Posted by: 1000fish | July 18, 2021

Nori the Tuna Dog

DATELINE: OCTOBER 10, 2020 – MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA

There is a special spot in my psyche for gamefish, especially ones found just a few hours from my house. Bluefin tuna are in that special spot, lodged on the list between more distant targets like spearfish and dogtooth. I have hooked one, back in the mid-1990s on a San Diego long-range boat. The seas were miserable, and the yellowfin bite so-so, but when the first bluefin showed up, the place got serious. I hooked one that spooled my overmatched Penn 113, but then got to fight one to the gaff when another angler, who I thought of as old but was probably younger than I am now, gave up and handed it off to me. I have never forgotten how hard that fish pulled. 

Bluefin tuna are a reasonable possibility in San Diego, but they are a Northern California unicorn. They show up here for a couple of days at a time, not following any sort of predictable pattern, and by the time anyone knows they are here, they are gone. When they are present, conditions need to be almost flat to see and cast to them, and the area is not known for calm seas. The fish are big – usually well over 100 pounds, and are among the strongest gamefish, so a hookup guarantees nothing. Tuna have a way of exposing any weakness in your gear, which needs to be heavy, high end, and well-maintained. There are hundreds of boats on the central coast rigged for tuna, thousands of fishermen going for them, and perhaps a few dozen fish caught each season. The odds are not in your favor. 

To have a chance at these fish, you really need to live within a couple of hours of the harbor and have a connection in the fleet – someone who is going out often, is willing to tell you when the tuna are there, and will take you out the next day. I have such a connection. She is a dog, specifically, a Corgi belonging to good friend Daniel Gross, although I suppose his girlfriend Alyssa is the actual owner, so for God’s sake, dude, marry her.

The impossibly young and good-looking couple.

More importantly, this is Nori the Tuna Dog.

Nori loves boats, although her paws get a bit icky when she sleeps on the bait board.

Nori guides us into the slip.             

Daniel is a deckhand on a top boat in Monterey, and when he isn’t working, he’s out fishing on his own. Nori is with him almost every time he goes, and the dog is far more excited about fishing than most humans are. More importantly, Nori seems to attract bluefin tuna. There had been three bluefin landed on boats Daniel crewed on in 2020, and in all cases, Nori was present. Fishermen are superstitious, and this kind of totemic juju is worth its weight in tuna steaks. 

The more experienced 1000fish readers may remember Daniel from the “Bones and Butterflies” episode. He’s a passionate and skilled angler, and holds IGFA world records for the thornback ray and the black surfperch. 

He broke my record on the black surfperch, and don’t think for a minute I’m thrilled about that.

And so, on a random Friday afternoon, I was in the garage, sorting out live bait gear for an upcoming San Francisco Bay trip. My phone rang. It was Daniel. The conversation was quick – “Dude – the tuna are here. Can you be at the dock 5am tomorrow morning?” “Oh hell yes.” “See you then.” I shifted to putting together heavy tuna stuff – 80 pound gear. One of the few advantages of having a garage stuffed with fishing equipment is that I can find a few of these easily. I only needed to replace the line on one of them, but I stayed up late winding on 80 pound leaders and finding my heaviest live bait hooks.

One of the fish they got on Friday. I would trade my grandmother (the Polish one) for a tuna half this size.

With a different trip planned for Sunday, I knew I was signing up for a sleepless weekend. This was a way of life in college, but it gets problematic for senior citizens. Marta loves to remind me I am AARP eligible, but I have been getting AARP ads since I was 23.

It was an easy drive to Monterey with no traffic, and I was at the dock early. The boat was “Pacifica,” owned by J&M Sportfishing, which is without a doubt the top operation in Monterey. This was not a charter, just a private trip with the owners, so we had a small but eclectic crew. (Although they will charter for bluefin, both in Monterey but especially on the new boat they will be running out of San Diego.) There were the two owners, John Mayer and Matt Arcoleo, deckhands Andrew and the aforementioned Daniel, Matt’s kids Corey and Brooke, me, and Nori the Tuna Dog. With a 55-foot boat, there was plenty of room. It’s more of a whale-watching setup, so accommodations are very comfortable, but despite the padded seats and benches, Nori insisted on napping right in the middle of the main cabin doorway.

She is Nori the Tuna Dog, so she can sleep wherever she wants. 

We eased out of the harbor in the dark, and moved to some reefs in front of town to look for bait; either sardines or squid. Sardines were nowhere to be found, but we got a load of live squid, which went right in the tank. I had never really thought of these as a tuna bait, but the guys swore by them. 

The fish had been to the south the day before, so, knowing that they would either be there, or possibly somewhere else, we steamed around the corner toward Pacific Grove and worked our way down. Conditions were perfect – almost windless – and we positioned ourselves on the rail to look for the boils and splashes that would reveal our target fish. I wanted to catch one BAD. Not only are they one of the requirements for the IGFA Royal Slam on tuna, but I love to have pictures of big fish handy when some snot says “Oh, looks like you go around catching a bunch of tiny fish.” Thoughts like this sustained me for the next few hours as we searched. I didn’t expect we would find them right away, and we didn’t, but we kept our eyes peeled and our hopes up. 

Nori the Tuna Dog keeps an eye on things.

Much of the day went by like this. Once in a while, we would see porpoises, or a whale, or a sea lion, and our hearts would stop. But no tuna – yet. But I knew that if we found them, we had a great chance to hook up. Daniel stays awake at night dreaming of getting one on a lure, but as many tuna lures as I have in my garage, I was going to put bait out for the first one at least.

As we cruised around on what was becoming a very long, if pleasant, boat ride, we kept seeing ocean sunfish lolling around on the surface. Daniel knows I want to catch one, and I looked at him longingly, but he refused to make eye contact. We cruised around for another hour or so, heading back north and further west.

This is the face Nori makes when you have food and are not giving her any of that food.

It wasn’t looking good for tuna, and I decided to ask about casting to a mola. John stared at me, half wondering if I was pulling his leg. Daniel earnestly told him I was not kidding. (Not in the “Do the guy a solid” kind of way, though. More like “He’s crazy. I have nothing to do with this.”) And so we ended up with a 55 foot boat maneuvering around a bewildered small mola while I cast to it. I must say John handled the boat well, so if you ever set up a mola charter, he’s your man. Perhaps 30 minutes later, while everyone was staring at me awkwardly, the mola unexpectedly hit. It was not a big fish – maybe 15 pounds – put it still put up a solid fight on a striper rod. As it came boatside, Daniel reached over the edge and landed it, and I had an extraordinary species for number 1964.

One of the strangest fish in the ocean. Note that I was Nori-bombed.

