Posted by: 1000fish | May 13, 2022

2001: A Fish Odyssey

DATELINE: MAY 13, 2021 – TAMPA BAY, FLORIDA

Yes, I know I am disastrously behind on the blog, but it somehow feels better to post this one a day shy of the one year anniversary of the event, rather than the full year. Some of you are aware of what I am posting below, some of you will find out shortly, but I appreciate all of you being along for the ride. 

So there I was, at the cusp of 2000 species. I had carefully avoided fishing for a couple of weeks, in case I accidentally caught something weird and couldn’t share it with someone. I wanted to do this with friends and I wanted to catch a meaningful fish – something with some history behind it.

The first thing I looked at was a spearfish. It would have been amazing to close out the 2K mark with the billifish that hates me and also complete my royal slam. But the spearfish were not biting, and getting to Hawaii was a medical goat rodeo. Ditto for travel to some other exotic destination I was looking at for a species – whether it was the Seychelles for a dogtooth, Mongolia for a taimen, or the Congo for a giant tigerfish, anything that required a passport had the risk of leaving me stranded overseas, or worse, Cleveland. 

Looking at domestic travel, Florida seemed to be an obvious choice. Martini was there, and the gulf flounder was there.

A gulf flounder would be a really cool milestone fish. This creature has avoided me despite numerous attempts at it, and due to a lot of late-night driving with Martini where things that aren’t funny seem hysterically funny because of exhaustion and Red Bull, it has taken on mythical status as a savage man-eater. (It is in fact a harmless flounder that occasionally tops five pounds.) But on those highly-caffeinated road trips, the gulf flounder could weigh thousands of pounds, eat goats and cabin cruisers, and launch out of creeks in North Dakota and kill you. 

When I looked at the hundreds of species caught and tens of thousands of miles driven with Martini, I wanted him to be there. He lives on the other side of the country now, so we don’t catch up like we used to, but family is family. If I have a fish question, or a ridiculous photo, he is still the guy who gets it at 2am. And responds at 2:02am.

Martini and I caught up the evening of the 12th. The best restaurant near the hotel was a Korean barbecue, and luckily, Martini knows his way around a grill. 

He managed to turn this into a really good dinner.

We talked fishing late into the evening, and yes, I was nervous. Martini was supremely calm.

He is always supremely calm. I find inspiration in this.  

There was a new and important character in all of this, one Ryan Crutchfield. A Tampa-based species hunter that I met through Ben Cantrell, Ryan would be our link to local expertise. He’s a species-hunter himself, with 303 to his credit and a deep knowledge of almost anything that swims in Florida. When he isn’t fishing, Ryan is a senior IT exec at a local company, and no, he will not fix your printer.

Ryan met us in St. Petersburg early the next morning. It was May 13, 2021, some 10 years, nine months, and 23 days since I caught species 1000.

Ready to go.

Ryan had brought live shrimp, and everything eats live shrimp. After a final ID check on the differences between Southern and Gulf Flounder, we started fishing. 

Yeah I was nervous.

We waded into the bay, and began casting. I got bites quickly, little rattles that signaled the presence of pinfish. I saw a small shark swim by.

We wade the surf at Pass-a-Grille.

I rebaited a couple of times, and maybe 15 minutes later, I hooked something. It wasn’t a pinfish, but it wasn’t a flounder either. It was spirited smaller fish that kept digging the bottom. The guys all stopped and watched, and I was faintly aware that this could be it. I guessed grunt, but it didn’t fight quite like one.

The fish surfaced. It was a searobin. I’ve caught lots of searobins, but there was one here that I hadn’t caught – the leopard searobin. The very same leopard searobin that my occasional nephew Charlie has caught and I hadn’t. I raced it into shore, where Val Kells’ book awaited. Ryan had one look and said “leopard,” but I rudely waited for Martini the scientist to repeat the obvious. It was a leopard searobin, and I had species 2000.

Best of all, Jamie hasn’t caught one.

Mr. Searobin gets his closeup.

There were high-fives and there were manly hugs. I thought about the milestone and all the work that had gone into it, but I also thought a lot about the fish. (Which had been safely released by the time I could do any thinking.) The leopard searobin is a marvelous and underappreciated creature, randomly wandering the bottom on our Atlantic and Gulf coasts, often unnoticed but beautiful in its own way. And now, it was the 2000th different kind of fish I had caught in my life. I was certainly thrilled to reach a big milestone, but no, I can’t die happy just yet. There are a lot of fish left out there. Like the Gulf Flounder.

To get this out of the way immediately, no, I am not launching a quest for 3000 species. I am launching a quest for species 2001.

This was a different experience than getting 1000. When I did that, on July 21, 2010 in Vangshylla, Norway, I really wasn’t sure it could happen until it happened. I had a fear that I would be struck by lightning before I could land the coalfish. On this round, I more or less knew I could make it happen, but that the species would be harder to get and farther apart. The one constant is that Jamie Hamamoto has been savagely competitive with me, almost since day one. Yet I still wish her well, because I am kind and gracious.

The species hunt was largely a personal thing until 2007, when I discovered there were others with the same obsession and that the media, at least the IGFA and Daily Mail, had some faint interest in the topic. Since then, this is what has really defined me. 3950 days had passed since species 1000, and not one of those days went by without me doing something to get me closer to 2000 species, whether it was fishing, identifying fish, looking for new spots, meeting new people, or explaining why I wasn’t cleaning the garage. 

I hope I am remembered someday as a good partner by Marta, a good family member by everyone except my aunt, a good co-worker, a good hockey teammate, a good friend, bla bla bla. But the fishing thing – this is what I am going to leave behind. Others have now passed 1000 – congratulations to Eli, George, Kenneth, and Dom. Someone will eventually get to 2000, and someday, hopefully long after I’m gone, someone will pass me. But not today. 

I got right back in the water – there was still a gulf flounder out there someplace, and I wanted to catch it. Just as in 2010, I was a little relieved that the underlying passion really is the fishing rather than any particular goal. So I don’t need to find a new hobby, which is best for the needlepoint world, because I would somehow make needlepoint competitive. 

I caught all kinds of stuff on the shoreline, but no flounder. We moved to a local pier for a few hours. Ryan promptly caught a gulf flounder.

Jerk.

Then I landed an Irish pompano, which Ryan has never caught. Fair play. But that’s fishing.

I wish he had caught this fish – he’s the one who took a day off for me. And yes, my fly is down. Jim Larosa noticed that.

Just to make sure, we drove out to a creek near Ryan’s home and added a Dimerus cichlid.

The cichlid in question.

This was species 2001, and it represented the first and last step on the journey to 2001 species. I am NOT going to get baited in to a “Quest for 3000” thing. So don’t ask. My new goal is 2002. Don’t listen to Marta. Marta wants me to commit to 4000, just to keep me out of the house.

We passed the football stadium. Tom Brady makes me smile.

We gathered the group again for dinner that evening, at a proper steakhouse in Tampa, the kind of place with porterhouses and huge appetizers and salads the size of your head.

Those are the biggest onion rings I have ever seen.

The guest list was a cross section of people involved in the quest. There was Martini, who had been there since 2011 and may understand what I have gone through as much as anyone on earth. The Arostegui family has been instrumental in some of my very best days on the water. I only met them after I had 1053 species, and they have been involved in a whopping 116 since. Whether it was Marty offering patient advice, Roberta allowing me to cast ahead of her, or Martini being the responsible older brother I never had, this family has been a support system and an inspiration for the last 11 years.

Steve and the Arosteguis in 2018. There are over 1000 world records accounted for in this photo.

There was Ryan, who I had known for less than a day but to whom I owed a huge debt of gratitude. And no, he won’t fix your printer. He’s the management, for God’s sake. Call the Geek Squad.

Since I’m so far behind in the blog, I can reveal that I’ve already been back to Tampa to fish with Ryan again. And that I still don’t have a gulf flounder.

We also managed to sneak in Ben Cantrell, who has become a great friend since that chance meeting in 2016. He has helped me to dozens of species, generously introduced me to his fishing network, and made me eat at Sonic once. Once. 

Ben also takes the best cat pictures.

At dinner, I thought a bit more about what I felt. Pride? Sure. Relief? Definitely. But mostly – gratitude. This was never a solo thing – hundreds of people have been involved with this quest, giving their time, effort, patience, and in at least two cases, dignity – to find another fish. 

The best thing about all of this has been all the amazing people I’ve gotten to meet, many of whom are friends to this very day. I did not come from a large family, so I went out and built one. I’ll never name them all, but hopefully I’ve done a good job in the blog over the years. 

But the blog only covers from species 953, so there is a lot of recognition missing from those early days – nearly half my overall total. There are some truly unsung heroes here, some still friends, some drifting out of touch, some no longer with us. In drafting this episode, I started to name them all. About the time I hit 9000 words, I realized that we were going to need to split it up, so you’re going to have to wait a couple of weeks while Marta cuts the tasteless jokes. While she does that, I’d like to thank everyone who has been there for the whole ride, noting that even if I listed you all out, I would probably miss someone, but it will only be on purpose in one case.

