Posted by: 1000fish | November 29, 2019

Phantom of the River

Dateline: June 8, 2019 – Southwestern Virginia

There is an eerie specter haunting the rivers of the Eastern US, and it is named Pat Kerwin. Imagine having this conversation all week:

Pat: “Hi Steve.”

Steve: “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!”

Legendary species hunter Pat Kerwin, and one of his legendary t-shirts.

And how did we get where legendary species hunter Pat Kerwin was scaring the daylights out of me? That story begins a year ago, in the wilds of North Carolina. It was on the Appalachian Barbecue Tour trip with Martini and Pat, and someone made the mistake of mentioning the tangerine darter, one of the largest and most beautiful darter species. Strong on impulse and weak on planning, I decided that we needed to go catch one immediately. Pat patiently explained that tangerine darters live in Southwestern Virginia. I replied that it couldn’t be that far, as the states share a border. Later than evening, using advanced teaching tools, like maps, Pat educated me that the very left hand side of Virginia is extremely far from Raleigh. In fact, it’s extremely far from anything, and would need to be explored on its own trip. Common sense and fishing are a difficult mix for me.

I don’t forget these things, and when Pat and I started talking about doing a week somewhere on the east coast this summer, the tangerine darter became my main focus. We planned a few days in the wilds of southwestern Virginia, which seems closer to Phoenix than Springfield. Marta finds it amazing that I never forget a fish species I want to catch, and yet I can’t remember to empty the dishwasher.

Our trip began early on a Saturday morning. I picked up Pat in Alexandria and we headed southwest, and headed southwest, and headed southwest some more. It’s a big state, and our first fishing stop was some four hours from home.

That first stop was the Holston River, a clear, gorgeous stream in the middle of rural Virginia.

A huge thanks to Pat for finding spots like this.

Pat had scoped out some micros, and I scored immediately on a saffron shiner, the first species of the trip.

The saffron shiner – species 1865. That’s the year the Civil War ended, unless you live in some parts of Texas.

We should have left right away, because I spotted some redhorse and insisted on casting to them for quite a while. I caught all kinds of stuff – hogsuckers, bass, even brook trout – but no redhorse. This blog also could have been called “No Redhorse,” and if I had known that, I could have spent my time more productively.

A northern hogsucker. Not a redhorse.

At Pat’s gentle urging, we packed up and headed for the Clinch River. This watershed is not only home to the elusive tangerine darter, it also hosts a batch of other desirable micros, as well as some larger stuff, like, you guessed it, black redhorse.

The Clinch River. Did I mention there are black redhorse here?

We got there late afternoon, and started poking around a spillway. When that didn’t produce the desired tangerine darter, we moved to riffles about a mile downstream. We tend to fish separately to cover more ground, so when we reached the water, I wandered upriver and Pat stayed and looked at some likely darter hideouts. I caught my second species of the day – the redline darter.

I was thrilled with another darter. These are difficult to catch.

A while later, I was busily glaring at an uncooperative darter. Pat, with no ill intent, walked up to a respectful distance and said “Hi Steve.” I jumped out of my skin – “Aaaaaaaagh! You scared the $#!& out of me!” I don’t think Pat is trying to sneak up on anyone – he is just naturally stealthy, which is handy while fishing for skittish creatures. I have all the grace and stealth of a vertigo-stricken walrus, and when I am focused on a darter, I wouldn’t notice that same walrus until it bumped into me. (Or said “Hi Steve.”) When I stopped screaming, Pat let me know that he had caught a bluebreast darter, a rare and marvelous creature that I have tried and failed for many times.

Gorgeous. His photos are always better than mine.

Pat has amazing focus and hamstrings, because he can hold the “Darter Crouch” for hours without screaming or accidentally soiling himself.

The “Darter Crouch.” Photo taken by a mature person.

The “Darter Crouch.” Photo taken by me.

