Species: Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas) Location: Klamath Lake, Klamath Falls, OR Date: January 15, 2015
I’m writing this post just hours after guiding The Species King, Steve Wozniak, to his first Fathead Minnow, so it’s particularly apropos that my own written species progression puts me here at this time.
I caught my first Fathead by hand when the weather-warn minnow, both dazed and confused, came just a little to close to my reach. Minutes later, I snagged another while throwing my Rapala through a small school of them.
Since the telltale black streak along the lateral line made me realize it wasn’t the usual suspects (chubs and dace), I knew I had a new species. Granted, this was still well before I was tracking a species total, but I still added a row to my Lifetime Bag spreadsheet, and typed “2” in the box next to its newly-typed name.
It’s funny because though both methods I used to land my minnow were legal, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I got one to willingly bite a micro-rig — just weeks before Steve’s arrival.
After spot-hopping and mostly getting chubs, I took them to the place I’d caught my first and second Fatheads. This, our final stop, had an expiration date because both Steve and his fishing buddy Mark Spellman had to be back home that afternoon.
We had an hour left.
Seconds after we stopped, I noticed a school of what were clearly Fatheads feeding by the shore, and Steve went to work.
He said Mark and I could move ahead and trout fish, but I opted to drink from the fountain of his wisdom (though I used no metaphors that over-the-top) and stayed for a few minutes, talking with Steve.
It didn’t take 10 minutes for his quarry to oblige.
He pulled up a mouth-hooked Fathead — and a male, no less. This was significant because males and their oversized skull give the species its name.
Fun fact, right? Shut up. Just keep reading.
Though the trout didn’t cooperate for our last few minutes, that species was an ego-booster.
It was the end of a solid weekend of fishing and fueled the fire for my own species hunting once again. I’m sure Steve will tell this story from his perspective, too, and you can find it here when it’s ready.
I just hope we don’t get fat heads after catching those Fatheads…
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #62 — Bluehead Chub
Species: White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) Location: Columbia River, Cascade Locks, OR Date: February 22, 2015
If Hell froze over, it would still be warmer than the Columbia River is mid-winter in high winds. The type of bone-chilling cold that the Gorge can experience is excruciating for those dressed in anything less warm than a recently disemboweled TaunTaun.
I was there in the first place to target sturgeon, something I’d always wanted to do, and hoped to bring home a fish in the narrow January – March keeper season on that stretch of the river.
At the time, it was a slot limit fishery that rarely exceeded quotas before the season expired, and the slot was 38-52″ fork length, so you could theoretically walk away with a decent fish.
That is, if your frozen corpse didn’t topple overboard when winds changed from 30 to 40 miles per hour and the whitecaps started clipping your boat with extra fervor.
I was fishing with Northwest Sturgeon Adventures, and they were a solid outfit. They seemed to know what they were doing, and in lieu of the miserable cold, the boat had a zippable cover with a space heater inside. It wasn’t enough, but it was a nice touch that kept me from shivering away all of the calories I’d eaten that week.
The wind made bite monitoring very difficult, so the guy who drew the straw for the first bite failed a dozen or so times before finally giving up.
I was fourth in line out of four, but second and third were so cold, they deferred to me. I was the only one brave enough to stand in the cold and wait for a bite.
It paid off. At least, it would have if I could tell the difference between a subtle bite and wave action.
Following the instruction of the guides, I let three bites go undetected and didn’t even grab the rod out of the holder. On the fourth, I grabbed the rod, set the hook, and just missed.
Moments later, it was back, and this hookset connected.
The gear was very heavy, and the fish wasn’t huge, but I was ecstatic when the armor-plated monster broke the surface tension with its shark-like tail.
It was at least three feet long, and I was excited to see if it would a keeper or not.
The scale registered it at 12.5 pounds, and it taped to 40 inches. I was stoked! It was a keeper!
Then the “fork length” nonsense came to mind, and I realized it was two inches shy at the fork of the 38-inch slot length minimum.
Dejected, I vowed to at least grab a picture. Expecting that it would be worth holding like a trout, I grabbed it at the base of the tail and supported its weight with my other hand.
My hands were numb, so I didn’t realize the young dinosaur’s plates were slicing open my hand as I held it. After the photos and release, I realized my hand was soaked with blood.
In seconds, I’d learned to never hold young sturgeon that way again.
Since my sturgeon wasn’t a keeper, I opted to go to a seafood restaurant in Portland that served sturgeon. The one I found, Jake’s Seafood, was okay. It wasn’t phenomenal, and I felt it was certainly overrated, but the sturgeon was pretty good even if the rest of the experience wasn’t top-notch. It reminded me of a drier, stringer halibut, but was still delicious.