So in the meantime, thank you all for being here through my journey, and thank you most of all to the fish, all the fish, especially the next one. My quest for 2002 would start before the sun came up the next day.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | April 18, 2022

The Spree of Cortez

DATELINE: APRIL 28, 2021 – PUERTO PENASCO, MEXICO

I had been giving a lot of thought to the numbers. Yes, it had been a surprisingly good spring, and I had somehow reached 1987 species. But when I thought about where I was going to catch 13 more, 2000 still seemed a long way off. In late-night scribbling sessions on old hotel notepads, where I make ill-fated predictions on what I might catch on what trip, I estimated that Puerto Penasco would be good for four species. I thought the Cortez ray and the longjaw leatherjack were solid, and then, well, I would hope for two random ones. That would put me in the early 1990s, like Cousin Chuck’s wardrobe, and then my upcoming trip to Alabama should be good for maybe six, so I thought I would be setting up for the big one in June – maybe a spearfish. 

Keep in mind that these forecasts are, without exception, wildly wrong.

This would be my third trip to Penasco, the second with Chris and his kids, even if that concedes that The Mucus is human. I decided to drive to Phoenix, because there was one particular fish others had caught – the porthole livebearer – that was sort of on the way. I had already failed on it three times.

It’s 10 hours from Alamo to Phoenix, so stretching my legs at the Salton Sea was a welcome break from endless I-5 traffic, Teslas passing on the right, and a truck driver with an especially dark view of the world.

I was stuck behind him for 40 miles.

As I drove to the traditional spot, where three friends had caught this beast quickly on their first try, I passed several other creeks. I am still not sure what motivated me – call it a hunch, call it inspiration, call it missing a turn – but I decided to stop and investigate one of them. It was a little narrower and faster than the other spot, and I drifted a bait through just for the heck of it.

The creek in question.

I saw dozens of little fish flitting in the current; I assumed they were tilapia. One of them bit. It wasn’t a tilapia. It was a #$&% porthole livebearer. I had done it, and done it quickly. I caught a few more just for giggles and was on my way to Phoenix.

Species 1988. I lived in Columbus, Ohio in 1988, but happily, the big game went Michigan’s way. (Thank you John Kolesar.)

I forget where I saw this cartoon the first time, but it is painfully accurate.

The next morning, we piled into the Moore pickup truck and were off for Mexico. The Mucus took exactly 47 seconds to misuse the word “literally,” and Carson wanted to debate his complex analysis of Bill Laimbeer’s offensive statistics, which just made me smile. The conversation eventually wandered to fishing, which sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun.

Then The Mucus sacked out. At least when he’s old enough for an online dating profile, he has this picture ready.

My previous trips to Puerto Penasco had both been in the month of November. The water temperature in April was going to be a lot warmer, and we expected to see some different species. We would also be fishing the estuary, which was alleged to be full of unusual stuff. 

We checked into the hotel and then headed to Pelican Point. It didn’t take long – the place was loaded with shortjaw mudsuckers, which are like a longjaw mudsucker but have a shorter jaw. 

Species 1990. That’s the year I moved back to California from the midwest.

The place was also full of frillgobies. My pictures still aren’t Ben-level, but sunlight is very helpful.

I also got a much more photogenic Cortez opaleye. In the life-lister world, this is called a “photo upgrade.”

Endless tidepools and no band – what’s not to love? Chris, I should note, did not catch a barred pargo.

While Chris and the kids continued exploring the rocks, I pulled out a spoon and cast into the deeper water. It was a rugged shoreline, but I figured that I would sort out landing something if the necessity arose. On perhaps my fifth toss, I got hit hard and could see a decent-sized silver fish splashing on the surface. If it dove, I would lose it, so I just trusted my braided line and pulled hard. I bounced a fish up onto the rocks, and surprisingly, it was a longjaw leatherjack, one of the species I had hoped for in the estuary.

Species 1991. This was an unexpectedly good start. The internet came online in 1991, or so it says on the internet. We’d have to ask Al Gore to be sure.

We spent the evening at the cruise ship jetty. It’s a maddening spot, because it is obviously very fishy, being the only structure in an otherwise sandy flat, but access is slippery and difficult, and the tides race up and down so fast that a spot is only a spot for 45 minutes or so. There is no room for error because you are casting over a steep ledge of concrete slabs, but we had a lot of fun catching more leatherjacks and a few Spanish mackerel. Chris still did not catch a barred pargo.

Just before we headed out, I added another new species – the common halfbeak. 

Species 1992. I started work at Macromedia in 1992 – it was a small software startup that did very well. Best job ever.

We ate dinner at “Wrecked on the Reef,” which is at the base of the pier and has surprisingly good food. I still prefer Capone’s, of course.

The following morning was a big one – we were finally going to the legendary estuary, courtesy of Chris’ friend Eric. Chris met Eric on something called “Instagram,” and it turns out Eric, a Phoenix resident, visits Puerto Penasco quite often and fishes the estuary almost exclusively. The fishing spots are about a mile from parking through soft sand, but Eric has a dune buggy that made the whole thing easy and he was kind enough to give us all a lift. The main idea here is to cast spoons and grubs for flatfish (three different species,) corvina, and leatherjack.

The tides here are gigantic – around 18 feet – so low water leaves giant bare flats that are quickly covered by flood tides at a walking pace. This keeps you on the move and rewards efficient packing. The Mucus lost several rod holders. 

At high tide, that apartment building is right on the water.

Most of the guys went to cast lures on the sand bars, but I was particularly obsessed with the Cortez ray, so I moved over to a channel and set out a couple of baits.

First casts of the day. 

While I waited, I could see that everybody was catching the heck out of flounder. The species are tough to tell apart – we are talking gill raker and fin ray counts – but the gang had diagrams loaded on their phones for easy reference.

Less than five minutes later, one of my baits got slammed. I hooked up, and the fish made a good fight out of it on my light European-style bait rod. (A “winkle-picker” in Jens Koller jargon.) I fully expected a Cortez ray, but what I got instead was a huge bullseye puffer. Not the desired species, perhaps, but it was more than big enough to break Mark Spellman’s record on the species, which made me smile.

World record 212.

I cast again, and again, got hit before I could even think about throwing a jig. I fully expected another puffer, but this time, it was a ray. I was thrilled, as I thought this was a Cortez spotted ray, which would be a new species and a world record. But spoiler alert – months later, when I found some more recent information in this species, it turns out that I caught a regular Haller’s round ray – the same one that infests San Diego Bay. So even though I was overjoyed at the time, no species and no record.

I wanted the fish to be a Cortez ray. The fish wanted to be a Cortez ray. But alas, wishing and hoping can’t overrule biology.

So that I don’t confuse myself with the math too much, I had originally thought the ray was species 1993, but, as we have discussed, it was not. Luckily, there was a split on the longear sunfish that added a species for me and kept the counting straight. We’ll cover that all in a future blog.

Comfortable in my delusion, I began tossing grub/jighead combos. Although I started late, I still caught six leatherjacks and six flounder, one of which turned out to be a Cortez halibut, which was a new one.

Species 1994. Good grief. I got married in 1994. We’re not talking Marta here, which automatically means it was a terrible mistake.

I never know which side of flatfish to show.

We also all caught longnose anchovies – species 1995 for me.

1995 was the year my beloved Red Wings were robbed by the NHL and the New Jersey Devils in the NHL finals, and even four Stanley Cups later, I’m still bitter. 

Once the tide started racing in, we had to move our stuff every few minutes or lose it. We ended up at a high spot next to Eric’s dune buggy, where we cast until midafternoon.

The team with Eric. He’s the normal-looking one in the middle.

We had more targets waiting at Bad Band Beach, so we thanked Eric, grabbed some chips and sodas, and headed out. The Band was living up to their reputation, trashing “Wipeout” and, for some reason, Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” before we could get out of earshot.

The tidepools at Bad Band Beach.

I spent at least two hours casting spoons – the leatherjacks and bay bass were thick and it’s always fun catching anything on a lure. As it got dark, I started searching the tidepools. I mostly had clingfish in mind – all the books say there are several species here, but clingfish apparently don’t read those books. I got a few gobies, and then spotted something interesting peering out at me. Whatever it was, I hadn’t caught one, and it was painfully shy. It took 45 minutes to coax it out, but it finally bit. At first, I thought I had caught a reef finspot, but it turns out to be a close relative called a flapscale blenny. 

Species 1996. 1996 was the year my beloved Red Wings were robbed by the NHL and the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals, and even four Stanley Cups later, I’m still bitter.

Just before we headed to dinner, The Mucus called me over to a tidepool – he thought he had spotted a Sonora blenny, which they had all gotten and I hadn’t. What a nice kid. I still mean everything I’ve said about him, but I have to admit this was very decent. I caught it quickly, and it was just plain weird to have to thank The Mucus.

1997. We all know that this was the year that justice prevailed and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.

Chris insisted on doing the long walks entirely in Crocs, which will have consequences on his foot modeling career.

And yet he never complained.

Sunset at Bad Band Beach.

We had been looking for a boat for Sunday. The guy from last time was booked, so we found Jose Cruz, widely known as “El Jefe.” This guy is the real deal – he knew every species we asked about and a few we hadn’t. The ride out became a game of “name that fish,” which was easy because Jefe speaks better English than The Mucus. 

The boat.

We set up to jig for bait. While the Moores caught a few new ones, I pulled up a sand perch that had a chance. These are hard to ID – it all comes down to the shape of the spines on the opercle – but it turned out to be a Pacific Sand Perch, and I had species 1998.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, for the second time in a row, in 1998. They didn’t lose a game in either final. 

