Posted by: 1000fish | November 3, 2020

Fishing in the Time of Covid

DATELINE: MAY 16, 2020 – DAVIS, CALIFORNIA

Great. Some idiot eats a pangolin and now I can’t go fishing. Marta often whispers “Steve, it’s not all about you,” but I was feeling pretty sorry for myself as I cancelled trips to the Seychelles and the Amazon.

Canceling trips was not easy. It took American Express over four hours to answer the phone.

After some difficult self-reflection, supervised by Marta, I realized that a lot of people – indeed, most people – were much more affected by the pandemic than I. I can work remotely, it’s relatively easy for us to quarantine, and, since Marta is always planning for nuclear winter, we had plenty of toilet paper.

Failing that, I have a laundry basket full of mismatched socks.

And I always wondered why Marta took so many wedding napkins.

While I was still in Brazil, Marta ventured to Safeway for some good old-fashioned panic buying. The good citizens of Alamo had snatched up a lot of staples, but Marta did find a ham. It was a big ham, and we sheltered in place with that 14-pound monstrosity. We will never eat ham again.

The empty shelves of Safeway. Those mismatched socks were looking pretty good.

Speaking of mismatched, think of poor Marta. She has been trapped in a house with ME for two months. We have been together for 16 years, and I have never been home more than 29 days in a row. Marta often says “My relationship with Steve only works because he travels four months a year for work. And eight months a year for fishing.”

Drinking helps.

One upside – we did cook together a great deal. Several marvelous new recipes found their way into Marta’s repertoire, including the best chicken soup ever. Of course, not all experiments succeed. Our most notable culinary fail, apart from the “fortnight of ham,” was an attempted chili. It caused some voluntary social distancing and indirectly destroyed our microwave. The recipe did call it “spicy chili,” but this was an understatement akin to calling France’s 1940 military “unprepared.” By the time we figured out that it was useful only for self defense, we were late in the game, but Marta looked online and discovered that starch cooked from a potato could dull the acid. Unfortunately, she chose a military-grade potato that caught fire in the microwave.

For days, the house smelled like burned potato and ass.

Realizing this was going to be a long haul, we started looking for home projects. The most obvious for me, apart from maybe doing a load of laundry, would be to organize the garage.

The garage. There are 152 fishing rods, Amelia Earhart’s skeleton, and a piece of the true cross in there someplace.

My garage would terrify even the most enthusiastic hoarder, because it is all the stuff from the garage at my last house thrown hurriedly into boxes then randomly unpacked, plus whatever fishing gear I have acquired over the past six years. There is also hockey equipment, bikes, and construction supplies just in case our remodel ever gets off the ground.

So I bought some plastic storage bins and a label maker.

Everything needs a clever label.

That got boring fast. Handling fishing gear reminded me that, more than anything, I wanted to be fishing. There were two problems with this. The first is obvious – most of my fishing requires travel, and travel was going to be complicated for a while. (Two months if you watch Fox, 15 years if you’re on CNN.) With all the nights at home, we got to catch up on movies about vile contagions, like “Outbreak,” “The Cassandra Crossing,” and “Home Alone.” That also got old quickly. I even finished “The Simpsons,” all 639 episodes, so now I actually know Mr. Burns’ full name.

In my humble opinion, Mr. Burns has the single funniest line in the whole series – “We both made shells for the Nazis, but mine WORKED!” Look it up for context.

After all that distraction and denial, I started to research if I could actually go fishing. I reasoned that there couldn’t be a sport with more social distancing, important because my personal hygiene slipped precipitously as soon as I didn’t have to go into an office.

Covid Homeless

I’ll use this one when I need a new employee badge.

California loves to interfere with any sport that vegans don’t like, and rumors were flying around about cancelling all sportfishing. (Which would move me into proud civil disobedience.) I first had to work through my grief about cancelling the exotic trips. By the time I sat down to write this, it was clear that I was not going to the Seychelles in April, not going to Miami in May, not going to Hawaii in June, and not going to the Amazon in July. This is my life and my passion – and it’s what keeps me out of the house and therefore getting along with Marta.

2020 was supposed to be the year I would hit 2000 species, but it had turned into the year I might not even be able to fish. This was also supposed to be a big world record year, where I would hope to keep up with some of the Arosteguis. Yes, other people have much bigger problems, but they can write their own blog.

I quickly made a list of the species that I could possibly add within a socially-distanced day trip. This meant no boats, no piers, no guides. There were ten fish on the list, and let’s face it, they were on this list because they were difficult to catch in the first place.

