Species: Bluehead Chub (Nocomisleptocephalus) Location: Thornton River, Shenandoah National Park, VA Date: July 15, 2015
The National Park so beautiful it inspired a song was on my to-do list the moment I knew I’d be spending time in Washington D.C.
I spent my first-ever evening on the East Coast hanging out with my cousin, Adrian Mateos, after I arrived.
We did a quick tour, and he told me to do my sightseeing the next day while he was at work but to save some stops for us to visit together the next evening.
I visited all sorts of monuments and museums but saved “the big ones” for that evening.
If you missed the date, it was late July. Humidity was thicker than tourists, and I was soaking in a swamp every time I sat down. So I just kept moving. I walked and rode and covered two days worth of sights in about eight hours.
After two days and nights of “doing D.C.” like a tourist, I rented a car and decided to head east to Shenandoah National Park.
I stopped along the way for a softshell crab sandwich — damn, those are good — and continued on my way.
The roads became less and less significant, and before I knew it, I was wandering the wilds of rural Virginia.
Shenandoah National Park is huge. Covering more than 311 square miles and stretching north to south from the northern border of Virginia to the fat middle of the state, it’s not a quick tour like some other national parks.
I entered at the North Entrance near the town of Front Royal and was immediately awestruck by the beauty of it all.
Little did I know, I was about to be all up in my feels from the beauty of this place. The first thing I noticed was the lush greenery and the butterflies and hummingbird moths flitting around it, sipping nectar and adding to an already awesome sight.
Now, I’d told myself this trip was more about sightseeing than fishing, but I still wanted to fish. So my first stop was the ranger station.
The ranger told me about the decent fishing to be had there, including lots of native Brook Trout (my target species) and the occasional “massive Brown Trout that you wouldn’t believe.”
Further exploration revealed the latter to be fish as “massive” as 16 inches long. I suppressed a laugh.
The streams on the mountainside proved shallow and nearly impossible to fish. I noticed no poison oak, ivy, or sumac, but I failed to realize the thick vegetation brushing against my bare legs contained some lesser toxin that made me itch like crazy until I washed myself thoroughly in another stream.
The drive wound on, and I began to worry I might not be able to find fishable water. Then, I noticed the middle exit road just halfway through the park. The topography of the map seemed to indicate a drop in elevation, and I noted the single stream that looked large enough to fish: Thornton River.
I made my careful way, enjoying the scenery.
I even stopped when I found my favorite flower (yes, I have a favorite flower) the Tiger Lily. They were scattered around on the roadside, and I had to take a moment to appreciate them.
Eventually, I realized time was running short. I still had to make it back to D.C., through D.C. traffic during rush hour, and back to the hotel in Maryland to meet up with Adrian.
It was Thornton River or bust.
My first few casts with a tiny spinner proved useless, but once I stumbled upon a gorgeous pool with a massive rock hiding me from view, I began catching small fish I couldn’t identify. No Brookies, but I knew it was a new species.
I like chubs. They’re unique fish, and they fill in for overfished trout populations and keep you from getting skunked.
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 X-Rap 10 through a small school of them in hopes of catching a trout.
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.
Steve came to fish, but Fatheads wouldn’t cooperate. We got other targets, focusing on chubs and sculpins and even trout, but no Fatheads.
After spot-hopping and catching enough chubs to , I took them to the place I’d caught my first and second Fathead Minnows. This, our final stop, had an expiration date because both Steve and his fishing buddy Mark Spellman had to be back home that afternoon.
Time rolled up behind us like a carpet after the big show. We had an hour left, and we could feel the cold stare of the audience waiting for us to finish.
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. It wasn’t in spawning colors, but it was a male. 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.
Despite fishing with Steve and getting my 15 minutes, the only fat heads that day were of the tiny little invasive minnows that rolled up our trip so nicely.
Species: Yelloweye Mullet (Aldrichetta forsteri) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2014
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, 2014
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 five-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.
Species: Estuarine Triplefin (Forsterygion nigripenne) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2014
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 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.
Species: Klamath River Lamprey (Lampetra similis) Location: Klamath River, Keno, OR Date: June 3, 2012
Up until this point in my Blogosphere, every species has been captured directly on hook and line. Every fish was, in fact, legally captured after being hooked in the mouth. I know what you’re thinking, and this fish wasn’t snagged.
