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 #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 #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.

Species #154 — Scrawled Cowfish

It’s like a tiny child tried to draw, well scrawl, the face of a wildebeest onto a tube of toothpaste that was partially squeezed out but not before throwing some fins on it.

Species: Scrawled Cowfish (Acanthostracion quadricornis)
Location: Tampa, Florida
Date: July 13, 2018

After adding a species early on shrimp, I got another one to take a bit of squid, and it was something out of science fiction.

Something with “quadricorn” in its Latin name is bound to be strange, but the Scrawled Cowfish is probably the weirdest fish I’ve caught to-date.

A few things you should know about the Scrawled Cowfish:

1) Its fins all rotate independently of one another. It’s off-putting.

2) Its skin feels like wet leather.

3) For the first time, “What that mouth do?” is a sincere question and not just a sexually-explicit phrase from pop culture. I seriously wonder how it works.

4) The black marbles that are its eyes reflect back your darkest secrets.

5) It has two rear-facing spines near its anal vent which seem to serve as natural, built-in protection from randy dolphins.

Watch the video.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #155 — Black Sea Bass.

Species #153 — Spottail Pinfish

Spottail Pinfish are pretty distinctive. They don’t really resemble Pinfish, and they have an unmistakable spot on the caudal peduncle.

Species: Spottail Pinfish (Diplodus holbrookii)
Location: Tampa, Florida
Date: July 13, 2018

I first “met” Ryan Crutchfield on Instagram before I’d even started species hunting. Our social circles overlapped, and I found myself following a guy on Instagram who posted some out of the ordinary fish pictures.

Sure, the tarpon, snook, redfish, and bass pics I expected from a Florida-based account were awesome, but so were the fish he posted that I wasn’t as familiar with.

Little did I know at the time, but he was the founder of fishmap.org, an awesome website sponsored by the North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA) aimed at mapping out fish distributions graphically by pulling from multiple sources.

If you haven’t checked out FishMap.org yet, you should make like a 90s song and jump on it.

 

FishMap is sort of like the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species List but draws on a more comprehensive data set that includes anglers and armchair naturalists.

***

Knowing Ryan was nearby, I had to fish with him. After all, he’d provided me with several locations that panned out in Orlando.

Besides, after fishing Orlando hard for a week, I moved over to Tampa to try and notch some saltwater species. I mean, it was Florida, after all.

I spent the first night alone, but that’s the norm. Coincidentally, I also fished alone that first night, landing one new species in the White Grunt, as well as a number of unsolicited Hardhead Catfish.

But apart from seeing other people catch small sharks — why can I never catch sharks? — it was sort of a misadventure in the dark.

Misadventure in the Dark sounds like the title of your sex tape. Sorry. That was inappropriate, but I’m just happy Brooklyn Nine-Nine got renewed for a seventh season, and the signature catchphrase is arguably better than “That’s what she said.”

***

Regardless, Ryan agreed to meet me mid-morning to do some fishing with a window of free time he had.

Between his bait and mine, we had shrimp, squid, and half a dozen artificials. The cocktail assortment of bait proved to be the ticket, and we quickly started catching fish.

The new species came almost immediately: a Spottail Pinfish. It was going to be a good morning; I could feel it.

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Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #154 — Scrawled Cowfish.

Species #152 — White Grunt

I wet the sand before putting the fish down, so at least I made an attempt to be better.

Species: White Grunt (Haemulon plumierii)
Location: Tampa, Florida
Date: July 13, 2018

I spent two solid days at ICAST with Fishbrain. From meeting Roland Martin and April Vokey to sitting next to Scott Martin during breakfast, I couldn’t have been happier. It as about as much fun as you can have while not fishing.

You can read about there here.

Nonetheless, spending two whole days in Florida without catching a new species was killing me. Sure, it was awesome to get so much face time with my heroes and introduce a few new friends to microfishing, species hunting, even watch some nice Florida bass caught on the fly, I was itching for something new.

***

I arrived in Tampa late, and by the time I made it to my first stop, it was dark.

As I walked up, I saw a small shark caught and was optimistic.

Alas, all I would catch that night were the ever-present Hardhead Catfish and a single new species, the White Grunt.

This White Grunt is a fish and not to be confused with the sound Caucasian men make when espousing manliness during a football game or at a barbecue.

It was no shark, but it was a new species, and it was welcomed.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #153 — Spottail Pinfish.