Posted by: 1000fish | May 18, 2019

Farrokh Bulsara

DATELINE: January 31, 2019 – Kazimkari, Zanzibar

Our second morning, we decided to make the 35 mile run to Zanzibar, so I could add one more country to my list. (It’s semi-autonomous, and I go by the Century Club listing, so, for example, Wales and Gibraltar would count as countries, Cleveland might, but Berkeley doesn’t no matter how much they complain.) Mohammed is from Zanzibar, so he knew the coastal waters very well, and he was certain that the fishing there would be better than what we had found in Tanzania. As it turns out, they thought that pretty much everything in Zanzibar was better – there is a definite rivalry between the two. Hamissi was quite proud of his Zanzibar soccer jersey – I never did find one to take home.

It was a bumpy run all the way over, two hours of my tender buttocks banging on a sliver-laden wooden plank. You have no idea how hard it is to dig slivers out of your ass using a pair of tweezers, laying across the bathroom counter to use the mirror, and I pray you never find out. (Unless you work for Lufthansa customer service, in which case, may a forest of dry oak fragments violate your hamstrings. I tried to change one of my flights down here by one day, to a nearly empty airplane, and you would think I asked them to sacrifice their children.)

In the swells, I was mostly concerned with keeping breakfast down, but now and then, I would look over my shoulder and see if land had come into view. Finally, there it was – the coastline of Zanzibar. I’m not sure what associations Zanzibar may have for you, but for me, there is only one – it is the birthplace of Farrokh Bulsara. I can hear you asking – “Who, or what, is Farrokh Bulsara? And why, Steve, are you going on another one of your tangents?” Because Farrokh changed my life. He was a singer, and it was his soaring voice that provided the soundtrack for my high school years. He was born in Zanzibar, and years later, after his family had emigrated to England, he fronted a band. He changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and as you know from here, the band was Queen.

“A Night at the Opera” was the first album I ever bought with my own money.

“We are the Champions” is what Sean Biggs and I belted out at the top of our lungs when we finally won the BHA Bantam hockey title in 1978, but for some reason, another song came to mind when I saw Zanzibar.

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all

and I want it now

I had my Seaside Rendezvous in Zanzibar. Now all I had to do was catch a fish, and I would be at 94 countries. We dropped anchor on the edge of a big reef and started dropping baits. After a few tentative nibbles, something went full-bore after my squid strip and started peeling line. It was an emperor, and a decent one – bigger than anything I had gotten on day one. This family of fish is found through the Indo-Pacific, and they pull hard. It was a great start.

Kids, don’t try to ID these yourself. They can change colors and patterns pretty much randomly.

We went through a few decent fish – all larger than our catches yesterday. Groupers, jacks, rabbitfish – all good fights, but nothing new. (Not that I really worried about it at the time – good fishing is good fishing.) Mohammed and team kept changing spots, which doesn’t seem like much until I explain that they had to manually pull a heavy anchor out of the reef every time we wanted to reset. A normal fishing guide doesn’t usually work this hard – these guys really wanted to see me catch every possible fish.

A white-edged lyretail grouper. Marta caught this species several years before I finally did.

Spotted rabbitfish. These are very, very venomous – do NOT put this in your pants.

I was not going to bring four pounds of jigs all the way from the USA and not use at least one – that’s not how we Play the Game. I started tossing a one ounce metal lure over the reef. I had several hits before something stayed hooked – it unceremoniously ripped out 200 yards of line and broke me off on the reef. I was disgusted, but The Show Must Go On, and even though I was Under Pressure, I raced Headlong into casting another rig as soon as I could tie it. I thought “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and I hooked up again almost instantly. It was another fast, line-peeling fish, and after about 15 minutes, I landed a nice orange-spotted trevally.

I’d caught them before, but they’re A Kind of Magic fish.

Later in the morning, I cast some sabikis to check on the small fish. I got some of the usual goatfish and monocle breams, but then I hit a sandperch that looked like it could be new. Courtesy of Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum, it was identified as a spotted sandperch.

I love these things.

The next new species threw me off a bit on the ID. I’m sure you would look at that long tail and think it was some kind of anthias. Me too. But it wasn’t. If you look closely, especially at the face, you can tell it’s a really frilly version of a hawkfish.

My second species of the day and 1835 overall. This is the general size of anthias species, which is what threw me off so badly in Kenya last year.

On my next sabiki drop, I had a few taps and then a solid thump. When I set the hook, the rod stopped dead, and then the fish took off for Diego Garcia. Big fish sometime eat sabikis, and this is usually a time of quick and painful reflection, in the instant before the line breaks. But I was using P-Line sabikis (which use a heavier leader than Hayabusas) so I had a chance. I backed off on the drag and chased the fish around the rail for half an hour. I slowly started making progress, and after a 38 minute fight, we landed a green jobfish.

Jamie Hamamoto would call this an “uku.”

It’s always hard to get me away from bait, but late in the afternoon, I saw some fish splashing around the edge of the reef and started tossing a “Mad Hungarian” swimbait. A few casts later, I got smashed – whatever it was peeled line off so fast I thought about pulling anchor. But there is always a lot more braid on a spinning reel than you think there is, and I managed to turn the fish before I got spooled. It was a splashy, aerial fight, and as it got closer, I could see it was a needlefish. But which needlefish? If it was a regular Agujon, it would be a nice catch, but if it was a keel-jawed needlefish, it would be a world record.

I believe it is a keeljaw, and as of press time, the record application is pending at the IGFA. My first keeljaw was with Jamie in June of 2016.

I went back to the small baits on the reef and got another group of emperors and goatfish, followed by a big hit and a screaming run on my lightest spinning rod. I ended up landing a larger version of our old friend – the red-toothed triggerfish.

At a pound and a quarter, it would be world record #192. I was breaking a record set in Oman in 2011. Another One Bites the Dust.

It was getting late in the afternoon, and we had a two hour ride home ahead of us, so I had Mohammed start us on our way. I got the feeling he would have stayed out past dark if I asked – the whole crew really seemed to want me to catch as much as I possibly could. About halfway home, we spotted birds diving, and as we got closer, we could also see tuna boiling everywhere. Mohammed skillfully positioned us upwind and we drifted into the feeding frenzy, close enough for me to fire a metal jig into the fracas. I hooked up immediately. It was a hard, vibrating fight, clearly some kind of tuna. It turned out to be bullet tuna, about three pounds, and as I landed it, we were still in the center of the action.

A bullet tuna. I’m not sure if that blood is from the fish or my leg.

I got another, and another, as quickly as I could clear the jig and cast again. Then, just like that, the birds moved off and the school disappeared. You might say things took a tern for the worse.

We ran to Zanzibar again the next day, over a much smoother sea. The ride passed quickly, as I had learned to take a hotel bath towel to belatedly pad my poor, splinter-afflicted buttocks. This was about as sore as my rear end has ever been, and my rear end has been pretty sore a few times, but this felt like Death on Two Legs.

We anchored up a bit further north than we had yesterday, and I immediately caught a hogfish, the same species I had whined about already catching in Hawaii when I got it in Kenya last year.  But, just like Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon, things got confusing quickly. It turns out that the hogfish in Hawaii, Bodianus albotaeniatus, is endemic to Hawaii. And that means that this hogfish is indeed something else – B. bilunulatus – the tarry hogfish, which is what I thought I had been catching all along. Species hunting is an endless process of learning – no ID is ever fully safe.

A new species! Hurray! The Kenya blog has been updated. I This would count as species 1836. 1836 is the year Davy Crockett died at the Alamo. Although the Fess Parker version is my favorite, Billy Bob Thornton gets big points for his line “So you’re Santa Ana. I thought you’d be taller.”

I went about my morning, unaware that these life-changing developments awaited me once I got back online. We got a few more red-toothed triggerfish, and one of them was a beast – a pound and a half. This broke my record from yesterday and would qualify as record #193.

That’s a big red-toothed triggerfish.

This is why they are called red-toothed triggerfish.

The morning passed pleasantly. We had relatively flat water, Good Company, the fish were biting, and every bite was a chance of something new and unusual. I started pulling up pennant coralfish – a species I had gotten before in Thailand, but always a thrill to see.

Nemo fans – this is NOT a Moorish Idol.

Throughout the three days of the trip so far, I had always set one medium rod out on the bottom with a big lump of squid, hoping to attract a moray. I knew there were some interesting eel species in the area, both for my lifetime total and for world records. We’d had a couple of decent bites thus far, but no hookups. I was staring expectantly at the rod tip, because I do that sort of thing, and it finally did what I wanted it do. It pulled down hard, about six inches, then pounded a few times and went down another six inches. Then it slowly sank until the rod tip was nearly in the water. I pulled the rod out of the holder and gently reeled into what turned out to be a short but violent fight, and when the fish surfaced, I was thrilled. It was a laced moray, a new species and world record #194.

I may be the only person who likes to catch these on purpose, but I was ecstatic with record #194.

Once of the more attractive morays I have ever gotten, and it didn’t bite off any fingers, so that’s a plus. I released it in the harbor after we weighed it later, and the crew was not pleased to have it swimming around in ankle-deep water.

I couldn’t help pulling out the small, metal lures late in the day. I got a few familiar jacks, but I also landed one that I didn’t think I had seen previously.

This is a coastal jack – a new species and #1837 if you’re playing along at home.

It was late when we finally set a course for Dar es Salaam, but I could tell Mohammed was reluctant to interrupt a great day of fishing.

Mohammed and the crew. They worked their tails off to make it a great trip.

Pulling in to Oyster Bay. I fed Bahati the kitten again when we landed.

We didn’t see any tuna on the way home, which was fine, and as we eased into Oyster Bay, I knew I had a surprisingly good chicken quesadilla ahead of me – and one more day of fishing.

Steve

PS – See how many Queen song titles you can find in the text. The bidding starts at 10.

 

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Posted by: 1000fish | May 4, 2019

The Wretched Kitten

Dateline: January 29, 2019 – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

This was not the introduction I wanted to Tanzania. We had just stepped on to a beach crowded with wooden fishing skiffs, but the first thing I saw was the most wretched, miserable kitten I have ever seen. She was barely old enough to open her eyes, emaciated, soaking wet, lost, and mewing piteously for a mother who had likely abandoned her.

Her fur was matted down, she was tangled in a patch of seaweed, and her legs trembled so badly that each uncertain step seemed to go nowhere. And no one was doing anything. We sometimes forget that the real world isn’t Disney, and in this third world country, people had enough trouble feeding themselves, let alone a stray animal. Marta would have simply adopted it right then and there, but my companions were in a hurry, and I felt like a monster for walking away. (Note that Marta would have adopted it despite the fact I am allergic to cats. Every time I point this out, she calls me a wuss.)

And what had brought me half a world away, to Oyster Bay, Tanzania? A Boeing 737 MAX, ironically, but the real reason was, as always, fishing. Surely you knew that, unless you found this blog looking for Apple computer. I’m not that guy. I’ve caught more fish than he has. I’m probably a marginally better dancer, but he has a full head of hair and quite a bit of money, so we’ll call it even.

Yes, I’ve met him.

Africa fishing is never easy to set up, but finding a boat in Tanzania was especially challenging. Sure, I travel a lot for business, and while this gives me opportunities to go fishing in cool places, I can’t always choose the timing. Since I was already in Europe for meetings, I had decided to make a swing through Africa. Ethiopia had been a success, by the modest fishing standards one would expect of Ethiopia, but Tanzania has some big-time opportunities, like dogtooth tuna. But, alas, January is not the season. I figured there still had to be something to catch, but that’s where the trail went cold.

I finally found a serious professional guide. Jason Alexiou is based in Tanzania and has a website full of dogtooth pictures. I often look at dogtooth pictures late at night when Marta is snoring. (I have excellent video of her snoring, but the editor won’t let me publish it.)

Jason with a line class record dogtooth. You can reach him on fishing_tz@yahoo.com. Note: this will be the biggest fish in this blog. If you’re looking for big fish pictures, skip this and go to Jason’s website.

Another beast from Tanzania. I have to get one of these someday. Right after my spearfish.

Jason warned me that this was the wrong time of year, and that he was fully booked in late January. Normally, the conversation would stop there. But he still wanted to help with my quest, and after a spirited email exchange, he had arranged a winning option. He knew a local commercial guy, Mohammed, who fished the reefs around Dar es Salaam and, even more interestingly, around southern Zanzibar. (A chance to add another country!) Jason warned me it was a basic boat, and that the guide did not speak any English, but I knew if I could just get on the water we could figure it out.

Well beyond the call of duty, Jason arranged logistics down to the minute. (No mean feat anywhere in Africa.) As I landed at Dar es Salaam, I got a text telling me that Mohammed and a “translator” would meet me at 3pm at the hotel, and so I waited in the lobby at 3pm.

The Doubletree Oyster Bay.

And there they were. Mohammed was a friendly guy with a ready smile, and Hamissi, who looked to be a teenager, would act as translator. Translating for me is a rotten job. I talk quickly, I rarely pause, and I ask loads of questions in the same sentence. As Hamissi worked through my dozens of requests, it became clear that Mohammed knew what he was doing. Hamissi’s English was much, much better than my Swahili, and the fish photos on our respective iPhones did the rest. After a Coke in the lobby, we decided to go take a look at the boat where we would spend the next four days.

From left to right – Steve, Hamissi, Mohammed. This photo was taken moments after I saw the wretched kitten.

We looked at the boat – “Mwangamizi Wa Mwili.” It was indeed basic, and launching would involve a trudge through the mud.

Remember, we would be going on the open ocean.

But it floated, and I knew there had to be plenty of strange fish out on the reefs. I looked for the kitten on the way out, but she was gone. I went back to the Doubletree, had an improbably good chicken quesadilla for dinner, and got some rest. Morning came quickly.

Sunrise over Oyster Bay.

I looked for the kitten on my way to the boat in the morning, but she was gone. Of course, I hadn’t dared to tell Marta about it, because she would call me a monster and make me go adopt it. The weather was warm enough, but very breezy. I knew this would mean bumpy water, but I was here and I was going to fish. We were joined by a third crewman, Haijulikani. The four of us dragged the boat through about 100 yards of mud and launched from there.

