Sep 20, 2018

What the Hake is That?

     I've been to the Oregon coast dozens of times as my family vacationed there at least once or twice per year ever since I was a wee tyke. However, I have not been to the Oregon coast many times in recent years, since I started life-listing in earnest, so there were a few easy ones that needed to be ticked off. And I'm always excited to fish in the ocean because you never know what you're going to pull up.
     I won't bore you with too many of my corny jokes or anything since there are quite a few pictures to fill the space. Long story short, it was an awesome trip and some pretty darn cool fish were caught, some new, some not.
     We decided to make a little side trip and spend the night in Seattle on the way down to Oregon. So while the wife and kids were sleeping, I picked out a new pier I hadn't been to before (Redondo Beach) and gave it a go! It was just the usual suspects though, nothing new that night.
Rock Sole:
Quillback Rockfish

Roughback Sculpin
     I thought this one might be something different at first, since I've never seen one with the whitish splotches on its head before, but I think it's just a regular old Pacific Staghorn Sculpin though.
These things are EVERYWHERE on the Pacific Northwest coast.
     The next day, we got to Oregon, and we decided to check out some tidepools, so I brought along some little hooks (duh..). Tidepool Sculpins were as easy as I assumed they would be. I've caught buckets of these over the years, but never actually bothered using a hook before. So with that bit of housekeeping done, we were free to move on to bigger and better things.
Not my first one of these, by a few hundred, but now it's officially on the list.
     That was until my wife said, "Ooh honey! What's that?". I didn't see it at first though. Can you see the fish in the picture below?
I know where it is, and I'm still not sure I see it.
     Anyway, long story short, it took some convincing, but I finally connected with three inches of steaming Speckled Sanddab fury. A new one! Brittany get the credit for this one!
Not a particularly dignified example of the species, but it counts! This was the first one of these I've seen in a tidepool, and I've looked in a LOT of tidepools.
     I also caught a bunch of these Mosshead Sculpins in the tidepools. Another new species!
Oreo Sculpin?
The kids had fun looking into the little aquariums
And here we see my parents in their natural habitat.
     The next day, I rock-hopped my way out onto the Newport Jetty hoping for a Striped Surfperch. I of course caught exactly 0 Striped Surfperch. But I did have a pretty entertaining evening with some familiar species.
And a few crabs:
I caught crabs. There's a joke in there somewhere I think...
     Kelp Greenling were also not shy about coming to see me:
Nice pecs on this one.
It's always cool to see the difference between males (top) and females (bottom).
I even caught a male and a female on the same cast
     When the tide stopped ripping so hard, I pulled out my jigs to try for some rockfish. And proceeded to have a very entertaining hour and half before dark.
Black Rockfish were all over the place.
     Then I hooked something that pulled a little harder. I knew what I hoped it was, but it was cool to see it when it actually popped up. My first dingaling from shore! I've caught lots (and certainly bigger) Lingcod from boats, but never from shore. But what really excited me was that upon closer inspection, it was my first ever blue Lingcod! Not the "bluest" one I've ever seen, but blue enough to count!
Note the bluish tint to its tongue.

     The next day, my dad and I headed out on a charter trip. We tried one that I hadn't done before. Last year Oregon had to close down their near-shore bottom fishing in late-summer, since they had already met their groundfish quota for the year for several species. This made people mad... So in an effort to provide additional harvest opportunities, they opened up what they call a "long leader fishery" outside of the 40 fathom line to access fish that were previously not very pressured (except, you know... the pressure of just living deeper than the 40 fathom line...) For this fishery, you have to use specific gear. Basically it's like a dropshot-type rig with 30 feet of line between the weight and the hooks. This is to avoid bottom dwelling critters like Yelloweye Rockfish which are protected, while still  having access to more sustainable (more mid-water) fish like Yellowtail Rockfish. See illustration below courtesy of ODFW:

