Posted by: 1000fish | May 5, 2018

The Time of Nic

Dateline: October 14, 2017 – Bang Pakong, Thailand to Lake Fort Worth, Florida

Many of my blogs center on catching a fish in the nick of time, but this one is about the time of Nic.

I always seem to be far from home when bad things happen. I was in Malaysia when my Grandfather died in 1995. I was in Slovenia when my Mom passed away. So when I was in Thailand last October and my phone started lighting up with calls from co-workers at one in the morning, I had a bad feeling. I answered a call from one of my senior guys, Falko, and he was very to the point – “Nic has died.”

Nic and Falko were close.

That’s Nic and Falko at back right. No beer was safe around those two. Germany, 2014.

Nic Ware. It’s one thing when you get a call about someone much older, or someone who has been ill a long time, but this was sudden and hit close to home. Nic was just a few years older than me, and just like that, he was gone.

The first known photo of Steve and Nic, somewhere in Asia, early 2000s. We were good-looking and young, or more specifically, he was good-looking and I was young.

I had spoken to him just a few days before, partly about work topics but mostly shooting the breeze. Longtime 1000fish readers may remember Nic as “The Worst Valentine Ever,” and indeed, Nic will forever be my least attractive Valentine’s date. (We were wrongly identified as a couple in an Outback Steakhouse in Beijing on February 14, 2004.) We worked together for the better part of 20 years; I hired him three different times. We had adventures across Asia, South America, North America, and Europe. (And misadventures in many of the same places.) He kept to himself, wasn’t that open, had very few close friends. But we just clicked. The first legal advice he ever gave me (about a parking ticket) was “Deny everything. Admit nothing. Make counter-accusations.” How could I not love someone who thought like that?

I didn’t sleep much, and the alarm went off when I was staring at it. I had a day of fishing left in Thailand before I headed home. As always, Jean-Francois Helias set me up with his top guide, Kik, this time to give the Bang Pakong River a shot for a few local species I hadn’t gotten yet.

Kik and a local boatman on the Bang Pakong.

On the first day, the day before I heard about Nic, fishing was slow. Water levels had shot up from heavy rain, and the small fish were scattered in the flooded lowlands rather than at a predictable river edge. But we gave it a good shot, and I added one cool species that day – the smooth freshwater puffer.

I hadn’t even know these existed before my trip to Laos a few years ago, (Details in “The French Correction“)

You’re not the first person to notice that they look like a testicle with eyes.

We also got some nice Boesman’s croakers – a solid day.

Boesman’s croaker. They get a lot bigger.

I remembered the last time I was in Thailand with Nic, and having dinner with some of his old CIA buddies. It was like something out of a Warren Zevon song, but I didn’t see any Thompson guns.

The next day, the same day I found out Nic had died, I went out on the water but my thoughts weren’t on fishing. I kept looking at my phone. Nic had sent me texts just a few days ago. The last thing he ever sent me was, and pardon the language, but I will treasure this:

You’re an asshole    🙂

In this particular case, he was probably right. I couldn’t stop thinking about his wife, Lucy, and the pain she was going through. She was the one person he seemed to be able to talk to and who could make him deal with adult responsibilities. She was the Nic Whisperer.

I went through the motions on a very rainy Bang Pakong river.

It poured most of the day.

Kik was helpful every step of the way, but I was somewhere else.

The Hyatt labels have gotten awfully literal.

We were using tiny live prawns for bait, a lot like grass shrimp back home. Late in the morning, I reeled up an odd-looking catfish. Kik jumped out of his stool when he saw it, and for the avoidance of doubt, he was sitting on a wooden stool when he saw the photo. Don’t be gross. I had caught a Pla Kot Kan Lao – the truncated estuarine catfish, and this one is officially rare.

Francois has gotten two of these ever.

Adorable.

I thought Nic might have been looking out for me, but he was the sailor, not a fisherman. We talked about it, but we never did go fishing (or sailing) together. Just like I never saw Roger Barnes sing live. These chances go by so much faster than we think they do.

I got two other catfish that day which have thus far defied identification, so if any of you can figure them out, dinner is on me.

Guessing Ariidae. I didn’t say this was going to be easy.

Guessing in Netuma someplace, but this is a confusing genus.

Nic and I came close to fishing together once in Peru, but he decided it was more fun to sit on the pier, have a few beers, and make fun of me. Nic’s Father was a diplomat, so Nic grew up all over the world. He went to high school in Lima, and knew the place like the back of his hand. He spoke something like seven languages – three of them English.

Nic makes fun of my small fish. Note that he is reclining on solid rock – Nic could make himself comfortable anywhere, even the tiniest middle seat on the worst possible airlines.

When he went on a beer run and I asked him to bring me a Red Bull, he yelled halfway down the pier “¡Senor Wozniak, Yo he obtenido tus laxantes!” People stared, because this means “Mr. Wozniak, I have brought your laxatives!” Remember that I was the only person within earshot who did not speak Spanish.

I got off the water around five and we had surprisingly light traffic back into Bangkok.

Gas station bathroom on the way back to Bangkok. Signs like this go up for a reason, and I would love to know the reason.

I had dinner and a quiet beer at the Hyatt, at the same table where Nic and I, years ago, had giggled uncontrollably at a sales manager’s plaid suit, which looked a whole lot more like pajamas than business attire.

Steve and Nic, Bangkok. circa 2003.

The next morning, I flew through Singapore and caught a connection back to San Francisco. Once home, I got to say hello to Marta, then repack a bag for Florida. Marta loved Nic.

It was a military funeral – Nic was a US Marine. (And also a CIA officer and a lawyer. His resume made me wonder what I did with my life.)

“On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Old friend Cristiano Bernarde, who has shared a few fishing adventures with me himself, was also very close to Nic. It was Cris who drove me up to the National Cemetery for the service. The whole thing was exactly 20 minutes long. It doesn’t seem fair to sum up a life in 20 hours or 20 days, let alone 20 minutes. Cris and I had lunch at, of all places, Bass Pro Shops in Dania Beach. He had to get back to work in the afternoon, and there I was, at the same Marriott I had stayed at for my very first IGFA award in 2010. It hit me that I hadn’t been fishing with Cris in years – it just always seemed like we would have to schedule it next time. I had a lot of plans with Nic for “next time.” So the next time I’m in Florida, I am making the time to get out with Cris, dammit.

But still, I was in Florida. There are fish here. Marta was locked up in some insane work project, so I decided to stick it out for a couple of days and try to catch a few species. This isn’t as glamorous as it sounds – the weather was unsettled and windy, and the hurricane that had passed through left a lot of damage. My favorite fishing pier – Anglin’s – was partially destroyed, and the coastal water was unseasonably green and cold. I had a all-star team of species experts on speed dial – Martini, Patrick Kerwin, and buddy Dom Porcelli – and everyone had some great ideas.

That first evening, I went up to Boca Raton, to a park Martini had recommended for night sergeant and possibly an eel. I opened a cold drink and set up my gear. I was late afternoon, the tide was rushing out, and I began catching all manner of small reef creatures. As it got dark, I had a crushing bite in the rocks and something broke off a 100# leader. The only thing that could have done this was an eel. (There are no gulf flounder in the area, Martini.) One of the last small fish I got was a very dark-colored damsel, which turned out to be the targeted species. I thought of Nic and smiled – there is no way he would have been out there with the mosquitoes.

