Species #173 — California Grunion

This was one of the toughest micros I’ve ever caught and the toughest saltwater one to-date. Ironically, they’re super-easy to catch full-grown (pictured)…

Species: California Grunion (Leuresthes tenuis)
Location: Mission Bay, California
Date: August 5, 2018

There are very few opportunities to catch true micros that sit up in the water column in the salt, but when you find them, they’re typically quite easy. The silversides swarming in Mission Bay were the exception to this rule.

For almost an hour, I presented my shrimp-tipped Owner New Half Moon Hook, but though they would nip at it, it was tough to get a good hookup with their impossibly tiny mouths.

For perspective, their mouths make mollies look like bass.

A grunion’s mouth is smaller than the mouth of the famously tiny-mouthed mollies. The only difference? A molly has a round mouth, while grunions have these strange, misshapen beaks.

Eventually, I did catch one. It was a tiny little thing, maybe three inches long, but I was overjoyed to catch one. Granted, it took me a long time to identify it and distinguish it from a Topsmelt or Jacksmelt (two fairly common species I have yet to catch as of April 2020 when I wrote this), but I finally had my ID.

***

My hard-won victory was cheapened slightly that fall when I returned with my students for the DECA Western Regional Leadership Conference (WRLC) held in Anaheim that year. A group of students joined me for a trip to the beach. Some played in the surf, while I watched from a short jetty used as a surf break.

The fishing was fast and furious, and I caught eight large silversides on sabikis before my students took interest and decided to try fishing. Everyone who tried caught a fish or two.

Several of my students joined me on the little jetty at Newport Beach, and we slayed grunions until they got bored.

No field trip is complete without some fishing. Fellow teachers, take note.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #173 — California Grunion.

Species #172 — California Scorpionfish

When I unhooked this little guy, I went to photograph it again without the hook in its mouth. It wriggled, and I freaked out, letting it go without a better picture…

Species: California Scorpionfish (Scorpaena guttata)
Location: Mission Bay, California
Date: August 5, 2018

After parting ways with Ben Cantrell, I decided to keep fishing. Sure, my maimed foot was still aching from the interaction with the stingray almost 12 hours earlier, but it didn’t stop me from trying Mission Bay at sunset. 

There were thousands of tiny silvery fish schooling on the surface, but I focused my attention on fishing the rocks at the end of the little jetty.

My truncated sabiki hit the bottom, and I immediately began catching fish.

After catching a few smaller ones, I was rewarded with my largest Spotted Sand Bass, and then shortly thereafter, a prickly little fish I’d first seen a decade before on a charter boat: a scorpionfish.

Though the spines found all over this fish are highly venomous and capable of inflicting serious pain (something I wasn’t about to take lightly after my tussle with the stingray), it is delicious. Unfortunately, it was small, and I had nowhere to cook it, so I released it and set to work on the tiny, silvery micros.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #173 — California Grunion.

Species #171 — Bay Blenny

Sculpins are probably my favorite micros, but blennies come pretty close.

Species: Bay Blenny (Hypsoblennius gentilis)
Location: Del Mar Lagoon, Del Mar, California
Date: August 5, 2018

The final species I landed while fishing with Ben Cantrell in San Diego was the Bay Blenny. These adorable little critters hide in nooks and crannies, looking grumpy AF while waiting for something unfortunate enough to float by.

Get a bait within a few inches of a blenny, and it’s over.

At the time, I’d only caught Largemouth Blenny, so I knew that, but the Bay Blenny was still new and exciting.

Just like the Largemouth Blennies I’d caught, it was absurdly aggressive and tried to bite me when I handled it.

These are such beautiful, alien fish that it was worth getting bit for this picture.

Since I’ve already covered this day in detail, and there isn’t a lot lot else to cover, I guess I’ll end it there. Just focus on the picture above and forget how unfulfilling this story was.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #172 — California Scorpionfish.

Species #170 — Barred Sand Bass

Ugh. I love sand bass. Even as I tried to catch new species, I was happy to battle these hard-fighting fish on every other cast.

