Posted by: 1000fish | March 28, 2019

The OK Chorale

Dateline: September 11, 2018 – Watts, Oklahoma

This blog is about two magnificent days of fishing with Martini. Unfortunately, the trip was five days long. But let’s not get distracted with math – there is fishing to discuss.

Martini and I both have packed schedules, so it’s rare that we can find a week and get someplace where we both want to fish. This September worked out perfectly – he needed to be at an event in Springfield, Missouri on September 15 – more on that later – and he was free the week before. He would be in Dallas, Texas at a bachelor party until the night of the 9th, but we could then connect and head through the Ozarks, which is positively loaded with oddball micros and some other amazing fish. I was very familiar with the Missouri portion of the trip, having fished there twice before, but the Oklahoma and Arkansas segments were wide open mysteries. This is where we must give a huge 1000fish thank you to Ben Cantrell, who saved our planning bacon for this portion of the trip when Martini and I both thought the other one was plotting out spots. Ben is the real hero of this blog.

Ben Cantrell.

A road trip of this length presents certain logistical difficulties, and one of the main ones is the age-old problem that bait and drinks cannot share the same cooler without certain risks. Building on years of experience and a college degree, I bought two small coolers and a Sharpie.

Night crawlers and Pepsi should never mix.

Someone should have thought of this years ago.

There was also a milestone to consider. If I could manage to catch a fish in Oklahoma, that would be my 50th state. This is a big deal in the obsessive list-making world. I had never even been to Oklahoma, so I had researched loads of fun facts about the state, but as it turns out, there is only one that you need to know – CHUCK NORRIS WAS BORN THERE.

Our first day presented difficult choices. The Oklahoma fish I had always kept in the back of my mind was a Red River pupfish, because pupfish are cool, and Red River pupfish don’t come with the inconveniences of other pupfish, like Federally Endangered status. I figured we had to get the pupfish first, then get after the nice variety of fish that live in the northeastern part of the state. Martini threw a glass of geographical cold water on my plan, pointing out that the pupfish spot was three hours west of Dallas, and that the other spots would then be five hours back to the east. Damn him and his fancy Google maps. In the end, we just decided to get up really early and commit to a lot of driving.

Texas is flat. You would think I learned this on The Great Road Trip of 2014, but it has gotten flatter. Ask Kyrie Irving. We entered Oklahoma mid-morning.

We enter Oklahoma, with a quiet nod of awe to Chuck Norris. (Faster than a speeding bullet … More powerful than a locomotive … Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound … and these are just his warm-up exercises.)

When we reached the Red River, there was a moment of consternation. The water was red, and I mean red. While it wasn’t all that high, it was as muddy as it could be without condensing into a solid.

Hence the name.

But we were here, and we were going to go check it out – I’ve caught fish in worse conditions. The drama didn’t last long – there were a series of “tidepools” – mega-puddles that had been left over by higher water, and these were positively stuffed with pupfish.

Martini caught one immediately, which filled me with hope. I did not catch one immediately, which filled me with petulance. But a few minutes later, one of the tiny beasts hit my micro-offering. I had caught my Oklahoma fish. I could swear I heard angels singing in the distance – a sort of OK chorale.


And they’re adorable.

A journey that began with my father at a lake resort in Maine 50 years ago concluded with one of my best friends on a muddy riverbank in Oklahoma. In between these two events, there had been 50 years of fishing, over 1800 species, a few world records, countless new friends, a few more world records, and thousands upon thousands of road miles. If nothing else, fishing has let me see America, and while we have our warts, it is a great country. Much better than France. If nothing else, we have Chuck Norris, and let’s not forget that we’ve never been successfully invaded, let alone in six weeks.

We added a bonus species in the same spot – the Red River shiner – and then we were off on a very long drive.

The Red River shiner. Laugh if you must, but Jamie Hamamoto has never caught one.

Oklahoma is not as wide as Montana – nothing is – but it was close. Five hours, four Red Bulls and $28 of Chick-Fil-A later, we were standing by the side of a beautiful creek in Eastern Oklahoma. (A spot provided by Ben, who is the real hero of this blog.)

Bless you, Ben.

By the time we finally got to the creek, it was late in the afternoon – we would only be able to hit one spot, but the light was perfect and the place looked amazing. It had long riffles, inviting pools, sexy back channels, a spillway, and plenty of boulders.

