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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
Species: White Croaker (Genyonemus lineatus) Location: Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Date: June 11, 2008
You meet all sorts of people fishing. Some of them are terrible. Some of them are great.
My senior year of high school, the Class of 2008 went to Seal Beach, California. Within an hour of arriving, I’d already started fishing. I camped on the pier with some of my classmates and threw out all sorts of lures and bait. I witnessed a guy land a skate of some sort or the other, and I was so excited about the possibilities.
We stayed out way too late that night trying to catch a fish but to no avail.
Two full days passed. I landed zero fish. Zero.
It was depressing. Though I did hook a nice California Halibut that might have hit 10 pounds, I was unable to bring it up the 30 feet or so to the pier, and just as I thought about how to do it, it broke my line.
On day three, I met a meth addict who helped me catch a fish.
Yeah, you read that right.
He had become addicted to meth as a teenager in Mexico. After his wife became pregnant with their first child, he found Jesus, got clean, and emigrated to the States.
When I spoke to him, he’d just celebrated his son’s fourth birthday now nearly five years clean.
He caught fish after fish, and since I was using a trout rod completely unprepared for the saltwater situation it was facing, I continued down the path of failure.
I think he felt bad for me, and he said I could fish one of his rods for awhile.
Less than an hour passed before I caught my first fish outside of the state of Oregon.
Humble doesn’t begin to describe the eight-inch White Croaker I pulled out of the brine that day, but it made my day.
I parted ways with my new friend, thanking him and wishing him the best.
Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Trip Date: June 9-13, 2008
The piers of Central and Southern California have a unique subculture. By day, they teem with tourists of all different races and backgrounds, all living completely separate lives. By night, the multi-ethnic tapestry remains, but the occupants of the pier share a common goal: catching fish.
When four or five white boys from rural Southern Oregon walked onto the Seal Beach Pier in June of 2008, every head turned. Broken English paired with Vietnamese, Spanish, Russian, and a host of other languages I couldn’t place, mixing with the acrid stench of cigarettes from every group.
We walked around the pier, looking at everyone’s respective catch — almost exclusively White Croaker and various species of surfperch — before a guy hooked into a respectable fish.
We stared intently as he fought it for five, ten, fifteen minutes. It broke the surface almost 30 feet below, and he identified it as a skate. He said he had no desire to eat it, but many Asian fisherman did, and we’d be more than welcome to keep it. We were thrilled at the possibility, but just as he got to the end of the pier to land it (a major feat, considering it was nearly half a mile long), it broke his line.
With that, the rest of my classmates decided to head back, but I remained fixated.
I stayed out until almost 3:00 a.m. that morning, watching, learning, fishing. It made getting up for Six Flags three hours later especially difficult, but I would spend the next four nights doing the same thing and not regretting it one bit.
One day of the trip included a charter fishing excursion, which I had looked forward to for years.
In fact, I’d led the class fundraising efforts throughout high school, starting a concession stand for junior high sporting events, then, seeing its success and noting that hot lunch was only served at our school three Fridays a month, starting a snack bar that served microwavable lunches and snack items like candy bars once a week. It did quite well.
As our funds grew, we rolled into senior year. One of my best friends, Tony Maddalena, and I, had been given three pages of yearbook ads to sell. We sold about three times that many.
All told, our efforts had resulted in more than $12,000 that we could put towards the trip, but all I cared about was what would become my first-ever chartered fishing trip.
The opportunity to choose a half-day or full-day trip day came, and everybody wanted to do a half-day trip. I was crushed. One of the chaperones, Dan Phelps, either took pity on me or really wanted to go fishing, because he volunteered to accompany me on the full-day trip.
The barracuda had been running, and the last three boats before us had caught hundreds of them, so I was optimistic. Perhaps too optimistic, because our boat caught less than a dozen between the 50-plus anglers on board.
I had a five-footer strike my anchovy right as I brought it to the surface, slurping the soft-bodied bait right off of my hook.
I stood there, momentarily frozen, before the shock and disappointment set in.
Sure, we caught lots of Pacific Mackerel, Calico Bass, and Dan even got a brilliantly-colored, red-orange California Scorpionfish — which we were told had dorsal spines as poisonous as its flesh was delicious — but no barracuda.
Returning to the house, we learned the guys on the half-day trip had caught almost a dozen species between them, including barracuda, yellowtail, and even a four-foot shark.
Disappointed by the charter boat, I returned faithfully to the pier each night, which made for plenty of interesting experiences:
One day, a seagull stole my bait.
Another day, I caught a starfish.
Yet another, I learned that the week before we’d arrived, the television series Greek shot its Spring Break episode right on that pier.
In a moment of stupidity, I tried leaving my rod propped in the sand with bait in the water while I tried swimming. The pole fell over and the sand ruined my reel.
