Posted by: 1000fish | May 30, 2017

Species Wise, Trophy Foolish

Dateline: October 11, 2016 – Male, Maldives

Some species just hate me. The dogtooth tuna is apparently one of those species. It seems to hate me more than spearfish do, and spearfish hate me a lot.

Figuring this out has been a painful and not inexpensive process. This creature, a savage denizen of tropical reef passes, combines the worst characteristics of a yellowfin and a GT – fast, strong, durable, and a dirty fighter. They also live in places that take lots of flying to reach. My first encounter with a dogtooth was off the Great Barrier Reef in 2002, when one unceremoniously tore the hooks off of my Marauder and swam off laughing. The most recent had been on my January 2016 Maldives trip, when they laughed at me some more.

As a species hunter, I advise other anglers to avoid getting focused (= obsessed) on one particular trophy species. If you have to ask if I follow my own advice, you must be a new reader. Welcome! Because as soon as I took another business trip to Singapore and had another chance to go to the Maldives, I took it. I knew there were still a lot of species there, but I confess my heart was not pure. I was mostly thinking about a dogtooth. We’ll blame Phil Richmond – he has caught quite a few doggies while high-speed jigging, and he had talked me through the process and even picked me out some jigs at his favorite Tokyo tackle store. I felt prepared for the dogtooth. No one is EVER really prepared for a dogtooth.

The journey from Singapore to Male is a quick four hours, and my old friend Mohamed Latheef (DETAILS HERE) had organized everything perfectly. The boat was waiting for me a hundred feet from baggage claim, and in just enough cruising time to let me rig some rods, we were anchored.

That first evening, we worked over a couple of reefs and got many of the expected creatures. I am certainly willing to wade through dozens of fish to get something new, because, well, I get to catch dozens of fish. We caught hard-fighting emperors, triggerfish, monocle breams, and others, but nothing new showed up for hours. I got close with a scorpionsfish, but these are disappointingly difficult to identify, and we’re going to leave this one in the “mystery” file.

These things are brutal to ID. Of course, they’re even more brutal to sit on.

It was still great fishing. The highlight, as ungamefishy as this is, was a whitetip reef shark on an eight pound class spinning setup.

Say what you will, they are fun to catch. 

As the sun began to go down, I got a nice consolation prize – a large red-striped triggerfish that would become a world record.

This broke my old record, also set in the Maldives. There is nothing wrong with doing this, as long as you’re ok with the mental confusion of competing with yourself.

I had learned from my last visit here not to panic. We were heading south this time, so I would be getting plenty of new water, and we had four full days. Something good was bound to happen.

We opened the next morning – a perfect, glorious, tropical morning –  by dropping some cut baits into depths ranging from 100 to 500 feet. This is always a crapshoot, as the guides mostly do jigging or popping, but as we headed over some steep dropoffs, I started getting fish. The first one renewed my faith in the Maldives. An odd fish that looked like a supercharged tilapia, it turned out to be a Mozambique Large-Eye Bream.

A species. This is a good thing.

Sometimes, you can just tell something will be a record. I texted a photo of the fish to Martini, and he responded “That HAS to be a world record.” It was. I also caught around 20 goldflag jobfish – they were small, but another new species.

Every one of these I got was between 14 and 15 ounces. I was happy to get a news species, but missing a record that many times was a bit irksome.

I even got an odd scorpionfish, but as I have discussed, these are nearly impossible to identify.

Mystery file again. These things are as hard as plain brown damselfish to ID.

Later in the morning, I knew it was time to get after my dogtooth. This means jigging. Out came the big spinning reel and cue stick rod, out came the eight ounce metal slab that Phil Richmond had so carefully selected for me, on went the 100 pound mono leader. Jigging is exhausting work. It involves dropping the lure to the bottom, then ripping it up as fast as possible while trying to impart some action to it. It seems like a good idea for a few drops, then it gets old, especially because my left shoulder could be used to teach medical school classes on what happens when old people play hockey.

We began in about 200 feet of water, and worked our way deeper. Drop, wait, rip, rip, rip, rip, drop, wait, rip, rip, rip, drink Red Bull. This went on for a couple of hours, as I am nothing if not stubborn. This area looked like it should hold a dogtooth, and I stayed with the jig despite warnings from my shoulder, elbow, wrist, and toes. We could see things on the sounder. One of them just had to bite. I ignored the fact that I could have been doing more species fishing and stuck to it.