This picture still makes me drool.

We began fishing the open areas, and in between lots of panfish, we both got nice redspot chubs.

Note the red spot.

We also knocked off a variety of minnows, including cardinal shiners (which were new.)

The rest all ended up falling into the “nondescript shiner” category.

We noticed some larger fish in the pools, and as soon as I guessed (incorrectly) that they might be black redhorse, that’s how I spent most of my time. (This will become a theme in this episode.) I did not catch a black redhorse, which will also become a theme in this episode, but I got some beautiful smallmouth, and it’s always great to catch smallmouth bass.

As it got dark, the redhorse were still avoiding me. Martini encouraged me to try for some of the micros that he had spotted, such as the Banded Sculpin and Plateau Darter. As he always does, he even pointed a few out to me, all of which I promptly missed. It was a pleasant evening, and there was no particular urgency – with our headlamps on, I knew we would get the fish sooner or later, and then find a Taco Bell.

Then the gnats came. Like satanists, they came in a giant black mass, and while they do not bite, they are attracted to light, and our headlamps were the only light source for miles. Suddenly, there was incredible urgency. We would move spots, then try to find and target a fish as long as we could stand the bugs trying to fly into every possible orifice. It would take about 20 seconds to where we were blinded, coughing, and producing pints of snot. We would turn the lights out, catch our breath, and try again. The swarm would find us, resulting in more coughing and more snot, and after a few rounds of this, our sleeves were too slimy to provide an effective wiping surface. We persisted, all the while sneezing, choking, and gagging – I hacked up little black specks the whole night. Somewhere in all this fun, we both managed two new species – the banded sculpin and the plateau darter.

The sculpin. Note the gnat. I randomly sneezed these up for about a week.

The miracle of Photoshop helps envision how I remember the evening. The snot on my hand is not Photoshopped.

The Plateau darter. Yes, it was worth it, but only barely.

Important 1000fish safety tip – don’t eat “Flaming Hot” Cheetos. They are covered in cayenne pepper, and the orange-fingered Cheeto dust takes on serious consequences, especially if you intend to pick your nose. And while we’re at it, I should point out that the containers for cortisone (which soothes bug bites and the sorts of body irritation that old people get) and Sting-eze (which makes bug bites stop itching because it is pure ammonia) look awfully similar. Putting cortisone on a bug bite is fine, but putting ammonia on a hemorrhoid is NOT. I had thought about calling this blog “50 shades of fishing,” but looking at the above, “50 shades of stupid” might be more appropriate.

The next day broke clear and warm. We hit a series of creeks in western Arkansas, and one by one, the species added up. First came the highland stoneroller and the orangebelly darter.

A highland stoneroller. This whole family is notoriously fickle – ask Martini about the largescale stoneroller sometime.

The darter was a notable example of Martini’s spotless teamwork. I had been presenting bait to the fish for about 45 minutes, and it had only made a couple of desultory swipes at the hook. Then, without warning, it jumped on it. I set the hook and flipped the fish up out of the water, but mid-flight, it came off. Martini appeared out of nowhere and caught the beast midair with a photo tank.

It wasn’t as dangerous as his midnight swim with a lake sturgeon, but it saved me a species.

Caddo Creek. I could walk around places like this for days. And I have.

In the same spot, Martini somehow wrangled up a pirate perch – one of those extraordinary rarities that pops up randomly in places for people who are not me, like Ben, Mike Channing, and now Martini.

Yes, I was a bit put out. But not nearly as much as I would be two days later.

We moved through a few more creeks, gradually working eastward, except when we forgot that you can’t reprogram a GPS destination if you have no cell signal. The most notable catch of the mid-afternoon was Martini pulling up a gorgeous river redhorse on ultralight tackle after it had refused to bite for me.

Martini’s River Redhorse. I must have cast to the thing 50 times.

Later in the afternoon, we pulled up on another one of Ben’s darter spots. It was a beautiful, clear creek, although the first rock I turned over revealed a rather irritated water moccasin. This reminded me that there are some smarter tools than my hand to use for this purpose, like a stick, or someone else’s hand. After an hour or so of poking around, I tracked down a Plains darter, which is part of the Orangethroat complex, for those of you who care about such things.

They are gorgeous, but my pictures still aren’t as good as Tyler’s.

Martini hunts the shallows.

