Jan 10, 2021

A Dumpster Fire Yes, But a There Were Fish Involved

     I'm not going to pretend that the year 2020 was anything less than a raging dumpster fire for the most part, and I certainly don't want downplay at all any of the hardships that millions of people worldwide have gone through this year. My sincere condolences go out to all those that lost loved ones this year due to the pandemic. My intent here is merely to share some of the events that helped me get through this crazy year. "Focus on the positive" is an easy thing to say, if not always an easy thing to do. BUT, the social distancing and restrictions in place meant that some of the best places to be were alone on a lake, or alone on a mountain, or alone on a pier. As it turns out, these are some of my favorite places anyway!
My wife takes great care each year to select the perfect Christmas tree ornament to represent the year. This year she outdid herself. I present you the most appropriate ornament in the history of ornaments.

      My home lakes put out some nice fish this summer, which was helped by the fact that 2020 was the year I bought my first real boat! It's just a tiny thing, but perfect for social distance fishing, and it has an outboard big enough to get up on plane with, a decent foot controlled electric motor on the bow, a fish finder, and even a down-rigger (which I haven't yet had occasion to use).
Big panfish are hard to beat in my opinion.

     Foraging for wild edible things has become another socially distant favorite pastime of mine. I spent a good portion of the year hiking around various trails, mountains, and shorelines picking berries, mushrooms, and whatever else my book said was edible. It wasn't always delicious, but it was always fun! 

Amanita muscaria is one of my favorite mushrooms, and certainly one of the prettiest. These were not foraged however as they are too psychoactive for me.

     Berries were often the focus, and huckleberries are and will always be my favorite, so I spent more time filling the freezer with those than anything else. 

Huckleberry-Purplefinger is the best kind of skin condition to have.
Plus huckleberries are found in the prettiest of places!

      However, this year I decided to branch out and see what the other berry varieties had to offer. I believe I encountered 12 different kinds of berries all together and made eight of them into jelly, which has become one of my favorite hobbies.

The OCD in me is very bothered by the fact that the order of the berries in the bowls doesn't match the order of the jars, but I tried my best here. Berry varieties shown (jar order...) include huckleberry, mountain blueberry, Oregon grape, elderberry, chokecherry, wax currant, red elderberry, and salmonberry.

     Generally though just being outside in nature is my coping mechanism. As long as I can get out into the woods, or by some water periodically, I'll get by. It's even more fun when I can drag the kids along. 

This may be my favorite hiking picture ever. This was about 4 miles up the mountain.
We eventually made it to the top though and she added a rock to the top to make the mountain a few inches taller, "just like Moana did".
She's usually much more agreeable when hiking.
We did our best to break in the 'new' boat.
The new boat helped me get my personal best tiger trout
It helped us see this 40+ inch tiger musky right at the boat launch, but we couldn't get it to bite unfortunately.
Turtle hunting is always a favorite summertime activity. This is our smallest one to date.

A first for me, we discovered these snail case caddis flies. That's family Helicopsychidae for you entomology buffs out there.


     Other quarantine activities in our house included such shenanigans as custom mask making, giant Jenga, and my wife's favorite, adopting new kittens. 

If you have long hair, and you have to wear a mask, why not kill two birds with one stone?

She's getting into woodworking, so giant Jenga was a fun afternoon activity. Calculating, measuring, cutting, sanding, then knocking it all down!

This was the first kitten of the summer. I can't complain too much though. I have WAY more tarantulas than she has cats.

     The highlights of the year for me though were a couple fishing trips over to the west side of the state. The pandemic made this kind of thing harder to do safely, but I'm not exactly social when I fish, so I felt pretty safe just keeping to myself and getting some long sought after new species. I managed to knock off my two most wanted Puget Sound residents, and a few bonus ones as well.

     My first arch nemesis to bite the dust was the striped surfperch. I can't count the times I've gone somewhere specifically to try and catch one of these. Because it was a lot. I even went scuba diving at one of my fishing spots, and saw hundreds of them swimming around down there, but I can never get them to bite. I have sight fished to dozens of them. Nothing. My arch nemesis.

     Backing up to December 2019, one of my friends, Luke who is an amazing angler and species hunter (see https://caughtovgard.com/), was going to be in the Puget Sound area, so we exchanged some spots. I told him where I had caught a few species, hoping he could catch some of the same too. His trip came and went, and he caught (as he does) a LOT of fish. He sent me the list of species that he had encountered, and lo and behold he had found SOME (as in >1) striped surfperch, AND to add insult to injury he'd also caught some kelp perch. I had never even seen a kelp perch! Well played Luke. Well played. He of course shared how he had encountered these species, so I had a new game plan. 