I’ve yet to catch a keeper since fishing a primarily catch-and-release fishery in the Willamette and mid-Columbia that is productive because of the “let ’em go to let ’em grow” policy enforced there.
Sturgeon have become one of my favorite targets, and nothing fights like a massive sturgeon.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #61 — Fathead Minnow.
Species: Widow Rockfish (Sebastes entomelas) Location: Off the coast of Depoe Bay, OR Date: December 18, 2014
I wrote about this in my January 30, 2015 column in the Herald and News. Read it here:
“In 1988, the United States government outlawed the production and sale of three-wheeled ATVs, commonly known as “three-wheelers,” because the third wheel made the vehicles incredibly awkward and unsafe.
Two years later, I was born.
I grew up blissfully unaware of the ban on three-wheeled vehicles, routinely spending time with my coupled friends and making an awkward triad.
Triad was also the name of my high school, but that’s just a coincidence.
As I got older, I became aware of when it was okay to third-wheel with my friends, and when it was not. First dates? No.
You’ve been dating for months and you’re now sitting at a basketball game? Yes.
Oh. You’re going to propose at this basketball game? That’s awesome!
Don’t worry, I didn’t blow the surprise.
Retroactive congratulations, Shawn and Maddie Elliott!
Understandably, most of my friends desired alone time with their significant other, so I tried to give them space.
We all grew older, and before I knew it, it was 2014.
My best friend, Benjamin Blanchard, was engaged and planning his wedding. The timing of the wedding meant our annual fall fishing trip to the Oregon Coast — that had been our tradition since graduating high school six years earlier — was off the table.
I’m not going to lie, I was a little disappointed.
Still, I was happy for my friend, and I absolutely understood.
Then, he surprised me by saying that he and his then fiancé (now wife), Autumn, wanted us to take our fishing trip, with her, during one of the days of their nearly month-long honeymoon.
Not one to turn down a fishing trip, I immediately agreed.
December rolled around, and we made plans to meet up in Lincoln City where they were staying. I started my weekend with a few days in Portland before heading to the coast.
Ben, Autumn and I met briefly the night before to catch up in their beachside vacation rental, where they were spending their honeymoon, before I retired to their floor.
I retired to the offsite motel room they’d generously rented for me.
The next day started off brisk and cold as we drove to nearby Depoe Bay, the world’s smallest navigable harbor.
We climbed onto the charter boat and got to know some of our fellow passengers.
Once it was discovered that Ben and Autumn were honeymooners, everyone congratulated them.
Once it was discovered that I was third-wheeling their honeymoon, we had a few laughs, one weird look from an older gentleman who thought we might’ve been a trio of lovers, but finally a comment from the captain, who said “Wow. That’s an honor.”
Indeed it was.
While many would feel like a third wheel, I never did with these two.
As we reeled in fish after fish, Autumn battled seasickness with a remarkably positive attitude.
Considering the fact that we were adrift in the middle of the ocean during mid-December, it was remarkably warm. My phone listed the weather in the 50s by mid-morning.
The fishing was pretty good, too, even though both Ben and Autumn out-fished me.
In total, we landed more than 40 fish, representing a variety of species. Black rockfish, blue rockfish and yellowtail rockfish made up the majority of our catch, but we also landed several vividly orange, threatened canary rockfish, several lingcod, and I even caught a species I’d never caught before: a widow rockfish.
They survived the first stormy seas their marriage would see (literally), and we had a great time together.
They never called me a third wheel, and though some of you might, I’ll counter with this: apart from the steering column, boats don’t have wheels.”
Species: Kahawai (Arripis trutta) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2017
After going it alone for weeks, my friend David Clarke and I decided to get a charter. We’d planned to chase tuna and kingfish and marlin off the coast with one of this friends, but when that fell through, we scrambled for a backup plan.
With no cell service (I should’ve paid for it, but I was naive and cheap) and WiFi only available at a per-MB fee in hotels and hostels, I didn’t research it as much as I should have.
So what we ended up doing was a ‘Land-Based Charter’ with a gentleman who owned a bait shop in a town near where we were staying in the Coromandel region.
He promised us big snapper, kahawai, and chances at other fish as well.
I paid the bill as a thank-you. I mean, he let me stay with him for weeks and saved me thousands of dollars on hotels, so it was the least I could do.
It started out pretty well. We met up at sunset and hiked a windswept batch of grassy foothills to a rock landing. The guide tossed out a bag of burley (that’s Kiwi for chum), and we started fishing.