Species: Barred Sand Bass (Paralabrax nebulifer)
Location: Del Mar Lagoon, Del Mar, California
Date: August 5, 2018

The tidepools, lagoons, and other brackish ecosystems along the Pacific Coast are very unique places. Though the Atlantic Coast equivalents are home to hordes of anglers chasing Stripers, Redfish, Tarpon, Snook, and other game fish, that culture is not as thoroughly embedded in Pacific culture. Granted, people still fish on the Pacific Coast, but these environments tend to be so regulated and protected that rare is the tidepool or lagoon that allows fishing.

Fortunately, Ben Cantrell knew where to find those still open to fishing.

Even those open to fishing had absurdly specific regulations about where you could stand, and I can’t remember if it was while I was fishing with Ben or the next day when I came alone, but I did come across a patrolling warden.

There were a number of potential species there, but the Corbina and Corvina were two species Steve Wozniak had hyped up so much. So I wanted to get one of those two. Naturally, Ben (having already caught a Corbina) caught another one while I did not. It’s okay. I’m not that bitter.

Though Ben had already caught countless Barred Sand Bass, I was nonetheless excited to catch my first one. I smiled wide as I immediately got back to fishing, having momentarily forgotten the still awful pain in my foot courtesy of the stingray.

I still had three lifers and about 12 hours of pain that day.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #171 — Bay Blenny.

Species #169 — Shovelnose Guitarfish

These fish are awesome. If I’d landed the five-footer I hooked, it would have been more awesome, but hey…

Species: Shovelnose Guitarfish (Rhinobatos productus)
Location: Torrey Pines State Park, California
Date: August 5, 2018

Crussshhhh.

Crussshhhh.

Crussssssshhhhhhhhh.

The sound of my dreams being crushed was actually audible. Wait. No. That was the rhythmic lapping of the (spirit) breakers on the beach. Little did I know that living out my dream would soon become a nightmare.

Footsteps

It was my second day fishing with Ben Cantrell, a well-known multi-species angler who has served as one of the pioneers in a community that calls itself by a host of names including “lifelisters,” and “species hunters.” Ben runs bencantrellfish.blogspot.com.

I met Ben where all Millennials meet their friends nowadays: Instagram.

We met up for some fishing.

I donned my Frillneck, a hat draped with fabric that makes my life infinitely better because it replaces sunscreen.

After digging for sand crabs, small crustaceans slightly resembling pill bugs that live just under the wet sand on the beach, we got to it.

S/O to Ben for showing me how to find these little guys. Incredible bait.

Ben quickly caught a Yellowfin Croaker, a species I’d never caught, but that was the highlight of the morning. It was slow — even for surf fishing.

He then led us to a spot where the slope of the beach caused two waves to meet, creating a mixing zone that looked absolutely prime.

I felt a tug and caught a small Leopard Shark.

JAWS, 1975 (Colorized).

Misstep

I got a few more subtle taps on my bait.

Ben worked his way back down the beach, but I knew something was feeding, so I stood tight.

In the flash of an instant, I got a strong hit, and the massive fish began ripping line off my reel with a frantic tenacity usually only seen in teenage breakups.

It may have been two seconds or 10, but when its run slowed just a little, I lifted up to set the hook, stepping backwards with one foot ever-so-slightly to redistribute my weight in the punishing waves.

My foot rested on something squishy, and in that cruel moment, I felt a lance of intense pain on the inside of my foot.

I’d spoken to Steve Wozniak, who has sat atop the leaderboard of multispecies angling for years, just the day before. He warned me not to go barefoot because of stingrays, but everyone else fishing on the beach was barefoot, and so I’d gone along with them.

Big mistake.

The initial stab of pain was so unexpected and violent and rapid that I reacted violently and rapidly in return. I lifted my foot up, throwing me off-balance. I compensated for this loss of equilibrium by jerking the rod up to prevent myself from falling so hard that I broke 30-pound braid. Granted, the fish was large (if I had to venture a guess, I’d say a 30 to 50 pound ray, shark or guitarfish), and it was running hard. But still.

