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 #37 — Calico Surfperch

Calico Surfperch can be discerned from Redtails by the faint vertical bars that look more like mottling than stripes and the fact that their spiny dorsal rays aren’t noticeably longer than the soft rays.

Species: Calico Surfperch (Ampistichus koelzi)
Location: Chetco River South Jetty, Brookings-Harbor, OR
Date: September 12, 2011

Misidentification is to fishing what the New England Patriots are to football: an unfortunate everyday reality that can’t be ignored.

Fortunately, just like tonight’s Patriots’ Super Bowl loss, good can get a foothold in the fight against evil and make that unfortunate everyday reality just a little quieter.

Every year, Oregonians flock to the South Coast to fish for “pinkfins” near the mouths of the Rogue, Umpqua, and Winchuk Rivers. Ask almost any angler, and they’re fishing for Redtail Surfperch. While the majority of “pinkfins” are actually Redtails, a substantial minority are Calico Surfperch — an entirely different species.

Calico Surfperch
Redtail Surfperch

 

 

 

 

 

This post won’t be long, but I hope it is helpful. Where their range overlaps (Southern Oregon and Northern California), these two species often get lumped into the same “pinkfin” category. Just use this comparison to be able to tell they’re not.

That is, don’t just avoid being a part of the problem; be a part of the solution.

***

I caught my first Calico off of the jetty in Brookings. After striking out for Striped Surfperch on the river side, we followed the Biblical example and threw to the other side. I landed a Redtail and a Calico in an hour, proving these two species not only overlap ranges but overlap the same feeding grounds at the same time.

Since I thought they were different-looking enough, I took a photo with my disposable camera. After processing and comparing them side-by-side and doing some online research, I was able to tell the two “pinkfins” apart.

Hopefully, now you can too.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Coming Soon.

 

Species #25 — Speckled Sanddab

Most Speckled Sanddab specimens are left-eyed, but they one of a handful of flatfish species that can occasionally go the other way. I’ve caught two and both happened to be right-eyed versions.

Species: Speckled Sanddab (Citharichthys stigmaeus)
Location: Myers Creek Mouth, Gold Beach, OR
Date: September 9, 2009

After an eventful day, today paled in comparison.

My friend Ben Blanchard and I tried fishing the Rogue River Jetty in Gold Beach, but the sea lion sirens were deafening, so we didn’t stay there long.

***

On the drive back to Brookings, we noticed a small creek flowing over the beach between some large rock formations. It looked idyllic, so we parked and walked down.

Myers Creek is a gorgeous beach with extreme terrain that includes monoliths so large, they make people look like insects.

It ended up being Myers Creek, and we fished in the surf where it flowed in. We managed a few small Redtail Surfperch, but the fish weren’t interested in our shrimp. The beach was littered with mussels, and on a whim, we decided to use them as bait.

Almost immediately, I caught a right-eyed flatfish. It took years for me to identify it as a Speckled Sanddab because these fish are usually left-eyed flatfish (meaning their eyes are on the left side of their bodies), but occasionally, they can be right-eyed.

It was barely five inches in length, but I’m always happy to add a new species.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #26 — Yellowtail Rockfish.

Species #24 — Redtail Surfperch

Redtail Surfperch are common on the south coast, but so are Calico Surperch. Redtails can be distinguished by two distinguishing features: (1) the markings on the sides of Redtails appear more like stripes or columns, and (2) the longest dorsal ray is noticeably longer than the rest of the rays.

Species: Redtail Surfperch (Amphistichus rhodoterus)
Location: Winchuck River Mouth, Brookings-Harbor, OR
Date: September 8, 2009

From a journal entry of a same date:

“With careful planning, and about $220 apiece, Ben (Blanchard) and I got to go on an incredible trip. The drive was full of conversation and excitement. The worst part of the drive was the last 20 miles to Brookings, where construction was underway.

When we got to Harbor, we ate lunch and planned the rest of the day. The seagulls here were even more voracious, eating every scrap that we did not want. Once I was done with my pear, I threw the core on the ground, thinking that the birds would pick it apart. One greedy seagull proceeded to eat the whole thing in one bite. Imagine how horrified it was when it realized the pear core was too big to swallow. For several minutes he entertained us with his gluttonous ways, hopping around, flapping this way and that, and making some sort of pained combination of wheezing and squawking noises before finally getting it down.

We spent some time finding the location of the charter boat we expected to take the next day, scouting bait shops, and getting some answers from the owner of Chetco Outdoor Store. He said we reminded him of himself at his age and gave us the tackle we needed free of charge.

***

Arriving at the Winchuck River Mouth at Crissey Field State Park just a few minutes’ walk from the California border, we were ready to fish. “Crappie rigs” baited with shrimp almost assured our success. Or so we thought.

