel. I have always wanted to stay here, but the concierges just don’t know their fishing as well as the Hyatt guys.

We arrived at the coast in about an hour, and I could see surf breaking fifteen feet over some of the seawalls. There was no way anyone was taking a boat out, which was a shame, because Mike told me he had done a lot of excellent fishing in this area when conditions were calmer. We pulled up at the port, and I was looking forward to a day of hunting the assorted tropical whatsits that frequent such places.

This is where things went terribly wrong. Just as I was setting up to drop a sabiki between the docks, an impressively-armed man in military garb came up and said something to Mike in Chinese. From the “I really don’t want to translate this” look on Mike’s face, it was clear it was bad news, and indeed it was – fishing was not allowed in the harbor. I did not take this well, and blamed the usual suspects – mostly Jaime Hamamoto.

PB Mike Steve

Steve and Mike, after Steve calmed down.

But we still had most of a day and there had to be fish to catch, so it was off to the stocked ponds – “ditches,” as Roger Barnes used to call them. Mike’s English was certainly better than my Chinese, but there were always going to be some translation difficulties. The first place we got to was supposed to have groupers in it, and I naturally assumed that since there are many species of grouper, that we should give it a shot. As it turns out, there was only one species of grouper present – the Queensland – which I had caught before, but it’s awfully hard not to fish for something when you’re already there. I rigged up my heaviest rod – a reasonable largemouth setup, and had at it. It wasn’t long before my fetid sardine head got eaten, and I then had to deal with the comical mismatch between 10 pound bass gear and a grouper of indeterminate size. This took about an hour, and if I wasn’t in a glorified concrete bathtub, I never would have landed it.

PB Queensland

My third Queensland grouper ever. The first two were a lot bigger.

PB Weipa

Just so we’re clear that I have caught a bigger one. In the wild. Weipa, Australia, 2009.

The guys at the pond also told me there was another fish species in there, which they could not describe except for its Chinese name, so I stuck it out for about another 30 minutes until I got a bite. The fish gave an athletic fight – clearly not a grouper, and as I brought it to the net, I was stunned to see a good old-fashioned American red drum. The fish had traveled farther than I had, but it turns out they are very popular with the locals.

PB Redfish

Who knew? Note for the world record crowd – fish from venues such as this can not be submitted for IGFA records.

I told Mike we needed to hit the next place. We drove about an hour to get to a park by the airport that apparently had a batch of different fish. It was a much less industrial location, right on a beach, and if the weather hadn’t been miserable, it might have been a pleasant place to hang out.

PB Shoreline

Looking down the west coast of Taiwan. It actually looked like a decent place to fish the surf, except that the wind was blowing in around 40mph.

I began pitching unweighted shrimp around the margins of the pond, and was surprised to catch another very well-traveled species – an American Black Sea Bass. Mike recognized it as something often stocked in Taiwan, and indicated that it was one of the better fish to eat. (Mike got a couple of fish dinners out of the deal.)

PB BSB

A familiar species in an unexpected locale.

After another couple of seabass, I got a spirited strike and a clearly different fight. As I brought the fish to net, I was thrilled to see that it was my favorite – a “what the hell is that?” I knew it was something seabreamy, but I had no idea from there – but it was definitely new. I caught several of them, and was thrilled to have a new species on the board.

PB Velvet 2

The mystery beast. A few hours later, Dr. Jeff Johnson emailed me confirmation that this was a Shortbarbel Velvetchin – which gets bonus points as an especially cool fish name.

PB Velvet 1

Steve and Mike celebrate the new beast.

We stuck at it the rest of the morning, and while the weather wasn’t very nice, the fishing was solid, and I got several more Velvetchins and Black Sea Bass.

 

 

PB Velvet 3

Another Shortbarbel Velvetchin.

We were having fairly consistent action, but it was getting past lunchtime and we had another pond to hit. Lunch ended up being chips and Red Bull – I have my priorities. (Besides, this meal has many things in common with a healthy lunch – both are largely carbon-based, for example. Both have a certain amount of carbohydrates. Both have yellow things.) Getting chips in Taiwan was a bit of an adventure – they really do have a “seaweed” flavor, which wasn’t going to happen for me. I ended up buying “Cajun Squirrel” flavor, because it was actually the least frightening choice of the three they had.

Porgy Squirrel

I have no idea what this was about. “Squirrel” was not listed as one of the ingredients. I can’t tell you they didn’t taste like squirrel because I have never tasted squirrel. I hope.

Porgy Doritos

The third choice. I really, really don’t like pickles, especially Gershwins*. And why the heck does a bag of chips in Taiwan have French translations?

Still, these were nowhere near the weirdest chips I have ever seen. That honor would go to some Doritos I found in Japan a few years ago, photos below. I don’t understand what was going on here, and I’m not sure I ever want to. I have researched the heck out of these, and about the only thing I can tell you is that it is NOT what it looks like.

Porgy Dor 3

The best explanation I could find is HERE.

Porgy Dor 1

Their names are apparently Jonathan and Pierre, and the more I researched, the more confused I became.

Our final pond was about an hour north, and the weather started getting nastier as we worked our way up the coast. As we drove along the shoreline, Mike lamented that the weather was not better – he pointed out several more spots where he had caught fish in milder conditions.

The last venue was smaller than the other two, but was supposed to have some very interesting species. The two most notable were the Asian Red Porgy and Japanese seabass. Porgy and Bass. Sounds like a good title for a fishing opera.

