Posted by: 1000fish | December 25, 2018

Ben and Gerry

Dateline: July 24, 2018 – Charleston, Illinois

Truth be told, I don’t like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream all that much. I’m more of a Haagen Dazs guy – their flavors are named normal, non-pretentious things, like “Strawberry.” You can look at the label from eight feet away and tell what you are getting. Ben and Jerry feel the need for obscure names like “Chunky Monkey.” I have eaten monkey. I don’t like it. And I don’t like having to spend precious seconds reading the label to discover that there is no monkey in the ice cream after all – it’s mostly banana – but by the time I get through the fine print, I could have already been sitting down with a pint of Haagen Dazs. So there.

Luckily, the Ben and Gerry I refer to here are different than the ice cream Ben and Jerry. This Ben and Gerry are fishermen, and they were involved in an unexpected midwest trip for me this summer. You already know Ben – the fabled Ben Cantrell  – who has put up with me on numerous trips and put me on all kinds of interesting fish. (The best of which will actually be in the blog after this one, so don’t go far from your computer.)

Marta had been planning a Chicago trip for some time. Her agendas usually involve cultural stuff and great restaurants, so naturally, I wanted to go fishing. Ben, who introduced me to Illinois species fishing in a 2016 trip, had moved to San Diego, where he has wisely become single. But he still set me up big time – he introduced me to Chicago local Gerry. There are very few people out there that take this whole species-hunting thing as seriously as I do, but Gerry is definitely one of them. We met on email, had some phone calls, and then he generously agreed to drive us around for three days of fishing through Illinois and Wisconsin. There aren’t a ton of things left for me to catch there, but some of the remaining targets would be very nice additions to my list, so I was, as usual, wound up to go.

I flew into Chicago on a Saturday night, and ended up at dinner with a buddy from high school. Steve and I were best friends in the 1980 timeframe – he was the smart, good-looking one. The last time I saw him was his stint as best man at my (ill-advised) wedding in 1994, and somehow, 24 years went by.

He has aged better than I have, but I’ve caught more fish. We’ll call it even.

Steve and Steve, summer 1979.

Gerry picked me up early on Sunday, and we headed north out of Chicago. Our first destination was a creek in southern Wisconsin that is known to have quite a few different critters, including the dreaded lake chubsucker, which is just as vile as the creek chubsucker. On the drive up, we went over sampling information and kept a wary eye on the weather forecast, which was wandering into drizzly and chilly, which would not make for ideal wet wading. My main target would be the northern sunfish, which had eluded me on previous trips, a fact which Ben liked to point out.

I got into the water, which was brisk but not unbearable, and started tossing a bobber and worm. Despite Gerry’s polite advice that the sunfish would live in cover well back from main current, I had always pictured them living in moving water, like a smaller bluegill. Naturally, I caught bluegill. Nice ones. But they weren’t Northern Sunfish. Humbled, I dropped a worm into a pile of sticks on a silty, shallow flat, and was immediately rewarded with the target species.

The beast.

Note – if you ever find yourself fishing with Gerry, listen to him. He will give advice, but it will be gentle and low-key, as opposed to my “Don’t fish there, you idiot” approach.

We waded through several hundred yards of the creek, picking up shiners, panfish, and some stray darters. (All of which were rainbows.) On further examination, one of the shiners turned out to be a new one – the spotfin.

That’s two for the day, and it wasn’t even noon.

Our next location was several hours to the south, so we got lunch at Culver’s, which is one of my favorite places in the midwest. Think of a Dairy Queen, but the chef has a conscience, and the ice cream is better. We drove a couple of hundred miles into central Illinois, and it is on road trips like this you get to know someone. Gerry is a very senior guy in a big consulting firm, and his attention to detail showed in every aspect of his fishing plans. He knew what lived where and what the water levels should be – much better than my normal plan of showing up and praying. He is also quite the mechanic – he has rebuilt several vehicles from the ground up, and whereas I might know the history on WWII fighter planes, he knows the history on their engines. It was an interesting conversation. Late in the afternoon, we started investigating a series of creeks Gerry had marked. In one of those frustrating coincidences that can haunt species fishermen, there had been some short but heavy thunderstorms earlier in the day, and almost everywhere we went was high and muddy. The one spot he was confident would be in good shape turned out to be torn up with construction. These were gorgeous locations, but we had hit them on the wrong day.

Beautiful locations, but no water clarity + no micros.

We got plenty of nice smallmouth and panfish, and I won’t ever complain about splashing around a midwestern creek in the middle of summer. Toward evening, we crossed over into Indiana and fished the Wabash for for skipjack herring, which are becoming another one of those things that Ben can catch and I can’t. We didn’t see any, but Gerry got a positively huge sauger.

This was Gerry’s sole addition to his life list for the trip, but I have to say he did it in style. This sauger could eat any sauger I have ever caught.

We spent the next day poking around more creeks, and we were still tormented by muddy water. It was early afternoon when we ventured down the (rather risky) access to the Shelbyville spillway. I was lusting for a quillback, but my attention span waned and I started microfishing, I was rewarded with a bullhead minnow, which has nothing to do with the bullhead catfishes or sculpins. It was a third species for the trip, and say what you will, I was thrilled.