The strike was not what I expected. Because the jig is coming up so quickly, the fish generally chase it from below, and often, this means the initial hit is more of a quick slackening of the line. In this case, it was very quick – a split-second of “what the heck?” which was then followed by another split second of loading dead weight, followed by 30 minutes of violence. Finally, I assumed, I had hooked my dogtooth. The fish was heavy, the runs were hard – it tried to stay deep initially, but then powered out ahead of the boat almost to the surface, then ran back 50 yards toward the reef. Remember that this was all done against a Stella 8000 loaded with 65 pound braid, and a Fox travel rod suited to lifting cinder blocks. The fish circled closer and closer, and the captain and crew got ready with gaffs and tail ropes. I focused on keeping good technique and just prayed all the knots held. The leader finally came into view, and well under the boat, there was some sort of large fish just coming into view through the crystal blue water. It was the right shape, and the right size, and with two or three more pumps, we saw it.

It was a shark. My heart sank into my colon. The deckhands fled to the other side of the boat, leaving me and the captain the undesirable job of reclaiming the jig. Although it wasn’t a dogtooth, the shark had been a worthy adversary, and I wasn’t going to kill it by leaving a jig in its lip. And so, after a bit of trial and error that was quite a trial and included a lot of error, we tail-roped the beast onto the deck. We then conducted the “MMD” – “Mixed Martial Dentistry” – wherein I hold an angry 100#+ shark down on the deck while the captain removes the jig with pliers and shoves it overboard before it kills us both.

A fine catch, but it wasn’t what I expected. And yes, it clearly attacked the jig – Mohamed tells me this other clients have suffered similar mixups. Safely released.

After all that excitement, I was ready to do some bottom fishing, and I tried not to think of all the bottom fishing I could have done if I wasn’t jigging. I also noticed that the wind was coming up. This is not always a crisis in the Maldives, as there is usually an island to hide behind, but the runs between atolls got pretty darn bumpy. We anchored up on a small reef near the island where I would stay for the night, and I started pitching my beloved sabikis. Moments later, I got a very awesome surprise that reminded me of how special a place this was.

The sixbar wrasse. I had seen these in books for years.

Moments later, I got an unexpected reminder of Jamie Hamamoto.

Yes, that’s a lagoon triggerfish. Where were these last January? That is our Captain, Abdul Bari, in the background.

I finished the day with what passes for a good light-tackle battle in my world. While trying to catch wrasses on a small sabiki (roughly #18 hooks) I hooked something I didn’t see for over an hour. It turned out to be a yellowmargin triggerfish of some seven pounds. A note to species hunters – I was using P-Line sabikis, which use much heavier leaders than Hayabusas. I love the Hayabusas for small reef fish, but if I had hooked this fish on three pound leader, there would be no picture below.

The world record is almost twice as big as this one. Wow.

By the next morning, it had gotten appreciably windier.

See – it isn’t always perfect here.

We couldn’t jig immediately, which I pretended bothered me, so we did some bottom fishing. My first fish of the day addressed a problem from yesterday. I finally got a 17 ounce goldflag jobfish, my third record of the trip.

That’s a look of relief.

We also got on some shallow reefs, and the Fish Gods smiled broadly upon me. A new species is a good thing. A beautiful tropical species is an even better thing. And a new, beautiful, tropical species that Marta had caught and I hadn’t was perfectly sublime.

A checkerboard wrasse. Marta had caught one in Fiji (DETAILS HERE) and I had lost sleep over this for 22 months.

This is why I do this.

I also got a grouper that looked just different enough to photograph. Another note to budding species hunters – there are DOZENS of groupers that look like this in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Either get a couple of Dr. Jack Randall’s books and learn the differences, or photograph all of them.

A snubnose grouper – species #5 of the trip.

Species number six happened moments later.

A black-spotted sand perch. I am fortunate to have Dr. Jeff Johnson of the Queensland Museum on speed-dial – this family is one of his specialties, and he sent me an ID before I had downloaded the photos.

The next fish wasn’t a new species, but it was beautiful enough to include here.

This is actually a goldspot goatfish – but it’s a rare all-yellow color morph. Or it has liver problems. That’s Captain Adbul again – he was always quietly in the background, making stuff happen.

We finished up the bottom fishing around noon, and the fact we would spend the afternoon jigging filled me with dread. But before this could happen, my light spinning rod got a crushing hit. The bait hadn’t even reached the bottom, so I was unprepared and lucky to hang on the the setup – if I had lost another Loomis, I might have done something drastic, like not told you. It was a long, tough fight, and when I finally got the fish to the side of the boat, I was thrilled. It was a positively huge bignose unicornfish, and I had set my fourth record of the trip.

I’m learning to photograph these quickly – they lose their color faster than mahi-mahi.

Then we spent hours and hours jigging and catching nothing. You heard me. Let’s move on.

The wind woke me up a few times during the night, and when I got up in the morning, the seas were a mess. For the time being, I was stuck in the harbor.