There was some celebrating, mostly by me, and some bemused high fives, and then, in a random moment of silence, Daniel heard a splash. “Listen!” he said. “A splash!” We all stopped talking. There was another big splash – like a drunk German tourist bellyflopping off the high dive in Marbella. Then another. And another. Somewhere very close by, the tuna were there, and I shamelessly point out we wouldn’t have found them if we didn’t stop for my sunfish. The group sprung into action – we all had our rigs pre-tied and we raced to put on live bait as John positioned the boat to drift into the tuna. We kept hearing them, and finally, through a patch of fog, we saw the boils. These were HUGE fish – all at least 100 pounds. 

We got our squid into the water and drifted them back. Nori barked happily as we got baits wet – for some reason, watching people cast is the single most exciting thing in her life. Bluefin are notoriously boat shy, so count on getting the bait at least 200 yards back, and fluorocarbon is also a must. We were sliding slowly towards the school, and Daniel was standing by, hoping to cast a lure. Matt hooked up first, from the back of the boat. I heard everyone yelling about a fish on. but I could also hear the drag pulling. And pulling. And pulling. And then speeding up when I didn’t think it could go any faster. He had a conventional with a lot of line on it, but John did a good job of positioning the boat to slowly chase the fish so there was no risk of spooling. Given his mola expertise, I wasn’t surprised by this. Quickly, the fish settled into classic tuna pattern, sounding deep, swimming in a powerful circle, and not giving back an inch of line. 

Matt battles the tuna.

Fingers crossed, the rest of us kept fishing. 45 minutes later, Corey’s bait got crushed. I was glad to see the kid fighting a big fish, but now John had two angles to consider. Luckily, the fish didn’t work together – the second one also settled into hard, deep circles, barely budging and occasionally taking a short but violent run. I kept fishing, changing my squid for a fresher one now and then. I was using a big spinning reel and my trusty Singapore-bought Galahad jigging rod, and was praying to redeem myself and finally catch a gamefish on this high end setup. (I had previously caught two fish on the rig, both world record eels, and Davy Ong still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Matt was slowly, slowly gaining on his fish as he passed the hour mark. Corey’s fish was still deep and angry, but Matt’s spool was getting noticeably bigger, and the fish had started coming to the surface. At an hour and a half, we could see color – a giant, flashing flank about 80 yards off the stern. Matt was gaining line steadily now, reeling and pumping smoothly, but moments later, the Fish Gods reminded us who was in charge.

The hook pulled out.

Matt didn’t do anything wrong – it just happens. The tuna couldn’t have been 60 yards out when he lost it, and I have never seen someone look more heartsick. We are talking death in the family multiplied by being left at the altar by Giselle Bundchen multiplied by her taking your Super Bowl tickets and giving them away to one of Tom Brady’s distant cousins. Matt took a moment to compose himself, and moved on to encourage Corey with his fish, but we all knew he was a broken man and would never know joy again. 

Nori the Tuna Dog remained upbeat.

Corey was now closing out the first hour of his fight, and, thus far, the tuna was winning. He’s a tough kid, but the tuna had higher stakes, and it was going to be a while. About 10 minutes later, just as I got a fresh squid out 200 yards, a tuna snatched the slack line from between my fingers and made a supercharged run. My heart, and several other organs, jumped into my throat. I counted to five, in English and Spanish, closed the bail, and held on for dear life. The Stella 20000, which had never given up an inch of line, was screaming, and I wondered if 500 yards of line was going to be enough. John gently adjusted the boat to give me a clean line to the fish, but our main focus was trying to get Corey’s tuna on board.

My bluefin’s first run was a blazing 200 yards on the surface against plenty of drag. As it slowed down, I expected it to start sounding and settle into a deep standoff. It didn’t do that. It stayed on the surface, so far up in the water column that we saw it splash off in the distance a couple of times. This made me wonder if I had a bluefin, but I couldn’t imagine anything else that would be that heavy and fast, except maybe a mako, which would probably have broken me off by this stage. John kept easing us toward my fish, and Corey’s stayed deep and drifted along with us. 

About an hour and 15 minutes into his battle, Corey started gaining ground, sometimes just a few inches at a time, but he was getting the fish toward the surface. At 90 minutes, he was clearly making progress, and the crew started getting ready with gaffs and prayers. They saw deep color a few minutes later. By this stage, I was in the bow, approaching the first hour of my fight, and my fish was still on the surface, around 350 yards away. Corey stayed on his fish, suffering with each crank, and a few minutes later, I saw Daniel and Andrew struggling with the leader. They got one gaff in, then two, and with a Herculean effort, they dragged the beast over the gate and into the boat. The group exploded with joy, except Matt, who was pleased for his son but still had a broken soul and would never know happiness again no matter how long he lived. The fish was magnificent – at least 150 pounds and more than five feet long. It had taken him an hour and 45 minutes.

Corey and family celebrate the beast. Matt is bravely trying to smile despite his crushed soul.

Guessing it weighs more than he does. And those are not gang signs, it’s a Hawaiian thing. Lighten up.

I knew Corey had heavier gear than I was using, and his fish fought like a normal tuna. I was in for a long afternoon. The bow was a lonely place for the next two hours. Daniel brought me the occasional Red Bull, but no one wanted to hex me, lest I end up a shattered shell of a man like Matt.

Note how flat the water was.

I knew that every passing minute put the odds more in favor of the fish. I questioned my drag setting, my braid, my leader connection, my knot, my hook, and why Marta would stay with me all these years. The fish stayed on the surface, and John eased the boat forward to get some line back. My arms, hamstrings, and lower back throbbed with pain that would last for days. For the final hour, the fish was no more than 100 yards out, and we fought over the same few yards of line, which got concerningly frayed. Daniel couldn’t help but point that out – “Dude, your line is concerningly frayed.” I eased my drag just the tiniest bit. At two and a half hours, my fish gave up on the flat swimming and made a short but determined dive, maybe 60 yards out. I gained two yards a minute from that stage, a few inches at a time, and when the creature finally surfaced next to the boat, it was magnificent. Daniel and the crew handled the leader expertly, and lapsed Catholic that I am, I have never prayed harder than in that long minute between grabbing the leader and that massive thump on the deck.

I couldn’t believe it was on board.

My bluefin tuna, species number 1965.

I had my bluefin, about the same size at Corey’s. I had finally caught a gamefish on my Stella 20000, so Davy can forgive me, and most importantly, I would not have to experience Matt’s permanent emotional anguish, which will haunt him late at night and take away the fun of anything he ever loved. Nori barked at my tuna, just to let me know she was there. We were done for the day.

Steve, Matt, and John, with Matt bravely trying to smile through his pain. And no, those are not gang signs. It’s a Hawaiian thing.

It was short run into harbor, but it was already well into the evening. I had to grab a cooler full of fillets and leave, as I had another early day coming up quickly.

Group photo, failed version. I hope Daniel was wearing a cup.

Official group photo from the great tuna quest of 2020. From left to right, Brooke, Matt, Daniel, Corey, me, John, and Andrew. Matt’s soul is just off camera to the left.

