Species: Shiner Perch (Cymatogaster aggregata) Location: Newport Public Docks, Newport, OR Date: June 10, 2017
Surfperch, seaperch, or perch. Whatever you call them, these marine delights are one of my favorite groups of fish to chase in and around the piers, jetties, and surf breaks of the Oregon Coast.
Though some species are relatively common and well-known, others are less pervasive. One such species is the Shiner Perch, a small, silver-and-yellow species that rarely tops six inches in length and has a mouth too small for hooks larger than No. 14 or so.
I’d long seen these fish flitting in and out of the shadows below the piers and docks in Yaquina Bay, but I’d never caught one before.
Then one day, the bite was just amazing. I caught tons of fish on sabikis and small jigs, including a few salmon smolts and my first Shiner Perch. The silver dollar-sized fish with the bright, yellow stripes made my day, as I landed a handful and added a new species.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #86 — White Bass.
Species: American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) Location: Willamette River, Oregon City, OR Date: June 11, 2017
Oregon is weird. We have a culture built around gamefish, but not all of our gamefish are native.
Rainbow Trout are the most popular species in the state, but most fish caught annually by Oregon anglers aren’t native fish; they’re mostly hatchery trout.
Though Rainbows, Cutthroats, and Bulls are Oregon’s only native trout, we have a slew of other introduced/invasive (depending on who you ask) trout that are afforded gamefish status.
Likewise, all five Pacific salmon species and Steelhead (genetically still a Rainbow Trout) are all native fish treated like kings.
Sturgeon gets the same treatment.
Bass aren’t native, and they’re certainly invasive and problematic in riverine environments and arguably so in some lakes. But bass don’t get all of the gamefish protections. You can fish for them at night. There is no dedicated bass season. At time of writing, no Oregon waters have purist trophy bass catch and release stipulations.
“They’re invasive, though” critics would argue.
My counterargument? So are shad.
Named for an 18th century frat boy, shad are anadromous, silver torpedoes that look — for all intents and purposes — like gamefish.
I was kidding about the frat boy. It’s the other way around.
The American Shad is an intriguing species. So intriguing, in fact, that I actually read an entire novel about these fish. I’ve never done that for any other fish species (no novels, that is).
When I read a book called The Founding Fish, I found it slow in places, but I was taken.
I finished the book before I’d even caught a shad of my own.
I wrote in detail about these fish already. I framed one story through my own lens, through my first experience with these freshwater herring.
If my fishing stories bore you to tears, I would ask why you’re reading, but I guess I am somewhat handsome, so you could just be admiring me from afar, but am I that good-looking?
I don’t know. I haven’t broken any mirrors lately, but they rarely thank me after using them, either.
There is a third option, though. Maybe you prefer the fact that I try to intersperse knowledge and science and history into my writing along with the fishing trips and self-deprecating humor. If that’s the case, click here for my history of American Shad in the PNW (that’s hipster for Pacific Northwest, if you’re not from here).
Apart from there being no limit on the fish, American Shad are otherwise managed as a gamefish because they fight like one, challenge you like one, and there’s a dedicated following for Oregon shad.
I know I am among them now.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #85 — Shiner Perch.
Species: Monkeyface Prickleback (Cebidichthys violaceus) Location: Newport Public Docks, Newport, OR Date: November 21, 2016
Time can be so fluid when fishing. Seconds, minutes, and hours can all meld together when you feel weight or a tick on the end of your line, melting into a soup of suspended timeflow that is so personal and subjective you cannot look back after the fact and know the real duration of an event.
When I felt weight, it had to be just a second or two, but I felt the dark shadow of eternity creep into that moment as I began to mentally debate whether my hook had found purchase in a fish or a the salt-aged wood of the pilings below.
After all, it was heavy, and though I’d caught rockfish and Cabezon up to two pounds or so, this felt heavier. And unlike the popular bottomfish, it wasn’t pulling.
Until it was.
The fight was not unlike the eels I caught in New Zealand: a roiling mass, death-rolling with all the tenacity and venom of a Presidential hopeful trailing in the primaries.
