Jan 18, 2018

The Promised Land

     About a year and a half ago, I was riding in the truck with my boss traveling to a field site to sample some fish or another. During our conversations, the fact came up that the 2017 AFS (American Fisheries Society) Annual Meeting was going to be held in Tampa Florida. Florida is right up there near the top of my wish list of places to fish, so I calmly and casually volunteered (half as a joke, not really expecting to go) to attend the conference and present our research there. Editor's note - I believe what was actually said, was something to the effect of my being willing to give my left arm in exchange for going. We usually go to conferences every year, and I've been to several other AFS meetings in the past, but I'd never gone to one quite that far away before. I wasn't really expecting to go, but I put that wish on the back burner for the time being.
     Several months later, while reviewing our project budgets, I noticed that my boss had added the conference attendance to our planned budget for the year (best boss ever!). I calmly didn't freak out, and tried to play it cool. Anyway, long story short, I submitted an abstract so I could give a talk at the conference, and as the time drew nearer, and hotels were booked, and plane tickets were purchased, I finally allowed myself to accept that it was going to happen!
     So it was that in the latter half of August 2017, I found myself stepping off of an airplane in Florida! I of course immediately began sweating. It's hot there. More on this in a bit.
     I've always enjoyed attending AFS meetings. It's one of the ways that biologists from across the country connect with one another, and learn of the fisheries research being conducted all over the world. Basically it's like the world championships of fish nerdiness. For four straight days. Plus it was air conditioned inside the conference center which I appreciated. I won't bore you with more details about the conference, since this is a blog about fishing after all, but if you want to learn more about AFS (and I encourage you to do so), you can visit their website: https://fisheries.org/. I've written similar blog posts about my trips to AFS conferences in Seattle WA, St. Paul MN, and Little Rock AR as well if you're really bored.
    As for the fishing portion of the trip, my days were tied up in the conference, but I would have the evenings free to explore and catch as many new species as I could. For somebody like me who has never fished in Florida before, I fully expected those few hours per day to be like drinking from a fire hose.
     The view from my hotel did not help to calm me down when I got there.
Things looked promising! Water everywhere!
     So I grabbed my poles and hurried down to the nearest pier-shaped thing I could find, cast out my hooks, positively quivering with anticipation, and proceeded to catch.... nothing. The fish gods do not like it when you get cocky. So all I caught at the first spot I tried was a piece of humble pie. I regrouped, and found a Publix grocery store a short hike away, so I went and stocked up on shrimp. Also, if you're wondering, yes people do look at you funny if you're a sweaty out-of-towner walking around a grocery store with all your fishing poles and tackle boxes.
     One helpful fellow at the grocery store pointed me toward a nearby bridge, where I was greeted by my first manatee sighting of the trip. The shrimp was a good call, and shortly after arriving, my pole nearly got pulled into the water. It is very satisfying to hook a fish knowing that no matter what it was, it would be a new species; that does not happen very often. The first fish to kick things off was the hardhead catfish.
First Florida Fish, and first new species of the trip!
    I found plenty more catfish that evening, but no other species were added despite rumors of sheepshead and redfish being there also. Interestingly enough though, I'm considering filing a complaint with the Old Spice Deodorant people. Knowing how hot and humid it was likely to be in Florida in August, I planned ahead and bought deodorant that was clearly labeled "Sweat Defense" right on the front. Surely that would defend against the sweat right?
This'll keep the sweat away for sure.
LIES! That was clearly false advertising. Florida is still a sweaty, damp place! Don't worry, I promise this is the only bathroom selfie I'll ever post.
      The next evening, my buddy Zach (who was also attending the conference) and I arranged to meet up with my new buddy Ryan, a local Tampa Bay resident species hunter. Ryan, who also has a fishing blog (see http://fishihavecaught.com/ for details), was the perfect guy for the job. Most people just don't get the same thrill of catching new stuff that we do. It's always refreshing to fish with like-minded people. We met at one of his go-to spots for people who want to add species, and it was an instant success. He had caught it all before of course, but it was all new to me. We began casting sabikis tipped with shrimp and my first bite came within about 10 seconds. This was the Florida I was hoping for! The first fish I pulled up was a mangrove snapper.
That's 2 new ones!
      Then I did something I've never done before. I pulled up two fish at once and they were both new species!
How's that for efficiency!
The pinfish was the first out of the water.
Followed 0.1 seconds later by this pigfish
      I rounded out the evening by adding two more to the list: the white grunt and the lane snapper:
I liked how almost everything down there was colorful. This one had a bright orange mouth also
These obviously get bigger than this, but the small ones count just as much as the big ones on the list!
