Posted by: 1000fish | July 2, 2020

Spring Training

DATELINE: NOVEMBER 4, 2019 – SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH

The stupidity of others sometimes has unintended good consequences. For example, the Detroit Tigers personnel moves, although competitively tragic, have caused celebration in Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City. The same might apply to some of our western hot springs. They used to be a destination for a few locals to go swimming, but over time, for reasons I have yet to understand, a group of reasoning-challenged people have been dumping aquarium fish in them. Some springs are practically overrun with tropical oddities – witness the isolated Idaho pothole Martini and I visited a few years back.

Though this must be confusing for the fish and certainly can’t be good for the environment, there is nonetheless opportunity in having a variety of unusual fish relatively close to hand. In this case, the unusual fish were in Utah, in a couple of springs on opposite ends of the state, but that’s what road trips are for. Every road trip needs a partner, and in this case, the road partner and indeed the person who found all the fishing spots was Mr. Gerry Hansell, who you may remember from “Ben and Gerry.” He has become such an expert on these western springs that he risks being nicknamed Gerry Springer, but I am guessing Gerry has never seen an episode of Springer, so the joke would be wasted.

Gerry and his beastly sauger from 2018.

Interestingly, or not, I actually saw “Jerry Springer, The Opera” in London’s west end in 2004. It was an epic evening with a co-worker buddy who had never been to London, so we did my famous four-hour running tour, still caught a show, and then it got weird so we’ll leave it at that.

I even got the t-shirt.

Fishing trips like this are usually planned with very little notice, and Gerry and I both have jammed schedules, so I was thrilled that it worked out. Gerry flew in the night before me, so he could take a morning crack at some Bonneville cutthroat. (Which I am pleased to report he caught.)

A lot of these trout sub-species look starkly different from each other. I am hoping Martini will get them all declared full species, so I can add a bunch of new ones from the couch.

My flight landed late morning. Gerry and I connected at the airport, and we set off on a two-hour drive to the Utah/Nevada border. This took us through at least an hour and 45 minutes of salt flats, a place where people seem to like to drive cars very fast and die in spectacular crashes. There are not a lot of more desolate locations on earth, but it does have a certain beauty.

Miles and miles without so much as a Burger King,

The spring in question was supposed to contain “Giraffe cichlids,” a Lake Malawi wonder that has always fascinated me. I just thought the name was cool. There were also supposed to be Jack Dempseys, and I am downright tired of not catching Jack Dempseys. Everyone else has caught one. I figured it had to be time.  When we approached the spring, it was hard to miss the fish – there were hundreds of them concentrated on a couple of small rockpiles. We each picked an opening in the reeds and set to it, casting bread and the red worms that Gerry had brought all the way from Chicago. He thinks of everything.

The water was gorgeous.

You have to give the guy credit for planning out every single detail, one of the reasons he is a senior executive in the consulting world. Gerry only began his species quest in earnest a few years ago, when he decided to wipe his slate clean and start over with a strict set of catch and ID rules. He has the engineer’s outlook on everything, whereas I approach fishing more like a demented artist. It’s like putting Linus Pauling and Jackson Pollock in a car together with six beers and some finger paints, but somehow, the partnership works.

The lake was jammed with African jewel cichlids, and these would not stay off the micro hooks.

Fish are only beautiful the first 100 times you catch them.

We could see some larger shadows a bit off shore, so we both worked more substantial baits in that direction. The very first fish from the deeper water was the intended cichlid – a gorgeous little thing. Apparently these are females or juvenile fish – large males have a bright blue head.

That was species 1900, if you’re playing along at home.

The triumphant anglers.

I seem to have shared quite a few of these milestones with good friends, and this was a special one. I was 100 fish from 2000, if I’m doing that math correctly. It was nine years and change ago, on a chilly fjord in Norway, that #1000, a coalfish, came over the rail. In an ill-advised frenzy of enthusiasm, I immediately set a public goal of 2000 for myself, and I have been trying to live up to that ever since. It’s been a long and amazing journey, marked not so much by the fish but by the friends I have made and places I have seen along the way, but I also knew the next 100 were going to very hard. I figured that I could get it done by the end of 2020, just so long as there wasn’t, I don’t know, a pandemic or something.