1998. The trip was turning out far better than I could have hoped, and I still had a day to go. Could I do it right here?

Steve and El Jefe celebrate the catch. I highly recommend this guy if you’re in the area – his email is pepegcruz@gmail.com.

As masterful as El Jefe was, he could not control the weather, and predicted light winds morphed into 25-30. It got rough. I was fine. Carson was fine. But Chris went full-on rail bunny. He screamed his breakfast into the Sea of Cortez and kept fishing without a word of complaint.

The Mucus looked a bit queasy himself, but I was so busy watching Chris that I hardly noticed when my second favorite teenager on the boat lurched over the transom.

He was actually quiet for 38 seconds.

The mal-de-mer caught The Mucus so completely by surprise that he forgot to pull his mask down. I’ll leave the rest to your imaginations, but the kid was unfazed. I salute you, Mucus.

While they tossed their cookies, I tossed a spoon and caught more leatherjacks and a batch of Sierra mackerel.

There is a second species of mackerel in the Sea of Cortez – the Monterey Sierra mackerel – but we didn’t get any of those.

In the middle of all of this, right before we had to head in, I got a reasonable bite and landed a big lizardfish. It didn’t look quite like a California, and by the time we got to port, I had confirmed it as a lance lizardfish – not only a new species but also a world record. I had species 1999.

And world record 213.

Holy ####. I was at 1999 species. I had gone from the year I got married to the year I got unmarried (again, this was all in the dark, pre-Marta phase of my life) in just 22 hours, and it cost a lot less. 

The group back on dry land. Chris either took the photo or was still laying on the deck, I forget which.

The Mucus just doesn’t seem to get the whole sunblock/sunshield thing.

The back of his legs started to blister, but he would not leave whatever strange fish that kept emerging from under the dock.

Neither would the rest of the family. But they never caught whatever it was.

I kept fishing. If it happened, it happened. The Moores are great friends and it would have been phenomenal to share this moment with them. We spent the rest of the day poking around the harbor, but obscure fishing history would not be made that day.

We headed home the next morning. There is a lot of driving on these trips, and with four guys in a car for hours and hours, there is going to be conversation, some of it deep and meaningful, and some of it ranting that Lebron somehow doesn’t travel every time he goes near the paint.

It always amuses me that the drive from the border to Penasco is a “Hassle Free Zone.” What are we to assume about the rest of the country? No other country even mentions this.

You do see the most amazing items at the roadside stands.

On the way home, we got going on the subject of “rules to live by,” which always brings back David Barkess’ timeless “Park in the shade, don’t take any wooden nickels, and be nice to your Mom.” Both kids actually surprised me with their wisdom, and please note they do not claim to be the original sources of any of these. Carson gave us all something to consider when he said “Everyone’s gangster until the cockroach flies.” I’ve seen that happen, and even the hardest of men run screaming. The Mucus contributed “Never take a laxative and a sleeping pill at the same time.” Accidentally or not, that’s profound and brought back some interesting memories, especially Brazil 2001 when I got on a plane, took a Benadryl, and promptly presented with food poisoning. It’s very important to stay awake when you have food poisoning on an airplane. Luckily, I could buy new socks during the layover in Miami.

That night, I plugged everything into my spreadsheet. The lizard was indeed 1999. I had some serious planning to do.

Steve

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | March 12, 2022

Shark Week

DATELINE: APRIL 8, 2021 – LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA

The Seychelles were calling me, and I couldn’t answer. While I had to be grateful that Marta and I were both still healthy and employed, I was slipping into an emotional dark place, (which Marta calls “grouchy,”) because I couldn’t travel outside the US. As early spring rolled around, I was at 1978 species, but I honestly didn’t have much of a plan for the next 22.

I did get some fishing in, including an Eel River steelhead trip with Mark Spellman

The idiots, steady fishing partners since 1993.

Great memories of Ed Trujillo.

In mid-March, the Moore family visited Northern California. We met in Santa Cruz, and while it was chillier than we wanted, they scraped out a few species.

The Moores hunt the tidepools. L-R, that’s Chris, The Mucus, and Carson.

We caught up with Vince, a teenage local species genius, who helped us with some of his secret spots, and somewhere in there, I stumbled into a striped kelpfish. 

Species 1979. That’s the year I moved from Michigan to California.

Vince is a superstar – you can see more of his stuff on something called “Instagram” under the name “@prickly_sculpin.” Whatever that means. But the kid is a genius.

I was still looking for the next big trip, and I got talking to Phil Richmond, the US Navy Officer who you all remember from two different Japan trips. Now based near Los Angeles, Phil was doing what he does everywhere – get a boat and find the fish. His latest project – a swordfish. Unfortunately, the high point of his quest thus far was a heartbreaking gear failure after he had hooked a huge sword. I have never heard someone so absolutely heartsick. We feel you, brother.

We got talking about sharks, specifically, sixgill sharks. Part of an ancient group represented by four living species, these deep-dwelling monsters can reach 15 feet and occasionally wander into areas where they can be caught. I had seen stray sixgills landed in San Francisco Bay, in the early 1990s when I used to go shark fishing almost every Friday, on a charter called The Fury. Friends of mine caught them, hell, even Spellman got one, but I never did.

This was an all-weekend project and would require sleeping on the boat. I generally avoid these situations, but the spots were too far offshore to base at a Hyatt, and I wanted this fish BAD. 

The idea was to meet at his place in Ventura late afternoon, go get his boat, stock up on provisions, and then drive down to LA to launch and head offshore. We got on the water just past sunset and motored out into the open Pacific. We talked strategy on the way, but basically, he had found some ledges that could hold the fish, and we were going to drop multi-pound cut baits and wait. 

The craft. It’s a solid boat and Phil has set it up very well.

A few hours later, we were anchored and fishing. The sea was thankfully calm, especially considering it was late March, so we could settle in to eating chicken wings and waiting for what would be a darn big bite. In the meantime, I dropped smaller rigs and landed the occasional sand dab. 

In the middle of the night, right about when it became clear only one of us would fit in his bunk, my rod went off with a hard, screaming run on the clicker. I thought I did everything right, but when I swung, there was nothing there. It seemed too fast for a sixgill – we guessed huge bat ray and continued fishing. 

Perhaps an hour later, as I was dozing off, Phil hooked a solid fish. Remember that he is an enormous person, so he can pull hard on these things, but the fish was still taking line and fighting with big, wide head shakes. 

He battled it patiently, and it took some hard runs even as it got toward the surface. We planned to release any big fish we caught, so we had rigged a tail rope and figured we would fake it from there. The fish finally surfaced after about 15 minutes. Although a teenager by sixgill standards, it was a big animal, all of seven feet and around 140 pounds. 

They’re just friends.

The fish was not happy.

Getting ready for the release. Very few people can pick up a shark this size without losing a limb.

As you may recall from 1000fish episode “Domo Arigato, Mr. Richmond,” Phil has caught the super rare broadnose sixgill shark, as well as the regular and sharpnose sevengills. Now that he has the regular sixgill, I would wager heavily that he is the only person on earth who has caught all four of these species.

Do NOT put this in your pants.

Phil’s boat has a nice bunk for one person, or two people who really like each other, so we were supposed to take turns napping. I am known to be a very light sleeper, so I was more worried about waking up than sleeping through anything. In a bizarre development that I would not have believed unless Phil showed me the video, which will never see the light of day so stop asking, I absolutely would not wake up for a whole series of attempts by Phil, up to and including an air horn. Marta, who is used to me jumping up when a deer farts in the back yard, was astonished. Sorry again, Phil.

When I finally regained consciousness, it was light and we decided to poke around for rockfish. We caught loads of them, but alas, nothing new for me. Annoyingly, I kept missing the greenspotted rockfish record by just a few ounces.

So close.

We also spent quite a bit of time gathering Mylar balloons that some idiot let fly during a party.

People, please don’t be idiots.

Evening rolled around, and we went back to our spot and rigged up the serious gear. About two pounds of chicken wings later, I had just laid down for a nap when Phil yelled “Fish on your rod!” My heavy trolling setup was bouncing hard, and I had no trouble waking up. 

From the moment I got the rod out of the holder, I could tell it was the right fish. It was heavy and fought with short runs and powerful head shakes, but it stayed pretty much straight down.

These aren’t the best action shots but you get the idea. That rod doesn’t bend very easily.

It took about 20 minutes before I saw a big dark shape and an unsettling white mouth come out of the blackness. No matter how much you think you are prepared for this, you will still utter a string of expletives when it happens to you.

I like to think I said “Oh my, that’s a large shark lunging out of the water at my arm.” But it didn’t come out that organized.

Phil was ready and had a tail rope on it before I could worry too much. It was a good fish, we’ll guess around 175, and even though it was only March, I knew exactly which picture was going on the front of our Christmas letter. 

Species 1980. I got my driver’s license in 1980.

Six. Count ’em. Most sharks have five, except of course for the sevengills, and some catsharks, such as the brownbanded bamboo catshark, which have four.

Because I am someone who writes a lot of articles trying to make a two-inch fish exciting, this was an especially satisfying trip, because I have an answer for those of you who are mean to me when I post a small fish. This means you, Brian Smith.

Our heroes on the way home, triumphant but unwashed.

We were downwind of the seals and they still smelled better than us.