PB Pond

I didn’t say these places were glamorous.

The weather was miserable as I set up – nearly horizontal rain which seemed to blow right into my eyes no matter which way I turned. I used a basic sliding sinker rig and squid, and I immediately noticed that other people were catching things and I was not. Stubbornly, I stuck to my setup, and others continued to catch interesting stuff. About an hour later, I got a light bite, and after a few minutes, I managed to hook a seabream – it looked a lot like the pikey breams from Queensland, but Dr. Jeff Johnson astutely pointed out that it was a blackhead bream. I had my second species of the day.

PB Bream

Bream photographed in driving rain.

Encouraged, I continued to fish the squid, but another hour passed while I got nothing and others got fish regularly. It was getting late, and I figured it was time to do a bit of research. I had Mike chat with the guys further down the bank, and it turns out they were using small, live shrimp. Mike organized some for me, and while he was doing this, a couple of the other fishermen waved me down to their spot. Here I was, halfway across the globe, without language or culture in common with these other fishermen, but we were all out in the rain hoping to catch something and they wanted the foreigner to have a good time. I only had about 30 minutes, but the moment my rig hit the water, I got a solid hit and the bulldogging fight of a porgy.

PB Porgy

I loves you, Porgy.*

Moments later, a seabass slashed into my bait and I had a fourth species on the day – rain or not, it was an excellent time, and I owe most of it to Mike and that group of guys.

PB Bass

Bass, you is my fish now.*

I want to give special thanks to Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum – he took time out his day to identify all of these species as soon as I emailed them. Dr. Johnson has been a huge help over the years, identifying dozens and dozens of Indo-Pacific creatures for me and patiently answering every question, of which I always have many.

That evening featured an exceptional meal at one of the best hotels in Taipei – it felt odd to be eating gourmet fare in a suit and tie, when only hours before I had been bundled in dank Gore-tex struggling through Cajun Squirrel potato chips.

PB Hyatt

Smelling as I did, the walk through the lobby was a bit awkward.

Miserable weather aside, it had been a productive day – I had set out hoping to scrounge up a species or two, and had ended up with four. I still would have preferred to fish in the harbor, but I have learned never to argue with anyone who is heavily armed, especially when I don’t speak a word of their language.

Steve

PB PB

Porgy and Bass*

* These may be some of my most obscure puns ever. They are related to the title. A dollar to the first person to figure it out.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | July 14, 2016

Malé Bonding

Dateline: January 18, 2016 – Malé, Maldive Islands

Day three opened with a 4am crisis of confidence. Sure, it was great to have added the Maldives as my 87th country. And it was nice to have six species and a record in the bag, but I had hoped for a lot more – this is the nature of the species-hunting game. Self-doubt is magnified by the square of the distance one has traveled to go fishing, and this was about as far from home as I could get.

Male Boat 1

The Alpha Royale, ready to go at 6am.

But I also knew I was here, and that every day could be The Day. After all, I wasn’t owed anything – this is fishing and it was pretty much up to me and the luck of the draw. Perhaps, I thought, I should just be grateful to be in this beautiful place and have a shot at more fish. The Fish Gods do not like whiny ingrates, and so, I set myself to fish and fish hard all day.

It worked out.

It was a gorgeous morning, and as we headed out of the harbor, I learned that you can make REI oatmeal using Red Bull. We set up in a reefy channel, and between a few triggerfish, I got the first species of the day – the Maldivian Grubfish.

Male Grub

Captain Waheed smiles at my grubfish. He was bewildered by my fascination with small species, but if I was happy, he was happy.

After trying a few jigs on a deeper edge, I convinced the crew that I wanted to fish right on top of a reef – what they would think of as a snorkeling area. They took me on to a gorgeous blue patch between two atolls, and laid an anchor so that the boat was over shallow coral but was casting distance from much deeper water. I could fish for tropical reef critters to my heart’s content, but leave some bigger baits out that might attract something more substantial. With my underdeveloped attention span, I absolutely love this kind of fishing, although this sort of multi-rod hyperactivity makes the Zen types like John Buckingham tear their hair out. (Details HERE.)

Male Reef

The magic spot. Shallow reef on the right, deeper structure on the left.

After I dropped some slabs of cut bait in the deep water, I started in with the sabikis. My first catch was something I had admired in books for years – a rockmover wrasse.

Male Rockmover

These creatures hunt in pairs – one moves the rock and the other eats whatever comes out, sort of like cousin Chuck and his wife at a buffet. This one’s partner waited near the boat until I had safely released him.

Before I could rebait the sabiki, the big rod’s clicker started going off in short bursts. I set the hook and got a surprisingly hard run. I was able to turn the fish after it hit the reef a couple of times, and when I got it up to the side of the boat, I was absolutely stunned. It was a blue and yellow grouper, one of the most beautiful of the grouper species.

Male Yellowfin

The day was looking up.

I reset the big bait and got back to the sabikis. After a few small triggerfish, I got a zigzag wrasse – the fourth new species of the day – and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

Male Zigzag

The zigzag wrasse.

When I looked up, I noticed quite a few fish swimming on the surface behind the boat, apparently attracted by all the activity and bait in the water. I wasn’t sure what they were, and they wouldn’t hit a sabiki, so I rigged up a weightless hook and let it drift through them. It took a lot of casting, but after about 45 minutes, I got one to bite. I couldn’t believe what I swung into the boat – a spotted unicornfish. The trip was now officially worth it.

