Species #57 — Northern Kahawai

Look at this beautiful beast! It wasn’t big, but it was all that it took for an ID.

Species:Northern Kahawai (Arripis xylabion)
Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand
Date: February 25, 2014

Fishing in New Zealand is all about trout. At least, that’s what we’re told.

In reality, throughout most of the North Island, saltwater fishing is king. Snapper, Kingfish, and Kahawai are the big three for anglers in the brine, and everything else plays second fiddle.

While this saltwater trinity reigns supreme on the water, there is relative little information posted or printed about fishing for them.

The saltwater fishermen keep tight lips, and for that reason, I had no idea that the term “Kahawai” was actually comprised of four separate species until this year — five years after I returned from catching them.

***

While we’re dispelling rumors about this place, let’s start with kiwis, Kiwis, and Kiwis. Two aren’t native to the island; one is.

The first kiwi, also called Chinese gooseberry, is the fruit. It’s not native and comes from Asia.

The second Kiwi is term New Zealanders use to describe themselves. They are not native, either.

The warrior Maori arrived in the 1400s in large sea canoes and proceeded to kill and eat the actual natives of the island.

The other (predominantly white) Kiwis arrived about 200 years later and set a singular precedent among white settlers of that era by making peace with the Maori and affording them (almost) all of the same people privileges as Captain James Cook’s people.

No massive wars. No forced relocations en masse. No genocide. It was so unlike the settlement of North America, South America, Australia, and Africa it restores hope in humanity — however small that hope may be.

The third Kiwi is the native bird that gave the other two their names. The bird looks like a large kiwi fruit with legs and a long bill.

The renown of the bird ultimately led to then people taking the name, too.

I’d hoped to learn that Kiwis eat kiwis like an apple — skin on — as I do, but alas, they mostly used spoons to scoop out the delicious green or yellow (golden kiwis were way more popular there) flesh. So I’m a weirdo everywhere, apparently. Cool cool.

***

Rumors dispelled, let’s talk fish. I caught a juvenile Kahawai in the lower, brackish reaches of a river using the small beef scraps I’d used in hopes of catching an eel.

It was beautiful: somewhat like a trout in shape and canvas but with vibrant purple and yellow stripes and markings. I took a few quick photos, thinking it was a juvenile Kahawai, and left it at that.

The Kahawai I caught later on the trip were adults, much larger and more memorable, so the juvenile slipped my mind.

Then, in a frenzy to identify the Estuarine Triplefin, Species #56, and get the blog post done in time without having to list “Species #56 — Unidentified,” I stumbled across a research paper discussing the four species of Kahawai:

Arripis georgianus (Called Ruff or Australian Herring)
Arripis trutta 
(Called Kahawai)
Arripis truttaceus (Called Western Australian Salmon)
Arripis xylabion (Called Giant or Northern Kahawai)

All four species live around Australia and New Zealand. All four species spend most of their lives in saltwater, migrating up rivers and streams to spawn. All four species are notorious for fighting incredibly hard per pound.

Only A. trutta and A. xylabion are routinely found in Kiwi waters, but Kahawai are more common and more widespread than their Northern counterparts and apart from size, they are almost identical.

The main difference is the upper lobe of the caudal (tail) fin. Northern Kahawai have longer tails, typically representing more than 30% of the overall body length (not including the tail) while Kahawai’s are shorter. Using software, I measured my fish from the old picture and found it to be roughly 34% of the tail-excluded body length.

Ignore my alien eyes. This is a cool fish.

It was a Northern, a Giant, an A. xylabion, a new species.

I owe my math teacher an apology. Math had come in handy.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #58 — Shortfin Eel.

Species #56 — Estuarine Triplefin

This mystery fish took five years to identify.

Species: Estuarine Triplefin (Forsterygion nigripenne)
Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand
Date: February 25, 2014

Mystery is a genre I love to read but fail to write much of. Even investigative journalism is a reach for me, and I’ve spent five years as a journalist.