Exactly two weeks later, Phil and I would be at it again for another shark species. In the interim, I caught up with Vince, who provided some excellent advice on the elusive bald sculpin. There really is a fish called that. Get your mind out of the gutter.

This led to a pleasant afternoon in the tidepools, and I got at least a dozen of my target fish. I should note that the Bald is one of the harder-fighting small sculpins.

Species 1981. I graduated high school in 1981. We just had our 40th effing reunion. Damn I’m old.

At least I finally got to sit with the cool kids. That’s David on the left, a high school classmate who still has an impressive scar on his eyebrow where I hit him with a hockey puck. I like to point out the scar; he likes to point out he stopped the puck.

On April 2, old 1000Fish friend Gerry Hansell visited San Francisco and we set up a day of early-season rockfish. Things went well until the boat left the harbor. It was rougher that expected and Gerry somehow misapplied his Scopolamine patch. Gerry is two of the five smartest people I know, but it’s a more confusing process than you would think, and he became profoundly seasick.

Gerry toughed it out and managed to add six species. That’s what it takes sometimes.

Although I rarely catch a new species locally, I did manage something so statistically improbable that it is worth mentioning here. My first 10 rockfish – which is currently a limit – were all different species. I have been doing these trips for 30 years and have never seen this happen. Generally, a particular species will stack up at a given spot, and at least half your limit will consist of that species. Weird day. Made me forget Gerry’s breakfast smoothie.

Steve and the aforementioned limit.

A few days later, Phil and I set up another weekend, this time to pursue thresher shark. Thresher had been another maddening species for me, as they are regularly caught off Monterey and San Francisco. I’ve been on two boats that hooked them, although the leaders didn’t hold up either time. (They jump when hooked so it was pretty obvious what they were.)

I got down to Ventura a day early so I could pursue another “bonus species.” Courtesy of the Moore family, even The Mucus, I had been told that the harbor there has a substantial population of California clingfish. Clingfish are cool.

Species 1983. The final episode of M*A*S*H aired in 1983, and it is still the single best thing ever shown on television, with the exception of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals.

The next afternoon, Phil and I loaded up his boat and headed back down to Long Beach. We explored until we found one of the massive bait schools that threshers are known to follow, caught some bait, and then we cast out floating rigs. We had a couple of tentative takes, but nothing we would swear was a thresher, and we headed in for burgers just after dark.

The next morning, we set out at first light and again hunted bait schools. We found an enormous aggregation of sardines, so we anchored and again set out live baits.

Now THAT’S a spicy bait ball.

While we waited, I fished small rigs on the bottom, and things got good. I pulled up a sand dab. Yawn. I pulled up another sand dab. Yawn. But somewhere in there, I actually looked at the thing, and realized, to my great joy and Phil’s everlasting amusement, that it was a longfin sand dab and I had a new species. 

Species 1984. The Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1984, and yes, I poured a bottle of champagne over my head.

Before I could even properly celebrate the dab, I pulled up another flatfish, a little bigger and with clear, big ocelli. It was a fantail sole, and I had species 1985. 

Species 1985. What a morning. I graduated UC Davis in 1985, and yes, I poured a bottle of champagne over my head.

A closer look at the fantail.

The floated thresher baits didn’t seem to be doing the trick, and the water was getting a lot bumpier than forecast. While I am not as prone to seasickness as, say, my brother-in-law Dan, I was still not feeling my best.

My favorite photo of Dan.

We decided to start heading in to the harbor and troll big plugs behind us. It was going to take a while, so I sat there quietly, trying not to be ill. We were perhaps halfway back to Long Beach when it happened. The fish I mean. I didn’t barf.

It is hard to do literary justice to the violence of a thresher hit on the troll. Snakehead may strike with more hatred, but a shark going fast one direction grabbing a lure that’s going fast in the other direction can empty a human bladder in less than a second. The noise alone is unforgettable – no one is ever used to the sound of a clicker screaming, but this takes it up a couple of octaves and I thought it was going to break the rod. (No one thinks their reel can make those noises, just like no one thinks their cat can make those noises, until you step on their tail.)

Any seasick thoughts melted away as I got into fighting mode. The initial run was very long, like a bat ray on steroids, but braided line takes the drama out of possibly being spooled. This fish stayed close to the surface but didn’t jump, and every time I thought he had slowed down, he would take off again. Phil is an excellent driver and has been in these situations many times (including landing a 275 pound marlin on his small boat in Japan,) so he kept me at a good angle and let the fish wear itself down. My rig was a solid 30 pound class rod, a gift from some co-workers years ago at Macromedia, and it was great to have something pull hard on it. 

Note on action shots – the rod never looks as bent as it felt, and the water never looks as rough as it was.

The fish kept slugging it out on the surface, keeping its distance from us and making short but powerful runs every time we got close. We could see it was very solidly hooked on both trebles, but it still took about 10 more minutes to maneuver into position for a gaff shot. 

If you are gaffing a fish, you want Phil on your side. He has a longer reach than normal humans, and he doesn’t miss. He got the fish first, then I got a second gaff, and we hauled it over the rail. I had my thresher. My hand is still sore from the high five Phil gave me. 

Species 1986. 1986 was a very bad year for Bill Buckner. God bless you, Bill.

They have a decent set of teeth. Mind you, this is a fairly small thresher.

We cast around in the harbor a bit, then went for pizza. Phil was thrilled for me, but he wanted a thresher badly as well, and we planned an early start the next day.

And yes, we kept the fish. They are amazing eating – they are great grilled and also make a wonderful fish cake. (Fish cakes courtesy of Marta.)

I was more prepared for the sea conditions the next morning, so of course, it was perfectly flat. We skipped the bait thing and trolled right away, starting a bit north of where we got my fish and working south.

We again spent time gathering Mylar balloons that some idiot let fly during a party.

People, don’t be idiots.

We had been at it about an hour when the port side rig exploded. Phil grabbed the rod, I grabbed the wheel, and I prayed that the fish would stay on and that I didn’t do anything stupid while I had the boat.

He looks remarkably calm for someone with two thirds of their line gone.

Phil landed it perhaps 20 minutes later, and we both had one on the board. That’s a good weekend.

Yes, his was bigger.

Content with the fish, we headed out. It’s a long drive home from LA through Ventura on a Sunday afternoon, but I was smiling the entire time. Realistically, I had been hoping for one of the two big sharks and maybe a couple of stray bonus fish. Instead, I had improbably added nine species. That left 14 to go and a trip to Mexico coming up. 

Steve

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE SILVER LINING

I love surfperch fishing, but I have come to hate the silver surfperch. It’s a scattered species that is only caught by accident while fishing for barred perch, and they look a lot like a walleye perch, so every one of those is a heartbreaking false alarm.

About a week after the thresher, I went down to Santa Cruz with Jibril, the fishing-crazed son of one of my best friends. The surf was perfect, allowing for light tackle, and we got at least a dozen barred and walleye perch, each of which was examined closely and released. I even had one light-colored walleye that I almost persuaded myself was a silver, but about an hour later, I got a hit that just felt different. Looking at the fish, there was no doubt – dusky dorsal tip, pigment on the anal fin. I was having a good spring. (And given how much time I was spending on the water, Marta was having a better one.)

Steve and Jibril with species 1987. The first Simpsons episode aired in 1987.

The pattern for these is easy – catch 8000 walleye perch first. On to the spotfin!

 

Posted by: 1000fish | February 15, 2022

Waka Waka

DATELINE: JANUARY 12, 2021 – MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA

This post has nothing to do with Fozzie Bear. If you read at least halfway through, you’ll understand the connection, but if not, or if you hate the Muppets, skip to the next paragraph. 

Fozzie Bear says waka waka waka | Fozzie bear, Muppets, Fozzie

There is apparently some controversy over the spelling of Fozzie’s signature phrase. Whole internet sites are dedicated to this topic. Who knew?

In any case, among my many obsessive/compulsive lists, there is a spreadhseet of what dates of the year I have caught a new species. At this stage, I am only missing 38 of the possible 366 dates, most of these bunched into December and January, when we are inside by the fireplace, watching the Grumpy Cat Christmas special. (Yes, it’s real.)

Despite a brave performance by the cat, it was awful.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to fish in December and January, just that there are fewer opportunities from both a practical and societal standpoint. It is one of the few times of year Marta wants me around the house. 

I got researching, which usually involves furtive late night flashlight reading of Dr. Peter Moyle’s magnificent Inland Fishes of California while Marta snores next to me. In this process, I found two relatively nearby fish that should, SHOULD bite in cold weather. Should.

Full-size item image

Drama throughout and the ending will shock you. Buy it HERE.

The species in question were the wakasagi – a Japanese pond smelt that was transplanted to California in the 1950s, and the arrow goby, a painfully shy brackish slough resident.

As we entered the 2020 Holiday season, my species count was at 1976. It should have been over 2000, because I should have done trips to the Seychelles in April and the Amazon in July. But the most political virus in history was hanging over my travel plans, and at that stage, I was just happy to be healthy and employed. But yes, I was aggravated not to be at 2000. What if I was hit by a bus? What if Marta was driving it?

Point being, every fish counts, and if I was going to get to 2000 under the current conditions, I was going to have to scrape them up a few at a time. So I began what I thought would be a fool’s errand to find a guide who could not only fish a lake that had wakasagi, but might also know where they lived. (In terms of what they would eat, I had that covered – I have an extensive collection of tiny Japanese sabikis, bought on my travels with Phil Richmond.)