Biodiversity around New Zealand is low, and this day was no different. We caught almost exclusively Australasian Snapper from about half a pound to the three-pound beast David landed. All great-eating fish, but nothing like the Kingfish (very closely related to the Yellowtail found in California) we were hoping for.
The day wore on in the beautiful setting, and though fishing wasn’t great, it was entertaining.
The guide’s burley bag got snagged against the cliff face, and for some reason, he decided to dive down and unsnag it. I think it was for show, but it was still pretty badass. He dove down and freed the bag while avoiding any sharks, so I’d count that as a win.
In the last few hours of fishing, a school of tuna-like fish starting aggressively feeding. The guide, who was fishing with us and not handing off fish as guides normally do, hooked up first.
This ferocious beast ripped line off of his reel and fought impossibly hard for its apparent size. After a few minutes, he landed it on the rocks. It was roughly the same shape as a trout and probably only 24-25 inches long, but it fought like a 20-pound salmon. I couldn’t believe it.
His fish had hit on the drop, but he didn’t tell us that. He just kept fishing. After he caught #2, I cut off my weight and hooked a pilchard head onto an unweighted hook tied directly to my mainline.
It sunk very slowly and stayed in the eyeline of the prowling fish, and I hooked up almost immediately. This fish fought like crazy. Nothing I’ve caught before or since pulled like that Kahawai, pound-for-pound. I was using a heavy spinning rod with 25-pound mono, and this five-pound fish stretched it to the absolute limit.
I landed several more beasts that day, each one taking an unweighted pilchard head in the churning surf and putting up a fight for the ages. None of them topped seven pounds, but I was physically sore after fighting the last one.
We hiked out at day’s end and were shocked to learn the guide had kept most of the fish for himself. Despite catching maybe 50 pounds of fish and then packing it out on our backs for miles, we took home maybe five pounds.
I didn’t tip, and I left a review detailing all of his antics. He was a nice enough guy, but he’d basically charged us $450 NZD to go out and fish with him. He didn’t really guide us, and apart from cleaning the fish (of which he kept 90%), he didn’t do much else.
It wasn’t the worst guided trip I went on, but it was up there. To make matters worse, the guide sent me an angry response on Facebook after I reviewed his service with an (in my opinion) a very generous 3-out-of-5 stars.
Species: Yelloweye Mullet (Aldrichetta forsteri) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2017
I’ve already told the story of this day in elaborate detail, so I won’t talk too much about this fish.
I’ve since caught a lot of mullet (three species in three countries outside the United States), and one thing mullet typically have in common is how difficult they are to catch. Since they feed on a variety of baits, the Internet will tell you there are a lot of ways to catch them, but most of mine came on breadballs and snag hooks.
So, when I ended up catching this Yelloweye Mullet in New Zealand’s Coromandel using a beef scrap, I was very surprised. Since then, I’ve caught exactly zero mullet on meat or fish baits, so I now realize just how lucky I was.
I told you this story wasn’t long or exciting. I simply caught a mullet fishing a beef scrap in a river. I kept it for bait and proceeded to catch nothing on the cubes of bloody meat that were supposed to make great bait.
Further, even identification was easy. It was a mullet with a yellow eye, so the first Google search turned up my answer.
Species: Shortfin Eel (Anguilla australis) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2017
The Tunnifar is a mythical beast found in the waters of New Zealand. It is storied to be half-man, half-eel and comes out to feed when it feels so inclined. It is inspired by real monsters native to this country, and is almost as terrifying in real life.
From the moment I watched Jeremy Wade chase slimy black River Monsters in New Zealand that converged on him by the hundreds and began taking bites at his protective clothing, I knew I had to do this.
The Longfin Eel is endemic to New Zealand, while the Shortfin Eel is found in numerous locations. The Australian Mottled Eel is an invasive transplant from Australia. All three can be found in New Zealand’s beautiful riverine environments.
While I wanted to catch eels from the day I landed, it took some trouble finding them. Apart from isolated Maori populations, nobody actually fishes for them except for occasional novelty. This made finding a fishable population difficult.
Since the blood of this species is slightly poisonous, most people avoid using hooks. Instead, they soak wool or other dense fabrics with blood or scent, then wait for a bite. Once the fish entangles its teeth in the fabric, they pull it in.
This sounded great, but I was unable to try it. Instead, I used a simple bait setup with pieces of bloody beef scraps we got for free from a butcher.
The Kuaotunu River was a great place. I added more species here than anywhere else in the country — including in the ocean.
Since the water was clear, fish were spooky. Since the water was clear, we could also see what was there.
