Posted by: 1000fish | June 24, 2021

Those Aren’t Goats, Gerry

DATELINE: AUGUST 2, 2020 – ROCKINGHAM, NORTH CAROLINA

Oh, it was strange to get on an airplane. Masks aren’t all that bad – it’s fun to wonder what people would look like under them, and no one can tell if you’re sticking your tongue out, but the bridge of my nose may never be the same.

And no one can see what’s wedged in your teeth, so eat all the broccoli you want.

Was this for Covid or a Gallagher show?

But I was willing to take such risks, because I got to go fishing, and because Marta’s version of “alone time” apparently does not include me. (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 to fish at least six feet away from each other. Gerry drove separately, and we all tried to wear masks whenever practical. I am pleased to report that we all survived the trip with no more than a touch of moderate indigestion.)

I landed in DC late afternoon. Seeing my sister was out of the question, because I didn’t want to, so I was on my own for food and entertainment. Taco Bell carryout is always a good option, especially when you’re going to drive hours and hours with someone the next day, but how to amuse myself in Alexandria during a pandemic?

There was a creek right behind my hotel. Not as convenient as a fountain in the lobby, but problem solved.

I have fished Northern Virginia fairly thoroughly, so I didn’t expect much in the way of species. (There’s always a shot at an Eastern Silvery Minnow, and that alone keeps me going.) I set up on a muddy bank, and even stumbled into a local night crawler to spice up my sabikis. The local bluegill were very cooperative, and I also got a few white perch. About an hour into the session, I started getting some shiner-like bites and hooked up. To my great astonishment, I reeled up three Alewife, a herring relative that runs in and out of coastal rivers. I had a species on the board, and the trip hadn’t even officially started.

Oh heck yes. Species 1948.

The next morning, I got Pat bright and early – well, not sure how bright I was, and we headed off on the 2020 version of our adventure. The general plan, apart from avoiding contact with other humans, would be to work our way through some spots on the way to the Virginia coast, meet up with Gerry, spend a couple of days fishing saltwater, and then explore some isolated parts of North Carolina before heading home. There were plenty of targets on the list, and this was still early in the trip, so I hadn’t realized I wouldn’t catch most of them.

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 me.

I should have brought waders. Or a suit of armor.

Gerry and Pat both got mud sunfish quickly. It took me about another hour, but I finally got my fish – species two of the trip.

I told you they were nondescript.

This is about as well as they photograph. But it was still species #1949.

In the background, I could swear I heard goats. I hadn’t seen any goats when we parked. I put it out of my mind and focused on fishing.

As soon as it got dark, the snakes came out. There were a lot of snakes, and by “a lot,” I am talking an Indiana Jones level. As I recall it, many of them were 10 feet long and venomous. As Pat recalls it, we saw some three foot water snakes. You be the judge.

In the midst of this reptilian terror, Pat caught a bunch of fish. This was one of many times I have been schooled on micro-fishing by an acknowledged master. He landed three large pirate perch that evening. I saw one and spooked it. At least I got my mud sunfish. As it got late, the goats really got into their rhythm. “Listen to all those goats!” said Gerry. “I don’t remember seeing goats,” said Pat, and I had to agree with him. But the noise was unmistakable. I went up to the road to look, and while the goat noises continued, I couldn’t see any goats. I also couldn’t hear any goat movement in the woods. Just disembodied bleats. Pat suggested that there were no goats. Gerry countered that there was clear auditory evidence. It wasn’t until the next day that Pat discovered that there is a frog that makes a sound exactly like a goat.

The following morning, we headed to Cape Charles, Virginia. In the age of Covid, these seaside resorts weren’t total ghost towns, but they weren’t the madhouses they would normally be. We could actually find hotel rooms and good carryout food without planning months in advance. Of course, we had to wear masks and wash our hands every 10 minutes, but it was nice to be at the seashore in the summertime.

My first catch addressed a 14 year-old sore spot. (Not to be confused with Jamie Hamamoto.) In the summer of 2006, in North Carolina, Marta caught at least five northern puffers. I caught none, and for 14 years, she has mentioned this at social gatherings.

The offending fish – 2006. How has Marta not aged while I seem to daily?

Pat caught a few puffers right away, so I shamelessly crashed his spot. I got one right away and sent Marta an appropriately snide text.

Take that, Marta and Jamie. And this was my 1950th species. 2000 still seemed pretty darn far away.

The rest of the afternoon was spent catching an assortment of coastal stuff – small black sea bass, croakers, striped searobins, and spot – bringing back memories of my niece and nephew’s first fishing trips in the Outer Banks.

Striped Searobins are so cool. But I found myself hoping in vain for a leopard searobin, a critter my nephew has caught and I have not. Oh how I want a leopard searobin.