I settled into the front bench of the boat. (Some of my co-workers pointed out that my athletic career should have prepared me for sitting on a bench for long stretches. Ha ha.) The bench must have been designed by Germans, with an eye toward extracting information from political enemies. It was an old, splintery plank, set just far enough off the deck where my feet didn’t reach, so all of my 223 pounds was resting on the backs of my thighs right on that infernal board. Every bounce drove splinters into my legs.

We ran about an hour to the south, and set up on some medium-deep reefs – about 125 feet. For the time being, I forgot about the box of toothpicks under my skin and got fishing. Action was quick. I pulled up a few puffers – Suez puffers, a species I had caught in Israel 10 years ago, but it was a fish, and I was in Tanzania.

That made 93 countries on my list.

I was thrilled to add a country – this gets harder and harder to do, and I have no idea what the next one will be. But the next fish was a new species – a slender threadfin bream.

My first new species in Tanzania.

This family is found throughout the Indo-Pacific – I’ve caught them as far afield as Thailand and Japan, but there helpfully seems to be a different type in each location. (Goatfish should take a hint from this.) I then got an assortment of small emperors before I found another new fish – the harlequin sand perch.

Thanks to Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum for another ID.

We tried a few different spots, which meant the whole crew had to hand-heave the anchor back up. Action remained constant, albeit with relatively small fish, which is a reporting of fact rather than a complaint, because if you think I have any pride associated with fish size, you must be a new reader. Welcome! As we started the afternoon, one of my light rigs got hit hard, and I was into a respectable fight. After several minutes of uncertainty, I landed a starry triggerfish – a new species. I had admired these in fish books for years. Through Hamissi, Mohammed let me know that they didn’t see this species very often.

The starry triggerfish.

They look like this right out of the water.

Best of all, it weighed a pound, and it would qualify as my 190th IGFA world record. This also led to some reflection – by my math, this put me 10 records away from 200. I wonder if that would qualify me for a second lifetime achievement award, but then quickly realized that Marta would put it in the garage, especially after she found out about the kitten.

Late in the day, I stumbled into two more new ones. The first was another threadfin bream – the Delagoa.

This would be my sixth species in Nemipterus. Jamie Hamamoto has zero.

I also added another puffer – the “Half-smooth golden puffer.” There’s a smooth puffer. There’s a golden puffer. And there is apparently a half-smooth golden puffer.

Half of it is smooth.

Haijulikani and Mohammed on the way home.

So the first day had been a rousing success – five new species, taking me to 1833, and a record. As we headed in, I thought about the kitten again. Overwhelmed by guilt, and faintly fearful of Marta, I walked back to the beach with a handful of fish scraps, determined to feed every stray I could find. But I only ended up feeding two. Somehow, improbably, the wretched kitten was there, and she had found her Mother.

I fed them until they wandered away, completely full. Even if they were destined for a much rougher life than the average American housecat, at least this afternoon, they would be well-fed. I named the kitten Bahati, which means “lucky” in Swahili, because their word for “wretched” is “Tabuu,” and that would be a weird name for a cat.

Steve

Posted by: 1000fish | April 19, 2019

Land of Origins

Dateline: January 26, 2019 – Lake Zway, Ethiopia

You would think Ethiopia would be an unlikely place for me to visit a relative, but we could actually all visit a cousin there. Her name is Lucy. At 3.2 million years old, at the time she was discovered, she was the oldest known human ancestor, just edging out Joan Collins. Lucy’s skeleton was found in 1974 in Eastern Ethiopia, and in the ensuing 45 years, she has been studied more than any other 12 year-old on the planet. And somewhere in the complex pea soup of human origins, she is all of our cousin. I am sure this is going to get some hostile comments, likely from the same people who went nuts when I hinted that Custer wasn’t exactly an American hero, but deal with it.

She has had an enormous influence on science, even without her own Instagram and YouTube channels.

And what, you are already asking, does this have to do with fishing? Because, you are thinking, even Steve is not dedicated enough to make a trip to Ethiopia just to go fishing, because, you imagine (correctly) that there is not a lot of fishing there. But this is what separates the casual from the pathological species hunter – the willingness to go to increasingly esoteric places in the hopes of adding just one or two more fish to “the list.” Plus, it was on the way to other destinations in East Africa, but that is a tale for the next blog.

When I was figuring out my first trip of 2019, sometime last winter, Ethiopia kept popping up. I had flown through there on my way to Kenya in 2018, and it always bothers me when I visit a country and don’t go fishing there. I actually keep a small kit of handlines in my carry-on, just in case an airport has something swimming around a decorative fountain. But Addis Ababa lacks such a feature, which bothered me. So, on my way back into Africa, I decided to make a brief stopover in “the land of origins” and somehow find a way to catch a fish there.

A geography refresher on where we find Addis Ababa.

This is where the internet can be such a wonderful thing. After 20 minutes of online searching, I found Biniam Taye.

The first photo I found of Biniam. There is water in the background. Bingo!

Biniam runs a tour company in Ethiopia, where there are actually loads of things to see – ancient monasteries, archaeological sites as old as time, rugged scenery, and wonderful, warm people. As you all know, I didn’t see any of these things. Instead, I took a perfectly good tour guide out of his comfort zone and asked him to find me some endemic Ethiopian fish. (Because some genius has also put rainbow trout here.) In an email stream that never seemed to lose enthusiasm, Biniam designed a two-day adventure in and out of Addis Ababa that would give me a shot at getting some kind of fish and at least putting Ethiopia on my country list. But first, I had to get there.

I had to be in Europe for business, so I was already more than halfway to Africa. After a thrilling week of company “kickoff meetings,” where hopelessly out-of-touch “leadership” explains increasingly confusing “plans” to consistently fewer “employees,” I was winging my way south. It’s about eight hours to Addis Ababa from Frankfurt, and Ethiopian Air, despite the recent tragedy, has always been nothing but on time and reliable for me. (And I’ll bet you a steak dinner that the Addis Ababa crash turns out to be Boeing’s fault.)

I arrive in Addis Ababa.

Biniam, a slight man with an irrepressible smile, met me after baggage claim and whisked me off to the Hilton downtown. Nobody said I was roughing it, although the pancakes at the buffet were a bit lukewarm.

And I know at least a few of my more hipster friends looked at the dateline and said “Oh, yay! Ethiopian food!” No, no. no. It’s like you haven’t paid attention for nine years. I am not culinarily adventurous, and this didn’t suddenly change. I subsisted the entire time on REI freeze-dried camping food and the aforementioned Hilton buffet, much to Biniam’s quiet disappointment. I am sure many of you would love the local cuisine, and I certainly encourage you to visit, but if Marta tries to drag me to one more “fun” restaurant that doesn’t serve things I recognize, I will eat Burger King for a week just to protest.

The next morning, Biniam and Alemayehu the driver picked me up early and we headed south. Addis Ababa is a giant city, and we worked our way through traffic for close to an hour, but when we got out of the urban sprawl, we were suddenly in wide-open high desert. Less than an hour later, we pulled over at our first fishing stop – the Awash River.

My first look at the Awash.

Traffic jam on the bridge.

I got out and looked at the conditions – shallow, cloudy river, bridge pilings, plenty of vegetation – and I was fairly confident I could catch something. Lucy had lived in the Awash River Valley, a few hundred miles upstream.

The locals here don’t see a lot of tourists, and they certainly don’t see a lot of tourist fishermen, so I attracted quite a crowd. They were very polite, even the kids – they just wanted to see what I was doing.

I didn’t put on much of a show. I ran a float and bait in all the likely shallow structures and got nothing. Biniam then told me he had rented a boat for us – one of the local wooden skiffs. I boarded carefully, although the things are much sturdier than they look. The boatman rowed us out to some current breaks a half mile downriver.

Biniam enjoys the boat ride.

I watched some other fishermen pulling up some of the thousands of nets that line the river, and all of them were full of sharptooth catfish. This made me feel better, but after an hour out there, it was clear the things weren’t going to hit any of the baits I had. We still had an afternoon of lake fishing ahead of us, so I did not lose heart, but it was clear that this was not going to be easy. My inner pessimist started saying things like “You’re fishing in ETHIOPIA. What did you think was going to happen?”

Once we got back to shore, I couldn’t help but run my float and micro-rig back though some anchored boats and pilings. About 10 minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the float dip under the water. I set and missed, but as Martini can tell you, once I see a bite, it is difficult to get me to leave. I stuck it out without repeating the bite for at least an hour, but just as my resolve was waning, the float dipped again. Despite the fact that my inner child was screaming “OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD,” I managed to remain outwardly calm and let it swim for a moment. I then gently set and had a fish on. It pulled reasonably hard, and with a delicate tanago hook on, I had to be careful. A long minute later, I landed a small sharptooth catfish and added Ethiopia as the 92nd country where I had caught a fish.

Biniam may have been more thrilled than I was.

It was also nice to catch an African sharptooth catfish in Africa. My only other one was a random catch in a pond in Thailand with our old friend Jean-Francois.

We headed for the lake a while later. We went through a few small towns, but the scenery was mostly open scrub.

And the occasional marabou stork blocking our way. These birds are four feet tall and fearless.

We arrived at Batu Town mid-afternoon, and after a quick check-in at the hotel Bethlehem and a bag of REI beef stew, I was ready to hunt the lake for species. We met a local boatman and his son at the launch, and I couldn’t help but marvel at what a big place lake Zway was.

The son was an incredibly serious kid. 

I could see a few islands and some hills in the distance, but I couldn’t make out the other shore. We motored out onto the lake – it was shallow, but it looked like it had enough structure to hold a good population of fish.

Lake Zway.

In researching the topic, I had discovered that there were seven species of fish living here, and I hadn’t caught five of them. So I had high hopes. But I always have high hopes, whether reasonable or not.

We pulled up on a scenic island about five miles out. Biniam pointed out the ruins of an ancient monastery, where it is alleged the Ark of the Covenant once was kept, although I could see no signs of Indiana Jones. He even asked if I wanted to go look at it, which means he doesn’t know me all that well – of course, I was going to fish. I set up a couple of rods with decent-sized baits in hopes of catching one of the endemic cyprinids, and then got my micro-rig out. The group marveled at the tininess of my hook. Now I know how Jim Larosa feels.

The shoreline we fished.

The big rods were suspiciously quiet, but I kept busy working the shoreline rocks. After about an hour, I had no hits, but stuck stubbornly at it, because I didn’t have any better ideas. Somewhere in hour two, I worked my way to some rocks under an overhanging tree, and my teensy float finally dipped. I missed it completely. I cast again. After a few tries, I got hit again, and hooked up some sort of micro. In my excitement, I set the hook a bit too hard and fired the thing 10 feet up onto the bank, but after a brief chase, I cornered it and took photos.

I had captured a Garra – which is sort of an African stoneroller.

And with that, I exploded with joy, to the great astonishment and barely-concealed amusement of my companions. But there is no room for shame in the species-hunting world. I had gotten my first species of 2019, and I had done it very far from home.

A closeup of the beast.

The big rods stayed quiet. Late in the day, we moved to another spot on the island and gave the bigger fish another try.

The back side of the island was mostly cliffs.

The group – me, the boatman, the serious child, and Biniam.

The fish didn’t cooperate, as often happens in places where there is tremendous fishing pressure and nets everywhere, but this is not a sport fishery – this is what the people eat. Ethiopia is a poor country, and I was glad to have gotten what I did. We motored home into a beautiful sunset.

Heading home.

It was a quiet evening. After a bag of REI chili, I did a few emails, downloaded my photos, and took a short walk before I went to sleep. The fields behind the hotel opened onto miles of empty space and empty sky, not much changed since Lucy was looking up at it a few million years ago. I wonder what she would think of us now.

The same view in the daytime. In hindsight, I should have been worried about scorpions.

Random donkeys nuzzling by the water.

We gave it another shot in the morning, moving to a spot on the far north of the lake. For someone who has never fished, Biniam did a great job of maximizing our opportunities. If your travel plans include Ethiopia, you can find him at www.addistour.com. or reach him directly on info@addistour.com.

Heading out on day two.

Another marabou stork. These birds are awesome.

We got an assorted tilapia here and there, but nothing new to report. (I am done trying to tell the difference between a blue tilapia and a Nile tilapia. Any ideas out there?)

Again, the local kids were very interested in what I was doing. That’s Biniam and Alemayehu the driver (holding my rods) in the background as well.

We finished up back at the Awash River spot, where I got a few more small sharptooth. It had been a good trip – a country and a species, and there are supposed to be even more endemics in Northern Ethiopia, so you never know when I might return. Just as we started back on the main freeway, we were interrupted by a camel caravan.

They are really cool, even if they smell worse than my socks.

Looking toward the mountains.

I had also planned to pay Lucy a brief visit, figuring she was going to be at the National Museum of History in Addis Ababa. I had a few free hours the next morning before I would fly to Tanzania, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the time. The night before this was supposed to happen, however, I made a shocking discovery. Lucy’s actual remains are displayed in Cleveland, where the scientist who discovered her was based. I was saddened to think I would never meet her, as there are some places even I will not travel.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | April 7, 2019

The Hall

Dateline: September 15, 2018 – Springfield, Missouri

It’s a rare occasion that leaves me speechless with awe, but we’re going add one here in the next thousand words … or so. This post originally wasn’t going to feature any fish, but I couldn’t help myself, so there will be a few. But mostly, I’ll be writing about one of the more amazing people I have ever had the privilege to know – Dr. Marty Arostegui – and his induction into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame.

One of the very first 1000fish blog posts, in the dim historical mists of 2011, introduced you all to Marty, his amazing fishing exploits, his family, and the inspiration he would give me in my own adventures. I met Marty on a Saturday at an IGFA event; he and Roberta helped me feel at home in a room full of fishing celebrities. Our first fishing trip together was the next day. In the years since, I have been fortunate enough to share hundreds of hours on the water with the family, especially Martini, and indeed, most of the 1000fish blog posts that are actually entertaining have to do with them.

March 26, 2011.

March 27, 2011. My first bowfin. I added five species that morning.

