Every time a fish bites a baited hook, the reality is that they may be digging their own grave. I have no qualms with keeping fish, especially since seafood is my favorite.
When given the opportunity to catch plentiful, good-eating fish, I’ve been known to shovel them into a bucket, take them home, and host a fish fry.
The Atlantic Spadefish is no different.
At least, it would be no different were it located in a place where I had access to cooking facilities. Since I didn’t on my first trip to Florida, I released every fish I caught — even those barely big enough to handle.
I named my first Atlantic Spadefish Doug and the second one Phil, and since you can’t eat fish you’ve named, they both swam free.
Spadefish are incredible fighters as a hole, and if you are lucky enough to tie into them on light tackle, consider yourself lucky.
I hooked into my on small bits of shrimp, but I’ve since caught them on shrimp, squid, bits of fish, artificial baits, and sabikis. They’re not even that slimy, so you won’t need your trusty hand trowel to wipe off afterwards.
The second-most popular baitfish in the Gulf of Mexico is just one letter away from the first (Pinfish). I’m speaking, of course, of the Pinfish.
I caught my one and only Pigfish fishing from a public pier in Pensacola minutes after night fell. There were mullet everywhere, as well as small species I still have yet to catch such as a few species of baitfish, Ballyhoo, and Atlantic Needlefish.
That was frustrating, but after being approached late at night by some guy in a sweatshirt who was very obviously holding a knife, it was the least of my worries.
I watched in horror as a he extended his arm, brandishing four inches of gleaming steel reflecting light from the pier lights.
I had some pliers in my bag. Oh! And some scissors. I could fight with that. Maybe I could throw some semi-rancid shrimp in his face, and then lunge with the knife?
He must have detected my bristling because he turned the blade back towards himself and asked “Hey man, is this yours?”
It wasn’t, and I told him so, visibly relieved as he walked away.
I continued fishing.
A few minutes later, another sketchy-but-not-that-sketchy-for-Florida guy came up to me. He was twitchy and awkward, obviously a tweaker.
He told me his car had broken down and asked if I had jumper cables he could borrow. I told him to wait a few minutes, and when he was a good 200 yards away, I went to the car and grabbed them, careful not to turn my back to a Floridian sketchmonger in the dark.
I gave him the cables, fully expecting them to be stolen.
Fifteen minutes later, he called out “Thanks man!” and left them on my hood.
I felt a little bad for thinking the worst of him, but then again, Florida has a reputation, and I’d be stupid not to take precautions.
So yeah. That’s how I caught my one and only Pigfish.
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.
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, and it was a worthwhile read.
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.
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 Shortfin 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.
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.
Species: Jack Mackerel (Trachurus symmetricus) Location: Russell Municipal Wharf, Bay of Islands, Northland, New Zealand Date: February 19, 2014
New Zealand’s Bay of Islands was undoubtedly the coolest place I’d visited at the time — it remains one of the coolest to this day.
After a solid first day of sea kayaking and getting the lay of the land, we decided to mix it up the second day.
It was great in theory, but kayaking for miles in high winds all day was exhausting. Carrying the kayaks five blocks back to the hostel we were saying at was excruciating.
When we repeated the next day, even higher winds blew us onto an island. The island was absolutely covered in sea glass, and after I filled up a small bag with it, we shoved off again.
The wind didn’t let up, and we were forced to land on another beach.
Little did we know that the beach was Waitangi Beach.
For those not familiar with New Zealand’s history, the country is unique among white-settled nations in that white settlers didn’t rape, pillage, enslave, and subjugate the natives. Instead, the native Maori and the white settlers signed a document called the Treaty of Waitangi which basically served as teh country’s founding document.
Every year, on February 6, a ceremony is held at the location of the original treaty when a war canoe is launched from a sacred beach. A beach two fishermen had unintentionally landed on in a windstorm, nearly creating an international incident.
We were mortified. Once we realized the gravity of the situation, we hopped back in the kayaks and paddled like mad.
The wind was blowing at 10 to 15 miles per hour, right in our faces, and it took us almost two hours to paddle the three miles or so back to the beach from which we’d launched.
Once we landed, we decided to leave the kayaks on shore.
We took a ferry to the town of Russell, where we grabbed lunch and fished from the wharf there. David landed a fish the locals called a Spot, while I landed Species #52 — Jack Mackerel.
Species: Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus) Location: Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA Date: March 24, 2010
During college, trips to the coast were a somewhat regular occurrence for Ben Blanchard and myself. But when our other friend Christopher Puckett decided to go as well, we were pleasantly surprised.
Christopher is a good friend, but he was never really the outdoorsy type. Usually, the three of us would play video games or board games, joke around, or have deep discussions, but we didn’t really do a lot of fishing together.
We’d all started in the same class in school, but Christopher graduated a year early. So for his junior year and Ben and my sophomore year Spring Break trip, we piled into my car and drove down to California, where it would be warm. Or so we told ourselves.
The San Francisco Bay, however, is not warm in March. It’s warmer than Oregon but only just.
We spent the first night in San Rafael, a city on the north end of the Bay, in a fleabag motel. The only reason we weren’t robbed blind is because my car was so unimpressive that the criminals all around it must have pitied us.
Would-be thieves thought: “Yikes. This guy needs it more than we do.”
The next morning, our charter for Striped Bass and White Sturgeon was a flop. Jim Cox Sportfishing was the name of the boat, and despite the guide and the three of us fishing, we only managed only one striper, and it was Christopher who caught it.
Now apart from our Biology Trip as freshman in high school where we caught a bunch of bottomfish and the one time he went trout fishing with at Spencer Creek, this was his only fish. The 27-inch striper was nearly 10 pounds. Not bad for maybe his tenth fish.
He also caught a stingray pushing 20 pounds, and Ben caught a respectable Starry Flounder (a fish I’ve seen caught just that once and have failed to catch myself in the years since).
I was skunked. Not the best way to drop $180 for a guy who, at the time, only made about $5000 per year.
We went to a nice seafood dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf then drove to Santa Cruz. I really wanted to catch a fish, so we headed to the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier.
Sure enough, I caught a fish. I setup the rod, and when I went to the bathroom, I came back to see Ben reeling in a White Croaker.
It wasn’t long before I started catching fish, too. That night I caught three small sculpins, and everyone else fishing on the pier kept calling them “Bullheads,” so I thought they were Pacific Staghorn Sculpins. The Internet existed, but I didn’t have a laptop and Christopher’s iPhone 1 was reserved solely for navigation, so I just went on in ignorance.
It wasn’t until I got home that I compared pictures and realized they’d been Cabezon.
Species: Walleye Surfperch (Hyperprosopon argenteum) Location: Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Date: June 13, 2008
Here’s another one straight from my journal:
“Although my last night (of my Senior Trip) happened to be Friday the Thirteenth, I had to try one last time. At eleven I headed out, eager to add one more species to my life list. I fished a long time … I gave up bait fishing and tried lures.
Every night, a swarm of smaller fish had gathered under the lights of the oil rig transport docking area. I had tried throwing everything in my tackle box, but nothing worked. Finally, I caught my first surfperch on a Nordic Kokanee jig half the size of the fish.
As soon as I cast again, I got snagged. Maybe Friday the Thirteenth…? Nah.
I gave up the fish as bait but only after I’d taken pictures to better remember the trip. Believe me, I will.”
My first surfperch was quite small, but I was stoked to have landed it. Just look at that grin.
That trip actually hooked me on surfperch fishing, and to this day, it’s one of my favorite types of fishing — albeit now I use gear just slightly more tailored to the species instead of over-sized Kokanee jigs.