Mar 12, 2023

Some Things That Should Be In Idaho And Some That Shouldn't

      Every once in a while, I get the urge to road trip. This, combined with the fact that I'm seriously running out of plausible new fish species anywhere near home, usually results in hours upon hours of driving for increasingly smaller and smaller fish. This would likely bother normal people. But normal went out the window some time ago. They all count the same in my book. So early last summer, when the urge struck, I considered my options. California still ranks high on my wish list and there are dozens of targets there. But that's two whole states away, and I mean two full size western states, not those little eastern fun-size ones like Rhode Island or Delaware (random factoid: the county I live in is over 4 times larger than the entire state Rhode Island). British Columbia is just to my north and there's interesting things there too if I go far enough. Idaho is just one state away, but I grew up there so I've caught most of those as well. But there are still a few points of interest worth mentioning there. Bear Lake has some really interesting endemic species that I'll chase some day, but that is very seasonal. In the end, I ended up trying the shotgun approach. I picked out 7 or 8 different spots to try, all in Idaho, and none really all that close together. I knew they wouldn't all work out, but I was willing to bet that some of them would, and this would definitely scratch my itch to hit the open road. 

     The first spot on the to-do list was a solid 10 hr drive, and ended up being the strangest Idaho fishing spot I've ever encountered. A buddy in the Boise area was kind enough to share some spots including this first one, which was somewhere in the Snake River basin (which narrows it down to about 72,000 square miles, or 59 Rhode Islands if you prefer that unit of measurement). It was a small stream fed by a hot-spring which regulated the water temperature to be just right for tropical fish. So humans being how humans are, they have illegally released several varieties of tropical aquarium fish into the system here over the years. Speaking as a fisheries biologist: please DON'T do this, as it can be terrible for the native fish communities. Speaking as a fish species hunter: though I disagree wholeheartedly with the introduction of these fish where they don't belong; if they're there, I will still definitely go catch them, and add them to my list. Waste not, want not after all.

     So anyway, that is how I found myself on a stream bank in Idaho, fishing for fish that you would normally find either in Petco, or their native range in Africa. It was actually a blast, and the colors on some of those little fish were really spectacular. The first fish to come in was also the first new species of the day, the Nile Tilapia.

Species 190, the Nile Tilapia. The most blandly colored of the species I encountered at this spot.

      The next one to pop up has caused me a good deal of heartburn as I am nowhere near 100% certain on the identification. I was told they were Red Zebra Cichlids (Metriaclima estherae), which despite their name, come in both both blue and orange varieties. I am by no means a cichlid expert, and wont dive into all the details and discussions that I've read about these particular fish, but suffice it to say, the general consensus among folks who have fished at this spot now seems to be that these are likely not pure M. estherae, but rather some hybrid mix of more than one species, which I don't typically count on my list (at least not on the main spreadsheet tab). I'm leaving it there for now though as I don't have anything even closely related on the list. I'm still calling it M. estherae for now, but maybe a better designation would be Mbuna sp. or Mbuna hybrid. Honestly though, all this heartburn seems to just be over complicating things. The whole point of the game is to have fun and catch things that I find interesting. I like the weird and/or pretty ones the most. And just look at this thing. It's definitely weird AND pretty!
These came in a variety of hues and shades. This one had the brightest blue of the ones I caught.
So blue. So shiny.
These little drops of paint on the anal fin are called egg spots, a common feature among many cichlid species. They apparently aid in the courtship and spawning process.
There were also plenty of more blandly colored individuals like this.

     The whole stream was full of fish, all of which were clearly visible, and all of which were eager to attack a bait. So I kept picking out the ones that looked different. This process resulted in two more species (without any heartburn this time), the Redbelly Tilapia and the Auratus Cichlid.

The Redbelly Tilapia. It's called that because it has a red belly.
This individual was actively guarding a nest. It went right back to it after this quick photo op.
These Auratus Cichlids made up for their tiny stature by packing in as much color as possible. Shown here are a male (top) and a female (bottom).
I was hoping that something new would come from a school of the tiniest fish in the creek, but they turned out to be these juvenile tilapia.