Night sergeant. Ironically, I also met a Boca Raton police sergeant that night, because I had not realized the park closes at dusk. He let me off with a brief discussion of local fishing.

The next day was a blur of racing from spot to spot trying to pick up targets that Martini, or Dom Porcelli, or Pat Kerwin had passed along. I caught a couple of nice fish at Juno Pier, but it was mostly catfish.

An Atlantic Moonfish. Closely related to the Lookdown.

I decided to head to Boca Raton again, at a landing that had produced quite a few species for me. I had a big rod out with a bait for eel, and this did get a couple of hits – once from an ambitious nurse shark that put up a good fight for a minute or two. But I had dinner scheduled with the Arosteguis that evening, so I wanted to be more or less on time and more or less showered. I was down to using prawns on a lighter rig, and in the last five minutes I could fish, I got a solid, heavy bite. Lifting up on the 8 pound mono, I could tell immediately it was a moray, and I could also tell that the odds were heavily against me landing it. I gently worked it to the surface, and seeing that I had it hooked cleanly in the corner of the mouth, I gambled and swung it up onto the ledge. My gear held together, and I had finally gotten my Green Moray.

I thought of Vinnie Biondoletti and my eel failures with him all those years ago.

It gave me a good topic of conversation with Marty and Roberta, and I also got to visit with Rossi the cat.

Best cat EVER.

Saturday was my final day of fishing, and I spent it racing all over South Florida after some assorted micros that had frustrated me over the years. In a single morning, I was ignored by the bluefin killifsh, the sailfin molly, the least killifsh, and the brown hoplo. Both Martini and Dom had given me great spots and sage advice, and I still struck out. Bad. Like the kind of struck out where I never even saw the baseball, which used to happen a lot if someone could throw a curve over the plate.

There was one happy development to report on this day, and it was literally a Happy development. Specifically, an Eastern Happy Cichlid. This is one of those weird creatures that Patrick Kerwin somehow figured out lives in the pond at one given shopping center, and he was generous enough to tell me about it. Once I found the place, action was immediate. This was rewarding.

The Eastern Happy Cichlid. Species 1755.

There is no Western Happy Cichlid.

What was not rewarding was battling through the Everglades and watching bluefin killifish laugh at my micro rigs. Or going to some pond north of Miami that was supposed to have least killifish but that seemed to have only alligators.

WTF, Martini?

I decided to close it out at my favorite Boca Raton spot, but then I realized I was totally out of bait. If Nic had been around, he would have gladly driven me up a pound of seafood, but eaten half of it on the way. Instead, Dom Porcelli saved the day by delivering a bunch of shrimp and squid. I was back in business.

Dom Porcelli – owner of a very impressive species list himself.

I caught more than 50 assorted fish that afternoon, none new, but each one awesome. Then it was Skyline Chili for dinner, which made things just about perfect.

Nic would never have agreed to eat Skyline, but he would have come along just to talk. I’ll miss that.

If I’d had the choice, I never would have made this trip, but I will dedicate these three species to Nic. I hope he’s on a long sail with a quiet, following sea behind him.

And wherever you are, Nic – Happy Valentines Day.

Steve

 

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Posted by: 1000fish | April 16, 2018

Mimi, Ajak, and Fred

Dateline: October 1, 2017 – Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei

I’m running out of countries to fish in Asia, but I have no idea how I missed this one for so long. Brunei is a small nation on the island of Borneo, which is otherwise shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. An oil-producing nation with a rich and varied history, Brunei is now an autonomous Sultanate, but only gained full independence from Britain in 1984, the same year I gained full independence from my parents. It is located on the South China Sea about a thousand miles east of Singapore, which is where I already was, on a business trip. The blessing of being sent to all these cool places is evened out by the curse that I am generally not on my own schedule. I can do side adventures to some really great places, but I usually have to work with a weekend or similarly short window. This means that I have to gamble on everything going right with weather and logistics, and this doesn’t always happen.

Brunei has great fishing and an IGFA Captain, Alfred Yong. (He goes by Captain Fred, and can be reached on www.captfredshop.com.) But the end of September is in their windy season, and Captain Fred warned me that the good areas are 80 miles out to open sea in an area called the Brunei Dropoff. We discussed, and he agreed to take me if the weather stayed civilized. With my schedule, we would squeeze it in to one 36 hour mad dash – get on the boat early one morning, run to the dropoff, fish overnight, then come home the next evening so I could get a flight back to Singapore and some more meetings. He thought it would be about 50/50, which is enough of a shot for me to give it a try. I figured I could always find some shore-based fishing if the weather was really bad, just to add the country. Either way, I hoped to fish the shore the afternoon I arrived – what else could I possibly find to do in an exotic tropical country? (This is a trick question. Brunei has lots of really cool stuff for normal people to do, but this is me we’re talking about.)

Booking a flight was a challenge, because I inadvertently kept pricing itineraries to Bahrain or Bhutan, which I am sure are both very nice places but are not a short flight from Singapore, and do not have IGFA skippers.

I figured the shore fishing idea had to be easier than Macau. (As you recall from “The S.A.R. Fishing Fishing Tour,” In that case, I was told, by a well-meaning but poorly-informed concierge, that all fishing in Macau was illegal. That put quite a cramp in things.)

In booking my hotel for Brunei, I used my normal criteria – the nicest-looking place I could find on the water. The Empire Resort looked beautiful, and it had a couple of miles of gorgeous, private shoreline.

The Empire Resort, Brunei.

The view from my room.

I figured I may as well ask the concierge about fishing, and perhaps any guides who could help me with the shore-based stuff. This is when they dropped the bomb – no fishing at the resort. Are you kidding me? Why else would someone even go to such a beautiful place, unless it was for fishing? (There are actually lots of other reasons to go to Brunei. For example, they have proboscis monkeys.) But what kind of sick pervert bans fishing?

This is where another concierge came into the picture. A day after this whole unfortunate exchange, I got a random email from “Mimi.” Mimi explained that she works for the hotel and had heard of my shore-fishing plight, and that her husband, Ajak, was a rather keen angler. She told me they would be glad to take me out the day I arrived, and on the other days if the boat didn’t work out. Not as a paid guide – just as a favor to another fisherman. This is from someone I had never met in my life. What wonderful people.

The flight went seamlessly – Singapore Air doesn’t mess up very often. United should send people to fly on Singapore just to see what it’s like when a plane shows up on time. The car to the hotel was waiting for me, and about 20 minutes, two Red Bulls, and a can of Pringles later, I was downstairs waiting for Ajak and Mimi to pick me up.

Mimi showed up in a car with her son and her sister. She explained that Ajak had been called in to his work on the offshore oil rigs, but that she would still take me to some of his favorite spots.

But Ajak makes the blog anyway! Here he is with a beautiful queenfish caught off one of the oil rigs.