My nephew.

As the three of us are old people, we opted for a mid-afternoon nap and meal break, and reassembled around six to hit the pier. I had high hopes for a shark or ray, but my larger baits went untouched most of the evening. I had one bait out that kept getting nibbled, which I wrote off to crabs, but when started reeling to check it, there was something there. It was not an enthusiastic fight, but certainly a fish, and I was delighted to see what I discovered to be an Atlantic Conger – species four of the adventure.

I never get big congers.

Gerry spent most of the evening trying to get a cutlassfish. Gerry is to cutlassfish as I am to spearfish, but it must have been even more emotionally difficult for him as the local anglers were catching dozens of them. He is a chemical engineer by training, and was attempting to apply principles of science and common sense to the project, but the fish were having none of that.

The pointy end of the cutlassfish. Do not put this in your pants.

We began the next day at the pier in Cape Charles, a charming coastal town that would likely be even more charming (but more crowded) if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Amongst dozens of small black sea bass, I reeled in a feather blenny, adding species #5 of the trip.

The feather blenny.

Gerry had a close call in the late morning – he didn’t loosen his spinning reel drag quite enough, and an Atlantic stingray came within an eyelash of launching his rod into the water. Luckily, Gerry has jungle-cat reflexes and made a miraculous save.

We all then took our standard old person mid-day break, featuring tremendous food truck tacos and a nap. Reassembling on the pier after dinner, we fished late into the night, a pleasant time marked with snack food and Red Bulls.

A food truck specialty – Oyster Toadfish wraps. Crunchy.

As we got a nice spot on the end of the wharf, I focused on lobbing big cut baits as far out as I could manage. One of my rigs was a heavy surf setup, the other a medium Okuma travel rod and Van Staal reel I bought from the superstars at Capitol Bait and Tackle in New York City last January.  The surf rod had 65 pound braid. The Van Staal had 15 pound line. Guess which one the 70 pound stingray decided to eat?

So it was pretty much hang on and let the thing do what it wanted to.

A note on pier etiquette – if somebody has a big fish on, please make all accommodations to help them. Work as a team. Step away from the rail, work them under or over your rig, and, if needed, clear your lines for a moment. You would want them to do the same for you. Do not be the guy who tried to keep me from passing him while the stingray was heading to the right at 25 mph. Do not be the guy who said “What? You expect me to not fish? What?” Do not be his curiously deep-voiced girlfriend who kept telling me “Cut your line. You’re in our spot. Cut your line.” And lastly, do not be me, who said “Move your rig. You aren’t going to catch anything anyway.”

An hour later, I landed a southern stingray, my biggest fish of the trip.

Yes, Marta. He was safely released.

Can everyone see the dangerous part?

Somewhere in there, Gerry finally caught his cutlassfish. He almost ruined the moment trying to dissect what he did right and wrong. Sometimes, the fish just decide to bite, and if science could explain this reliably, then it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Persistence pays off.

Later in the evening, one of my big cuts baits got savaged, and I finally hooked up on what had to be a shark. After a spirited fight, and with the help of some local kids, I landed a sandbar shark, species 1953. Sandbars are protected in VA so we didn’t take it out of the water and released it immediately.

Kiptopeke was a beautiful place. But get there early – it gets crowded, even in a pandemic.

We hit the road in the morning, bound for North Carolina in search of some old and new freshwater targets. It is here I must mention Gerry’s snorkel gear. I view snorkel fishing as a valid and interesting way to go after elusive species. But I always figured it would involve only a snorkel, and, hopefully, a swimsuit. Gerry, with his penchant for thoroughness and preparation, showed up with a snorkel fishing outfit that was part deep-sea diver, part Bulgarian astronaut.

In short, it was awesome.

Except for the air hump.

We pulled up to the Eno River that afternoon. This was familiar ground from our “Appalachian BBQ Tour,” during which I had somehow not caught a Roanoke darter. Gerry snorkeled and saw them immediately, but I couldn’t see them from the surface. I finally put on the mask and had a look. They were there, but wouldn’t bite for me, perhaps because I was 18 inches away from them, flailing in the water like a rabid manatee.

People called Greenpeace.

I finally gave up on the snorkel and walked downstream. Just above a riffle that Pat pointed out, darters were there in force. The first few scattered, but then I found one that chased my bait across the top of a rock and got hooked.

I love darters. Except fantails. Species 1954.

This is what you’re looking for. Not so tough in 6 inches, but Pat can see them under 4 feet of fast-moving water.

The Eno River.

The next day was also a run and gun affair, moving from swamp to swamp looking for an assortment of creatures. I got one catch of note – a dusky shiner – taking my trip count to seven.

