Dateline: September 8, 2015 – Chamberlain, South Dakota
I awoke to itching. Severe itching. The kind of itching that makes people buy wire brushes and do inadvisable things. My mosquito bites had ripened into robust welts that would haunt me the rest of the trip. But even then, in the depths of discomfort, pink and crusty with calamine, I was thrilled with the previous two days fishing. It was going to be tough to keep producing numbers like we had on September 4 and 5, and in fact, Martini had warned me that species hunting on this trip was fairly front-loaded. Still, there was plenty to do as we worked our way across the country, and in 24 hours, we would be trying for the species that sparked my imagination more than any other on the agenda.
We had been driving north for the first couple of days, and we now began a broad left turn west. When we came over any slight rise, we could see for miles to the horizon, and it was one big cornfield. I have never seen so much corn in my life, and it would stay this way continuously for several days.
This was the view for a long time.
The view made me realize exactly how darn big the country is – and how much corn we grow. I like corn, but we never stopped seeing it. I saw it in my sleep, working itself into that dream I have every night where Jaime Hamamoto catches the lagoon triggerfish. This time, she caught it using corn. I shot awake in a cold sweat.
The target species were farther between, but a day fishing is a day fishing. On September 6th, we hopscotched from spillway to spillway, looking for whatever would bite. Martini was focused on some line class records for gar, so I explored the backwaters while he did his thing. I caught the first of what would be several large carp, which is great fun on light tackle.
Carp: terribly underrated by US anglers; terribly overrated by French chefs.
I thought back to Ben and the kindness he had shown in sharing his secret creek in Illinois. By this stage, 24 hours later, I learned that he had never caught a gizzard shad and was going to give me a hard time because I had. He was certainly a good sport, which I probably wasn’t. (Sending him a gizzard shad photo every day for a week was kind of tasteless, but hey, he made me eat at Sonic.)
Moving to another tailrace, Martini cast for Asian carp while I fished for whatever was there. The yellow bass were pounding my crankbait, but then I had the misfortune, or not, of foul-hooking a large bighead. Refusing to lose my lucky orange Wiggle Wart, I stuck it out for 45 minutes and landed the beast. No, I don’t put this at the same level of dignity as catching one on a jig, but it was a heck of a fight.
I am one of the few people you know who has caught one of these in Asia on bait.
That night, we crossed in to Missouri. Because we had decided that eating too much Dairy Queen would kill us, we looked for healthier options. We quickly abandoned that idea when I discovered that Martini had never eaten at White Castle, which is just wrong. He had a personal goal of finishing ten of these tasty if small hamburgers in one sitting, and he handily exceeded this.
Interestingly, this is the first time I had ever eaten at White Castle before 1am.
Martini, the White Castle devastation, and Penguito, the official mascot of the road trip. Yes, he (Martini, not Penguito) ate all those hamburgers, and yes, there would be consequences.
The next day, September 7, we continued through the corn, covering the rest of Missouri and most of Iowa.
It felt like it was closing in on us. We didn’t want to drive through it, because then we would be cereal killers.
It’s flat there. It’s still pretty country, a lot like the farmland in Michigan where my Mom’s side of the family comes from – open and filled with corn. The people are good-natured and not always in a hurry, and we actually saw teenagers who weren’t glued to an iPhone.
We tried a few more Missouri creeks early in the day, and among at least a squillion tiny sunfish, we got bigeye shiners and bleeding shiners, both of which were new species.
Pride? What pride?
A bleeding shiner, identified by Ben Cantrell.
We fished the rest of the afternoon at a dam in Iowa. Martini spent hours jigging for walleye and white crappie, two species he needs for his list, but unfortunately, the place was so loaded with silver carp he kept hooking them instead. He wanted me to note that he inadvertently snagged them, but I firmly believe they attack jigs with their pectoral fins. I amused myself by catching some nice common carp.
Martini and the dreaded silver carp.
My British friends sent me congratulations. My French friends sent me recipes.
We went to sleep that evening knowing we had an early morning date with a dinosaur, and before you start getting visions of country bars and poor decisions, I’m talking about a sturgeon. Get your mind out of the gutter, people.
It was pouring when we got up, but this was the only rain we saw on the trip. (Until we reached Seattle of course.) About an hour later, we crossed the border into Nebraska.
That’s who we have to thank for Arbor day!
We pulled up at the sturgeon spot Martini had researched, discovering that Lewis and Clark had also stayed there.
They should have stayed at La Quinta. (Interestingly, “La Quinta” is Spanish for “Next to Denny’s.”)
We got down to the water and immediately recognized a problem. Martini had brought us exactly where others had caught these fish, but the current conditions looked unworkable – the water was whizzing by fast enough to push a four ounce sinker right back onto the bank. We gave it a game try for about an hour, but nothing happened. Bearing in mind we didn’t have very long scheduled in any given spot, we both went into problem-solving mode. I wanted this species badly.
I knew we needed a slower flow that still offered some range of depth – I imagined these beasts would be prowling just out of the main current. Looking well upstream, there appeared to be a bar where a tributary came in, and I suggested that we head that direction. The sky was clearing and it had warmed up, but my idea didn’t look as attractive when we realized that what looked like a light wade was actually a trudge through deep mud – the kind that pulls off shoes. And toenails. But we made it, set up, and cast some baits out that actually stayed in the water.
About 30 minutes later, my heavy salmon rod rattled a couple of times. I feared that small catfish had found us, but I picked up the rod, and instead of the pestilential tapping typical of siluriformes, there was a gentle pumping and creeping away sort of thing. (Sound familiar, Cousin Chuck?) I set the hook, and whatever it was, it wasn’t a tiny catfish. I reeled silently and thought sturgeon thoughts, and when that impossibly thin tail whipped out of the water, I swung the whole rig up on the bank and yelled in triumph. I spun around to yell for Martini but he was already there with the net – he’s just that good of a teammate.
I am sure Martini was glad this fish was easier to land than the last sturgeon we got together – see “A Midnight Swim in Eau Claire.”
Now our goal was to get Martini the species, so I sat back to assist, as he would for me. The same rod went off again, and Martini, who almost never misses, didn’t miss. So we both had the shovelnose, which meant that we needed to be off for other places.
This was an amazing fish. Sturgeon are a true prehistoric holdover that fascinate me in any size, and I still recall this as the best moment in a string of good ones.
Hence the name.
We hit the road, heading northwest into South Dakota. SD was one of the five states remaining where I had not caught a fish, so I was antsy for the entire drive to our first stop, a small river near Sioux Falls. We didn’t have a lot of time allotted there, but I was fairly confident I would get something in the state, because I knew we would be in South Dakota for a very long time, as it is approximately 6000 miles wide.
Noted micro-fisherman and species hunter Levi Cain had pointed us to a riverside park with a convenient bridge, and it was there we set up. Moments later, Martini landed a nice shorthead redhorse, and I followed that up with a channel catfish. We were on the board in South Dakota – my 46th state.
Yes, his was bigger.
We would have caught more fish if I had Rushmore.
We made a final stop for the day in a small creek a few miles outside of town. It was loaded with micros, and we managed to get sand shiners, which fight well for a shiner, onto the list.
The sand shiner. Yes, we have photos of the unique scale pattern on the dorsal surface, because I know you were going to ask that.
Painfully aware that the next day would be the longest one of the trip, one in which we were unlikely to discover any new species, but quite likely to discover that our logistical planning was overly ambitious, we drifted off to sleep, dreams of new fish and states interrupted only by the aforementioned consequences of a dozen White Castle hamburgers.