Vaavu harbor – my home for around six hours.

This is typically not a bad thing, as harbors are usually loaded with interesting smaller fish, but these fish didn’t want to bite.

A specialized Japanese rig saved my bacon. Months before, during the “Land of the Rising Species Total” episode, I had purchased a bunch of Japanese bitterling rigs – ridiculously tiny hooks in a sabiki arrangement. I had figured that, at some stage, I would need something like this. And here I was. There were definitely some odd species in the coral around the edge of the harbor, but they wouldn’t touch my regular sabikis or my standard micro-rigs. Out came these teensy hooks, carefully baited with teensy bits of Gulp, and over the next couple of hours, I had added four new species. I grant you none of them were spectacular fights, but they certainly photographed well.

Yellowbelly damselfish. Be prepared – the fish aren’t going to get any bigger in this series.

Sapphire damselfish. If you look closely, it’s small.

Maldives cardinalfish. It’s there. Take your time. This one ended up in the mystery file, but when it is finally differentiated as a new species, I’ll be waiting.

Then I actually caught a fish I thought was impossible – the striped humbug. These are what had caused me to get out the really small hooks in the first place, and they had been ignoring me the whole time.

Wind or not, it was a great morning.

The scenery was amazing – the small spot outside the harbor where it was calm enough to fish was a stunning range of blues and greens.

The channel into Vaavu.

Oh, and I caught another checkerboard wrasse, which I may have mentioned Marta caught before me.

More mystery file. I hate juvenile parrotfish.

Things calmed down after lunch, so, unfortunately, we got to spend hours and hours jigging and catching nothing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it.

We did get a nice coronation trout right before dark, but it was not on a jig and it was not a dogtooth tuna. Stop already.

We opened our last day on a shallow reef, casting cut baits back against the structure. I got dozens of emperors and snappers, and at least ten spotted unicornfish. I had struggled to get one of these in January, and now they were everywhere.

Spotted unicornfish. These also seemed to all be 13-15 ounces.

I did get one new and very difficult-to-handle species – the highly-venomous streamlined rabbitfish.

Do NOT put this in your pants.

Then we spent hours and hours jigging and catching nothing. I am past this already. Really. Or not.

As the day went on, the wind got bad enough where we had to hide in the lee of an island. The fishing had gone pretty much dry, but I stubbornly kept bashing the bottom with cut baits. Just then, I noticed the big boxes of lures I always pack and generally forget to use. I figured I may as well try a few of them – nothing else was working. My first cast resulted in a huge strike that broke me off clean. I tied on a heavier leader and got back at it, and spent the rest of the afternoon catching a nice assortment of groupers, snappers, and emperors. The very first fish I landed was a new species – the whiteline grouper.

While the trip hadn’t produced as many species as the January adventure, 12 was nothing to sneeze at – and I felt strangely vindicated by the success on artificials.

Dual hookup on the same plug. I had done this once before in my life.

We pulled anchor near sunset and set off through the chop to drop me off at my hotel. Just because, I put out an X-Rap and trolled most of the way to Male. We hadn’t gotten anything on the troll thus far, but a few miles from home, my rig pounded down hard. I hooked into something that was quite fast, but I stopped it after just a minute or two, so I knew it likely wasn’t a dogtooth. I quietly hoped until we saw silver flashes under the boat, but the fish turned out to be a black skipjack – still a fitting last fish of the trip.

The deckhands – Imran Hassan and Ali Mia, pose with Steve and the black skipjack.

That evening, the wind got up over 40 – even landing the boat at the hotel was an adventure. Even though my shoulder felt like it was going to fall off, I knew we were fortunate. If this weather had come up earlier, we might have missed quite a few species. Of course, we might have also missed roughly 18 hours of jigging, but we’re not discussing that.

Steve

 

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Responses

  1. Steve,

    I told you the lagoon triggerfish are commonly caught all year in Hawaii, except for the few days you are here. I think the same phenomena occurs with the dogtooth.

  2. Looks like an awesome trip. It’s too bad about the doggies. I’ve hooked dozens, but only landed a few. The truly big ones always get away when it comes to me and doggies… or eaten by sharks.

    Then again – Jamie does have a valid point. 🙂

  3. Steve,
    yours is one of my all time favorite blogs. when i was 8 (40 odd years ago) i had a little blue composition book and worked diligently to try and write down every specie of fish.

    been readong blog since before 1000, and just love it.

    thanks for your passion, and unquenchable collector mentality.
    cheers,
    Todd

    • Hi Todd.

      Thanks so much for the kind words – it’s pretty rare I get something like this that isn’t from a relative. On to 2000!

      Cheers,

      Steve


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