The investigative process of which coffee shop makes the best breakfast sandwich in Klamath Falls (it’s the Gathering Grounds Pesto English Muffin Sandwich with bacon and prosciutto, for the record) or something equally trivial pales in comparison to the latest Dean Koontz novel anyway, so sticking to what I know is out of the question if I want to be successful in the Mystery genre.

***

This mystery begins as all stories do, in a sleepy town you’ve probably never heard of with an everyman and his ordinary life.

The man, of course, was me.

The sleepy town was Kuaotunu, a coastal village in New Zealand’s Coromandel where tranquility and paradise are locked in an eternal struggle to determine which makes the better adjective for the subtitle under
“Kuaotunu” under the town’s quaint wooden sign.

A small river which bears the same name as the town itself wends lazily through the floodplain and into the Tasman Sea along grassy slopes so strangely manicured and unlike the coastline in most places that it invokes a surreality reminiscent of Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom.

Seriously. It was a magical place.

A massive, gnarled tree with alien-looking branches stands watch over the mouth of the river. From it’s largest branch hangs a tire swing swaying like a pendulum in the waning light of the afternoon, inviting the small children frolicking around the area to sit and play.

Along one bank of the river, a campground complete with small cabins hugged the shore while further from the water, at the base of a small hillock, the town’s lone restaurant, Luke’s Kitchen, cast an unassuming shadow over the cars parked out front.

Luke’s Kitchen was, in fact, its name. My name is Luke, and while that small similarity was not lost on me, neither was the connection it drew to Gilmore Girls’ flagship diner, I’m ashamed to admit.

Jandals (that’s Kiwi for flip-flops), guitars, beach bums joined me at every meal here.

Incongruities of Mystery and Rom-Com aside, the diner served a wonderful Green Mussel Special that I gorged myself upon at least twice while spending time there before returning to the river to fish for any number of species found in its intertidal zone.

My target species was Longfin Eels, endemic to New Zealand, but I had no such luck. I managed half a dozen species and even hooked two species of eel (Shortfin and Australian Mottled) but never got my Longfin.

Since fishing for those eels was sightfishing, I noticed a lot. With my eyes intent and fixed on the water below, I noticed a lot of little fish darting around on the bottom. They looked like sculpins, so I figured I’d be able to catch a few with the tiny jigs I used Stateside.

My instincts were correct. The tiny fish barely longer than my finger devoured the small jig. I caught a lot of them in short order before trying to for something else.

This fish was both totes adorbs and an uggo.

Unfortunately, I had no idea what they were. Not that day, not that week, not when I left New Zealand.

***

I bought a few books about fish identification, including Vic Dunaway’s Sport Fish of the Pacific later in 2013. Nothing.

I read countless papers, species lists, and forums. Nothing.

2014 came and went without an answer.

Years passed, and I revisited “Unknown New Zealand Species” again because in writing the story of each and every species I’ve caught, I knew “Unknown New Zealand Species” was fast-approaching, and I refused to have an unidentified species on my list.

Since it was neither a game fish nor a freshwater fish (New Zealand has a relatively short list of native freshwater fishes), it continued to elude me.

Then, on a whim, I decided to read an article about New Zealand’s Marine Reserves. It included a contact email for questions, and I decided to give it a try.

Within 48 hours, I got a reply:

“Hi Luke,

Your fish is the estuarine triplefin, Forsterygion nigripenne. Note the three dorsal fins from which it gets its name (bullies only have 1 or 2). The triplefins are mostly a marine group but this species penetrates into estuaries and the lower reaches of rives that are a bit brackish.

Regards,

Malcolm Francis”

I had an ID! After five years of searching, my #SpeciesQuest within a #SpeciesQuest had come to an end.

***

Crazily, in the research process, I actually found a bonus species. That’s the next story: a Sci-Fi tale about cloning gone wrong, how one fish became two.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #57 — Northern Kahawai.

Species #35 — Buffalo Sculpin

Buffalo Sculpin are tenacious, tough, and tremendous fighters for their size.