     So anyway... A few of the potentially encountered species would be new to me so I wanted to give it a try:
Long leader gear lined up and ready to go
     We finally arrived, and we sent our odd rigs down 500 feet and began doing the fish dance. I was first to hook up on the boat (as it should be. Just kidding... Sort of...). 500 feet later, when it popped up to the surface, the captain and I simultaneously said "Aww, crap!", and "SWEEEET!!!". You can probably guess who said which. There was a little confusion, as to what the little beasty actually was for a couple minutes, as the deckhand hadn't ever seen one before, but I actually knew this one. It was a Pacific Hake!
He seems angry.
Gotta love those "non-target" fish!
     Then it was back to business of catching Yellowtail and Canary rockfish (and lots of them; 10 fish limit each...) for the rest of the trip, except for a brief bit of excitement when the guy next to me (it's always the guy next to me??) got bit off by a blue shark right at the surface.  I only barfed twice and got a new species out of the trip, so I called it a success!
"The Dude" working on 500 feet of line with a fish on the other end that doesn't want to.
Yellowtail Rockfish
Canary Rockfish
     The next day, the wind was howling, but I tried the jetty again anyway. The usual suspects were caught again, but I also tied into probably my favorite fish of the trip. Using a sabiki (with only 3 hooks as per the regs) tipped with squid to search for smaller species wasn't too productive, except for one good bite. I set the hook and could tell that the fish was big enough that I was in danger of losing it in the rocks or weeds. But somehow the little size 10 hook held, and it popped up to the surface. I saw that it was a rockfish, but it was a different color! Crap! Now what do I do? I was up on big rock 5 feet over the water, and there was literally no way to get down to it without going swimming. I weighed my options for a couple seconds, and couldn't come up with anything better than to hope the tiny hook stayed put and swing it up onto the rock. So I held my breath and gingerly swung it up. I didn't breathe until my thumb was firmly on his lip.
     Rockfish are a favorite family of fish of mine. I've always been fascinated with the variety of different ones. So I was excited that I didn't know what I had caught. Luckily, through the magic of Facebook, it was quickly identified (by some anglers with encyclopedic knowledge of fish ID... Thanks again!) as a Grass Rockfish. WOO! Apparently they're more common farther south, like in California. But not so much that far north. The ODFW website calls them an "unusual species" to catch. Either way, it was a new one for me, and one that I was definitely not expecting.
That's number 126 if you're counting along at home.
Interesting forehead structures. Kind of looked like laid back horns.
     That was it for new species. I got a little cocky and thought I had a shoe-in spot to catch a Warmouth in a nearby lake. So I tried that on the last day. But don't worry, no Warmouth were harmed in the making of this post. But I was pretty happy with the trip as it sat, with five new species, and some notable encounters with old friends as well. Nineteen species of fish were caught in total.
     Also, I guess I lied a little about not being too long-winded here. But hey, I didn't hold you down and make you read it all. That's on you!

Aug 13, 2018

And Then There Were Two.

     Species hunting is a funny game. It’s about the appreciation of the diversity of fish in general, but it is also a traveling man's game. The folks with the biggest species lists are obviously some of the best fisherpeople around, but they are also generally those who travel the most. My modest list of 120 doesn't come anywhere near to the tallies put up by the folks with the really big lists.  But 120 is fairly respectable, considering that I don't really travel that much, and I've spent my entire life living in either Idaho or Washington. And so, as is to be expected, I've caught most of the stuff here. In fact, 65 of my species were added to my list in just those two states. There are still plenty of saltwater critters out there to add, but as for species close to home (within a few hours by car), I am frankly running out of likely candidates.

