Jun 5, 2022

Sometimes You Just Gotta Liutenant Dan.

     There comes a time in every fisherman's life when they must decide how dedicated they want to be to their hobby. There also comes a time when the line between dedication and stupidity gets blurry. On a trip this past January, that dedication/stupidity line was nowhere to be seen anywhere in my rear-view mirror. Sometimes rolling with the punches pays off though and that was certainly the case with this particular trip. 

     In early December, my buddy Bret texted me about an upcoming trip he was taking to Florida, and he was looking for someone to go with him. That sounded like a great way to get a pile of new species, so we began working out details. The trip was in early January and as the dates drew closer we watched both the weather forecasts and the trends in flight departures. Covid was still heavily affecting airline staffing, so flight cancellations were still uncomfortably common. But what became a more immediate concern was the weather forecast. 

     Our flight was a direct one from Seattle to Florida, so all I had to do was get to Seattle on time. My plan was to leave after work on Wednesday, drive to Seattle that night, with plenty of time for some sleep before our 8:00 AM departure. That's a perfectly reasonable plan normally, as it's a 4 hour drive from my office to the Seattle airport, I figured it would maybe take 5 since it was winter after all. This time however, Mother Nature decided to throw what I can only describe as an absolute unmitigated temper tantrum. The forecasts got worse and worse as the time to leave came closer, and I began considering my options for getting to Seattle. Usually large well-maintained roads like I-90 are the most reliable way to get there, but no matter which way I went, I would have to cross the Cascade Mountains. That was going to be a problem. Snoqualmie Pass was my Plan A, with Steven's pass being Plan B, but both of those were expecting up to 36 inches of snow that evening.

Dark red on these kinds of maps is a bad thing when you have to travel through it.
 

     Knowing that my two best options for getting to Seattle were definitely out the window, I considered what my Plan C would be. There was a third way to get there but it was a depressingly farther drive. I could head straight south to Oregon, then west to Portland, then north again to Seattle. The up-side to this plan was that this route didn't involve any high mountain passes, so the roads were more likely to stay open. The bad news (and this was a real kick to the shorts) was that it changed my 4 hour drive to a 9.5 hour drive, under good driving conditions, which were nowhere to be seen that day. There was probably still enough time to make my flight, but it was going to be tight. 

How to turn a 4 hr drive into a 9.5 hr drive.


      Out of other options, as both of the mountain passes involved in plans A and B did in fact close as expected just as I was leaving, I put Plan C into action. I headed out into the storm and tried to channel my inner Lieutenant Dan. My poor mother, a worrier as most mothers are, was also watching the forecast and knowing I was going to be on the road, texted me that evening. 

There was more to this conversation, but this sums up my evening pretty accurately.

 

     But wait there's more! About 4 hours into my drive I got a message that our flight was canceled. But I was already too far down the crazy train to back out now. Bret found another flight leaving a little later in the afternoon, that would still get us to Florida on time for our plans, just later in the evening. I panicked a little, but we both bought new tickets for the later flight, and I kept squinting down the road through the blizzard. There were cars and trucks in the ditches and off the road all night. All together I would pass 11 accidents before I got to Seattle. At one point somewhere in northern Oregon, some overconfident sedan passed me, then proceeded to spin off the road about 100 yards in front of me. I'm a pretty confident winter driver, but the dedication/stupidity line was long crossed by this point. 

     At about 1:00 AM, I made it to The Dalles, just east of Portland. I decided to get a hotel for what was left of the night. But with the Snow still coming down in buckets, I was back on the road at 5:00. And I'm glad I was, because later that morning that road would also be closed. Even the "safe route" was closed!

An update from our friends at Washington Department of Transportation. At this point I couldn't even call it off and get back home if I wanted to. All the routes were closed!

 

     Finally, long story (not so) short, I made it through security at the airport by 10:00 AM, in plenty of time for our new flight. But actually glad that the original flight had been canceled, as I likely would have missed it. 