Species: Buffalo Sculpin (Enophrys bison)
Location: Chetco River South Jetty, Brookings-Harbor, OR
Date: September 13, 2010

This is a story about misidentifying sculpins and feral cats and world records. Yes, you read that right.

I’ll start with the record. Here’s the picture of my record-setting fish.

This guy fought like a creature possessed. Even at World Record-size, I didn’t feel it was worth filleting.

My first saltwater All-Tackle World Record was for Buffalo Sculpin (2017), but little did I know, I actually caught my first one seven years earlier.

My first saltwater fish to earn me an All-Tackle World Record was a Buffalo Sculpin. Source: http://wrec.igfa.org/WRecordsList.aspx?lc=AllTackle&cn=Sculpin,%20buffalo.

***

For many years, the South Jetty in Brookings was home to an absurdity. When my friend Ben Blanchard and I walked out to the jetty with high hopes, we caught a furry blur dart between the rocks. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen elusive beasts living among the jetty’s numerous boulders. At first, we thought they might otters or fishers or raccoons, but then we saw a black cat.

Clear as day, it was a black cat. We’d been joking about the “Jetty Cats” that entire trip, using the tune from the commercials for Jitterbug, the white flip phone with giant buttons marketed to the elderly, to say “Jetty Cats”. It probably wasn’t as funny as we thought it was. Yet we laughed.

Still, when we arrived and saw the cats, we were surprised to see a woman with a bag of cat food leaving.

Our eyes were opened to the strangeness of people that day.

I’m neither a cat person nor a dog person. I hate the idea of pet ownership and would never allow one of those filthy beasts in my house.

But Ben’s a cat person, and even he thought it was a little crazy.

The lady had noticed there were feral cats living in the jetty and began setting cage traps for them. She’d take them to get spayed or neutered (I thought this part was admirable, at least), then bring them back.

More than 20 feral cats lived among the rocks after a few years of this behavior, and the natural food supplies of crab and fish scraps wore thin (one of the many reasons why feral cats should be shot on sight: they destroy wildlife populations), she began bringing bowls and feeding them catfood.

She thought it was completely normal. Crazy Cat Lady.

She left, and we had no shortage of jokes for the rest of the afternoon.

Sidenote: In 2017, I came back found that the cats were either all gone or mostly gone, having been replaced by a number of surprisingly-fearless raccoons. 

***

Cats aside, this is a fishing blog.

Using Berkely Gulp! Sandworms, we’d done quite well before. But alas, it wasn’t to be that day. I caught a single fish that we misidentified as a Cabezon and wouldn’t correctly identify for a long time after as the Buffalo Sculpin it was.

The fish was all head. Though it was just over eight inches long, its head was probably four inches wide. These fish have a weird body shape, but fight really well — even when small.

Buffalo Sculpins have a strange body shape. This was my All-Tackle World Record and at 14 inches long, it was almost 8 inches across the head.

It wasn’t glamorous, but it was a new species and a great story to go with it. Years later, when I set my world record, I still remembered the first one I’d caught some many years and so many Jetty Cats ago.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #36 — Canary Rockfish.

Species #33 — Sacramento Perch

Sacramento Perch kind of look like crappie, but if you look a little closer, they have their own unique aesthetic among sunfish.

Species: Sacramento Perch (Archoplites interruptus)
Location: Topsy Reservoir, Keno, OR
Date: June 14, 2010

There wasn’t anything crazy about this day. In fact, apart from the fact that spelling the word “Sacramento” has been a lifelong struggle, there isn’t much to tell.

I always spell it “Sacremento” instead of “Sacramento,” but I live with my imperfections.

But this is a story about fishing — not spelling — and I spell fishing “S-U-C-C-E-S-S”.

As it happens, that day was quite successful. Using a small crappie jig, I landed 20 fish. My catch was composed of Black Crappie (13), Tui Chub (4), Pumpkinseed (2), and my first-ever Sacramento Perch.