I was at 1046 species the day we met, and in the years since, the Arosteguis have put me on 114 more. I was at 1827 as of this blog. That’s 15% of my catches in the time we’ve known each other.

But Marty always thinks it’s funny to make me deal with alligators. I fear alligators.

Marty was told he had been elected to this honor earlier in 2018, and the family invited some guests who had been key to Marty’s success – legendary guides like Alan Zaremba and Captain Bouncer Smith. Somewhere in there, I also got invited, possibly because they were concerned there might be leftovers at the buffet. I wouldn’t be more honored if they asked me to give away Kate Upton at Martini’s wedding. This is a man who has put 440 records on the books himself, and guided God knows how many more. More importantly, he has been a consistent and powerful voice for conservation.

So Martini and I had been wandering the Ozarks, eating irresponsibly and catching a species here and there. I had mentioned that our final destination would be Springfield, but I had neglected to mention the purpose of said destination. Springfield is known for many fine attractions – Dickerson Park Zoo comes to mind – but the unquestioned big show in town is the Wonders of Wildlife Aquarium and Museum, which was set up by Bass Pro Shops’ founder Johnny Morris and is where the Hall of Fame induction would take place. Imagine an awesome aquarium, a fishing museum, a wildlife museum, a Bass Pro Shop, the IGFA Hall of Fame, and soft serve ice cream all under one roof. I can only hope heaven is like this.

Oh this place is awesome.

Martini and I pulled into town on Friday night, just in time to take a decent shower and head out to dinner with the whole clan. I was secretly relieved to be eating real food, and less secretly relieved not to be looking at any more #&%$ black redhorse.

It was humbling to be at a dinner with three people who have more world records than I do. And with at least five people who know a whole lot more about catching fish that I do, six if you include the waitress. I was reminded of the first time I sat at a dinner table with this group, in early 2012. Shockingly, I didn’t do very much talking.

You might not recognize me with my mouth closed.

Marty was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1946. His childhood was relatively comfortable, and even as a youngster, he was always on the water, fishing or spearing. But the family suffered in the communist revolution and the repression that came with it. In November 1960, they emigrated to the USA. The grandson of a well-known doctor, Marty attended medical school at Miami, and went on to be a successful MD and an even more successful hospital administrator. He married, had a family, and somewhere in there, he did what smart, hard-working people often do – very well for himself. This gave him the freedom to fish when and where he wanted, and I have never seen someone embrace an opportunity as completely as he has.

Marty was very active in the Miami fishing club scene beginning in the 1970s, and his accomplishments there started to build what would become the ultimate fishing resume. Joining the Miami Rod and Reel Club, Marty attained Gold Rod Master Angler status, a feat accomplished by only five other individuals in the club’s history. He also was a frequent competitor in the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament (MET) and is one of only three people to qualify for the MET Hall of Fame.

Somewhere in there, he decided to put an IGFA record on his resume. His first record was a big tripletail on June 20, 1994.

I believe this is the fish. This took some digging.

An expert fly angler, he pursued fly and conventional records with equal skill. The numbers started piling up, and in May of 2007, Marty went into uncharted territory by setting his 200th record. It’s tough to beat these details out of Marty – he’d rather talk about conservation than his own exploits.

But his exploits are pretty darn amazing. Yes, that’s an arapaima. Yes, that’s a fly rod.

On the day of the event, I figured I would let the family hang without me for a few hours. But what do to in central Missouri on a beautiful fall Saturday? If you don’t know the answer, you must be a new reader. Welcome! Ben Cantrell was also a hero in this blog, suggesting a few nearby spots for me to try. I would have just enough time to take a shot at repairing my fishing dignity, grabbing lunch at Wendy’s, and getting back to Springfield in time to see the museum and attend the event.

Kora the cat belongs to Ben’s sister-in-law. She is basically a nice cat, but Ben’s brother found it amusing to drop her on Ben’s abdomen while Ben was trying to nap. The photo was snapped while they were both figuring out how to be elsewhere. Kora enjoys chasing string and nibbling on people’s hair.

On the drive out to Ben’s first spot, I passed signs for the Laura Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri. This brought back terrible childhood memories of dinner conversations hijacked by my sister, mother, and grandmother, who had all read the books repeatedly, and who had not read The Lord of the Rings, so we had nothing to talk about. (Sauron could have sorted out Nellie Oleson in a heartbeat.)

Nellie Oleson.

The smart money is on Sauron.

It also brought back even worse memories of missing Hockey Night in Canada because they would all insist on watching “Little House on the Prairie,” which was always on during hockey games.

Admittedly, many of us had a crush on Melissa Sue Anderson. who played the blind sister.

Ben’s main spot was a small pond and a nearby creek. These were both well outside of cell service, and when I couldn’t find the pond, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, a couple of local guys, Lyle and Gordon, kindly pointed me the right way.

Another day saved by kind strangers.

They were completely bewildered as to why I would fish in the pond, which was a something of a stagnant backwater that had nothing living in it, EXCEPT for a large population of plains topminnows. I figured the surest way to break my slump was to fish someplace solely inhabited by things I hadn’t caught, and although the slog through the bushes left me with poison ivy on my ankles, at least I finally, FINALLY got a new species. It had been a very long four days.

I may have wept with relief.

The creek was an afterthought, but as I waded through the shallows, I could see it was jammed with micros. I hunted down a few darters, which turned out to be the common orangethroats and therefore a new one.

I love darters.

I also noticed a few sculpins poking their heads out from under the spillway edge. They took some coaxing, but eventually, one came out and attacked. It took several weeks of research (a big thanks to Tyler Goodale for checking his resources) but the creature turned out to be a mottled sculpin, another new one, and with three in an hour, I could show my face again.

Don’t panic – there is more excitement in this blog than three ounces of steaming midwestern micros.

On the drive back, I had some time to think about what Marty Arostegui has meant to me, and more broadly, to the general fishing world. For me, I’ve had the privilege of fishing with an expert. His gentle but direct feedback has helped me become a better, more responsible angler. (Perspectives from Marta – “Marty didn’t just make you a better angler, he made you a better, more responsible human. And better dressed.)

Golden tilefish, my 1100th species, August 4, 2011. I wouldn’t have caught it if Marty hadn’t completely changed my rig.

He never messed around – when I missed a cast after a jaguar gaupote, tangled a bush, and splashed the whole mess into the water onto the spot, he simply said “I think you spooked him.” Marty also changed how I think about terminal tackle – for example, I drastically scaled down my swivels and snaps after he mentioned that my swivels were way, way too big. It isn’t a coincidence that I started catching big surfperch in San Francisco Bay once I figured out how to make ultralight bait rigs.

Watching Marty prepare for a trip is a clinic. I would say he works harder the night before a trip than on the actual fishing, but he has everything, and I mean everything, ready, laid out, and at arm’s length. It is this type of attention to detail that has helped him accomplish some things that would seem impossible to normal people, like a 385 pound Lemon Shark. On fly. On a 16 pound tippet.

Think about that. 24:1. And the fish was safely released.

But in terms of Marty’s accomplishments, I would have to say the most insane is catching the Royal slam on billfish. On fly.

A spearfish on fly. We are not worthy. We are not worthy.

How does he do that?

A swordfish on fly earlier in his career. So he has done this more than once.

But with everything Marty has going for him, he is still more about others than himself. A lot of his time is spent on conservation – he has written hundreds of articles in both English and Spanish, and he is a popular speaker on conservation and fishing topics. I personally moved a lot of my fishing to circle hooks when he showed me that they actually work. Imagine how many more records he would have if he wasn’t busy helping the future of the sport.

Which brings us back to the event. I walked over to the museum early, mostly to experience the aquarium. It was just awesome – filled with things I hope to catch someday. But what was my mean-spirited takeaway? I found a mistake on one of their displays.

We all know “Salmo trutta” is a striped bass.

The event itself was magnificent. The backdrop was a massive saltwater aquarium, and just off to the left of it, the IGFA Hall of Fame.

The venue.

The five inductees.

I wandered around back there and looked at the amazing stories that had earned a spot on the wall. The first-ever inductee, for those of you who think fishing is male-dominated, was a woman, and she remains the only nun in the hall – so far. Look it up – Dame Juliana Berners.

Ok, she is a bit intimidating.

And then there is Hemingway, who has been a hero of mine for ages.

I believe every book he has ever written ends with “And then he died, alone, in the dirt.”

Marty made the evening about friends and especially his family. You know most of them, although oldest sister Ali was stuck at her home in North Carolina by a hurricane and couldn’t make it.

That’s Danielle, Roberta, Martini, and Marty. Danielle has 17 world records. Ali has two.

Danielle and Steve at the rum waterfall. Yes, there was a rum waterfall.

And I had to throw this photo in. From left to right, that is #4, #3, #2, and #1 in world records. I show this photo to strangers.

At the time it was taken, there were 1024 world records represented in this group.

The evening rolled around to Marty’s induction. He went up there to say a few words, and the applause didn’t die down for quite a while.

Marty addresses the group.

He seemed proud, but a little embarrassed by the whole thing. He gave a very nice acceptance speech, stressing that the real stars of the evening were the fish – every fish – not just the marlin and tuna that few people can afford to pursue, but all of them, especially the “ugly fish.” (They’re all beautiful.) As someone who has dedicated their life to catching every fish, large and small, glamorous or not, this resonates in my very soul. And this message resonates in most of the fishing world – it recognizes the reality of the world we have created and the imperative that we must make changes to preserve even what we have left. I felt a lot of things as I walked home – proud to have Marty and his family as friends, humbled by his dedication to the sport – but most of all, I was inspired, and it is Marty’s ability to inspire us that put him in the Hall of Fame.

Steve

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | March 28, 2019

The OK Chorale

Dateline: September 11, 2018 – Watts, Oklahoma

This blog is about two magnificent days of fishing with Martini. Unfortunately, the trip was five days long. But let’s not get distracted with math – there is fishing to discuss.

Martini and I both have packed schedules, so it’s rare that we can find a week and get someplace where we both want to fish. This September worked out perfectly – he needed to be at an event in Springfield, Missouri on September 15 – more on that later – and he was free the week before. He would be in Dallas, Texas at a bachelor party until the night of the 9th, but we could then connect and head through the Ozarks, which is positively loaded with oddball micros and some other amazing fish. I was very familiar with the Missouri portion of the trip, having fished there twice before, but the Oklahoma and Arkansas segments were wide open mysteries. This is where we must give a huge 1000fish thank you to Ben Cantrell, who saved our planning bacon for this portion of the trip when Martini and I both thought the other one was plotting out spots. Ben is the real hero of this blog.

Ben Cantrell.

A road trip of this length presents certain logistical difficulties, and one of the main ones is the age-old problem that bait and drinks cannot share the same cooler without certain risks. Building on years of experience and a college degree, I bought two small coolers and a Sharpie.

Night crawlers and Pepsi should never mix.

Someone should have thought of this years ago.

There was also a milestone to consider. If I could manage to catch a fish in Oklahoma, that would be my 50th state. This is a big deal in the obsessive list-making world. I had never even been to Oklahoma, so I had researched loads of fun facts about the state, but as it turns out, there is only one that you need to know – CHUCK NORRIS WAS BORN THERE.

Our first day presented difficult choices. The Oklahoma fish I had always kept in the back of my mind was a Red River pupfish, because pupfish are cool, and Red River pupfish don’t come with the inconveniences of other pupfish, like Federally Endangered status. I figured we had to get the pupfish first, then get after the nice variety of fish that live in the northeastern part of the state. Martini threw a glass of geographical cold water on my plan, pointing out that the pupfish spot was three hours west of Dallas, and that the other spots would then be five hours back to the east. Damn him and his fancy Google maps. In the end, we just decided to get up really early and commit to a lot of driving.

Texas is flat. You would think I learned this on The Great Road Trip of 2014, but it has gotten flatter. Ask Kyrie Irving. We entered Oklahoma mid-morning.

We enter Oklahoma, with a quiet nod of awe to Chuck Norris. (Faster than a speeding bullet … More powerful than a locomotive … Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound … and these are just his warm-up exercises.)

When we reached the Red River, there was a moment of consternation. The water was red, and I mean red. While it wasn’t all that high, it was as muddy as it could be without condensing into a solid.

Hence the name.

But we were here, and we were going to go check it out – I’ve caught fish in worse conditions. The drama didn’t last long – there were a series of “tidepools” – mega-puddles that had been left over by higher water, and these were positively stuffed with pupfish.

Martini caught one immediately, which filled me with hope. I did not catch one immediately, which filled me with petulance. But a few minutes later, one of the tiny beasts hit my micro-offering. I had caught my Oklahoma fish. I could swear I heard angels singing in the distance – a sort of OK chorale.

Triumph.

And they’re adorable.

A journey that began with my father at a lake resort in Maine 50 years ago concluded with one of my best friends on a muddy riverbank in Oklahoma. In between these two events, there had been 50 years of fishing, over 1800 species, a few world records, countless new friends, a few more world records, and thousands upon thousands of road miles. If nothing else, fishing has let me see America, and while we have our warts, it is a great country. Much better than France. If nothing else, we have Chuck Norris, and let’s not forget that we’ve never been successfully invaded, let alone in six weeks.

We added a bonus species in the same spot – the Red River shiner – and then we were off on a very long drive.

The Red River shiner. Laugh if you must, but Jamie Hamamoto has never caught one.

Oklahoma is not as wide as Montana – nothing is – but it was close. Five hours, four Red Bulls and $28 of Chick-Fil-A later, we were standing by the side of a beautiful creek in Eastern Oklahoma. (A spot provided by Ben, who is the real hero of this blog.)

Bless you, Ben.

By the time we finally got to the creek, it was late in the afternoon – we would only be able to hit one spot, but the light was perfect and the place looked amazing. It had long riffles, inviting pools, sexy back channels, a spillway, and plenty of boulders.

This picture still makes me drool.

We began fishing the open areas, and in between lots of panfish, we both got nice redspot chubs.

Note the red spot.

We also knocked off a variety of minnows, including cardinal shiners (which were new.)

The rest all ended up falling into the “nondescript shiner” category.

