Posted by: 1000fish | February 15, 2022

Waka Waka


This post has nothing to do with Fozzie Bear. If you read at least halfway through, you’ll understand the connection, but if not, or if you hate the Muppets, skip to the next paragraph. 

Fozzie Bear says waka waka waka | Fozzie bear, Muppets, Fozzie

There is apparently some controversy over the spelling of Fozzie’s signature phrase. Whole internet sites are dedicated to this topic. Who knew?

In any case, among my many obsessive/compulsive lists, there is a spreadhseet of what dates of the year I have caught a new species. At this stage, I am only missing 38 of the possible 366 dates, most of these bunched into December and January, when we are inside by the fireplace, watching the Grumpy Cat Christmas special. (Yes, it’s real.)

Despite a brave performance by the cat, it was awful.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to fish in December and January, just that there are fewer opportunities from both a practical and societal standpoint. It is one of the few times of year Marta wants me around the house. 

I got researching, which usually involves furtive late night flashlight reading of Dr. Peter Moyle’s magnificent Inland Fishes of California while Marta snores next to me. In this process, I found two relatively nearby fish that should, SHOULD bite in cold weather. Should.

Full-size item image

Drama throughout and the ending will shock you. Buy it HERE.

The species in question were the wakasagi – a Japanese pond smelt that was transplanted to California in the 1950s, and the arrow goby, a painfully shy brackish slough resident.

As we entered the 2020 Holiday season, my species count was at 1976. It should have been over 2000, because I should have done trips to the Seychelles in April and the Amazon in July. But the most political virus in history was hanging over my travel plans, and at that stage, I was just happy to be healthy and employed. But yes, I was aggravated not to be at 2000. What if I was hit by a bus? What if Marta was driving it?

Point being, every fish counts, and if I was going to get to 2000 under the current conditions, I was going to have to scrape them up a few at a time. So I began what I thought would be a fool’s errand to find a guide who could not only fish a lake that had wakasagi, but might also know where they lived. (In terms of what they would eat, I had that covered – I have an extensive collection of tiny Japanese sabikis, bought on my travels with Phil Richmond.)

So I started looking for bass or trout guys online, for places a few hours north of here, like Lake Shasta. I figured if they knew the lake reasonably well, we could go where they are marking bait schools and try to jig those. It was a plan. I didn’t say it was a good one.

On rare occasions, the Internet works. I found a couple of guides, and braced myself for conversations along the lines of “what the #$%& is a wakasaki” followed by a hangup. Instead, the very first guy I called, Chuck Ragan, answered the phone. I introduced myself and told him this would be the weirdest conversation he would have all week. 

“So …” I said, taking a deep breath. “Do you know a fish called a wakasagi?” I braced myself for mockery and dial tones. Chuck said “Wakasagi? Yes, they were planted in a series of Northern California reservoirs back in the 1950s. They formed breeding populations in a number of lakes and are the major forage fish in those places – a lot of my bass flies are tied to imitate wakasagi.” 

Holy #%&$, I thought to myself. Jackpot. Then I got to the punchline – “I want to catch one.”

He took a moment. “I imagine they would take a small sabiki. If you have the stuff for them, I can definitely put you on the schools. I’d recommend Oroville in late November.” I had to pinch myself, but once in a rare while, it really is this easy – Oroville is a favorite summertime bass destination of mine, and it’s a lot closer than Shasta.

The appointed day was November 27. I got up well before dawn, for once ahead of Marta, who is usually up and on calls by then. The drive is a familiar two and a half hour route that winds through Davis, home of my alma mater, and then up through the central valley toward the western edge of the Sierras. 

Passing the Sutter Buttes in the valley. This is the world’s smallest mountain range – and I mention this to Jim Larosa whenever we drive by. He acts fascinated every time.   

We met around seven at a main lake boat ramp I had been to one other time in my life, on a spotted bass trip in 1997.

Here, the water is low. In France, the water is l’eau.

It was cold. Not Michigan freeze-your-spleen kind of cold, but in the high 30s. Mercifully, there was no breeze.

Heading under the Olive Highway Bridge.

Chuck was a good guy and wonderfully enthusiastic about trying to get a weird species. We chatted a bunch about my species hunting, and even more about his local guide trips. 

Steve and Chuck start the day with high hopes.

This guy is the real deal – he fishes for all the cool Northern California gamefish you never see me write about, because I have caught them previously. He is a fly specialist, but he isn’t a snob, so I can live with that. He does river trips for trout, steelhead, salmon, shad, and striper, and lake trips for freshwater bass.

Chuck with a client and a big striper.

Those are all some of the best that Northern California has to offer, so keep him in mind if you venture this way.

He’s also a musician. That makes him even more cool.

We ran the boat well up into a creek arm, and put down the rolling motor. As we drifted near shore, the graph started showing shadowy midwater marks, which had to be our target. I pulled out the Japanese sabikis and worked them through the water column. I could actually feel the rig bumping into fish on the first two casts, and on the third drop, when I went to a very slow retrieve, I got exactly the kind of bite you would expect from a fish that weighs less than an ounce. I had species 1977.

