Posted by: 1000fish | January 8, 2019

The California Moray Dude

Dateline: August 12, 2018 – Del Mar, California

The Fish Gods never owe you anything. If you have a lousy trip, returning to the same place does not mean you will do better. You might do worse. But my early July San Diego trip had been so bad, so humbling, that I was eager to get that bitter taste out of my mouth. Some people, mostly Lutherans, like the taste of humility, but to me, it tastes like syrup of ipecac, and yes, I’ve had syrup of ipecac. It was one of those college pranks that would have been much funnier if it hadn’t happened to me.

I had a very nice summer with Marta – traveling, fighting over paint colors, local hikes, and riding our bicycles, (which I am proud to report have only two wheels each.)

These are paint chips. I hate them.

But I was still losing sleep each night, reliving the early July disaster where Spellman caught a huge corbina right in front of me. In the dream, it all happened exactly like it did in real life, except that I had no pants. I seem to be missing pants in a lot of my dreams. Let us never speak of this again.

I needed to catch a corbina. I would take a week in San Diego, to remove excuses like bad tides and stray windy days. I arranged a stay at the Hampton Inn down by the harbor – Ben had become single, (to all of our great relief,) so staying at his place would be awkward, although I might meet some swimsuit models. It was a good time to take a few days by myself, as Marta was slammed with work and I needed to get out of my office in the worst way.

This was another road trip for the new Pilot, and by this time, I had my vanity license plate installed.

There’s a reason they’re called vanity plates. But I will get there.

The first two days would be devoted to fresh water fish in unlikely places. There are precious few endemic freshwater species scattered throughout Southern California, and one of these in particular, the Arroyo Chub, would require a full day detour. This is the difference between a casual species hunter and a pathological species hunter – taking a full day for a chance at a fish that might top out around four inches. It’s a mind-numbing drive down I-5 to Los Angeles, and then it’s evil traffic east to Riverside, where one creek holds these tiny beasts. (A big thanks to Ben Cantrell for the spots. Ben also warned me about the homeless encampment that stands between the parking and the creek, and that still didn’t stop me.) I planned four hours of fishing, but failed to account for a couple of work emergencies, a long lunch at the Willow Ranch BBQ, the several bathroom stops that are requisite after every lunch at the Willow Ranch BBQ, and, of course, traffic in Pasadena. I ended up parking about two hours before sunset. There were two spots to try, and the first one was a fail. With an hour left, I headed to the one with the homeless encampment, and I must have blended right in, running through there wearing a lobster-emblazoned Polo swimsuit.

A gorgeous little creek in an unlikely location.

Spot two was an emotional trial. I hooked a chub almost immediately, but it flipped free in mid-air. I thought to myself – “How hard can this be?” The Fish Gods can hear you think. I saw no other fish until it was almost dark, but then a school of them came out of nowhere and started pecking at my bait. I lost seven more of them in the air, and my curse words are likely still echoing down the canyon, but the eighth one stayed on, and I had a species.

The Arroyo Chub. I finished the drive to San Diego with great joy in my heart.

The rest of the report is going to be kind of dull, because we caught almost everything we wanted right when we wanted to. But before we get to that part, we get an eight-hour disaster. The following morning, I got up and headed out to a creek in the middle of effing nowhere east of San Diego.

It was like Egypt, without the charm.

There are supposed to be a couple of micros living there. It was 109 degrees when I arrived. I stayed for two hours and caught NOTHING. My drive back to San Diego lacked the exuberance of the one from Riverside, but that night, I would catch up with Ben and do some shore fishing for sharks and rays, so all was not lost.

It was late afternoon when I got to Harbor Island, carrying several pounds of squid and some of my rarely-used surf rod collection.

The surf rod spread with San Diego in the background.

It was great to see Ben, and I was grateful that he would take a night off of dating swimsuit models just to fish with me. Casting whole squid out into the channel, we waited and hoped for a stray banded guitarfish, horn shark, or California moray. The moray was the only one that is reasonably common, but I could hope. James keeps sending me pictures of some random 10 year-old from Indiana holding a banded guitarfish, and I’m sure Marta will tell me its’ wrong to hate a ten year-old, but I hate that kid.

My first fish was a personal best on spotted bay bass.

This isn’t big by Ben Florentino standards, but it’s a beast for me.

We both got a few small rays – a mix of butterfly and bat – and then things got interesting. I got a rattling bite and a small run and hooked up something that was definitely shaking its head. Rays do not shake their heads. Moments later, I lifted a smallish smoothhound onto the shore. This didn’t necessarily get much of a reaction from me, as I have caught squillions of brown smoothhounds (including the world record with Ben Florentino,) and I had given up on the gray smoothhound, because it is really hard to tell them apart. But Ben said “That one looks pretty gray to me.” Out of an abundance of caution, I photographed the heck out of the fish, and even weighed and measured it for a possible world record. I am sure this was crossing that fine line between optimism and stupidity, but hope springs eternal.