We noticed some larger fish in the pools, and as soon as I guessed (incorrectly) that they might be black redhorse, that’s how I spent most of my time. (This will become a theme in this episode.) I did not catch a black redhorse, which will also become a theme in this episode, but I got some beautiful smallmouth, and it’s always great to catch smallmouth bass.

As it got dark, the redhorse were still avoiding me. Martini encouraged me to try for some of the micros that he had spotted, such as the Banded Sculpin and Plateau Darter. As he always does, he even pointed a few out to me, all of which I promptly missed. It was a pleasant evening, and there was no particular urgency – with our headlamps on, I knew we would get the fish sooner or later, and then find a Taco Bell.

Then the gnats came. Like satanists, they came in a giant black mass, and while they do not bite, they are attracted to light, and our headlamps were the only light source for miles. Suddenly, there was incredible urgency. We would move spots, then try to find and target a fish as long as we could stand the bugs trying to fly into every possible orifice. It would take about 20 seconds to where we were blinded, coughing, and producing pints of snot. We would turn the lights out, catch our breath, and try again. The swarm would find us, resulting in more coughing and more snot, and after a few rounds of this, our sleeves were too slimy to provide an effective wiping surface. We persisted, all the while sneezing, choking, and gagging – I hacked up little black specks the whole night. Somewhere in all this fun, we both managed two new species – the banded sculpin and the plateau darter.

The sculpin. Note the gnat. I randomly sneezed these up for about a week.

The miracle of Photoshop helps envision how I remember the evening. The snot on my hand is not Photoshopped.

The Plateau darter. Yes, it was worth it, but only barely.

Important 1000fish safety tip – don’t eat “Flaming Hot” Cheetos. They are covered in cayenne pepper, and the orange-fingered Cheeto dust takes on serious consequences, especially if you intend to pick your nose. And while we’re at it, I should point out that the containers for cortisone (which soothes bug bites and the sorts of body irritation that old people get) and Sting-eze (which makes bug bites stop itching because it is pure ammonia) look awfully similar. Putting cortisone on a bug bite is fine, but putting ammonia on a hemorrhoid is NOT. I had thought about calling this blog “50 shades of fishing,” but looking at the above, “50 shades of stupid” might be more appropriate.

The next day broke clear and warm. We hit a series of creeks in western Arkansas, and one by one, the species added up. First came the highland stoneroller and the orangebelly darter.

A highland stoneroller. This whole family is notoriously fickle – ask Martini about the largescale stoneroller sometime.

The darter was a notable example of Martini’s spotless teamwork. I had been presenting bait to the fish for about 45 minutes, and it had only made a couple of desultory swipes at the hook. Then, without warning, it jumped on it. I set the hook and flipped the fish up out of the water, but mid-flight, it came off. Martini appeared out of nowhere and caught the beast midair with a photo tank.

It wasn’t as dangerous as his midnight swim with a lake sturgeon, but it saved me a species.

Caddo Creek. I could walk around places like this for days. And I have.

In the same spot, Martini somehow wrangled up a pirate perch – one of those extraordinary rarities that pops up randomly in places for people who are not me, like Ben, Mike Channing, and now Martini.

Yes, I was a bit put out. But not nearly as much as I would be two days later.

We moved through a few more creeks, gradually working eastward, except when we forgot that you can’t reprogram a GPS destination if you have no cell signal. The most notable catch of the mid-afternoon was Martini pulling up a gorgeous river redhorse on ultralight tackle after it had refused to bite for me.

Martini’s River Redhorse. I must have cast to the thing 50 times.

Later in the afternoon, we pulled up on another one of Ben’s darter spots. It was a beautiful, clear creek, although the first rock I turned over revealed a rather irritated water moccasin. This reminded me that there are some smarter tools than my hand to use for this purpose, like a stick, or someone else’s hand. After an hour or so of poking around, I tracked down a Plains darter, which is part of the Orangethroat complex, for those of you who care about such things.

They are gorgeous, but my pictures still aren’t as good as Tyler’s.

Martini hunts the shallows.

Moments later, I stumbled into a redspot darter, a bit more of a rarity.

A plastic fish tank and an Olympus waterproof camera make a big difference.

I went to sleep that night feeling pretty darn content. We had been at it two days and I had collected 10 nice species, and some of the best locations were yet to come. The weather report looked good, and we had dozens of great spots scoped out from Ben, who is the real hero of this blog.

There has to be a story behind this photo.

Needless to say, the Fish Gods punish overconfidence. We awoke to driving, unpredicted rain, which washed out most of the prime spots Ben had given us. Well into the morning, we arrived at a gorgeous spring creek that was clear enough to fish, and after 20 minutes of futility, it struck me that I might be on a cold streak. Martini was still getting a new fish now and then, but I was not. This continued through the day, as we fished our way north. We visited some positively beautiful places, but new species remained elusive.

Natural beauty, yes. New species, no.

For dinner, we somehow managed to find the BBQ equivalent of Sonic. Martini, something of a barbecue connoisseur but ever the diplomat, described the cuisine as “confusing.”

Their dessert options weren’t any better.

Unsatisfied and grouchy, we made the long run to Poplar Bluff. We made one stop to look for current darters, but the small creek Ben had recommended was dry. He is still the true hero of this blog.

Mostly, we want to know what’s going on with the cat. It clearly doesn’t want to be there.

Our first stop of the morning was McLane Park, where Ben and I had caught our creek chubsuckers. It was blown out, which was a shame, because it would have been interesting to watch Martini’s irresistible force of angling skill run up against the immovable object of that vile little fish.

We then headed up to Sam Baker State Park – another beautiful location. I had fished there with Ben and Tyler a few years ago, and the place is absolutely loaded with black redhorse.

Martini stalks the redhorse, with slightly more success than I had.

Of course, I forgot all other species and spent hours trying to get a black, and, say it with me, I failed. And failed. And failed. I never took statistics in college, and therefore I do not understand that not catching something for a long time doesn’t mean I am getting more likely to catch it. Martini added insult to indignity by getting two of them right in front of me, so I can’t claim that it was bad luck. The black redhorse takes incredible casting, line control, hand/eye coordination, and moral turpitude, and this just doesn’t seem to be my decade.

Martini got two, so we averaged one each. The ID between a golden and a black is close – you can tell it’s a black if I didn’t catch it.

Martini comforted me with kind words, like “We can’t all be champions, Steve.”

We caught up with old 1000fish friend Tyler Goodale in Poplar Bluff, and spent an evening hunting blue suckers and redhorse with him.

Tyler Goodale with a pealip redhorse, another species I would trade my sister for. Of course, there are days I would trade my sister for a Sonic cheeseburger, so let’s not sell the pealip short.

Alas, there had been unexpected rain and the rivers were completely blown out. This did not stop Martini from catching a beautiful catfish, which faintly annoyed me.

How does he do that?

The next morning, we drove west toward Springfield, making several fishing stops along the Current River. Martini got his shadow bass quickly, and then I settled in to another disastrous pas-de-deux with the black redhorse. This was my third straight day without a new species, and this was eating a hole in my stomach, like I had swallowed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, or Drano, which are chemically identical. Somewhere in there, I caught my 1000th fish of 2018, a largemouth.

There were at least 30 black redhorse in the pool behind me.

I hated not catching new stuff, but in hindsight, it was still great to be out there – we’re all only going to get so many days road-tripping with great friends over a lifetime. I was still ahead 10 more species on the quest for 2000, and the next 24 hours, which had no actual fishing planned, would be devoted to something far more important than my species count.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | January 8, 2019

The California Moray Dude

Dateline: August 12, 2018 – Del Mar, California

The Fish Gods never owe you anything. If you have a lousy trip, returning to the same place does not mean you will do better. You might do worse. But my early July San Diego trip had been so bad, so humbling, that I was eager to get that bitter taste out of my mouth. Some people, mostly Lutherans, like the taste of humility, but to me, it tastes like syrup of ipecac, and yes, I’ve had syrup of ipecac. It was one of those college pranks that would have been much funnier if it hadn’t happened to me.

I had a very nice summer with Marta – traveling, fighting over paint colors, local hikes, and riding our bicycles, (which I am proud to report have only two wheels each.)

These are paint chips. I hate them.

But I was still losing sleep each night, reliving the early July disaster where Spellman caught a huge corbina right in front of me. In the dream, it all happened exactly like it did in real life, except that I had no pants. I seem to be missing pants in a lot of my dreams. Let us never speak of this again.

I needed to catch a corbina. I would take a week in San Diego, to remove excuses like bad tides and stray windy days. I arranged a stay at the Hampton Inn down by the harbor – Ben had become single, (to all of our great relief,) so staying at his place would be awkward, although I might meet some swimsuit models. It was a good time to take a few days by myself, as Marta was slammed with work and I needed to get out of my office in the worst way.

This was another road trip for the new Pilot, and by this time, I had my vanity license plate installed.

There’s a reason they’re called vanity plates. But I will get there.

The first two days would be devoted to fresh water fish in unlikely places. There are precious few endemic freshwater species scattered throughout Southern California, and one of these in particular, the Arroyo Chub, would require a full day detour. This is the difference between a casual species hunter and a pathological species hunter – taking a full day for a chance at a fish that might top out around four inches. It’s a mind-numbing drive down I-5 to Los Angeles, and then it’s evil traffic east to Riverside, where one creek holds these tiny beasts. (A big thanks to Ben Cantrell for the spots. Ben also warned me about the homeless encampment that stands between the parking and the creek, and that still didn’t stop me.) I planned four hours of fishing, but failed to account for a couple of work emergencies, a long lunch at the Willow Ranch BBQ, the several bathroom stops that are requisite after every lunch at the Willow Ranch BBQ, and, of course, traffic in Pasadena. I ended up parking about two hours before sunset. There were two spots to try, and the first one was a fail. With an hour left, I headed to the one with the homeless encampment, and I must have blended right in, running through there wearing a lobster-emblazoned Polo swimsuit.

A gorgeous little creek in an unlikely location.

Spot two was an emotional trial. I hooked a chub almost immediately, but it flipped free in mid-air. I thought to myself – “How hard can this be?” The Fish Gods can hear you think. I saw no other fish until it was almost dark, but then a school of them came out of nowhere and started pecking at my bait. I lost seven more of them in the air, and my curse words are likely still echoing down the canyon, but the eighth one stayed on, and I had a species.

The Arroyo Chub. I finished the drive to San Diego with great joy in my heart.

The rest of the report is going to be kind of dull, because we caught almost everything we wanted right when we wanted to. But before we get to that part, we get an eight-hour disaster. The following morning, I got up and headed out to a creek in the middle of effing nowhere east of San Diego.

It was like Egypt, without the charm.

There are supposed to be a couple of micros living there. It was 109 degrees when I arrived. I stayed for two hours and caught NOTHING. My drive back to San Diego lacked the exuberance of the one from Riverside, but that night, I would catch up with Ben and do some shore fishing for sharks and rays, so all was not lost.

It was late afternoon when I got to Harbor Island, carrying several pounds of squid and some of my rarely-used surf rod collection.

The surf rod spread with San Diego in the background.

It was great to see Ben, and I was grateful that he would take a night off of dating swimsuit models just to fish with me. Casting whole squid out into the channel, we waited and hoped for a stray banded guitarfish, horn shark, or California moray. The moray was the only one that is reasonably common, but I could hope. James keeps sending me pictures of some random 10 year-old from Indiana holding a banded guitarfish, and I’m sure Marta will tell me its’ wrong to hate a ten year-old, but I hate that kid.

My first fish was a personal best on spotted bay bass.

This isn’t big by Ben Florentino standards, but it’s a beast for me.

We both got a few small rays – a mix of butterfly and bat – and then things got interesting. I got a rattling bite and a small run and hooked up something that was definitely shaking its head. Rays do not shake their heads. Moments later, I lifted a smallish smoothhound onto the shore. This didn’t necessarily get much of a reaction from me, as I have caught squillions of brown smoothhounds (including the world record with Ben Florentino,) and I had given up on the gray smoothhound, because it is really hard to tell them apart. But Ben said “That one looks pretty gray to me.” Out of an abundance of caution, I photographed the heck out of the fish, and even weighed and measured it for a possible world record. I am sure this was crossing that fine line between optimism and stupidity, but hope springs eternal.

Later that night, I settled in at the Hampton Inn with a pint of Haagen Dazs and a Red Bull, which actually makes a nice float. I pored through Val Kells’ illustrations in the magnificent A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes From Alaska to California, squinting at the shark drawings. This is a difficult ID, but when I got through with all the fin spacing, it was clear I had a gray.

A species that had eluded me for years, and a world record to boot. I was on my way to 200, but would likely not get there before Roberta Arostegui, and this bothers me.

The next morning, I met fabled San Diego inshore Captain James Nelson bright and early. Well, I wasn’t really bright or early, but we still were on the water by sunrise.

Sunrise over San Diego bay.

We raced over the bait receiver, got a scoop of sardines, then set up in an area where he had seen corvina earlier in the week. I got hit immediately – but it was a small halibut. I put on another bait, pitched it out, and again got hit immediately. This fish was much heavier and put up a solid fight. James whispered “That might be the one” as he got ready on the net. The fish surfaced with a bright chrome flash – it was indeed a corvina. James scooped it expertly, and my yell of triumph set off car alarms throughout the downtown area.

A shortfin corvina. Oh hell yes.

We spent the rest of the day looking for oddball species. Outside the bay, we were messing around for bottom fish when I saw something flipping around the surface. Upon closer examination, we determined it was a distressed-looking midshipman. I have no shame when it comes to species, and even though it didn’t look in the mood to eat, I waved a small piece of shrimp in its face for around 10 minutes. Just as I was giving up, it inexplicably struck.

These were two difficult species, and they had been added to the list in a few short hours.

Ben was out with one or more swimsuit models that evening, so I bought myself a big steak and basked in the satisfaction of finally getting a corvina.

The next morning, Ben joined me for a day on the bay with James. I was getting fairly low on targets in San Diego, especially ones that were not rarities. The horn shark and banded guitarfish seem to only be caught by that rotten little 10 year-old, but the moray eel was beginning to mystify me. Everyone I know had caught one, generally by accident while fishing for something else, because, in general, only an idiot would tangle with a moray on purpose.