Male Face

These are one of the coolest fish EVER.

Male Unicorn

They have a horn.

Male Tail

Don’t grab them by the tail.

Next up was a dash-and-dot goatfish. I almost threw this one back, as it looked a lot like the doublebar goats I had been catching all morning, but the deckhand Shahadath stopped me and told me to have a closer look.

Male Goat

Adding to my goatfish collection. As I am sure you know, a goatfish was my 100th world record a few years ago. Details HERE.

As we got well into the afternoon, the reef stuff started slowing down, so we let the anchor rope out a few yards so we could fish a bit deeper water. We did get a few triggerfish and plenty of repeats of the earlier species, but after an hour or so, I pulled up a gorgeous blue-spotted orange grouper.

Male Hind

These are called coral hinds, and I was up to seven species for the day, exceeding the total of the previous two days. I was thrilled.

We weren’t done. The next grouper I brought up was a blackfin, also a new species.

Male Blackfin

I didn’t even have time to pull down my sun mask, but trust me, that’s me under there. Who else would be photographed with an eight inch grouper?

A few minutes later, I got a vicious hit that broke off my terminal tackle. This annoyed me, so I set up a heavier leader and a bigger hook, and figured I would teach whatever it was a lesson. I got broken off again. So I went to a 40 pound leader, and a few minutes later, brought up a surprisingly hard-fighting unicornfish. This species was the bignose unicorn, which I had already caught in Fiji, (ugly details HERE) but this one was big enough to be my second world record of the trip.

Male Bignose 1

These fish turn dark very quickly out of the water, which is a shame because they are beautiful creatures. So I made sure to catch another one and photograph it immediately – and do note that they were all released safely.

Male Uni 2

This is honestly the exact same species – they just darken up quickly when they are out of the water.

As it got later in the day, I realized that I had completely forgotten to eat lunch. In order to avoid awkward adventures with local cuisine, I generally pack a bunch of REI freeze-dried camping meals, which only require boiling water and a plastic spoon. Just as I sat down to some reconstituted beef stew, my light rod started going, and I jumped up to reel in yet another species – the Diana hogfish. So the beef stew ended up cold, but this didn’t bother me at all. It tasted like filet mignon. (NOT filet minion, which could be upsetting if you’ve seen “Despicable Me.”)

Male Hogfish

That’s nine for those of you counting along at home.

The sun was going down, but I had a hard time convincing the crew to head in – they wanted to stay out and try to get me one more. (God bless ’em for that.) But I actually wanted to fish the harbor. This bewildered the guys, but they pulled us up to the dock just after dark and I whipped out the sabikis. It was awesome. In 11 minutes, I pulled up three new species – the bridled monocle bream, the goldspot emperor, and the tapered-line cardinalfish. Most importantly, the monocle bream was on the “black list” – the fish Marta has caught that I have not. This was an important triumph, and for those of you who point out Marta’s was bigger, get your finger out of your nose. She was down to 10 species that I don’t have, which is 10 too many, but it is very important to note that this is not important to me merely because I am pointlessly competitive. It is important for other reasons which I can’t think of just now.

Male Marta 1

Take that, Marta!!

Male Emperor 1

The goldspot emperor.

Male Cardinal

And the tapered-line cardinalfish.

When all the damage was finally tallied, I had come up with 12 new species in a single day, which qualifies as “epic” in my book. This, in short, was why I came here. It was magnificent, plus there was one more day to go, and now 1500 was only two away. Mohamed the tour guide met me at the dock and took me to dinner – I was so wound up I could hardly eat. I must have shown him the pictures at least a dozen times, and I was finally comfortable texting some friends and telling them it was going well. Marta responded “Take an extra week!” I slept well that night, and Jaime was not in my dreams.

So how do you follow up a day like that? Hopefully with another one.

Male Tuna

Steve with the crew of a commercial tuna boat. They had no idea what to make of me fishing sabikis in the harbor. And why is is that Steve refers to himself in the third person in these captions?

We opened the final day on some sandy reef edges, the bottom clearly visible through about 60 feet of sky-blue water. I knew I needed just two more fish to get to 1500, and I was, to put it lightly, amped up. My first few hooksets were perhaps a bit too exuberant, and I had to take a breath and just get back to focused, consistent fishing, rather than hitting myself in the nose. I am one of the few people you know who could drink a Red Bull to calm down, but that’s what I did. After a few triggerfish, I pulled up a monocle bream that looked unfamiliar. Digging into the books I carry for just such an occasion, I discovered that this was a yellowstripe monocle bream – a new one.

Male Goldstripe

1499.

Now I figured I pretty much had to get to 1500, and fairly soon at that. I thought back to #1000, that coalfish in Norway, only five and a half years ago, which seems like an eternity. I remembered some of the other milestone fish – 1100 was a golden tilefish with the Arosteguis. 1200 was a flounder in Mexico. 1300 was a blackline tilefish with the Arosteguis, and 1400 was a sheepshead minnow, caught with Martini last March. And I couldn’t help but wonder what the next one would be, and how in the heck I would get it without an Arostegui nearby.