It took a few hours, but eventually I did catch two small Redtail Surfperch (one just under six inches and the other eight) as daylight faded.

We crossed over to the north side of the river and prepared for an evening bite. Before we started that process, though, I decided to put on a blue-and-silver Nordic jigging iron. This lure, initially designed for Kokanee, had enticed my first surfperch (a Walleye Surfperch) on the pier in Southern California at the start of that summer, and I thought the combined shininess and castability might earn me a striper or other aggressive game fish.

At this time in my life, I had limited fishing experience and even more limited gear. Using the same light tackle trout rods in the surf wasn’t ideal, but it was my only option. As such, each cast required a lot of force. One of my casts sailed out through a small group of circling, feeding seagulls. When the lure hit the water, I felt a tension and resistance almost immediately.

Thinking I had a big fish, I worked the rod in a pump-reel motion. Before long, I noticed that a gull resting on the water was swimming toward me. Frantically, I began to worry that it was chasing my hooked fish. Then came the horrible realization: I had caught a seagull.

The hook wasn’t actually connected with bird — thankfully — but the bird was wrapped with the line. Working together, Ben and I unwrapped the line from around the poor bird and set it free.

This poor seagull had the misfortune of flying under my cast and being wrapped in line. As I tried to free the creature from entanglement, Ben stopped to take a picture.

 

I was a late bloomer. So what?

***

Darkness fell, and we fished off the rocky part of the beach and managed to catch half a dozen small lingcod (something I haven’t caught in the surf since).

Wet, cold, and hungry, we headed back to camp.

***

After the very full day, we got back to the car. A large van drove up and put its lights on us. We were terrified. Our first real trip out on our own after high school, and we were about to be kidnapped before we’d even survived alone for one night.

A man rolled down the window, and we braced for the tranquilizer darts.

***

They never came. A rather cross man informed us that the park closed at 9:00 p.m. every night. We played the ‘Dumb Kids Card’ and avoided a fine, while just missing being locked in for the night.

We hurriedly returned to Harris Beach State Park, where we were camping, and enjoyed a nice campfire meal of hot dogs and beans finished with a blackberry-peach cobbler cooked right in the coals. We relaxed, quietly reminiscing about all of the near-misses two wide-eyed teenage boys had managed in a single day.

Through it all, we still agreed: freedom sure was sweet.”

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #25 — Speckled Sanddab.

Species #23 — Brown Bullhead

My least favorite fish? That’s easy. The Brown Bullhead.

Species: Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus)
Location: Topsy Reservoir, OR
Date: May 29, 2009

If pigeons are rats with wings, bullheads are rats with fins. For whatever reason, Brown Bullhead catfish have established themselves as the invasive every real angler loves to hate in almost every major basin across the country.

Oregon is no different.

Why someone would ever decide to put these slimy filthwads in their favorite water is beyond me. They don’t grow very big. They don’t fight hard at all. They do taste okay, but they’re hard to clean, and given their all-inclusive diet and propensity for scum-dwelling, eating one is downright risky.

Still, when the sun goes down, they can pass warm summer nights and elevate a bonfire above simply drinking around a carcinogenic pit.

This particular May night was extra special because it managed to turn fishing for the lowest quarry into an even less pleasant endeavor.

***

The crappie bite was slow, and the “catfish” bite was slower. For some reason, the two Brown Bullhead I landed that night were the first I’d recorded up to that point, though I’m pretty sure I caught them before the ripe old age of 18.

On the drive home, I was pulled over right by the now-defunct Eternal Hills Cemetery. Coincidentally, this would be the first of three times I was pulled over in this exact location after a fishing trip, but that’s beside the point.

With my friend, Ben Blanchard, in the passenger seat, the cop walked up to his side of the car and motioned for me to roll down the window. Unfortunately, my window was broken at the time, and I couldn’t roll it down.

I was worried he’d be upset by having to talk through my rear passenger window. He moved past it and told me my license plate light was out. In retrospect, that car had more ailments than a hypochondriac, but I drove it five years and got a lot of traffic stops out of it.

After I told him I’d fix it, he asked simply “How much have you been drinking?”

My honest reply: “None. I don’t drink,” came automatically.

He wished us a good evening, and allowed us to go. The same guy would pull Ben and I over a month later after another trip to Topsy with the same question and the same answer.

Sometimes I miss the days where I was profiled for my car, but mostly I just appreciate being able to drive something that doesn’t look like it funnels drugs from one drop to the other.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #24 — Redtail Surfperch.

Species #14 — Green Sunfish

Ounce-for-ounce, I’d argue that Green Sunfish are the hardest-fighting freshwater fish I’ve ever caught.

Species: Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)
Location: Lost Creek Lake, OR
Date: July 27, 2005

Every day, we woke up and went on a run.

We’d come back, grab breakfast, do some sort of running game, take a break, and run again.

