Posted by: 1000fish | November 19, 2020

The Mucus

DATELINE: JUNE 1, 2020 – SOMEWHERE IN UTAH

It was time. I had been in the house every night but one for three straight months. The virus caseload was stabilizing, at least according to Fox, and most importantly, Marta wanted me OUT.  Although I wouldn’t be going to the Amazon this year, there were still species to catch throughout the western US, mostly discovered in sweaty late-night sessions with the Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes.

The sacred text.

Before the pandemic, my buddy Chris and I had talked about meeting in Salt Lake and fishing our way to Vegas. But I was not in the mood to fly anywhere, and when I looked at driving, out came the books. The east coast has a great deal more biodiversity than the arid west, but there are still a few species out here. The drawback, and it’s a big one, is that these places are very, very far apart. My trips are usually built around efficiency, and that was out the window. But I had time, a reliable vehicle, and a partner who was encouraging me to leave the house right away, tonight if possible, and take my time coming back.

Mentally, I had to look at this as less of a species hunt and more of a fishing trip. Utah, for example, has tremendous fishing – but mostly for “normal” fish. I was ok with this. Some trout wouldn’t hurt me, and there would be a few chances for a new species or a record. And I could see some parts of the country I had missed. Indeed, I would be seeing these parts for a long time, because the route added up to some 3500 miles.

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.

On the way, I saw one of the saddest signs I have ever seen.

And some amazing scenery.

The Pit River was low and clear, which I presumed was good. (It had been high and muddy last year, which made the fishing challenging.)

Low and clear turned out to be bad.

There were very few fish, but the Niles hotel was still lovely and Antonio’s carryout Italian food was great.

The first fish of the trip – a northern pikeminnow.

The next morning, I met up with old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard to poke around for a few California micros. I am proud to report that I captured one – the Northern Roach – recently differentiated from several other roach species.

Dr. Peter Moyle of UC Davis had sent me this excellent news.

We saw a few trout and tried a couple of other spots, but this would be it for the day. I was then off on a 500 mile drive to Ely, Nevada, to meet up with Chris Moore and his sons. Driving 500 miles through the middle of Nevada, it becomes clear why they tested atom bombs here.

This will be Chris’ first time in the blog. He is a Phoenix-based species hunter who, through many adventures with his sons, has managed to put together three quite respectable 200+ species lists. They have accomplished this with hardly any flying, so you can imagine the road trips. I, for one, can’t think of a better Dad than one who will drive two kids 10 hours each way to try to get a whitefish. And Chris is a high school teacher, so he’s ideally suited to deal with me.

Chris has two teenage sons, and for some reason, I couldn’t remember their names to save my life. It turns out that the 17 year-old is Carson and the 15 year-old is Brayden, but that just wouldn’t stick with me, so, for convenience, I originally called them Thing One and Thing Two.

Steve with the Moore gang. From left, that’s Steve, Chris, Carson (Thing 1), and Brayden (Thing 2.)

After we met up in Ely (pronounced “eeeely” rather than “Eli”) and checked into our respective hotels, we decided to go out for dinner. It was a weird, weird feeling to actually sit down in a restaurant, and any chance it could seem normal went out the window when the waitress showed up in a mask and sprayed us with sanitizer.

The next morning, we made a lengthy reconnaissance into desolate central Nevada, looking for guppies and similar transplants. We failed. The failure was compounded, because Thing 2, whose sole responsibility was carrying my bag of micro gear, left it by the side of a spring. Interestingly, when I noticed it was not there, I said “Hey guys – I don’t seem to be able to find …” Brayden cut me off before I could even explain what was missing and insisted “It wasn’t me.” I pointed out that I had not yet announced what was gone, but Thing 2 repeated that he was not at fault, whatever it was. Sigh. We were two days in and already someone was on my last nerve, mostly because he reminded me of what I must have been like at that age.

Somewhere in there, for reasons that are not completely clear, I changed Brayden’s nickname from “Thing 2” to “The Mucus.” It just seemed right. (It stuck, by the way. Now even his mother calls him “The Mucus.” I am very proud of this.)

He is also almost impossible to photograph.