     We landed in Florida, checked out the rental car, and finally headed to the hotel. The final tally was 30 white-knuckled hours from the time I left my office to when we got to the hotel in Florida. In true Florida fashion, we were immediately met with a high speed car chase on the freeway before we even got to the hotel.

Welcome to Florida!


          Friday morning dawned clear and sunny, and we had work to do. Bret had rented a boat for the day, and we headed out to do some reef fishing to kick off the first day of three straight days of fishing. At this point I had caught a total of 11 species in Florida during a work trip to Tampa (see this post for details), so most of the species we were likely to encounter would be new ones for me. This had definite potential to be a drinking from a fire hose kind of situation.

     We got some general advice from a guy at the bait store, but didn't really have specific spots to hit once we got out of the harbor. We (and by "we" I mean Bret, as he was driving and navigating) just used the boat electronics to find interesting bottom topography, and watched for promising marks on the fish finder. Well it worked. We drifted over many spots that day, and I can't remember any of them that didn't produce at least some fish. 

     So began my most species rich day ever! The first fish over the rail became my species #151 and it just kept going from there. Sabikis tipped with shrimp were generally the most pruductive method of the day for me, but a few fish were also caught on jigs, and even just free-lined hooks with shrimp when the fish were schooling close to the boat. I won't describe all the fish that day, as this post is already too long (ten bonus points if you're still reading this!), but I'll let the pictures speak largely for themselves.

The Yellowhead Wrasse pictured at the top was the first fish of the day, my first wrasse species ever, and species #151 for me. Throughout the day, I also caught several others with slightly different color variations.

My favorite Yellowhead Wrasse of the day had these red highlights on its dorsal fin that looked just like fire!

Littlehead Porgy. #152!


 

A plain grey fish from a distance, but up close they have striking blue highlights.

#153! Doctorfish Tang. These were difficult to photograph as their skin discolored as soon as I touched it. I didn't touch this one at all.

#154! Bermuda Chub. A school of these came right up to the boat in about 70 feet of water. I was able to sight fish this one on a jig with shrimp on it.

#155! Tobacco Basslet, or just Tobaccofish. I love it when a fish pops up that I have no idea what it is. This little weirdo was definitely one of those.

#156! Graysby. My first grouper species ever.

 

A Graysby close-up. Ferocious, but in miniature.

 

#157! Blue Parrotfish. I'll give you two guesses why they're called that.

This was my first parrotfish species, and a strong contender for my favorite fish of the trip! The pictures don't do the blue justice.

Adorable.


     Of course they couldn't all be new species, we caught some old favorites also (dominant pests) including White Grunts by the dozen, and plenty of Tomtate Grunts:

White Grunts like this one, while pretty, and with interesting orange mouths (see inset), became our dominant pest for the day. It seemed like nearly every drop produced at least one of these.

Tomtate Grunt. Not a new one, but a photo upgrade from the tiny ones I got in Tampa.

     But weeding through the many grunts, plenty of other new ones were still coming over the rail: 

#158! This Queen Triggerfish is another strong contender for my favorite fish of the day. I like the weird ones, and the ones that are weird AND pretty are even better!

That smirk looks like he just told a joke and is waiting for the punch line to hit.

#159! Bandtail Puffer. This one remained uninflated.

#160! Squirrelfish. I have handled many thousands of fish in my life, and this fish ranks up there among the most sharp fish I've caught, despite its lack of teeth. There were spikes, blades, and spines everywhere on this thing.

#161! Yellowtail Snapper. It's called that because of the yellow tail.

#162! Yellowcheek Wrasse. I was lucky enough to get two different color morphs of this one. Though the name doesn't really fit what should be called the "Greencheek Wrasse" on the right here.

#163! Redband Parrotfish. Many species of parrotfish change colors as they grow older and mature, Shown here are the initial (top) and terminal (bottom) color phases.

This one is just happy to be here!

#164! Butter Hamlet. These are actually pretty common in the aquarium trade.

