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.
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.
Species: Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) Location: Big Butte Creek, Butte Falls, OR Date: August 14, 2010
I debated how to record this species. The reason being that there are 10-to-14 living subspecies of Cutthroat Trout, and many anglers document and note each subspecies separately. Obviously I do.
And while I’d like them to be classified as separate species for my own purposes, they aren’t. So what I’ll do is tell you the stories of the subspecies of Cutthroat Trout I’ve caught so far.
Unlike my other individual species posts, I’ll add to this one every time I catch a new subspecies. So here it is: a chronological list of the all of the Cutthroat subspecies I’ve caught, beginning with the first one (Coastal), the one that made Cutthroat Trout Species #34 in my #SpeciesQuest.
Coastal Cutthroat TroutMary’s River in Corvallis is one of the best year-round fisheries for Coastal Cutts. This fish was
likely a Cutbow, though.
Speed limits are the worst. I openly oppose highway speed limits and long for the days of old where motorists could careen down the highway at absurd speeds, using only their forearms as seat belts for children bouncing around in the front seat of the car.
I kid a little, but I still think speed limits are dumb.
Unfortunately, the officer didn’t agree with me, and I was cited for doing 70 in a 55 as I made my way to Fourmile Lake to chase some of the massive Brook Trout I’d seen caught there in years’ past.
My mood was further soured when I was skunked at Fourmile Lake, beginning a lifelong hatred of a place so beautiful, yet so unproductive as a fishery (disgusting Hatchery Rainbows aside).
I decided I’d go to my native streams, making my way to Little Butte Creek. I landed a bunch of little brookies and met a guy who told me he’d caught a bunch of Westslope Cutthroat Trout in nearby Big Butte Creek earlier that day.
I didn’t think Westslope Cutthroat Trout were found West of the Cascades (in actuality, they’re not), but I hopped back into my car and drove.
Trout in streams fish the same almost everywhere, and I quickly landed small rainbows and a fish that bore faded red slashes below its jaws but otherwise looked like a Rainbow. It was, in fact, a Cutbow.
Where these species in the same genus overlap, they often hybridize. Rainbow-loving anglers have transplanted these fish all over the West outside their native range in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. While they provide great fisheries if and when the populations establish wild populations, they often out-compete native Cutthroats and/or hybridize them out of existence in much the same way invasive Brook Trout have overtaken Bull Trout.
Calling a Rainbow Trout invasive would cause most flyfishermen to have a conniption, but they are often true invasive species.
Nonetheless, both species are native to the Rogue Watershed where I was fishing, but Rainbows were just more aggressive, I guess.
When I moved upstream of a small dam between the Butte Falls Fish Hatchery and the town of Butte Falls, the small yet deep impoundment there looked perfect for a Rapala.
The respectable, 10 1/4″ Cutthroat Trout that smashed my Countdown Rapala agreed. The fish was more than half a pound and remains one of the larger Cutts I’ve ever caught.
For awhile I believed it had been a Westslope Cutthroat, but I eventually learned it was a Coastal Cutthroat Trout.
These elongated, piscivorous silver bullets are heavily spotted everywhere except their bellies and have much longer heads and larger mouths than comparably-sized Rainbows.
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout
Color variability between Cutts is tremendous. Note the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout buck on the top and the hen on the bottom.I first tried to catch Lahontans in Willow Valley Reservoir, a reservoir in Klamath County along the California border during the summer of 2016 (some six years after first catching Coastals). Unbeknownst to me, it had dried up the year before, and I was left catching Yellow Perch in the middle of the desert.
My second try came later that summer. On my way to fish the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s short carp season, I decided to take the back roads to Burns. That took me through Denio, Nevada then north to the Alvord Desert.
Once you hit the Alvord Hot Springs, the pavement ends, and you’re left on a northbound gravel road. It’s easy to drive too fast on a road that wends its way between two massive mountain ranges.