The next morning, we headed downstream on the Clinch and set up across a big, fast riffle. Almost immediately, I had a triumph – a gilt darter, the same species Ben Cantrell caught in front of me in Missouri a few years ago.

A gilt darter. Ben’s was prettier, but they all count the same on the scoreboard.

Ben Cantrell. (And Cora the cat. Note that Ben’s current cat, Rascal, is far cooler than Cora.)

Rascal. You’ll be reading more about him next month.

After that, the morning was soul-crushing. I spotted black redhorse, so those were on my mind, but I had also seen a quillback, and even more importantly, I saw and missed three different tangerine darters. I felt awful, and I have a hard time leaving a place that I suspect holds fish, even to move somewhere that could be much better. (Ask Martini.) Pat finally talked me into moving a few miles, to a river that was alleged to hold quite a few redhorse. When we got there, we could see dozens of them, even from the parking lot, and I had high hopes that I would finally get my black.

I walked into the water, armed with some red worms on a #10 hook and a six-pound spinning outfit. I would pick out a redhorse, cast to it, and watch it carefully avoid the bait and swim upstream. To no one’s surprise except mine, this went on for quite a while, and, as you can imagine, I was exasperated. I left the bait sitting at my feet while I was looking for targets, and was startled by a small but definite bite. Reflexively, I lifted up and felt a small fish. I flipped it up through the air and dropped it into my occasionally-reliable glove hand.

It was an impossible explosion of color – neon green, neoner yellow, and electric tangerine orange. It was a tangerine darter, completely by mistake, but it was species four of the trip, and species 1868 lifetime.

Is that cool or WHAT?

I would have done the trip for this species alone.

We fished the Clinch again in the evening, and I still did not get a black redhorse. We did meet a very nice game warden, who couldn’t believe we were fishing for something that wasn’t a bass or catfish.

There were better versions of this photo, but the look on Pat’s face in this one is priceless.

Our dinner was something special, even by the low standards of unsupervised men on the road. We found one of the few remaining Long John Silver’s in America, and, I am proud to say, gorged ourselves on fried stuff.

Oh how I love fried stuff.

Pat wrestles down the Admiral’s Platter.

We spent the next morning hopping from creek to creek, searching for assorted micros that Pat had researched. I added two to the list – the Tennessee shiner and the Western blacknose dace. I also may have gotten some sort of recently split sculpin, but these IDs give me a headache.

A Tennessee shiner.

The western blacknose dace. Species six of the trip.

Any ideas? Thor? Val?

I also caught a teensy stripe-necked musk turtle. (Thanks to reader Thomas from VA who spotted the correct species.) It was cute until it bit me.

Late that afternoon, we pulled up to the legendary New River. Ironically one of the oldest rivers in the world, the New is supposed to be loaded with species, and from the bridge, it looked fantastic.

I had read about this place for years.

When we fought our way down to the water, however, it looked sterile. We searched riffles and rocks, and saw … nothing, as if there had been a toxic spill. Pat took it in stride, but I was apoplectic. I had read about the New River for years, and now that I was finally here, it was going to shut down on me? This is a legendary smallmouth haven … but of course, I wasn’t fishing for smallmouth. And if I fished for river bass, I was giving up on new species for the day. But I love smallmouth fishing – I remember my Uncle Jim talking about them back on early 1970s trips at Port Sanilac. I figured I might as well return to my fishing roots for a couple of hours. I took a sturdy spinning rod and a box of lures, and waded up the rocky, slippery passages until I arrived at a perfectly gorgeous spillway.

Tell me that doesn’t look full of fish.

I tied on a classic Panther Martin and cast into the edges of the white water, just as Uncle Jim taught me all those years ago.

Bang. Instant, big hit. I knew it was a smallie without seeing it, and it battled me in and out of the current until I beached it. It was a beautiful, strong two-pound fish. I released it, and cast again. Bang. I caught fish on my first five casts, all around two pounds.