#165! Scrawled Filefish. This weirdo is the other top contender for my favorite fish of the trip. This was one of my top wish-list species, and one of the species that got me so interested in Florida to begin with. It was very nerve wracking to see a school of them come up to our boat and watch them promptly bite off several of my hooks before I finally brought a few of them aboard for a picture.

Another school of fish that came right up to our boat looking for snacks.

This school was all Grey Triggerfish. #166! This is another one whose skin would discolor when touched, note the white blotch on its cheek from my thumb.

I like the texture in this picture.

     After drinking from the species fire hose all day, we finally decided it was time to head back in to the dock, sunburned, dehydrated, but riding the high of so many species in one day. Bret had also added many new species to his list, and also got a few others that I didn't, including a Bluehead Wrasse, Atlantic Bigeye (which I'm still VERY jealous of), a Tatler, a Sand Tilefish, and even a Shoal flounder. 

     Bret has a YouTube channel called Peeling Line, which I highly recommend going and checking out if you haven't already. He put together an awesome video of our day:


     After getting some dinner and re-hydrating a bit, we tried night fishing for a bit to see if we could get some of the marine catfish species, or any other random ones. We struck out on the catfish, but Bret had a pretty exciting encounter with a Barracuda, though it got away in the end, and I added one final species for the day, the French Grunt.

#167! It's little but it definitely counts!

     And with that, we called it a day. We headed back to the hotel to rest up for our remaining two days of species hunting. My previous record for most species in a day was 7, which happened last year in Ohio. The final tally for this day smashed that record with 17 new species! And the trip was only 1/3 over! Sometimes pulling a Liutenant Dan pays off in the end, and this was definitely one of those times!

May 29, 2022

Coos Blues


      Catching a blue shark remains very near the top of my to do list, and it has been there for years. I've seen many of them on offshore charter trips, and I even got one to bite a live mackerel once, see this post for details on that one. The problem hasn't been finding them, but rather finding a charter boat that will fish for them, or even let you catch them when they show up.

      One trip last summer to Coos Bay Oregon would take me at least to the ball park, if not provide a guaranteed home run. I always say you can't catch them if your hooks aren't in the water, so I'm always game to try even if the odds are long. I connected with Captain John from Sharky's Charters (I don't have a link, but he can be found via a quick facebook search if you're interested), who was open to the idea of shark fishing and has pictures posted of several that he's caught over the years. So I booked a trip. This was in August, so it was the middle of tuna fishing season there, but he said we could shark fish too if we saw any. Full disclosure, no sharks were harmed in the making of this post, but a great time was still had by all, and I highly recommend you give Captain John a call. The tuna fishing was lights out, and we used handlines (instead of rod and reel) to pull them in, which is apparently a much more efficient way to do it, and a blast to experience.

One of my bigger Albacore ever.

      After being thoroughly worn out pulling on Tuna, and spotting no sharks at all, which is unusual for that kind of trip, we headed back for port. Then we came upon what to me was the best part of the trip. The captain slowed to take a closer look at what initially looked to be a large log floating low in the water. As we got closer though, it became clear that they were fins sticking out of the water! He eased the boat as close as he could before whatever was attached to the fins spooked and submerged. We were unsure what they were; definitely a group six or seven fish of some sort, but they didn't look like sharks or tunas. Swordfish had been spotted in the area periodically sunning themselves like that, but we just couldn't get a clear view and weren't sure. We did of course try casting all the lures and jigs we could think of, and I drug around a big strip of tuna meat on a long trailing line out the back, but they were not in a feeding mood. We repeated the scenario a dozen or so times over the next 45 minutes where we would approach as close as we could get, cast at them until they spooked, then wait for them to surface again, usually not too far off.

     It wasn't until we saw one of them randomly jump out of the water that we realized what they were. They were Marlin! In Oregon! Certainly not unheard of as they are occasionally caught in Oregon and have even been caught farther north off the Washington coast. But this was certainly a new one for me! The pictures don't do them any justice at all as I just had my phone, but you can still see their fins sticking up.

