Posted by: 1000fish | November 18, 2017

Conan the Librarian

Dateline: June 28, 2017 – Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

I finally have a reason to visit my sister. Who knew there was actually great fishing moments from Laura’s house? I may have missed this because most of my visits to Northern Virginia have been during the holidays, when it is cold and there are great incentives to stay indoors, like the fact that it is cold and that if I leave the house for even 10 minutes my niece will eat my share of the Christmas cookies. But there I was, in Springfield in early summertime, and this meant I was going to get on the water. I had high hopes, as I always do, but truthfully, I had very little idea what I was going to encounter.

Unlike many of my adventures, this was not a business trip. It was purely a family thing. Somehow, 18 years had slipped by and my nephew was graduating high school and heading off to college.

Many of you remember Charlie from this photo.

Others may remember him as the little %&#% who caught a leopard searobin when I did not. See “I Have No Nephew“)

But he looks like this now.

In any case, whatever he has caught, somehow, he is suddenly a legal adult and can vote and and serve in the military even though he, like many of our current 18 year-olds, is a communist. His first job should change all that, but who knows when that will happen. Kids can stay in college for decades now.

Off to college? It seems like only 18 years ago, he was wetting the couch. (If he does that now, at least he gets stuck with the laundry.) That means I also got 18 years older at the same time, which gives me pause for digressive thought. Did I get everything done I wanted to in those 18 years? In 1999, the year Charlie was born, I caught my 100th species. I would not set a world record for six more years. I was still legally married although in the process of getting legally not married, and working for a Silicon Valley startup with hopes to become fabulously wealthy. But I digress.

I like digressing.

In 1999, it would be five more years until I would meet Marta, and eight years until I was emotionally ready for a relationship with her. My Mom and both of my grandmothers were still alive. I could call my Uncle Stan and get verbally abused any time I wanted to, and Cousin Chuck was slightly less objectionable. I remember how complicated and rushed everything seemed back on the day Charlie was born, but now it seems like such a simple and good time. So many more things were possible then, but so many things hadn’t been accomplished yet.

Fast forward 18 years. Some of it happened, some of it didn’t, and here we are.

I certainly knew there were creeks around Laura’s house, and I am game as anyone to go splashing around a stream with a micro rig in hand. Of course, micros can be maddeningly difficult to pin down, and if you don’t have specific information, it is highly likely that you will encounter either creek chubs, striped shiners, or that silvery thing that no one can really identify. This is where Patrick Kerwin came into the picture. A locally-based expert species hunter, Patrick knew every creek in the area and “had the numbers” – specific spots where things that were not creek chubs could be caught. Both Ben Cantrell and Martini know Patrick and had introduced him to me, and when I found out I would be in the area I gave him a call. Generously, he offered to take me out on the water for a day and volunteered some prime spots for assorted stuff I had never caught.

On the first morning of the trip, I took my communist nephew and my niece, Elizabeth, who does not seem to be a communist, out to investigate some local creeks. We ventured to a spot just a few miles from my sister’s house, and while Charlie and Elizabeth amused themselves with panfish, I scraped up four new species.

The swallowtail shiner.

The satinfin shiner. I briefly thought this was a small fallfish. See below.

A river chub. Not a creek chub.

And finally, the cutlip minnow. Charlie is still not sure about celebrating fish this size.

The next day, under the auspices of family bonding, the kids and I headed about 20 miles north, to a creek where Patrick told me I might find a fallfish. The fallfish, a larger, less-common relative of the creek chub, had been a species in the back of my mind since a beautiful New England afternoon in August of 2005. On that otherwise magical day of smallmouth fishing, guide Mark Ewing mentioned that there was something called a fallfish in the river, which meant that I could think of catching nothing else. Never mind the 50 bass to six pounds.

That’s Mark Ewing. If you want to catch smallmouth on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, I can put you in touch with him.

Back to the present. We hadn’t been in the river five minutes when I hooked a nice fallfish on a spinner. Of course, I lost it, causing waves of anguish and nausea. Then the panfish took over. This was great for the kids, but I was beside myself. It’s one thing searching a river for something that might randomly be there, it’s another to see the target and lose it. We worked our way down the creek, enjoying a warm summer day and catching endless bluegill.

The creek. If you look closely, Elizabeth appears to be barfing.

I probably should have appreciated the time with my niece and nephew instead of fretting about the fallfish, but hey, it’s me. About half a mile downstream, I spotted some deeper holes around tree roots, and began casting baits into them. After a false alarm or two, it happened.

Heck yes.

I had finally gotten it; not a big one, but a fallfish. Right after I had thoughts of gratitude for Patrick providing the spot, I also thought about Mark and those glorious days on the Connecticut River. I need to get back to New England.