Sac Perch look similar enough to Black Crappie that, to the unobservant angler, they might be just another fish for the Yeti Cooler. But these fish are unique for a number of reasons:

1) They’re the only fish in the family Centrarchidae (bass and sunfish) native west of the Mississippi), swimming with a native range in Central California.

2) They spawn later than all other sunfish, so in waters where other sunfish live, Sac Perch are usually out-competed. Bluegills and Redears and Pumpkinseed spawn, then all of their fry hatches and eats the eggs of the Sac Perch which spawn as much as six weeks later.

3) Sacramento Perch are one of the only species of fish that is almost entirely extinct in its native range yet nowhere near extinct as a species because of its other, non-native distributions like those in Oregon.

4) Sacramento Perch are only found — officially — in two locations in Oregon: Topsy Reservoir (Klamath River) and the Lost River. I’ve since caught them in at least three ponds where they don’t officially exist, but that’s beside the point.

I’ve caught less than 50 of these fish over the past 15 years. They’re still special to me, and along with Pumpkinseed, I feel that Sacramento Perch is likely my best shot at catching an Oregon State Record.

So I guess I had something to say about this fish, after all.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #34 — Cutthroat Trout.

Species #17 — Tui Chub

I remember catching chubs while fishing as a kid, but I didn’t keep records until 2004, and it was four years after that before I caught another of these underappreciated creatures.

Species: Tui Chub (Gila bicolor)
Location: Lost River
Date: April 13, 2008

Before I learned where to chase big trout in the spring, I used to drive out to Crystal Springs County Park during Spring Break or any time I had free from sports. Lonely Luke would fish for anything that would strike his lonely worm.

I’d camp on the bridge or off a point upstream of the bridge for a few hours and soak worms, rain or shine.

***

Dad had told me stories of how he used to fill his bike basket with plate-sized crappie there as a kid, and I went out with high hopes every trip. Sadly, they’d be crushed time after time.

My catch rate was miserable. I caught next-to-nothing, and I sure as Hell didn’t catch any crappie.

***

But one fine day, I caught a slimy, silver, trout-looking thing without teeth. It fought well, and it took me a moment to realize it was a chub.

I’d caught them before, but in the four years’ time since I’d decided to keep track of my fishing endeavors, and clearly it had been at least four years since I caught one.

While it technically wasn’t Species #17, for the sake of my list, it is.

And that, kids, is how to end a relatively uneventful story on a resounding low note.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #18 — Tui Chub.

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 #11 — Lingcod

I’ve yet to catch a Lingcod over 20 pounds, but I get closer every year.

Species: Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus)
Location: Brookings Coastline, OR
Date: May 26, 2005

It had started the day before. My first time on the ocean, I rode out in a small Bayliner in the afternoon. The handful of students and three chaperones who decided to brave the afteroon waves thought it would be worth it.

The newness of the experience alone would have made it worth it to me, but after watching half a dozen Black Rockfish find their way into our boat, Perry Fields, one of our chaperones, hooked into something that seemed a little bigger.

He battled the beast for awhile.

Then his rod doubled over.

If it was fighting hard before, it was now a creature possessed. His rod bobbed and bounced, and I asked if it would break. Everyone had stopped fishing now. We watched in awe as what could be nothing other than a sea monster slowly rose in the water column and made its way closer to us.

In a moment frozen in time, we saw it. Maybe 10 feet below the boat in relatively clear water, was a fish that looked positively demonic. At first, I thought it had two heads, or maybe a head shaped like a Hammerhead Shark, but it was just a large fish clamped horizontally onto a smaller fish.

It was a lingcod. The lingcod.

The smaller fish was maybe 16-18 inches in length, but the fish that had attempted to eat it was easily twice that length, maybe more.

As our teacher, Mr. Dean, went to gaff it, its jaws released the poor, hapless smaller fish, and this beast stuck momentarily in the water column maybe four feet below the boat.