This is what it’s all about.

They were everywhere.

I was in an isolated section of the New River, catching nice smallmouth. I was back at my roots, and loving it every bit as much as I love catching anything. I ended up with 14 smallies, ranging up to three and a half pounds. It was truly one of the golden moments of this or any other trip.

The beast of the group.

My day was complete.

Then it happened. “Hi Steve.” followed by “Aaaaaaaagh! You scared the $#!& out of me!” Pat has somehow walked all the way up the river without me noticing. Luckily, my pants were already wet.

We checked into some local motel that evening, and had a nice conversation with the night clerk. She noticed we were fishermen, and, unsolicited, she mentioned that she had done quite a bit of fishing in the Clinch. “Oh yes,” she said. “We used to get a lot of bass, and catfish, and that other thing … redhorse! We caught a lot of redhorse.” Pat tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back laughter and ended up making cough-up-the-hairball noises. I know the lady didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but I hated her nonetheless.

The next morning, we continued our way through the western part of the state.

And it was all scenic.

I added one species early in the morning – the mountain redbelly dace. This is another one I missed in North Carolina last year, so I was thrilled.

Species 1871.

Our next move was a long one, down what felt like a hundred miles of country road to a beautiful creek near a small church. When we got there, there was no parking to be found. The church lot was plainly marked as church parking only, and I tend not to do anything to mess with churches, as I am always worried I will cause them to burst into flame. Some local guys were volunteering their time to shore up the rockwall next to the building, and as soon as they saw we were fishermen, they invited us to park there. The kindness of strangers had saved us again. Pat and I got into the water and fished most of the afternoon – it was gorgeous. There were darters all over the place, although when I finally caught one, it turned out to be a fantail, a species I seem to get in every state.

Why is it always a fantail? Anybody have data on the Chesapeake split of the fantail?

I did get a crescent shiner moments later, species eight of the trip and 1872 lifetime.

The crescent shiner.

After that, it was mostly darter hunting, and just enjoying whatever wanted to bite in a small creek. Pat was off doing his own thing, spotting and catching stuff I didn’t even know was there. As we closed out the day, I had one lucky catch – it didn’t give me a new species, but it did give me a photo I’ll never forget.

A spawning crescent shiner. I think this was the only thing I caught all trip that Pat didn’t.

It was getting late and was time to leave, but of course I was still locked in on another darter than turned out to be a fantail. Pat walked down the stream and gently said “Steve?” I responded “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!”

The following day would be our last one on the road. Pat had to go back to work at the Library of Congress, and I had to face my sister. We hit a number of attractive spots on the way back up the DC area, and one of these, a spillway on the Roanoke River, produced a wonderful surprise. At first, I thought I had gotten a juvenile logperch, but when I showed the photo to Pat, he immediately recognized it as a chainback darter. This was my 9th and last species of the road trip, and my 20th overall darter species.

My first darter was in 2015, a rainbow with Martini and Ben. 

I also caught a large cutlip minnow, which I thought was worth sharing.

This is a behemoth of a cutlip.


Our last spot was a creek known to host longfin darter. The results were a microcosm of the whole trip – Pat got the longfin; I got fantails.

No missing this ID. Pat’s photo of course.

As we were getting past time to leave, Pat kindly walked in my field of view for at least 20 feet and called out “Steve?” But I was focused on another fantail, so naturally … “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!” The Phantom of the River had struck for the final time. Or had he?

The ride home featured dinner at Zaxby’s, a regional fast food place that everyone should eat at before they die. Preferably just before, if you have the gravy.

Best fried chicken this side of Chick-fil-A, and no protesters!

Once I was back in DC, Pat had a couple of local trip ideas, allowing me to get out of the house and avoid my sister. The first species should have been easy – it was a sculpin that Pat had found in a particular set of rocks below a particular bridge in a particular stream.

The particular stream.