So I started looking for bass or trout guys online, for places a few hours north of here, like Lake Shasta. I figured if they knew the lake reasonably well, we could go where they are marking bait schools and try to jig those. It was a plan. I didn’t say it was a good one.

On rare occasions, the Internet works. I found a couple of guides, and braced myself for conversations along the lines of “what the #$%& is a wakasaki” followed by a hangup. Instead, the very first guy I called, Chuck Ragan, answered the phone. I introduced myself and told him this would be the weirdest conversation he would have all week. 

“So …” I said, taking a deep breath. “Do you know a fish called a wakasagi?” I braced myself for mockery and dial tones. Chuck said “Wakasagi? Yes, they were planted in a series of Northern California reservoirs back in the 1950s. They formed breeding populations in a number of lakes and are the major forage fish in those places – a lot of my bass flies are tied to imitate wakasagi.” 

Holy #%&$, I thought to myself. Jackpot. Then I got to the punchline – “I want to catch one.”

He took a moment. “I imagine they would take a small sabiki. If you have the stuff for them, I can definitely put you on the schools. I’d recommend Oroville in late November.” I had to pinch myself, but once in a rare while, it really is this easy – Oroville is a favorite summertime bass destination of mine, and it’s a lot closer than Shasta.

The appointed day was November 27. I got up well before dawn, for once ahead of Marta, who is usually up and on calls by then. The drive is a familiar two and a half hour route that winds through Davis, home of my alma mater, and then up through the central valley toward the western edge of the Sierras. 

Passing the Sutter Buttes in the valley. This is the world’s smallest mountain range – and I mention this to Jim Larosa whenever we drive by. He acts fascinated every time.   

We met around seven at a main lake boat ramp I had been to one other time in my life, on a spotted bass trip in 1997.

Here, the water is low. In France, the water is l’eau.

It was cold. Not Michigan freeze-your-spleen kind of cold, but in the high 30s. Mercifully, there was no breeze.

Heading under the Olive Highway Bridge.

Chuck was a good guy and wonderfully enthusiastic about trying to get a weird species. We chatted a bunch about my species hunting, and even more about his local guide trips. 

Steve and Chuck start the day with high hopes.

This guy is the real deal – he fishes for all the cool Northern California gamefish you never see me write about, because I have caught them previously. He is a fly specialist, but he isn’t a snob, so I can live with that. He does river trips for trout, steelhead, salmon, shad, and striper, and lake trips for freshwater bass.

Chuck with a client and a big striper.

Those are all some of the best that Northern California has to offer, so keep him in mind if you venture this way.

 

https://crflyfishing.com/

He’s also a musician. That makes him even more cool.

We ran the boat well up into a creek arm, and put down the rolling motor. As we drifted near shore, the graph started showing shadowy midwater marks, which had to be our target. I pulled out the Japanese sabikis and worked them through the water column. I could actually feel the rig bumping into fish on the first two casts, and on the third drop, when I went to a very slow retrieve, I got exactly the kind of bite you would expect from a fish that weighs less than an ounce. I had species 1977.

ABBA released “The Album” in 1977. It was the first record I bought on my own.

Closeups are so much easier in daylight.

We celebrate the beast.

I then had to figure out what to do with the rest of the day. I got another couple wakasagi and then Chuck took the rig to catch a few. It was still pretty chilly, so I had my doubts about the spotted bass, but I had a drop shot rod with me and decided to give it a go. 

Chuck mentioned that he had some very effective fly fishing patterns for these conditions – a float rig with a very long leader and, off all things, a wakasagi imitation.

For you fly guys. This means you, Brian Smith.

Stubbornly, I stuck with my conventional gear, and I got some very nice bass.

I float tube at this place every summer.

As much as I hate to admit it, Chuck’s setup crushed mine.

Chuck works the fly gear.

He must have gotten twice as many bass as I did, and he did it all on the fly. So, for my friends who get all stubborn about the fly thing, this would be your guy. 

Chuck and a client with a huge spot, almost exactly where we caught the wakasagi.

We called it a day around 3:30, and I got to drive back through the valley as the sun set, detouring slightly to pass my college dorm. There is STILL not a statue of me in front of it.

Then came the holidays, so things were busy. Major takeaway – avoid Hallmark’s Santa Switch – it’s bad even by their standards. Covid was still putting a cramp in our normal social events, but Christmas came. It came just the same.

If I have to explain the reference, you do not have enough Christmas spirit. Work on that.

Right around the time that normal people have put away the ornaments and start preparing for Valentine’s Day, Marta’s family celebrates Christmas. They are Serbian Orthodox, because they are from Montenegro you see, and so they celebrate on January 7, which is great, because I can get all their gifts on sale. 

Marta with her most beloved Christmas gift. Not the painting. The freezer.

But the holiday fishing break had been long enough. Courtesy of old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard, who got the spot from a local kid named Vince (who will be featured more prominently in the next episode,) I got a lead on the arrow goby, at a spot moments away from Marta’s Mom’s house. I figured I could sneak out after lunch on Orthopedic Christmas, go catch one, and be back before anyone noticed I was missing. 

Oh, how wrong I was. My Christmas trip failed mightily, as is turns out that these very small fish hide from sunlight.

There was no life to be seen.

Undeterred, I went back a few days later in the evening. I saw plenty of arrow gobies, but Luke might have mentioned that they are, as might be expected of a nocturnal creature, terrified of any light. So I crouched crampedly in the cold, muddy weeds and slid baits near teensy fish that would flee the moment they saw it. That night too was a fail. My gore-tex pants looked like I been mud wrestling and lost. 

Marta tells me the inside of my pants will look like that someday soon.

This would discourage a normal person, but I have long since blurred the line between stubbornness and stupidity. Gerry Hansell tactfully calls this “An escalating commitment to an ill-fated objective,” which is a nice way of saying that I can’t do cost/benefit analysis. Three nights later, on the 12th, I went again, bundled up in fleece pants and waders. There were still plenty of fish, but again, they fled screaming at any hint of light. I tried red light. I tried fishing just on the edge of the light. They still fled screaming. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” they screamed. 

This went on for hours. It got colder. My buttocks fell asleep. Yet I persisted, because that’s what I do. Around 9pm, I had a sudden flash of hope as a much bigger fish drifted into the light and toward my bait, but just before it hit, I realized it was a longjaw mudsucker, a fish I would have given my eye teeth for a couple of years ago, but was now just a distraction.

The savage longjaw mudsucker, a member of the goby family. My first catch of 2021.

I kept at it. 10 passed, then 10:30. I was seeing plenty of arrow gobies, but they wanted nothing to do with me. At 10:45, I ran a bait slowly in front of yet another fish, and for once, it didn’t move. I left the bait in front of it. It moved slightly toward it. I moved it again just a fraction of an inch, and the fish, to my eternal surprise and gratitude, struck. In a rush of adrenaline and testosterone, I flung it out of the water, through the air, and into the weeds, where it took me several tense minutes to find it. I had caught the arrow goby. Species 1978.

I scored my first hat trick in 1978. The first two goals were cleaning up rebounds from Sean Biggs.

The requisite tank shot. Ben’s photos are better than mine. Small fish are especially hard to photograph at night, so much so that some of the better photographers in the life-listing community won’t even fish at night.

For scale, that’s my left hand, and I can’t palm a basketball.

So I had conquered an especially stubborn foe, and one of the precious ones close to my house. The pandemic, which we had all hoped would be gone by now, was still making international travel inadvisable, so I planned to keep myself busy this year with overlooked US species. Who would have guessed one of the largest and most improbable of these was waiting for me, cruising hundreds of feet deep in the Pacific Ocean, just a few hours to the south?

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | February 1, 2022

La Playa de la Mucus

DATELINE: PUERTO PENASCO, MEXICO – NOVEMBER 15, 2020

It was getting dark and rainy in Northern California, and I wanted to go fishing, preferably someplace that wasn’t dark and rainy, and preferably someplace without Jamie Hamamoto or Braden “The Mucus” Moore. (As you recall, The Mucus is a friend’s teenager who is a lot like I was at that age, in other words, insufferable.) Still, if I had to choose, I would take the fishing. Thus, I ended up in Puerto Penasco, Mexico with the Moore family.

Aaaaaaaand there he is. God I love Culver’s.

Speaking of which, here’s a group shot at Culver’s. See if you can figure out which one is The Mucus. 

The Sea of Cortez, as we all learned from Steinbeck, is a magical place. And Puerto Penasco, or “Rocky Point” to us gringos, is a great spot in the Northern Sea of Cortez that is easily accessible by car from Phoenix. It was still a haul for me, flying to Arizona, then driving four hours, much of it at 12 miles an hour to avoid Mexican jail, but there are lots of species there. I had been there one other time, memorialized in the fabled “Marching Band From Hell” episode, and I was ready to return, even if it meant listening to The Mucus. The kid talks more than I do. I didn’t think this was possible.

Air travel in the Age of Covid is more complex than it was in the Age of All Other Diseases Ever. There are masks to be considered, and on each flight, we have to deal with both Mask Rebels and Mask Monitors. The Mask Rebel feels they are being a hero and a patriot by not wearing one. The Mask Monitor feels it is their purpose in life to make sure that your mask is properly fitted. Despite their intensive research on fringy websites and a B+ in high school biology, neither has any idea what they are talking about. People hate masks, but they just want to get on the plane and get wherever they are going so they can take the mask off. 

