Species: Golden Shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas) Location: Orlando, Florida Date: July 10, 2018
A school of Golden Shiners pestered me for almost an hour at the Lake Fran Urban Wetlands. I knew what they were, and I knew I’d never caught one, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t get one to bite.
They were holding far out from shore, and I didn’t want to soak my boots or go to the car for a longer rod, so I spent a fruitless hour trying to get one to bite. To make matters worse, they were holding just under the surface, wouldn’t touch anything more than two inches below the surface.
Add to that my lack of floats, and my confidence sunk faster than my micro rig.
After trying a pond I was told was full of them and fighting off Bluegill and turtles for the better part of an hour with no Golden Shiners to show for it, I returned to the spot from the day before.
Though it was slow-going, it proved the right idea. Eventually, my bread chumming paid off, and I got a Golden Shiner, then a few more.
All the commotion even attracted the attention of the tiniest little predator around, a certain topminnow species that I desperately wanted to catch…
I remember reading about Walking Catfish in one of the dozen or so outdoor magazines I subscribed to growing up. Yes, I spent virtually all of my disposable income in junior high and high school on magazines, but that’s beside the point.
At the time, Walking Catfish were relatively isolated and just beginning to march across much of their current range in Florida. Magazines painted them to be some vicious monster that would decimate fisheries on a large scale.
Some 15-20 years later, we know that was overblown. Like most invasives, they do cause harm to the environment because the niche they carve out displaces some other (usually native) species, but in the case of Walking Catfish, they haven’t radially changed the Florida scumsucker hierarchy. Lawyers still rule, followed slightly by Channel Catfish, Flatheads (where present), and then Brown Bullheads, Walking Catfish, and Brown Hoplo. The latter is another invasive and one “easy” species I failed to capture on my first trip to Orlando, but I’m not bitter.
Brown Bullhead, a Florida native, are so widely established across the country that even though they may have lost some territory to the Walking Catfish, they are doing just fine.
As for my Walking Catfish, I caught it in a disgusting swill hole at a park. It was flush with Eastern Mosquitofish, Bowfin, and Walking Catfish. I finally added this species while soaking half a nightcrawler on a No. 8 hook.
The fight was forgettable, and though at the time it was a vacant world record, I knew that was short-lived, so I made like a ball and bounced. The record of six-plus pounds has since been recorded, reaffirming my decision to leave when I did.
My seventh and final new species of the day made for a grand finale. This was my third-best day for new species, taking the Bronze to Croatia’s Gold and California’s Silver.
The final species was one of my top targets, the Bowfin. Along with tarpon and gar, few things were up so high on my list.
Though Bowfin aren’t considered trophies by most, they are aggressive toothy predators often compared to bass and snakehead, though I find them cooler than either of the other species.
I’d struck out several times, mainly because catfish and gar and bass kept getting in the way. When I finally did hook one, it was short-lived. Almost immediately, the beast broke me off in a submerged snag.
I tied again and hoped for the best.
I didn’t have to wait long. My rod doubled, and I reeled in my first Bowfin. It wasn’t huge and 20 inches long and just over three pounds, but I was stoked.
As I was taking the above picture, my other two rods doubled over.
Unfortunately, one of the fish broke off and the other just came free. I have a feeling one was more than twice the size of my little three-pounder, but I was just happy to add a new species.
Species: Florida Gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) Location: Lake Fran Urban Wetlands, Orlando, FL Date: July 7, 2018
Gar are so cool, man.
These fish can gulp air, will take most lures as well as bait, flies, and topwaters. I once had a four-foot Longnose Gar hit a Whopper Plopper three times during the retrieve.
Not to mention, gar are more durable than trout, less pressured than bass, and have giant teeth. What’s not to love?
My first night in Florida, I tried for Bowfin and Florida Gar in vain. I spotted a few in the flooded grass as I walked with my headlamp cutting away the darkness, but they were skittish.
I returned the next day with Florida Gar atop my very long target list.
