Species #82 — Monkeyface Prickleback

The only fish with a face and disposition uglier than its name: the Monkeyface Prickleback.

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.

What a looker, right? This Hellbeast wasn’t my first Monkeyface Prickleback, but at just 3 ounces shy of the IGFA All-Tackle World Record, it was certainly my largest.

***

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.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #83 — Lost River Sucker.

Species #38 — Red Irish Lord

Red Irish Lords embody beauty and ugliness in the same being.

Species: Red Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus)
Location: Off the coast of Brookings-Harbor, OR
Date: September 14, 2011

I began this blog with the first story I ever recorded. That story took place in 2004, and I wrote about it afterwards in a spiral-bound notebook by hand.

My last story from those hand-written journals takes place seven years later, in 2011, and though it wasn’t my last entry, it was the last new species recorded longhand, so this is a little bittersweet.

***

For awhile, every saltwater fishing trip I took resulted in a new species. Those were the days. Everything was new and exciting.

2011 was still firmly in the middle of this time frame, and after landing a few new species from shore, I was stoked when my rod dipped on our charter boat, and a big, ugly creature I’d never seen in person came up writhing on the end of my hook.

I looked again. Yes, it was ugly, but it was also somehow unbelievably beautiful. It’s red-and-umber tones swept flowing, semi-rigid fins, a brilliantly-hued face, and resulted in a species I’d read about and seen pictures of but never actually seen IRL (that’s In Real Life, ya’ll).

Reareange IRL, and you get RIL, or, Red Irish Lord. #Anagrams

Probably some of the most beautiful members of the Cottidae family, Brown, Red, and Yellow Irish Lords are relatively rare in Oregon, but they often travel in groups.

The first one I caught was eating size, and like every sizable saltwater sculpin, it was a guaranteed keeper if legal.

My pleading eyes apparently spoke volumes, and the apparently nonverbal communication master of a deckhand said “That’s definitely a keeper, bro.”

The first RIL took a leadhead jig at the bottom of the “boat rig,” but on the very next drop, I got a very small fish to eat my curlytail grub. It, too, was a RIL IRL.

This tiny RIL IRL was just 5 inches long. What a champ.

The handful of Irish Lords I’ve caught since (Red and Brown) have never been one-offs. Every time, my party and I have always combined for two.

That could be coincidence, but it’s a four-time coincidence now like the Patriots cheating but somehow getting away relatively unscathed.

***

I happened to be fishing with Ben Blanchard at the time, and though he caught no Irish Lords, he did catch more fish than anyone else on the boat, his 25 beating out my 17 for first place.

***

Though I switched from pen to programs in my journaling shortly thereafter, I continued keeping records — records that enable me to keep bloggging about my #SpeciesQuest and sharing that quest with anyone who won’t throw me off a cliff if I can’t calculate wingspeed velocities and such.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #39 — Deacon Rockfish.

 

Species #32 — Cabezon

Cabezon are both ugly and beautiful. The massive, over-sized fins, widely variable color palette, and aggressive nature make them great quarry.

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.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #33 — Cabezon.