I was also hoping that these livebearers would turn out to be Guppies, but I believe they were Western Mosquitofish (not a new one sadly), female on top and male on bottom.

     Since I could clearly see all the fish in the little stream, it was pretty easy to tell when I had caught all the different varieties available, so back on the road I went. The next spot on the agenda resulted in a new sculpin species and some beautiful scenery.

Waterfalls and springs were all around on the way to this spot.
This Shoshone Sculpin was the last new one of the day, and one of only two native fish I would catch on this trip.
Another example of things that shouldn't be in Idaho, these New Zeland Mud Snails were all over the rocks here. These are an invasive species fishermen are asked to clean and dry their wader boots and gear after using them to avoid spreading these to new waters. As you can see, they're very tiny, especially their eggs, so they'd be easy to miss!

      Next on the agenda, was to try for a flathead catfish at Brownlee reservoir but the river was high and muddy, the weather was very windy, and all the campgrounds were full, so I decided to bag it and head for my parent's house. What's another 5 hrs driving when you're this far into it anyway? 

     The next morning I decided to hit one of my old high school catfish spots. I had a sneaking suspicion that the timing might be right to luck into a species that I had on my wish list for the better part of a decade. I cast out some small baits and prepared to wait this critter out. No waiting was necessary though even by the standards of my short attention span, since roughly 48 seconds later, I had a small fish on. It was the right size and color, but I held my breath as I hoisted it up the 10 feet from the water. Success! I had my first and still the only Sand Roller I've ever seen. These odd little native fish are one of just two species in the family Percopsidae, the other species being the Trout Perch, which are found in quite a few Midwestern and Great Lake states. Sand Rollers on the other hand are endemic to the Columbia River Basin in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.

Here's a picture I've wanted to take for YEARS. I can see how their cousin the Trout Perch got it's name though, they kind of look like perch, and they have an adipose fin like a trout.
See? Cute little adipose fin. You can tell a hatchery reared Sand Roller from a wild one as they will have an adipose clip. Just joking, that's not a thing.

      After adding this one to the list, there really wasn't much point sticking it out there, even though I'd been there under 5 minutes. So we decided to go do a little carp fishing before starting the drive back home. The species total for the trip was at an incredible six (though that does still include the heartburn inducing bright blue cichlid), which was more than I had dared hope for. That brought the total up to 195. Two hundred was within range, especially with an upcoming trip to Ohio over the 4th of July. I try not to count my chickens before they hatch, but I did cross all my fingers and toes just in case. 

I even managed a photo of my dad with one of his carp from that morning.

Nov 27, 2022

Florida Day 3

      Day three dawned and we headed out again into the weirdly urban but still wild wilds of south Florida. The plan was to check a variety of canals for a mix of fresh and saltwater species. Our first stop was some sort of diversion dam on a certain canal. Fishing was a bust here except that we could see a large group of mullet schooled up right below the dam. We both tried everything we could think of to get them to bite: worms, corn, artificial baits, bread, bugs, all the lures, etc., with nothing to show for our efforts. Then I finally got what I thought was a little nibble on a tiny bread ball on a sabiki rig. So I stuck with that strategy, and tried not to be bothered by the literal hundreds of fish actively ignoring my offerings for the last 45 minutes. It's one thing when fishing is tough because the fish are hard to find. It's another thing altogether when you're clearly watching hundreds of fish and they're going out of their way to swim around your bait. It's just hurtful at that point. But then one curious fish finally made a mistake and after a short but spirited fight, I pulled in one of the more difficult species I would add to the list on this trip, the Striped Mullet.

My first mullet species!
An altogether unadorable creature really. As you can see, this fish was all business in the front and party in the back.

      Our next stop was my best shot at one of my top targets of the trip, the peacock bass. However that one was not to be. We struggled to get anything at all going in freshwater, so back to the saltwater spots we went, and the next one ended up being a short stop but one of my favorites of the trip. 