“Grab me,” Mr. Dean commanded, and Mr. Wehr, our other chaperone, steadied him as he plunged the gaff over the gunwale and bent impossibly far over the boat. His body flexed, and he arched backward, the massive, writing beast hanging from the end of the three-foot gaff.

Leviathan itself railed about on the floor of the boat, actively trying to bite any- and everything it could like a cobra in its death throes. It connected with the edge of a boot, unable to sink its sinister teeth into the hard leather.

Acting quickly, Mr. Wehr cut its gills and the beast decided not to go down without a fight. It sprayed warm, frothy blood all over. My new jeans caught a globule of the deathly-dark blood and stained them.

When we got it back to shore, we were saddened to find ourselves without a scale large enough to weigh it, but it measured 45 inches in length. As teenage boys do, we dared each other to place our heads inside its massive jaws. Mine fit with room to spare.

I shuddered.

We filleted the beast out before I remember getting any pictures. The carcass was tossed into the garbage, but I asked if I could cut the cheeks out, since I’d read they were quite good. They agreed.

My grandfather’s butchery skills did not pass to me, and as I awkwardly dug out the almost-priceless meat with my old Rapala Fillet Knife in jagged strokes, the nerve endings in the sea monsters face all fired off, causing the head to shake in my hand like something out of a horror movie.

Each cheek weighed about a pound and a quarter, but my inexperience with a fillet knife probably left a quarter pound of meat in each cheek.

Still, it was the most epic thing I’d ever experienced, and I longed for a chance to catch one.

***

The next day was uneventful by comparison, but I did manage to catch a lingcod. I’d thought I was snagging the bottom too frequently, but I soon realized at least a few were fish, so I tried fighting them. On light trout tackle with eight-pound mono, it was an uphill battle (literally), but I managed to get it to the surface, where, after several attempts, my friend Christopher netted it.

The minimum length was 24 inches back then, and, you guessed it, it was 23 1/4″ long. I was forced to release my first sea monster, but I’d added a new species and set a lifelong quest in motion: catch a sea monster the size of Mr. Fields’ someday.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #12 — Pumpkinseed or read more about this unique, life-changing trip here: The Second Lesson: Fish of a Lifetime.

Species #6 — Largemouth Bass

Species: Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Location: Hoover Ponds, OR
Date: July 31, 2004

Bass fishing is the closest thing the fishing community has to professional sports. A handful of the top competitors even make a living off of it. The millions of dollars spent on endorsements, the fact that people actually watch it on television, and the sponsors lining up to put their stickers all over bass boats make it unlike the rest of the fishing world.

My first bass was so unglamorous that Kevin VanDam will probable never give me a second look. I caught it a seven-inch fish on a gold crappie jig.

It was about eight feet below me, and it was hot enough that it didn’t fight hard.

That’s it. My first bass. I wish it had been more romantic, but it was hot and dirty, and I wondered why it was so highly praised.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #7 — Brown Trout.

Species #2 — Brook Trout

Invasive Brook Trout were a staple in my childhood fishing pursuits.

 

Species: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Location: Various Southern Oregon Streams
Date: May 29, 2004

I caught dozens of these between my first fish and 2004; however since I didn’t keep records and don’t have pictures, I must defer to the journals I started in 2004 to determine species order.

Brook Trout were widely introduced to Oregon nearly 100 years prior, and they slowly encroached upon the territory of native Bull Trout. Even 15 years ago, I remember catching stringers full of Brookies with my dad and younger brothers on tiny Panther Martin (Size 2) spinners.

Limits on Rainbow Trout dropped from my early childhood 15 to 10, then to five, then ultimately down to two fish in streams before I got out of high school, but there remains no limit on Brook Trout in much of Oregon to encourage anglers to fight back against this invasive, East Coast char.

The tiny streams we fished weren’t conducive for three young boys and a their father, given the lack of fishable water, limited visibility surrounding the water, and the competitive drive I shared with my brothers only when it came to fishing.

Still, we caught fish. A 14-year-old me concluded the journal entry with “We did well today.”

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #3 — Bull Trout.