I had made several new friends and gotten closer to some old ones, and I can’t thank everyone at J&M enough for including me in their trip, especially John and Matt, and it just hit me that’s why they call it J&M Sportfishing. John and Matt. Now I get it. 

Steve

Postscript – Just a month before publication, Matt, who had lived the last nine months of his life in a fog of spiraling misery, took Corey on a long range boat out of San Diego. Well into a three-day trip, Matt got hit by a monster bluefin – bigger than any of ours from this trip – and battled it for several hours. At the end of the fight, just when it looked like everything could actually go right, things actually went right, and he landed his fish. So his entire psyche is now fixed and you can disregard all the stuff above.

This saved him years of therapy. Nice work, Matt!

And Puppy-script – Nori is now the proud mother of five puppies. We are hopeful she will resume her fishing career after maternity leave. 

Posted by: 1000fish | July 6, 2021

Gualala Canal Diary

DATELINE: SEPTEMBER 28, 2020 – GUALALA, CALIFORNIA

It was a weird summer. Covid continued to hover over everything we did – no movies, no big social gatherings, no trips outside the country. By the time August of 2020 rolled around, I was supposed to be over 2000 species, and I was supposed to have gotten this done in exotic places like the Seychelles and the Amazon. I had visions of species 2000 being a world record on a freshwater stingray somewhere in the wilds of Brazil, but none of this was going to happen. As my grandfather used to say, “Deal with it, boy,” which became “Shit happens” around the time I turned 18. So I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, except late at night when I couldn’t sleep because I was still at 1960 species. I mean, what if I got hit by a bus? What if Marta was driving it?

Still, we were as well of as we could be. Marta and I were both healthy, we were both employed, and there was plenty of toilet paper at CVS. I had managed to sneak out for a few trips, like Oregon, the desolate west, and Virginia. Without overseas travel available, I figured I would enjoy the summer fishing in California and track down a few things here I hadn’t caught yet. Of course, I was going to do a lot of my “backyard” fishing that I rarely write about, because there are very few species or records for me to chase close to home. But still, I love to fish and these are the places where I learned much of whatever I may know about the sport. So, this whole blog is really only going to be about three small species, but I’m going to do my best to disguise them with all kinds of other stuff I caught just for fun – and at the end of the day, that’s why any of us do this at all.

One of my most beloved summer trips is finding an evening high tide and heading to Tiburon to fish for stingrays. I was introduced to this spot almost 30 years ago by old friend Mike Rapoport, and I’ve been coming here ever since.

“Rapo” poses with a bat ray, circa 1993. He poses this way with everything. You should see his wedding photos.

I picked up an unanticipated fishing partner for much of this summer – Jibril, the teenage son of one of my best friends. His Mother and I worked together more than 20 years, and I have seen him grow from an incontinent lump into a fine young man.

Jibril, circa 2003. He still has that look on his face in most photos, but he smells a lot better now.  

The Tiburon trips are a waiting game, soaking squid on the bottom until a bat ray or leopard shark makes off with it. In the meantime, there are spectacular views of Sausalito and San Francisco, unless the evening fog comes in over Mount Tamalpais and obscures everything. When the fish hit, there is no missing it – they will scream line off the reel and woe unto the angler who doesn’t loosen their drag. We got a few fish, then headed over to Waypoint Pizza, which is exceptional pizza AND has soft serve ice cream. 

Jibril with a California bat ray. Interestingly, Jibril made his first appearance in the 1000fish blog ten years ago.

From the “My Guitar Solo” blog, that’s Jibril, second from left. The kid on the far left, Nicola, still terrifies me.

Sunset at Tiburon.

A week or so later, I made my first species attempt of the month. The Shokihaze goby is an Asian transplant, and they are supposed to be especially abundant in one of the rivers that runs into San Francisco Bay. (Spot courtesy of Pat Kerwin!) I set out to hunt this creature on August 18, the only date from April until mid-September that I hadn’t caught a new species. I have tried – and failed – to get a new species on this cursed date for three years running. This year would be no different. I caught a bunch of chameleon gobies – the fish I had hoped to get in Suisun City on 8/18/18 and eventually got in San Diego, but the Shokihaze was nowhere to be found. There is a Jimi Hendrix song in here someplace.

It got worse. Perhaps an hour into the trip, I saw smoke rising off to the east. In less than an hour, it looked as if someone had dropped an atom bomb on the East Bay. I got on the internet, and there was a fire – a huge fire – in Vacaville, one of the towns on I-80, about halfway between my house and Sacramento. One of my great friends in college, Rick Koelling, was from there, and his Mother always welcomed us for real food when we passed through town.

Really? Couldn’t we have skipped fires for a year?

As if we didn’t have enough problems, Northern California was on fire. There followed some weeks where it wasn’t always safe to breathe outside the house, and the view at high noon looked like late evening. The light that did get through the smoke was a ghastly orange, and big flakes of ash covered everything.

Like I said, it was a weird summer.

Looking up my street. This photo was taken at noon.

Looking west around 5pm. It was bad out there, but we were lucky not to have any fires in our immediate area.

But this wasn’t going to stop me from fishing. Another favorite summer trip is float tubing for spotted bass at Lake Oroville. It’s a three hour drive through the central valley to get there, closer to four with all the fire detours. It seemed even longer because Jibril, who intends to be an engineer, still believes fishing success can be explained in terms of science, and so there were endless questions along the lines of “Why would you choose a purple worm over a blue worm?” and endless answers like “Because Hi’s Tackle Box had them on sale.” We got there eventually, and the lake is positively stuffed with cooperative bass. 

No one looks graceful launching a tube, but it’s nice to be soaking in the water on a hot day.

The kid managed to get a few decent spotties. But I got more.

And I got my personal best fish in Oroville. Don’t panic. It’s a largemouth.

The air at the lake was as smoky as it was in the Bay Area – several more fires had erupted, including one close to Oroville that wiped out a couple of small towns. It was starting to feel like the apocalypse, but at least we were fishing. It’s a late night, because we always fish well after dark, and we always stop at Carl’s Jr. in Marysville. Even if we had to eat in the car, it was still a touch of continuity, and that made me feel better. 

Late in August, I made another species attempt, this time for the California roach. This small cyprinid is part of a complex of species that were recently split apart by scientists at my alma mater, UC Davis. Dr. Peter Moyle, who has helped me with so many local critters and IDs, gave me a spot where they had sampled this creature, about two and a half hours from my house.

Dr. Moyle on the left. And I spent four years at UCD trying to avoid science classes.

It was a pleasant drive up the valley, part of my route for countless steelhead trips with Ed Trujillo.   The whole trip was hazy with smoke from the fires, which were now all over Northern California. I got to the creek around 2pm, and set to it with my trusty micro setup. I caught a mosquitofish. This caused a brief emotional crisis, when my imagination ran wild into a scenario where all I was going to catch would be the cursed Gambusia. Luckily, the next 11 fish were California roach. I was on the board with species 1961. 