Covid List 3

There’s a lot of pointless optimism on this list.

The most obvious targets were the Chameleon and  Shokihaze gobies, which are supposed to live in Suisun Bay, about 40 minutes from my house. This location also offers Sacramento Splittail, a potential world record.

I packed suitable gear and drove off for what became an almost-daily pilgrimage. I tried a variety of baits and rigs. I caught lots and lots of gobies, but not the right ones. Still, this was progress – I could at least catch something reliably. Among my many OCD fishing lists, I have caught a fish in every calendar month since April of 1992.

My first Covid shutdown catch. The streak was intact.

I didn’t even sniff a splittail, and somewhere in all this, Al Kaline died.

Covid Kaline

WTF, universe?

One of the other species that made the list is a kelp surfperch. These maddeningly obvious creatures live in – stay with me here – kelp. There are squillions of them in Monterey, purposely living just far enough off shore where they can’t be caught from a pier. Old 1000fish friend Daniel Gross volunteered to lead a socially-distanced kayak trip into the kelp, and I inadvisably thought this would be a slam dunk.

Daniel catches some amazing fish from his kayak.

Covid WSB

I mean some ridiculously amazing fish.

I wasn’t too sure about paddling out where there are great whites and krakens.

I failed. I saw kelp perch, but senorita wrasses were the dominant pest of the day and got there first – every time. I also managed a spectacular sunburn on my legs.

Sunblock, people – even if it’s foggy.

The sunburn was bad – it hurt to walk for a few days. And then the peeling started. I’ve had bad peeling before, but this time, it was actually noisy – imagine the sound of velcro and screaming. Just for fun, I left a bunch of Pringle-sized skin shreds on Marta’s part of the couch.

She was not amused.

After two months in the house, I was hurting to expand my horizons, and Marta was deeply supportive of anything that might get her a night off. There was so much conflicting information on Covid that it was hard to figure out if it was reasonable to travel and stay in a hotel. One side is telling me that there is no epidemic and I should head to spring break in Florida, the other side is telling me I will die if I open the curtains. Why the hell are there sides in a pandemic? In the old days, it was everyone against the virus.

The desire to go fishing won, although Marta gently telling me “GET OUT” also helped. I caught up with old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard, and we agreed to meet in Yreka, California – not to be confused with Eureka – and go hunting for the Siskyou sculpin. It was a gorgeous day for a drive. If I didn’t turn on the radio, things felt almost normal … until I pulled into a gas station and someone made fun of me for wearing a mask.

The next morning, we discovered that the Klamath River was high, muddy, and weedy. We were going to need a Plan B. We looked at a creek in Hornbrook, California, but while we were still rigging up, a series of dentally-challenged locals confronted us and announced that the creek was “private property.” No it isn’t. No navigable waterway in the USA is private – it’s one of the things that makes us better than Germany. But these guys were aggressive and quite clearly had something to hide. We decided to let it go for the time being, because there is almost – almost – no species worth getting shot over.

So what to do? Northern California pickings looked slim, but then we thought about Southern Oregon. The Rogue River was only 90 minutes north, and it is supposed to be thick with Umpqua pikeminnows, one of the two Ptychocheilus species I haven’t caught. We made the drive, found a socially-distanced spot, and cast. I caught one immediately, and the action was so steady we kept at it for a couple of hours. Fishing is fishing, and it was good to be outdoors.

The triumphant anglers.

The Umpqua Pikeminnow.

Ducks did not do social distancing, but they all live at the same address.

We headed to another river where Luke had caught some sculpin species, but they were not daylight-friendly and I was facing a long drive home. I couldn’t thank Luke enough for figuring out something to catch, and when we headed to the cars, reflexively, we shook hands. I hadn’t shaken hands with anyone in two months. Luckily, there was a quart of hand sanitizer in the car.

It was a gorgeous drive home.

A new species in the time of Covid! It could be done. That, and the fact that Marta would make sure we had decent food and toilet paper, was enough to keep me going.

Later in May, a bizarre set of coincidences put me on the trail of another difficult species. The Sacramento blackfish is on the my target list, and it’s on there for a good reason – it’s a filter feeder and won’t readily take standard baits. Still, I 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 spinners.

I am in constant touch with the UC Davis biology guys, and they had given me great information on where I might find a blackfish. (Notice they said “find,” not “catch.”) As a bonus, they had also clued me in that largescale logperch were hiding in Putah creek, so I thought I would try for those as well. I headed up to my alma mater with Mark and Connor Spellman, who drove in their own car and fished an appropriate distance away, mostly because of the smell.