Since Florida, like most states other than Oregon, allows the use of live bait, I figured I’d try throwing on a small, live sunfish in hopes of enticing a massive Florida Bass. I’d already caught some small ones, but this was Florida. I needed a monster, and I hadn’t seen a single gar in daylight.
I tried sight-fishing my live Bluegill up against the bank to a nearby bass, opening the spool to let it run for what I thought was an inevitable take. I was standing a good 20 feet above the water, on a high bank that lined a canal connecting two sections of the flooded wetlands-turned-lake.
On my very first cast, I could feel my bait getting violated by a much larger fish, so I let it sit for just a moment, but not long enough to allow the fish to swallow — I didn’t want a gut-hooked fish, after all.
I closed the bail, tightened my line, and set the hook hard. Too hard, really.
I was using my the heaviest spinning rod I’d brought to Florida, a G. Loomis GL2 Salmon/Steelhead rod, and as I yanked on the link, a fish that was very much not a bass came flying out of the water, in a direct trajectory for my face, at easily 20 or 30 miles per hour.
I ducked under the toothy missile, just saving my beautiful face from becoming all garred up. Sorry, scarred up.
As the line reached full extension on the grassy bank behind me, the hook popped free and boomeranged the gar back at my ankles.
It landed inches away, sitting surprisingly calmly in the grass still soaked from the previous night’s rain.
All of this elapsed in about five seconds, and I was panting and shaking with fear as much as excitement from landing my first Florida Gar — unconventional though it was.
I grabbed a quick picture and let it go.
I swear the armor-plated fish gave me the ole side eye, as if to say “Are you sure you’re a real fisherman?” as it swam away.
Hooking into several more of them over the next few days using cutbait, Rapalas, and even a worm would prove to that high-flying gar that I did know what I was doing.
That is, as long as we don’t tell it that the final gar stole a worm intended for a Brown Hoplo and sliced my finger open when I tried to unhook it barehanded without the help of pliers.
Species: Vermiculated Sailfin Catfish (Pterygoplichthys disjunctivus) Location: Lake Fran Urban Wetlands, Orlando, FL Date: July 7, 2018
My first night in Florida amounted to me being terrified for my life as I tried night fishing for Florida Gar and Bowfin.
A gun went off within 50 yards of where I was standing, and I lost it. Read that terrifying/embarrassing story here.
I caught a single Spotted Sunfish and a Florida Bass by hand. This isn’t a legal fishing method in Florida, and every other species on my list hasn’t been counted unless it was caught by traditional fishing techniques. Plus, I’m pretty sure catching bass by hand isn’t legal in Florida, so I deferred it down the list until I caught one for real.
I did notice some massive plecostomus right up against the shoreline after awhile and opted to try for those. They wouldn’t touch bait, so I tried to snag them. It’s legal, and I normally count any legal methods.
I hooked one in the side after numerous failed attempts, but it was not a good hookup, and the surprisingly strong fish quickly popped free.
By then it was almost 1:30 a.m., and reverse jet-lag or not, I needed some sleep.
I returned the next day and decided to start with other fish, though I caught nothing new.
Eventually, I found myself looking at the loud designs of a Vermiculated Sailfin Catfish once again.
I tried and failed to snag it, so I changed gears.
“What about flossing?” I wondered aloud.
The technique anglers use to float a hook into the open mouth of a salmon with lockjaw far enough into its spawning journey that it’s not longer feeding. It’s ethically gray, but a common practice among many PNW salmon anglers I know.
For a widespread invasive species, though, I had absolutely no ethical qualms.
I put on a treble hook and positioned it ahead of the feeding exotic. It took about an hour, but eventually, I got it to swim right over the hook. Once it’s mouth was over the hook, I raised up.
It fought well, but I got it in without much issue. A few quick pictures, and I turned it loose.
These fish are decent-sized, and I’ve heard rumors they taste like lobster, but I’d imagine cleaning one would be a nightmare. Further, Florida’s freshwater landscape is a disgusting near-cesspool of reclaimed water, so I wouldn’t eat anything out of there to begin with.
I repeated this a second time, snagging another one in the mouth, and then left the algae eaters alone and focused on other fish.