My Mother graduated college in 1961.

I wore my UC Davis hat for the occasion. As it turns out, Jibril will be attending UC Davis. We are all quite proud of him for this, and we secretly believe he chose UCD so he could be closer to us.

Early September saw decent sea conditions, so I headed out after coastal rockfish. First, I caught up with Jibril and did a Half Moon Bay excursion. I have been doing this trip for around 30 years, so there are very low odds of anything new, but I love tossing jigs on light tackle for whatever will bite down there. Jibril is a solid fisherman and does not display the moral weakness that is seasickness, so he is only minimally troublesome to bring along.

He got his first cabezone on this trip. It took Ben Cantrell years to get a cabbie. I prefer Uber.

And a decent ling. But he has to get that look off his face,

But yes, my vermilion was bigger than his ling. Not that I’m competitive. Note that Jamie Hamamoto has not caught a vermilion.

Less than a week later, Marta messed up. She persuaded me to book some spots on a Farralones rockfish boat for friends of hers to go fishing with me. This is the advanced class – great fishing but three hours off the coast in open water. As you can imagine, this is a wonderful trip as long as the water is reasonably calm. It wasn’t, and her guests understandably bailed. I found a few last-minute replacements, including the ever-reliable Jibril and Scott Perry, a good buddy since 1992, but there were no volunteers for that last spot, and with the deposit being on my credit card, Marta ended up going.

The Farralone Islands, on a nice day.

The fishing was good, but the conditions were lousy. Marta never uttered a word of complaint, but perhaps this was because she was too busy throwing up. Oh, did she throw up – a rail bunny performance for the ages. During her few breaks, she would catch a fish, maybe drink a little water, then throw up again. Although I cannot prove it, I believe she threw up her shoes, and that has to hurt.

She really put her back in to it. Great form.

But the important thing is that I caught a nice ling cod and won the pool. 

As soon as we passed under the Golden Gate, Marta was fine. That’s Scott on the right.

A few days later, I took a shot at another species. The Gualala Roach is another of the aforementioned new roach species, which resides (obviously) in the Gualala River, some four hours away from my home. It’s a lovely but grueling drive up the coast, and of course, the entire way, I had to consider whether the fish would be there. Such are the risks of species hunting – it’s not like the local newspaper is going to have a weekly Gualala Roach report. Highway 1 is gorgeous, except that there is always construction. 

Still an amazing view, and you can take nice pictures when you’re stopped waiting for one-way traffic control.

Jenner, California – where the Russian River empties into the Pacific. I saw a killer whale eat a seal here once.

I got there midafternoon and the river looked fantastic. Sure, it was a river rather than a canal, but you’ll have to allow me the artistic license here – how often do I get to make an obscure WWII reference?

The Gualala. It was jammed with roach.

I peered down from the bridge, to the bemused glances of locals, and I immediately spotted small fish – too big to be mosquitofish, in the wrong places to be trout. I raced to get to the water, and my enthusiasm kept me from thinking out the access problem very thoroughly. Instead of looking at a map, which would have revealed an open gravel bar about 150 yards down from where I parked, I instead left my vehicle and took the most direct route possible, through a thick patch of woods liberally carpeted with poison oak. It took me 35 minutes to bushwhack my way to the water, whereas the other path would have taken four minutes and not involved Caladryl. 

I baited up a hook, stepped into the water, and moments later, landed my fish. It was species 1962, and these are the moments when I realize things like the fact I would end up driving close to eight hours to catch this small creature. Of course, imagine how much sillier I would have felt if I didn’t catch it.

Species 1962. By late 1962, my Mother was pregnant with me, assuming that I was born after a normal human gestation period.

I made one more species trip in September, again searching for the elusive Shokihaze goby. (“Shokihaze” is Japanese for “No you can’t.”) Foolishly, I went to the same spot I went before, hoping that the oppressively hot August weather had put them off somehow and that they would be back in numbers. And even though my theory was completely ridiculous, this blind pig found a truffle. Actually, a lot of truffles. But the first fish I hooked was a beastly yellowfin goby.

They aren’t supposed to get this big.

On the next cast, caught my first Shokihaze, and I caught at least eight more after that. I had reached species 1963.

I was born in 1963. 

Their heads look like little sevengill sharks.

So it was a summer well-spent, but by my math, I still needed 37 species to hit 2000. I had no idea where they were going to come from, especially with overseas travel out of the question. I knew the quest was going to stretch into 2021 or even longer, and with the holidays coming up, I presumed the local species hunting (and any serious fishing) was pretty much over for the year. In less than two weeks, I would prove myself spectacularly wrong.

Steve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | June 24, 2021

Those Aren’t Goats, Gerry

DATELINE: AUGUST 2, 2020 – ROCKINGHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

Oh, it was strange to get on an airplane. Masks aren’t all that bad – it’s fun to wonder what people would look like under them, and no one can tell if you’re sticking your tongue out, but the bridge of my nose may never be the same.

And no one can see what’s wedged in your teeth, so eat all the broccoli you want.

Was this for Covid or a Gallagher show?

But I was willing to take such risks, because I got to go fishing, and because Marta’s version of “alone time” apparently does not include me. (Imagine that.) This journey would be another one of my east coast species hunts, with local expert Pat Kerwin and Chicago-based life-lister Gerry Hansell. (We had all been pretty much quarantined, and promised to fish at least six feet away from each other. Gerry drove separately, and we all tried to wear masks whenever practical. I am pleased to report that we all survived the trip with no more than a touch of moderate indigestion.)

I landed in DC late afternoon. Seeing my sister was out of the question, because I didn’t want to, so I was on my own for food and entertainment. Taco Bell carryout is always a good option, especially when you’re going to drive hours and hours with someone the next day, but how to amuse myself in Alexandria during a pandemic?

There was a creek right behind my hotel. Not as convenient as a fountain in the lobby, but problem solved.

I have fished Northern Virginia fairly thoroughly, so I didn’t expect much in the way of species. (There’s always a shot at an Eastern Silvery Minnow, and that alone keeps me going.) I set up on a muddy bank, and even stumbled into a local night crawler to spice up my sabikis. The local bluegill were very cooperative, and I also got a few white perch. About an hour into the session, I started getting some shiner-like bites and hooked up. To my great astonishment, I reeled up three Alewife, a herring relative that runs in and out of coastal rivers. I had a species on the board, and the trip hadn’t even officially started.

Oh heck yes. Species 1948.

The next morning, I got Pat bright and early – well, not sure how bright I was, and we headed off on the 2020 version of our adventure. The general plan, apart from avoiding contact with other humans, would be to work our way through some spots on the way to the Virginia coast, meet up with Gerry, spend a couple of days fishing saltwater, and then explore some isolated parts of North Carolina before heading home. There were plenty of targets on the list, and this was still early in the trip, so I hadn’t realized I wouldn’t catch most of them.