Species #1955.

Gerry and Pat both caught lined killifsh, in pretty much the same spots I had been standing. I never even saw one. Crap.

The water was very tannin-stained, and even bluegill took on exotic colors.

It was one of many gorgeous evenings.

On the following day, the 30th, we returned to Clark Creek – the scene of my 1800th species, the flat bullhead. (And the weird local who suspected that we were terrorists.)

I don’t know who wrote this “Micro Fishing Bingo” card, but they are a genius. I have filled every square over the years.

My target was another killifish species, which I had missed the previous time and missed again this time. Gerry caught one. I grant you, he’s no Spellman, but surely I could have caught one. I did add species #7 of the journey with a whitemouth shiner, so all was not lost.

My photos aren’t Ben or Eli level, but I’m getting there. Species #1956. My Mother was a high school senior in 1956.

We then journeyed to several other exotic shiner spots. My favorite was adjacent to a chemical company, which had all kinds of suspicious-looking pipes hanging across the river. I christened the place “Solvent Creek,” but it looked very fishy.

I could wet wade places like this all day.

We put our focus on this small tributary, because the main river was completely blown out. I started well, adding an immediate sandbar shiner, but then, as I worked my way back up the creek and met up with Pat and Gerry, I could get nothing but stonerollers.

A sandbar shiner – species # 1957.

Pat was catching all kinds of interesting things, and I wasn’t. He wasn’t making a secret of his approach – drifting a lightly-weight bait through the current – but his touch was so delicate he was catching everything, notably the fieryblack shiner, which I really wanted because it has such a cool name.

I did get a nice redlip shiner, a species Pat helped me catch in 2018.

And we saw some cool bugs.

In a different creek later in the day, I actually stumbled into a fieryblack, not as pretty a specimen as Pat’s to be sure, but a species nonetheless.

Species 1958.

Plus a bonus softshell turtle.

And we got to eat at Zaxby’s that night.

God I love this place.

The next morning, we gritted our teeth and went to face a notoriously fickle old adversary – the blackbanded sunfish. On a previous trip, we fished for them for hours with no success, yet others (who we trust,) have caught as many as 30 in a day.

I decided to verify the presence of the creatures before I started, so I took the dipnet and ran it through the weeds. I came up with four – FOUR – blackbanded sunfish. Trembling and slightly gassy with excitement, I raced to the car and grabbed my micro-rod and a red worm. This species likes to live in the middle of thick weeds, so I went right back to the opening I had scooped.

Typical blackbanded territory.

I worked my micro-offering into a likely-looking seam, and as it got into a really dark crevice, I got a bite. A lot can go through your mind in a split second, and I remember wishing that it wasn’t another %$@# dollar sunfish. I swung up, and a beastly blackbanded sunfish landed in my lap.

Oh yes oh yes oh yes. Species 1959.

I ran to Pat and showed him the fish and the spot. I figured that they must be biting now, so I planned to just stay out of the water for a bit and watch him catch his.

Unfortunately, that was the only blackbanded sunfish we saw on the entire trip. Pat, a master micro fisherman, a guy I learn from every time he opens his mouth, tried every possible bait in every possible crevice at every possible time of day. I felt awful. But not as awful as I would have if he caught one and I didn’t.

And it was miserably hot.

We took one break from this, to a small country stream perhaps 50 miles away that was rumored to hold Sandhill chubs. (A close relative to the creek chub, which, as we all know, is 90% of the biomass in 23 states.) This was Gerry’s research project, and he got it right. We were grateful to add a quick species.

The Sandhill chub, species 13 of the trip and 1960 lifetime. My parents met in 1960.

Gerry then headed off for parts west, and Pat and I returned to the lake of the single blackbanded sunfish, where Pat diligently stuck out the evening and the next morning to no avail. That is how capricious the Fish Gods can be. The long drive home still went quickly – there are always more fish to talk about.

I spent that evening back in the DC area before flying home in the morning. Taco Bell closed early and I was left with nothing to do, so I reluctantly called my sister. Although she believes that Covid can be spread by eye contact at 500 yards, she worked through these fears and allowed me to eat a socially-distanced dinner with them, although I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. (As far as she knows.)

This was far too close for my sister’s comfort. I think she burned my chair after I left.

For all of the inconveniences of Covid, and realistically, I have been one of the least-affected people in the Western Hemisphere, this was the moment I actually realized how crummy the pandemic has been. I hadn’t seen my family in almost a year, and, despite their many flaws, which I generously forgive, I missed them. And I imagine they even missed me, right until I sneezed on their bottle of Purell. I probably should have mentioned that.

Steve


Responses

  1. Yay.. you’re back… hope Covid has gone easy on you and yours Steve


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