It came about 20 minutes later, and, poetically, it was a close relative to the species that got me started thinking about species hunting. It was a roving coral grouper, cousin to the coral trout that I had seen in an encyclopedia when I was about seven years old. I never forgot that fish, and I made two trips to the Barrier Reef – about 30,000 miles of flying – to catch my first one. When I finally got it, all I remember thinking was how awesome the fish was. No thoughts of jet lag, lousy airline food, flight delays, blown out fishing trips – just the triumph of getting that fish. This felt exactly the same – I was ecstatic. If anything, I was more ecstatic than I was back then, because adding new species gets quite a bit harder when you already have a decent list. Trust me on this.

Male Trout

The roving coral grouper – species 1500.

After I got done dancing around the deck, Captain Waheed told me he wanted to try some medium-deep reefs – about 80 feet. I was worried about triggers, but he explained that the area held some other strange fish he wanted me to see. Needless to say, I gladly followed advice from a guy who had guided me to 20 species in under four days. What followed was a deliciously spiteful 20 minutes. Marta, you might want to skip this part.

Keep in mind that Marta has memorized her list of fish she has caught that I have not, and she often reminds me of them for no good reason. I accept this viciousness with the dignity and grace you all expect.

We started drifting bigger baits in very heavy structure – I lost a couple of rigs right away, but then I started catching fish. The first couple were triggers, but then I saw something orange coming up. I thought it might be a bigger coral hind, but I was thrilled to see it was a white-edged lyretail grouper – another type of coronation trout that Marta had viciously caught in front of me in Fiji. Do I remember the lovely beaches, the great food, the amazing people of Fiji? No! I remember that fish. And now I had one.

Male White

If redemption was a fish, it would look like this.

Speaking of ruined vacations, I take you to Aqaba, Jordan, in 2009. Marta, in a clear act of spite, caught a six-spot grouper just as I was having a nice day of fishing.

Bday Grouper

Marta, Red Sea, December 31, 2009.

More than six long years later, the Fish Gods gave me some justice.

Male Sixbar

I helpfully texted this to her immediately. I will pepper-spray the first person who mentions that hers was bigger.

I also got some much larger coral hinds.

Male Hind 2

Orange fish are cool.

In less than 20 minutes, I had taken the “black list” down by two more, to a still-unacceptable eight. This was the high point of the trip, but we still had more fishing to do. For the late afternoon, around the time I finally remembered to eat, we moved onto some more shallow coral reef structure. We had plenty of sunshine, and looking down 15 feet or so to the bottom was like looking into an aquarium, without those pesky security cameras. Among dozens of fish – and quite a few nasty breakoffs – I got a memorable new species. This was the tripletail wrasse – I fish I thought I had caught several times, as it has some very similar-looking relatives, but this one was finally it.

Male Trip

Check out the pink spots on the head. The fish were even more beautiful than the scenery.

I was sitting on five species for the day, including a major milestone, so when I noticed that it was getting to late afternoon, it didn’t bother me too much. I ate more REI food (I recommend the chili mac) and kept fishing, and I got a couple more surprises before the day ended. The first was a banded Maori wrasse – another tropical beauty I had only seen in books.

Male Banded

I caught about a dozen of these – either a school had moved in or I had one very dumb fish. 

Then the triggers came back. But I did not curse them, because I had 24 fish on the scoreboard and I was just having fun. I got about ten of them, a mix of bluethroats and redstripes, and then I had something pull down a bit harder. When I landed it, I was surprised to see another redstripe trigger, but this one was the biggest I had ever seen, which isn’t saying much, but when I weighed it, it crossed that magic one pound mark and became the third world record of the trip. The triggerfish had paid me back for all that free tuna.

Male record Trg

The world record redstripe. If this had only been the first trigger instead of the last, I might have had a better attitude. But that’s not how the Fish Gods operate.

I let the trigger be my last fish, as I didn’t see how I was going to do any better than that. I sat back for a minute and just took in the scenery and watched the sun set. I had finally come to the Indian Ocean and would take home a big batch of new species – I couldn’t have asked for more. Well, yes I could have, but I would have sounded like a whiny ingrate, like I probably did for the first half of the trip.

Male Sunset 1

Sunset over the Maldives.

We pulled up to the same dock I had left four days before with such high hopes. I took my time cleaning up and packing my gear, and, I confess, I did put one rod down while I was putting the other ones away, because I just can’t help myself. And the Fish Gods rewarded me with more more small surprise – a tiny scorpionfish, which was both species #25 and truly my last fish of the trip.

Male Scorpion

The genus is parascorpaena, but I only see one of them.

I finally said goodbye to the crew – my constant companions for four days. They had worked tirelessly to make it a great trip, and it was. I knew I would see them again – there was still plenty more to catch here, especially in the more isolated atolls to the south. The first couple of days had added a bit more drama than I had wanted – that’s fishing – but my dream of 2000 species was alive and well.

Steve

Male Full Crew

http://www.villageholidaysmaldives.com/ or email Mohamed at mohamed.latheef@gmail.com

Posted by: 1000fish | July 4, 2016

Atoll on my Mental Health

Dateline: January 16, 2016 – Malé, Maldive Islands

It was out there, 9,505 miles from home and crawling with exotic fish species. But some small part of me, perhaps the reasonable part, was hesitant to get on the plane.

The Indian Ocean is my last big, untouched piece of water, and the Maldives are a famous destination there. This is the area I need to go – a lot –  if I am going to reach 2000 species. But as long as I didn’t go there, I always had it in the back of my mind as the place I could go and that 2000 was possible. I felt like the bald guy who has a bottle of Rogaine in his medicine cabinet but hasn’t used it, knowing it could make a big difference but worried about bringing it out in case it doesn’t work, because then he would be out of options.