I spent most of the afternoon trying to catch a 5-foot Australian Mottled Eel. Though I got it to bite twice, it started an alligator-esque death roll that quickly allowed it to get free.
What I did catch was a Shortfin Eel. Then another.
Shortfin and Longfin Eels are identical to the untrained eye. You can tell them apart because Longfins “wrinkle” or show visible skin flaps at each of their bends while Shortfins do not.
Neither fish was large, but they were fun to catch. The unique death roll made for quite an enterprise on light tackle. They were too long for my net, so I just had to beach them on the grassy bank.
While I never did catch a monster Mottled or Longfin like Jeremy Wade, I did still manage a river monster or two and had a great time doing it.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #57 — Yelloweye Mullet.
Species:Northern Kahawai (Arripis xylabion) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2017
Fishing in New Zealand is all about trout. At least, that’s what we’re told.
In reality, throughout most of the North Island, saltwater fishing is king. Snapper, Kingfish, and Kahawai are the big three for anglers in the brine, and everything else plays second fiddle.
While this saltwater trinity reigns supreme on the water, there is relative little information posted or printed about fishing for them.
The saltwater fishermen keep tight lips, and for that reason, I had no idea that the term “Kahawai” was actually comprised of four separate species until this year — five years after I returned from catching them.
While we’re dispelling rumors about this place, let’s start with kiwis, Kiwis, and Kiwis. Two aren’t native to the island; one is.
The first kiwi, also called Chinese gooseberry, is the fruit. It’s not native and comes from Asia.
The second Kiwi is term New Zealanders use to describe themselves. They are not native, either.
The warrior Maori arrived in the 1400s in large sea canoes and proceeded to kill and eat the actual natives of the island.
The other (predominantly white) Kiwis arrived about 200 years later and set a singular precedent among white settlers of that era by making peace with the Maori and affording them (almost) all of the same people privileges as Captain James Cook’s people.
No massive wars. No forced relocations en masse. No genocide. It was so unlike the settlement of North America, South America, Australia, and Africa it restores hope in humanity — however small that hope may be.
The third Kiwi is the native bird that gave the other two their names. The bird looks like a large kiwi fruit with legs and a long bill.
The renown of the bird ultimately led to then people taking the name, too.
I’d hoped to learn that Kiwis eat kiwis like an apple — skin on — as I do, but alas, they mostly used spoons to scoop out the delicious green or yellow (golden kiwis were way more popular there) flesh. So I’m a weirdo everywhere, apparently. Cool cool.
Rumors dispelled, let’s talk fish. I caught a juvenile Kahawai in the lower, brackish reaches of a river using the small beef scraps I’d used in hopes of catching an eel.
It was beautiful: somewhat like a trout in shape and canvas but with vibrant purple and yellow stripes and markings. I took a few quick photos, thinking it was a juvenile Kahawai, and left it at that.
The Kahawai I caught later on the trip were adults, much larger and more memorable, so the juvenile slipped my mind.
Then, in a frenzy to identify the Estuarine Triplefin, Species #54, and get the blog post done in time without having to list “Species #54 — Unidentified,” I stumbled across a research paper discussing the four species of Kahawai:
Arripis georgianus (Called Ruff or Australian Herring)
Arripis trutta (Called Kahawai) Arripis truttaceus (Called Western Australian Salmon) Arripis xylabion (Called Giant or Northern Kahawai)
All four species live around Australia and New Zealand. All four species spend most of their lives in saltwater, migrating up rivers and streams to spawn. All four species are notorious for fighting incredibly hard per pound.
Only A. trutta and A. xylabion are routinely found in Kiwi waters, but Kahawai are more common and more widespread than their Northern counterparts and apart from size, they are almost identical.
The main difference is the upper lobe of the caudal (tail) fin. Northern Kahawai have longer tails, typically representing more than 30% of the overall body length (not including the tail) while Kahawai’s are shorter. Using software, I measured my fish from the old picture and found it to be roughly 34% of the tail-excluded body length.
It was a Northern, a Giant, an A. xylabion, a new species.
I owe my math teacher an apology. Math had come in handy.
Species: Estuarine Triplefin (Forsterygion nigripenne) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2017
Mystery is a genre I love to read but fail to write much of. Even investigative journalism is a reach for me, and I’ve spent five years as a journalist.
The investigative process of which coffee shop makes the best breakfast sandwich in Klamath Falls (it’s the Gathering Grounds Pesto English Muffin Sandwich with bacon and prosciutto, for the record) or something equally trivial pales in comparison to the latest Dean Koontz novel anyway, so sticking to what I know is out of the question if I want to be successful in the Mystery genre.