     My first big catch at this spot was one I was particularly excited about: a wild coconut. Now that might sound weird, but for a guy like me raised in the frozen north, a coconut is pretty exotic!

These things are freaking hard to get in to!
Getting close now.
Sweet victory!
Random lizard picture with no context? Check.

     Besides coconuts and lizards, we did also catch some fish at this spot as well.

The mighty Hardhead Silverside. The tan blob by the head is a parasite that was clinging to the gills of this little fish. That couldn't have been comfortable.
Next was the Checkered Puffer!
Some puffers remain uninflated while being handled. This one however, lived up to its name and was puffed the whole time.
Such a cute little smile.
This Atlantic Needlefish became the 4th species of the day!
These would be scary if they were bigger, but they weren't, so they weren't.
This is not a good picture so you can't see the crest on this Crested Goby, but it's there. Species 5 of the day!
And finally, a Tidewater Mojarra, which brought my overall score to 184 and the trip total to 34.
I also caught this juvenile which is clearly a mojarra of some sort, but at that size is not possible to identify from my pictures.

     Bret and I had both been catching pretty much the same species at this spot. We did see a small Nurse Shark swim by, not that we could do anything about it at the time. But for the most part the new species had slowed down by this point, and we were considering moving on. Then he spotted what I'm going to call my favorite fish of the trip. It took a few tries, but this oddity finally ate his piece of shrimp and was hooked! The Scrawled Cowfish has a hard "shell" around most of it's body, and horns like a cow. It was definitely one of the weirdest fish I've seen to date. I was glad to see that one, and only somewhat jealous that I didn't catch one of my own.   

Photo credit: Bret

      Bret even got some video of this weirdo fish. It's towards the end of the video below. If you haven't already checked out his channel Peeling Line, you should do that too.


      The last daytime spot resulted in three more mojarra species, which were cool, but certainly not Scrawled Cowfish cool.

The Irish Mojarra, which looks just like a Tidewater Mojarra except it speaks with a different accent.
The Yellowfin Mojarra, which looks just like an Irish Mojarra except it has yellow fins.
And finally, the Silver Jenny Mojarra, which looks just like the other three species except this one also answers to the name Jenny for some reason.


     I also enjoyed making friends with some local wildlife at this spot. These pelicans were anything but shy, and they loved a good game of catch, as long as what was being thrown was a fish. Though now that I think about it, they never did throw one back to me, so now I'm questioning if we were actually even friends at all.



      For our last evening, we went back to the catfish spot from the previous night and drowned more worms. The first participant of the evening was a Coppernose Bluegill, not a new species as it still counts as a Bluegill (which was species number one for me actually). This one does still go on the spreadsheet though, just on the subspecies tab. Oh come on, your spreadsheet has a subspecies tab too, don't pretend it doesn't.

A Coppernose Bluegill, which I think should be called a "Purplecheek Bluegill" if anything, but here we are. This one had been caught before based on it's messed up mouth.
This Zebra Tilapia (sometimes called a Hornet Tilapia) became the 38th species of the trip.

     Forty species was within reach, but time was running out. I patrolled the shorelines with my headlamp looking for potential new ones. I kept seeing little striped fish sitting on the bottom near the shore, but they either immediately spooked or would not bite. We were out of time though so I decided to just badger one of the slower ones until it got mad. So I bumped this little fish in the face with a piece of worm until it was aggravated enough to bite. Am I proud of this? A little bit actually. Should I be? Probably not, but it got me a species, so I'm good with it.
The "striped fish" ended up being a Spotted Tilapia.

     The tally was at 39 species on the trip, and my list sat at 189. The clock had run out though, so although 40 is a much more round and satisfying number, it wasn't going to happen. My OCD has since made peace with this fact. Kind of. I am certainly not complaining though. Thirty nine species in one trip is phenomenal and by far my personal record and a score that I doubt I'm likely to beat any time soon. In fact, if I add up all the new species I added to my list from 2018 to 2021, it still doesn't add up to 39, so it really was a drink from a fire hose kind of a trip. And it was a blast to have someone else there to geek out over weird obscure fish species with.

