Posted by: 1000fish | August 28, 2017

The Bitterling Truth

Dateline: July 25, 2008 – Luxembourg. Or …

Dateline: April 28, 2017 – Gersfeld, Germany (Explanation below.)

Sometimes, I just drop the ball. This will be no secret to anyone who has played baseball with me, although some of them, such as Scott Kisslinger, might gratuitously add “Anybody might drop the ball. But Steve would pick it up, rush the throw, and launch it three rows deep in the stands.”

Although I was quick from home to first, I was even quicker from home to the mound.

The dropped ball in this case involves the ID on one of the smallest European fish species, the bitterling. In retrospect, it is clear how I made the mistake. All along, I had unknowingly been looking at photos of the Japanese bitterling, Rhodeus ocellatus. This species, which is smaller and more durable than its European counterpart, is also quite attractive. So every time I fished for bitterling in Europe, I was looking for this fish:

This is what I thought I was looking for.

But there are several bitterling species, and although I didn’t know that at the time, the European Bitterling, Rhodeus amarus, it somewhat more homely than its cousin from the Orient. So I never caught the fish I was looking for, because I was fishing about 6000 miles too far west, or 11,000 miles too far east, depending on which airline you fly.

The actual target. I want to catch them both, so I can tell someone “This ‘aint my first Rhodeus.”

Our old friend Stefan Molnar (famed for blog appearances such as “Uncle Beef” and “A Quappe for Steve“) was amused by my plight, and in discussing the matter with some of his fishing buddies, he came upon Roland. Roland, a co-worker and passionate angler himself, was also amused by my plight, but he had a connection that could solve my problem. It turns out he was good friends with the owner of a bitterling hatchery in Northwestern Germany.

Let’s get this out of the way – if the idea that I might fish in a hatchery surprises you, you must be a first time reader. Welcome!! Yes, this is undignified, but if you are coming to this blog looking for dignity, you’ve had seven long years of disappointment, sort of like Cousin Chuck’s wife during the first six years of their marriage.

I was in Germany for a business trip in April, and so Roland volunteered to take an afternoon off and drive me up to the hatchery. It was a pleasant drive, filled with fishing conversation. Roland is quite the expert on rough fish in Germany, and has an impressive portfolio of carp and other catches.

When we showed up, everyone was polite, but it didn’t need to be said that they thought this was a bit weird. The owner in particular did not believe that there were hooks small enough to catch them, or that they would eat anything but the hatchery food. (Purina Bitterling Chow looks something like grainy dust.)

That’s the owner on the right, and he couldn’t stop giggling at me. The guy on the left was a random visitor who happened to be from California.

I was armed with micro hooks and Gulp bloodworms, and I was confident that I could get it done.

When I say micro hooks, I mean micro hooks.


I’ll grant you I’ve fished in more scenic locations.

To the great surprise of all present, I caught one immediately.

The beast is captured.

Roland and Steve celebrate the moment. Anyone who thinks this wasn’t worth four hours of driving is … well adjusted?

But to my astonishment, it was the not the fish I expected. It was much plainer-looking and less deep-bodied, and with the bizarre way my memory works, I instantly clicked back to a July day in 2008. I was fishing in Luxembourg with old friend Jens Koller, moments after I had landed a big barbel. I was plying the rocks with a micro hook, and I caught a plain-looking fish I assumed for years was some sort of deformed dace, because it didn’t look like the Japanese bitterling, which I thought was the European bitterling. It was part of a crazed long weekend in which we drove halfway across Europe so I could add Luxembourg and Austria to my country list, and apart from the occasional road rage incident, it was glorious. So let’s reminisce to that weekend, nine years ago, before I had started blogging, back when I had more hair and fewer world records, when my species count was at 774, when I had caught fish in exactly 50 countries. When my relationship with Marta was only four years old, so the Las Vegas odds of it going five were stacked against me.

Jens – a.k.a. “The Autobahn Werewolf” – seemed to enjoy setting up these road trips across Europe. On different occasions, we did Switzerland, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic, but this trip was about countries in two opposite directions from Germany – Luxembourg and Austria. We started with a day on the River Enz in Germany, catching some nice trout and chub. Notably, this day marked the one time (knock on wood) that I have ever put a hook through my finger.

Jens nearly fainted when I pushed it through, flattened the barb, and pulled it out. Note that I did not cut the hook – that would have wasted fishing time.

The next morning, we headed to off Luxembourg, a quick few hours from my office in Walldorf. Traffic was light, and Jens was calm.

I was so focused on fishing that I didn’t go see Patton’s grave. This probably makes me a bad American.

We got there in the afternoon, and set up for some bottom fishing. That was slow, so we moved to a smaller creek and tossed some lures. It was here I got my fish – a perch – adding Luxembourg as my 51st country.