The next few fish were tilapia, genus Oreochromis, the most widespread form of life, not just on earth, but in the universe. I guarantee you that when that flying saucer actually lands in Roswell, the first thing off it is going to be a tilapia, and probably some kind of unidentifiable hybrid. After the third or fourth one, I had a closer look – the two main Oreochromis species, the Blue and Nile tilapias, are fairly hard to tell apart, but one of the characteristics is supposed to be vertical bars in the tail. This fish had vertical bars in the tail. Looking back at my catalog of tilapia photos, I found several others that resemble this, and I was finally comfortable counting both species. I am sure someone is going to poop on this ID. Let’s party. I’m on lockdown, Marta is on another four-hour conference call, and I have absolutely nothing better to do right now.

The tilapia in question.

We also brought in quite a few red devils – action was non-stop for the next few hours.

A red devil. I caught my first one in Hawaii with Wade and Jamie.

Then it was then back into the car for three hours to Provo, where we set up for the night at some form of Marriott. Everyone working at the hotel, the restaurant, and the convenience store was young, blonde, polite, and had perfect teeth. There were no bars or clubs open, the streets were quiet and safe – it was like a town full of Stepford children, minus the cutlery.

The next morning, we drove two hours south through towering mountain scenery to yet another spring. It was unsettling to be looking at snow-covered mountains while fishing for tropical whatsits, but as soon as I saw the water, non-fishing thoughts left my head.

Meadow Hot Springs.

It was gorgeous, clear blue, deep, and positively stuffed with fish. The banks teemed with what looked like mollies and jewel cichlids, but there were some very large shadows that eased out to the deeper water as soon as we poked our heads up.

I often get overwhelmed by the pure variety involved in such a place. There were several species right in front of me I hadn’t gotten – mollies, yellow cichlids, the &%#$ Jack Dempseys, plus the bigger stuff. I had no idea what to do first. Gerry, on the other hand, approached things with a plan. He was going to fish a micro hook for so long, then a bigger rig for so long, etc. – and he set an alarm on his watch to remind him. And he stuck with it. I was impressed, but my brain would explode if I tried something like this.

Gerry gets stealthy. I didn’t try this, for fear of not being able to get back up.

I started micro-fishing and discovered the place was lousy with convict and jewel cichlids.

Beautiful, yes. But pestilential. They may have evolved from locusts.

There were definitely Jack Dempseys, but it was almost impossible to present to them without a jewel cichlid crashing the party. This was deeply troubling to me, but after some persistent sight fishing, I managed to get a molly (either shortfin or a Mexican) and an Electric Yellow cichlid on the hook.

The electric yellow cichlid. It may glow in the dark.

A molly. God knows which one. These things hybridize like drunk teenagers.

These were species 1902 and 1903. My grandfather, on my Mother’s side, was born in 1903. Al Cloutier – “Gramps” – was one of the funniest men I have ever met. Anything we didn’t like to eat tasted like, and I quote, “Sour owl vomit.” (Which could only be obtained from sour owls.) Gramps taught me the game of baseball and was still playing catch with me into his 70s. He taught me to blame unfortunate noises on ducks and the joy of “pull my finger.” I miss him still.

Al and Ruth Cloutier, my Mother’s parents, circa 1985.

I couldn’t leave the big fish alone for long, and I finally pulled away from the micros to set up a bigger “blind” rod to soak a suitable bait. The first two worms got nipped apart by the small stuff, but on the third try, I caught a nice little redhead cichlid.

I had gotten this species before, in Miami with Marty Arostegui and Alan Zaremba.

The next bite on the big rod was more substantial, and I found myself in a pitched battle with something that tried to run up under the sharp ledges and break me off. I managed to wrestle it out (always use a reasonably heavy fluoro around rocks) and could see it was a decent fish. My guess was tilapia, but as it got closer I could see it was something else. I landed the fish, and it took me a moment to figure out it was a big Oaxaca cichlid – not only a new species, but also, at 1.25#, a world record.

This is why I always have a certified Boga and a measuring tape handy, even in the bathtub.

That’s #206 if you’re playing along at home.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get a Jack Dempsey, and I’m not going to say any more about that. For what is supposed to be a ravenous little cichlid, they are starting to act a lot like spearfish.

Gerry even had an alarm for when to leave, and any of you who have tried to get me out of a fishing spot know how well that went over. We headed north, and checked out a few spots in the greater Salt Lake area, looking for Utah Suckers and other beasts rumored to be around. But Steve, I hear you say. We all know you already caught a Utah Sucker, in the “Audible” blog episode from 2015. True, I would reply, but the world record for the Utah sucker is very doable, and nothing would delight me more than to break Kyle’s record, to get even with him for all the farting.