Unfortunately, I don’t always read instructions. I bashed around the creek for a couple of hours with no success, and finally, in desperation, I reread the email and noticed I had gotten it exactly backwards. I waded to the correct spot and caught the fish in 30 seconds. I had just finished taking photos and was quietly enjoying the scenery when Pat called. I had accidentally taken my phone off silent mode, so “Aaaaaaagh!” You scared the $#!& out of me!” The River Phantom had struck – remotely.

The Blue Ridge Sculpin.

The following day, I gave it one more try. This spot took me all the way to the backwaters of Chesapeake Bay, through some gorgeous hiking trails and into a wadeable lagoon alleged to contain a population of naked gobies.

The ledge was crawling with micros.

I set forth with light gear and had a ball. There were lots of micros, like killifish and sheepshead minnows, but the naked gobies were especially abundant.

Sheepshead minnow. They’re cute.

A naked goby. They do not wear pants like other gobies.

I then went after some interesting-looking killifish, one of which turned out to be a rainwater killifish – species 12 of the week and 1876 overall.

1876 was the year Custer screwed up. (But he still got a monument. Sometimes I think this could confuse our children.)

Speaking of confused children, this trip was also to recognize my niece Elizabeth, who quietly managed to graduate high school with all kinds of honors and to do so without catching any species that I have not.

Roughly 17 years ago, I was the only family member to witness her first steps.

That’s Elizabeth on the left, and some vagrant photobombing us.




After substantial confusion, mostly caused by me, we have a good count on my IGFA records. It stands at 199, and it stands there instead of 198 because of an almost unknown California native fish – the hardhead. It started with a road trip. Marta is always game for a weekend road trip, especially someplace with steep hills and a yoga retreat. This time, we drove five hours to get to Alturas, a charming mountain town in remote Northeastern California. The hailstorm that broke my windshield was not as charming.

Also dented my hood and roof.

The aftermath. That’s a pile of hail on the shoulder.

Rumor had it that there were big hardhead and a few other species in a nearby river, so I gave it a shot.

The Pit River, central Alturas.

Luke Ovgard, he of blue chub fame, joined us. I trusted his guidance, as he happened to hold the world record on hardhead. Unfortunately, the river was completely blown out, but luckily, this did not stop the hardhead from biting. We had great action through the evening, interrupted only for an excellent Italian meal. The next morning, while Marta hiked a local mountain, I unintentionally but gleefully shattered Luke’s record.

Luke, and his record fish from 2018. It was one pound.

Mine was two. So that’s like catching a 3100 pound black marlin, although I suspect I won’t get as much press.

Enjoying the scenery. In the Bay Area, that barn would cost $3,000,000, more if you’re a Republican.





  1. Congratulations , and happy Thanksgiving Day !

  2. Hey Steve. I love the micro-focused trips. You ever look at birds or mammals or insects or other biota you are wandering amongst?
    Thanks for sharing, as always.

  3. Hey Steve, I’ve been reading your blog for years, it’s always a delight!

    Looks like the that’s a stripe-necked musk turtle– this website has a species description and a map of where they’ve been recorded in Virginia.

    • Thanks so much for the information – I have corrected the turtle species to allow this little fellow his moment in the media.



  4. […] a lot more fear. Again, I only had a few hours available, but I tried to approach the rocks with Pat Kerwin-like stealth and  present baits at likely ambush points. It still went badly. I saw a few fish poke their heads […]

  5. […] did, including Dr. Moyle, Teejay O’Rear, and Dylan Stompe, the UCD student who helped confirm my hardhead record from 2019. Small […]

  6. […] I headed out on a Sunday morning, and drove north to Alturas, California – the same place where, as you doubtless recall, I caught a world record on the Hardhead last May. […]

  7. […] (Imagine that.) This journey would be another one of my east coast species hunts, with local expert Pat Kerwin and Chicago-based life-lister Gerry Hansell. (We had all been pretty much quarantined, and promised […]

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