It’s also easy to hit one jackrabbit every two miles. I hit 13 (not intentionally) of the eared plaguebringers. I wondered if that was unlucky…
My destination was Mann Lake. While Apple Maps had Mann Lake and nearby Juniper Lake swapped, I eventually course-corrected.
I parked on the north shore and proceeded to fish my way around it. Seriously. Wading in the wet mud and shallow water, my legs were assaulted by some unseen menace. I’m still not sure if it was bugs or the alkalinity or what, but my legs were raw after I’d finished my loop.
It was weedy and shallow, and though I had a single trout chase a spoon up to the end of my rod and actually come out of the water after it, splashing just a yard from me, I got skunked. You can read about that trip at Mann Lake here: Taking the road less traveled from Herald and News.
The third time proved to be the charm. My friend Ben Fry and I were invited to join a group of Insta-famous anglers, including Bryan Glass (@wildtrout) and Brier Kelly (@brier_kelly).
This strain of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout almost went extinct before rebounding to become a success story, and you can read my article Second Chance at Survival from Herald and News here.
Bear River Cutthroat TroutThe pink-on-brown coloration of these fish is really unique. Coloration is one of the reasons Bear River Cutthroats are worth the trip to Utah or Wyoming.
My third subspecies of this fish was a surprise. I was hoping for a number of other Cutthroat subspecies as I traveled across Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska on my way to Officer Training School in Alabama during the summer of 2017, but the Bear River Cutthroat was the last fish I expected to catch.
Species: Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax) Location: Brookings-Harbor Marina, OR Date: September 10, 2009
Rashomon Effect 4-of-6: My Eyes
I rubbed them.
I rubbed them again.
Rheumy, blurry darkness.
I blinked a few times and then fumbled in the darkness for my glasses.
Rheumy, clear darkness.
I shuffled through the cold morning fog to the shower, the heat cleaning my eyes of the night’s sleep, but the blur remained.
My contacts cleared the blur, and I looked at my red, sleep-deprived eyes in the naked light of the single bulb above the mirror.
It would be worth it, I told myself.
The salt stung my eyes, and the bracing wind dried them out. I was sick to my stomach, but the sun helped. I donned the practically disposable sunglasses I buy in bulk on Amazon or at Walmart and caught yet another rockfish.
The boat was pleasant, but staring into the water with salt spray and flecks of fish blood flying around, blazing sun, and whipping wind makes your eyes much more tired than a day on the shore.
When the boat docked back in its slip, Ben and I took to chasing silver flashes in the marina.
As we hooked anchovies one after the next, I noticed one fish that looked different. While the anchovies looked silver in the brackish water, this fish was blue. I tried placing my bait in its path, but the rhythmic dancing of the school was choreographed to avoid my hooks then surround them, so the odds of getting that one blue fish to bite were small.
Still, as we followed the school around the marina, darting this way and that, that elusive blue glint appeared more than once. Finally, as I walked to retrieve our bait bag, I noticed an isolated blue fish that looked injured.
Since we were snagging as many anchovies as we were hooking them in the mouth, I lowered my crappie jig (the Sabiki proved to be a pain when you’d hook multiple fish due to tangles), and found purchase in the face of the lonely baitfish.
It fought and dove much harder than the anchovies, but it was still a small fish: maybe five inches in length.
As it flopped onto the dock, telltale two-toned coloration and the horizontally-aligned black spots told me it wasn’t an anchovy. The guys on the boat would later tell me it was a Pacific Sardine — the one and only sardine I’ve ever caught.
I felt fortunate to have kept my eyes on the prize, especially when Ben landed one himself a few minutes later.
The jetty was dangerous because of the massive boulders, oceanic damp, and deep holes between footholds. Eyes wide, we stepped carefully around the jetty as we caught fish for the rest of the day in the close isolation of that rock spit just a few hundred yards from the bustling beach.
Species: Yellowtail Rockfish (Sebastes flavidus) Location: Brookings-Harbor Coastline, OR Date: September 10, 2009
Good and bad often go hand-in-hand. This was one of those days. In less than 12 hours, I landed 26 fish representing 11 species (six of them new).