      That was it for my species that night before we got rained out by one of the frequent thunderstorms that rolled through the area; but we saw a few other species caught including spottail pinfish, a sea-robin of some sort, puffers, porgies, and even a baby gag grouper. Seriously, Florida is the promised land for species hunters, especially ones from the other side of the country that haven't been there before...
      The next couple evenings, Ryan was busy, so I was on my own. I tried a couple different piers and caught some more stuff. The hardhead catfish were ever-present, and these would become the resident pest of the trip. 
     I've caught many catfish before, and I've handled many thousands of fish in my life, so I assumed I knew what I was doing while handling the catfish down there too. However, as I mentioned earlier, the fish gods do not like it when you get cocky, and they're quick to call you on it.
     As I was unhooking one particularly feisty hardhead catfish, I zigged when I should have zagged, and ended up with his pectoral spine firmly lodged deep in the middle of my palm.
The wound might not look like much, but what it lacks in excess bloodiness, it makes up for in deepness and sheer enthusiasm. To this day it still hurts if I push on it just right. Was it worth it, for a pile of new species? You bet your Band-Aids it was!
      One local onlooker suggested that I sleep that night with my hand firmly pressed on a nice juicy steak. It hurt, but there was no need for quite such drastic measures. Apparently I was lucky I didn't stab myself with the other common catfish species (which I finally caught shortly thereafter), since the gafftopsail catfish are not only every bit as sharp and poky, but they're venomous as well.
Species seven of the trip. And this one is venomous just to make it interesting! Gaftopsail catfish. Say that five times fast.
     Other exciting list additions included the Atlantic spadefish, not to be confused with the Pacific spadefish which is found in the Pacific; and the southern puffer, not to be confused with the northern puffer, which is found more to the north.
Atlantic spadefish. That's Eight!
Southern Puffer. Nine!
      I was chased off the water yet again, but some ominous looking thunderstorms.
Daily thunderstorms, just part of life in the promised land.
     That brings us to the last fishing opportunity of the trip. Ryan had another promising spot to try but the thunderstorms were rolling through more frequently that afternoon, and we weren't sure if we'd be able to fish safely, you know without getting struck by lightning and all that. We decided to risk it and see if we could get on the other side of the storms. 
     We pulled up to his spot, and there was a small break in the clouds, but the there were still ominous rumblings from some uncomfortably nearby thunderheads. We weren't sure how long we'd last, but we had to give it a try. We were greeted at the dock by a variety of bait thieves:
I'm not exactly sure what Flipper was doing but he hung out in this same spot for about an hour.
Sure the egrets and herons are pretty, but turn your back for one second and they'll steal any unused bait left lying around!
     I had been fishing with two rods all week. One rod had a sabiki rig on it to catch the smaller species, and the other was a bigger rod that I had been baiting with whole frozen squid or small fish in the hopes of a tussle with something bigger. There are several species of shark commonly caught there, and I wanted one! The smaller rod had done a fair bit of work all week, but the big rod seemed to be on strike. In fact, it had refused to get any bites at all. But you can't catch them if you don't try, so I kept on trying. 
     In no time at all we both began bringing in fish on our sabikis, including a new species, the tomtate grunt:
Yep it's tiny, but it's species 10 for the trip and that's huge!
This one also had a bright orange mouth.
     The pinfish were ever present as usual. Not being one to miss an opportunity, when I pulled up a particularly tiny (bite size) one, I swapped out the old bait on my bigger rod for this more lively offering:
Yep we're going to say it... Shark Bait! Ooh Ha Ha!
     Another group of species very high on my wish list were the filefish. I thought I spotted some poking around the pylons underneath the dock, and was desperately trying to get them to come back so I could get a closer look. I was so into this that I almost didn't notice the tip of my big rod twitching a bit. I tried to play it cool as the twitches got more enthusiastic, and even managed not to jerk the circle-hook out of its mouth! I didn't know what I had, but it was obviously bigger than anything else I had caught. It felt heavy but sort of sluggish. Maybe a ray of some sort? We threw out guesses but we were both surprised to see a perfectly sized baby nurse shark pop up to the surface! I say perfectly sized, because my "big" rod was one of my salmon fishing rods (i.e., not really all that big... but the biggest I could get on the airplane), so a full grown nurse shark would have spooled me without hesitation, not to mention getting it up on the dock; but we could handle this little guy just fine!
A wiser man may not have put the fingers quite so close to the business end, but these don't have quite the same dental weaponry as other sharks so it was ok. All the fingers are still intact.
Species 11 for the trip, and by far my favorite one of the bunch!
Its skin felt like tiny pebbles. And check out the weird eyeballs!