Moments later, I stumbled into a redspot darter, a bit more of a rarity.

A plastic fish tank and an Olympus waterproof camera make a big difference.

I went to sleep that night feeling pretty darn content. We had been at it two days and I had collected 10 nice species, and some of the best locations were yet to come. The weather report looked good, and we had dozens of great spots scoped out from Ben, who is the real hero of this blog.

There has to be a story behind this photo.

Needless to say, the Fish Gods punish overconfidence. We awoke to driving, unpredicted rain, which washed out most of the prime spots Ben had given us. Well into the morning, we arrived at a gorgeous spring creek that was clear enough to fish, and after 20 minutes of futility, it struck me that I might be on a cold streak. Martini was still getting a new fish now and then, but I was not. This continued through the day, as we fished our way north. We visited some positively beautiful places, but new species remained elusive.

Natural beauty, yes. New species, no.

For dinner, we somehow managed to find the BBQ equivalent of Sonic. Martini, something of a barbecue connoisseur but ever the diplomat, described the cuisine as “confusing.”

Their dessert options weren’t any better.

Unsatisfied and grouchy, we made the long run to Poplar Bluff. We made one stop to look for current darters, but the small creek Ben had recommended was dry. He is still the true hero of this blog.

Mostly, we want to know what’s going on with the cat. It clearly doesn’t want to be there.

Our first stop of the morning was McLane Park, where Ben and I had caught our creek chubsuckers. It was blown out, which was a shame, because it would have been interesting to watch Martini’s irresistible force of angling skill run up against the immovable object of that vile little fish.

We then headed up to Sam Baker State Park – another beautiful location. I had fished there with Ben and Tyler a few years ago, and the place is absolutely loaded with black redhorse.

Martini stalks the redhorse, with slightly more success than I had.

Of course, I forgot all other species and spent hours trying to get a black, and, say it with me, I failed. And failed. And failed. I never took statistics in college, and therefore I do not understand that not catching something for a long time doesn’t mean I am getting more likely to catch it. Martini added insult to indignity by getting two of them right in front of me, so I can’t claim that it was bad luck. The black redhorse takes incredible casting, line control, hand/eye coordination, and moral turpitude, and this just doesn’t seem to be my decade.

Martini got two, so we averaged one each. The ID between a golden and a black is close – you can tell it’s a black if I didn’t catch it.

Martini comforted me with kind words, like “We can’t all be champions, Steve.”

We caught up with old 1000fish friend Tyler Goodale in Poplar Bluff, and spent an evening hunting blue suckers and redhorse with him.

Tyler Goodale with a pealip redhorse, another species I would trade my sister for. Of course, there are days I would trade my sister for a Sonic cheeseburger, so let’s not sell the pealip short.

Alas, there had been unexpected rain and the rivers were completely blown out. This did not stop Martini from catching a beautiful catfish, which faintly annoyed me.

How does he do that?

The next morning, we drove west toward Springfield, making several fishing stops along the Current River. Martini got his shadow bass quickly, and then I settled in to another disastrous pas-de-deux with the black redhorse. This was my third straight day without a new species, and this was eating a hole in my stomach, like I had swallowed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, or Drano, which are chemically identical. Somewhere in there, I caught my 1000th fish of 2018, a largemouth.

There were at least 30 black redhorse in the pool behind me.

I hated not catching new stuff, but in hindsight, it was still great to be out there – we’re all only going to get so many days road-tripping with great friends over a lifetime. I was still ahead 10 more species on the quest for 2000, and the next 24 hours, which had no actual fishing planned, would be devoted to something far more important than my species count.




  1. Great story Steve!


  2. […] hour of 6:20, and we headed off into a beautiful morning. Our first stop was a daring one – Sam A. Baker State Park, a location where I had repeatedly struck out on black redhorse. Tyler reasoned that since we knew the fish were there, and that others had caught them in this […]

  3. […] Heading across Virginia, we made a few stops, including lunch at a positively awesome fried seafood stand. The main fishing event would be at a swamp in the evening, where we would meet Gerry, fend off mosquitos and snakes, and hopefully catch some serious esoterica. Chief amongst these for me would be a mud sunfish, a shy, off-brand sunfish that is surprisingly difficult to catch, and a pirate perch, a nocturnal oddity that people (like Martini) always seem to catch during the day, right in front of… […]

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