     When I finally made the trip over there, I headed strait to the spot Luke had indicated. And proceeded to catch.. nothing on my old stand-by baits. But there was an older grandmotherly-type lady just down the pier from me pulling out small fish hand over fist. After some investigation and navigating a language barrier, I figured out that raw shrimp was the ticket. And soon I began to catch fish as well. I mostly caught the always ubiquitous shiner perch, which are common throughout the pacific northwest, but then a different colored one popped up! Species 133, the mighty kelp perch!

The first kelp perch I had ever seen!
These are not large fish, this is about as big as they get, but they have strikingly bold blue highlights mixed in with the orange if you look closely enough.

     I was excited to have caught my first target species of the trip, but still couldn't get the striped surfperch quest done, though the nice lady with the shrimp caught a few as I watched. I did add another sculpin species to the list (the padded sculpin), but I lost patience with the perch and went and hit some of my other favorite spots in the hopes of lucking into a starry flounder. 

#134 the padded sculpin!
These weird fish wouldn't bite anything I threw at them either.
Spiny dogfish closeup. Their skin feels like sandpaper.
This is one of the spines that gives them their name. Gotta watch out or they'll stick ya.

I even went and hit a surfperch beach and caught some nice redtail surfperch.
And of course, no trip to the Puget Sound would be complete without catching a few squid. This was one of my doubles. I still haven't got a triple yet, and I've only seen pictures of quadruples.
Whitespotted greenling continue to be one of my more common catches in the Sound. This one wasn't particularly large, but had nice coloration.
Ratfish are also quite common. Still one of the coolest fish out there.
This big female is probably one of my biggest ones yet.
This was only my second ever painted greenling. Another beautifully colored fish. They fight surprisingly hard for their size.
I like to pick through the seaweed when I bring it up. I couldn't decide who was cuter the seabug on the left, or the tiniest shrimp ever on the right.  Just kidding, the seabug is the clear winner.

     The next chance I got to hit the perch spot, I decided to just put in a day of sorting through as many shiner perch as it took. This was likely to get old pretty fast, but I needed to catch one! About an hour into this process, I pulled up what could have been another kelp perch, but I swung it over the rail gingerly just in case. After closer inspection, it was a striped surfperch! A very small one, but it still counted as a species!

I've never been so excited to catch such a tiny example of a species.

     With still plenty of the day left, I put on some bigger baits to see if I could get one of the bigger ones that I had seen caught. Yes I had caught the species, and yes it counted, but it would be nice to have something north of tiny to show for my efforts. It took a while but I eventaully found a spot with some larger specimens willing to play.

This one, I was more excited about. It's still not a big one, but it's starting to show some of the vibrant blue coloration and striping that this species is known for.

     Having caught what I decided was a respectible enough specimen, I decided to go hit one of my old favorite spots again. The spot where I had previously seen (and not caught) hundreds of striped surfperch both while scuba diving and while fishing.

      I of course saw plenty of striped surfperch there, but they of course wanted nothing to do with my offerings as usual. I did catch plenty of the normal stuff there though, just enjoying the day, until I decided it was time to go. I began cleaning up my things, packing up my rods, and I had a few extra pieces of shrimp left over, so I dropped them into the water for the crabs to eat. I gathered all my things and was heading back to the car. Before I did though, I decided to take one last glance over the edge at the surfperch. They were still there of course, and in fact there were more of them than there had been, and as I watched them, I realized that they were eating the shrimp! Well, not being one to miss an oportunity, I got out some more shrimp and re-baited my hooks and sent them down. To my great astonishment, I actually got a bite! And of course missed it, but that was the most action from those fish I had ever seen there! There were some real brutes swimming around, but I tried not to get my hopes up. I sent my hooks back down again, and waited. Just then, the largest fish of the bunch started swimming eratically and it took me a half second to realize that my rod was also bouncing! I had just hooked the best fish of the bunch! I had to stear it away from the barnacle covered pilons, and a ladder on the edge of the pier, but I managed to get him safely to the surface. I held my breath as I swung it over the railing. THIS was a striped surfperch! The electric blue splotches on its face, and stripes on its flanks. This was obviously one of the most beautiful fish I had ever held!

This will go down as my favorite catch of 2020.
Easily one of the most striking fish I've ever seen.
They really are that colorful.