Later that night, I settled in at the Hampton Inn with a pint of Haagen Dazs and a Red Bull, which actually makes a nice float. I pored through Val Kells’ illustrations in the magnificent A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes From Alaska to California, squinting at the shark drawings. This is a difficult ID, but when I got through with all the fin spacing, it was clear I had a gray.

A species that had eluded me for years, and a world record to boot. I was on my way to 200, but would likely not get there before Roberta Arostegui, and this bothers me.

The next morning, I met fabled San Diego inshore Captain James Nelson bright and early. Well, I wasn’t really bright or early, but we still were on the water by sunrise.

Sunrise over San Diego bay.

We raced over the bait receiver, got a scoop of sardines, then set up in an area where he had seen corvina earlier in the week. I got hit immediately – but it was a small halibut. I put on another bait, pitched it out, and again got hit immediately. This fish was much heavier and put up a solid fight. James whispered “That might be the one” as he got ready on the net. The fish surfaced with a bright chrome flash – it was indeed a corvina. James scooped it expertly, and my yell of triumph set off car alarms throughout the downtown area.

A shortfin corvina. Oh hell yes.

We spent the rest of the day looking for oddball species. Outside the bay, we were messing around for bottom fish when I saw something flipping around the surface. Upon closer examination, we determined it was a distressed-looking midshipman. I have no shame when it comes to species, and even though it didn’t look in the mood to eat, I waved a small piece of shrimp in its face for around 10 minutes. Just as I was giving up, it inexplicably struck.

These were two difficult species, and they had been added to the list in a few short hours.

Ben was out with one or more swimsuit models that evening, so I bought myself a big steak and basked in the satisfaction of finally getting a corvina.

The next morning, Ben joined me for a day on the bay with James. I was getting fairly low on targets in San Diego, especially ones that were not rarities. The horn shark and banded guitarfish seem to only be caught by that rotten little 10 year-old, but the moray eel was beginning to mystify me. Everyone I know had caught one, generally by accident while fishing for something else, because, in general, only an idiot would tangle with a moray on purpose.

It was a fun day of fishing – we got all kinds of assorted bay critters in the morning, but nothing to write home about until one magical hour early in the afternoon. We were soaking slab baits in the middle of the bay when my favorite 8′ Loomis Pro Blue started bouncing. I picked it up to get the feel of the fish. It was an odd bite – banging on the bait but not running at all. I finally set the hook, and at first, I thought I had the bottom. I put on a bunch of pressure, and the fish finally came out and started fighting – it was heavy and pounded the rod tip hard, but it didn’t take much line. A moment later, we figured out why – it was a moray. A positively huge California moray.

Finally.

I was ecstatic, but fishermen do not often think very far ahead. A big moray is a dangerous adversary, and now we had one coming onto the deck. James netted it while Ben and I bravely cowered on the bow. Shuddering, I recalled a January 2005 day in Faro, Portugal, when a moray half this size got loose on the deck, destroyed some gear, then slithered into the unlit cabin. After a lengthy and fairly even fight, I subdued it with one of my boots. So with this bigger moray, I was expecting all hell to break loose.

Perhaps it was James’ calm demeanor, perhaps it was a blessing from the Fish Gods, or perhaps the fish was whacked out its gourd on tranquilizers, but however it happened, the eel remained perfectly calm as we took a couple of photos and then put it in the livewell. It was not only a new species – it would also be a world record, if we could somehow get it safely weighed.

Moments after we set up again, when I looked at my rod, the line had gone from behind us to in front of us. I asked James if we were drifting. He pointed out that the other lines were where they should be, and he suggested that I might check my bait. Just as I picked up the rod, it slammed down and something started taking line, so we have to give James credit for being more observant that me. It was a heavy, bouncing fight, and I was guessing a medium bat ray, because it felt too big to be a butterfly. But it was a butterfly. The biggest one I had ever seen. At 24.5 pounds, it untied me from that nice lady in Texas and set my third record of the trip.

We weighed both fish at a convenient pier, where onlookers were either fascinated (butterfly ray) or terrified (moray.) We did the ray first.

The beastly butterfly, which would be a great name for a band.

Ben and I stared balefully at the livewell, which contained a live, irritated, ten and a half-pound moray. Using diagrams written in sharpie on a doughnut bag, we roughed out a battle plan. Fundamentally, James would get the fish while Ben and I hid behind a piling.

Do not put this in your pants.