She had brought a cooler full of shrimp, squid, and Pepsi, and I should point out they were all in separate compartments. This person had never met me before in my life, and she was about to take an afternoon of her life to help me catch a fish. As pessimistic as Marta can remind me that I am, it’s moments like this that remind me that humans are pretty good to each other. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have caught nearly so many fish. Marta’s take on this: “Women rock, especially Mimi.” Marta then proceeded to mention that men could not have possibly done something that took this much organizing.

We fished two spots that afternoon. The first one was a rocky estuary shoreline. It didn’t take long to get a bite, and perhaps the Fish Gods sent me a slight message by giving me one of the species most difficult to tell apart from any of its close relatives – a marine catfish. But a fish is a fish, and I had added country number 90. I smiled and briefly thought back – I had only added number 50 (Switzerland, with the fabled Jens Koller) in April of 2008, nine and a half years ago. I grinned at how much fishing had happened in the interim, but then I remembered how many airline miles it had all taken.

Country number 90, with Mimi in the background.

I later discovered Mimi’s son in full photobomb mode.

I kept fishing, and got an equally unidentifiable species, the ponyfish.

I hate these things. They’re almost impossible to tell apart.

Somewhere in there, I asked Mimi why her sister had come along. Patiently, she explained that as Brunei is a Muslim country, that a woman being seen in public alone with a man who is not her husband could raise some eyebrows. Having a larger group removes the eyebrow factor. Of course, this now meant that I had taken up the afternoon of two more people. There is no way to ever repay kindness like this – all you can do it pass it to someone else. Martini, for example, wants to pass on all his kindness to Kate Upton. Whatever happens, Marta reminded me again that Mimi is a superstar and I could never have done this on my own.

Steve, Mimi, and a micro-snapper.

We finished our day at a pier along the same estuary.

The pier. There was no way I was passing this up, even after I saw a crocodile in the water by the right tower.

It was there I checked off two species – some sort of anchovy and a lovely violet demoiselle. This was a fantastic start, and I had my fingers crossed that the weather would stay nice for the boat trip.

The genus is Stolephorus. The species may never be known, but as I have caught nothing in Stolephorus, that’s a new one.

The demoiselle. I am always grateful when damselfish are not plain brown.

A beautiful sunset on the estuary.

Toward sundown, they dropped me off back at the Empire, and I headed for dinner. The Italian food at the hotel was outstanding. Fred called that evening and confirmed that the weather looked great. We were going, and I was thrilled. I managed to get a few hours of sleep before a very early wakeup call.

Fred picked me up before dawn, and we drove to a port in the very northeast of Brunei – about 25 minutes.

The Apollo is not the fastest boat in the world, but it was darn comfortable, and the crew was great. I could spread my gear out wherever I wanted to, and there were cold beverages at hand. I spent the first hour or so setting up my gear – putting rods together, tying and retying leaders, and assembling terminal rigs.

Captain Fred on the left. The guy is awesome.

On our way out, I asked to make a quick stop on some shallow reefs, and Captain Fred found a couple of nice spots. I dropped some medium and small hook rigs, and while everything got attacked immediately, it was clear, as Fred had warned me, that these were generally small fish. I started bringing up an assortment of reef critters, and while I caught at least 50 fish, nothing was new. So I settled in for about eight hours of cruising to the dropoff. This gave me plenty of time to eat lunch, take a solid nap, set up my heavy gear, eat dinner, drink lots of Pepsi, and otherwise become heavily caffeinated before the main event.

We passed occasional oil rigs on the way out.

Fred and I got to talk a lot of fishing. We would be heading to the Brunei Dropoff, about 80 miles out. The Spratly Islands, full of dogtooth tuna and Chinese Navy, were another 200 miles out. I need to get there sooner or later. It was just after dark when we pulled up to the first spot, where we would anchor over a patch of rough bottom in about 450 feet of water. After waiting 8 hours, I was beside myself to get going, and the anchoring process seemed to take forever. I first dropped a jig, because I was determined to test out my new Stella 20000 and Galahad jigging rod. This had been what I was dreaming of for the entire trip – some kind of huge predator, hopefully a dogtooth tuna, crushing a high-speed jig and ripping line off of a wrenched-down Stella drag.

I gave it a game try, for at least eight minutes, but the big predators did not seem to be active, and I have the patience of an impatient seven year-old. Emotionally, I needed to get some bait on the bottom. The rigs hadn’t been down five seconds when the bites started. The first fish I brought up was a yellowfin seabream – related to the Australian pink snapper.

An exotic sea bream – the first newbie of the boat trip.

On the very next drop, I pulled up a pair of bight alfonsino, part of a deepwater family that I always love to catch. We hadn’t been at it ten minutes and I had added two species.

Some fish come from a rough neighborhood. These come from a roughy neighborhood.

I then got into a school of lavender snapper – a strangely ubiquitous creature that I have caught anywhere from Hawaii to the Indian Ocean.

These things live EVERYWHERE.

Once the snapper had calmed down, I got a deepwater soldierfish, which turned out to be a Japanese Soldierfish. Then came a Rosy Dwarf Monocle bream, and it was a pound, so I had no problem turning it in for a record, even if it did have “dwarf” in the name. I added another soldierfish, and this one was big enough for a record, so that was two for the IGFA, and I am certain Marta texted me to not even think about another trophy this year. (It happened anyway.)

The rosy dwarf monocle bream. It weighed a pound, so there. Jamie hasn’t caught one.

Now THAT’S a soldierfish. A Japanese soldierfish, to be exact.

Somewhere in there, before the lavebder snappers found me again, I got some sort of odd shark, which turned out to be yet another addition to my Squalus collection – the western longnose spurdog.

Many thanks to Clinton Duffy, a New Zealand-based shark expert, for identifying this one.

Captain Fred was fishing on the other side of the boat, and the dude is a machine. He was pounding the bottom fish, and was getting consistently better specimens than I was without doing anything visibly different. He got a couple of groupers I had never seen in my life – one with thin lines along the flank, the other with a beautiful oblique pattern. I stayed patient, and about half an hour later, I got one of the lined groupers.

This put me up to six species for the deepwater part of the trip, eight overall.

Then the lavender snappers took over again.

It got very late, and I knew I wanted to get a bit of sleep before giving it a try in the dawn hours. Just before then, things got weird. I kept trying to jig intermittently, because I had my new Stella 20000 and Galahad jigging rod, but it just wasn’t happening. I finally did something that Dave at Lure Haven is going to be very upset about. I used the jigging rod as a bait stick and dropped a big slab of mackerel to the bottom. I’m sorry, Davy. And you just know what happened. I got a pounding bite. Reeling up and setting the hook, I got stuck in the rocks, but I could tell there was something on the hook. This is a strong rod and 65# braid – I took my chances and just wrenched on it, and moments later, the fish pulled free. I was guessing eel the whole way up, and sure enough, it was a good-sized conger. It turned out be a Philippine conger – a new species and my third record of the session.

There is a special place in hell for people who use specialized jigging setups to bait fish for eels. I have previous infractions along these lines.

After that, I caught no more than two hours of sleep, then got back up at dawn to jig some more.

Sunrise on the Brunei Dropoff.