Nov 13, 2022

A Slippery What?

Just a lizard, doing lizard stuff, on the trail to the fishing pier.

      After basking in the afterglow of my new personal record of 17 new species in a day on day one of our south Florida adventure, I wasn't quite sure what to expect for day two. We headed out to a few shore-based spots, with a few specific targets in mind, but hoping for more interesting random stuff as well. One fish that I had my hopes set on in particular was a small unassuming wrasse with one of the funniest names in the fish world - the Slippery Dick. Yes, it's really called that.

Close enough to Miami Beach to be able to say I've seen it.

      We started the day casting to some long skinny fish that we could see schooling near the surface. We first thought they were some sort of needlefish, but couldn't quite tell. I started casting to them with some small jigs, and promptly caught something interesting and random that I wasn't targeting.

The first new species of the day! This Silver Porgy became my 168th species.  These are VERY similar to another species, the Spotfin Pinfish. But I'm told that those have a slightly more prominent black spot. I'm pretty sure this is a Silver Porgy, but it still makes me a tad uneasy.

     The next fish up, after a couple quick gear adjustments was the target "long skinny" fish that we could see. It turned out to be a Ballyhoo Halfbeak. 
The mighty Ballyhoo with its distinctive weird mouth, like an upside-down swordfish. These are well known among fishermen as they make fantastic bait for many large pelagic offshore species.

This Night Sergeant came up next. Abudefduf taurus is their scientific name. I challenge you to say Abudefduf 5 times fast.  I couldn't help but notice how it looked exactly like an oddly colored bluegill.

      And then it happened. I had my first encounter with a Slippery Dick. Then I learned that they come in a range of sizes and colors!

     Sorry, I'll try to control myself here and not make too many bad jokes about the name. But in all seriousness, I was glad to finally add that one to the list, and it was interesting to see the different color morphs.

A handful of the Slippery Dicks I encountered! Of course the photo had to turn out blurry on the prettiest one on the bottom here.

     We moved around between the pier and the adjacent rocks, catching new species as we went. Shrimp on small hooks was my main tactic, but I also got a few on jigs and lures as well. 

My first lizardfish! A feisty little critter with a big mouth, sharp teeth, and oddly enough, an adipose fin.
This Sailor's Choice Grunt (another weird name, if you ask me) became species 173.

This Stoplight Parrotfish is another favorite species of mine on the trip. This is the initial color phase. They change color completely as they get older and transition to the terminal phase.

This mighty beast is called a Masquerader Hairy Blenny, a name longer than the fish itself. This is another one with a closely related look-alike species, but I'm reasonably sure I've got it right.

This adorable little guy is a Redtail Parrotfish, species 176 if you're counting along at home. Also, I know you're wondering, so I'll tell you. It's called that because of the red on the tail.


Of course they couldn't all be new, like this Pinfish. Still a pretty fish though.


I stared at this photo long and hard trying to determine if this is just a Tomtate Grunt without their usual spot on the caudal peduncle, or if it's something else. I think it's just wishful thinking though. If anyone out there reads this who happens to be a south Florida grunt expert though, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

      In the evening, we tried a local canal for some freshwater species. It took a while to figure things out, but once it got dark a few fish started coming in. My first was a cool new species that I hadn't really expected, the Walking Catfish. These bit hard and put up a great fight on light tackle. The last new species of the day was an African Jewel Cichlid, (which also make great bait), which could be seen patrolling the shallows. It became my 11th new species of the day, and 28th new species of the trip!

Walking catfish. This one "walked" itself down the grassy bank and back into the water. It was pretty interesting to see.
For a fish with a flashy name like jewel cichlid, this particular one is disappointingly bland. These get quite a bit bigger and prettier, but hey it still counts.