     I was sure glad we decided to brave the threat of nearby thunderstorms. We stuck it out for a bit longer there, but nothing else new was caught. With about an hour left, we decided to try one last spot. We didn't catch anything new there either, but the sunset, complete with more dolphins and a manatee sighting, made for a perfect ending to the trip.
     The good news is 11 new species were caught, making it my most species rich trip ever; pretty darn good for only having evenings to fish! But the bad news is; now I've seen Florida, and I know what fishing is like there. Now I'm going to need to spend about a month there getting all the species that I missed out on, no matter how sweaty it gets. I don't know when that'll happen but maybe someday.
It's fair to say I'm just as hooked as the fish were.

Dec 6, 2017


     Both of my daughters like to fish. But my older daughter is pretty much just a smaller (much cuter...) version of me, and this includes her love of fishing. To this day I've never woken her up for a trip and had her say she didn't want to go. Even at 2 or 3 in the morning. Not necessarily normal for a 10 year old, but I'm not complaining. A few months ago I was planning a trip for myself and decided it was probably time to officially initiate her into the club, and to see if she could hack it. So I arranged 3 days of nothing but driving, fishing, driving to more fishing, and more fishing. Abby, her little sister, got a pass on this trip, since she had ballet that weekend, and the trip would have been too much for her anyway. She and her mom got pedicures while we were gone too, so she was happy! We did find a doll that looked remarkably like a toy-version of Abby though. We brought the doll along in her stead as the official mascot of our trip. More on this in a bit.
     Anyway, we hit the road Friday afternoon and headed towards saltier (more species rich) water. There's enough new (to me) stuff still in Puget Sound that I can usually pick a pier that I haven't been to yet, and scratch up one or two new species per day. So we ended up fishing for the evening at the Dash Point fishing pier north of Tacoma. Nothing new was caught for me though unfortunately, but for the kid it was all new, so she loved it! We walked passed all the people casting for pink salmon and pulled out the bait hooks since that's how you catch the good stuff! And we never saw any pinks caught that night anyway. 
     Shiner perch and staghorn sculpin were ubiquitous as always:
This one's stripes aren't as prominent as is typical for this species so I took its picture hoping it might be something new. It wasn't.
      The official mascot of our trip who we named "Tiny Abby" made her grand entrance on this pier.
That's Tiny Abby there on the left.
     I've been trying for a starry flounder for years now to no avail, so that's what I was hoping for. I still didn't get one, but I did get one flatfish. I tried long and hard to decide if this rock sole was anything new or exotic, but it's just a rock sole as far as I can tell. Nerdy note: It's not lost on me that rock sole and northern rock sole are two separate species, both of which are found in Puget Sound, but from my pictures, I can't distinguish between the two species, so it's going to stay just a plain ol' rock sole unless anybody else has any revelatory insights they'd like to share. At least it was a new personal best for me if not a new species.
My biggest rock sole so far.
From what I can tell, flatfish all have good attitudes, because they're always looking up! Get it? Cause they're eyes are both on the top of their... Oh never mind. You're right that was a bit forced.
Brooke learned the proper way to hold a Pacific staghorn sculpin; a quite spiky species!
     We also got a ratfish just before the sun went down. I've only caught these on one other trip, so it was pretty awesome to see another one, and I'd never seen one caught in the daytime before either!
     These are still the single weirdest fish I've ever seen. I've noted their forehead clasper before (which has spikes on it by the way), but I didn't notice the large claspers by the pelvic fins before. Or maybe this one just had huge ones... Whatever the case, this one's claspers looked like a couple pairs of hind-legs dangling there!
     The kid was hoping for a dogfish, and I thought we might get one as evening approached, but it wasn't to be. We fished till dark totally undisturbed by any dogfish, then packed it up and headed to the hotel for about 4 hours of sleep.
     Bright and early the next morning we hit the road again in time to be at the dock in Westport by 5:30. The kid hadn't ever been out on the ocean before so it was all new and exciting to her, and I was anxious to see if she'd get seasick. We both had on those little sea-sickness behind-the-ear patches, but you never know, especially with kids. Sure enough about 5 minutes past the jetty, the first dude started chumming for us. I was sure she'd join him at the rail, but she just chuckled and said that was gross!

No sea-sickness here! She thought going up and down the big waves was fun!
I'm afraid the same cannot be said of Tiny Abby however. She got sick and went all rail-bunny on us before we even started fishing. Lucky her big sister was there to hold her hair for her.
     We made it out to the fishing grounds and dropped our gear down 300 feet and soon began catching piles of yellowtail rockfish, often two at a time! The kid's arms were pretty worn out after a few of these, but she hung in there like a champ.