It was a fun day of fishing – we got all kinds of assorted bay critters in the morning, but nothing to write home about until one magical hour early in the afternoon. We were soaking slab baits in the middle of the bay when my favorite 8′ Loomis Pro Blue started bouncing. I picked it up to get the feel of the fish. It was an odd bite – banging on the bait but not running at all. I finally set the hook, and at first, I thought I had the bottom. I put on a bunch of pressure, and the fish finally came out and started fighting – it was heavy and pounded the rod tip hard, but it didn’t take much line. A moment later, we figured out why – it was a moray. A positively huge California moray.

Finally.

I was ecstatic, but fishermen do not often think very far ahead. A big moray is a dangerous adversary, and now we had one coming onto the deck. James netted it while Ben and I bravely cowered on the bow. Shuddering, I recalled a January 2005 day in Faro, Portugal, when a moray half this size got loose on the deck, destroyed some gear, then slithered into the unlit cabin. After a lengthy and fairly even fight, I subdued it with one of my boots. So with this bigger moray, I was expecting all hell to break loose.

Perhaps it was James’ calm demeanor, perhaps it was a blessing from the Fish Gods, or perhaps the fish was whacked out its gourd on tranquilizers, but however it happened, the eel remained perfectly calm as we took a couple of photos and then put it in the livewell. It was not only a new species – it would also be a world record, if we could somehow get it safely weighed.

Moments after we set up again, when I looked at my rod, the line had gone from behind us to in front of us. I asked James if we were drifting. He pointed out that the other lines were where they should be, and he suggested that I might check my bait. Just as I picked up the rod, it slammed down and something started taking line, so we have to give James credit for being more observant that me. It was a heavy, bouncing fight, and I was guessing a medium bat ray, because it felt too big to be a butterfly. But it was a butterfly. The biggest one I had ever seen. At 24.5 pounds, it untied me from that nice lady in Texas and set my third record of the trip.

We weighed both fish at a convenient pier, where onlookers were either fascinated (butterfly ray) or terrified (moray.) We did the ray first.

The beastly butterfly, which would be a great name for a band.

Ben and I stared balefully at the livewell, which contained a live, irritated, ten and a half-pound moray. Using diagrams written in sharpie on a doughnut bag, we roughed out a battle plan. Fundamentally, James would get the fish while Ben and I hid behind a piling.

Do not put this in your pants.

Sensing our bravery, James opened the livewell. I expected the eel to come hurtling out and go for the testicles, but surprisingly, it just worked with us. It was truly a California Moray Dude. We quickly got an official weight and let him go. He swam off, relaxed and chill, and went back to his mellow underwater world. Ben and I heaved sighs of relief that may or may not have included tears. and James learned that we had his back unless there was danger.

The California Moray Dude

We celebrate a memorable day, and an even more memorable hat. He looks like a slightly-hairier version of the Flying Nun. 

After we said goodbye to James, Ben and I headed for one of the least-glamorous parts of San Diego to hunt for California killifish. Stepping carefully to avoid stray hypodermics, we worked our way down to a tidal creek.

Gotta love that hat. I can’t even tell which way he’s facing.

After half an hour of searching, we found a big concentration of them. (Killifish, not needles.) While they were not eager biters, Ben got one fairly quickly, then I followed up with one a few minutes later.

The count for the trip was up to six.

The following morning, we headed out early to face a personal nemesis of mine – the California corbina. These shallow surf-dwellers are tricky to catch, but I had seen it done by qualified anglers and Spellman, and I figured I had to be due. We waded into the surf at Torrey Pines, and, just after Ben lost a bite and his sunglasses, it became obvious that the surf was way too choppy and full of weeds to give us any chance. I was exasperated. We headed to Del Mar, where the surf looked equally disastrous. Frustrated beyond belief, I went to the slough behind the beach, but that was also choked with weeds. I like to think I handled this calmly, but I also like to think that Detroit Lions will make the playoffs. It was Ben who suggested that we have one last look at the narrow sandbar where the slough enters the ocean. As we walked up, there were five or six guys fishing, and just as we got there, one of them caught a corbina. We were off to the races. I cast a sand crab, got hit, and missed it. I cast and missed again. And again. But somewhere in there, something stayed on. It was spirited but not huge, and a minute or two later, I landed my first corbina.

I know it isn’t as big as Spellman’s, but it’s a corbina.

Ben may have been happier than I was.

I got two more in the next hour, and the day was a memorable triumph. Aspiring species hunters – this is another lesson in never getting discouraged (getting surly is ok, though) and checking every possible spot. Something is always in the last place you look, because only an idiot would keep looking after he found something.

I can’t thank Ben enough for taking all this time with me. He’s a good guy, and remember that every minute he spent with me was a minute he couldn’t spend with a swimsuit model. That’s true friendship, or chafing.

I headed home the next day. The plan was to stop in Del Mar again and take a quick crack at a spotfin croaker – just a couple of hours in the morning, so I could avoid the LA rush hour. And I did hook a small spotfin, which came off right at the bank. This should have made me go apoplectic, but the moment I cast again, I got a nice corbina. Then another. And another. By the time it slowed down, it was hours later and I had landed 23 of them. Good fishing is good fishing, and it was a perfect end to an awesome trip. The spotfin can wait.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE COUNTDOWN TO 200 WORLD RECORDS

Things didn’t slow down after I got #182 in July. Apart from the three records mentioned above, I put in three others during the summer. The first was a mid-July Pacific Spiny Dogfish from Tomales Bay.

 

The photo was taken by Cole Grossen – “Selfie Kid” from last summer’s “Big Mac and Selfie Kid.”

In mid-August, I finally went salmon fishing with Chris Armstrong – the guy who introduced me to Ed Trujillo. Chris is an expert salmon fisherman, and I embarrassed to say I hadn’t been out with him for years, despite countless invitations. We finally set it up on a choppy Sunday morning – it was great to see him. He’s one of the few people I know who is as passionate about fishing as I am – and normal people can relate to him a lot more, because he catches fish people have heard of.

Chris put us on limits of king salmon.

Including this hog.

But the most memorable catch of the day, at least in my opinion, came just as we were wrapping up. I got a small tap and hooked a fish that didn’t even trigger the sinker release. I reeled it up, and to my great astonishment, I had a one-pound kingfish (white croaker.) This species is a well-known SF Bay pest, stealing countless ghost shrimp from sturgeon fishermen each winter. I had never seen one half this size, and suddenly, I had a record on it. Chris, a serious angler, would go down in history as the skipper for the kingfish record, for which I am sure he is deeply ashamed.

This is why I always, always carry a Boga Grip and measuring tape.

The final record of the summer – #188 – wasn’t even caught this summer. As I mentioned in “The Billfish That Shall Not Be Named,” I caught an unidentified dogfish in the abyssal depths off Kona this March.

This is the fish in question.

On November 21, Martini Arostegui spotted a new scientific article describing this species as Squalus hawaiiensis, the Hawaiian dogfish, and I was able to submit the world record. Interestingly, I got the email just after I had showered, so while the celebration dance wasn’t quite as awkward as that memorable night in Rio, it was close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | December 25, 2018

Ben and Gerry

Dateline: July 24, 2018 – Charleston, Illinois

Truth be told, I don’t like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream all that much. I’m more of a Haagen Dazs guy – their flavors are named normal, non-pretentious things, like “Strawberry.” You can look at the label from eight feet away and tell what you are getting. Ben and Jerry feel the need for obscure names like “Chunky Monkey.” I have eaten monkey. I don’t like it. And I don’t like having to spend precious seconds reading the label to discover that there is no monkey in the ice cream after all – it’s mostly banana – but by the time I get through the fine print, I could have already been sitting down with a pint of Haagen Dazs. So there.

Luckily, the Ben and Gerry I refer to here are different than the ice cream Ben and Jerry. This Ben and Gerry are fishermen, and they were involved in an unexpected midwest trip for me this summer. You already know Ben – the fabled Ben Cantrell  – who has put up with me on numerous trips and put me on all kinds of interesting fish. (The best of which will actually be in the blog after this one, so don’t go far from your computer.)

Marta had been planning a Chicago trip for some time. Her agendas usually involve cultural stuff and great restaurants, so naturally, I wanted to go fishing. Ben, who introduced me to Illinois species fishing in a 2016 trip, had moved to San Diego, where he has wisely become single. But he still set me up big time – he introduced me to Chicago local Gerry. There are very few people out there that take this whole species-hunting thing as seriously as I do, but Gerry is definitely one of them. We met on email, had some phone calls, and then he generously agreed to drive us around for three days of fishing through Illinois and Wisconsin. There aren’t a ton of things left for me to catch there, but some of the remaining targets would be very nice additions to my list, so I was, as usual, wound up to go.

I flew into Chicago on a Saturday night, and ended up at dinner with a buddy from high school. Steve and I were best friends in the 1980 timeframe – he was the smart, good-looking one. The last time I saw him was his stint as best man at my (ill-advised) wedding in 1994, and somehow, 24 years went by.

He has aged better than I have, but I’ve caught more fish. We’ll call it even.

Steve and Steve, summer 1979.

Gerry picked me up early on Sunday, and we headed north out of Chicago. Our first destination was a creek in southern Wisconsin that is known to have quite a few different critters, including the dreaded lake chubsucker, which is just as vile as the creek chubsucker. On the drive up, we went over sampling information and kept a wary eye on the weather forecast, which was wandering into drizzly and chilly, which would not make for ideal wet wading. My main target would be the northern sunfish, which had eluded me on previous trips, a fact which Ben liked to point out.

I got into the water, which was brisk but not unbearable, and started tossing a bobber and worm. Despite Gerry’s polite advice that the sunfish would live in cover well back from main current, I had always pictured them living in moving water, like a smaller bluegill. Naturally, I caught bluegill. Nice ones. But they weren’t Northern Sunfish. Humbled, I dropped a worm into a pile of sticks on a silty, shallow flat, and was immediately rewarded with the target species.

The beast.

Note – if you ever find yourself fishing with Gerry, listen to him. He will give advice, but it will be gentle and low-key, as opposed to my “Don’t fish there, you idiot” approach.

We waded through several hundred yards of the creek, picking up shiners, panfish, and some stray darters. (All of which were rainbows.) On further examination, one of the shiners turned out to be a new one – the spotfin.

That’s two for the day, and it wasn’t even noon.

Our next location was several hours to the south, so we got lunch at Culver’s, which is one of my favorite places in the midwest. Think of a Dairy Queen, but the chef has a conscience, and the ice cream is better. We drove a couple of hundred miles into central Illinois, and it is on road trips like this you get to know someone. Gerry is a very senior guy in a big consulting firm, and his attention to detail showed in every aspect of his fishing plans. He knew what lived where and what the water levels should be – much better than my normal plan of showing up and praying. He is also quite the mechanic – he has rebuilt several vehicles from the ground up, and whereas I might know the history on WWII fighter planes, he knows the history on their engines. It was an interesting conversation. Late in the afternoon, we started investigating a series of creeks Gerry had marked. In one of those frustrating coincidences that can haunt species fishermen, there had been some short but heavy thunderstorms earlier in the day, and almost everywhere we went was high and muddy. The one spot he was confident would be in good shape turned out to be torn up with construction. These were gorgeous locations, but we had hit them on the wrong day.

Beautiful locations, but no water clarity + no micros.

We got plenty of nice smallmouth and panfish, and I won’t ever complain about splashing around a midwestern creek in the middle of summer. Toward evening, we crossed over into Indiana and fished the Wabash for for skipjack herring, which are becoming another one of those things that Ben can catch and I can’t. We didn’t see any, but Gerry got a positively huge sauger.

This was Gerry’s sole addition to his life list for the trip, but I have to say he did it in style. This sauger could eat any sauger I have ever caught.

We spent the next day poking around more creeks, and we were still tormented by muddy water. It was early afternoon when we ventured down the (rather risky) access to the Shelbyville spillway. I was lusting for a quillback, but my attention span waned and I started microfishing, I was rewarded with a bullhead minnow, which has nothing to do with the bullhead catfishes or sculpins. It was a third species for the trip, and say what you will, I was thrilled.

The bullhead minnow. I caught several.

For the late afternoon and evening, we headed back into Indiana (my home state,) to fish a creek near a covered bridge.

The location was an absolute postcard. Even the mosquitoes were scenic. I lived in Indianapolis for a year and never went to see these places, because I was busy fighting off my old girlfriend’s vicious cat, so it was a great experience. We were hoping for a certain madtom which didn’t seem to be there, but I happily spent the rest of the day splashing from pool to pool and catching smallmouth bass and assorted micros.

Stonecats everywhere, but these were not the target madtom.

Smallmouth on light tackle. This is one of my favorite fish anywhere in the world. Indeed, if I was told I could only catch one more fish in my lifetime, it would be … who the hell am I kidding? It would be a spearfish.

We spent the evening at the campus hotel at University of Illinois, Gerry’s alma mater. Champaign is a beautiful town. Gerry was raised in a farming community nearby, and knew quite a bit about what grew where and how. I would not want to play Trivial Pursuit against this guy, especially on the science questions. And he’s got a great family that he spends a load of time with – I don’t know how he finds the time, except that he is more organized that almost everyone I have ever met.

The next day, we wandered back to some of the day one creeks in Illinois, hoping that they would have cleared. This is always a gamble, but the main place we were hoping to fish – an old river ford – had dropped nicely and was clear enough to look for darters.

Gerry looks for darters.

In between plenty of rainbow darters and assorted shiners, I saw what I thought was a juvenile log perch come up and peck at my bait. I eventually caught it, and was thrilled to figure out it was a greenside darter. This species has a terrible reputation for not biting, even when being bonked on the nose with a perfectly rigged micro-bait, so this was a perfect close to the trip.

Another species that feeds on the tears of fishermen.

They blend in very well. There are four of them in this picture. Or are there?

We pulled out around 2pm and had to run a couple of hours back to Chicago. Two hours would have seemed like an eternity to me when I was a kid, but when you’re talking species hunting with another enthusiast, it goes by far too quickly.