With only 36 hours available, and a lot of that spent in transit, I had to take advantage of every moment. Nothing hit on the jigs, so I went back to bait. My first fish of the morning was a ruby snapper – I had gotten small ones in Hawaii before, but at least it was a break from the lavebder pests.

This is my largest ruby ever. Four months later, I would get a much bigger one, but that is a tale for another blog.

Moments later, I got a strong bite and reeled in an excellent surprise – an oblique-banded grouper.

This would be my 10th Brunei species and fourth record, which made it an excellent morning.

We fished until about noon, and while the action was constant, there were no other new creatures to report. The crew started pulling the anchor, and I settled into my routine of cleaning and packing gear.

Just as we started under way, a pair of egrets glided into view and made a clumsy landings on the back of the boat.
The egrets. Still, I have no egrets about this trip.
It didn’t strike me as strange for a moment, but then it occurred to me that this is a land bird and was very, very lost. Fred explained that they occasionally get swept out to sea by the wind, where they usually die a miserable death unless they can hitch a ride on a shore-bound vessel. This was life and death for these little feathered souls, and they were not budging. We left them some bait to eat and went about our business. They were terrified by us, but I think they were more terrified by the open water. We soon made peace with each other, and after a while, they moved up to the side rail.
Their position for most of the trip. They seemed to understand we weren’t going to hurt them.
They would let us walk by them without flying off, and this uneasy peace lasted eight hours until we reached land. When they flew away, it felt wonderful. Don’t ask me to describe this and do it justice. I am a fisherman, not a poet, but it felt like the universe had done the right thing.
I thought a lot about those birds, fortunate passengers on a journey every bit as unlikely and every bit as random as mine. Fred, Mimi, and Ajak had all done a wonderful part in helping me along – I had reached 1750 species, and I still had a couple of days in Thailand coming up. Hopefully, I would keep landing on vessels with the right people headed the right way.
Steve
Posted by: 1000fish | February 27, 2018

The Best Disaster Ever

DATELINE: SEPTEMBER 24, 2017 – SINGAPORE

There are days you just shouldn’t go fishing. Your wife’s birthday comes to mind, baptisms of children if any, and significant holidays in whatever religion you may follow. Trust me – I speak from experience. Nearly as important as these considerations are those occasions when the elements conspire against you, making conditions either unsafe (think storms or tropical disease) or just undesirable for fishing (think red tide or armed insurrection.) This post will cover one such day, but I went fishing anyway and was improbably rewarded for a bad decision. The victims here were my buddies, who had to suffer through an awful day – not only were the fish small and far between, but the guys also had to be on a small boat with me for 10 hours.

The place was Singapore, the guide was the ever-reliable Jimmy Lim, the friends were Dave and Jarrod, and the problems were tides and rain.

You can contact Jimmy on itsgreat7070@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/ItsGrRReat. As good as he is, he can’t stop the rain.

Singapore is tropical, so a day of unseasonably cold rain will cloud up the water and put the fish off. There had been three days of unseasonably cold rain. On top of that, the tides, much like Cousin Chuck, were notably slow, meaning limited action even if the water had been warm and clear. But I went anyway, because I was here and I only had one free day – the rest of the week would be (gasp) work. The innocent victims in all this – Dave and Jarrod, buddies who just wanted a nice day of fishing. Jimmy had warned me, I had warned myself, but somehow, I was convinced deep in my hubris-laden soul that I could pull off a decent day.

I haven’t been this wrong since I proposed to my ex-wife.

I started things out on a low note by bringing the wrong rod tube to the harbor. This caused a 45 minute delay, which could have been much longer except for the heroic actions of Filzah, the concierge at the Hyatt, who managed to race up to my room, avoid my dirty socks and find the correct Loomis, then get it delivered to me with great efficiency. Concierges have featured in a number of my adventures, such as “Gobies in the Afternoon,” and Filzah takes an honored place in this group.

Filzah, the heroic concierge at the Singapore Hyatt.

Realistically, waiting for the hotel car was the most excitement we had all day. The fishing was awful, as Jimmy repeatedly warned us it would be. Dave and Jerrod got a couple of small snappers each, and I got roughly the same. The guys were beerfully stoic, even when I pointed out “At least we have each other.” They tried, and failed, to keep a straight face when I caught a teeny ponyfish on purpose.

The good-looking guys are Jerrod at center and David on the right. You have met David’s son in blog episode “I’m Here for the Gummy.” The little guy has captured a species I have not, and don’t think this doesn’t bother me.

But even on the grimmest of angling days, the metaphorical tides can change in an instant. Because the predatory fish were absolutely not interested in eating, the small, strange fish that normally spend their days hiding in terror all seemed to come out and play. As the afternoon went on, my sabiki produced four – FOUR – new species. I would like to note that Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum spent untold time identifying all of these – he must have identified a hundred species for me over the years, and he is remarkable not only for his knowledge, but also for his amazing patience when I am hoping that a fish is something new and it isn’t but I keep asking just in case.

Dr. Jeff Johnson. I have never seen a Malabar Blood Snapper half this size.

The first two were Sardinella species – these are commonly called “herring” or “sardine” depending on location, but the only other ones I’ve caught (in Sao Tome, Belize, and Qatar) are not found here. So these go into the list as a “genus only” ID, but new species.

Sardinella spp. 1

Sardinella spp. 2 – note again the look of complete awe on David’s face.

I then added an anchovy to the list. Yes, an anchovy, albeit a weird one from a weird genus – Thryssa. We’ll never know which specific Thryssa is was, as I didn’t take an MRI of the fish, but I have no other Thryssa in my collection and it was turning into a great day than only I and I alone could appreciate. Luckily, the guys had brought beer.

I am proud of this.

My final addition for the day was an especially thrilling one. (To me, and perhaps Martini.) I somehow dragged up a Reticulate Toadfish, a close relative of the three-spined toadfish that I captured in Cairns in 2003.

There’s something about that complex anterior eye cirrus that makes me so happy.

All of these were caught in places I had fished numerous times previously. The only variable was the rotten water situation – so I had ended up inadvertently making the best of a bad situation. The guys, true Australians, handled it in stride and verbally abused me all day. The abuse and anecdotes thrown my way were uninterrupted and high-quality. Unfortunately, even five months later, I still can’t think of a single thing they said that I can repeat here without making my blog the target of some sort of activist group. (Apart from the usual fish-hugger types, who never understand that hugging fish doesn’t impress the fish and leaves you both with awkward smells.) About all I am allowed to say is that there was a story I’ll call “Wrong Turn on Guai Lo Street” that was partly educational, partly hysterical, but mostly disturbing. Think “The Crying Game” meets “Finding Nemo.”

The guys are smiling because we were done.

I thought about offering to pay for a night out for them, but a bar tab for Australians can be a financially crippling obligation. I did end up having dinner and drinks with David later in the week, so he got at least partially even with me.

Dis Elephant

This is a real Thai restaurant in Singapore. It has an elephant butt for a logo. 

He has also discovered some rather exquisite underground bars, which feature exquisite underground drinks and exquisite underground bar tabs.

Yes, that’s a three-story high liquor cabinet. The stuff on the top shelves gets a bit pricey – note that there are no stairs. They send a waitress, complete with wings, up on a wire harness.