ABBA released “The Album” in 1977. It was the first record I bought on my own.

Closeups are so much easier in daylight.

We celebrate the beast.

I then had to figure out what to do with the rest of the day. I got another couple wakasagi and then Chuck took the rig to catch a few. It was still pretty chilly, so I had my doubts about the spotted bass, but I had a drop shot rod with me and decided to give it a go. 

Chuck mentioned that he had some very effective fly fishing patterns for these conditions – a float rig with a very long leader and, off all things, a wakasagi imitation.

For you fly guys. This means you, Brian Smith.

Stubbornly, I stuck with my conventional gear, and I got some very nice bass.

I float tube at this place every summer.

As much as I hate to admit it, Chuck’s setup crushed mine.

Chuck works the fly gear.

He must have gotten twice as many bass as I did, and he did it all on the fly. So, for my friends who get all stubborn about the fly thing, this would be your guy. 

Chuck and a client with a huge spot, almost exactly where we caught the wakasagi.

We called it a day around 3:30, and I got to drive back through the valley as the sun set, detouring slightly to pass my college dorm. There is STILL not a statue of me in front of it.

Then came the holidays, so things were busy. Major takeaway – avoid Hallmark’s Santa Switch – it’s bad even by their standards. Covid was still putting a cramp in our normal social events, but Christmas came. It came just the same.

If I have to explain the reference, you do not have enough Christmas spirit. Work on that.

Right around the time that normal people have put away the ornaments and start preparing for Valentine’s Day, Marta’s family celebrates Christmas. They are Serbian Orthodox, because they are from Montenegro you see, and so they celebrate on January 7, which is great, because I can get all their gifts on sale. 

Marta with her most beloved Christmas gift. Not the painting. The freezer.

But the holiday fishing break had been long enough. Courtesy of old 1000fish friend Luke Ovgard, who got the spot from a local kid named Vince (who will be featured more prominently in the next episode,) I got a lead on the arrow goby, at a spot moments away from Marta’s Mom’s house. I figured I could sneak out after lunch on Orthopedic Christmas, go catch one, and be back before anyone noticed I was missing. 

Oh, how wrong I was. My Christmas trip failed mightily, as is turns out that these very small fish hide from sunlight.

There was no life to be seen.

Undeterred, I went back a few days later in the evening. I saw plenty of arrow gobies, but Luke might have mentioned that they are, as might be expected of a nocturnal creature, terrified of any light. So I crouched crampedly in the cold, muddy weeds and slid baits near teensy fish that would flee the moment they saw it. That night too was a fail. My gore-tex pants looked like I been mud wrestling and lost. 

Marta tells me the inside of my pants will look like that someday soon.

This would discourage a normal person, but I have long since blurred the line between stubbornness and stupidity. Gerry Hansell tactfully calls this “An escalating commitment to an ill-fated objective,” which is a nice way of saying that I can’t do cost/benefit analysis. Three nights later, on the 12th, I went again, bundled up in fleece pants and waders. There were still plenty of fish, but again, they fled screaming at any hint of light. I tried red light. I tried fishing just on the edge of the light. They still fled screaming. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” they screamed. 

This went on for hours. It got colder. My buttocks fell asleep. Yet I persisted, because that’s what I do. Around 9pm, I had a sudden flash of hope as a much bigger fish drifted into the light and toward my bait, but just before it hit, I realized it was a longjaw mudsucker, a fish I would have given my eye teeth for a couple of years ago, but was now just a distraction.

The savage longjaw mudsucker, a member of the goby family. My first catch of 2021.

I kept at it. 10 passed, then 10:30. I was seeing plenty of arrow gobies, but they wanted nothing to do with me. At 10:45, I ran a bait slowly in front of yet another fish, and for once, it didn’t move. I left the bait in front of it. It moved slightly toward it. I moved it again just a fraction of an inch, and the fish, to my eternal surprise and gratitude, struck. In a rush of adrenaline and testosterone, I flung it out of the water, through the air, and into the weeds, where it took me several tense minutes to find it. I had caught the arrow goby. Species 1978.

I scored my first hat trick in 1978. The first two goals were cleaning up rebounds from Sean Biggs.

The requisite tank shot. Ben’s photos are better than mine. Small fish are especially hard to photograph at night, so much so that some of the better photographers in the life-listing community won’t even fish at night.

For scale, that’s my left hand, and I can’t palm a basketball.

So I had conquered an especially stubborn foe, and one of the precious ones close to my house. The pandemic, which we had all hoped would be gone by now, was still making international travel inadvisable, so I planned to keep myself busy this year with overlooked US species. Who would have guessed one of the largest and most improbable of these was waiting for me, cruising hundreds of feet deep in the Pacific Ocean, just a few hours to the south?





  1. Great stories. Mine: Kiss Alive, 1975.

    Hope you are well.

    Sent from my iPhone

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