Since this series on my blog showcases a story for each individual species, I was presented with a problem I’ve faced before. I’ve been writing a fishing column in the Herald and News as well as stories for my blog. I occasionally have to tell the same story in different ways, using different lenses, perspectives, or even a different focus entirely.
Fortunately, I watch a lot of television, and this style — called the “Rashomon Effect” and inspired by a Kurosawa film of the same name — goes through the same story from multiple perspectives. Different characters are living the same experience, or, the same character is living different experiences based on a single choice.
I’ve written to the Rashomon Effect from one, two, or even three perspectives before, but since I captured six species on this trip, I’ll be putting my skills to the test by writing the same story from six different perspectives though I only experienced my own existence.
Rashomon Effect 1-of-6: My Stomach
A gentle purr clawed at the back of my dreams, itching me ever-closer to consciousness.
My dream-state mind, not fully in my control, rolled my body over, and my stomach sloshed.
Roaring broke the silence of the cool fall morning, and sleep fled my existence. Groggy, but fully conscious, I felt the overarching hunger and willed myself to sit up.
My bare shoulders left the covers, and the shivering — a testament to my metabolism — crawled quickly over my exposed skin.
The beast roiling in my stomach called out again, begging me to satiate it’s wild nature.
The coastal cold slept in, and as I clamored to get my things together for a walk to the showers, the chilled fog blew through me.
Another growl called out in darkness, as I nudged my friend Ben Blanchard in the sleeping bag beside my own.
Warmed by the shower and draped in temperature-appropriate clothing, I set to answering the call my stomach had been making all morning.
Before it was fully saturated, I quaffed some oatmeal. I was so hungry that I pretty much just gulped it down. The beast was far from tamed, though, so down went two more packets of oatmeal before we drove to the marina.
The boat pinballed off the waves, sloshing around as we boated fish after fish. I was excited at the prospect of filleting these stout, bass-like rockfish and eating them.
After numerous Black and Blue Rockfish found a home in my bucket, I landed a new rockfish. This fish was a muted olive-yellow with gray mottling, and the deckhand identified it as a Yellowtail Rockfish.
Species #26 was in the bag, but I was feeling awful.
All of that oatmeal satisfied my hunger but left me bloated and full. Not a good feeling when you’re prone to motion sickness on rough seas.
Each packet of oatmeal came back to haunt me. I’d catch a fish, retch. Fish, puke. Fish, barf. Fish, yak. Fish, spew.
It wasn’t great.
One thing I’ll never understand is why people clap during timeouts. Another is why I count the number of times I puke when sick. That day? 12 times.
My poor stomach just couldn’t win. Despite the excellent fishing, I was distracted by the constant gurgling and the acrid, acidic fumes permeating my sinuses.
While we waited for our fish to be filleted, Ben and I tried to catch the tiny, silver schools of minnows in the marina. Crappie jigs seemed to get a few bites, but we quickly changed tactics and just started snagging them.
We filled a small bag with baitfish for use on the jetty.
Our bait in hand, we refilled our stomachs at The Hungry Clam, and I appreciated food that much more.
I ordered fish and chips, some fries, coleslaw, and a big bowl of creamy clam chowder. It wasn’t the best I’d had, but the fish was moist with a crispy coating, the fries were thick and crunchy, and the soup was creamy and filling.
Money is no object when it comes to food, and the meal wasn’t cheap considering the source. But my stomach was reinvigorated with the hot, fried food.
We fished on the jetty until we got hungry. Dinner was at O’Holleran’s Steakhouse, and I ordered the sea scallops. Food has always been something I don’t shy away from spending money on, and the meal proved worth it.
The salad and bread started us off on the right foot, but the main course made my night.
We relaxed in front of the fire that night, further engorging ourselves with s’mores as we talked and reminisced about the day’s events.
Species: Northern Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus oregonensis) Location: Umatilla River, Pendleton, OR Date: July 21, 2008
We’ve established I hate baseball.
