Dateline: September 5, 2015 – Central Illinois
If there is one thing more ill-advised than driving across the country with a couple of barely-hygienic millenials, it’s driving back across the country with one of them in half the time with even more ambitious fishing goals. Yes, I know you are all painfully familiar with The Great Road Trip of 2014, when I spent three weeks in the back seat of a Ford Escape dealing with endless juvenile humor (mostly from me,) gas issues (mostly from Kyle,) and of course Kyle, who kept catching all the best fish. It was a golden three weeks, when our only problem seemed to be figuring out where we could find the next Dairy Queen.
That’s Kyle, close friend of Jaime Hamamoto. I’m still annoyed that he caught this fish.
It had been five months since Martini and I had been on the road (see “Swede Home Alabama“) and we were due. Martini needed to get from Miami to Seattle, because he was starting grad school or joining a grunge band, I forget which, but either way, he needed company for 3500 miles of driving and this meant plenty of fishing – and possibly four of the six states where I had never caught something. It was not a hard decision, especially with Marta saying “Take an extra week. Call if you get a chance. Bye now!”
To save me a day of driving, Martini met me in Atlanta. United Airlines did their usual, inexplicable best to make me late, and by the time I saw that familiar Ford Escape, we just had time to shovel down $12 worth of Cracker Barrel meatloaf and get some sleep. There was an itinerary to follow, and every spot Martini had scoped out was loaded with new things to catch. He is truly the ultimate fishing researcher and planner.
That first morning was one of the most magical of the trip. The location was beautiful – a small river winding through hilly farmland in a quiet corner of Northwest Georgia, given to Martini by microfishing expert Levi Cain. We set up some light and micro rods, donned our water shoes, and set to it. It was summer and I was on the road with a great friend – nay, a brother – and in pursuit of new species.
Our first spot – part of the Conasauga River system.
I warn you all, especially the less-experienced readers, that there are not a lot of large fish in this article. Well, there really aren’t any. But a new species is a new species and this sort of stuff really gets us species hunters worked up, so please bear with me.
The first catch was a Coosa shiner, which looks like most other shiners.
This didn’t take long.
We then moved on to the Southern Studfish, which I have always wanted to catch just because it has such a cool name.
I have no idea why they’re called this.
We also added a tricolor shiner, and finally, I got the beast of the morning, a largescale stoneroller. Martini did not catch one of these. I reminded him of this often.
The tricolor shiner. Unlike most shiners, it is at least readily identifiable.
This is what passed for big that day.
In our defense, we did catch a bunch of nice sunfish and bass, but these were not the targets. Martini then got a hogsucker, which I didn’t, and he was much more gracious than I was about the largescale stoneroller. (Although we’re still not sure if it’s a new species or not.)
Martini has some kind of fancy underwater camera. iPhones are not waterproof, as I would find out the hard way in about two hours.
Martini hunts the next species.
As we got into the afternoon, Martini reminded me that we needed to be on our way, and hopefully put Tennessee on my state list. Of course, I was convinced that I could squeeze just one more species out of the creek and was reluctant to leave. This was the first of many times on the trip that my primal urge to stay at one place for hours and hours would run up against Martini’s carefully crafted schedule. Let’s be clear here – if Martini hadn’t plotted this thing out in the detail he had, I’d still be sitting in Georgia. So if, in the next few episodes, it ever sounds like he was anal about the schedule, remember that he was managing a tight timetable and an attention span-challenged fishing partner.
We pulled up at another gorgeous country creek, just a few minutes across the Georgia/Tennessee border. We each caught a bunch of small bass, making Tennessee the 45th state where I had caught a fish.
Steve adds TN as his 45th state.
Then I dumped my iPhone in the creek.
Wet iPhones do not behave well, and this was my only link to an office that expected me to keep an eye on email and phone calls during this trip. It would work for a few minutes, and then start calling random numbers out of my contacts. It would let me type most of an email, and then autocorrect everything into faintly obscene gobbledygook. It was a challenge I didn’t need, but it certainly made things exciting for the next week.
There were a lot of churches in Tennessee.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and the schedule called for us to spend the night well to the north in Kentucky. (I had fished KY previously, resulting in one of the lowest fish to text ratios of any blog ever – My Old Kentucky Bone.) We did manage one more species before we hit the road- the flame chub. This modest creature was camped out under a culvert near a store where we had stopped to load up on unhealthy food to get us through the long, dark drive.
The flame chub has its moment in the media. I probably should have washed my hands before I ate the Cheetos.
During that drive, I learned something culturally disturbing about Martini. Our iPods have very little overlap, except for Taylor Swift, so we were trading off songs in a sort of intergenerational cultural exchange. While I believe that my classic Clash tunes have it all over the K-Pop he sometimes drags out, when he produced – and performed – the following entry, he clearly won the evening.
We crashed for a few fitful hours, then hit the road early, as the schedule called for us to end up in central Illinois.
There’s a license plate combination I never expected to see.
We drove back roads up through the rest of Kentucky – beautiful country – and one of our several culvert stops netted me a central stoneroller, which was a new species.
And there was great rejoicing.
It was in this same spot that Martini got even with me for the largescale stoneroller. He caught a lake chubsucker, which I did not. He was more gracious than I would have been.
How do they get these names? I’ve never seen one in a lake or doing anything untoward with a chub.