Heading across Virginia, we made a few stops, including lunch at a positively awesome fried seafood stand. The main fishing event would be at a swamp in the evening, where we would meet Gerry, fend off mosquitos and snakes, and hopefully catch some serious esoterica. Chief amongst these for me would be a mud sunfish, a shy, off-brand sunfish that is surprisingly difficult to catch, and a pirate perch, a nocturnal oddity that people (like Martini) always seem to catch during the day, right in front of me.

I should have brought waders. Or a suit of armor.

Gerry and Pat both got mud sunfish quickly. It took me about another hour, but I finally got my fish – species two of the trip.

I told you they were nondescript.

This is about as well as they photograph. But it was still species #1949.

In the background, I could swear I heard goats. I hadn’t seen any goats when we parked. I put it out of my mind and focused on fishing.

As soon as it got dark, the snakes came out. There were a lot of snakes, and by “a lot,” I am talking an Indiana Jones level. As I recall it, many of them were 10 feet long and venomous. As Pat recalls it, we saw some three foot water snakes. You be the judge.

In the midst of this reptilian terror, Pat caught a bunch of fish. This was one of many times I have been schooled on micro-fishing by an acknowledged master. He landed three large pirate perch that evening. I saw one and spooked it. At least I got my mud sunfish. As it got late, the goats really got into their rhythm. “Listen to all those goats!” said Gerry. “I don’t remember seeing goats,” said Pat, and I had to agree with him. But the noise was unmistakable. I went up to the road to look, and while the goat noises continued, I couldn’t see any goats. I also couldn’t hear any goat movement in the woods. Just disembodied bleats. Pat suggested that there were no goats. Gerry countered that there was clear auditory evidence. It wasn’t until the next day that Pat discovered that there is a frog that makes a sound exactly like a goat.

The following morning, we headed to Cape Charles, Virginia. In the age of Covid, these seaside resorts weren’t total ghost towns, but they weren’t the madhouses they would normally be. We could actually find hotel rooms and good carryout food without planning months in advance. Of course, we had to wear masks and wash our hands every 10 minutes, but it was nice to be at the seashore in the summertime.

My first catch addressed a 14 year-old sore spot. (Not to be confused with Jamie Hamamoto.) In the summer of 2006, in North Carolina, Marta caught at least five northern puffers. I caught none, and for 14 years, she has mentioned this at social gatherings.

The offending fish – 2006. How has Marta not aged while I seem to daily?

Pat caught a few puffers right away, so I shamelessly crashed his spot. I got one right away and sent Marta an appropriately snide text.

Take that, Marta and Jamie. And this was my 1950th species. 2000 still seemed pretty darn far away.

The rest of the afternoon was spent catching an assortment of coastal stuff – small black sea bass, croakers, striped searobins, and spot – bringing back memories of my niece and nephew’s first fishing trips in the Outer Banks.

Striped Searobins are so cool. But I found myself hoping in vain for a leopard searobin, a critter my nephew has caught and I have not. Oh how I want a leopard searobin.

My nephew.

As the three of us are old people, we opted for a mid-afternoon nap and meal break, and reassembled around six to hit the pier. I had high hopes for a shark or ray, but my larger baits went untouched most of the evening. I had one bait out that kept getting nibbled, which I wrote off to crabs, but when started reeling to check it, there was something there. It was not an enthusiastic fight, but certainly a fish, and I was delighted to see what I discovered to be an Atlantic Conger – species four of the adventure.

I never get big congers.

Gerry spent most of the evening trying to get a cutlassfish. Gerry is to cutlassfish as I am to spearfish, but it must have been even more emotionally difficult for him as the local anglers were catching dozens of them. He is a chemical engineer by training, and was attempting to apply principles of science and common sense to the project, but the fish were having none of that.

The pointy end of the cutlassfish. Do not put this in your pants.

We began the next day at the pier in Cape Charles, a charming coastal town that would likely be even more charming (but more crowded) if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Amongst dozens of small black sea bass, I reeled in a feather blenny, adding species #5 of the trip.

The feather blenny.

Gerry had a close call in the late morning – he didn’t loosen his spinning reel drag quite enough, and an Atlantic stingray came within an eyelash of launching his rod into the water. Luckily, Gerry has jungle-cat reflexes and made a miraculous save.

We all then took our standard old person mid-day break, featuring tremendous food truck tacos and a nap. Reassembling on the pier after dinner, we fished late into the night, a pleasant time marked with snack food and Red Bulls.

A food truck specialty – Oyster Toadfish wraps. Crunchy.

As we got a nice spot on the end of the wharf, I focused on lobbing big cut baits as far out as I could manage. One of my rigs was a heavy surf setup, the other a medium Okuma travel rod and Van Staal reel I bought from the superstars at Capitol Bait and Tackle in New York City last January.  The surf rod had 65 pound braid. The Van Staal had 15 pound line. Guess which one the 70 pound stingray decided to eat?

So it was pretty much hang on and let the thing do what it wanted to.

A note on pier etiquette – if somebody has a big fish on, please make all accommodations to help them. Work as a team. Step away from the rail, work them under or over your rig, and, if needed, clear your lines for a moment. You would want them to do the same for you. Do not be the guy who tried to keep me from passing him while the stingray was heading to the right at 25 mph. Do not be the guy who said “What? You expect me to not fish? What?” Do not be his curiously deep-voiced girlfriend who kept telling me “Cut your line. You’re in our spot. Cut your line.” And lastly, do not be me, who said “Move your rig. You aren’t going to catch anything anyway.”

An hour later, I landed a southern stingray, my biggest fish of the trip.

Yes, Marta. He was safely released.

Can everyone see the dangerous part?

Somewhere in there, Gerry finally caught his cutlassfish. He almost ruined the moment trying to dissect what he did right and wrong. Sometimes, the fish just decide to bite, and if science could explain this reliably, then it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Persistence pays off.

Later in the evening, one of my big cuts baits got savaged, and I finally hooked up on what had to be a shark. After a spirited fight, and with the help of some local kids, I landed a sandbar shark, species 1953. Sandbars are protected in VA so we didn’t take it out of the water and released it immediately.

Kiptopeke was a beautiful place. But get there early – it gets crowded, even in a pandemic.

We hit the road in the morning, bound for North Carolina in search of some old and new freshwater targets. It is here I must mention Gerry’s snorkel gear. I view snorkel fishing as a valid and interesting way to go after elusive species. But I always figured it would involve only a snorkel, and, hopefully, a swimsuit. Gerry, with his penchant for thoroughness and preparation, showed up with a snorkel fishing outfit that was part deep-sea diver, part Bulgarian astronaut.

In short, it was awesome.

Except for the air hump.

We pulled up to the Eno River that afternoon. This was familiar ground from our “Appalachian BBQ Tour,” during which I had somehow not caught a Roanoke darter. Gerry snorkeled and saw them immediately, but I couldn’t see them from the surface. I finally put on the mask and had a look. They were there, but wouldn’t bite for me, perhaps because I was 18 inches away from them, flailing in the water like a rabid manatee.