I typically count a new species as long as it was legally captured. For some species, hands and snag hooks are legal. For others, bow-and-arrow, spear, or even net suffice. For Species #41, neither hook nor hand caught it, but it was still a first.
Anyone who has fished the Klamath Basin has seen the telltale pockmarks and battle wounds our large native Redbands wear with honor. Many think these are leech marks, and while some of the minor marks might be, most are caused by another type of parasite: lampreys.
Lampreys are terrifying, parasitic eel-like creatures stranger than fiction that would seem to be more at home in the Cretaceous than modern times. They attach themselves to larger fish with a circular mouth full of irregular teeth that cleave to the host and allow the lamprey to suck blood.
Pacific Lamprey is a well-known species targeted by a number of specialty anglers. There are several lesser-known lampreys living in the Klamath Basin that are related to these larger, ocean-going menaces. These include the Klamath River and Miller Lake Lampreys — both of which are rarely caught by anglers — and some others that may or may not just be subspecies like the lampreys once found in Miller Creek below Gerber Dam.
Regardless, they are neither well-known nor hotly pursued fish.
Deep in the Klamath River Canyon, I landed another respectable Redband Trout. As I lifted the net, I noticed a black, writhing mass that I initially mistook for a leech. It was, in fact, a succubus of pescal proportions.
As the black form contorted in ways only a creature possessed could manage, I took a moment to try and photograph the horrendous monstrosity.
It didn’t really take, and I wasn’t too keen to hold it for any longer than necessary.
I let the fish go and with it, a case of the willies, knowing I’d just caught my first lamprey.
Like many other species I’ve caught, it wasn’t until the trip ended, and I’d had time to do some research that I learned its name: Klamath River Lamprey.
I’ve netted several with large trout since, and I even caught one by hand that was rooting for hapless prey at the waterline in Upper Klamath Lake. Though all have been 5-7 inches long, I know they get a lot bigger.
While microfishing for sculpins in Link River last month, I noticed a snake rooting in the substrate. Only it wasn’t a snake. This fish was every bit of 10 inches long and maybe larger. Its diameter was much larger than a 12-gauge shotshell, and it, too, was a lamprey.
These fish are officially protected, though anyone who has fished the lake and seen their mark will know they’re doing just fine.
I’ve wanted to try targeting them with a bloody piece of meat as I used for freshwater eels in New Zealand, but you’re not supposed to target protected fish, and there’s really no other justification for using red meat in local waters.
Species: Northern Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus oregonensis) Location: Umatilla River, Pendleton, OR Date: July 21, 2008
We’ve established I hate baseball.
I respect it and those who play it, but it bores me to tears. So, when my brother Gabe’s team made it to the Little League state championship tournament for a chance at the Little League World Series, I was excited for him. Until I wasn’t.
Then I moved on to other things.
I’d just been given a cell phone as a graduation present. It flipped open and closed which seemed kind of cool, but it looked ridiculous, and it was one more thing I had to carry in my pocket.
I knew these were popular already, but they seemed a little unnecessary for everyday use. Still, I took a few really grainy photos of the fish I caught shortly after ditching the game to fish the river behind the stadium.
At the time, I had no clue what the fish were, but those photos later helped me identify them as Northern Pikeminnow.
These underrated “trash fish” aren’t the most popular sport fish, but they fight well, hit the same things trout do, and can actually grow quite large. The specimens I caught that day were all 7-to-9 inches, though.
Oh well. A new species is always better than baseball.
Species: Tui Chub (Gila bicolor) Location: Lost River Date: April 13, 2008
Before I learned where to chase big trout in the spring, I used to drive out to Crystal Springs County Park during Spring Break or any time I had free from sports. Lonely Luke would fish for anything that would strike his lonely worm.
I’d camp on the bridge or off a point upstream of the bridge for a few hours and soak worms, rain or shine.
Dad had told me stories of how he used to fill his bike basket with plate-sized crappie there as a kid, and I went out with high hopes every trip. Sadly, they’d be crushed time after time.
My catch rate was miserable. I caught next-to-nothing, and I sure as Hell didn’t catch any crappie.
But one fine day, I caught a slimy, silver, trout-looking thing without teeth. It fought well, and it took me a moment to realize it was a chub.
I’d caught them before, but in the four years’ time since I’d decided to keep track of my fishing endeavors, and clearly it had been at least four years since I caught one.
While it technically wasn’t Species #17, for the sake of my list, it is.
And that, kids, is how to end a relatively uneventful story on a resounding low note.