This mystery begins as all stories do, in a sleepy town you’ve probably never heard of with an everyman and his ordinary life.
The man, of course, was me.
The sleepy town was Kuaotunu, a coastal village in New Zealand’s Coromandel where tranquility and paradise are locked in an eternal struggle to determine which makes the better adjective for the subtitle under
“Kuaotunu” under the town’s quaint wooden sign.
A small river which bears the same name as the town itself wends lazily through the floodplain and into the Tasman Sea along grassy slopes so strangely manicured and unlike the coastline in most places that it invokes a surreality reminiscent of Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom.
A massive, gnarled tree with alien-looking branches stands watch over the mouth of the river. From it’s largest branch hangs a tire swing swaying like a pendulum in the waning light of the afternoon, inviting the small children frolicking around the area to sit and play.
Along one bank of the river, a campground complete with small cabins hugged the shore while further from the water, at the base of a small hillock, the town’s lone restaurant, Luke’s Kitchen, cast an unassuming shadow over the cars parked out front.
Luke’s Kitchen was, in fact, its name. My name is Luke, and while that small similarity was not lost on me, neither was the connection it drew to Gilmore Girls’ flagship diner, I’m ashamed to admit.
Incongruities of Mystery and Rom-Com aside, the diner served a wonderful Green Mussel Special that I gorged myself upon at least twice while spending time there before returning to the river to fish for any number of species found in its intertidal zone.
My target species was Longfin Eels, endemic to New Zealand, but I had no such luck. I managed half a dozen species and even hooked two species of eel (Shortfin and Australian Mottled) but never got my Longfin.
Since fishing for those eels was sightfishing, I noticed a lot. With my eyes intent and fixed on the water below, I noticed a lot of little fish darting around on the bottom. They looked like sculpins, so I figured I’d be able to catch a few with the tiny jigs I used Stateside.
My instincts were correct. The tiny fish barely longer than my finger devoured the small jig. I caught a lot of them in short order before trying to for something else.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what they were. Not that day, not that week, not when I left New Zealand.
I bought a few books about fish identification in the South Pacific later in 2013. Nothing.
I read countless papers, species lists, and forums. Nothing.
2014 came and went without an answer.
Years passed, and I revisited “Unknown New Zealand Species” again because in writing the story of each and every species I’ve caught, I knew “Unknown New Zealand Species” was fast-approaching, and I refused to have an unidentified species on my list.
Since it was neither a game fish nor a freshwater fish (New Zealand has a relatively short list of native freshwater fishes), it continued to elude me.
Then, on a whim, I decided to read an article about New Zealand’s Marine Reserves. It included a contact email for questions, and I decided to give it a try.
Within 48 hours, I got a reply:
Your fish is the estuarine triplefin, Forsterygion nigripenne. Note the three dorsal fins from which it gets its name (bullies only have 1 or 2). The triplefins are mostly a marine group but this species penetrates into estuaries and the lower reaches of rives that are a bit brackish.
I had an ID! After five years of searching, my #SpeciesQuest within a #SpeciesQuest had come to an end.
Crazily, in the research process, I actually found a bonus species. That’s the next story: a Sci-Fi tale about cloning gone wrong, how one fish became two.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #55 — Northern Kahawai.
Blue Cod are one of the more popular nearshore saltwater fisheries in New Zealand, but due to the water we fished (most rocky bottom and over structure), these sandy bottom dwellers were hard to come by. I caught one and David caught two.
Species: Blue Cod (Parapercis colias) Location: Kuaotunu Coastline, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 24, 2017
Sometimes you luck into a wide variety of species early and catch lucky breaks with every cast. This is not one such tale.
David Clarke and I had been plying the coastal waters of New Zealand for weeks before the species variety started up in force. After catching almost nothin but Australasian Snapper in the salt, I finally got lucky when we drifted away from the structure I was so used to fishing in Oregon waters and drifted over a sloping, sandy bottom.
Shrimp was expensive — even cocktail shrimp — so we’d taken to trying other baits. Cicadas we caught on a small island quickly became a favorite.
Though finding live ones was difficult, the kicking insects attracted fish within 30 seconds of every drop. It worked like a charm.
Dead ones produced, albeit more slowly, so as I impaled the final, writhing bug on my hook, I sent a silent prayer.
God was listening.
I felt a tap, then fought up a light weight. I was shocked to realize it was an entirely different fish: Blue Cod.
We’d heard great things about the second-place Kiwi marine fish, but it was too small too keep, so I snapped a quick pic and sent it back to the depths.