I actually hooked into a nice California Halibut that was maybe 10-12 pounds, but after fighting it to the surface and allowing me to look at it, my line snapped.
Great experiences and stories, but not one fish.
On the afternoon of the last day, one of the guys I’d befriended, Julian, said he’d let me use one of his two rods.
Julian was born just across the border in Mexico. When he came to the United States in his late teens, he brought with him his wife, a few possessions, and a bad drug addiction.
The birth of his first son sobered him up and made him an advocate for the Christian faith he credited his sobriety to.
Late in the afternoon, both of Julian’s rods dipped at the same time and I reeled in a small White Croaker. It wasn’t pretty, didn’t fight well, and made a weird, throaty noise when handled (I later discovered this to be its namesake), but I was glad to have caught it.
I wished Julian a good life as we parted that afternoon, and planned one last attempt to catch a fish entirely on my own.
When I returned that evening, I could see fish schooling around the pilings under the pier lights, but couldn’t get them to bite. I had absolutely no saltwater tackle, and everything I’d used all week was intended to catch trout. I had the right baits (squid and shrimp), but not the right gear.
Why I tied on a Kokanee Jig, I’ll never know. It was four inches long and weighed about two ounces — hardly the proper lure for fish smaller than my hand. Why that six-inch Walleye Surfperch bit it, I’m even more nonplussed, but it did.
After about 20 hours of sleep in five days, after hours on the pier, after questioning whether I had a future in even casual fishing, I had held out hope.
That hope resulted in a last-minute catch that would be my only fish of the week (apart from the dismal catch on the charter boat).
It was too small to eat, and several fisherman dropping bait traps into the water had caught larger fish, but I was so proud. I had a passerby take a picture for me with my disposable camera, and I was grinning ear to ear.
When I returned home the next afternoon, exhausted, Dad mentioned he’d been having some luck at the Klamath River. I’d been fishing all week and catching almost nothing, so you’d think I’d decline, right?
Nope. After a 14-hour drive, I hopped off the vans, and we went fishing that night.
It was, at that moment, that I realized just how serious I was with fishing. It was no longer just something I did for fun. It was an obsession.
Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Trip Date: June 9-13, 2008
The night before graduation, I decided to scrap the speech I’d written weeks in advance and start a new one. I finished it around midnight, and it is, to this day, the best speech I’ve ever written. While my delivery was a little shaky, that speech remains one of my proudest moments.
From there, everything happened so fast: the ceremony, the party, the packing. Suddenly my senior class was on its way to Seal Beach, California.
Fourteen long hours in that same red van we took on our Biology Trip four years earlier, and we were unloading our stuff at a beach house just 200 yards from the Naval Weapons Station.
As we resigned ourselves to cook under the cloudy lid that kept heat and humidity in, we scoured the space we’d worked four long years to rent. We found a tandem bike, which quickly surged in popularity, but didn’t really interest me. What did were the two dusty pieces of graphite tucked into the back of the mildew-kissed garage. There were two sturdy old Shakespeare surf fishing rods, spooled with thick monofilament line years past its usefulness, which just sat there, forgotten.
We had plans interspersed throughout the week, but when the sun and moon performed a solar shift change and darkness permeated the beach, I convinced the other guys in my class to try and catch a fish or two, but only after goofing around on the beach.
We headed first for the rocky finger that stretched out several hundred yards from the beach and was bisected by a military-grade chain link fence that marked the northern boundary of the naval base. We fished with those two ocean rods, as well as my fast action, six-foot Ugly Stik Elite with its equally ill-suited Shakespeare Crusader Spinning Reel.
We had no bait, so we tried to catch the small crabs lurking warily in the rocks at our feet. Despite an hour of effort, soaking ourselves with sweat, and providing our shins and knees as bloody sacrifices for the wet rocks, we remained baitless.
Instead, we got our adrenaline rush by taking two bold steps onto a naval base soaked in darkness, before realizing the jointly pathetic and stupid actions we’d made and headed back to the house.
Throughout the next few days, that jetty would bring a variety of experiences.
I would watch one of the fisherman catch several California Halibut and White Seabass on swimbaits. One fisherman landed a White Seabass that died. Those fish were supposed to be 24 inches long, but this was just short. He decided to keep it.
Another day, I watched a gentleman catch a five-foot shark. Apparently, several Asian gentleman saw it, too, because they ran up and paid the guy several hundred dollars for it, loaded it into their van, and disappeared.
I finally decided to give up fishing the jetty after a particularly pervy old fisherman made unsettling comments about my female classmates visible on the beach maybe a quarter mile away.
Not illegal, but creepy.
After our excursion onto the naval base, most of the other guys retired to a chaperoned house full of girls to watch movies and enjoy the creature comforts of civilization, but a few of us headed to the pier. And the pier is what this story is really about.