Yellowtail rockfish. Not a new one, but definitely still fun!
She brought in this double all by herself.
These ones were much bigger than I had previously caught, so that was definitely fun.
     Things did get a little interesting for a while though. I hooked a small fish just a few feet from the surface and began to reel it in. At about that same time I heard a guy say he's hooked a shark. I've wanted a blue shark for years, since I first saw them basking at the surface on a tuna fishing trip. So I anxiously watched as the guy reeled it in. As it turns out, it wasn't even hooked; it was just holding onto his rockfish and trying to eat it! I managed to snap a quick picture just as it let go right at the surface.
If you look closely, that's a blue shark thrashing about.
     So in the meantime, I had also pulled up my little fish, which turned out to be a Pacific chub mackerel (a new one!). We were on a party-boat style trip, so they're all about putting meat on the deck. Which means if it's not a rockfish or a lingcod, they want nothing to do with it. They've got no interest in catching sharks whatsoever. Trust me I asked... I went into this fiasco knowing that was the case so I couldn't complain. But anyway, I quickly snaped a picture of the mackerel since it was a new species for me after all; but then, not being one to waste a perfectly good shark bait, all sneaky-ninja-style, while the deckhand's back was turned, I re-hooked it and nonchalantly sent it back over the rail.
Say it with me... Shark Bait Ooh Ha ha!
     Knowing there was a shark nearby, I just let it swim around, acting all casual. Pretty soon my rod doubled over! No way! I'd actually get a chance at the blue!
     Unfortunately that's as far as the story goes. I set the hook and it was gone. In hindsight, I probably should have let it eat it for a bit before setting the hook. Next time. Not long after, the captain figured out what I was doing and the gig was up. We had a good chuckle about it. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted!
     We resumed our regularly scheduled rockfish chasing. It wasn't long at all till the crew decided we had our limits. On my last haul of the day from 300 feet down, I knew I had something heavier on the line. I was both super excited and a little bummed to see my biggest yelloweye rockfish ever pop up to the surface.  On one hand, it was an awesome fish, but on the other hand, it had barotrauma like nobody's business, and I'd be very surprised if it lived, even with the captain's deep release mechanism. These can't be kept in Washington, since they're very long lived and prone to overharvest. It was a beautiful fish though!
My biggest yelloweye by about 15 pounds!
I think they're pretty, though I guess they're sort of like a spiky goldfish on steroids!
     We finished rockfishing, and then began "lingcod" fishing, note the quotes. I've been lingcod fishing since my early teens, so I'm pretty skeptical that that's what we were actually doing... We sent down some frozen herring to the bottom and waited. Nobody got snagged up and the only fish anybody caught was a nice Petrale Sole (which I was of course immensely jealous of). But anyway, I wasn't super surprised that nobody caught any lingcod over that sandy bottom "lingcod spot". I'm not complaining, just making observations... The trip was still super fun. And more importantly the kid had a blast and never even got the least bit queasy!

Tiny Abby got in on the action as the deckhand was cleaning the fish!
Naps on the way back to the port are how all the best trips end.
     That was it for day 2 except for the driving. We headed inland to a stay at my long-lost friend Brenda's house. Faithful Bryanlikestofish readers (you two know who you are) will remember Brenda from my days tagging steelhead on the Snake and Clearwater rivers. See this post and this post for details. It was awesome to get caught up, and the hospitality was much appreciated as we got ready for our day 3 shenanigans. Our target for day 3: our first lake trout!
     We met up with Gabe, another buddy, at his house and jumped in with him and soon launched his boat on a nearby (undisclosed) lake, sent down the downriggers, and began trolling. I can't think of any witty quips to liven up this part of the story, so maybe insert your own joke here if you like... But definitely make it better than my flatfish joke for sure.
     Anyway, long story short, we both ended up getting our first lakers! They were by no means large lake trout, but I by no means cared either. I was just happy to finally add that one to the list! Huge thanks to Gabe!
Yes I know, you've caught a bigger one. I'm just happy I can finally check this one off. I've tried more times than I care to admit to get one.
Not an unattractive little fella though.
I don't know what was up with Tiny Abby at this point, she lost it a little I guess.
     Brooke was pretty sleepy by this point, but we stuck it out long enough to get her a laker too. But just the fact that she was still smiling after 3 long days of literally nothing but running and gunning, is good enough for me. Maybe next time I'll have to take the little one, and we can bring a "Tiny Brooke" mascot. We'll see. As it was I was more than happy with some great fish, great memories with the kid, and two new species to boot!
She's in the club as far as I'm concerned, even if she was concerned that her hair was messy in this picture!