     When my family and I moved to our current town in North-Central Washington a few years ago, I began whittling down the species nearby including some important ones like Burbot and Lake Whitefish. I soon had my "Most Wanted" list narrowed down to four: Tench, Grass Pickerel, Longnose Dace, and Longnose Sucker. And it stood at four for over a year.
     Finally, in the early summer of 2017, I knocked the list down to 3 by finally figuring out the Tench (see Tinca tinca for details). So then there were three.
Tinca tinca. The first of the four to fall

     Grass Pickerel, the smallest member of the pike family, seemed like the next likely candidate. I at least knew where to find them. In talking to some biologist buddies, I learned that Eloika Lake, north of Spokane, has plenty of them. I assumed they'd behave just like a young Northern Pike. I've caught many juvenile pike about the size of grass pickerel. That wasn't hard to do, so the grass pickerel was sure to be an easy one to knock off. Right? Wrong. The fish gods do not put up with such arrogance.
     I won't tell you how many times I made the drive over to Eloika Lake, each time sure I was on the verge of encountering 7 inches of ferocious pickerel fury. Let's just say it was somewhere north of 5 times, and somewhere south of 147. I don't know how many little bass, pumpkinseeds, perch, and crappie I sorted through, but it was a pile. In fact it was a pile of piles. I tried all of the seasons, including through the ice, to no avail.
     This bothered me to no end as I pride myself on being a pretty decent ice fisherman. It's my favorite way to fish.
Did I mention I like ice fishing?
     So that brings us to January of 2018. Brian, one of my species hunting buddies (also, the same guy who gave me the tip on the Tench fishing the year before) who lives much closer to Eloika lake, had actually seen a Grass Pickerel caught during a recent ice fishing trip there. So apparently it was in fact possible to catch them. Well that was good enough for me! We picked out a Saturday to meet up and give it a try. I donned my lucky underpants and picked out my best tiny jigs. We began fishing late in the morning, and I began to catch Pumpkinseeds and perch. Brian of course pulled up a pickerel in about the first 10 minutes. Now I'm nothing if I'm not a good sport, so we celebrated his tiny catch heartily,  and shared in the glory of the moment. Surely it was a good omen. The fish were there. It was about to happen. 
     I waited anxiously on the edge of my bucket for what seemed like the next three hours, but couldn't have been more than 180 minutes. With nothing to show for my efforts. Then Brian pulled up another pickerel! Now this was just cruel. We were using the same gear, in the same way, in the same spot. Why fish gods, why? But I'm nothing if I'm not a good sport, so we again cheered and celebrated (though my left eye had inexplicably developed a noticeable twitch). 
     We stuck it out at this spot for as long as my (already tested) patience could handle. Then decided to follow a tip from some other fishermen and spend the last couple hours of daylight at the other end of the lake fishing over some very shallow weed beds. 
     So we arrived and drilled holes, and began the hunt again. Brian, of course pulled up a pickerel almost immediately, just to show off. But I handled this with the resolute calm that you would expect me to display in such a situation. I calmly continued catching Pumpkinseeds and perch like nobody's business. I even caught the occasional Largemouth Bass, just for good measure. I was not bothered in the least that the sun had dipped below the trees and the daylight was rapidly fading. 
     But then it happened. My strike indicator indicated that I was getting a strike. I reared back, set the hook, and commenced to do battle with the mighty leviathan of the deep (see also: I set the hook and the tiny fish immediately came flying out of the hole unceremoniously). I looked down and couldn't believe it. Nearby fisherpeople stared, and couldn't understand why there was all the kerfuffle over a fish no bigger than a medium size cigar. But I didn't care. It was over. I was thrilled to finally add the new species to my list, but equally relieved to not have to make the drive to Eloika Lake any more. 
     Meanwhile, the fish nerd in me was geeking out over the tiny little critter. Believe it or not, this was actually a normal size grass pickerel. Not a big one for sure, but not a tiny one either. It looked just like a baby pike, but with the characteristic "teardrop" marking under the eye, and the distinct mottling on the body.
Grass pickerel. Sausage fingers for scale.
A ferocious beast in miniature.
     And just like that with 10 minutes of daylight left I was able to breathe a sigh of relieve and appreciate the fact that my "most wanted" list had been whittled down to two. Beware Longnose Dace and Longnose Sucker. I'm coming for you!

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: 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 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.