I don't have a picture showing all of them lined up, but there were at least a half dozen.
 
A rare site in Oregon!

      After finishing an awesome (if sharkless) charter trip, I considered my game plan for a few extra target species. High on the wish list were a Rock Greenling and Calico Surfperch. First on the agenda was the greenling. I had internet-scouted potential spots near Coos Bay where I thought my chances were good. I had always drooled over Rock Greenling pictures with their big red spots and strange blue coloration mixed in. Also of note, I needed that one to complete what I was calling the "greenling slam", which was completed by catching all of the four greenlings in this part of the country: Kelp, Whitespotted, Painted, and Rock greenlings. Yes I made up the greenling slam, but I was still excited to complete it. Someone also pointed out that there is also a "Masked Greenling", but those are found farther north in British Columbia and Alaska, so I'm excluding them from this exercise (it's my own made-up game after all so I'm not above making up my own rules). 

     Anyway, I began fishing a nearby jetty, and found the experience generally underwhelming. I caught very few fish, which certainly could have been operator error, but the fish were few and far between. The few I did manage to catch were good ones though, and the first to come up was a small Sand Sole, which became species number 148!

#148! A juvenile, but it counts!

Ferocious if you look closely enough.

     After at least having broken the ice with a new species, I began to get restless. I had other spots I wanted to try for new surfperch species. But before leaving, I tried casting danger-close to the rocks, understanding that I would likely loose a few rigs to the rocks, but hoping it would up my chances for a Rock Greenling. I did in fact have to retie a couple times, but I eventually found some bites and the plan actually paid off!
#149! And my favorite catch of the year up to that point!
This fish was released, but if you fillet them, the meat is this same blue color until it's cooked.

The "Greenling Slam". I had wanted to make this collage for years!

     The Rock Greenling was a big one for me, but that's what makes this game fun; no matter how exciting the last fish was, there is always another one out there somewhere. So I headed farther south with high hopes of encountering a Calico Surfperch, with a fishing spot in mind generously shared by another species hunter, Luke Ovgard. Check out his blog https://caughtovgard.com/ for more species hunting adventures. It's a great read, and his species list is much larger than mine.

It was a gorgeous spot for sure. If I were any good at taking scenery shots, you too could appreciate its beauty, but this is as close as I came to a good picture, so this will have to do.

     The Calico Surfperch were elusive, but as is often the case, I caught plenty of Striped Surfperch, which were hard to catch for years, until I caught that elusive first one. Now they're everywhere.

Former arch nemesis, now a common catch.

     I didn't have time this trip to venture into California like I wanted to due to a variety of things going on back home, not the least of which being a wildfire which had gotten uncomfortably close to our town, and had almost canceled my trip all-together. But I was painfully aware of the dozens of species calling my name farther south in the Golden State. The Leopard Sharks and Bat Rays will have to wait till another time. Not to mention the Blue Sharks that were the whole point of the trip to begin with. But I'm not going to complain about a cooler full of tuna fillets, two new species, and a finally completed (even if made-up) greenling slam!

I made it far enough south to cross the border just to say I did.

Mar 27, 2022

Just for the Halibut

      I go on a decent number of charter boat fishing trips off the coast of Washington and Oregon, especially for a guy who lives inland. It's been one of my favorite things to do since I was a teenager. This despite the fact that I get seasick quite often (though less so since I discovered Scopolamine patches). It's never so bad that I can't fish though; I just sometimes have to take a barf break, then I can go back to fishing. Somehow to this day, the barfing has always come in-between fish, but I do like to think that if push really came to shove, I could lay down a chum slick while actually reeling in a fish and still pull it off. Life goals I guess. But I digress. Most importantly, there's always a a chance for a new species when you're fishing in the ocean, and catch rates on these trips are almost always good enough to make it a lot of fun. Nevertheless very few of these charter trips stand out enough to me to warrant their own blog post. One such excursion last summer however, definitely stood out and was an exception to that rule.