In a hurry to get Gerry back on the road, I was inconsiderate and left my water shoes in his car. Damp water shoes are the second worst-smelling thing in the universe*, but Gerry was kind enough to keep them, let them dry so they did not decompose, and mail them back to me. I knew I had a friend for life.

It is here that this story should end, because the successful fishing was finished. So those of you who read for the actual fish can stop. Those of you who only look at the pictures won’t notice this anyway. But part of the species-hunting religion is that, as in baseball, we fail a lot more than we succeed, but the journey and the people along it are why I actually do this. And failure stories are always fun, especially when they’re about me.

Marta had a couple of great days planned in Chicago, including a Cubs game with old buddy Steve Ramsey, going backstage at a Smithereens concert, and lots of pizza.

A fine summer day at Wrigley.

Life is better when the Cubs win.

Backstage at the Smithereens. That’s Cousin Chuck in the middle and Marshall Crenshaw on the left. This left my inner 80’s music fan in complete awe.

This left us with a couple of days to spare. Marta suggested museums. I suggested seeing if more of the creeks in central Illinois had cleared. We compromised, and by “compromised,” I mean that she did allow me to go back to central Illinois, briefly, but only after I made shopping commitments and we had made an insane, 700-mile road trip through much of the midwest, visiting West Lafayette, Indianapolis, Dayton, Cincinnati, and back to Chicago. She has the bug to see America, and we saw plenty of it.

Lunch at Skyline Chili in Indianapolis. It’s an acquired taste.

 

There is nothing more American than baseball, so we attended a Reds game, bringing along one of Marta’s best friends from college and her family. That’s Steve Ramsey again.The whole group – from right to left – Marta’s dear college friend Jeannie, whose father, ironically, was one of my history professors at UC Davis, her son Costas Marta, me, Jeannie’s daughter Vicki, Jeannie’s husband Sotiris, and, of course, Steve Ramsey.

There were fireworks, which I assume were in honor of my greenside darter.

So after all that stuff I put up with  – seeing baseball games with old friends, having great dinners, seeing the country – I finally got to go to the Illinois creek. I am just sick to report that it was still blown out, so all of that driving gained me exactly no species. Some of you may think that Marta was kind and sympathetic when she saw what had happened, but as soon as she saw that there would be no fishing, she mentioned that this would leave more time for shopping. We did get back to Chicago early enough to take in a White Sox game, so that was an unintended bonus.

I add the new Comiskey (I don’t like sponsor names) to my MLB stadiums list. Yes, I have a list of those too.

The good news here is that Marta wants to go back to some of these places, and sooner or later, that creek is going to be clear.

Steve

*Cousin Chuck

Posted by: 1000fish | December 1, 2018

That New Car Smell

Dateline: July 1, 2018 – Del Mar, California

There is no better excuse for a road trip than a new car. I loved my old X5, but BMW repair bills are unfriendly, and when the mechanic told me all the hoses would have to be replaced but that still might not fix the problem, it was time. I fully intended to get another X5, but Marta, in her own shy way, pointed out that a Honda would be a lot less expensive, and that the only reason I would want a fancy import would be to impress young women, and that there was no chance that I would impress young women even if I had the Batmobile.

With that dose of harsh reality still dripping down my face, I bought a Honda Pilot. Truthfully, I love the thing – and I no longer get to look forward to some snotty guy at the BMW dealership  saying “Yes, Mr. Wozniak, $4000 is the discounted price. But these are very nice windshield wipers.” And even though the guy is American, I always remember him saying it in a light German accent.

I miss Otto.

Once I had the new vehicle in the driveway, I felt a strong urge to do some road trips. This blog will actually cover three of them – all with old friend Mark Spellman. (Because I know you will ask, no one ended up covered with poop.)

The first round was in late May, and will introduce another member of the species hunting fraternity into the 1000fish blog. Luke Ovgard is a high school teacher who looks more like a high school senior, but remember that anyone under 40 looks like a high school senior to me. Luke is based in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and has caught almost everything you possible can catch in his area. He is the current world record holder on the Klamath largescale sucker, which is a species I have never caught, so you would think I hate him, but he’s a good guy. I also just found out he has caught a calico surfperch, so I am reconsidering whether he is a good guy.

Luke and his record sucker.

It was a short weekend – we got on the road Friday afternoon and needed to be home Sunday by lunch. We drove it in about six hours, although it felt like 14 because of the horrible bay area traffic. It’s a beautiful run up I-5, reminding me of all the steelhead trips with Ed Trujillo. We talked nonstop about those long weekends, but of course, it kept coming back to that one magical day on the Eel river  – March 31, 2007 – when we both got our personal best steelies. We had dinner at Taco Bell, so that pretty much took care of the new car smell, and we got up to Klamath Falls around 7pm. Luke met us at a lakeside park, and we headed out to cast the shoreline for the big rainbows that make the area famous. Upper Klamath Lake is an odd place – huge, very shallow (like six feet in most places,) so most of the trout are actually stacked up on the shoreline. This makes it ideal for the bank-based lure throwing types, and Luke would qualify as an expert.

Annoyingly, Spellman caught a beast immediately.

We’re talking ten pounds here.

It’s quite a scenic location.

Unlike me, Spellman is not a competitive jerk, so he didn’t rub it in too much and soon, it was dark and we could do some species hunting. We explored some shallow backwaters, and I quickly found two new additions to the list – the blue chub and the slender sculpin.

The blue chub. I hate taking fish photos at night.

Because most of them turn out like this.

The slender sculpin. This was the 14th try for this photo.

We then drove to several other spots, looking for rare sculpin species until the wee hours, but these would not cooperate. We ended up at a Denny’s well after midnight. Luke is a passionate angler and a talented outdoor writer, and we carried on a spirited conversation about both the species we had already caught and the many that we hope to get. He travels a good bit for continuing education, and he definitely has the bug to hunt down anything that swims.

And he wrote a nice article about the trip.

Inspiration to what?

Spellman was in it, but to be fair, he caught the biggest fish.

Saturday became one of those awful days that I occasionally inflict on myself. Here I was, in a gorgeous location and good conditions for huge trout. We spent part of the morning at a spring looking for more sculpins, and while we were doing that, I saw some Klamath Largescale Suckers. At least I think they were Klamath Largescale Suckers. I’ll never know for sure, because despite me spending hours casting baits right in front of their little noses, they ignored me all day. This can happen with suckers, and it is either an advantage or a curse that I firmly believe that a fish that has not eaten baits right in its face for hours is always just about to bite. (Marta theorizes that this means I am either bad at math or fish psychology.) Spellman and Luke gave up on me, went elsewhere, and caught some nice trout.

Luke catches some big trout.

Luckily, the night ended with pizza. Anything that ends with pizza can’t be all bad.

We had a long drive ahead of us on Sunday, but we decided to fish the morning. Luke’s knowledge of the lake was astonishing – I thought I could read nooks, crannies, and rocks, but he knew exactly which ones held fish. I put in a decent effort for trout, hooking (and botching) two, which left me surly, but not as surly as I would have been if there had been a new species at stake. About an hour before we had to leave, my attention span failed and I started micro-fishing. There was one micro in the lake that I needed – the fathead minnow.

And I got one!

Three species only six hours from home is a pretty good haul at this stage of my career, and a big thanks to Luke. I’m sure we’ll fish with him again.

Mark, Steve, Luke. I must be standing in a hole.

A few weeks later, Spellman and I took a random shot at one of the very few species close to my house that I have yet to catch – the Tahoe sucker. This is a fool’s errand 11 months of the year, as these fish are randomly distributed in deep mountain lakes, but in late spring, they move up creeks to spawn and can allegedly be reliably located. It’s a beautiful drive up I-80 into the mountains, with memories from childhood and college scattered throughout. I attended UC Davis, and anyone who has had the misfortune to drive through that area with me knows they will be subjected to those stories, most of which involve me accidentally hitting a baseball or someone throwing up. As we get into the mountains, I always recall childhood car trips to Tahoe with my father and stepmonster, most of which involved my sister throwing up.

Our actual destination was a few miles short of Tahoe – a place called Donner Lake. Interestingly, this scenic venue was the site of the worst dinner party in recorded history – the Donner party. (You can look it up, but a brief and vaguely accurate summary is that a the settlers in a 19th century wagon train didn’t check Weather.com, got stuck in the snow, and ended up eating each other. I have been to some terrible parties, but cannibalism crosses a line.)

We caught a couple of nice trout in a small spillway, then waded our way half a mile up a creek.

I love wet wading.

We spotted squillions of redsides, but it was only on our return walk that Spellman’s sharp eyes picked out a fish that wasn’t a redside or a small trout. He pointed and made the universal hand sign for “Tahoe sucker by the log” and I was on it. I started casting a micro-rig, and in between dozens of redside, I saw a couple of small suckers come up and peck at it. I knew it was just a matter of time, but I also knew it could be a lot of time. Luckily, about 30 minutes later, I got one. We were ecstatic – this fish has been on my “back of the burner” list for years.

The beast.

We celebrate the beast.

A special shout out to Martini, who provided key information and spots for this fish.

We had the whole rest of the day to run around the central valley. As we needed to head back through Sacramento, we decided to visit Ed Trujillo. Ed wasn’t doing well – indeed, this was the last time I saw him before he died in August. He was still delighted to see us, and we went on with old stories and photos for a couple of hours. Spellman and I headed out in the late afternoon, and make a quick swing by Putah Creek, one of my old college stomping grounds, where I went fishing when I was putting off homework, which was most of the time. We caught a couple of nice Sacramento Pikeminnows, then hit the road, found some burgers, and headed home to our real lives. We’ve been doing this together for 26 years.

Spellman and a Putah Creek pikeminnow. I caught my first one in 1982 in Paradise, California, and I can’t tell you how sad it makes me that the whole town – a lovely little mountain community – was obliterated in the recent Camp Fire. There are a lot of people in need right now, especially as the holidays are here. You can help by donating to the Red Cross here

The next weekend, Spellman and I both got “hall passes” from home, likely because Marta and Heather were out doing something erudite or expensive that they never told us about. Mark and I decided to make the run to San Diego. It’s a long way, but I had some very important species in mind, like corbina and corvina, and I also knew I was one record away from changing the IGFA standings. San Diego (and Captain James Nelson) has been very good to me on world records, and even though I didn’t have anything specific in mind, I knew there was always a chance.

We got there late in the evening, and caught up with old friend Ben Cantrell, the Illinois native who had moved to San Diego and is rampaging his way through the local species and swimsuit models. He generously allowed us to stay with him, which he probably regretted as soon as we had Mexican for dinner.

The next two days did not go well for me. They went well for everyone else, even Spellman, so fishing must have been wide open, but apparently, I had done something to displease the Fish Gods. We went out Saturday morning to hit Del Mar, making a quick stop in the estuary where we found some bay blennies. I added what would turn out to be my only species of the trip.

Blennies are cool.

Filled with optimism, we headed to the beach where we would search for corbina and spotfin croaker, two surf residents I have been longing to catch for many years. These are difficult species – fishing the shallow wash with very light tackle – but I felt good about my chances. Ben had gotten both in the last few weeks. We dug up a batch of sand crabs for bait, then waded out into the breakers, taking care to shuffle our feet lest we step on a stingray.

Beautiful Del Mar. That’s me in the surf, in case you thought it was Brad Pitt.

There is no way to put this that won’t give me PTSD. Ben caught a big corbina. Spellman caught a big corbina. I caught NOTHING. I am supposed to be a decent fisherman, or at least that’s what the marketing people tell me. Ben is pretty good, so I could live with that, but Spellman? Seriously? We have an arrangement – I never beat him at tennis, and he never kicks my ass on the water. I was beside myself. I could see the things swimming in eight inches of water between me and the beach, but I could not hook up if my life depended on it. Now I know what Jim LaRosa feels like in a singles bar.

Spellman’s corbina.

That’s Ben under the mask.

We left around noon, the guys giving each other high-fives while I shook my head in disbelief. Even Taco Bell didn’t help. We made the short trip down to San Diego Bay, where 1000fish favorite Captain James Nelson had agreed, against his better judgement, to take us out for an afternoon trip. It was windy, which is why he generally doesn’t do this sort of thing, but it was still nice to be on the water. We ventured outside, into some moderate chop, and drifted some live baits. Ben got a solid takedown out in the middle of nowhere, and I watched the fight with great curiosity and minor envy. A few minutes later, he landed his first white seabass – an amazing and elusive species that is a big moment in the life of anyone who gets even a small one.

I’ve only ever caught two. They weren’t much bigger than this one, but the point is that they were bigger.

To keep me from puking, we headed back inside the bay, and gave it a shot for another elusive species – shortfin corvina. It eluded me again, but at least Spellman didn’t get one. As it got toward evening, we set up some bottom baits to see what was biting. I had some odd species in mind, like a horn shark or banded guitarfish, but a world record, ANY kind of world record, was also front and center. One more would put me in 4th place by myself, and this is a big deal to at least half the people who live in my house. The guys got a couple of small bat rays, and then, finally, my rod got bumped. It didn’t feel very big, but it started to run a bit, and I set the hook hard. Whatever it was took off just as hard, and the fight was on. It wasn’t fast enough to be a bat ray, and I started thinking that if it was a butterfly ray, it was going to be a big one. I knew I needed to tie 21.5 pounds, the current record held by an attractive lady from Texas, who I am sure is a nice person but was standing between me and a little piece of angling posterity.

The fish surfaced about 10 minutes later, and it was a butterfly. A big one. I knew it was going to be close, but 21.5 is a big mark to beat. James landed it, and I took a preliminary weight. It was close, but records need to be weighed on dry land. We slipped it into the livewell and raced for a pier. I weighed it, and weighed it, and weighed it. Then I had the guys look at it over and over. Twenty one and a half pounds. I had done it.

The beast. Butterfly rays have been very kind to me in the record department.

Briefly, I forgot all about the morning’s events and the choppy water and the lack of species. I had accomplished something I had wanted to for a long time, and I got to celebrate it there with some of my best friends in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I couldn’t help but think of one of Marta’s favorite quotes – “Behind every successful man … is a surprised woman.”

The group celebrates. Ben has perfect teeth. That happens when you don’t play hockey.