But the Singapore fishing wasn’t quite over. Many of you newer readers are familiar with the whole Singapore gang – Jimmy, Dave, Sherwin, and the assorted peanut gallery from Lure Haven. But only those who have been around since the beginning of 1000fish – and before – will remember the founder of all my Singapore adventures – Jarvis Wei Lee. Jarvis guided me to my very first fish in Singapore – a barramundi and a mangrove jack – back on July 4, 1999.

Steve and Jarvis, a long time ago. He never seems to age.

We’re still in touch – he often makes dark comments on my blog – but it had been quite a few years since we were able to put our schedules together. Purely by chance, a few weeks before this trip, he emailed me a note mentioning that he had figured out a couple of Singapore species that I could add whenever I visited. So we set up a late afternoon to run around some of Singapore’s lesser-known backwaters and hunt a few truly exotic species, at least one of which was not in a hatchery environment.

Our first target took us deep into the jungle.

There were monkeys. Unlike Gibraltar, they kept their distance. (See “Rock Fishing” for details.)

There is a surprising amount of jungle in Singapore, and no one will convince me that every jungle does not have at least one cobra. My strategy was to let Jarvis go first, so that I could run for help while he held off the snake.

Prime cobra country.

See – he never ages.

Our fishing target was a rare snakehead species, and we eventually found and fished some very small pools in a stream that meandered through the foliage. The water level wasn’t quite right, but while we did not get the snakehead, we did score some Penang Bettas, which were there in droves.

The Penang Betta. A savage new species.

The trophy shot.

Later in the afternoon, we drove to about as isolated a spot as one can find in Singapore. Remember, the island is only 31 miles wide, so it would seem difficult to find someplace that no one could hear me scream, yet here we were. The target was a jewel perch – don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of them either. They are apparently really good to eat, which in turn means that they are grown in ponds for the markets, which in turn means that Jarvis knew which pond. We spent about 45 minutes messing around a complex of ponds and small backwaters, and we had a blast hooking up (and releasing) the hard-fighting perch.

Species 1736 if you’re keeping score at home. Dr. Johnson informs me that it is actually a Barcoo Grunter, an Australian species. Jewel perch and Jade perch are marketing names meant to make them sound more edible, sort of like “Rocky Mountain Oysters.” The scientific name for the species is Scortum barcoo, which I only mention because “Scortum” kept spell-correcting to “Scrotum.”

While we were catching perch, we noticed a larger, black fish that kept popping up and eating bread off the surface. After we saw it a few times, we both figured out it was a sharkminnow, a fairly rare cyprinid that shows up in this part of world now and then. I had caught one in Thailand – made famous in “The Carp and I”  – and was frothing at the nostrils to get another. We must have spent half an hour casting to it, and either having perch eat the bread or having the sharkminnow come up, sniff at it, and wander away. It was getting dark. We both had stuff to do. But we couldn’t leave that fish, and after about another hour, I got lucky. Meaning I caught the fish – get your mind out of the gutter.

With that catch, we were on our way to respective business dinners downtown. It had been great to see Jarvis – we’ve been doing this for almost 18 years – but then I had to face a few days in the office. (I am even less popular in this office than I am in most of the others globally.) But all that was fine, because once the week was over, I would be heading for an adventure in the last Asian country I am likely to ever add to my list. No, it’s not North Korea. Dennis Rodman won’t call me back.

Steve

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | February 11, 2018

Par for the Corso

Dateline: September 3, 2017 – Columbus, Ohio

I’ll be the first to admit my blog doesn’t always stay on topic. I may, occasionally, wander into non-fishing directions because I, and generally I alone, find them interesting. This is about to happen again. Indeed, most of this post is going to be about old friends in the Midwest and an afternoon improbably spent with a college football legend. The main drama regarding this entire post was finding SOMETHING fishing related – a new species or a record – so that I could write the blog in the first place.

From time to time, with Marta’s curiously enthusiastic encouragement, I head back to the midwest for nutritionally irresponsible weekends with buddies in Ohio and Indiana. One of my best Hoosier friends, Steve Ramsey, may look like an accountant but spent years destroying me at tennis. Every autumn or two, we plan a weekend around some IU, Colts, and Pacers games, and then try to eat as much Skyline Chili as a human can tolerate. (And this limit has been exceeded more than once.) Steve was a football student manager for the Indiana University Hoosiers in the 1970s, so as a sports alum, he gets invited to some fairly cool stuff. I have spent years embarrassing him by attending IU/Michigan games in full Wolverine regalia.

Best of all, Indiana NEVER wins. They have made it uncomfortably interesting – double OT in 2015 and OT in 2017 – but they NEVER win.

Mr. Ramsey in his college yearbook.

This year, we decided to root together against a program everyone can hate – Ohio State. (A college team that could beat the Cleveland Browns – who hasn’t – but bear in mind the Buckeyes’ payroll and arrest record exceeds that of eight NFL teams.)

The OSU game would be nationally televised, and the “College Gameday” host would be, as always, Lee Corso. With the exception of the late and awesome Keith Jackson, Lee Corso is my absolute favorite football announcer. Here is one of his most candid moments: (Warning: may contain language that most kids have already heard at school)

Lee Corso was also the football coach at IU when Steve was a student there. It had been many years since Coach Corso had been to IU, but when College Gameday set up to broadcast this game, the IU football alum association set up an event to honor him. This consisted of a lunch and private reception for the alums and the Coach, and then an on-field award presentation that would be on national television. As an alum, Steve Ramsey was invited to this, and I couldn’t have been more excited for him. We would need to go down to Bloomington a couple of hours early, and then I would need to find something to do while Steve attended all the stuff. I was looking forward to seeing his photos and seeing a great game. I had no intention of crashing either event.

But before I could write about any of this, I would need to catch some sort of new species. I’ve done plenty of fishing in Indianapolis, (see “My Old Kentucky Bone.”) Still, I figured that if I brought out the micro-gear, that I would have a pretty good chance of getting something new. The area near Steve’s house has a number of creeks, and all it would take is one oddball shiner, minnow, or sculpin. The day after the game, I ventured out, micro-gear in hand. (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the game later.) The weather was unseasonably cool and windy, from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey. I explored three creeks, and while I did catch some of the requisite chubs and a positively massive bluntnose minnow, there was nothing new to report.

By bluntnose minnow standards, this is a beast.

I could spend days walking creeks like this.

A random northern hogsucker. I first got this species in Wisconsin.

How hard could this be? I needed to get just one lousy new fish to tell the story of the game on that fateful Thursday, and it was turning out to be harder than I’d hoped.

Ah, that fateful Thursday. Steve and I breakfasted at Skyline, then headed south on Highway 37 in the late morning.

Skyline for breakfast. It is just like Skyline for lunch, except maybe a bit less tabasco.

It was a glorious early fall day as we headed through the rolling hills and enjoyed the autumn scenery. We were early enough to secure prime parking, and then we took our time walking over to the alumni center where the event would be held. I figured I would leave Steve there and then wander the campus for a couple of hours. When we got to the registration desk, they recognized Steve and gave him his nametag. Then, something unexpected happened –  they asked me my name, wrote me out a nametag, and sent us in to the event.