Lunch would come around, we’d have a short reprieve for the afternoon, then we’d go on an evening run, eat dinner, and play a running game at night.

At the time, I didn’t know how allergic I was to dairy and eggs, so the combination of muggy heat, running miles and miles every day, and fueling myself with a diet containing a lot of both did horrible things to me that I won’t go into in detail.

Anyhow, our coach did a fantastic job of melding these incredibly fun games with running. Whether the game was a timed obstacle course (this was my best game), Extreme Spoons (not my best game), scavenger hunts, or the Mileage Guess (where we’d run along a road and try to stop at exactly one mile), we got in shape while having a blast.

There was one game, however, that I lived for.

It was, as best as I can describe, what Cross Country should be. We would be dropped off in a team of two or three at one location, given a map, then tasked with returning as fast as we could. Just one caveat: we had to fill a gallon bag with ripe blackberries for the evening’s cobbler.

I lived for this. Outside of fishing, I’m honestly not very competitive. For whatever reason, this mattered to me, though. I had to win.

This time, I read the map and convinced my group to take a shortcut through the woods. It shaved off half of a mile and took us right along the lake shore.

I needed to pee, so I detoured from the group briefly as I drained the lizard. As I contemplated life, I noticed a handful of small fish bathing in the summer sun, maybe five feet from my excess hydration.

My drive to win was put on momentary hold, as those fish held my attention.

“You done yet?” came the cry that snapped me out of my daze. I closed up shop and returned to the group, but my heart wasn’t wholly in the competition anymore.

***

We won the race, but I was ambivalent. Sure, victory tasted almost as sweet as the cobbler I’d eat later that night, but those fish that clearly weren’t bass were on my mind.

Sleeping on the hard ground with dozens of teenagers giggling and freestyle rapping badly (yes, we did) all around you is difficult enough without the added distraction of a potential new fish species.

***

I dozed off at some point after the neighboring campsite stopped banging the loud doors of their cooler an impossible number of times. I awoke, powered through the morning run and breakfast, then ran back to the water.

***

This was years before I was a good fisherman, but I still had the passion. God’s mercy alone got a single feisty fish to hit my Brown Rooster Tail (gross, right?) and send my heart racing.

It fought much better than the tiny bass I expected, and I knew I’d hooked one of the mystery fish I’d seen the day before. I didn’t exactly know what it was, but that’s okay because I’d finally crossed the finish line. I’d won the race.

***

We returned to school, and after a week’s worth of reading and searching the still dial-up enabled Internet of the day, I learned it was a Green Sunfish. To-date, it’s still one of my favorite fish, despite how relatively uncommon they are in Southern Oregon.

Still, as an adult who isn’t at running camp, I can drive to one of my favorite Green Sunfish waters any time I want.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #15 — Kokanee.

Species #13 — Smallmouth Bass

Smallies are as hard-fighting as they are beautiful.

Species: Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Location: Lost Creek Lake, OR
Date: July 26, 2005

Cross County Camp was great. I mean, apart from running 80 or 90 miles in a week, it was awesome.

We always stopped and ran along the highway before we even arrived at our destination: Lost Creek Lake. In those days, I was a veritable gazelle, and though I still didn’t like running, I was young, fit, and I managed.

Our first day was hot, busy, and full of running. Much of that running took us along the paths that skirted the lake shore. The entire time, I just kept thinking of the myriad fish swimming beneath the alluring surface.

***

When Day 2 rolled around and we had some free time to rest and not run, I grabbed my fishing pole and, you guessed it, ran. I ran harder and faster than I had in two days, heading straight to a small inlet where we’d seen bass sunning themselves the day before.

I threw a curlytail crappie jig out and worked it every way I could in the summer heat.

When I finally convinced one of the fish to hit, it didn’t matter that it was only four inches long; it was a new species! It was my first Smallmouth Bass, and I was ecstatic. Even though I didn’t catch another fish during my narrow window of free time, I ran back to camp happy. And sweaty. But mostly happy.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #14 — Green Sunfish.

Species #12 — Pumpkinseed

If these fish were larger, just about anyone and anything that got near them would be in danger.

Species: Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
Location: Lost River, OR
Date: June 18, 2005

Lost River is so named because it bubbles up out of the ground, wanders around for 60 miles, then goes back into the ground not far from its origin. It is rumored to have once held a great Redband Trout fishery, but those days are decades behind us.

Today, Lost River is a weedy cesspool, polluted and overgrown from countless tons of fertilizer and other agricultural runoff. No fewer than a dozen fish species have been captured in the river — most of them invasive — so while the fishing may not be great, it’s one of the best places in Klamath County for a truly surprising fishing experience.

***

Big Springs Park in the heart of Bonanza is one of only a handful of places along the Lost River that provides public access to fishermen. Now, the Lost River still isn’t a mecca for fishermen, but when the conditions are right, it can provide a lot of small, forgettable fish.