The morning was another dose of humility. We went back to the surf, but it had gotten just a touch higher, and the corbina were not to be found. Ben had hopes of a shortfin corvina in the surf, for which I mocked him, and you all know how this is going to turn out.

Ben and his caught-in-the-surf-on-a-lure shortfin corvina.

He got three of them. Standing right next to me. Sometimes, you have to tip your hat to someone, and then, when no one is looking, quietly plot revenge. Sure, I could print an inexplicable photo of Ben when he was staying at our house, but I wouldn’t do something mean like that.

Or would I?

But more importantly, I needed to plot how the heck I was going to catch the corbina and the corvina – two very different fish despite being one letter apart. I knew if I kept making the trip, I would get them sooner or later. Spellman was upbeat the whole way home, reminding me that many people have caught a corbina, which didn’t sound helpful at the time, but he also pointed out that only three people had more world records than me, which was something of a consolation. This is part of being pointlessly, relentlessly competitive, which helps in this game but doesn’t always make me the best company. Still, Mark, as a true and loyal friend, did convince me I would eventually catch both species. I had no idea that I would be getting another chance in less than six weeks.

Steve

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 20, 2018

The Appalachian Barbecue Tour

Dateline: June 14, 2018 – Eno, North Carolina

On my desk, just to left of a photo of my grandfather, I keep a handwritten list of fishing trips I want to take. As you can imagine, it’s a long list, but North Carolina freshwater was up toward the top. The place is full of unusual species, and my email is full of reports from people who have caught them. Of course, the collision of expectation and reality can be a problem – it’s a bad idea to base your hopes on everyone else’s best day. Still, when the stars aligned to take a trip to NC – and to do it with both Martini Arostegui and Patrick Kerwin – I figured it would be a slam dunk for dozens of new species. We all know what the Fish Gods do with this kind of hubris.

This would be a major effort – six days of road trip starting and finishing near Washington, DC. Sleep would be limited and food choices would be poor, but I couldn’t have asked for two better companions. Pat is well known to 1000fish readers as “Conan the Librarian,” and Martini needs no introduction. Between these two, the advance planning was simply extraordinary. They located treasure troves of species that might take others years to find. They claim to read sampling reports and other scientific data, but I believe there are dark rituals involved.

My sister’s birthday is June 9, so naturally, I celebrated by sleeping at her house the night of the 8th, then taking off early on the 9th to go fishing. She did get a nice Italian meal out me on the 8th, so don’t get all bent out of shape.

Day 1: Saturday, June 9 (Happy birthday, Laura.)

Just past dawn, I picked up Pat in Alexandria, and then we got Martini, who was staying in DC, likely with Kate Upton. The weather was clear, but there had been a major storm the previous week, so the first few places we checked were blown out. Crap. This was my first indication things wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.

Well into the afternoon and well into Southern Virginia, we pulled up to Preedy Creek. We suspected it too would be high and muddy, but it was worth a look. I figured I would check out the lay of the land, then go get my water shoes if needed. It ended up being a mile down to the water, so when we got there and saw it was running clear and beautiful, I wanted to fish NOW.

Pat walks up the creek. He brought his water shoes.

Naturally, I just waded in my brand new Goretex low hikers. They smelled like cat food the rest of the trip, and even on the flight home, the poor woman who sat next to me kept checking under the seat for dead animals.

Finally, we could start fishing. Less than five minutes later, all that driving became an afterthought – I got a bluehead chub. A big, male bluehead chub, in full spawning colors.

It was vaguely uncomfortable to handle.

I was thrilled, and couldn’t have cared less that this was the only species I had caught so far. I was on the board, and with one of the weirder-looking things you’ll ever see outside of Cousin Chuck’s nightstand.

I don’t know how that one got by the editor.

Later in the afternoon, we pulled up at a gorgeous spillway in Salem, Virginia. I raced ahead of the guys and got a new species – the white shiner – and things looked promising for redhorse.

The white shiner.

Note to prospective Virginia anglers – many waters in the state require a trout license. Never mind that trout aren’t native here, and that they eat many of the cool things we want to catch.

Well into the evening, we found one more river. It was lovely – clear and full of structure. Martini and Pat headed upstream to fish a deeper pool; I poked around for micros.

I got one new one – the rosefin shiner.

Just as I photographed my fish, I heard a booming curse word word echo down the river. I turns out that Martini had landed what would have been a world record redhorse, only to have it flop out of his hand at the bank. As he often tells me, we can’t all be champions. Speaking of world records, I needed one more to tie Herb Ratner for 4th overall. In an amazing run that spanned from 1982 to 2005, Herb set 181 and paved the way for everyone who has tried to set numbers of records since, inspiring thousands of anglers, including yours truly. There weren’t a lot of record opportunities in this area, but it occurred to me how nice it would be to do it with Martini present.

It was that evening that Pat introduced us to Zaxby’s – a fast food chain that features chicken wings. It was awesome, and Martini didn’t hate it as much as Dairy Queen.

Day 2 – Sunday, June 10 (Happy birthday, Kate Upton. Martini told me this.)

Still heading south, we reached North Carolina, where I had high hopes for a Roanoke hogsucker. We fished hard, moving spot to spot, catching plenty of smallmouth bass and sunfish, but new species were not to be found. We did find a local barbecue spot – “Ace BBQ.” Lunch was very good, but the place was as literal of a “hole in the wall” as it could be and still remain standing.

Hours: “11am until we sell out.”

After eating, we kept moving to different creeks, but about half of them were too high to fish. It wasn’t until late in the day we found a perfect spillway on the PeeDee River. It was classic micro territory – long riffles, small pools, all easily wadable.

Pat, on the left, assumes the classic darter pose.

Martini gets a crushing strike from a chub.

The boys pose nicely. I had to give them cookies to sit still.

Among dozens of fish, I got two catches of note – the redlip shiner and the Carolina fantail darter. The species count for the trip had reached six; they weren’t as easy as I had hoped, but they were good species, and I was learning a lot from hanging with two experts.

The redlip shiner.

The Carolina Fantail Darter. Not a common species.

And another nice bluehead chub.

We celebrated with surprisingly good Mexican food.

Day 3 – Monday, June 11 (Happy birthday, Jacques Cousteau.)

We spent the morning driving from promising spot to promising spot, only to find each one muddy and high. It’s a big state, and it takes a while to get around, so we didn’t do any actual fishing until the afternoon. Martini did add some excitement to the proceedings – I thought I was being funny by driving away when he was out of the car scouting, but he leaped on the roof and managed to “hood surf” until we were laughing too hard to drive. Kids, don’t try this at home.

 

On the way to check another small stream, I happened to notice a sign marked “116th Infantry Regiment Memorial Highway.”

This is near Bedford, Virginia, home of the National D-Day Museum, and even though I am quite the WWII history buff, it hadn’t occurred to me we would be in this area. I had a quiet moment for these brave men – “The Bedford Boys.”

The 116th regiment of the US 29th Infantry division led the assault on the western portion of Omaha Beach – the landing depicted in “Saving Private Ryan.” US casualties were unimaginable. Because this was a Guard unit, most of the troops had grown up together in the same small area, and when the next-of-kin telegrams started coming in, one Western Union operator – Elizabeth Teass – took all of them.

19 men from Bedford had been killed, and she knew every single one of them.

Omaha Beach was also where my Uncle Ted, now 94 years old, began his war. We are glad to have him around, still sharp as a tack, but despite a glass case full of medals in a quiet corner of his house, he will tell you that the real heroes never made it off the beach. We owe a lot to this generation.

Later in the morning, we waded up a small tributary stream and found warpaint shiners.

It is always wonderful to find a shiner that can be identified easily.

As we drove through the countryside in search of the next creek, we became hungry. This meant that I began searching for a Dairy Queen, and the guys began searching for anything that wasn’t a Dairy Queen, including road kill. We reached a compromise – The Pedalin’ Pig BBQ.

An average BBQ, according to my expert companions. 

The name was a bit of a mystery, because if pigs really could ride bicycles, they would be a lot harder to catch.

I appreciated their equal-opportunity approach to the gluten crisis.

After lunch, driving through some gorgeous countryside (and the place is loaded with gorgeous countryside,) we spotted an interesting river and decided to stop. This was one of the few totally random spots we hit, and it paid us back with a bonus new species, the mirror shiner.

The Linville River, North Carolina. We did not see Major Burns. (Obscure MASH reference.)

The mirror shiner.

Our next stop was a country park, that had a stream that was positively stuffed with greenhead shiners, so the count crept up again.

They’re called greenhead shiners because whitefin was already taken.

We finished the day at a mosquito-infested boat ramp on the Catawba River. We caught a whole bunch of shiners that looked like they had to be something new – I was guessing as many as half a dozen. But as we dug through Petersen’s guide that night, it became clear that this was not the case. The only new one was a greenfin shiner.

This pleased me, but realistically, most of the shiners we caught fit ALMOST EVERY DESCRIPTION IN THE DAMN BOOK.

This is when I finally lost my patience with the current state of shiner identifications, and I am proposing, for the sake of my sanity, that we combine them all in a single species – the “Nondescript Shiner “Notropis nondescriptus.” It will be as follows –

“Silver or some other color. May be darker on the top, unless it isn’t. Has scales, which can be counted as a whole or fractional number. Generally has a tail and some combination of fins. Two eyes, usually on head, and a mouth, typically found near the nostrils, unless there are no nostrils. Upper labial surface in close proximity to lower labial surface. In most cases, found under water, preferring aquatic conditions that are shallow, or deep, and either still or running at some speed.”

Day 4 – Tuesday, June 12 (Happy birthday, Jim Nabors.)

I had been making a pain of myself for three days, constantly asking Pat “Are there redhorses here?” He would smile patiently and say “I have no idea, but we hit the good redhorse spot on Tuesday.” Well, it was Tuesday.

In the morning, on the way to our main spot, we stopped at a few rivers. Pat and I both got nice golden redhorses, but we were looking for exotic stuff.

It was nice to get some decent-sized fish.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally pulled up at the Green River, and I was beside myself. We knew there were brassy jumprock, v-lip redhorse, and notchlip redhorse right in front of us. Truth be told, I would have been ecstatic with any of the three. I was grumpy as we set up, as the morning had not been spectacular, and I made things worse on myself by choosing a swim in much faster water than where Pat and Martini were fishing. (I always picture these fish as faster water critters.) I got a smallmouth bass or two in the next hour, but then Martini and Pat landed a couple of larger fish and (reluctantly?) waved me over.

I started up by the bridge, but the guys let me in on their fish.

We spread out on an outside bend where we could cast into the main current or go shorter into stiller pools. Moments later, I started getting classic redhorse bites – pump, pump, pump – and I was in to a decent fish. This would be my Brassy Jumprock, a fish that is acknowledged to be a discrete species but has not been formally ID’d, so I count it on the list (#1796) but it wouldn’t be eligible for a world record as yet.

Pat’s Brassy Jumprock

Martini’s brassy.

My brassy. Pat gently mentioned that there were indeed redhorse in this spot.

I saw the guys catch the other two target species, so I was fairly wound up – and two Red Bulls didn’t help. After what seemed like hours but was actually more like 8 minutes, I landed a notchlip redhorse, a rather rare member of the family.

The notchlip. Martini’s was bigger, and this bothers me.

As a matter of fact, Martini’s was a world record. He reminded me that we can’t all be champions.

About 45 minutes later, I got a large v-lip redhorse, which was not only a new species, but was also a most unexpected world record – #181. Just like that, I was tied for fourth overall. It had been a very long journey that kept seeming impossible, but Martini had been a constant source of refreshed motivation, and on a muddy riverbank in North Carolina, we had done it. I was there when Martini passed the same milestone in Wisconsin a few years ago.

World record #181.

It looks bigger in this photo, but I have a dumber look on my face.

We spent the rest of the day just fishing. We caught at least a dozen more redhorse, and the occasional softshell turtle, which are faster than you think. It was that perfect afternoon where everything came together, and just one of these makes any trip worthwhile.

I can’t explain this photo. Martini may just be kissing the ground because he got out of the car safely. My driving was a bit off most of the week.

We rewarded ourselves that night with the best meal of the trip – Mo’s BBQ, in Forest City NC – I highly recommend it. More importantly, Martini and Pat recommend it, and they are quite expert  on these matters. We drove well into the evening, and it is at these times that the dynamics of three different personalities who have been in close proximity for five days can go horribly wrong. But they didn’t. Martini’s constant witticisms, often at my expense, matched perfectly to Pat’s humor, which was like Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon – unexpected, dark, and hysterical. We laughed until the early hours.

Day 5 – Wednesday, June 13 (Happy birthday, Olson twins. I always liked Mary Kate better.)

Things began well. We started in a small city park where Pat suspected a few species were available. My very first catch was a new one – the whitefin shiner.

#1799 on my lifetime list!

Pat and Martini got some kind of killifish that eluded me, but I forgave them, because while they were doing that, I poked a bait around some downed trees and stumbled into a flat bullhead. That new species leaves me with only one more bullhead (the spotted) to complete my collection. More importantly, this was my 1800th fish species – another milestone with Martini, and as you recall, #1700 was caught last year with Pat. These guys are good luck.

The flat bullhead. On to 1900!

Every road trip has some kind of encounter with a bewildered local, and this would be no exception. A gentleman from a nearby house walked up and asked “What are you guys doing?” I told him we were fishing, although he may have eventually figured that out himself from the rods and reels. He looked disturbed, thought for a moment, and said “I hate to tell you this, but I’ve lived here for 30 years and there are no fish in this creek. So what are you doing?” I again explained that we were fishing, looking for the smaller species that live in the area. I offered to show him pictures of the fish. He was not impressed, and responded “As I said, I’ve lived here 30 years and there are no fish in this creek, so it would be a picture of nothing. So what are you doing?” By this stage, both Martini and Pat had caught small fish and shown them to the guy, but he wandered away unconvinced. He likely believes, to this day, that we were terrorists or drug dealers and he had scared us off. Yay for him!

Our next move went badly. We went a couple hours out of the way to some lake, which was supposed to contain some sort of rare micro. It never appeared, but the more it didn’t appear, the more I believed it would shortly. We were there for hours, mostly because I wouldn’t leave. It was awful.