I didn’t fall, but my hopes did.

Then, the toxins got to work.

I started sweating. If I hadn’t had a Frillneck, the heat would’ve compounded the pain, but I’d soaked it with cool water, and it was keeping the sun off my face, at least.

This picture was taken about 10 minutes after I stepped on the stingray. I was in excruciating pain, and it was horrible. Also horrible? The fit of those sunglasses.

I’ve had my share of injuries over the years, many of them induced by fishing. I’ve been bitten by fish, stabbed by dorsal spines, ravaged on rocks, sliced by fishing line, hooked on multiple occasions, stepped on subterranean beehives, sat on colonies of army ants, sliced by fillet knives and slapped in the face by tails. None of that even compared to the pain of this stingray’s barb.

This pain was like a bee sting amplified 10 or 20 times and localized to a single spot. From there, it leached out achy fingers into the rest of my foot and lower leg and bled an absurd amount for such a small wound.

Worst of all, I’d lost what might have been my largest saltwater fish to-date.

Refusing to quit, I fished another 45 minutes or so before the pain of standing on that foot started to blur the edges of my vision, and I couldn’t take it anymore.

The stoic display paid off because I managed to catch a small Shovelnose Guitarfish about 2 feet in length before hobbling toward Ben.

Ben helped me limp the mile back to the lifeguard station where I was treated and released to stumble my way through the rest of the day.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #170 — Barred Sand Bass.

Species #168 — Round Stingray

These little stingrays are curious, bold, and even friendly — so long as you don’t step on them.

Species: Round Stingray (Urolophus halleri)
Location: San Diego Bay, California
Date: August 4, 2018

These little fish are supposed to be one of the most common fish in the San Diego Bay, a fish allegedly easy to catch.

When Ben Cantrell and I shed some bait after it turned in the hot summer sun, we noticed a couple of little stingrays come up to it and start eating it, tentatively at first, but then just being bold and devouring the chunks of bait, little by little.

Though I wanted to continue catching the bass and bonefish that kept the skunk away, I wanted to get one of these little stingrays, too, so I put on a small hook and a little piece of squid. As soon as my bait hit the water, it spooked all three little rays.

Frustrated, I went back to chasing other stuff, assuming my window had passed. Fortunately, after about 15 minutes, they came back.

Realizing my mistake, I cast well over the rays, slowly reeling in my bait as it fell and allowing it to fall just beyond the large fish bait the little rays were chowing down on.

It worked.

Isn’t it cute? The stingray is, too.

After a few more minutes, one of the rays got curious and nibbled my squid. I set the hook and reeled in my what was just my second stingray species!

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #169 — Shovelnose Guitarfish.

Species #167 — Spotted Sand Bass

The most common fish in the San Diego Bay has a lot of traits that make it okay with me that its so common.

Species: Spotted Sand Bass (Paralabrax maculatofasciatus)
Location: San Diego Bay, California
Date: August 4, 2018

Those bonefish weren’t the only catch of the day. The fish I caught most of that day (and on my whole trip to San Diego, for that matter) was the Spotted Sand Bass.

These feisty fish also fight insanely hard for their size and will hit everything from shrimp to swimbaits. I caught them in most of the places you can eat green eggs and ham, including Ben’s kayak, the beach, the rocks, the harbor, and then, after a hard day on the water, my dreams.

Common though they are, these fish are still a blast to catch, and I enjoyed how prevalent and versatile this fishery was. If I lived there, I could see myself chasing trophies, but after catching as many as I did, I was after other species.

That said, it didn’t stop me from posing with the largest one I caught, a beast that topped two pounds.

My biggest Spotted Sand Bass was only two pounds, but I thought I had something serious when it took a piece of shrimp on light tackle.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #168 — Round Stingray.

Species #166 — Cortez Bonefish

Let’s not tell the die-hard flyfishermen that I caught a bonefish the very first time I tried. Or that I caught another one later in the day when I wasn’t trying.