Species: Umpqua Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus umpquae) Location: Umpqua River, Oregon Date: June 25, 2018
Odds are, you’ve heard of the Umpqua River.
After all, it’s home to Oregon’s only real Striper fishery (though it’s still not great). Fish likely don’t even spawn but every few years, so the fish there are there in limited numbers. But the fish there are massive. Oregon’s 68-pound state record was caught there.
The Umpqua once had one of the largest average-size Steelhead runs in the country (not in total numbers, but size of fish). Then much fish from other runs like the Alsea were stocked to supplement declining runs, and the average size fish plummeted.
But the Umpqua today is home to one of the best numbers Smallmouth fisheries on the West Coast. Anglers can expect 30-plus-fish days routinely, with 100-fish days fairly commonplace. Though the river is so saturated with fish, they tend to stunt, and true beasts are hard to find.
One side effect of the Smallmouth Bass is the massive decline in native fishes. The native Rainbows and Cutthroats suffer, and people lament them. But nobody mourns for the Umpqua Chub, Umpqua Dace, and Umpqua Pikeminnow that have fueled the explosion of smallies.
In fact, when I took a summer afternoon and evening to chase what I thought would be the easiest of the three endemic minnows, the Umpqua Pikeminnow, I was horrified to find myself striking out at my first stop on the South Umpqua. I caught a seemingly endless supply of smallies as I tried the spinners and Rapalas and bait I’d caught Northern Pikeminnow on dozens of times before. All I caught were smallies.
I switched to micro gear in hopes of catching one of the minnow species flitting in and out of the weeds. The good news is that smallies weren’t the only fish I caught. The bad news is that they were only joined by Green Sunfish.
After a few hours of only seeing a few flitting minnows here and there, and a few small suckers that wouldn’t touch anything, I decided to switch spots.
The mainstem Umpqua seemed like a better option. More water means deeper holes and faster flow, right? Wrong.
The smallies were even more prevalent here, mobbing my worm at every turn.
I finally ended up at the North Umpqua River, having covered a lot of miles in my “easy little trip” for UPM. I was frustrated, but I was equally disillusioned by the reality of a real-life invasive takeover of a fishery.
Smallies were everywhere. Pikeminnow were nowhere to be found.
My final spot for the night was the confluence of the North Umpqua and the mainstem. There were rapids, and a slow-swirling pool just upstream of the mouth.
Though I caught a few little trout in the rapids and a few more bass in the swirling pool, it wasn’t until I switched to micro gear that I finally got my Umpqua Pikeminnow.
A few days later, I would discover that there is a much healthier population of Umpqua Pikeminnow in a nearby river system. I landed 15 of them in a few hours there, and all of them were decent-sized fish like the 10-incher at the beginning of this post.
Species: Mountain Whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) Location: Deschutes River, Oregon Date: June 21, 2018
The fish most Central Oregon anglers can’t avoid avoided me for decades. Probably because I didn’t know much about them. If you want to catch one, you should know the facts. All of these are 100% true.
1) My first Mountain Whitefish was not caught on a mountain.
2) Whitefish aren’t actually white, though they’re rumored to be incapable of jumping, so you can see where the confusion lies. In fact, I’ve never heard of one jumping while hooked.
3) Whitefish do have white meat. That’s the real reason for their name.
4) Though they’re gaining a little respect, they’re often viewed as trash fish which is crazy because they’re Salmonids. They’re more closely related to trout than chubs even though they resemble the latter somewhat.
Apart from some phenomenal tourist attractions such as the Civil Rights Museum and Coca Cola Headquarters, the mediocre attractions such as the Chik-Fil-A College Football Hall of Fame, and the blissfully above average Southern Food, Atlanta isn’t the best city.
It lives up the “Hotlanta” moniker, but that’s largely because, for a Southern city, it has almost no vegetation. It has no major rivers flowing through the city center, and the streams are limited.
Not only does this mean temperatures will be absurdly high, it means a visiting angler has severely limited options.
Even with a rental car, I struggled to find anything to fish for my one night off to do so on a work trip. I was limited to a 15- or 20-minute radius from the hotel, and that really cramped my style.
