Jun 25, 2023

Ohio Milestones

     After reaching species 195 in Idaho a few weeks earlier, I knew our 4th of July trip to Ohio would be a prime opportunity to reach the 200 mark. I had gotten 8 new ones the previous summer there (see this post for details) which included some of the easier targets. But with some searching, it seemed there were definitely at least 6 or 7 potential targets within an hour or so driving either way from my in-law's house. Some like Round Goby and White Perch, I assumed would be pretty easy, others like Flathead Catfish, Grass Carp, and Smallmouth Buffalo I would have to wear my lucky underpants for. 

     I had three days to fish, so on day one I started with the two gimmes. I headed up to Cleveland and found a nice access spot at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. The history buffs among you may remember the Cuyahoga as the river that caught fire back in the 1960s. It actually caught fire quite a few times in the decades prior to that as well, but as I understand it, the fire in 1969 was one of the events that started to get the public's (and their elected officials) attention which eventually led to policy reform on industrial dumping and polluting, and the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was the kind of thing that I learned about in college ecology classes, so I was interested to see it, and see what it had turned into since.

Rivers are not supposed catch on fire. Photo Credit: www.smithsonianmag.com

     I was pleased to find nothing on fire when I got there. It appeared to me to be a reasonably healthy river system (especially considering it's urban location) and as a biologist, it was encouraging to know that a river could go from so polluted that it literally used to catch on fire, to a nice place to spend a day catching healthy fish.

An informational sign explaining the significance of the site.

In the words of one of my favorite bands: "Cleveland Rocks".

      As expected, it didn't take long to start pulling in a few small fish. A few pumpkinseed and bluegill came to hand, then both target species popped up, some small and unassuming white perch, and as many round gobies as a guy could want.

If you're counting along at home, now I only need a striped bass to have the complete box set of North American moronids.
Round Goby. A tiny invasive species yes, but more importantly species 197!

The pelvic fins of these little fish are modified to form something of a weird little sucker.

     Having caught my two expected new species, I settled in for a relaxing day of getting a sunburn and catching whatever would bite. I hoped to catch some freshwater drum, a species I had caught previously, but didn't have a good picture for.

Sad drum face. I hadn't noticed the iridescent sheen that the small ones get. A pretty, if often maligned fish if you ask me.
Drum roll please...
This one was one of my larger ones, and it was kind enough to lay still with its fins out for a photo.
Large schools of baitfish were around and attracting predators. I'm pretty sure this is an Emerald Shiner, but if anyone else has other opinions, I wouldn't mind hearing them, as I'm not positive here.
Rock Bass was the other common catch for me. Not a new species, but another photo upgrade.
They came in a variety of colors and sizes.
And just to prove that not ALL my fish are small, here's a 10+ lb Channel Catfish.

      So then I was three away from 200. The next two days I would head to Columbus. Also, why do all the big cities in Ohio start with C? I can never keep them straight. But anyway, I'm pretty sure it was Columbus. I started the day at an undisclosed urban park where some YouTube videos had shown there to be both Grass Carp and Smallmouth Buffalo. I tried soaking carp-type baits for a while but my short attention span wouldn't let me sit there without bites for too long. I headed to a nearby spot on the Scioto River where there were several potential targets that could get me to 200, and it didn't take too long to get something new. The first new thing to pop up was a Smallmouth Redhorse.

I first thought it was a Shorthead, but that dorsal fin shape is pretty distinctive.
There were pretty colors to be seen if you looked close enough on this fish.

And an obligatory sucker lip shot.

      On my last trip to Ohio, microfishing resulted in several unexpected new species, so I waded around in the shallows for a while, but the only minnows I could find were Spotfin Shiners, a species I got last time. But it wasn't lost on me that these were right about bite size for some of the predatory critters hopefully lurking nearby.
Microfishing, great for catching new species and for gathering bait.

  I set up a float rig and started sending minnows over in the direction I had seen some gar rolling hoping to tangle with one of those dinosaurs. I didn't, but I did catch several little saugeye (a cross between a Walleye and a Sauger), which I found out later are pretty heavily stocked in the area.

I've caught both parent species, but this was my first saugeye.
     Then there was a bit of a lull in the action. I let my little minnow drift around a back eddy and my attention span started to catch up with me again. But then I swore my bobber was going in the wrong direction. This was new behavior. I watched it for a few more seconds and sure enough it was distinctly moving up-current. I calmly did a fish dance and hoped for a gar. Just in case it was, I waited and let it do its thing for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a minute or so before coming tight on it. Sure enough it didn't take long to figure out I had a little Longnose Gar on the line! A casual observer likely would have been able guess my excitement level by my running down the bank and shouting "Holy crap! Holy crap!", but I was alone, so we may never know. 
     I had nightmare visions of repeating the Disaster of 2013 when I hooked and lost a large Longnose Gar in Arkansas and cried about it for years afterward. This time though, after a short and unspectacular fight, I beached the tiny dinosaur and had one of my wish-list-long-shot Ohio species in hand. I didn't care in the slightest that it was small, this was my first actual gar! As someone from the Pacific Northwest, nowhere near gar territory, this was an exciting one.
Longnose Gar, species 199!
Not big enough for the teeth to be scary quite yet, still a crazy looking fish though!

     At this point I had an important decision to make. The next species would be number 200. After catching a sculpin for my 100th species, I wanted something over 6 inches long for this one. I decided that either a buffalo or a Grass Carp would be awesome candidates here so I headed back to the park determined to ignore my short attention span and stick it out till I got one. 

     I soaked a variety of baits including wonder bread, canned corn, and some homemaid concoctions. I passed the time donating the majority of my bag of wonder bread to some local kids feeding the ducks. This must have resulted in some good mojo as pretty soon thereafter I got a very unsubtle run on the rod with the bread on it. I held my breath, set the hook, and gingerly coaxed the fish closer. There are also common carp in the pond, so I half expected it to be one of those, but when it came into view it was clearly a buffalo! I had to be less vocal about my excitement this time as there were innocent bystanders nearby (including some enterprizing young people filming their own rendition of Harry Potter, but I digress). I was able to scoop the fish up onto the bank and just like that, species 200 happened. It wasn't a big Smallmouth Buffalo at about 4 or 5 pounds, nowhere near the size this species can reach, but again, to me it was huge.

Don't ask me why they're called buffalo. They clearly have no horns.

Complete with a face only a mother could love.

There was much rejoicing and celebrating when I got back home. There was even a parade and fireworks a couple days later on the 4th of July! It seemed a little overboard for the whole town to go all out like that over a fish, but I'm not one to complain.

      Incidentally, that buffalo also became not only my 200th species, but also my 50th species of the year, a feat which I doubt I will repeat again any time soon.

One of these years is not like the other. Oh don't pretend like you don't have a running graph of your new species by year. I'm sure everybody has got one.

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.