That sounds negative, but unless small catfish, sunfish, perch, or chubs are your thing, Lost River will disappoint you most days.

But, on that warm summer day, it had me enamored. Below a tiny wooden dam, I I watched as a handful of small fish sunned themselves at the edge of a large shadow cast by the footbridge above.

This was years before I’d discovered my now go-to ice fishing jig, the Bergie Worm Jr., for all fish Centrarchidae, and I was using a small red treble hook baited with a bit of worm.

It took some effort, but I finally landed one of the small-mouthed little sunfish.

In my journal that day, I wrote “it was my first Green Sunfish,” but it wasn’t a Green Sunfish; it was a Pumpkinseed.

Years passed before I actually figured that out, but sunfish mis-identification is a problem so pervasive, I was hardly alone that day.

Pumpkinseed have since become one of my favorite species, and though Green Sunfish do fight harder per ounce than Pumpkinseed, few things that swim in freshwater do.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #13 — Smallmouth Bass.

Species #9 — Black Rockfish

My first saltwater fish, a Black Rockfish, was also my second, third, and fourth saltwater fish.

Species: Black Rockfish (Sebastes melanops)
Location: Brookings Coastline, OR
Date: May 25, 2005

Elementary school was terrible, junior high was better, and high school was all right. As a freshman, I was awkward in the way most freshman are, but I was also extra awkward in my own, special way.

I’m not sure I really knew what I wanted, or what I was interested in outside of hunting, fishing, and trapping. But even those were more intellectual interests than anything else. Sports were okay, and I competed in soccer, cross country, basketball, and track as a freshman, but I hadn’t found my niche.

Then came the Biology Trip.

It was a chance for freshman in Mr. Dean’s biology class to head to the coast for a few days of tide pool examinations, hiking, fishing, and maybe, when left to our own devices, the roasting of a banana slug over the fire and subsequent dares to eat it.

We unpacked the vans, put up the tents, and threw around a football while waiting for instructions. That was fun. I could catch pretty well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t (and still can’t, really) throw very well. So much for impressing anyone and solidifying my position as a cool jock.

I was saved from my miserable throws by an announcement. We were told anyone interested in fishing should hop in the van.

It sounded like a nice break, so I hopped in.

***

The 14- or 15-foot Bayliner was not big. In fact, it was hardly a seagoing vessel in the conventional sense. Even still, I climbed in. The harbor was calm and sheltered, and my dad had told me how “Brookings has the safest bar in Oregon,” so I didn’t think much of it.

The ocean was relatively calm, but being on it for the first time — in a small boat, no less — quickly made me queasy. I wasn’t the only one, either.

Everyone on our boat was some level of seasick, but I wasn’t the worst-off, so I was able to fish. My four-inch Wild Eye Swim Shad, the swimbait I know use more than almost any other lure, quickly snagged the bottom, and it wouldn’t be the only time that afternoon. Fortunately, I eventually got it to work long enough to catch a black fish that looked remarkably similar to a Largemouth Bass — except an evil-looking version of it: black and sinister with large spines.

Three more eventually followed suit before another angler on the boat landed the fish of a lifetime, and I later put my head entirely inside of its mouth (read about that here).

Something in me changed that day, I got a stronger sense of identity: I was a fisherman now.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #10 — Blue Rockfish.

Species #8 — Black Crappie

Black Crappie are so beautiful underwater, and even after catching thousands of them, they still evoke a certain awe in me when I see them in their flowing fins.

Species: Black Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Location: Hoover Ponds, OR
Date: March 22, 2005

Geez, I didn’t fish much back then. I hadn’t wet a line since the previous October.

In my journal, a 14-year-old Luke wrote: “I fought the fish close to shore. Thinking it was a perch, I didn’t pay much attention to it; however, I soon saw the flat body of a small crappie. It was my first.”

***

As of the fall of 2017 when I wrote this, I’ve only caught 1500 specimens of two respective species: Bluegill and Rainbow Trout. Bluegill were the first. I caught my 1500th bluegill in 2015. My 1500th Rainbow Trout, which I classify separately in two categories (Rainbow Trout and Redband Trout), actually just happened in 2017 not long before this entry was written.

Black Crappie will almost definitely be the third. At the time of writing, I’m at 1458. It’ll only take one or two good days next spring to add another species to the 1500 Club.

***

Anyhow, my knowledge of panfishing was pretty minimal back then. I actually caught my first crappie on a Brown Rooster Tail — a lure I absolutely despise  nowadays not for lack of success, but because so many people kill trout with them — when almost every crappie I’ve caught in the years since has come on a jig of some form or another.

Shockingly, a bluegill also hit that drab, miserable spinner and made my day.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #9 — Black Rockfish.