Part of graduating as an English major is picking a lifetime grammatical pet peeve, and mine is misuse of the word “literal.” The Mucus uses some form of this word in every sentence. Literally. I spent much of the trip trying to explain the difference between “Literally,” “Figuratively,” and “Really, really,” but he never did master it. He caught on quickly that this annoyed me, and tripled his use of the phrase every time I was in earshot. He once stated “I literally don’t know what ‘literally’ means.”

Meanwhile, the older child, Thing One, was relentlessly polite and respectful. He almost made me regret that we had never had children, but then The Mucus would say something and I would come to my senses.

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.)

There were still several species remaining here for me to pursue, notably the Jack Dempsey. To limit the drama, I didn’t. But, the fishing was still amazing, and among other catches, I got several fully lit up male Giraffe Cichlids. Apart from being a personal best, these were gorgeous.

I never stop musing at finding a Malawi fish in rural Utah.

The biggest one. Heartbreakingly close to 16 ounces.

We pulled in to Salt Lake late that night, and set up for a couple of days of trout fishing that had some chance of producing an oddball sucker or sculpin. When we got out on the river the next day, Carson caught lots of suckers, ON A FLY ROD, which made me wonder if I should have given him the unfavorable nickname.

Carson casually fights another sucker. ON A FLY ROD.

Seriously, Carson. It’s not funny when you make something I can’t do look so easy. Like running.

I did catch a western slope cutthroat trout.

I do not generally add subspecies to my list. (Especially in the case of trout in the US, which, depending on the source, can be divided into squillions of subspecies. I once had a guy in Weaverville tell me he had caught over 300 USA trout species. On a FLY. Because if you didn’t catch them on a FLY, you may as well have used a pitchfork. I generally respect the heck out of fly fishermen, except Brian Smith, but let’s all enjoy our version of the sport without getting snotty with each other.

I got some nice browns.

And a deformed brown. which I actually caught twice. We named him Troutimodo.

And, finally, a sucker. But this was a Utah sucker, which I had caught previously, in the fabled “Audible” blog episode.

I accepted my trout and enjoyed being outdoors, where things seemed almost normal, until I got asked to leave a gas station because I was WEARING a mask. How did we end up with sides during a pandemic? The normal arrangement is that it’s us vs. the virus.

Utah has some striking views. Too bad this canyon didn’t have any fish.

It did have an impressive rattlesnake.

We slowly worked our way south, stopping at various hot springs and isolated creeks. There were two triumphs and a lost pair of shoes to report, and luckily, they weren’t my shoes.

This picture sums up their personalities perfectly. Unfortunately, it also sums up my personal hygiene. Some of that hair is coming out of my ears.

Our first stop was Meadow Hot Springs, where I got the record Oaxaca cichlid last year with Gerry Hansell.

Chris and Thing 1 work the shoreline.

What I remember more than the fish I caught last year was the Jack Dempsey and the Sailfin Molly I didn’t. On this trip, I am proud to report I got the sailfin. Don’t ask about the Dempsey. When I finally catch my first Jack Dempsey, I’m going to use it for spearfish bait.

My favorite Molly since Ringwald.

There were also all kids of cichlids. This is the redhead, a species I first caught with Marty Arostegui in 2012.

For the longer drives , we alternated kids so I had some company. I learned quickly that Thing 1 was interesting to talk to – he loves fishing, will listen respectfully to my college stories, has an encyclopedic knowledge of “The Office,” and he’s an elite long-distance runner. (I did some long distance running in college. I hit a triple.)

Carson even manages to be polite when he photobombs us.

Riding with The Mucus was an entirely different experience. The Mucus is normally, how shall we put it nicely … chatty. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, he has no unexpressed thoughts, whether or not the idea is fully formed. “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if … there was this thing … that did stuff …” I would helpfully respond “Perhaps you should think that through – to yourself – and come up with a more cogent presentation.” And he would reply “I literally should do that.” I’m sure I said similar things at his age; in hindsight, it’s a miracle my father let me live. But unexpectedly, when The Mucus got into my car, he suddenly clammed up, and conversation had to be dug out like a severely impacted wisdom tooth. You would think this is a blessing, but on a five hour drive where the only radio station plays nonstop Pat Boone, it wasn’t.