To be fair, I was with a well-known alum, and I was wearing an IU football t-shirt and hat, and I suppose I look like a middle-aged former defensive back. But they waved me right in, and there was Coach Corso right in front of me. We were early, so there weren’t many people there yet, and I am certainly not all that shy, so I just walked up and introduced myself. Just like that, I was shaking hands with a thoroughly confused Lee Corso. I explained I was a guest and brought Steve up. We snapped a quick picture together before I left them to talk about the old days.

I will treasure this photo.

Coach spent quite a bit of time with Steve, and clearly remembered him, what he studied, and what he had planned to do after college – amazing for someone he worked with 40+ years ago. The guy was sharp and amazingly engaging.

After he had spent some personal time with everyone in attendance, Coach Corso gave a short talk to the group. It has been years since he coached, and I obviously didn’t play for IU, but I would still follow this man through a wall – he was that charismatic. I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to meet him.

Steve signs a team ball for Coach Corso.

No, I didn’t. But if I had, I would have written “Go Blue.”

This was all great, but there was still that fish to catch. Two days after the game, I headed to Ohio to meet some very dear old friends for dinner. On the way in to town, I had arranged a fishing stop at Little Darby Creek, just west of Columbus.

This was a place I had heard of constantly while I lived in Columbus – from 1985 to 1989 – but I never did make it out there to fish. In that somewhat wild and single period of my life, which Marta calls “The Dark Ages When Literacy Was Almost Lost,” I had somewhere around 20 species on my list, and had caught fish in perhaps three states. Back then, I somehow wore size 32 pants and had a lot more hair, but fortune favors the bald.

Speaking of fortune, I had the good luck to be able to arrange a meeting with a fellow species hunter on that trip. Josh Leisen is one of the midwestern guys who always seems to be catching something I’ve never heard of. He happened to be heading through Ohio on the same day as me, and he generously scoped out a couple of fishing spots. Josh knows Martini and Ben, who both speak highly of him. Josh was present when Ben dropped the catfish on his calf – see “The Thing in Ben’s Leg” for all the gruesome details.”

It was a chilly, drizzly day in central Ohio, again courtesy of Hurricane Harvey. Wet wading was a bit more bracing than I had hoped. Josh had planned ahead and brought waders. The creek was beautiful, and positively stuffed with interesting small fish. I caught bluegill, bass, shiners, darters, and minnows, but nothing new. Josh added a couple of lifers – the scarlet and rosyface shiners. He is a very solid, patient fisherman, and is running up quite a life list. (Check out his blog HERE.)

I really should have brought waders.

A closer photo of Josh, from the South America trip. There are no redtail catfish in Little Darby. In case you wondered, the missing fin parts are the work of piranhas.

I only had so much time, because I needed to be in Columbus for dinner and would need to shower and get the worm slime out from under my fingernails. We figured my best shot was at a smallmouth redhorse, which should be present in slightly deeper runs and seams. So I tried this for about a shivering hour, and I did get a golden redhorse, but alas, not the smallmouth.

The golden. In hindsight, that hat might not have been all that stealthy.

I headed in through Columbus, passing exits which carried a rush of memories – had it really been almost 30 years since I lived there? I reached my hotel and got ready to see some guys that I hadn’t seen as a group in 20 years. Looking back on it, we didn’t have all that much in common – except baseball. We all love the game, and back in 1989 we could make any excuse to get a bucket of balls, go to a high school field, and play for hours and hours in those humid midwestern summers. We could road trip to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati at the drop of a hat to watch a game, except for Scott, who always needed more advance planning. We once stuck out an 18-inning Pirates victory together. We only knew each other in Columbus for a couple of years, but have kept in touch for all the decades since. This was the first full gathering in Columbus since the nineties, when Michigan was still routinely beating OSU.

Speaking of the Buckeyes and the game, they didn’t look too good against the Hoosiers for the first half. Indiana took several leads against the highly-favored Ohioans, and in the middle of this, they summoned the IU football alums to the field to present an award to coach Corso. This is where things got even more interesting. Steve would have to walk down a lot of stairs to to get the the end zone access, but he was a bit banged up from an accident a few days ago. (Not his fault, but he had some impressive five-color elbow and leg bruises.) He did not relish doing this through the crowd, and was considering skipping the event. I didn’t want this to happen, so I went and explained the situation to the head of security at the press box, and he kindly gave us access to the elevator to field level. (And all the nachos we could eat.)

When we got down to field level, I walked up to security with Steve. The Alum head, seeing that I had helped Steve get over there, smiled and waved me through to the field. We got to watch about a quarter of the game, including an IU touchdown, from the end zone.

The best seats in the house.

When they gave the award to Coach Corso, we were right in the middle of it and even helped carry him off on the group’s shoulders. It was an extraordinary experience, and hopefully, I didn’t embarrass Steve too much by inadvertently crashing it. At least I was wearing IU gear.

Coach Corso is lifted up. We did not drop him, so we aren’t that old.

Oh, and we were also on national television a bunch of times, but that wouldn’t matter unless I could catch a new species in Ohio.

Yes, we really are there, standing under those arrows.

Think red hat for me, white hat for him. 

Back to the dinner in Columbus – it was  amazing and long overdue. I have now known these guys for more than half my life.

2017: Clockwise from top left – Dave, Scott, John, and you-know-who.

1990: This was not Halloween. And who wears shorts with a baseball jersey?

There was Dave Hogan, he of the amazing fastball and godawful swing. His daughter, who was born right around when I left Columbus, is a full-fledged adult with a college degree and a job and everything.

There was Scott Kisslinger, who threw hard but was known to hit a batter or two, even if they were in the on deck circle. Scott used to live in the apartment across the hall from mine, and caused more than one awkward moment by calling all of my girlfriends “Jennifer.” (He was right twice.) Scott loves to do some fishing himself, and interestingly, caught one of the largest bluegill I have ever seen. (Although we were fishing for bass.)

And finally, John Yohman, owner of the most beautiful swing I have ever seen put on a weak fastball. He was there with his wife, Jackie, who has somehow not aged a bit in 28 years. How could have time passed that quickly? (And how is it that I never learned to hit a curveball?)

We watched old videos of us playing semi-competent pickup baseball well into the night, but it was finally time to get some sleep and figure out how in the world I was going to get a new species, or none of this would ever come to light.

I had time to make one fishing stop the next day on the way back to Indianapolis, and I decided to bet it all on Little Darby and the smallmouth redhorse. The weather had improved wonderfully, and by 9am, it was sunny and warm. Wet wading sounded a lot less hypothermic than it had yesterday.

Little Darby.

I walked the stream for about a mile, looking for deeper seams where redhorse might reside. All the while, I was catching assorted micros, plus plenty of sunfish and the occasional bass. I finally set up above a small hole with a big fallen tree across the top of it. I got more rock bass, then a couple of golden redhorses, which stopped my heart because they pull hard and look like every other redhorse until they’re out of the water.

Great on light tackle.

The action slowed, and with about an hour left, I decided to leave one rod soaking for redhorse and then go upstream and try to get an interesting micro.