I got to Phoenix, had dinner with some friends, and got some sleep. Chris and team were there early the next morning, and we set out for Mexico. Without traffic, this is about a three and a half hour drive, but because there is only one route and it is a two-lane state highway, and it involves a border crossing, anything can happen. 

We got to pass this sign very, very slowly. Both ways. 

It’s a road trip with four guys, all of whom are at about the same level of maturity, so the conversation in the truck is always good fun. Except for the part about basketball. (Note that Chris is objective about all of this unless the Phoenix Suns are criticized.)

Whereas The Mucus will just engage in pointless debate, Carson will make his opinions known in a much more organized fashion. But no, Lebron James is not the best basketball player ever. Michael Jordan is.

That’s Michael Jordan on the far right. In a scene repeated throughout his career, he is losing the basketball to the Pistons, who in no way committed a foul.

And yet, because every generation wants to have the best player of all time, Carson will doggedly regurgitate arguments that show up on China-sponsored YouTube channels about why LeCramp is the best. No he isn’t. If nothing else, he never had to play the second greatest player of all time, Bill Laimbeer, who would have broken his soul. 

 
You heard me. I am, of course, perfectly objective on the Pistons.

My last trip here was mainly focused on big game fish, so I was excited about the harbor possibilities this time. We checked in to our hotel first, then headed for the port.

Our first stop. The Mucus is Googling the word “Literal.” Carson is smiling because he came up with some new argument proving LeBron doesn’t travel. Chris is a high school teacher, so nothing, and I mean nothing, bothers him.

Before I could really get settled, I was on the board. As a matter of fact, the first two fish I caught were new species – the gulf opaleye and the Pacific flagfin mojarra, species 1970 and 1971. 

That’s my third opaleye species.

I don’t even want to count the mojarras. But I lived in New Jersey in 1970 and 1971.

At this rate, I would reach 2000 later that afternoon, but we all know that normal math doesn’t apply to fishing. The spotted bay bass came out and we caught nothing but spotted bay bass, because the place is jammed with them. I ambitiously set out a few larger baits, but these were quickly eaten by ambitious bay bass. 

After faking a lunch with Pepsi and variety pack chips, we headed over to “Bad Band Beach.” The entrance to this beach has a tourist bar that always has a band, and the band, as enthusiastic as they might be, make Nickelback look like the Rolling Stones. As we walked down to the water, they were struggling through “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Bad Band Beach. Every one of those tidepools held fish.

It is a lovely beach with an endless warren of tidepools that open up as the water ebbs. Much like the menu at the Cheesecake Factory, there were simply too many choices, and it was hard to know where to start, but farther from the band seemed like a good idea, especially when they massacred “Sweet Caroline.” I thought sadly of Neil Diamond. Fun fact – he wrote “Coming to America” while he was on the Mayflower.

I spent a couple of hours trying to fish for something decent sized in the deeper water. The tides here are enormous – 15-18 feet –  so I kept having to move further down every few minutes. I got a few bay bass and croakers on jigs.

No one photobombs like The Mucus.

Somewhere in there, with no ill intentions, I landed a barred pargo. 

It was a small barred pargo.

As it turns out, Chris had never caught one of these. With a sense of purpose, he fished hard in the same area and caught, say it with me, bay bass. I am writing this blog 14 months after the fact, with two more Rocky Point trips yet to report, and he still hasn’t caught one. Both of his kids have caught one by now. In the background, the band played Aerosmith’s little-known “You’ve Never Caught a Pargo, Chris.”

My first barred pargo, in Costa Rica. Sorry Chris. 

Marta will insist hers was bigger than mine, but it wasn’t.

Chris did get some kind of solid croaker later in the evening. These are very difficult IDs. Get photos of all the fins.

This was the big fish of the trip. So far. In all truthfulness, Chris was more interested in making sure his kids caught fish – I always admire a Dad who gives their kids the one thing they really want – time. Chris won’t ever get Carson a meet and greet with LeBron, or a Gucci muzzle for The Mucus, but he plans his time around his family, not himself, and that’s a “Dad of The Year” candidate in my eyes.

Somewhere in there, as the band massacred “La Bamba,” I switched to the tidepools and got two more species.

The Sonora goby, #1972. That was the year the Oakland A’s ruined my childhood by defeating my beloved Tigers in the ALCS.

The Panamic frillfin goby. #1973. Nothing interesting happened in 1973.

As hard as this is going to be to admit, I owe the frillfin entirely to The Mucus. His fish ID mojo is strong, and he apparently spends hours researching these, when he isn’t Googling “Ridiculous ways to keep an argument going.” Seriously – if an adult says “Global warming is destroying the planet.” he will say “Global warming doesn’t exist.” If you say “Global warming is a hoax,” he will insist “Global warming is destroying the planet.” When you respond with scientific data, he will claim the data is wrong. You will then tell him that “data” is a plural noun and it should be “the data ARE wrong.” He will then say “I literally didn’t know that.” I say we send him to Summer Grammar Camp for two weeks.

This was a short trip – only three total days – so we had booked an inshore boat trip to mix things up on Sunday. We discussed strategies over a magnificent dinner at Al Capone’s Restaurant, and I caught up with the owner, Dave, who had organized my trip back in 2014.

Yoga Three

That’s Dave in the center. The guy on the right is Jeff, who took us fishing on his boat. One of my better bottom fishing trips ever.

The pizza is also very solid.

Both kids got online during dinner and found loads of local species we needed. The internet is a good thing, except when Carson starts googling “Help me claim Lebron is better than MJ and keep a straight face.”

The Mucus stayed relatively quiet during the sports debates, occasionally offering pithy observations like “I literally don’t know who Bill Laimbeer is.” He would then fall asleep while I was responding.

The kid can sleep ANYWHERE.

We found ourselves in the harbor at 7am the next day. The King Catch was a solid boat, and owner Steve Thrush is an American who made it easy for me to get things booked. We met him in the morning, and then he turned us over to the crew – Gabi and Miko.

https://www.gobigcharters.com/

Gabi and Miko. They were solid crew and worked their tails off to make sure we got fish.

We spent the first hour fishing for bait, which can be the most interesting part of the trip. We dropped medium sabikis in about 80 feet of water, and the Moore family loaded up on species. (I think they got three each.) I got dozens of fish, but no new species, except for, and this again hurts me to admit, a round herring that was identified months later by … The Mucus.

Oh, how this pains me. But it was species 1974. I was in 5th grade in 1974. My teacher was Mrs. Ewles, and she was our hero because she drove an orange Corvette.

I also caught jawfish – a very cool local bottom species. Jamie Hamamoto has not gotten one of these.

Once we loaded the livewell, we headed out 15 more miles and set some big live baits on the bottom. The boat rigs were no-nonsense – Penn 115-ish size reels loaded with 100#+ mono, with 300# leaders. The baits were all at least a pound – even smaller grouper can swallow amazingly large things, and there are some very big fish in this region. 

To pass the time while we waited for a takedown, we all dropped smaller cut baits to the bottom. The triggerfish kept us busy – these are a great fight but they can get a bit repetitive for the species hunter.

The first 10 of these are a lot of fun. Luckily, it was nice and flat outside – Chris tells me he gets seasick quite easily. (Spoiler alert -conditions were not so favorable on our April 2021 trip, coming soon to 1000Fish.)

Chris quietly wonders how things went so wrong.

The Moores picked up a few new ones, which was fun to watch, but I wanted something new and was getting bitter and spiteful. 

Two Red Bulls later, I changed tactics and started casting a “Bumpa Bar,” an Australian lure that Scotty Lyons introduced me to many years ago. Moments later, I got hammered and hooked up. (Which sounds like cousin Chuck’s teenage social life.) On a relatively light Okuma travel rod, it took me a few minutes to get the fish off the bottom, but once it was out of the rocks, I started gaining a lot of line, which is fairly typical grouper behavior. 

The crew stood by with nets and gaffs, and moments later, my fish came to the surface. It was a solid spotted cabrilla, maybe six pounds, so it was not only the big fish of the trip, it was also a new species. 

#1975. That’s the year I met Sean Biggs. This proves that I am very old.

I kept jigging, and a few casts later, got a softer hit and another fish on – this time a flounder. Flounder IDs are a mess, and often require detailed ray counts and complete disassembly of the fish to count gill rakers. This one turned out to be a new one for me – the speckled flounder – too small to be a record on the species but #1976 nonetheless. 

1976 – We celebrated the bicentennial at Lake Tahoe. My father and I went trout fishing in the Truckee River that morning, and I caught nothing.

We spent the evening at Bad Band Beach, where Chris didn’t catch a barred pargo while the band played a barely recognizable version of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Pargo.” We ate at Capone’s again – they prepared our grouper perfectly, and as much food as we ordered, there were no leftovers.

Chris and the main dish size each other up.

Even a stout buffet would have no chance against this group – Carson runs cross-country, so he eats like a professional, I am well-known for my eating prowess, Chris is like a slightly-younger, better-looking version of me, and The Mucus is … well, just look at him.

Seven species in three days was more than I could have expected, but me being me, I was more concerned about the next 24. The season was pretty much over, and I would have a few weeks of unchecked eating, Christmas specials, and hopefully seeing a few friends, but then I would be back to the grind and try to make 2021 the year I finally got to 2000, pandemic be damned. 