Sensing our bravery, James opened the livewell. I expected the eel to come hurtling out and go for the testicles, but surprisingly, it just worked with us. It was truly a California Moray Dude. We quickly got an official weight and let him go. He swam off, relaxed and chill, and went back to his mellow underwater world. Ben and I heaved sighs of relief that may or may not have included tears. and James learned that we had his back unless there was danger.

The California Moray Dude

We celebrate a memorable day, and an even more memorable hat. He looks like a slightly-hairier version of the Flying Nun. 

After we said goodbye to James, Ben and I headed for one of the least-glamorous parts of San Diego to hunt for California killifish. Stepping carefully to avoid stray hypodermics, we worked our way down to a tidal creek.

Gotta love that hat. I can’t even tell which way he’s facing.

After half an hour of searching, we found a big concentration of them. (Killifish, not needles.) While they were not eager biters, Ben got one fairly quickly, then I followed up with one a few minutes later.

The count for the trip was up to six.

The following morning, we headed out early to face a personal nemesis of mine – the California corbina. These shallow surf-dwellers are tricky to catch, but I had seen it done by qualified anglers and Spellman, and I figured I had to be due. We waded into the surf at Torrey Pines, and, just after Ben lost a bite and his sunglasses, it became obvious that the surf was way too choppy and full of weeds to give us any chance. I was exasperated. We headed to Del Mar, where the surf looked equally disastrous. Frustrated beyond belief, I went to the slough behind the beach, but that was also choked with weeds. I like to think I handled this calmly, but I also like to think that Detroit Lions will make the playoffs. It was Ben who suggested that we have one last look at the narrow sandbar where the slough enters the ocean. As we walked up, there were five or six guys fishing, and just as we got there, one of them caught a corbina. We were off to the races. I cast a sand crab, got hit, and missed it. I cast and missed again. And again. But somewhere in there, something stayed on. It was spirited but not huge, and a minute or two later, I landed my first corbina.

I know it isn’t as big as Spellman’s, but it’s a corbina.

Ben may have been happier than I was.

I got two more in the next hour, and the day was a memorable triumph. Aspiring species hunters – this is another lesson in never getting discouraged (getting surly is ok, though) and checking every possible spot. Something is always in the last place you look, because only an idiot would keep looking after he found something.

I can’t thank Ben enough for taking all this time with me. He’s a good guy, and remember that every minute he spent with me was a minute he couldn’t spend with a swimsuit model. That’s true friendship, or chafing.

I headed home the next day. The plan was to stop in Del Mar again and take a quick crack at a spotfin croaker – just a couple of hours in the morning, so I could avoid the LA rush hour. And I did hook a small spotfin, which came off right at the bank. This should have made me go apoplectic, but the moment I cast again, I got a nice corbina. Then another. And another. By the time it slowed down, it was hours later and I had landed 23 of them. Good fishing is good fishing, and it was a perfect end to an awesome trip. The spotfin can wait.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE COUNTDOWN TO 200 WORLD RECORDS

Things didn’t slow down after I got #182 in July. Apart from the three records mentioned above, I put in three others during the summer. The first was a mid-July Pacific Spiny Dogfish from Tomales Bay.

 

The photo was taken by Cole Grossen – “Selfie Kid” from last summer’s “Big Mac and Selfie Kid.”

In mid-August, I finally went salmon fishing with Chris Armstrong – the guy who introduced me to Ed Trujillo. Chris is an expert salmon fisherman, and I embarrassed to say I hadn’t been out with him for years, despite countless invitations. We finally set it up on a choppy Sunday morning – it was great to see him. He’s one of the few people I know who is as passionate about fishing as I am – and normal people can relate to him a lot more, because he catches fish people have heard of.

Chris put us on limits of king salmon.

Including this hog.

But the most memorable catch of the day, at least in my opinion, came just as we were wrapping up. I got a small tap and hooked a fish that didn’t even trigger the sinker release. I reeled it up, and to my great astonishment, I had a one-pound kingfish (white croaker.) This species is a well-known SF Bay pest, stealing countless ghost shrimp from sturgeon fishermen each winter. I had never seen one half this size, and suddenly, I had a record on it. Chris, a serious angler, would go down in history as the skipper for the kingfish record, for which I am sure he is deeply ashamed.

This is why I always, always carry a Boga Grip and measuring tape.

The final record of the summer – #188 – wasn’t even caught this summer. As I mentioned in “The Billfish That Shall Not Be Named,” I caught an unidentified dogfish in the abyssal depths off Kona this March.

This is the fish in question.

On November 21, Martini Arostegui spotted a new scientific article describing this species as Squalus hawaiiensis, the Hawaiian dogfish, and I was able to submit the world record. Interestingly, I got the email just after I had showered, so while the celebration dance wasn’t quite as awkward as that memorable night in Rio, it was close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. So nice photos … , Fishes looking a copy of red sea !
    B of luck
    Amin

  2. Love your plate!


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