People called Greenpeace.

I finally gave up on the snorkel and walked downstream. Just above a riffle that Pat pointed out, darters were there in force. The first few scattered, but then I found one that chased my bait across the top of a rock and got hooked.

I love darters. Except fantails. Species 1954.

This is what you’re looking for. Not so tough in 6 inches, but Pat can see them under 4 feet of fast-moving water.

The Eno River.

The next day was also a run and gun affair, moving from swamp to swamp looking for an assortment of creatures. I got one catch of note – a dusky shiner – taking my trip count to seven.

Species #1955.

Gerry and Pat both caught lined killifsh, in pretty much the same spots I had been standing. I never even saw one. Crap.

The water was very tannin-stained, and even bluegill took on exotic colors.

It was one of many gorgeous evenings.

On the following day, the 30th, we returned to Clark Creek – the scene of my 1800th species, the flat bullhead. (And the weird local who suspected that we were terrorists.)

I don’t know who wrote this “Micro Fishing Bingo” card, but they are a genius. I have filled every square over the years.

My target was another killifish species, which I had missed the previous time and missed again this time. Gerry caught one. I grant you, he’s no Spellman, but surely I could have caught one. I did add species #7 of the journey with a whitemouth shiner, so all was not lost.

My photos aren’t Ben or Eli level, but I’m getting there. Species #1956. My Mother was a high school senior in 1956.

We then journeyed to several other exotic shiner spots. My favorite was adjacent to a chemical company, which had all kinds of suspicious-looking pipes hanging across the river. I christened the place “Solvent Creek,” but it looked very fishy.

I could wet wade places like this all day.

We put our focus on this small tributary, because the main river was completely blown out. I started well, adding an immediate sandbar shiner, but then, as I worked my way back up the creek and met up with Pat and Gerry, I could get nothing but stonerollers.

A sandbar shiner – species # 1957.

Pat was catching all kinds of interesting things, and I wasn’t. He wasn’t making a secret of his approach – drifting a lightly-weight bait through the current – but his touch was so delicate he was catching everything, notably the fieryblack shiner, which I really wanted because it has such a cool name.

I did get a nice redlip shiner, a species Pat helped me catch in 2018.

And we saw some cool bugs.

In a different creek later in the day, I actually stumbled into a fieryblack, not as pretty a specimen as Pat’s to be sure, but a species nonetheless.

Species 1958.

Plus a bonus softshell turtle.

And we got to eat at Zaxby’s that night.

God I love this place.

The next morning, we gritted our teeth and went to face a notoriously fickle old adversary – the blackbanded sunfish. On a previous trip, we fished for them for hours with no success, yet others (who we trust,) have caught as many as 30 in a day.

I decided to verify the presence of the creatures before I started, so I took the dipnet and ran it through the weeds. I came up with four – FOUR – blackbanded sunfish. Trembling and slightly gassy with excitement, I raced to the car and grabbed my micro-rod and a red worm. This species likes to live in the middle of thick weeds, so I went right back to the opening I had scooped.

Typical blackbanded territory.

I worked my micro-offering into a likely-looking seam, and as it got into a really dark crevice, I got a bite. A lot can go through your mind in a split second, and I remember wishing that it wasn’t another %$@# dollar sunfish. I swung up, and a beastly blackbanded sunfish landed in my lap.

Oh yes oh yes oh yes. Species 1959.

I ran to Pat and showed him the fish and the spot. I figured that they must be biting now, so I planned to just stay out of the water for a bit and watch him catch his.

Unfortunately, that was the only blackbanded sunfish we saw on the entire trip. Pat, a master micro fisherman, a guy I learn from every time he opens his mouth, tried every possible bait in every possible crevice at every possible time of day. I felt awful. But not as awful as I would have if he caught one and I didn’t.

And it was miserably hot.

We took one break from this, to a small country stream perhaps 50 miles away that was rumored to hold Sandhill chubs. (A close relative to the creek chub, which, as we all know, is 90% of the biomass in 23 states.) This was Gerry’s research project, and he got it right. We were grateful to add a quick species.

The Sandhill chub, species 13 of the trip and 1960 lifetime. My parents met in 1960.

Gerry then headed off for parts west, and Pat and I returned to the lake of the single blackbanded sunfish, where Pat diligently stuck out the evening and the next morning to no avail. That is how capricious the Fish Gods can be. The long drive home still went quickly – there are always more fish to talk about.

I spent that evening back in the DC area before flying home in the morning. Taco Bell closed early and I was left with nothing to do, so I reluctantly called my sister. Although she believes that Covid can be spread by eye contact at 500 yards, she worked through these fears and allowed me to eat a socially-distanced dinner with them, although I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. (As far as she knows.)

This was far too close for my sister’s comfort. I think she burned my chair after I left.

For all of the inconveniences of Covid, and realistically, I have been one of the least-affected people in the Western Hemisphere, this was the moment I actually realized how crummy the pandemic has been. I hadn’t seen my family in almost a year, and, despite their many flaws, which I generously forgive, I missed them. And I imagine they even missed me, right until I sneezed on their bottle of Purell. I probably should have mentioned that.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | February 25, 2021

The Torrey Pines Epiphany

DATELINE: JUNE 29, 2020 – SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

By the time Kam mentioned the beach was clothing-optional, we were already halfway down the path. I carried on, my obsession with catching a spotfin croaker outweighing whatever visual horrors awaited. In my youth, I imagined nude beaches as full of attractive women, but as I have grown – notice I didn’t say “matured” – I have accepted that the nude people generally look less like Kate Upton and more like me.

An overview of Torrey Pines Beach, before I discovered that there was going to be awkwardness.

I was thrilled to be heading back to the San Diego surf, on what looked like a perfect day – reasonable waves, not too much floating kelp, inbound tide. I had planned to fish with old friend Ben Cantrell, but he had gotten tied up, hopefully at work. Ben kindly connected me to Kam, a wild-haired UCSD marine biology student reputed to be quite the light tackle surf specialist. Kam and I met in the gliderport parking lot. When I saw his idea of a surf setup – a trout rod spooled with four pound line – it hit me that my 10 pound stuff was much too heavy. I tied on a long six-pound fluoro leader, and we headed to the beach.

When we got down there, and after I accepted that those weren’t flesh-colored speedos, we dug up some sand crabs and started fishing. I waded out as far as I could, but Kam barely put his toes in the water. I thought maybe he just didn’t like to get his feet wet, but then he hooked a fish – in six inches of water – and the fight was on. Kam was spectacularly nonchalant about the whole thing, but it was clear he had something big. After about 30 minutes, he landed one of the bigger corbina I have ever seen, quietly asked me to take his picture with it, and went back to fishing.

I’ve never gotten a corbina this big. Ben has. Even Spellman has.