Steve

Bill Laimbeer says “Go catch a pargo, Chris!”

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | January 21, 2022

The Wild Zebra Chase

DATELINE: OCTOBER 19, 2020 – LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA

If you get nothing else out of this blog, zebras are black with white stripes. In a bizarre but not impossible set of circumstances, this information could save your life, or at least win a bar bet, so make a note of it. 

It was time for a road trip. Mark Spellman’s wife was dropping unsubtle hints that he needed some time off, and you all know Marta’s position on getting me out of the house. Halloween was right around the corner, so we had act quickly – fishing weekends get scarce between the cooler weather and Charlie Brown specials. Looking at my constantly-diminishing California opportunities, San Diego always seems to beckon. After substantial discussion, we decided to focus on the Zebra Perch.

An attractive relative of the opaleye, zebra perch are mostly vegetarian. Whereas the opaleye will occasionally eat shrimp, the zebra perch seem much more dedicated to their diet, so even though they are loudly visible inshore, they are very difficult to hook. This sort of thing keeps me up at night. 

Sure, San Diego is filled with other great fisheries – we would also try for some deep-water rockfish, general bay species, and the elusive pelagic ray, but that fiendish Kyphosid had stared me in the eye for too many hours and it was time to stop the humiliation. (You all remember, of course, that I caught the Australian version of this creature on my first try.)

It’s a long drive from Alamo to San Diego, but with Spellman in the car, 8 hours flies by like 480 minutes. On the way to any fishing destination, the number one topic will be what you are hoping to catch, unless you’re over 30 and unmarried, in which case it will be Kate Upton, or under 30 and unmarried, in which case it will be whoever is trending on TikTok.

Mark and I have been fishing together almost 30 years, so there was plenty to talk about, starting with those 1993 bat ray trips and on up to how we were finally going to outwit the current target.

A very young Mark and Steve, Bodega Bay, 1993. One has to wonder who did that to his hair.

A classic Spellman photo from 1994. That is the first and only albino leopard shark I have ever seen.

We built the schedule around some daytime minus tides, aiming to unsportingly corner a small zebra perch in a tidepool and aggravate it into biting. This pattern, however gauche, worked for several friends of mine, and if you’re waiting for me to have shame, you must be a new reader. Welcome! 

We found ourselves at Sunset Cliffs the next morning, October 16. This is a wonderful tidepool spot, but I would offer two pieces of advice – get there well before your tide if you want to park, and be very, very careful on the stairs. They are slippery and do not facilitate passing.

Spellman navigates the stairs.

It didn’t take long to find the fish. It never takes long to find them. They have bold stripes and live in shallow, clear water. But that’s where the fun ends, because the minute you put a bait near them, they panic, and then, while eyeballing you the whole time, zip nervously back and forth. But I had the aforementioned plan. I looked for the smaller, utility-tub sized pools that appear at very low tides.

There are dozens of zebra perch in those tidepools.

After about half an hour of searching, and an encounter with a surprised moray, I found what I wanted. A single zebra perch was peering out at me from under a rock. We sat motionless for a moment, sizing each other up. I then slowly, carefully eased a micro-offering in front of him, and while he showed absolutely no interest, he didn’t freak out. This felt like progress. 

While Spellman happily caught an assortment of perch and rockfish, I continued my zebra staredown. The fish would back up a little, then ease out a bit, and after about 45 minutes, he showed some acknowledgment of the bait, although it was unclear whether it was food-driven interest or just annoyance. I was fine either way. After an hour, he ventured at least 2 centimeters out of his hole and nosed at the bait. There were 15 more minutes of fits and starts, and then, finally, he bit. I swung him up onto the rock and bellowed in primal triumph, which got the attention of Spellman, at least 7 surfers, and a family of tourists up on the cliff. 

I love it when a plan works out.

Spellman casually released a big black perch and wandered over. “About time.” he said. (Mark, I have to honest that you didn’t meet my emotional needs at that moment.)

Species 1965. My sister was born in 1965. Things haven’t been right since.

The next two days were a blur of excellent local taco stands and shore fishing for whatever would bite off Harbor Island.

And so it begins. Shortly after this photo was taken, I sneezed in my mask. Don’t do this. It’s like crapping your face.

Spellman led off the catches with a light-tackle guitarfish.

We were joined by old friend Ben Cantrell, who would soon be moving to Florida. It was nice having him a day’s drive away for a couple of years, but it will be great having another contact in Florida. 

This photo is so Ben.

We caught an assortment of sharks and rays, headlined for me by my second-ever banded guitarfish. 

It took me years to catch my first one of these.

We were also joined by the Moore family, none of whom had caught a banded guitarfish. My heart ached for Chris and Carson, but not so much for The Mucus

L-R: Steve, Carson, The Mucus, and Chris.

On the 17th, we kicked off the day exploring the La Jolla tidepools. Spellman, again the bright one, went off on his own and caught nice perch and rockfish while Ben and I searched fruitlessly for reef finspot. 

That’s Ben, snorkeling the far end of the pool.

Ben dressed up as Gerry Hansell for Halloween.

A teachable moment for those of us who like to poke around tidepools – Ben, who is smarter and more cautious than the average bear, was carefully investigating some rocks and came face-to-face with a solid moray. (Not as big as the one I got with Captain James Nelson a few years ago, but big enough to rearrange your fingers.) Ben stayed calm and got some nice underwater photos.

Ben’s eel shot. Think about this the next time you want to go naked in a tidepool.

I then went ahead and caught it just for fun. Mind you, this was in less than a foot of water, right where people splash around with their kids. 

So be careful where you put your extremities.

I also randomly caught a zebra perch. It darted out from under a rock and grabbed a bait intended for a mussel blenny.

Go figure.

Then it was back to Harbor Island. I managed to break my own gray smoothhound record that evening, but before anybody gets all worked up about this, we are talking about a 28 ounce fish. Every single person I know who fishes a lot in San Diego has caught a much bigger one. Turn them in!! If you don’t know how, get ahold of me (S_Wozniak10@Yahoo.com) and I’ll take you through it. 

Yes, world records can be this small.

The 18th was laid back – I had to work the first part of the day, and Spellman toured some of his old haunts from when he lived in San Diego as a kid. That evening found us back at Harbor Island, with a dashboard full of tacos and a cooler full of sardines. My personal highlight was another record on the gray smoothhound, this time two full pounds.

Photoshop needs a “get that stupid look off your face” filter.

A little while later, Spellman put an end to my silliness with a gray that was almost twice as big. This was Mark’s fifth world record, and his second one that I hadn’t broken. As a matter of fact, he had broken one of mine, so touché.

Spellman and the beast.

Fireworks for Spellman’s fish. 

The 19th would be our last full day in San Diego, but it promised to be an interesting one. We connected with Captain James Nelson, ace local guide, luthier, and purveyor of an astonishing assortment of Dad jokes, all of which I think are funny. We planned to go offshore outside Mission Bay, with targets as diverse as the elusive sharpnose surfperch, the elusiver sunset rockfish, and the elusivest pelagic ray. We brought Ben along because he could go, and because he had worked hard to discover good locations for several interesting rockfish, including the aforementioned sunset, on his many local kayak expeditions. 

Our first stop was a nearshore shipwreck, where I expected to drop a sabiki, catch about 40 blacksmith, and then move on to not catching something else. Despite my poor attitude, and to my great surprise and Ben’s greater surprise, I instantly caught a sharpnose. 

I’ll be damned.

I want to play poker with Ben. He does not do a good job of hiding his reactions. It’s not like we’re competitive with each other, but I do think he was astonished that I caught one that quickly.

While I was doing this, Ben was hoping for a cabezon – he had not gotten one at this stage. Needless to say, Spellman immediately caught a nice cabbie, and Ben did not.

To all of our great relief, Ben got one a few weeks later.

We also got some nice, colored-up sheephead – this is one of my prettiest. James wanted a photo of me in the stern, but I was too prowed.

Ben’s photos are always nicer than mine.

We then set up on Ben’s numbers to do some deeper drops, looking for sunset rockfish. This creature was relatively recently split from the vermilion rockfish, and was a species and open record that I had missed on a previous San Diego trip, because I didn’t have Ben with me. We started getting bites as soon as we hit bottom, and along with assorted greenstriped and rosy rockfish, I pulled up an unanticipated new one – the pinkrose.

Species #1967. And #2 of the day. But wait – there’s more.

Looking at how far offshore we were, it gave me major respect for the fact that Ben had kayaked out here, many times, and survived. The guy is a serious athlete.

Captain James moved us around Ben’s deeper reefs, and on the 4th stop, everyone got solid bites right away. I could tell my fish was much bigger than anything I’d gotten so far, and I had a lot of time to consider this while reeling up 500 feet of line. When it finally surfaced, the fish was bright red, and I knew right away it was a sunset – it matched the new species description perfectly. I was ecstatic with species 1968 and a potential world record. (This ended up much more complex than I could have imagined – see postscript.)

#1968 – My beloved Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1968.

The rockfishing petered out, and we decided to drift some baits for a pelagic ray. Pelagic rays are easy to predict – they show up the week after I am in San Diego, so some kid from Indiana can catch one and James can send me a photo. 