Gerry and I had dinner at PF Chang’s, which is great because I can’t get Marta to eat there. (Oh, what I would give to go out to dinner somewhere, anywhere right now.) During the evening, both of us had work emergencies pop up, which is par for the course, so we would have a very short window to fish in the morning.

To keep it brief, we froze out butts off and caught no new species. Gerry did get a few beautiful brown trout, but that was it for the spot.

Beautiful fish, but it was COLD.

I then dropped Gerry off at the airport, and, looking at my watch, figured I had just enough time to take a shot at a mountain sucker. Chris Moore, a friend I met through Ben Cantrell, offered me a spot that was supposed to be full of them, but he warned me that he had spent hours there without a bite. Indeed, the mountain sucker has a reputation as a soul-crushing fish. I figured I had nothing to lose but my pride, and me worrying about losing my pride is like Telly Savalas worrying about losing his hair. I lost the last shreds of my fishing dignity in Sepitiba, Brazil, on May 3, 2010.

Where mountain suckers can be found, which isn’t often, they are usually in numbers. As a non-scientist, my theory is that they form large aggregations to not feed. Friends of mine who are competent fishermen, and Spellman, have spent hours presenting to them with no luck. Of course, Martini caught one, but he is, after all, one of the better anglers on the planet, and a scientist. What chance do the rest of us have?

At least the views were beautiful.

Martini’s mountain sucker catch, in June of 2013, also led to one of our most beloved pieces of wall art – a print Martini sent me of an underwater photo he took of them. That was the last sucker species he had caught that I haven’t, but many of this family on my list are only there because I was fishing with Martini in the first place. (Witness his gifting me a spotted sucker.) Interestingly, Martini wrote a scientific paper on the mountain suckers he observed – you can read it HERE. (Bear in mind that I have gotten as far as two sentences into one of his papers before I found a word I didn’t understand. This paper eliminates the drama by using “Lacustrine” as the very first word*.)

The print. It’s allowed in the house. My IGFA awards aren’t. Go figure.

I walked out to the creek that Chris had recommended, and it didn’t take long to find the fish. Each little pool had a few dozen of them, sunning on rocks, swimming slowly around, or nestled down in fallen leaves. I tied up a micro hook and tiny split shot, baited with a fleck of redworm, and crashed stealthily down the bank to have my heart broken. It brought back terrible memories of approaching the line of disinterested girls at a junior high dance. The first fish behaved according to the book – he completely ignored me, even when I lodged the bait right up against his snotty little nose. The second fish was cruising around and appeared to be grazing on algae. I eased the worm into his path. He worked around it for a moment, then backed up and ate it. I was so stunned that I didn’t set for a long moment, but when I did, I vaulted the surprised creature over my head on to the bank. I had gotten my mountain sucker, and I had gotten it in less than five minutes.

What’s the problem here? Of course, every fisherman who is reading this and is annoyed at me has probably caught a Jack Dempsey.

I had gotten species 1904, which would be my last one of what had been a very productive 2019. December was a blur of bad Christmas party outfits and dozens of holiday specials on TV, which is how it should be, and I looked forward to 2020, and the possibility of reaching 2000 species and then setting a more reasonable next goal, like 2001.

I got on a flight that afternoon, taking it completely for granted.

Flying out over the Great Salt Lake.

Flying in over San Francisco. Our house is somewhere on the lower left side of the mountain. 

Even as I got on that plane, people half a world away were already falling ill with a mysterious respiratory infection. My flight was probably late, and I was probably disproportionately annoyed, but oh what I would give to be flying anywhere right now.

Steve

* It means “In a lake.” It comes from an ancient Bulgarian word for “scrotum.”


Responses

  1. […] counts as half a species, because the molly I caught in Utah with Gerry was either a common or a Mexican molly, and this one was definitely a common, because that’s […]

  2. […] have caught other stuff that wasn’t supposed to bite, like a European bream on a swimbait, or a mountain sucker on anything. I had heard rumors that blackfish had been caught on baits as ordinary as corn and as esoteric as […]

  3. […] In any case, I had plenty of spare gear, and we got to our target area – Blue Lakes, Utah – by mid-afternoon. (You may recall this location from fabled “Spring Training” blog episode.) […]


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