When the squirming creature finally broke the surface some 20 feet below, the disconnect was palpable. I knew it wasn’t a snake, but it looked like a snake.
A part of my mind knew it was a fish I’d long dreamed of catching, but another more aggressive part of my mind was focused on the impending peril of the nearby sea lion that had clearly noticed my prize.
I take care to use light enough gear to enjoy the fight of the surfperch I target, but I also use line heavy enough to lift a two- or three-pound fish up the 20 feet to the pier at low tide.
This fish wasn’t going easily, though. Clearly not tired out, it twisted and writhed in a mesmerizing, serpentine dance of Satanic origin.
The ever-present gawkers shrieked and gasped and held their children close as I brought it onto the damp wooden landing of the pier.
While most fish flop on their sides when removed from the water, this fish turned onto its belly, coiled and ready to strike.
Reaching for the hook with my bare hand, it lunged at me. Well, lunged is a bit dramatic, but it made an effort to bite me.
Its teeth were certainly sharp, but small, so I unhooked it as it wrapped its body around my hand, intent on suffocating the hapless appendage and dragging it down to Hades.
This was a much better fish than most of what I’d caught that day, and since I’d dreamed of catching a Monkeyface Prickleback since I first heard of the fish nearly 15 years earlier, it was a special moment.
Naturally, the fish wouldn’t pose for a good picture, but I got its profile and tossed it back into the water, where its slinky dark form returned to hide in the structure of the pier to lurk in the unthinkable blackness of a nightmare.
It was only then that a gentleman on the pier spoke up and said, “You should’ve kept that. They’re the best-eating fish I’ve ever had.”
I caught another, much larger Monkeyface Prickleback later that year, and I confirmed what the gentleman had said. Along with Cabezon and Lingcod, Monkeyface Prickleback is as good as any fish I’ve ever eaten — a validation of the saying “Never judge a book by its cover,” I suppose.
These fish are relatively uncommon for those fishing with standard angling gear, but anglers on the Northern California Coast target them with a method called “Poke Poling”. Poke Poling is essentially using a long pole with a baited hook attached to the end that they stick into rock crevices. Inhabited holes yield fish that bite in age-old fashion.
Since this species is difficult if not virtually impossible to target outside of poke poling, it isn’t sold commercially. That means if you catch one, you need to try it.
Just be careful — it will definitely try to bite you.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #83 — Lost River Sucker.
Species: Whitespotted Greenling (Hexagrammos stelleri) Location: Yaquina Bay, Newport, OR Date: November 21, 2016
I’ve had better days fishing the hundreds of docks in Newport, but this day wasn’t half bad.
Since I normally go there to target Striped Seaperch for the table, anything else is just a bonus.
Rarely do I fish this area without catching at least one or two bonus species and that day was no different.
When I first pulled up a greenling, I assumed it was the significantly more common Kelp Greenling I’d caught dozens of times, but having just reviewed fish field guides for the Pacific Coast, I realized upon closer inspection it was a Whitespotted Greenling.
This species doesn’t grow as large, isn’t as common, and up until that moment, I’d never even heard of one being caught in Oregon. That’s not to say they aren’t caught with some frequency, but since the Oregon Fishing Regulations don’t picture them, I assume the Whitespotted Greenling is commonly dismissed as a small Kelp Greenling when anglers pull one up.
The bite continued to be above average until something big made my line shake.
“That’s no greenling,” I said to the small contingent of onlookers, and the fight was on. This was going to be something good.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #82 — Monkeyface Prickleback.
Species: Copper Rockfish (Sebastus caurinus) Location: Yaquina Bay, Newport, OR Date: March 24, 2016
If you’ve never been on the open ocean on a small boat intended for use in the lake, then you haven’t lived.
My first trip was on a 17-foot Bayliner with high gunwales out of the Port of Brookings-Habor. It was a little rough, but I wasn’t worried.
My second trip was on a 14-foot flat-bottomed aluminum duck boat, and I was more than a little worried.