We worked our way north, crossing into Illinois at Cairo, which had once been a booming river town but has since fallen on hard times. These were long stretches of road, but between the scenery and the planning of our next moves, time went quickly.
Our first couple of stops were at, well, swamps. Southern Illinois has a lot of swamp, some of which is still in my shoes.
Nice but unexpected scenery. There were snakes everywhere. I don’t like snakes, but they’re better than alligators.
The schedule for the day hopscotched us across southern Illinois until late afternoon. We would then spend the rest of the day at a secret creek that had been shared with us by local species hunter Ben Cantrell. In the meantime, our first stop produced orangespotted sunfish for both of us.
The orangespotted sunfish joins the list.
See? They do have orange spots.
We moved spots frequently – pretty much a hit and run approach. One of the marks, another swampy area, gave up a blackstripe topminnow. These micros are always interesting to catch, because they are right on the surface, as their name would imply, and they will chase small baits skimmed across the top for some distance. It’s the same idea as trolling for marlin, except smaller and less dignified.
There’s a fish in my left hand. Look closely.
As we worked our way north, through a beautiful, humid summer afternoon, we stopped at an isolated spillway where Martini thought he might get a gar record or two.
Although Martini got no records this particular day, he got plenty of nice fish.
While he cast baits at cruising fish, I spent my time throwing sabikis at a school of baitfish right under the wash. I thought about walking on to the rocks to get a better angle, but after I saw three large copperheads, I changed my mind. In the meantime, I caught one fish, a gizzard shad.
I only learned later that this was a rather improbable hookup.
We then headed north for Ben’s creek. Martini warned me that it wouldn’t look like much, but Ben had told him there were at least a dozen species in there that we hadn’t caught. When we pulled up to the bridge, which was in the exact middle of nowhere, there was a truck parked above it. I thought to myself – damn, another fisherman daring to be in our spot. But Martini leaned out the window and yelled, in some sort of disturbing accent, “Ohhhhhhhh Bennnnnnnyyyyyy!!!” It was Ben down on the water. By pure coincidence, as the location had been given months before, we were fishing the creek the same day as Ben and I would get to meet him in person. He has fished with Martini several times, and whatever the private joke was with the “Ohhhhhhh Bennnnnyyyy,” I don’t want to know.
Ben works for a heavy equipment company in Illinois, and he has a bad case of the species hunting bug. He has a list in the mid-300s, and this is especially impressive considering it has all been done in the US. His blog is good reading – http://bencantrellfish.blogspot.com/.
Steve and Ben just before the festivities started. Ben was joined by his buddy Garren, another species hunter, who is examining the piling in the background.
We waved at him from the bridge and hoped he could show us how the heck to get down to the water – the banks were steep and overgrown. It turns out that there was no easy way. We crashed through poison-ivy laden underbrush and down precipitous rocks, but then we were there – in a short stretch of shallow pools and riffles that would turn out to be great fun. While I rigged up my micro rod, Ben and Martini started catching all kinds of stuff I had never seen. It was late afternoon, we had perhaps two hours of light left, and I wanted to take advantage of every moment of it. I didn’t even notice the first few mosquitoes.
The first few catches were striped shiners, but then I got a new critter – the bluntnose minnow.
Yes, I am actually reporting catching a minnow.
I then went after the harder stuff – madtoms and darters. The mosquitoes were getting annoying.
Madtoms are a small, catfishy-looking thing that hides under rocks. They are caught by those patient (or deranged) enough to poke small baits into likely-looking crevices until a madtom pops out and attacks. As the day grew crepuscular, I missed several bites because I was busy swatting mosquitoes off my neck. Ben pretty much stopped fishing and guided me – he showed me likely hiding spots for the madtoms, then coached me on presentation until I caught one.
The slender madtom.
We then had the rainbow darter to tackle before it got completely dark, and before the mosquitoes – which had grown larger, more numerous, and more organized – took over completely. Tragically, there was a bottle of military-grade repellent in the car, but I was not leaving this stream, not even for five minutes. Ben patiently showed me how to spot these skittish but beautiful fish – they generally spook, then settle down a few feet away. The idea is then to drop a tiny bait in front of their new hiding spot. They won’t come out very far to eat, but after half a dozen false starts, I finally got one – my sixth species of the day and the best-looking by far. It was almost completely dark, and my neck and arms were riddled with welts. But as they say, all’s welt that ends welt.
A rainbow darter in the holding tank. Who knew tupperware had so many uses?
Steve, Darter, Martini, and Garren.
I hardly noticed the itching as we crashed back up the hill and got to the cars. My can of DEET was sitting on the seat, mocking me, as I noticed that the back of my legs looked like an allergy test gone horribly wrong.
We took Garren and Ben out to dinner to thank them – I wanted to go all out and hit Dairy Queen, but the guys seemed set on Sonic, even though there was a Dairy Queen nearby. I mean, Dairy Queen was RIGHT THERE, but they were all about Sonic. Sonic makes A&W taste like Chez Panisse.
Late that evening, in some sort of Motel Fungus, we looked at how far we had come – about a third of the way. We recognized the sobering fact that while we had caught a butt-load of species, that the diversity of desirable creatures would be dropping off quite a bit as we headed west. Still, 12 species had already made the trip worth it, and we had a couple of thousand miles in front of us where anything could happen.