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!

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