Fortunately, before we made it to the end of the bar, the Coast Guard stopped us and told us the bar was closed to small vessels. I was equal parts disappointed and relieved.
My friend, Eric Elenfeldt, was a phenomenal boater, and if I were to go on the ocean in a tiny vessel with anyone, I’d want him driving, but still. It was a rough bar that day.
We made the best of it, dropped our crab pot, and started fishing. He picked up a Red Irish Lord, his first, and we started catching a few rockfish here and there. Before long, the sheet rain started, and we took cover under the Coast Guard station’s large platform. It was the best decision we made all day.
Almost instantly, we caught fish.
Small Lingcod at first and then my first Copper Rockfish obliged me. Then several more.
Eventually, the guys on the platform spotted us and performed a “random inspection” even though Eric’s inspection sticker was clearly visible on the side of the boat.
They gently asked us not to fish there because it was a matter of national security, and though I’m pretty sure they can’t do that on a navigable waterway, we moved.
It wasn’t long before we saw them fishing from the platform. Huh.
The rest of the day was slow as we struggled to find fish, but we’d learned something: the Coast Guard defends its fishing spots as well as they defend the lives of those out on the ocean.
Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #74 — Redear Sunfish.
Species: Brown Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus spinosus) Location: Yaquina Bay, Newport, OR Date: July 22, 2015
This fish frustrates me for a number of reasons.
After returning home from my trip to Washington D.C., I landed in Portland, and my brother Gabe picked me up. I stayed with him in Corvallis and convinced him to come fishing with me in Newport one day.
We fished from the jetty, something that is miserable on all but the nicest days, and we quickly caught fish. I hooked up on the first fish and reeled in what I thought was a Cabezon.
It was dark and didn’t quite look like the Cabezon I was used to catching, but marine sculpin misidentification was one of my specialties at the time, so I kept that tradition going.
This fish had disturbing, forgein organs in its throat that could only be described as alien, insectoid crushing arms that must have worked like a gizzard. They kept writhing and pulverizing against each other, and it really creeped me out.
I didn’t remember Cabezon having those.
Were the fish a Cabezon, as I assumed, it was too small to keep anyway. Cabezon have to be a minimum of 16 inches long.
So after a few measurements (13 1/4″ long and 1.25 pounds), I let it go.
I know for a fact my fish was a Brown Irish Lord. Gabe’s could’ve been a Red Irish Lord, and the biologists I’ve asked have been split on that one. So maybe, just maybe, I do still have that (unofficial) world record.
Species: California Halibut (Paralichthys californicus) Location: Chetco River South Jetty, Brookings-Harbor, OR Date: July 13, 2013
While fishing with my friend David Clarke, I tried to relive an amazing trip to Brookings I’d had years earlier. Sadly, it wasn’t happening.
The charter boat had provided good fishing, but David was so seasick, he didn’t get to wet a line much. He did manage some respectable rockfish and a nice Lingcod.
I, meanwhile, avoided the seasickness and boated 15 rockfish (Black, Canary, Yellowtail) and two Lingcod.
The meat in the cooler, we opted to try shore fishing the next day, and it was slow. Apart from a few Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, we were more or less getting nothing.
So we improvised, and I goofed off which my relatively new smartphone and its built-in camera.
All we caught were tiny flatfish after that, and at the time, I couldn’t identify them. That’s partly because California Halibut, a species I’d hooked before but never landed, can be left- or right-eyed.
To the non-flatfish aficianados out there, flatfish are completely flat and have all coloration and external organs on one side while the other side is plain, semi-translucent white. The white side rests on the bottom while the side with eyes, camouflage, and the mouth goes up. They rest in the sand or mud for some hapless prey species to come by, and it’s all over.
Most species are either right- or left-eyed, but California Halibut can be both. It’s more problematic that they’re usually left-eyed, and we caught five that were right-eyed that day.
Eventually, I got my ID, and Species #48 was in the bag.
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, 2014
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:Northern Kahawai (Arripis xylabion) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2014
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 #56, and get the blog post done in time without having to list “Species #56 — 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.