And no, it’s not my Rogaine, thanks for asking. If it comes to that, and it will, I just shave my head. I am am NEVER doing the combover. I remember a certain CFO I used to work with, and apart from the fact he was probably combing hair out of his armpit, the top of his head still looked, to paraphrase Dave Barry, like a spider trying to hold on to a boiled egg.

But I digress.

The plane lifted off, and I was on my way. The Maldives are an archipelago off the southwestern coast of India, comprising of some 1190 small atolls, and according to the fish books I read each night in the bathroom, these atolls are positively stuffed with fish I have never caught. I also had a major milestone in sight – 1500 species. With the three I had gotten in Singapore, I was only 19 away. This sounded very doable. The hypothesis was comforting, but now I was going to actually test it. (If high school chemistry is any indication, many of my experiments end in explosions.) But I was already in Singapore on a business trip, so the Maldives were four short hours away – I was going to do this. I don’t want to leave any “could haves” in my life.

Of course, this comes with some pressure – if this place didn’t produce big time, my dream of 2000 species would take a major blow. It’s a long haul and I would only get a few chances in my lifetime to fish halfway around the world. So I hoped for good weather and an understanding guide. Since I only had a few days, I focused the trip on reef fishing around the capital city of Male – the dogtooth tuna could wait.

I arranged the fishing and accommodation through Mohamed Latheef of Village Holidays Maldives. He runs a top-notch tour service throughout the country, and he had the perfect option for a short stay – a big, comfortable boat called the Alpha Royale for fishing, and quiet, solid hotels for the evenings. I trusted Mohammed with all of the details, but I was unclear on how I was going to get from the airport to the boat. He told me not to worry.

I flew in on Singapore Airlines – a marvelous carrier. (They are on time a lot more than United, and more importantly, when they are late, they are at least least embarrassed.) Mohamed was right there to meet me – great guy – and I finally could figure out how we would get to the Alpha Royale.

I almost tripped over it – the boat docks were all of 150 feet from luggage claim. This … is awesome.

Male Alpha (2)

The Alpha Royale, as viewed from the end of the baggage claim area. Best airport EVER.

I hopped aboard and met the crew – Captain Mohamed (different Mohamed than the tour guy) and deckhands Shahadath and Mujeeb. We barely had the boat on plane before he was slowing down to look at a reef dropoff – the atolls are that close together.

So we were at fishing spots before I could even get the rods ready. I scrambled to assemble some bottom rigs – remembering to never go so fast as to misalign a rod section or tie a bad knot. (Many years ago in Cabo, my buddy Mike Rapoport lost a dorado of at least 60 pounds because he was in such a rush to get a rig back in the water that he tied a poor knot which of course slipped out and left him with the telltale “pig-tail” forensic evidence. I am certain he does not appreciate my repeating it here, but I think of him every time I am hurrying to tie a rig.)

Guitar Rapo Heroic

Mike Rapoport, in the happy days before the bad knot. See “My Guitar Solo.”

I then baited up with cut tuna, dropped to the bottom, and held my breath. I knew that I would be working against some very high expectations. I had slowly started to believe that I was going to get something new on just about every cast, and, in hindsight, this is simply not realistic. But then, my first two drops resulted in new species – the red-tinged grouper and the forktail large-eye bream.

Male Red

The red-tinged grouper. First fish – and first new species – of the trip.

Male Bream

The forktail large-eye bream. I was two species for two drops and it doesn’t get better than that.

I barely had time to notice what a beautiful place it was. Everywhere I looked, there were always three or four atolls in sight, surrounded with coral and glowing with different shades of tropical blue and green. And this is supposed to the heavily-populated, least scenic part of the country.

Male Harbor

Your basic atoll a few miles away from Male.

With two species on two casts, my overconfidence blossomed, and this is when the Fish Gods stepped in and crushed me. They sent the triggerfish – the same species I had caught in other locales. They came in relentless swarms, without question the dominant pest of the area, and they chased us for hours, until we moved onto a shallow, sandy patch late in the day. They hit any bait, any rig, and they hit it before anything else could even think about hitting it.

Male YellowT

A triggerfish. I would really learn to hate these.

It was in that sandy area I got my third species of the trip – the oblong pursemouth (a type of mojarra) – but by then, I was deeply shaken.

Male Mojarra

At least it’s big for a mojarra. That expression I have is my “creeping self-doubt” expression. Or maybe gas, I forget which.

The sun was going down, and the crew had put in a heck of an effort, so we called it a day and I headed off to my hotel and dinner. (Both of which were quite nice – Mohammed really made this easy for me, and I’m an annoyingly picky traveler.)

Male Full Crew

The full crew. From the left – deckhand Shahadath Mia, some American dude, Captain Mohamed Waheed (he’s not seven feet tall – he’s standing on the engine housing,) and Mohamed from the tour service, and deckhand Mujeeb Rahman.

I didn’t completely panic that first night. I figured that this was sort of my introductory session, and that the crew would find plenty of spots with new stuff in the next three days. But still, all those miles and three species … I drifted off to sleep dreaming bad dreams about triggerfish, knowing that Jaime Hamamoto was somehow involved.