Charlie got one too, although he couldn’t keep his eyes open for the picture.

Elizabeth’s was bigger.

That evening, I went over the IDs so far, and it hit me that I was only four species away from 1700. I would be fishing the next day with Patrick, a true species expert, so I knew there was a chance. A milestone without an Arostegui present would feel a bit weird, but I’ll take them when I can get them.

I picked up Patrick early in the morning, and we headed south on I-95. Astonishingly, traffic was moving, but we still had a couple of hours to kill even at the speed limit. It is on these road trips that fishermen truly get to know each other, and Patrick was even more amazing than the guys had told me. A North American freshwater specialist, he seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of everything that swims in the Eastern US, native or not. It all began to make sense when I asked him what he did for a living. Turns out he is a librarian – in the Library of Congress. I immediately christened him Conan the Librarian, and he did not strenuously object, hence the title. His capacity for detailed research is limitless, and he knew species upon species that I had never heard of. The drive went by in an instant.

Interestingly – or not – we took the same exit I did to for my first ever fishing trip in Virginia. That was in November of 2002, when I spent a beautiful fall day on Lake Anna catching landlocked striped bass with local guide Gene Hoard. Those crisp autumn days are one of the few things I miss about living someplace with four seasons, but I snap out of that reverie every time I see someone shoveling snow.

Well out into the countryside, we parked and began to walk down a fire road. About a mile into the woods, we came across a small culvert and a hot-tub sized pool, which apparently contained some of the species on page 87 of Peterson’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes. This page covers a whole batch of lesser-known sunfish, and I have often read it late at night. Patrick advised me to fish the very shallow edges under leaves and other cover, and quite quickly, I added a species – the flier. (A close relative of the crappie.)

The big controversy – is it pronounced “flier” as in “one who flies,” or “fleer” as in Fleer baseball cards? For that matter, there is no “o” in crappie, but most people say “croppie.” As a kid, it was great fun to say “crappy” and get away with it.

Moments later, things got even better. I caught a banded sunfish – one of the rarely-caught species from page 87. I was extremely proud of myself, and very grateful to Patrick. He mentioned that he had never caught one in this spot – he had to travel out of state for his.

This was 1698.

We fished the pool a while longer, and I got one additional, very cool species – the bluespotted sunfish. That’s two from page 87.

Luckily, Patrick had caught plenty of these. And I was at 1699.

Patrick clearly earned his Conan status. He went crashing through the bushes, which were potentially laden with ticks, snakes, spiders, weasels, and who knows what other horrors, to explore a tiny side channel, no more than 18 inches wide, because he firmly believed that a mud sunfish could be living in there. Although he did not return with said mud sunfish, he did manage to attract dozens of ticks. He managed to remove (most of) them, but he has some ugly stories about places they have wandered only to be discovered much later, often in the shower. I should probably stop right there.

I didn’t dive as deep into the brush as Patrick, but I caught just as many mud sunfish.

Patrick with a beastly bluegill.

Steve with a dignified flier.

We then headed to a more traditional stream. The place was jammed with sunfish of the non-page 87 variety, and had quite a few of those unidentifiable silver things. We gave it a solid try, and I was beginning to think 1700 would have to wait for another day. But Patrick, sharp-eyed and indefatigable, spotted some darters in a riffle, and in a matter of moments, we had both added the shield darter to our lists. 1700 had come less than 11 months after 1600.

A perfectly worthy milestone fish.

Patrick works the creek while I celebrate the catch.

My day couldn’t have been any more complete, unless there was a Dairy Queen nearby, which would have been too much to ask. We then fought our way back up I-95, talking exotic species the entire way. You will definitely be reading about Patrick again soon.

That evening, I foolishly mentioned the tick thing to my sister. Never missing a chance to be a Mom, she immediately freaked out and wanted me to exchange my rental car, burn my clothes, and head to the nearest free clinic for a cavity search. I managed to get by with washing my hands.

I had blocked out the next day to do important family stuff, like bonding with my sister, but Pat left me with numbers for a creek in Alexandria that is supposed to have mummichogs. I told myself (and my sister) that I would just do a brief trip and get the target species, but we know how this ends. The place was stuffed with mummichogs, and I got one quickly – the first step on the way to 1800.

The rather unelusive mummichog

But I also noticed that it was a beautiful spillway that seemed to be stuffed with bass and, of all the odd things to see during the day, catfish. I called my sister, and after substantial negotiations, she drove the kids down so they could join me for the afternoon. We live on opposite coasts, and I never do see them as I much as I imagined I would when they were born. But this was an afternoon I always imagined I would have with them – I just wish there had been a lot more of them over the years. It was beautiful out, the fish were biting, and my cell phone battery died so I had no idea how many times my sister called to remind me to put sunblock on the kids. (Did you know sunblock actually can expire? My sister does.)