Once Pat and Martini finally dragged me away, we made a lengthy run to Durham and finished the day in the Eno River. It was a gorgeous place, and looked to be brimming with all sorts of interesting stuff. The wading shoes came out, and each of us headed to a different part of the river to explore. I caught dozens of fish, including chub after chub that I thought had to be bull chubs, but it is so difficult to tell these from blueheads (unless they are spawning males) that I just gave up and enjoyed the water. I got smallmouth, channel catfish, bullheads, and a bunch of micros – one of which turned out to be a spottail shiner, my 16th species of the trip.

It’s got a spot on its tail.

We dropped Martini at the airport that night, and early the next day, he would be on his way back home. Pat and I would stick it out for one more morning, then drive back to DC

Day 6 – June 14 (Happy birthday Donald Trump and Boy George. Don’t make me choose.)

Pat and I had a long drive back to DC in front of us, so we only fished a couple of hours in the morning. We focused on a couple of smaller creeks as we worked our way north, and in between loads of beautiful panfish, I accidentally scraped up one final, unexpected species – the Roanoke Bass.

This was my 17th species of a fantastic trip, and also completed my collection of the Ambloplites genus – Rock, Shadow, Ozark, and Roanoke Bass. On to Tetrapturus!!

We made good time up to DC. In most cases, it would have been four hours of counting down the miles, but with Pat in the car, it was too short of a time to plan the next four or five road trips. Pat must know at least a hundred more species to catch in the general region, and the only regret I had as I dropped him off is that we’ll never get every single one of them. But we’re going to start with the tangerine darter next spring, and go from there.

Steve

 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 3, 2018

Saved by Nikolaj

Dateline: May 9, 2018 – Vrsar, Croatia

I came on this trip with a goal of catching five new species. I got five. But they were not the five I had hoped for. Indeed, four of them came from the harbor, while I was waiting for the boat. This is one of the risks of species hunting, and after all, I was the one who chose to make a return trip to Croatia – a place that has been particularly unkind to me over the years.

Despite my disasters in the region, I have a very good friend there. Part of why we go fishing is to spend time with friends. Sometimes, a great day with buddies can make you forget you didn’t catch anything. I grant you, this doesn’t sound much like me, but it has been a few years since I had fished with Marc Inoue, and I was dying to give the Adriatic another shot. Ah, Marc Inoue – the man who has singlehandedly introduced me to everything that can go wrong in the Balkans.

This is Marc with a TYPICAL tuna.

He is a great fisherman – as evidenced by his amazing Adriatic tuna photos – but the combination of me and him in the same country seems to make things go terribly wrong on a lot of levels. We’ve faced bad weather, family tragedies, bad weather, fungus, archaic regulations, land mines, bad weather, missing vowels, jail for Guido, and, of course, bad weather. But like field goal kickers and Cousin Chuck’s wife, a species hunter needs to forget unpleasant experiences quickly. (Interestingly, all three pastimes occasionally require a helmet.)

I knew I would be in Europe on business in early May, so Marc and I got talking. He would be fishing big bluefin on the surface that time of year, but he also felt fairly good about thresher sharks, pelagic rays, silver dentex, and sharpnose seabream, and there was always a shot at a few other assorted bottom-dwellers that have always fascinated me, like John Dory. I figured there were five species in there for me, and that would be enough to give it a shot.

Marc has moved his operation to Vrsar, in Northern Croatia. This avoids the long drives from Slovenia, and the location is both beautiful and convenient. I flew into nearby Pula airport on a Saturday evening, a quick hop on Lufthansa. (Interestingly, “Lufthansa,” literally translated from the German, means “We Hate You.”)

It looks like they’re speaking Welsh. In Russian.

We flew right in over Vrsar, where I would spend the next four days.

We got me settled into a beautiful hotel near the harbor, and then out for one of what would be several outstanding local meals. (Marc always, ALWAYS finds great food.) I got to meet his fiancee, Maja, and her son, Nikolaj, who turns out to be quite the passionate fisherman himself. More on that in a minute, but suffice to say that Nikolaj, all of six years old, saved the trip for me. (It’s pronounced “Nikolai” – remember that Croatians avoid vowels whenever possible.)

Speaking of offspring, Marc and Maja are expecting. This is awesome, and it proves that it’s never too late for adult responsibilities, except for me.

The happy couple. I want to see Marc give that same thumbs up when he’s changing a diaper at 2am. And while you muse about what a good-looking couple they are, just remember he is my age. I can’t figure it out.

The first day began brilliantly. While Marc was loading the boat, Nik brought his rod down and started fishing the rocks. I had been thinking more about big species, but the little guy inspired me. Moments later, I caught a tompot blenny.

The shortest fishing guide ever.

Blennies are so cool.

Ironically, species 1776 was not anything American-themed. (For those of you who were not paying attention in history class, or who are not American, or who are not American AND didn’t pay attention in history class, 1776 was the first year Abraham Lincoln won the NBA championship.)

Unfortunately for the species count and my stomach, we left the harbor. This marked the first of four days that Marc worked his tail off to catch a bluefin or thresher that just didn’t want to bite. He chummed hundreds of pounds of frozen sardines, rigged dozens of lines in every possible configuration, and tried spots close to shore and almost to Italy. We saw several tuna on the sounder, and Marc got even more worked up than I did every time this happened. He has the resume, but sometimes, the fish just won’t bite. Let’s not blame Marc. Let’s blame Croatia in general.

While we drifted tuna baits, I spent plenty of time putting smaller offerings on the bottom. I caught some interesting stuff, including a catshark I thought just HAD to be a new species. The scientists say it’s the same fish I caught in Wales in 2005, but you be the judge.

This is the fish I caught in the Adriatic.

And this is the one I caught in Wales. I am told these are both the same species, the smallspotted lesser catshark, or, for Martini, Scyliorhinus canicula.

In the meantime, the wind came up and the water got nasty, snotty rough. I wasn’t in danger of puking, except for when the bluefin went right under the boat without biting.

Little Nik was right at the slip when we got back, and I discovered he had fished the harbor all day, waiting for me to return. Maja is an awesome and patient Mom.

The harbor in the evening.

Nik walked me around his favorite spots, and we caught loads of small seabreams and blennies. The highlight of this session was a giant goby – another new species. The kid is good luck. It was difficult for Maja to get him to stop fishing and go to dinner, but not nearly as difficult as it was to get me to stop fishing and go to dinner. (I told her it would get easier with him when he reaches my level of maturity, which Marta guesses will be around age 11.)

Ironically, my first giant goby was a juvenile.

We had another fantastic dinner, this time at a steak place, and the food was so good I nearly forgot about the lack of big fish. Nearly. There were three days left, and my hopes remained high, because when it comes to fishing, I am the ultimate optimist, or, as others would call it, stupid.

We started very early on day two, but not early enough to beat Nikolaj to the water. He was waiting for me, and although he does not speak a word of English (besides “fish”) he excitedly pointed out a small goby. A moment later, I caught it, and after an email consultation with Dr. Alfredo Carvalho, it turned out to be a new species – Bucchich’s goby.

I was beginning to see why people have children.

Marc and I then went out onto the Adriatic and chummed and drifted and drifted and chummed. In the middle of the day, one of the rods went down, but not hard enough to be a tuna. I lifted up with great hopes for a thresher or a pelagic ray, but alas, it was a blue shark.

Alas.

Two years ago, I would have given Spellman’s eye teeth for a shot at a blue shark. But ever since that fateful night in Tokyo where I got one, I have wanted to avoid them, but of course that means that they have taken a special liking to me. We got nine on the trip, not counting breakoffs. We did not see a single thresher shark, or a married one, and the pelagic rays were more pelagic than we hoped.

I was shamelessly looking forward to another session in the rocks with Nik, and he didn’t disappoint. Just as the sun went down, I caught a beautiful ocellated wrasse – the only wrasse from this group that is readily identifiable.

Nik was now my new best friend.

I’ve seen these in books for years.

The little guy was so proud he had helped me catch fish, and I couldn’t help but wistfully muse that if I had a son his age, he would probably be in jail.

Dinner was again marvelous – Italian food overlooking the harbor, and we still had half the fishing in front of us, so optimism remained.

On day three, we mixed things up a bit. We changed boats to the “Bora Bora,” captained by Marc’s friend Milorad. “Mile” is an inshore specialist, so this would be our best shot at a sharpnose seabream, the species that Stefan Molnar shamelessly caught right under my nose on my last trip to the area. We left so early that even Nikolaj was not up, and we spent the first part of the day looking for tuna. While we again saw a few on the sounder, they again did not bite. I must emphasize again that Marc did everything he possibly could have – the fish just weren’t going to cooperate. Luckily, I’ve caught bluefin before, but they were relatively small, and yes, I want a photo with a 500 pounder.

Like this one.

Toward evening, we cruised inshore and set up for bream. The action was immediate and outstanding – we got solid fish on almost every cast for about 90 minutes.

Mediterranean seabream are one of my favorite fish – they fight hard and are great to eat.

For almost anyone else in the universe, this would have been completely epic, but for me, there were no sharpnose seabream.

That’s Marc’s friend Ivan. who joined us as well.

They were everywhere. But they were the wrong species.

Don’t get me wrong – I love to fish, and catching nice specimens like these was a blast – but there was no sharpnose, and so I was lightly disappointed. This is why guides hate me.

“The Bream Team” – Ivan, Milorad, Steve, Marc, and Nikolaj, who came onboard to inspect our catch.

We got in well after dark, so Nik, waiting mournfully by the dock, had no chance to conjure up a species. We had to go straight to dinner before the restaurant closed.

Nik finally sacks out. Until this moment, I wasn’t sure he ever slept.

Dinner was great again, but suddenly, we had one day left, and only one more shot at all these fish I hadn’t caught. Desperation set in, and I lay awake wondering what I had been thinking. When will I get the hint about me and Croatia? But then I also thought about the beautiful location, the great friends, and the amazing food. It would have been an outstanding vacation by almost standard, except for mine, which relate solely to fish species.

Nik and I had some time to fish while Marc loaded the boat, and while we didn’t get any new species, we caught my personal best salema – upgrading my photo album substantially from the micro-sized example I had caught a few years ago.

A normal-sized salema, Monaco, November 2009.

The beastly salema. I have no idea what is sticking out of it, but it went back inside and the fish swam away with no problem.

It was a beautiful morning, flat calm, and we motored out almost to Italian waters. In a wild coincidence, I recognized some oil rigs where I had gone fishing on September 19, 2003 – three days after the very first time I fished with Roger Barnes. It was my first fishing trip in Italy, arranged by a magnificent concierge in Bologna. I had the choice of either touring Venice or getting up at 3am, driving 3 hours to a port called Jesolo, and fishing all day. That’s an obvious decision in my book, but my Mother was bewildered by this for the rest of her life. (I caught two new species that day – Atlantic Bonito, which were awesome, and Brown Comber, which Marc calls “the Adriatic Brown $#!&”, which I have caught at least 9000 times since.)

My 2003 Atlantic Bonito – and I still haven’t been to Venice.

Back in the present day, fishing was tough. We saw some tuna on the graph, but they blew by us never to be seen again. We lost a couple of blue sharks at the boat, which didn’t bother me, but the other pelagics were not to be found. We got to mid-afternoon and the sardines ran low, and I began to accept that we weren’t going to get any of the big targets. In many of my blogs, this is when my patience would be rewarded with a miraculous gift from the Fish Gods. Indeed, one of the rods started pumping and sagging down – very likely a ray bite. I waited, waited, waited, then reeled into the circle hook. I felt weight for a moment, and then that sickening slack as the hook pulled out. I reeled in quickly, hoping to at least see a cleanly bitten bait, but the sardine was mashed. I had missed a pelagic ray, and my last minute Fish God miracle was more of a last minute Fish God kick in the nuts. Unhelpfully, Marc said “If Nikolaj was here, you would have caught it.”

But we’re still friends.

We ran inshore, and toward sunset, we saw a big school of fish breaking on the surface. We rigged Rapalas for trolling and tried our luck. I guessed the fish were horse mackerel or small bonito, but we got no bites in two passes. (Both of these species will generally hit anything in front of them.) We pondered the situation, and were about to write it off to horrible luck when one of the rods went down. This was not a dramatic bite. It didn’t take any line, even though we were going four knots, so whatever it was, it was having a bad day. I reeled in, expecting a small horse mackerel, but it was some sort of bream I had never seen before. I swung it onboard, and we had my fifth and final species of the trip – the saddled seabream. The book says it’s a plankton feeder, so I’m not sure how this happened. Marc had never seen one caught on rod and reel.

It was the only new species of the trip caught without Nikolaj present.

We decided to call it a day on that high note, and so the thresher would have to wait.

Vrsar in the afternoon. The whole country is just as scenic.

Nik was there at the mooring, and proudly showed us a bucket full of blennies. We released these when he wasn’t looking, or he would have insisted on cleaning and eating them. We fished another hour together, and my three-foot guide came through one last time. I caught a beautifully-marked peacock wrasse. It wasn’t a new species per se, as it turns out I had gotten one in 2011 in Slovenia, but that fish was a very plain example and hence hard to discern from the more common Doderleini’s wrasse. This one clinched the ID and let me add a species, so we’ll call the final score Nikolaj 4.5, Marc 1.5.

See “The Slovenian Coffee Trap” for details.

The saddled seabream inadvertently caused an awkward cultural moment. That evening, Marc, Maja, and her parents hosted a cookout for me, featuring grilled fresh seabream.

This was the best meal of the trip.

Maja’s father asked me what I caught. The local name of the saddled seabream is Usata, but, Freud firmly in cheek, I called it an Ustacha. An Ustacha is not a fish. Rather, it is a right-wing Croatian militant group that was awkwardly pro-German in the early 1940s and still does unfriendly things at soccer games. The room fell silent for a moment, but Marc gently explained my faux-pas to relieved giggling.

Oops.

And so the Balkans had given me another reminder that nothing in fishing in guaranteed … except that I will keep going back to the Adriatic until I get a few of those larger species, and failing that, at least to spend a few more days fishing the harbor with my new best friend.

Steve

 

 

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