Species: Cortez Bonefish (Albula gilberti)
Location: San Diego Bay, California
Date: August 4, 2018

So I’m in the Air National Guard. I’m in the Medical Services Corps and work as a Medical Readiness Officer. You know the whole pandemic business we’re living through? Well a part of my job includes contingency planning for such crises. In order to do my job, I had to attend a tech school in San Antonio called Health Services Administration (HSA) school.

I decided to drive and planned a few days in San Diego to meet up with Ben Cantrell and do some fishing along the way.

The first day we met up, he brought a kayak for me, and we met up with some other guys to fish the bay. After digging some sand shrimp, we set off.

On the kayak, I caught several fish and saw a lot more. I had almost no saltwater fishing experience outside Oregon at this point, so I learned a lot from Ben. Kayaking was a workout, and I wish I’d brought some more varied gear along, but the light tackle I had proved effective when I hooked into something that ran and ran and ran.

I netted a beautiful silvery fish Ben told me was a Cortez Bonefish, and it was a great start to the day. There were plenty more fish to be had, though, and it was the first of a dozen new species I’d get in San Diego that week.

Later in the day, we’d chase some other species, and I caught a second bonefish. This time, I had a chance to get better pictures since I wasn’t on a kayak, and these fish are next-level beautiful.

Not the most flattering pic of me, so focus on the fish. Photo Cred: Ben Cantrell.

After we fished hard that day, I had no qualms taking even more pictures and videos of the beautiful and robust fish that pulled harder than most five- or ten-pound fish despite being just under two pounds. What a world.

I don’t post videos here often; that’s how much of an impact this beautiful fish had on me. Hopefully you get to experience the line-stripping power of these beautiful fish someday soon.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #167 — Spotted Sand Bass.

Species #156 — Gulf Kingfish

There were some specific reasons I arrived at this being an Atlantic Kingfish as opposed to a Gulf Kingfish, but I can’t remember them now. I do remember the Hardhead Catfish I caught shortly after this fish that impaled my finger, made me fall backwards and slice my foot on a rock, though.Species: Gulf Kingfish (Menticirrhus littoralis)
Location: Saint Petersburg, Florida
Date: July 14, 2018

After spending most of the day fishing at two separate piers and finding plenty of fish but little in the way of species variety, I opted to move to the outer edges of Tampa Bay.

I found myself not far from Saint Petersburg fishing an inlet where tides carved the sand relatively deep as it narrowed between a rocky point and a concrete causeway.

At this point in the trip, I was tired, sunburned, and sore, so I admittedly wasn’t at the top of my game.

I was lazy and just tossed out a truncated Sabiki rig with cocktail shrimp that was almost not at the top of its game. With a light weight, I’d cast out as far as I could and then slowly reel in line, drifting the bait like you might do for salmon or steelhead.

It was slow-going, but I finally landed this kingfish, making 25 species on my first trip to Florida. Not bad for a guy still relatively new to the Species Hunting game who hadn’t even set up his own Fishing Map yet. If you can relate, learn How to Build Your Fishing Map, so you can be more prepared moving forward.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #157 — Round Goby.

Species #155 — Black Sea Bass

This photo doesn’t do it justice. These fish are flat beautiful for a fish with no color.

Species: Black Sea Bass (Centropristis striata)
Location: Tampa, Florida
Date: July 13, 2018

Perhaps the biggest surprise of my first “real” Florida trip was this Black Sea Bass. Note: my actual first trip to Florida was a single night fishing in Pensacola the summer before, but this was an extended stay. The Black Sea Bass took a piece of shrimp on a Sabiki rig, and I was shocked. I had no idea these fish made it as far south as Central Florida.

Though it wasn’t the rich blue-black with white tubercules I’d seen in pictures, it was still a Black Sea Bass, and I was up to 24 species on this trip. Not bad.

I released it after a quick pic and moved on to the final fish of my Florida trip.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #156 — Atlantic Kingfish.