Charlie starting things off with a nice catfish. He still didn’t open his eyes for the photo.

Elizabeth kept up and got her own catfish, and she kept her eyes open.

Elizabeth also got her first largemouth. She’s growing up to be a pretty young lady. Intimidating to think I will need to go through all this again in two years when she graduates.

The following day I had arranged to recognize my nephew’s 18th birthday by taking him on a real fishing trip, on a boat, all day. (See “Two and a Half Menhaden” for background.)

It was as much a present for me as it was for him, as throwing lures for smallmouth is one of my favorite ways to pass a day. When Charlie was born, I imagined us taking dozens of these float trips, and yet here we were, taking our first one the day before his 18th birthday. We have done plenty of other fishing before, but there is something special about an adventure like this, and I was glad we were doing it.

We fished the upper Potamac, near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I set the trip up through White River Fly Outfitters, and despite the offputting “Fly” in the name, they were outstanding. The whole area is gorgeous.

Our guide was Doug Boyles, and despite his disturbing resemblance to my friend Scott Williams, he was great. We set up on a pontoon raft, got Charlie rigged up with a buzzbait, and we were off to the races. With some expert instruction, mostly from Doug, Charlie was quickly reading the water like a pro and started racking up solid fish.

His first fish of the day.

Doug and Charlie.

This left me free to do the same, and we had constant action on decent smallmouth all day. Although Charlie loves almost all fishing that doesn’t involve Dramamine, he has always had a fondness for bass on lures, and this would be his most productive day ever on the water.

What a magnificent river.

It was a joy just to watch, and I got to go use dozens of lures I have bought over the years just in case I ended up on a smallmouth river.

Yes, I got a few. Dozen.

About 50 bass later, it was late afternoon and we had to head home for dinner with the family. We had about an hour in the car together, and now that he was heading to college, I tried to share as much of my hard-earned adult wisdom with him as I could. (“Don’t take any wooden nickels, be nice to your mother, and park in the shade.”) I started to talk about doing homework before going to parties and how to spot loose women, but I realized that 18 year-old me wouldn’t have listened to me either, so we just talked about our next fishing trip.

The next day – Charlie’s 18th birthday – was the last one of my visit, so naturally, as a nod to building family togetherness, I blocked out the morning to fish the creek that runs right by my sister’s house. It has been there the whole 18 years my sister has lived there, and I had only ever fished it one other time, on a cold, rainy November day where only the creek chubs and that silver thing would come out. But it was low and clear and warm today, and I had high hopes.

I could prowl creeks like this all day. And all night, except for the mosquitoes.

I got out of the house just in time to avoid doing the breakfast dishes. I donned my water shoes, picked up a rod and micro-gear, and headed off. It was a quick walk, down the street, then down into a park, then to the stream. It was small but loaded with rocks, and I knew every one of those rocks could be hiding the next critter on my species list. I could see tesselated darters everywhere, but they didn’t want to bite, so I moved to a bit deeper run and immediately got a blacknose dace.

It’s got a black nose.

I finally got my tesselated darter by poking a bit of worm blindly under a rock, looking for madtoms. He raced out and snatched the bait, and luckily, I had brought my heavy micro-rod and managed to wrestle him out.

Tesselated of the D’Ubervilles

I also caught a bunch of the usual suspects – minnows, shiners, sunfish, and small bass. I was getting ready to head home, but turned over a few rocks just to see what was there. One of the last ones had a madtom under it. Of course, the madtom bolted to cover under another rock. The trick here is to track it to the new rock, then present a bait to the side you believe its head is pointing. This didn’t seem to work, so I picked up the rock, and the madtom bolted again. Rinse, lather, repeat for about an hour, and just before the cramps got really bad, the thing finally bit. I had captured the 13th species of the trip, the margined madtom. I sent a photo to Patrick, and he mentioned he had never caught one of these either. I felt like a turd.

Briefly.

We actually did get a bit of family bonding time that afternoon, reminding me that Laura is almost like a sister to me. We had one more evening, Charlie’s birthday, and we celebrated with a big meal out at his favorite restaurant, which, sadly, is no longer Chuck E. Cheese’s. Then it was time to throw my stuff in a suitcase and get ready for an early flight back to California, so I could find clean underwear and pack for the next trip. It had all gone by too quickly, just like the last 18 years.

Steve

The group at dinner. Laura is checking Charlie for ticks.

 

 

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Responses

  1. Really enjoy your stories. Let’s grab lunch some time.

    Have you ever caught a pinecone fish? See: https://www.livescience.com/61074-freaky-pinecone-fish-scan.html?utm_source=notification

  2. Thanks for fishing with us Steve. Had a great time with you and Charlie


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