Morning broke clear and beautiful, and the crew was enthusiastic to get on the fish. It was hard to convince them that I wanted to catch the often minuscule reef species that form such a large part of my collection. They were very experienced in catching the bigger stuff that people usually come to the Maldives to catch – dogtooth tuna, GT, groupers – and the tactics and places that get these fish don’t usually result in the grab bag I am after. There are generally not small fish around GTs, because the GTs will kill them and eat them.

The skipper wanted to try some deeper water – he thought there should be a variety of groupers and some other fish. So we spent much of the second day on deeper reefs, dropping bait rigs and the occasional jig. I started out with some smaller hooks in about 100′ of water, and the first thing I caught was … a triggerfish. As a matter of fact, the first 26 fish I caught were triggerfish, and then the 27th was a type of small grouper I had caught before – a beautiful fish, but not a new one. Panic crept up my esophagus like an underdone Dairy Queen chicken tender.

Male Yellow

Yellowedged Lyretail Grouper – also called a Coronation Trout by the Australians, because they just have to be difficult.

Then I got 18 more triggerfish, and, as afternoon rolled around, things were looking bleak. (Or dace.) But this is when a good fisherman, or me, has to be even more focused. Instead of ranting and raving and blaming LeBron James, I took a deep breath and tried to think. Perhaps a different rig would help. I put on some much bigger hooks and very large baits, reasoning that it would at least take longer for the triggers to shred them. This paid immediate dividends – the next fish I got was a decent-sized grouper, a longspine – which was both a new species and a world record.

Male Longspine

Things were looking up.

I kept at it with the bigger stuff, and while I did get a few more triggers, about an hour later, I got another new one – a tomato grouper.

Male Tomato

Or a tomato cod, as the Australians would say. What the hell is it with Australians and fish names? They actually have something they call a “groper.” See “The Hook and the Cook”

We kept at it until almost dark, and I added one more new grouper – the fourspot. It was a heck of a day for groupers.

Male Fourspot

Cousin Chuck – it’s called that because of the four black spots. So stop texting me and saying “It has more than four spots.” We get it.

In terms of a day of fishing, it was a great deal of fun, but it again resulted in only three new species, and one world record. This is a darn good day, but I was again looking at the idea that I was in the closest thing to untouched water I had fished in years, and I had done the math. I needed to be adding a lot of species here if I expected to reach 2000 before I was in adult diapers.

Still, it was progress, albeit scant – what Marta likes to call “directionally correct” – the kind of thing she says when I leave dishes in the sink but at least rinse them.

I went to bed early that night, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep. It was time to panic. I had hoped to be sending out triumphant texts about reaching 1500 species, and that seemed a long, long way off. Tossing and turning at four in the morning, I remember looking at my watch and wondering how long it would take me to ever reach 1500 species. I had no way of knowing that it would be exactly 29 hours and 40 minutes.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | April 26, 2016

The Hengover

Dateline: January 10, 2016 – Ponggol, Singapore

Sure, Dave exhibited amazing heng on my last trip to Singapore. (Details HERE.) But was this a one-time thing, or is he truly a heng master? You’ll know in about 1500 words.

Singapore is one of my more frequent Asia business stops, so I have been fishing there steadily for the better part of two decades. This means I caught the standard species – and even most of the really weird ones – years ago. But there are still a few blank spots on the list, and one of these is stingrays. So, when I got sent to Singapore in January, this is what I asked Dave to arrange for me – a stingray trip.

He warned me this would not be easy – these species are considered edible, and hence get quite a bit of fishing pressure. Singapore is a small place, and the locals are skilled fishermen, with the exception of Alex, and his sister, although it turns out they are the same person. But we were going to give it a shot, because what else was I supposed to do on a Sunday, go to museums? (If you think this was a serious option, you must be a new reader. Welcome!)

Dave brought in some familiar help on this project – Jimmy Lim, local guide and fisherman extraordinaire. Jimmy would not only add his years of fishing knowledge to the project, he would also add an element of adult supervision, , because let’s face it, when Dave and I get together things get juvenile pretty quickly. I grant you it is a higher standard than when Alex and Jarvis are involved, (see “Angry White Man“) but not by much.

HO Jimmy

Jimmy Lim, fishing guide and adult supervision. You can reach him at  itsgreat7070@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/ItsGrRReat

Flights to Singapore get in around 1am, so it was a short night of sleep – more of a furtive nap – before the 6am wake-up call and a taxi out to the marina. Both guys were there, bright-eyed, and, at least in Dave’s case, bushy-tailed.

This was my first fishing trip of 2016. I know it seems unthinkable that I waited 10 whole days, but remember that Marta’s family is Serbian Orthodox, so their Christmas is January 7. While this results in more gifts and lets me leave up the Christmas lights longer, it also means that our first week of January is always hectic. I have skipped a lot of responsibilities to go fishing, but Christmas is not negotiable. This week is also an excellent time for us to catch up on the more obscure Holiday specials – for example, did you know that there is a version of “A Christmas Carol” narrated by Vincent Price?

Heng Vincent

One review – “A TV special narrated by Vincent Price with sets seemingly borrowed from a local school Christmas play and a cast that didn’t qualify for same.” I love Vincent Price but this one screams casting error.

My plan was to fish some small rigs while we waited for a stingray to bite, and on my first drop, I got quite a surprise. The very first fish I pulled up for 2016 was a new species – the aptly-named “goatee croaker.” Life looked pretty good. Dave cast a metal high-speed jig, hoping for something larger. The conversation drifted between future fishing trips, tackle ideas, and a series of jokes and anecdotes which cannot be repeated here, except that most of them concluded with Jimmy saying either:

  • “You two are idiots.” or …
  • “I had no idea Alex was so open-minded.”