The bullhead minnow. I caught several.

For the late afternoon and evening, we headed back into Indiana (my home state,) to fish a creek near a covered bridge.

The location was an absolute postcard. Even the mosquitoes were scenic. I lived in Indianapolis for a year and never went to see these places, because I was busy fighting off my old girlfriend’s vicious cat, so it was a great experience. We were hoping for a certain madtom which didn’t seem to be there, but I happily spent the rest of the day splashing from pool to pool and catching smallmouth bass and assorted micros.

Stonecats everywhere, but these were not the target madtom.

Smallmouth on light tackle. This is one of my favorite fish anywhere in the world. Indeed, if I was told I could only catch one more fish in my lifetime, it would be … who the hell am I kidding? It would be a spearfish.

We spent the evening at the campus hotel at University of Illinois, Gerry’s alma mater. Champaign is a beautiful town. Gerry was raised in a farming community nearby, and knew quite a bit about what grew where and how. I would not want to play Trivial Pursuit against this guy, especially on the science questions. And he’s got a great family that he spends a load of time with – I don’t know how he finds the time, except that he is more organized that almost everyone I have ever met.

The next day, we wandered back to some of the day one creeks in Illinois, hoping that they would have cleared. This is always a gamble, but the main place we were hoping to fish – an old river ford – had dropped nicely and was clear enough to look for darters.

Gerry looks for darters.

In between plenty of rainbow darters and assorted shiners, I saw what I thought was a juvenile log perch come up and peck at my bait. I eventually caught it, and was thrilled to figure out it was a greenside darter. This species has a terrible reputation for not biting, even when being bonked on the nose with a perfectly rigged micro-bait, so this was a perfect close to the trip.

Another species that feeds on the tears of fishermen.

They blend in very well. There are four of them in this picture. Or are there?

We pulled out around 2pm and had to run a couple of hours back to Chicago. Two hours would have seemed like an eternity to me when I was a kid, but when you’re talking species hunting with another enthusiast, it goes by far too quickly.

In a hurry to get Gerry back on the road, I was inconsiderate and left my water shoes in his car. Damp water shoes are the second worst-smelling thing in the universe*, but Gerry was kind enough to keep them, let them dry so they did not decompose, and mail them back to me. I knew I had a friend for life.

It is here that this story should end, because the successful fishing was finished. So those of you who read for the actual fish can stop. Those of you who only look at the pictures won’t notice this anyway. But part of the species-hunting religion is that, as in baseball, we fail a lot more than we succeed, but the journey and the people along it are why I actually do this. And failure stories are always fun, especially when they’re about me.

Marta had a couple of great days planned in Chicago, including a Cubs game with old buddy Steve Ramsey, going backstage at a Smithereens concert, and lots of pizza.

A fine summer day at Wrigley.

Life is better when the Cubs win.

Backstage at the Smithereens. That’s Cousin Chuck in the middle and Marshall Crenshaw on the left. This left my inner 80’s music fan in complete awe.

This left us with a couple of days to spare. Marta suggested museums. I suggested seeing if more of the creeks in central Illinois had cleared. We compromised, and by “compromised,” I mean that she did allow me to go back to central Illinois, briefly, but only after I made shopping commitments and we had made an insane, 700-mile road trip through much of the midwest, visiting West Lafayette, Indianapolis, Dayton, Cincinnati, and back to Chicago. She has the bug to see America, and we saw plenty of it.

Lunch at Skyline Chili in Indianapolis. It’s an acquired taste.

 

There is nothing more American than baseball, so we attended a Reds game, bringing along one of Marta’s best friends from college and her family. That’s Steve Ramsey again.The whole group – from right to left – Marta’s dear college friend Jeannie, whose father, ironically, was one of my history professors at UC Davis, her son Costas Marta, me, Jeannie’s daughter Vicki, Jeannie’s husband Sotiris, and, of course, Steve Ramsey.

There were fireworks, which I assume were in honor of my greenside darter.

So after all that stuff I put up with  – seeing baseball games with old friends, having great dinners, seeing the country – I finally got to go to the Illinois creek. I am just sick to report that it was still blown out, so all of that driving gained me exactly no species. Some of you may think that Marta was kind and sympathetic when she saw what had happened, but as soon as she saw that there would be no fishing, she mentioned that this would leave more time for shopping. We did get back to Chicago early enough to take in a White Sox game, so that was an unintended bonus.

I add the new Comiskey (I don’t like sponsor names) to my MLB stadiums list. Yes, I have a list of those too.

The good news here is that Marta wants to go back to some of these places, and sooner or later, that creek is going to be clear.

Steve

*Cousin Chuck

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Responses

  1. Steve, what’s the difference between a northern sunfish and a redear sunfish(shellcracker in florida)? They sure look the same. Keep you stories coming. They are always great!

    • Hi there. I’ll refer you to Peterson’s Guide for the fine details, but basically, the red spot has a different shape and scale, the pattern on the head is notably different (the northern looks a lot more like a longear,) and they have different geographic ranges. The redear is also a much bigger critter on average.

      Cheers,

      Steve


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