To make matters worse, I was there in the late spring, during the peak of the monsoon season, and the few rivers and streams I’d been turned onto by fellow Species Hunters like Ryan Crutchfield of FishMap.org were all blown out.
Torrential rainfall meant fishing even for micros — which is usually a slam-dunk when fishing new water — was out of the question.
I hiked and drove around for hours to the spots I’d been given, but as night fell, I began to take stock of my situation and realized I needed to grab dinner and get home, so I hopped into my rental car, sodden and saddened.
As I drove to my restaurant of choice (a Cajun restaurant because dammit, I wasn’t about to let the night be a total loss), I passed over a small stream. It made me stop and think, and after finding a parking lot at a nearby church, I hoofed it through the pouring rain a few hundred yards back down the highway.
Vaulting the guardrail, I climbed down under the bridge.
I had a headlamp on and hoped to find a sculpin or darter willing to play, but the stream, small though it was, was still high and not terribly clear.
Then, as luck would have it, I noticed a larger fish right up against the shore. It was some sort of Cyprinid, though I couldn’t identify it.
I grabbed the rod with an ultra-tiny spinner and threw it onto the bank, then dragged it into the water. The fish was territorial, and struck the gold blade with a lethargic and haphazard move.
The fight was pitiful and I quickly landed the chub. It had some horrible fungus or infection on its head, and as I snapped a picture for later identification, I cringed.
Miraculously, it swam away.
I would later reach out to local biologist who identified it initially as a “River Chub or Dixie Chub” depending on the drainage. Further research and a white paper helped me narrow it down: only Dixie Chub were found in that drainage.
And I had a new species that compared to the beautiful little dace in my last post, certainly would’ve never been asked on a hot date to prom. Even in Hotlanta.
A few people told me I shouldn’t write about this one, and I both understand and respect their reasoning; however, I think I should write about this precisely because nobody else wants to talk about it.
We have a species at risk of extinction in the next five years, and it’s right in our backyard. The Shortnose Sucker, an endemic to the Upper Klamath Basin, has an estimated 5000 adults left in the wild.
That doesn’t sound so bad when, say, compared to some of the localized pupfish or Alabama Sturgeon, but when we’re talking about a fish that was once so abundant that anglers lined up to snag dozens of them in a day as they moved to spawn, it’s scary.
These fish are notorious for their phenomenal ability to smell the slightest hint of bait in the water at up to a mile away. This, in conjunction with their less-than-prominent proboscis led to their name: Shortnose Sucker.
Of course, only one of those things is true, but you believe it because it was written on the Internet from a seemingly reliable source. Now, I don’t ever lie to my readers, and I’m pretty damn informed about fishing, but even I don’t know every detail relating to the fish I write about.
But some people do. Some people knowingly spread misinformation about fish and the culture of fishing soaks it up without questioning the source. This, in combination with rapid habitat loss, is why Shortnose Sucker populations have declined.
People honestly believe they “eat trout eggs” and are actively competing with trout. This is just not accurate. Yes, they probably suction up some eggs, but so do trout. There are numerous videos of trout eating their own eggs. Further, suckers do not compete with mature trout. They have some overlap in their diets, but suckers are bottom feeders while trout are apex predators that cover the entire water column.
Suckers more often serve as food for trout than competition for them.
Without suckers, the niche they fill would be empty, and an already hypereutrophic lake with frequent algal blooms, fish die-offs, and poor water quality would be devastated.
As awesome and adaptable as our trout are, they can’t fill that niche.
I caught my first sucker on tiny gear while fishing for the invasive Yellow Perch in a river known to be overrun with them, a tiny Shortnose Sucker took my bait.
At first glance, I thought it was a Blue Chub, another endemic that has done remarkably well by comparison. I kill every perch, bullhead, and goldfish I catch in our system, but I always release natives (and Brown Trout, since they don’t really overpopulate and are limited to rivers).
I almost released the “chub” when I realized it looked a little different.
Quickly, I set it down and snapped a quick picture before watching it swim away, hopefully to start a trend in the right direction.