A fantail darter – interesting, but alas, not new. 

As it got toward time to leave, I came back to the rod I had wedged in the tree. I immediately spotted that a bunch of line had been pulled off the (loosely set) spool. Something was happening. I tightened the drag, reeled down slowly, and a moment later, there was weight. I gently reeled into the circle hook and the fish started fighting. Decent size, clearly not a bluegill, and as it got close, I saw it was the right shape. But I needed to get it on to the bank to examine it. Would Lee Corso, if he was announcing Species Fishday, put on the Golden Redhorse helmet or the Smallmouth Redhorse Helmet? I looked closely – red dorsal and tail, short head – Lee Corso would put on the Smallmouth helmet. I had done it, and just in the nick of time. And to think – if that hook had slipped, you wouldn’t have had to read any of this, but it didn’t, and you did.

The beast. Species #1732.

It must have been the lucky hat and shirt the guys gave me.

Certainly, this was a very high text-to-species ratio, but the things I will remember most about this trip – and about so many of my trips – are the friends, old and new. Links to a past that I can still touch, a common experience that we can look back and say “We were here.” There are private jokes that are still funny 28 years later, new friends that I will undoubtedly fish with again, and yes, I got to shake hands with Lee Corso.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | January 28, 2018

The Wakkanai Road Trip Chronicles – Part Two

DATELINE: JULY 22, 2017 – WAKKANAI, JAPAN

What kind of idiots drive 17 hours to catch a small dolly varden trout?

That would be us. And no, that isn’t the trout. The trout wasn’t that big.

To pick up our cliffhanger, Phil’s plan was elegant in its simplicity, yet diabolical in its execution. He asked me if I needed a Dolly Varden trout. I told him I did. He continued “Well, they aren’t big, but I know a place where we can catch one for sure.” I was waiting for the bad news, and there was bad news. The fish were on the opposite side of Hokkaido – some eight and a half hours driving. Each way. But we had our plan.

I didn’t say it was a good plan.

I had no idea Hokkaido was this wide, but a quick check on Wikipedia revealed that Hokkaido is roughly the size of Ireland. Japan overall is a lot bigger than I thought – about 1800 miles from NE to SW.

You really get to know someone when you drive 17 hours with them in one day, and the only radio stations are Japanese agricultural news. Phil and I explored the full depth of our relationships, emotional needs, and views on the major questions of life. That left us 16 hours and 55 minutes, and all I can say is thank God for the internet. (Which had also played a big part in the Great Road Trip of 2014.) Phil and I are almost a generation apart in age, but he still appreciates the finer things in life, like Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious.” (Which is a bit more politically incorrect than I remember, but the first time I saw it was on a rented Betamax player.) I will never look at Mr. T the same way ever again.

I pity the fool.

About halfway along the northern edge of Hokkaido, we passed a tackle store. More to stretch our legs than to look for gear, we stopped. The proprietor, who looked to be a solid 98 years old, spoke slowly but very, very loudly, and although the conversation took forever, Phil was very interested in something. During a lull in the discussion, he looked my way and whispered “Charter boat. Better weather.” It turns out that a local charter boat did its bookings through this tackle store, and that the weather tomorrow would be decent enough to go. By the time we were done, we had agreed to show up at 6am the next day to do some deep jigging. We would get a shot at our bottom fish. I was thrilled, until I did the math.

It was currently 11am. With good traffic, we would reach the trout stream in another four hours – 3pm. If we spent 30 minutes there, and then eight and a half hours to get home, that would put us in Wakkanai at midnight. We had to be back at the charter boat at 6am, which would require a four and a half hour drive. This meant a whopping 90 minutes of sleep, if we ignored food and hygiene, but the idea of getting out into the deeper water had us both positively giddy. The four hours flew by like 240 minutes.

It was a small stream, exactly what Phil had described. Just as he promised, we both got Dolly Vardens immediately. We fished for exactly 14 minutes, then it was back into the car, much like the fabled Cottonwood Death March,  but with fewer blisters.

It’s a Dolly Varden. Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught one. Works for me.

Phil works the creek. No idea how that jacket didn’t spook the fish.

Phil’s beastly Dolly. (Which would be a GREAT name for a band.)

On the way home, I explored every possible cantaloupe ice cream permutation – cups, cones, soft serve. It never got old.

Heavenly.

We found even more inappropriate, juvenile comedy on my phone. I could just hear Marta saying “You two are clearly related, and you are both idiots.” But Andrew Dice Clay is darn funny, especially when you’ve had no sleep. The sun came out, and we did pass some lovely scenery.

The Hokkaido coastline, looking toward Russia.

Some waterfall.

We also passed another bathroom with deeply confusing signs and devices.

I don’t know what this means, but it scares me.

This is for storing your baby while you use the toilet, which also terrifies me.

We got back to Wakkanai shortly before midnight. Dinner, and some basic personal hygiene, was accomplished at McDonald’s, and then it was nap time. I was just getting into a dream about dogtooth tuna when the alarm went off.

Four hours later, we arrived at a big, yellow charterboat.

Our home for the next eight hours.

The water was bumpy, to put it lightly, but after three cancelled trips, it looked pretty good. We motored out half an hour, and I dropped a two-hook rig to the bottom. I had a light bite, set the hook, and my line broke. I re-rigged and re-dropped. My line broke again. Phil finally discovered that one of my guides had cracked and was fraying the line. We cut the guide off and kept fishing. I am sure I was the picture of patience during this entire process.

My first two fish up looked like Atka Mackerel – a species I had lusted after in many a sweaty late-night fish book session. But these didn’t look quite right, and as soon as I could research it, I discovered that these were Okhotsk Atka Mackerel – a different and even cooler species.

The Okhotsk atka mackerel. I am told the regular ones are also here.

I followed this up with a Shimasoi Rockfish.

Another Sebastes for my collection!

As we drifted off the hard reef, we started catching loads of Pacific Cod. (I had gotten these previously, but they are fun to catch and excellent to eat.) Besides, we were finally using the heavier rods and catching dignified bottom fish.

Phil with a typical cod.

They were everywhere. Spellman could have caught one. Maybe even Guido.

The skipper took us to quite a few spots. We fished mostly in the 200 foot range – the deeper water, further offshore, was simply too rough. But we were on a boat and catching stuff, and although it was not the calmest day I’ve fished, we were here. My next species was large sculpin, which is part of a group that are called “Irish Lords” for some unknown reason. This one is a Gilbert’s Irish Lord.

Gilbert, ironically, was not Irish. And no, there is not a Sullivan’s Irish Lord, because I know you were going to ask.

In between a bunch more cod, I got a gray rockfish.

Another Sebastes. As fast as I can catch these, some scientist seems to add more species.

Just before we needed to head back to port, I got my biggest bite of the trip. I had trouble getting the fish off the bottom, and it fought hard well up into the water column. I guessed shark; Phil guessed greenling. I explained to Phil that greenling don’t get that big. Phil smiled and helped me land the biggest greenling I have ever seen, pushing six pounds.

So Phil was right.