My first fish in Luxembourg. The far side of the creek is Germany.

We fished well into the evening, and got into quite a batch of European eels.

Marta says this is my sexiest eel photo, ever. Taylor Swift says this is my sexiest eel photo ever, ever, ever, ever.

The next morning, we fished a short session on a small river just inside the border, and I hooked up on a beast of a barbel. It wasn’t quite as big as my 10 pound first barbel in 2005 with Roger Barnes, but a magnificent fish nonetheless.

One of the hardest fighting fish in fresh water. 

In the afterglow of this trophy, I did a bit of microfishing in some rocks on the bank, inspired by what I thought was a glimpse of a stone loach. I caught a few minnows, and then a silver fish I wrote off as an odd-looking dace because it didn’t look anything like what I was mistakenly picturing a bitterling. And so it was photographed and filed away.

Steve unknowingly catches a European bitterling – July 25, 2008.

We hit the road for Austria, about 7 hours back across Germany but featuring a stop at a Karlsruhe pub that put on a Friday night barbecue. There was sauerkraut. There was pork. There was more sauerkraut. It was awesome until we had been back in the car for a few hours – men never think of these things. Well, men think of these things as contests, and I would say Jens won.

The next day, we arrived at Fuschl am See. (Lake Fuschl.) I loved saying the name – Fuschl Fischl Fuschl.

No, they weren’t trolling.

It was certainly one of the most beautiful alpine locations I had ever visited, and we had the privilege of staying with one of Jen’s great friends, Robbi, who just happens to own a very nice resort on the lake – the Pension Huber.

The hotel. Worth the trip just for the scenery.

We had the full run of the place, including the delicatessen and tackle store, for 48 hours, and it was awesome. We did long stretches of fishing in their own private mountain pond – the target was tench, which I would not get for another 355 days. But we had a blast with roach and some nice carp, and the nighttimes were filled with sausage platters, good Austrian beer, and endless fishing conversation.

The pond, hidden up a narrow mountain road.

Steve and Jens. He’s about as tall as I am – I just always seem be standing uphill.

Steve and Robbi. We caught over a dozen carp like this.

It was a bit muddy. But no problem – it was Jens’ car!

Jens and I then fought through European holiday traffic to get back to Germany, where we fished one more day and I caught my first (minuscule) asp. It would be eight more years before I would catch a reasonable one, but a species is a species.

My first encounter with an asp was still better than Cleopatra’s.

Oh, how I enjoyed those maniacal runs through summertime Europe with Jens, and I smiled. Just then, a cold breeze brought me back to 2017, and like that, my flashback was over. So yes, there is a new species to report, but I’m about nine years late.

But returning to the present day, there was one more surprise in store. Bitterling were not the only creatures being raised at this place. They also had big tanks laden with exotic sturgeon – Belugas, Siberians, and a couple of others. Yes, I briefly considered getting a rod and putting a Beluga on my list – this is one of the great unicorns of the species world.

Fish, barrel, I get it. But there were three rare species of sturgeon in one pen.

But I have an obsession with catching my Beluga in the Volga River, preferably near Stalingrad, or Volgograd, or Putingrad – whatever they’re calling it this week. But then I saw some small, white shapes at the bottom of one of the pens.

There was no way I wasn’t fishing for these.

Roland explained that these were sterlet. Albino sterlet. I had spent a couple of days trying to catch a sterlet in Slovakia (As covered in “The Basilica.”) They are almost gone in the wild, and I realized this might be my one chance to even see one. So, without much of a thought to the horrified look you are giving right now, I took my original handline and Gulp bit and drifted it down into the pack. They ignored it, but I skillfully kept maneuvering the bait for a heart-stopping 20 minutes until one of them stumbled onto it. The battle was on, and I wanted to get it over with quickly because people were watching, with that same look on their face. It took a moment on one pound test, but I got him – and without a net or gaff!

A sterlet. Sure, I’ll feel better if I catch one in Slovakia, but this is a start.

I figured this was about as much as I could get away with in a day, and so Roland and I bid the hatchery farewell, and started on the two hour drive back to Walldorf. I was grateful he had taken his time and effort to help a fellow angler – these sort of things seem to transcend international boundaries – and I was even more grateful he understood my obsession well enough to volunteer the location. But I was most grateful of all that, on the entire ride home, he never once judged exactly how shameful the whole episode had been. That is the measure of a true species-hunting buddy. Vielen Dank, Roland. And Vielen Dank, Jens, even if it is nine years late.








  1. […] this, and armed with a float rod and the same Berkeley Gulp bloodworms that had caught my sterlet, (sordid details HERE) I set up to try my luck. Moments later, to the astonishment of the locals, I got a small tilpia […]

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