Did I mention that he’s really hard to photograph?

But sometimes you just have to hug him. 

Many miles down featureless Utah highways, we arrived at a spot Luke had given us for wild guppies. It was a tough pin to find, and involved climbing a fence or two, but when I saw the stinking swamp he wanted us to slog through, I was out. The Mucus and Thing 1 went right at it, and while they did eventually find their way, Carson lost his footwear in the ooze, which looked less like mud and more like dragon vomit.

After Chris brought him replacement shoes.

In the meantime, I pulled out my phone and examined the map. It looked a lot like I could get to the same spot by walking down a clear, dry path on the riverbank. Most shortcuts lead to disaster, but this worked just fine and I caught several guppies by the time the kids showed up, panting and covered in mud. Those of you who knew me in the 80s know that I also was once found panting and covered in mud, and that’s all we’re going to get of that story.

A guppy. Yay.

Both kids smelled like decomposing skunk, so I drove the next few legs alone. Our final stop that day was Rogers Hot Spring, another place loaded with confused aquarium fish. There were thousands of mollies and some sort of Rio Grande hybrid, but we also spotted some sort of brightly-colored thing I didn’t recognize. Naturally, these didn’t want to bite, but after an hour or effort and switching baits a few times, I got one.

It turned out to be a truly weird one – The Taiwan Reef Cichlid. You know – the one in the Protomelas genus.

We then made the long haul down to Phoenix. Mercifully, it was Thing 1’s turn in my car, so the time went quickly, and now I don’t need to actually watch “The Office” because I know what happens. (Daenerys has a temper tantrum, jumps on her dragon, and kills everyone in King’s Landing.)

Wait! I finally got a decent picture of The Mucus! He was farting.

My plan was to stay in Arizona a few days and track down a couple of species I had missed over the years. In looking at my remaining targets in Arizona, I kept coming up with a spot that I didn’t want to drive to – New Mexico. We’re talking 10 hours round trip, but I had a shot at a critter I had always wanted – the Bluehead Sucker. It was a shame I couldn’t catch up with “Sexy Rexy” Johnson, but at least my walk would be shorter.

The sucker was not so cooperative. There were dozens and dozens of them, in shallow, clear water, but shortly before I arrived, they held a meeting and determined that they were not going to eat. In the grand tradition of the creek chubsucker, they zoomed giggling around the pool, often examining but never touching my offerings. This went on for hours, far past that blurry line that separates optimism and stupidity. But I still believed the next one was going to bite. Somewhere well into the evening, one of them made a beeline for a micro-bit of Gulp and grabbed it. It held on to it so long that even my slow and stunned reaction still hooked it.

A fish picture often delineates persistence and insanity.

I resented that fish, because I didn’t get back to Phoenix until the wee hours of the morning, and the gas station where I planned to eat dinner had already closed. I dined out of the hotel vending machine at 3am, which actually made me miss Marta’s chili.

Despite Marta imploring me to take a few more days, I decided to head home on June 2.

It’s a long drive from Phoenix to San Francisco, and I decided to break it up by stopping at the Salton Sea and trying – AGAIN – for porthole livebearers. There are no %#&@ porthole livebearers here. This may be a prank that the rest of the species hunting community is playing on me, but I stuck it out for hours. And hours. Because of this, I didn’t make it all the way home that night, and ended up sleeping in Bakersfield for the first time in many years. (If I had kept driving, I would have gotten home at 3:30am, and I can’t imagine Marta would have greeted me very warmly.)

And I got to have a bonus breakfast at the Willow Ranch.

When all the scores were tabulated, my species total had risen to 1936. (The year when Jesse Owens spoiled the Olympics for Germany.) It was progress – it wouldn’t match what I would have done in the Seychelles, but I was making the best of things, and that’s all we can do right now. The important thing was that I had gotten out fishing for a week, and I had gotten to go with two very good friends.

Steve


Responses

  1. […] The Great Western Road Trip had given me some confidence that I could travel without dying. As I settled into a Covid routine and the toilet paper supply chain stabilized, Marta again began hinting that it would be nice if I got out of the house so she could get some work done. (She claims that my constant interruptions prevent her from focusing on projects. Ridiculous.) […]


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