I walked back out to knee-deep water and kept casting. Somewhere in there, it occurred to me that Kam still wasn’t wading. He was casting to the very edge of the wash, and he was catching stuff. He had even suggested to me, in that cautious tone you have to use when someone a lot older that you is doing something completely wrong, that I try to fish more toward shore. I had an epiphany. I was standing on the fish.

Sheepishly walking back to the edge of the wet sand, I continued casting a sand crab and a light egg sinker. I was quickly rewarded with a couple of taps – I presumed these were small corbina, but I was also not used to fishing with the long leader this approach requires. After a few missed strikes, I stayed patient, let the fish run the line tight, and the circle hook did its job. I had a fish on – I could see a decent-sized shape swimming hard back into the deeper water as the wave receded, and when it got past the first roller, it took off for Japan. With only a six-pound leader, I backed off on the drag and let the fish run as long as it wanted to. Whatever it was, it was relatively big. I was certainly hoping spotfin, but a big corbina, defined as bigger than Spellman’s, would also be rewarding.

The battle went on for around 20 minutes before I could see what I had. It was a good spotfin. Every lift, every drag adjustment, every give and take with the rod became pressure-packed. I wanted this one bad, and I managed not to screw it up. Perhaps 10 minutes later, I surfed it on to the beach and Kam landed it. The trip couldn’t have started better.

At last, a spotfin.

The triumphant anglers.

Moments later, that spectacularly awkward moment that I feared would happen, happened. We kept the fish for Kam to eat. So, we left it by our equipment bags. It’s natural that people on a beach would stop and look at the fish or ask questions – heck, I love to talk to strangers about fish. But generally, these strangers are not naked. It was a very nice chat otherwise, but you try to talk to someone for 15 minutes without acknowledging that they are not dressed. I briefly considered taking my own clothes off to level the playing field, but I’m not sure that Kam would have gotten through that without serious therapy.

Torrey Pines – great fishing, but be aware of the beach rules before you consider bringing the kids.

Kam and I kept at it until dark, and the fish kept biting. I caught half a dozen corbinas, a few perch, some yellowfin croaker, and an ambitious guitarfish.

These things are so cool.

Just as I was thinking about packing up and finding a pizza, Kam hooked into another big fish, again from just a few inches of water. I sat back and watch him battle it on the ultra-light tackle, and again, after a skilled fight on both sides, he beached a beautiful spotfin – bigger than mine, dammit. It was a perfect evening, except for the seemingly vertical half-mile up the trail to the cars.

Thanks again, Kam.

I spent the next morning hunting zebra perch in coastal tidepools. This is a fool’s errand. Zebra perch are a prank pulled on us by the Fish Gods – an attractive creature that is easily seen that does not EVER EAT ANYTHING. Oh, did I see them. Oh, did I cast to them. And oh, did they spook and run away.

These crevices were jammed with them.

I caught plenty of wooly sculpins, but tiring of the zebra perch abuse, I moved over to Harbor Island for the afternoon and got a few rays and sharks. There was no banded guitarfish, but it was nice to catch something and even nicer not to hear the teeny giggles of the zebra perch.

I did catch a starfish. Marta loves starfish.

That evening, one of my best friends, Scott Perry, donned his Captain America face mask and flew down to San Diego to spend a couple of socially-distanced fishing days with me. San Diego was allowing indoor dining at the time, and it was wonderful but weird to sit down in a nice restaurant and eat. I met Scott at my first startup job, in 1992, and astonishingly, almost 30 years later, he is still speaking to me. It always amazes me how hard we worked for that startup – Macromedia – and still had more fun than either of us has had at a job since.

The following morning, we caught up with old friend and ace guide Captain James Nelson. Kam joined us, and I am happy to report there was no nudity. We had several realistic targets, like sharpnose surfperch and sunset rockfish, and and some aspirational targets, like pelagic rays, and even some ridiculous stretches, like thresher shark and bluefin tuna. We motored out of Mission Bay on a foggy morning and set up over a coastal reef. I caught stuff, although not any of the target fish. A few moments later, Scott did something unexpected and not at all consistent with his personality – he stole the show.

On my treasured Phil Richmond custom rod, Scott went ahead and caught a positively massive Treefish. At 2.25 pounds, it would be an easy world record – Scott’s first. Part of me was thrilled for him, but that other part of me, the one people call “Steve,” was thinking “WTF? Why am I catching nothing of note?”

Scott and his beast.

Kam observes quietly. Yes, I have hair envy.

Sure, I caught some fun stuff. But no world records. At least I didn’t get outfished by Spellman.

Damn that’s a big treefish. For those of you who are thinking “Gee, that looks a lot like a rock cod” – you’re right. It is in fact in the Sebastes genus.

The group in a proper Covid configuration. You can book James at http://www.thefishicon.com/fish-with-james/. He’s awesome.

Naturally, when we finished with James, we raced right to Harbor Island, got caffeinated, and started fishing for banded guitarfish. We didn’t get one, but we did catch a few butterfly rays.

These are still one of the coolest fish I have ever seen. 

It’s always a good thing to be sitting on the shoreline in San Diego Bay.

The following morning, Scott caught up on a little bit of work while I went out goby hunting with Ben. There are two target goby species in Mission Bay, the cheekspot and the shadow. Both are small and shy, requiring windless conditions on a high tide, so this is usually an early morning thing. It’s like a saltwater darter hunt and requires wading. Even though it’s in San Diego, the water can be a bit chilly at dawn, and the fish are always just deep enough where the bottom half of your swimsuit is going to get wet.

Ben didn’t seem to mind the cold water.

After 15 minutes, it was clear that the gobies were tough to find and that my groin was cold, so I was about to give up. A moment later, Ben spotted a solitary cheekspot and let me take a crack at it. It took quite a few tries, but the thing eventually bit and joined the species list. I was relieved to get out of the water.

The beast.

Once this Herculean task was accomplished, I thanked Ben, jumped in the car, and headed over to Shelter Island, which is supposed to be a hotbed of chameleon gobies. The trick here, again, is getting low, undisturbed water that allows sight fishing. I had been here several times, and had even seen a few gobies, but even slight ripples on the water frustrate the process. Well, this was the right morning. It was dead still, and I could see dozens of the little fellows on the rocks. I caught several in less than five minutes, and was up to three species on the trip.

The chameleon goby, which is supposed to live just a few minutes from my house but won’t bite unless I drive eight hours south.

We then all made another pilgrimage to Harbor Island. It was great again to be on the shoreline with a chance for something epic, but alas, the “bandito” did not make an appearance. I passed the time calculating how many hours I had spent trying to get one, but once I hit three figures, I didn’t like that game any more.

Ben did get a nice butterfly ray, and on very light tackle.

The next morning, Scott and I visited Sunset Cliffs and made another foolish try for zebra perch. Yes, I saw them.

There were 20 zebra perch at my feet. They were looking right at me.