     One arch nemesis was down, which left only the starry flounder. These are another fairly common one, that I for the life of me could not catch. For years. I have seen a couple of them swimming near the surface while squid fishing at night, but could never catch them. I think they get fished out from the piers pretty readilly as they're apparently quite tasty. Easier to catch from a boat, but tougher for a shore-bound fellow like myself. 

     A day or two after my striped surfperch adventure, I was daydreaming my way through YouTube as one does, and I came across a video on there showing exactly where and how to catch starry flounder, and it looked very promising. I have taken trips on much weaker leads than that, so on my next free day, off I went. The spot was just as good as it was in the video for me, with one exception; the starry flounder were absent. I enjoyed the day and did very well catching flat fish after flat fish all on plastic swim baits on drop shot rigs. It was great fishing, and I caught what I'm sure is my personal best rock sole, but again, no starry flounders.

This is a beast of a rock sole. I've caught a bunch of them, and this is by far the biggest.
It's tail reminded me of a big bear paw.

     Also of note, in Puget Sound, there are actually two species of rock sole; the southern rock sole (Lepidsetta bilineata) and the northern rock sole (Lepidopsetta polyxystra). They are very hard to tell apart visually. I've been told that really the only reliable way to tell them apart is by counting the gill rakers. However, in order to count the gill rakers, you have to kill the fish. I don't like eating fish from Puget Sound becasue of the polution, so I've never actually done gill raker counts on them. However, since both species are present in good numbers, statistically speaking, I'm all but positive I've caught both species, as I've caught several hundred rock soles over the years. But I've never been able to prove it, or been confident enough to count a fish as a northern rock sole. That was until on this day while searching for a starry flounder, I pulled up a fish that just looked different. They all pretty much look the same, but this one was off just enough that I took note. My fish ID books say that the space between the eyes is wider in northern rock soles, and that they also lack the creamy white highlights on the blind side that are present in southern rock soles. So I took a good look at this particular fish, and to make a long story short, I'm pretty sure that I'm almost positive that I think it was a northern rock sole, making it species number 135! 

     I do include the foot note on this one, that although I didn't count the gill rakers, the other characteristics look pretty convincing to me. I THINK I'm correct. But, even if I did manage to be wrong about this particular fish; statistically I have caught both species, so I can live with this being the token northern rock sole for my list. I would rather do it that way than kill a fish that I won't eat just to count it's gill rakers.

Here's what I'm calling a southern rock sole (left) and a northern rock sole (right). Note that the coloration is quite different between these two individuals, but that's not what I'm trying to point out. Coloration isn't actually a very good indicator here, as the coloration and paterning can vary quite a bit.
The space between the eyes (interorbital space) is narrower in southern rock soles (left) than northern rock soles (right).
On the blind side (the side of these fish with no eyes) southern rock soles (left) have creamy highlights, seen here as the ligher white patterns that almost looke like flattened out "W" shape. The northern rock soles (right) lack those highlights as seen here.

     Well that was surely more information than you've ever wanted on the differences between two virtually identical fish species, but there you have it. So anyway, I continued to be thoroughly entertained throughout the day catching nice rock sole (whatever species) after rock sole. But still the starry flounders were nowhere in sight. I was bummed, but not surprized. As sunset drew nearer I needed to start the long drive home, so I set an alarm on my phone for when I needed to for sure pack things up. 
     I got a hit on what was to be one of my last few casts of the day and set the hook into a fish just as I had done so many times that day. It fought just the same as all the other flat fish I had caught. I didn't think anything of it until I finally caught a glimpse of it and made out the signature spotting on the fins of a starry flounder! I pulled it over the rail and let out a yell of triumph, just as the alarm on my phone went off. Talk about botom of the ninth! But I had done it. I caught my other arch nemesis.
It may not be much of a looker, but this is a beautiful face to me!

#137! Now that I've caught one, I'm sure they'll show up everywhere but I'm sure glad I don't have to chase these things anymore.
Their fins looked like someone colored them with a sharpie and didn't stay in the lines.
     What do you do if you run out of arch nemeses?? I had to do some serious thinking on that one. I still have two freshwater nemeses, the longnose sucker and longnose dace. But these were my last two big ones for saltwater. There is always the chance of something random coming up when you fish in the ocean, but I'm running out of the targetable stuff. Maybe it's time to move. I have some ideas, though. I have some plans to try for a blue shark next summer, there's flathead catfish to catch not too far away in Idaho, warmouth scattered around somewhere, sand rollers near my old hometown. There's possibilities, they're just becoming fewer and farther between, but I suppose if it were too easy it wouldn't be much fun would it!

1 comment:

  1. Great report, thanks for sharing! Congrats on catching some of your nemesis :)