I respect it and those who play it, but it bores me to tears. So, when my brother Gabe’s team made it to the Little League state championship tournament for a chance at the Little League World Series, I was excited for him. Until I wasn’t.
Then I moved on to other things.
I’d just been given a cell phone as a graduation present. It flipped open and closed which seemed kind of cool, but it looked ridiculous, and it was one more thing I had to carry in my pocket.
I knew these were popular already, but they seemed a little unnecessary for everyday use. Still, I took a few really grainy photos of the fish I caught shortly after ditching the game to fish the river behind the stadium.
At the time, I had no clue what the fish were, but those photos later helped me identify them as Northern Pikeminnow.
These underrated “trash fish” aren’t the most popular sport fish, but they fight well, hit the same things trout do, and can actually grow quite large. The specimens I caught that day were all 7-to-9 inches, though.
Oh well. A new species is always better than baseball.
Species: White Crappie (Pomoxis annularis) Location: Gerber Reservoir Date: July 15, 2017
If you’ve kept up with this blog, you probably know that I started keeping fishing journals when I was 14. Let’s be real. I’m quite confident in my writing abilities now, but my early teenage prose wasn’t always the best. Still, as I look back, a few stories actually read well as written.
This is one such story.
“After hearing very good reviews of Gerber, we packed up and went there for the day. We had been told there would be an endless supply of crappies and had planned for such results. But, in the first hour, we had only caught a few bullfrogs — no fish.
The day wore on, and we eventually caught some perch on little tree frogs (yes, I’m a monster), but I wanted at least one crappie. I got my wish shortly thereafter when an eight-inch white crappie — my first — graced my line. The hope soon left, and after another hour of poor fishing, so did we.”
For those who fish for crappie a lot, you should know how to tell the difference between white and black crappie. It’s not about how dark a fish is (crappie coloration varies widely). It’s not about size.
You can occasionally tell by the spotting patterns (White Crappie have vertical stripes and Black Crappie are just randomly spotted), but where both species exist, they often hybridize. Quickly tell what predominant genes exist in a fish if their patterns aren’t clear.
It’s simple: count the hard dorsal spines. If it has six spines, it’s a White Crappie. More than six? It’s a black. I’ve caught blacks with between seven and nine spines, so there is some variability.
Species: Kokanee Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) Location: Odell Lake, OR Date: August 6, 2005
As a kid, I think I fished from a boat maybe half a dozen times. For that reason, I remember every time I had this opportunity afforded only to the wealthy very clearly.
When the family headed to Odell Lake for the first time, I worked my early teenage charms on my parents to convince them to rent a boat.
“The limit is 25 kokanee,” I argued.
“The boat will pay for itself.”
After spending nearly $100 on jigs, spoons, spinners, and flashers, another $50 for the boat rental was gravy.
As we loaded our trout poles — complete with undersized reels spooled with six-pound mono — onto the boat, we spotted several anglers cleaning stringer after stringer of chrome-bright kokanee, and we were very optimistic.
Many of my fishing stories from this stage in my life begin with naivete and end with disappointment.
This is one such story.
Despite trolling all over the bloody lake, somehow snagging half of the gear in water more than 100 feet deep, and losing two very nice fish (likely either big Browns, Bulls, or Lakers) on our way to matching sunburns, we’d picked up just a handful of fish.
The day was redeemed when we picked up a few fish jigging Gibbs and Nordic Kokanee Jigs, though that was just my family. I still only had one fish.
I was quite proud to have landed the largest fish, a 14-inch buck, which is really quite sad if you think about it.
The handful of fish we boated came home with us, as most fish we caught in my youth did. They tasted delicious, but it was a small consolation for an otherwise disappointing trip.
It would be more than a decade before I landed kokanee again, but the two fish pictured in this post did come on back-to-back casts in the fall of 2014. These ones were much larger, but I misidentified them as pre-spawn rainbows and released them.
I’ve since caught a lot more kokanee, but I haven’t kept another. This I regret and plan to change. Hopefully very soon.
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.
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.
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.