Covid Connor

That’s Connor Spellman on the right.

We tried for the logperch first, and that went badly. While we failed, we chatted with a number of students who were floating down the river on various inflatable devices.

One of these students asked me what I was fishing for. I told him what I always tell curious onlookers – “A small imported fish you’ve never heard of.” Astonishingly, he asked if it was a largescale logperch. My jaw fell off. It turns out that this student, Aaron Sturtevant, was studying marine biology at UCD and knew all the same people I did, including Dr. Moyle, Teejay O’Rear, and Dylan Stompe, the UCD student who helped confirm my hardhead record from 2019. Small world.

Aaron and a beautiful carp from the wild section of Putah Creek.

Covid Moyle 2

That’s Dr. Peter Moyle, one of the true giants in the freshwater fish world and an ongoing inspiration for my species quest, third from left. The remaining good-looking people are Daniel Gross and his father.

Teejay O’Rear with a hardhead.

Covid Dylan

Dylan and a nice striper. These guys have been a huge help over the years.

Aaron and I got talking, and he shared that he had netted some large blackfish on the eastern part of campus – nowhere near where I had been planning to try. We took directions, and headed off to hunt this particular unicorn. It’s a lovely part of the campus, with a narrow, groomed waterway passing through a series of small weirs. Before we started, I couldn’t help but take a shot at some of the carp that frequent the larger pools. Ancestors of these same carp were one of my college “go-to” fishing targets.

A sample Putah carp. I caught my first one in 1982.

Once we got to a likely-looking weir, Mark and Connor occupied themselves catching endless green sunfish and black bullheads.

Mark with a bullhead.

A highly-focused Steve looks for blackfish.

There was not a blackfish to be seen, but I knew they were here and I can go on hope alone for days at a time. We met all kinds of pleasant people, most of whom were curious about what we were catching. We also met one unpleasant person, who might have been more at home in Berkeley, who loudly demanded that we stop the “illegal murder” of fish. I invited her to check the regulations for herself, and that didn’t go over well – facts and fanatics are often at odds. She huffed off, mumbling about “murder” – ironic because we were releasing everything.

About half an hour later, as I still struggled to find a blackfish, the police showed up. Our activist friend had called 911 and filed a false report, alleging, among other gems, that we were “killing ducklings” and “brandishing firearms.” The UCD campus police were legendarily polite and diplomatic back when I was a student, and they still are. Somewhat embarrassed, they told us what had happened and made a cursory inspection of our stuff to make sure we didn’t have any AK-47s.

Then things got weird. While we were finishing up with the cops, Connor pointed to the opposite edge of the water and said “What’s that?” It took me a moment to see what he was looking at, but there was a dorsal fin sticking out of the water, moving slowly along the opposite bank. A moment later, a caudal fin appeared. It was a blackfish, and big one – well over a pound, which would make it a world record. After a moment of sphincter lock, I grabbed a rod and gently eased a worm right in front of the fish.

Nothing. It wasn’t interested in the worm, but it seemed to want to stay where it was, so it just eased away from the bait. Connor ran back to the car and got the net, just in case. After a while, I switched to bread. Nothing. But the fish still didn’t spook. Finally, I even tried a piece of corn. No interest whatsoever. I do not have words to describe the frustration of having a new species and world record right in front of me and it being completely unwilling to bite. But it wasn’t going to eat.

In utter exasperation, I channeled my inner Roger Barnes and tied on a small trout jig. Many years ago, I had learned from Roger that cyprinids will occasionally hit a lure when they are in territorial spawning mode. It was a longshot, but worth a try. The fish hit immediately, got hooked, splashed around, and came off. I was sick to my stomach, as generally, once fish are hooked, they don’t come back. When the water settled, Connor noticed that the fish was still right where it had been. I couldn’t believe it. I lined up for another try, net close at hand. With Mark and Connor peering over my shoulder, I dropped the jig and held my breath.

The fish went for it – I paused a split second and set gently, and he was on. I steered him away from the reeds and netted him, and I had one of the unlikeliest species and records I will ever have.

Yes, I know I look homeless.

The net – a beautiful handmade wooden piece – was a gift from Wade Hamamoto. Jamie is still wondering where it went.

Back then, I had no idea how long the pandemic was going to last, and months later, I still don’t. But for that moment, things felt normal. I was with good friends and catching fish, and that’s all I can ask out of life. We headed over to Carl’s Jr. – my first fast food in two months. Apart from eating in the cars, things felt normal, until I ran out of ketchup.

Steve


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