While we were doing this, Ben had the bright idea of trying sabikis on the bottom (some 400 feet down) to look for longfin dabs, which I had not caught. So the three of us proceeded to catch dozens and dozens of Pacific sand dabs. And there was not a single thing that wasn’t a Pacific sand dab … until I somehow brought up a longspine combfish. 

Species 1969.

My family moved from upstate New York to West Trenton, New Jersey in 1969. I developed my lasting love for exploring small streams while I lived in West Trenton, spending hours and hours exploring Jacob’s creek, a Delaware tributary that was a short walk from our house.

Captain James marvels at the combfish. Betcha that kid from Indiana hasn’t caught one, so there. And neither has Jamie Hamamoto.

Ben was again astonished. There were three of us fishing, and, to be clear, there was no skill involved in this. I just got lucky. But keep a bait in the water as much as you can and it’s amazing how lucky you can get.

Just to show us he was paying attention, Spellman got a nice halibut back inside the harbor to close out the day. 

Oh yes he did.

The group back at the landing. 

I recommend Captain James anytime you are near San Diego. He can help you catch anything, especially if you are a 12 year-old kid from Indiana.

I had added five species in a pleasant getaway, seen some dear old friends and Spellman, and added three world records to my total. (Which is now 211, if anyone asks.) It was, by any measure, a great trip. But the wonderful thing about San Diego is that there always seems to be something else to get – the reef finspot and the pelagic ray were still waiting for next time.

Steve

Scientific Postscript – Those of you who went to college with me know that I am allergic to science. So it was to the amusement of many that the Sunset Rockfish, because it was a very recently split species, required a DNA test to be officially confirmed as a Sunset and not just a colorful and deep-dwelling vermilion. A big thanks to Ben Cantrell, who stored the samples in his freezer and then shipped them, thanks also to Dr. Milton Love, who introduced me to Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, and of course thanks to Dr. Dan Distel and Rosie Falco at Northeastern, who performed the tests confirming that a) I was not the father, and that b) it was indeed Sebastes crocotulus. It should be noted that once the samples were sent and the fish identified, that the remainder of the fillets made what Ben assures me were excellent fish tacos. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | December 27, 2021

Saying Goodbye to a Delta Legend

DATELINE: JUNE 22, 2020 – RIO VISTA, CALIFORNIA

I am a person of traditions, especially surrounding holidays, and one I could always count on was a phone call around 3pm every Christmas day. It was from a man with a white beard and burly build, and before you jump to conclusions, no, it was not Santa. (Please no spoiler alerts in the comments – my nephew reads this blog, and he is in that age range (22) where magic is still possible.)

The call was from a fishing guide and good friend, “Jolly Jay” Sorensen. We would chat as long as we could, touching base about the striper bite, which usually had petered out by Christmas, and the sturgeon, which were usually just starting. We hadn’t been fishing together in quite a few years – Jay had survived cancer and pretty much stayed home, but that call came in every Christmas afternoon like clockwork, even when Marta and I were in the Middle East, which made it something like 2 in the morning. I just answered the phone, had a nice chat with Jay, and went back to sleep. I don’t think he ever knew I was out of the country.

“Jolly Jay” Sorensen with a couple of friends.

Last Christmas was the first time in 23 years I didn’t get that call, and I have been struggling ever since to write a post that does some justice to Jolly Jay’s legacy. Jay was a 50+ year veteran Delta striped bass guide, pioneering conservationist, and purveyor of awful jokes (“Air used to be free at the gas station, now it’s $1.50. You know why?
Inflation.”)

Sadly, Jay passed away on June 22, 2020, at the age of 82. I had certainly fished the Delta before I met him, but I never caught much there until I got out with him. Striped bass and sturgeon are some of the best gamefish we have close to my home, and while you don’t read much about them here, because they are not new species, they have given me some of the most beloved fishing days in my life. It was always me and a buddy, up before dawn, drive an hour out into the Delta while the sun rose, with a trunk full of gear and a cooler full of fast food. (Our menu choices would get equal disapproval from my doctor, my dentist, and my urologist.) Jay would always greet us with a horrible joke. (“What rock group has four men that don’t sing? Mount Rushmore.”)

My first sturgeon with Jay, October 17, 1997.

This was so long ago I could tuck my shirt in.

We would be off to wherever the fishing was hot, and then set shad baits on the bottom. Bites could range from subtle taps in the colder months to blazing, bat ray-like runs when it was milder. And while we waited, the jokes, ranging from groan-worthy to outright ghastly, would continue. (“I only know 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know Y.”)

The rigging of the baits was a religious issue, and like many religious issues, there was no room for different (in other words, wrong) opinions. There was a right way to cut the shad, period. One of my favorite Jay rigs was “Jay’s Bouquet,” a mass of small shad used in the coldest conditions, but normally, it was the butterfly setup, which he believed turned just perfectly in the current. 

From a Montezuma slough striper trip, November 2000.

  

A classic late fall striper, November 2001.

My first trip with Jay was on February 1, 1997. I brought a Japanese co-worker, Takahiro Abe. Abe-san got a nice keeper sturgeon and I got a limit of striped bass, despite strong winds and rain, and it was obvious Jay knew the Delta better than just about anyone. The puns, however, did not translate well into Japanese, and I had to spend the whole drive home explaining the concept behind “Why do seagulls fly over the ocean?” “Because if they flew over the bay, we’d call them bagels.” 

Jolly Jay was an institution in the Sacramento River Delta – a walking history book who seemed to know the story behind every place name and hidden corner of the Delta. Frank’s Tract is just a place to most of us who fish the area, but to Jay, Frank was a person – a farmer who tried to keep levees built around his land who ultimately failed and left us with hundreds of acres of wonderful topwater fishing. More importantly, Jay knew where to find the fish – striped bass and sturgeon – no matter what the conditions threw at him.

There was also the matter of the blue jackets. In the 1970s, Jay founded the California Striped Bass Association (CSBA,) and while I knew this was a big deal, until I actually researched for this article, I had no idea that they pretty much single-handedly preserved the fishery against factors as diverse and pernicious as the state government of California, and, well, the state government of California.

I fished with Jay a total of 18 times over the years, tapering off as his health went downhill. I personally got 14 keeper sturgeon and 93 striped bass over five pounds with him, and looking back at my photo albums, I realized that Jay had guided me and some of my best friends. It’s great to go fishing with friends, but even better when you catch something. Jay always took care of that part.

With Scott “K-Man” Kisslinger, October 15, 1999. Scott actually caught something that wasn’t a bluegill, which is a tribute to Jay’s skill. I shall also never forget Scott sending an email asking if we could go for “strippers” with Jay. Scott is perhaps my most straight-laced and conservative friend, so I call that “the typo that keeps on giving.”

Jay with Chris Stickle on November 17, 2001. We had set up a fishing day for a departing (and not too missed) co-worker. The co-worker’s wife pulled him out of it at the last minute, so we brought their wedding photos instead.

December 13, 2002 – the only fish I could scrape up. That’s Dave Sharp in the background. Dave is another Delta guide that I have continued fishing with until the present day, and anything else I have learned about striper fishing, I learned from Dave.

Stripers with Scott Perry, November 20, 2010. I have known Scott for 30 years, and inexplicably, he still speaks to me.

Although the vast majority of fish I caught with Jay were striped bass and sturgeon, I did actually get three new species with him, all within a a few minutes of each other on November 29, 2008. Playing around with a sabiki in the harbor, I landed a golden shiner, a Mississippi silverside, and a redear sunfish before we even set sail. Jay understood the whole species hunting thing, and waited patiently while other harbor residents gave me bewildered glances.

Yes, we used this for bait.

My first redear. I thought it was a pretty big one at the time. I met the Arosteguis a few years later, and learned that Redear get much, much bigger than this.

The silverside.

The harbor cat, which had a taste for silversides, became my friend that day. The cleaning table was always a place for more jokes – (“I used to be addicted to the hokey pokey. Then I turned myself around.”)

On September 24 of this year, delayed over a year by the pandemic, a group of Jay’s family and friends gathered in Stockton to remember him. Dave Hurley, a well-known local outdoor writer, acted as host and emcee. 

Dave addresses the group. 

I have to love that picture of a young Jay Sorensen, which I did see eventually, but let’s face it, if Kate Upton was in this photo I’d still see the striper first.

Best cake EVER.

As much as I knew Jay from hours in the boat, it was fascinating to listen to his nephews and nieces talk about Jay when he wasn’t on the water. But as caring and dedicated as he was, the sense of humor was still the same. (“My wife is really mad at the fact that I have no sense of direction. So I packed up my stuff and right!”)

And I got to spend an evening hanging out with Dave Sharp. How cool is that?

The stories could have gone on all night – I even added a few – but eventually we had to part ways. I have left a lot of funerals over the years, and I always try to think of what lasting impression the person had left on me, or even on the world around them. For Jay’s lasting impact on all of us, I needed to only look as far as the dozens of blue CSBA jackets around the room. Jay had left the Delta a better place than when he found it all those years ago, and how many people can say that?

I stepped outside. The evening was cool, signaling that late summer was giving way to autumn, and that meant the stripers would be on their way up the Sacramento. This is one of my favorite fisheries and always will be, and I have Jay to thank for that. I said goodbye to Dave Sharp, and as I started the car, remembered one last joke from Jay.

“Not to brag, but I defeated our local chess champion in less than five moves. Finally, my karate lessons paid off.”

Steve

 

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

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