      We launched from the marina at Sekiu (pronounced "seek you") before dawn with Outlander Charters, and headed west. Fast. I'm used to charter boats with big inboard diesel engines that slowly plow their way through the waves out to the fishing grounds. This was not that. I assumed we would be fishing somewhere within the Strait of Juan de Fuca (pronounced "Strait of Juan de careful how you say that"), but we got up on plane, headed west, and kept going. We passed the very tip of Washington, Neah Bay and the Makah Reservation, and just kept on going. The captain made it pretty clear that he guarded his spots pretty religiously (and after experiencing them, I can't say I blame him). When we did finally stop at the first drop, I asked how far offshore we were, and the response was an ambiguous "all the way". I'm reasonably sure it was at least 30 miles offshore though.

      Our first drop wasn't actually "the spot" but a new spot he wanted to try, and there were marks on the fish finder so we sent our rigs down several hundred feet to the bottom. I hooked up almost instantly as did someone on the other side of the boat. I pulled up mine and the captain and I both said "uh oh". It was about a 10 lb Yelloweye Rockfish, which are protected in Washington. The captain immediately went into action. He used a descending rig to release my fish, and the other fish from the other side of the boat which also turned out to be another Yelloweye. While he was releasing the fish, he asked that everyone else reel in so we didn't continue to catch the protected fish. I appreciated the conservation mindedness of this gesture. 

     Then it was off to the spot he actually had his eye on. We dropped our rigs again and officially began the onslaught. I'm not often sore on the day after fishing trips like this, but I was bruised, sore, and battle scarred the next day. It was fantastic. 

     I used a huge diamond jig for most of the day, and the vast majority of the day was spent either dropping down, or reeling in a fish. Waiting for a bite was not a thing. To really kick things off, my first fish at this new spot was species #150, the Bocaccio Rockfish.

150 seemed like somewhat of a milestone, so it was pretty awesome to get something big. New Sebastes are a favorite of mine! This wasn't even among the biggest of the day either. AND it's fun when the fish matches your bibs!
Two of our biggest Bocaccios that day. Did I mention that it was amazing?

      We caught a mixed bag of Rockfish, but Bocaccios made up an alarmingly large proportion of our limits. Pretty crazy considering I had never even seen one in person before. Having added species 150, I was pretty content. Anything else we pulled in would just be gravy. Turns out there was a lot of gravy! Soon halibut started coming over the rail. We released the small ones, and everybody picked out one that they deemed big enough to keep.

I am not sure how the fish box kept fitting the fish in but he kept adding them and they kept sliding in.

One of the bigger halibut I've caught. Sometime I'll need an actual big one. An Alaska trip is in order at some point.
 
The "wrong" way to hold a halibut. I like it though.

      What a lot of people don't really get about the open ocean is that it's largely kind of a desert once you get out away from land. There are large swaths of ocean that are quite barren. That was what was so odd about this particular spot we kept drifting through. There was life everywhere, and of every variety. We caught dozens of fish, but we also saw many varieties of birds, breaching whales (not sure on the species), pods of orcas, and sea lions. At one point someone hooked a Coho Salmon while reeling in their gear, so we switched to smaller casting gear and each caught a few of those before that school moved off. They all turned out to be wild fish, so we couldn't keep them, but it was still a blast.

A pod of orcas swims by as we gather our catch. And a bird, but that's not as exciting.

      I don't usually promote charters or anything like that, but this was good enough that I'll pass along my thumbs up rating for what it's worth. It was more expensive than other charters, but well worth the difference. Check out Outlander Charters if you're looking for a charter in northwestern Washington. Back at the dock, we unloaded the fish box and the pile was alarmingly large. So large in fact that one kid got buried in a fishalanche.

Halibut, Lingod, Canary, Yellowtail, and Boccaccio rockfish. Oh my!