HO Croaker

The goatee croaker. A bewildered Dave casts jigs in the background.

We continued drifting for rays, and while we didn’t get any bites, the small stuff kept producing. After 15 more minutes, I dragged up a masked shrimpgoby, species number two for the day. Just like last year’s adventure, we were finding new species where I hadn’t expected any. Dave cast tirelessly, and Jimmy kept moving to spots where he remembered catching something odd years before. Both of these guys seemed to know every inch of the coastal waters.

HO Goby

The masked shrimpgoby. These things share a burrow with a prawn, which is positively confusing for me.

The day settled into fairly steady action on small groupers and sweetlips, stuff I had gotten before, but it’s still (marginally) more fun to catch something that to sit there and stare at Dave while he cast and cast and cast that metal jig. In the early afternoon, I pulled up a small grouper that looked different than all the other small groupers, so I took a photo of it. Less than 24 hours later, Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum let me know it was a sixbar grouper, and I had tacked on my third new species of the day. Dave patiently cast without complaint.

HO Six

The sixbar grouper. Cousin Chuck – can you guess why it’s called that? No, it didn’t go to six bars last night.

As we moved from spot to spot, Dave continued tossing the jig – this is hard work, as the local species only respond to a high speed presentation. But nothing would bite for him. In the meantime, one of my live prawns got nailed by a sicklefish – an oddly-shaped creature found in estuaries throughout the region.

HO Sickle

Not big enough the beat the record, but a lovely fish nonetheless.

It was at this stage of the afternoon that Dave’s amazing persistence was finally rewarded, and no, this does not mean that girl from Crazy Horse finally called him back. This means he finally got flat-out crushed on his jig, and he had something meaningful and angry hooked up and swimming the other way at great speed. He calmly and expertly played the fish, and in a few minutes, he had landed a giant trevally. I grant you, it wasn’t a big one, but remember, he was fishing with 10 pound braid and a glorified trout rod. Moments later, I got a GT on a live shrimp, and we got to take the highly sought-after “doubles” photo – two GTs at the same time. I thought to myself that the day couldn’t get any better.

HO GTs

Doubles on GTs. These are one of the best fish ever.

But the day could get better – the next prawn I sent over the side got smashed, and I was into the first of two golden trevally I would land in the next 30 minutes. This species it actually much more beautiful the smaller it gets, and while this striped one was nice-looking, they are bright yellow when they are about half this size. Adults are just a plain gray, but at any size, they pull hard. Dave also stuck one of these on a jig, and with all the action late in the day, he may have been more thrilled than I was. Jimmy was quietly satisfied in the background – it had been another stellar day, even if he had learned some disturbing things about Alex.

HO Golden

One of the goldens. Perversely, I wanted a smaller one.

We got off the water relatively early – this was after all a business trip, and that evening was full of suits, plates of suspicious appetizers, and discussions about things mostly nowhere near as important as a goatee croaker. But no matter how difficult the crab puffs would be in the morning, nothing could bother me – I already had three species in the bag for 2016 – and the possible trip of a lifetime coming up in just five days.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | April 3, 2016

Even Fisherman Get the Blues (Except Me)

Dateline: October 11, 2015 – San Diego, California

Generally, people don’t want the blues. But I want a blue shark. Badly. Yes, I know you’ve caught one and I haven’t – but do you really want to get into that contest with me? Don’t make me remind you that I’ve caught a spotted wobbegong. On purpose.

My San Diego trip in June failed to net me a blue – I got some nice other fish and a few world records, but the blue sharks disappeared like Marta’s sense of shame when she sneaks my Lifetime Achievement Award into the garage. And I had to spend 20 hours in the car with Spellman, which is like spending 20 hours in the car with Guido, except Guido’s English is marginally better. (Details on Guido HERE.)

Of course, I dismissed the notion that the water temperature was simply too warm and blamed everything on Spellman. This meant that I needed to try with a different road partner, and there are few road partners better than Scott Perry. (Prerequisite reading HERE.) Scott and I have been doing road trips together since we were young and thin, and it was great to get a weekend away. And so, doing my best Dick Cheney impression, I ignored clear data that the water temperatures in San Diego were still too warm, and I booked a few October days with ace guide James Nelson.

Did I mention it’s a long drive to San Diego?

We didn’t eat at Dairy Queen on the way down, because we had an option that may be (gasp) even better – the Willow Ranch restaurant. This meal stop, on an isolated stretch of I-5 just far enough from Bakersfield to avoid the smell, makes darn good everything, but they specialize in barbecue, a genre which Scott and I both favor.

Blue Restaurant

A referral to this place is one of the few things of value ever given to me by a particularly troubled relative.

This time, they had a new sandwich, and it was AWESOME. (Even if I am still digesting it.)

Blue Sandwich

Who thinks of these things? Genius.

We finally got to San Diego, checked into a comfortable condo on the south end of the bay, and set up gear for the big days to come.

Blue Pier

Sunset at Imperial Beach. Of course I fished the pier, to no avail.

Morning came early, as it always does. It was great to see Captain James. He was cautiously optimistic to get offshore with us, but he did warn that the water temperatures were still showing somewhere between tropical and bathtub. People were catching wahoo on day trips out of San Diego, and this did not bode well. But stubbornly, I forged ahead, ignoring both science and common sense. Unfortunately, science and common sense did not ignore me.