The so-called Fat Greenling actually gets larger than that, and I was appropriately humbled. It was my fifth species of the day, and as much as I wanted to launch my breakfast all over the deck, I was thrilled with the excursion. The five new ones – all presentably large fish –  brought me up to 28 species for the trip.

It was four hours back to Wakkanai, but we had some actual fish to talk about. We were already planning a return trip next year. There are wolf fish and a whole new batch of other species to get, and I had forgotten completely about the lousy water conditions. On the way home, we stopped at a Wal-Mart-looking place and bought a coffin-sized cooler, which we then used to store all the fish, along with six bags of ice. It weighed over a hundred pounds, and I had no idea that Phil believed he was going to check it as luggage the next day.

The floor of the car had become a ghastly forensic record of my diet for the past 24 hours, and while I was not proud, I was certainly constipated.

Yes, I ate all that.

Normal people would have slept in the next morning – we had certainly paid our dues. But Phil wanted another Taimen, and I wanted to see what small creatures were living in the rivers. We were on the road early, fortified by Red Bull and cantaloupe ice cream. Now that I think about it, cantaloupe ice cream and Red Bull would make an excellent milkshake, and I am going to act on this impulse as soon as practical. Phil found a perfect-looking river, and he wasted little time in hooking a magnificent fish.

I wish I had video of the high-risk gymnastics Phil did to get across the concrete structures and land the fish.

It was a fitting exclamation point on a trip that had become more than memorable – the boat trip had given us the solid bottom fishing we had been craving. What bad weather? What junk food diet? What lack of sleep? We had done it, and now it was time for the airport.

Our next challenge was to somehow get a 100 pound cooler on to the flight home. ANA is a very rule-driven airline, almost Germanically so, and they had simply never considered that a cooler this large could exist. Their price list ended somewhere around 80 pounds, so it took some convincing to allow us to check this beast. Phil must be very charming in Japanese.

When we finally got to his house, it felt like we had been gone a month. Hitomi, a certified sushi chef, set to preparing a feast out of our catch, and we had a marvelous meal to celebrate our triumphs.

Betsey was a bit surprised to see me.

My flight home was late the next afternoon, so Phil and I gave it one more quick shot in Tokyo Bay, close to the base where his boat is moored. It was still a bit bumpy out, so there was no shot at deeper water, but we managed to scrape up two new species – a sabihaze goby and a pearl-spot chromis.

The sabihaze goby. They’re stronger than they look.

The chromis. Basically a damselfish.

I also caught a positively beastly Japanese whiting – not new, but a personal best, which pleased me. (See “Land of the Rising Species Total” for earlier Japanese whitings.)

The godzilla of whitings.

This took the count for the trip to an even 30 –  we had gotten 82 together in less than a year. (My lifetime count had climbed to 1734 – a good jump on 1800.) The less-than-perfect conditions are part of the game, and I can’t thank Phil enough for finding the spots and sticking it out with me, especially on the Dolly Varden adventure that led to all the bottom fish. Still, it only took a few moments in my Japanese fish guide to remind me that there were countless species left for me to catch in the Land of the Rising Sun. I knew I would be back, and that Betsey would be waiting.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION

Speaking of Phil and marlin, just about a month after I left, he actually got a blue from his boat. It’s great to see him catch a lifetime dream like this – perhaps the Fish Gods are rewarding him for all the time he has spent chasing obscure species with me.

He had been after one of these for years.

Anything taller than Phil is TALL.

Posted by: 1000fish | January 15, 2018

The Wakkanai Road Trip Chronicles – Part One

Dateline: July 18, 2017 – Wakkanai, Japan

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

нет, слишком ветреный.

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

Wakkenai is a 90 minute flight from Tokyo.

Sometimes, luggage tags are unintentionally funny.

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

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

And how exactly are we going to get down there?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, but it’s good stuff.

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

A small taste of home.

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

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

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

Pricklebacks are cool.

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

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

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

The northernmost point in Japan.

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

Doubles on the Saffron cod.

The Korean Rockfish. They are also apparently in Korea.

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

Phil with lots and lots of scallops.

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

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

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

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

The river, once we had reached the civilized part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another taimen, another locally-bought lure.

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

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

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

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

The purple puffer. There were thousands of these.

The Kurogarei flounder.

The marbled flounder.

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

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

Phil has found hundreds of them over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | January 2, 2018

Natural Born Krillers

Dateline: July 15, 2017 – Tokyo Bay, Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The yellowbelly threadfin bream. I swear it glowed.

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

Steve, Captain Yellatme, and the first oilfish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A random amusement park on the way back to port.

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

Yes, people fish in places like this.

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

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

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

This is apparently a large one.

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

Dignity is not an issue.

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

A relative beast.

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

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

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

Species number six of the trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rockfish are always welcome on the species list.

I’m calling this the Togotto-Mebaru.

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

Hence, the spotcheek scorpionfish.

They call this next one a chicken grunt.

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

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

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

And finally, a lovely half-lined cardinalfish.

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

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

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

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 18, 2017

Conan the Librarian

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

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

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

Many of you remember Charlie from this photo.

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

But he looks like this now.

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

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

I like digressing.

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

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

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

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

The swallowtail shiner.

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

A river chub. Not a creek chub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heck yes.

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

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

Elizabeth’s was bigger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was 1698.

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

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

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

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

Patrick with a beastly bluegill.

Steve with a dignified flier.

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

A perfectly worthy milestone fish.

Patrick works the creek while I celebrate the catch.

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

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

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

The rather unelusive mummichog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His first fish of the day.

Doug and Charlie.

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

What a magnificent river.

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

Yes, I got a few. Dozen.

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

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

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

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

It’s got a black nose.

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

Tesselated of the D’Ubervilles

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

Briefly.

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

Steve

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

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 6, 2017

Our Own Private Idaho

Dateline: June 11, 2017 – Boise, Idaho

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

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

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

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

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

Martini took the drama out of things quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

A typical largescale. We got these all day.

Yes, they are adorable.

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

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

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

Martini adds a difficult species.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The extremely scenic dam.

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

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

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

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

I did catch a nice rainbow late in the afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

The very first one.

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

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

Some of them had apparently cross-bred. Shameless.

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

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

Another one of Martini’s photos.

The proud angler.

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

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

Before we left, Martini just had to go snorkeling.

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

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

Underwater photo at the spring, courtesy of Martini.

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

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

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

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

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

Another western endemic on the list!

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

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

Martini begins his trek to 300 records.

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

The Columbia sculpin.

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

Steve

Special Bonus Section

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

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

Posted by: 1000fish | October 8, 2017

The Red Sea Trolls

Dateline: May 10, 2017 – Marsa Alam, Egypt

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

Exotic yes. But next time I’ll fly.

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

The mother camel was very protective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These pull hard.

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

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

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

I never get over how beautiful these fish are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one-spot. 

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

Dentition reminiscent of the Mu.

Sunset over the Red Sea.

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

The crescent bigeye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a damselfish. It’s dark.

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

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

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

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

The Red Sea toby – a type of puffer.

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

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

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

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

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

There is no focus like cat focus.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The vermilion hind. This made me feel slightly better.

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

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

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

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

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

Steve

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

 

 

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