No, I didn’t catch them, and the while I was not catching them, some dude walked down on to the rocks and writhed around in what was either a yoga ritual or a seizure, so we had to pretend we didn’t see that.

There was a lot I pretended not to see on this trip.

Speaking of things I wish I could unsee … We saw this in Safeway when we were picking up bait. Wade and Jamie would actually eat this.

Then, it was back to Harbor Island. It started well, with a few rays and a big spotted bay bass.

The secret – fish for rays. Bass can eat a whole squid no problem.

We went through a few more sharks and rays. The round stingrays seemed to have moved in and taken over, but every bite could be something awesome, so we kept at it.

Around 4pm, one of the rods started bouncing. It was well past Scott’s turn, but he had a look and said “You better get this one.” Never one to pass up an opportunity but moved by Scott’s constant generosity, I picked up the rod. Something was banging on the sardine and slowly swimming off. I said a quick anti-round stingray prayer and set the hook. At first, I felt substantial weight but no movement, but as I continued reeling, whatever it was started pounding hard. It didn’t feel like a ray, and it was too big to be a smoothhound. I had visions of an exceptionally large thornback.

The fish got heavier and started another short run. Just in case, I started working my way down to the water. Moments later, I saw a shape in the water – it did look like a big thornback, and I had thoughts of breaking Daniel Gross’ record. It wasn’t until I had the fish at the water’s edge that I realized it was a banded guitarfish – and a big one. I bounded down the rocks and grabbed species 1947.

I waited a long time for this.

Hugging isn’t part of social distancing, but I couldn’t help myself. (Scott, not the fish. Well, maybe both.) This was a big deal to me. This is a fish that took me over 100 hours of shore fishing to catch. This is the fish that some rotten little 10 year-old from Indiana keeps catching on his first trip with Captain James, and it was high time I got one. And as an unexpected bonus, it was a world record. So, whoever that 10 year-old is, and I am certain he is friends with Jamie, but wherever he is, nyah nyah nyah.

I feel much better now.

We fished past dark. It’s a great place to watch the world go by.

We had one more evening to eat and drink indoors, so we enjoyed an epic seafood meal at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse restaurant and reflected on a very successful trip. There would always be something new to catch in San Diego, but I had gotten two of the big targets added to my list.

On the way home, Scott put up with me stopping in an LA creek to look for Santa Ana suckers. I found none, but I did catch a nice speckled dace. My UC Davis contacts tell me that this species will eventually be split from the main group, so stay tuned.

This will be a new species someday.

Oh, and Scott accidentally left his Captain America mask in my car. Naturally, I washed it, folded it nicely, and returned it to him. I would never have considered taking compromising photos with it and showing those to him months later.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | January 17, 2021

Exploring my Intertidal Side

DATELINE: JUNE 13, 2020 – BROOKINGS, OREGON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinidad, California – one of the north coast ports.

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

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

That’s a long walk in waders.

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

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

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

Immediately post-bellow.

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

Beautiful fish, but I should have shaved.

I had two doubles.

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

Starting the chafy walk back to the car.

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

And they had chocolate cake.

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

The tidepools. Every single rock hides a potential species.

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

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

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

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

The rosylip sculpin.

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

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

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

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

And they’re cute.

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

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

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

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

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

I still drool when I look at this photo.

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

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

Steve

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – NEW WORLD RECORD SPOTTED SUCKER

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

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

Posted by: 1000fish | November 19, 2020

The Mucus

DATELINE: JUNE 1, 2020 – SOMEWHERE IN UTAH

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

The sacred text.

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

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

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

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

And some amazing scenery.

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

Low and clear turned out to be bad.

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

The first fish of the trip – a northern pikeminnow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is also almost impossible to photograph.

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest one. Heartbreakingly close to 16 ounces.

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

Carson casually fights another sucker. ON A FLY ROD.

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

I did catch a western slope cutthroat trout.

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

I got some nice browns.

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

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

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

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

It did have an impressive rattlesnake.

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

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

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

Chris and Thing 1 work the shoreline.

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

My favorite Molly since Ringwald.

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

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

Carson even manages to be polite when he photobombs us.

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

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

But sometimes you just have to hug him. 

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

After Chris brought him replacement shoes.

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

A guppy. Yay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fish picture often delineates persistence and insanity.

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

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

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

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

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

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | November 3, 2020

Fishing in the Time of Covid

DATELINE: MAY 16, 2020 – DAVIS, CALIFORNIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking helps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything needs a clever label.

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

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

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

Covid Homeless

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

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

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

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

Covid List 3

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

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

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

My first Covid shutdown catch. The streak was intact.

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

Covid Kaline

WTF, universe?

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

Daniel catches some amazing fish from his kayak.

Covid WSB

I mean some ridiculously amazing fish.

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

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

Sunblock, people – even if it’s foggy.

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

She was not amused.

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

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

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

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

The triumphant anglers.

The Umpqua Pikeminnow.

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

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

It was a gorgeous drive home.

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

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

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

Covid Connor

That’s Connor Spellman on the right.

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

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

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

Covid Moyle 2

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

Teejay O’Rear with a hardhead.

Covid Dylan

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

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

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

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

Mark with a bullhead.

A highly-focused Steve looks for blackfish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I know I look homeless.

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

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

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | August 17, 2020

Caipirinha 21, Corimba 0

DATELINE: MARCH 8, 2020 – BERTIOGA, BRAZIL

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

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

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

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

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

And I rarely tell them to stop.

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

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

That’s Daniel on the right.

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

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

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

It didn’t.

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

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

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

More tambaqui.

It’s a gorgeous location.

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

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

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

Yes, I did.

Alas, all that I could find were western mosquitofish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My only catch on a plastic was an overambitious croaker.

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

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

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

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

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

Note the teeth.

Just for scale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And back to the Hyatt.

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

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | July 2, 2020

Spring Training

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

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

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

Gerry and his beastly sauger from 2018.

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

I even got the t-shirt.

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

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

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

Miles and miles without so much as a Burger King,

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

The water was gorgeous.

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

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

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

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

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

The triumphant anglers.

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

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

The tilapia in question.

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

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

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

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

Meadow Hot Springs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful fish, but it was COLD.

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

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

At least the views were beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying out over the Great Salt Lake.

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

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

Steve

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

Posted by: 1000fish | June 16, 2020

The Argentine Hat Trick

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

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

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

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

The Chilean Sand Perch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franco DeLeonardis. There is no better deckhand.

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

The view from my room on Thursday morning.

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

Heading out to sea.

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

The seabass – a member of the grouper clan.

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

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

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

The silence, needless to say, ended.

Do not put this in your pants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I forgot all about steak for a few hours.

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

This is what it looked like Friday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

The beast.

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

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

Nearly a hundred pounds of steaming perspective.

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

Steve

 

SPECIAL UPDATE – IGFA MEMBERSHIP EXTENSION

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

 

 

 

 

 

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