There were plenty of fish out there, but none of them were blue sharks. We saw all kinds of tropical critters, including an impressive hammerhead shark of some 12 feet. But the blues were not there, and I was predictably grouchy, blaming the usual suspects – LeBron James, Dodger fans, and bird flu. In hindsight, I recognize this was irrational – it was actually all Guido’s fault.

Blue Whale

Fine, we saw a whale. But it wasn’t a blue shark, which would have been much more majestic and beautiful as far as I’m concerned.

As we worked through different locations, we eventually got into water shallow enough where I could fish the bottom. We picked up a variety of rockfish – which meant that we had dinner, because Scott can take fish and turn it into meals. But this is not the important thing. The important thing was that one of the rockfish looked strange, and when I dug into Val Kells’ new book, the creature turned out to be a speckled rockfish, which is a new species for me.

Blue Speckled

The speckled rockfish.

Blue Speck

Scott’s may look bigger, but that’s just an optical illusion created by the fact that it was longer and heavier than mine.

I also got my personal best sheephead – it was just getting to the beautiful tricolor pattern that marks the adult males.

Blue Sheep

These things are all born as females but then eventually become males. Marta, ever the sexist, theorized that they lose 50 IQ points when they do this.

So the day was a triumph after all … sort of … but I was still traumatized about the blue shark. They’re supposed to be easy to catch, but they just weren’t there. It’s not like going back to San Diego is all than undesirable, but I really would like to catch one of these things before I get too old to use a 50# class setup.

There was no ugly fast food dinner in store for the evening. Scott can cook, and he whipped the rockfish up into some sort of restaurant-worthy stir fry. (To be fair, Martini can cook at a professional level as well, but none of the places we stayed in September had cooking facilities or, in many cases, running water.) We then spent the rest of the evening watching baseball, and I realized how long it had been since I just sat down and watched a whole baseball game. This was especially fulfilling, because the Dodgers lost. This would have pleased my grandfather, who never liked the National League. (He reserved a special dislike for the Cubs, who defeated his beloved Tigers two World Series in a row – 1907 and 1908 – thereby ruining his childhood. Whereas we may think of the Cubs as America’s loveable hard-luck team, they were quite the juggernaut while Archduke Ferdinand was still alive.)

We spent the next two days plying San Diego Bay. There are several things in here I had not gotten – corvina, corbina, striped guitarfish, midshipman – but the one that annoyed me most was perhaps the smallest – the diamond turbot. This modest flatfish is supposed to be all over the bay, but I had yet to see one in several days of fishing. With this challenge in mind, we set out to fish one of the most pleasant locations I have ever visited.

Scott and I both caught all kinds of stuff using mackerel slabs on the bottom – small sharks, guitarfish, bat rays, and butterfly rays. Round stingrays and bay bass pounced on the smaller baits – in terms of action, this is about the best place a 220 pound eight year-old like me can go. Something is always biting.

Blue Butter Scott

Scott’s first butterfly ray.

But a diamond turbot was not among these things that were biting. I had to make do with a big butterfly ray that smashed my record from June, but if Marta gets the idea I am going for another IGFA Men’s Saltwater trophy, I am going to get put in the garage. But it was a heck of a fish.

Blue Butterfly

16 pounds of steaming Butterfly Ray.

Blue Butterfly 2

James and his sixth world record as a guide.

That evening, we dined in again – shockingly, two healthy meals in a row. After the Cubs beat the Cardinals, which would have displeased my grandfather, we actually got to watch one of those movies from my young adulthood that I had never actually seen – “Valley Girl.” The music, the clothes, everything was so frighteningly familiar and yet so old. Say what you will about Nicolas Cage, but Deborah Foreman should have gotten an Oscar. Doubly so for her memorable performance in “Real Genius.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up the scene where she meets Val Kilmer.

Blue Deb

One of the most important moments in modern American cinema.

And then it was dawn. We hit the bay again, on a pleasant, clear morning, without a care in the world unless you count the dread of a 10 hour drive coming up later in the day. We scored loads of the usual suspects, but could not seem to get anything strange in the boat, except of course for me.

Blue Dawn

Morning in San Diego Bay.

We drifted small baits for a couple of hours, but the only surprise was how athletic a round stingray could be chasing a piece of shrimp. I was well past caring when I got a strike and hooked up either a very small stingray or a moderate piece of kelp – imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a turbot.

Blue Turbot

And there was great rejoicing.

We spent the rest of the day chasing assorted bay creatures, and Scott had the fight of the day with a bat ray on a rig meant for spotted bay bass.

Blue Bat

These things pull very hard for their size, and they have been given the evolutionary advantage of being completely inedible. I don’t know why Scott squats like this for fish photos – maybe he had cramps.

Blue Group

The group as we headed in to port. We had a long drive ahead, but Willow Ranch awaited us.

And so, that wrapped up the 2015 fishing for me. The species count had crept up to 1478, countries to 86, and states to 48. I was getting close to some major goals, which realistically means that I would just set more goals. After a what turned out to be a festive if eventful holiday season, I knew there would be a 2016 full of new countries, new species, new friends all over the globe – and new things for Marta to put in the garage.

Steve

Blue Logo

Look this guy up if you’re near San Diego.

 

 

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