Nov 19, 2016

I Smell a Rat

     Hello my name is Bryan and I am a fish nerd. 
     I have put in a fair bit of thought as to what makes me so fascinated with fishing and fish in general. It's honestly a hard thing to put my finger on. To that end, I have decided that there are several types of fishermen. When most people go fishing, it's just a form of release, or recreation, or even an odd form of grocery shopping for those that are just out there to fill a cooler. Then there are the serious fishermen who go all out and often dive head first into one or more of the subgenres of fishing, eg. fly fishing, salmon fishing, bass fishing etc.. Joining one of these subcultures can certainly be rewarding, and many people can and do spend their lifetimes exploring and learning the ins and outs of each genre. I've met people, for example, who focused all their efforts strictly on fishing dry flies on spring creeks for trout. And if that's what turns your crank, I say go for it. The point of getting out fishing is to have fun after all, do it in a way that's enjoyable to you. 
     But to me, being pigeon-holed into one style of fishing would leave me wondering what I was missing out on elsewhere. In my opinion, there is an untapped wealth of fishing adventures off the proverbial beaten path. This often requires some outside-the-box thinking, and these types of fishing perhaps may not be as popular in the mainstream (no pun intended...) fishing media, but they are every bit as rewarding, once the stereotypes are laid aside. I haven't found one single mainstream subgenre that quite does it for me. I enjoy fly fishing, salmon fishing, and bass fishing, and I want to be good at all of them! This desire to be good at all of them, coupled with the fascination that I've always had for the diversity of fishes that exist in the world, eventually lead me to a little known corner of the fishing world called species fishing, or life-listing. Whatever you want to call it, adding new species to my list has become my favorite thing to do. I still enjoy fishing for the same old species. It's still fishing after all. But I find it fascinating to pick a species, do my homework and learn enough about it to figure out where, when, and how to catch it. Then when it actually all comes together and I catch the fish; that's the icing on the cake. 
     For example, one species that I have ogled for years was the spotted ratfish or chimaera. Now if you're a purist-type salmon fishermen anywhere on the pacific coast, I probably just lost you there. And that's OK, I won't judge. They are considered a nuisance fish in some places, particularly in Puget Sound, where they actually make up a large portion of the biomass and are sometimes incidentally caught by people fishing for other things. But they're one of the most unique fish I've encountered anywhere. They're in the same taxonomic class as sharks and rays, but pretty much they're just way out in left field taxonomically speaking. They've got a lateral line that branches and extends through the side of their face, giant reflective eyes, and pectoral fins that they flap like butterfly wings. Long story short, I wanted one. 
     Ratfish often inhabit very deep water (up to 3,000 feet!) but I learned that they can be caught fairly easily at night as they swim into much shallower waters then to feed. Somewhere in my wanderings on the internet, I heard that somebody had caught one on Pier 86 in Puget Sound. So, when I was recently sent to Seattle for a week on a business trip, it didn't take too long to connect the dots. It was pretty obvious what I would be doing in the evenings after work.
The Elliot Bay (Pier 86) fishing pier. There are worse places to spend an evening.
Seattle is a funny place. This is what passes for graffiti there.
     The fishing was pretty slow while the sun was still up, but I caught several brown and quillback rockfish.
Brown Rockfish
The tiniest quillback rockfish I've ever seen.
     But I wasn't really expecting anything till after dark anyway. Martini lives not too far away, so he met me there once he finished with school and work for the day. He also needed a rat for his list. As it got darker, we wondered if we were crazy or if we actually had a chance at the chimaera. I missed a pretty good bite, and we joked that it was probably my one shot at it. But really I was assuming it was just a big staghorn sculpin or maybe a dogfish, both common nighttime catches. 
     Pretty soon though I got another good bite and didn't miss this time. Whatever it was got closer to the surface and I began to see a glowing green ball shining up at us. We soon realized that it was a ratfish eye reflecting back at us! As I swung the fish over the rail, I was glad that Martini was the one there since he's one of the few people who would be as excited as I was about seeing such a crazy fish. We high-fived and celebrated the catch, taking in it's other-worldly features. I knew beforehand about the butterfly-wing fins, and the big eyes, but I didn't know about the crazy teeth or the huge (mildly venomous...) dorsal spine! The males also have claspers (to aid in mating) in the middle of their freaking foreheads! I've geeked-out a few times while fishing, but this definitely took the cake.
They can be caught! Weirdest fish I've ever seen. Ever.
     We released the little guy and kept on fishing. It didn't take long before we had both caught several more.
Martini with one of his several ratfish of the night. This one's a female - no clasper in the forehead...
Another female. The fish I mean.
Did I mention the dorsal spine? And it's venomous too!
Tell me that's not the weirdest critter you've seen.
Adorable. And I almost stuck my finger in there to get my hook out. In the words of the great Steve Wozniak, "Do not put that in your pants."
     That was pretty much the extent of the excitement for that trip. Though I did add another species the next evening at a different pier. In an unprecedented display of shamefully-tiny-hook fishing, I pulled up a cast with not only a new species on the end, but three examples of said species at once!
Can't say I've ever added a new species by catching three of them at once before. Till now!
The mighty pacific sanddab! Incidentally, this is not the first time I've been photobombed by a wasp while photographing a new species (see this post for details).
     So while I didn't catch any species of fish that the mainstream fishing media would call exciting or noteworthy, to me and my fish-nerd ways, the ratfish will be a serious contender for fish of the year this year. Homework was done, target fish were caught, pictures were taken, the catch was celebrated with somebody just as excited as I was. That's what it's all about if you ask me.

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