Species #161 — Emerald Shiner

Species #161 — Emerald Shiner

Not to flex too hard, but Ontario’s DFW calls the Emerald Shiner “the most important commercial baitfish,” so catching one is a pretty big deal.

Species: Emerald Shiner (Notropis atherinoides)
Location: Buffalo, New York
Date: July 18, 2018

Microfishing is still relatively new to me, and the newness of it all is partially why I love it so much. This method has yet to hit the mainstream, but microfishing is a gem.

In combination, the ability to sight fish, to actually see the fish you’re targeting and the inherent challenge in getting small fish to bite on tiny tackle is an incredibly underrated pursuit.

Further, there are micros everywhere — even in the heavily pressured waters nearby you don’t think twice about — and given its relative lack of awareness, you can probably microfish within walking distance of your house.

Micros are tough to “fish out” because they’re typically too small to have food value to humans, and though they can be delicate, they are usually plentiful.

Everywhere you go, there are sculpins, chubs, minnows, killifish, anchovies, shad, darters, or shiners.

Play hard

One of my favorite experiences microfishing started out with me chasing Northern Pike the size of my leg and ended with me catching fish the size of my toe.

While visiting Buffalo, New York for a teaching conference, I used every afternoon to get out and fish. After the conference, I bowed out to the Niagara River faster than the Bills have bowed out of the playoffs in recent years.

Sorry, Lt. Colonel Schultz. I couldn’t resist.

Arriving at my destination, the Tifft Nature Reserve, I grabbed a heavy rod for pike and a smaller rod just in case any micros were visible.

I quickly spotted a nice pike. Unfortunately, it was more lifeless than the Raptors’ Finals hopes before LeBron went to the Western Conference.

Sadly, upon my arrival at a public slough of the Niagara River, this dead three-foot Northern Pike was the first thing I saw.

The second thing I saw was a school of micros, patrolling the shoreline just far enough out that I couldn’t easily reach them with my micro rod. Still, fish you can see should take priority when microfishing, so I opted to try anyhow.

I set down my regular rod which happened to be tipped with a jig and worm. It fell into the water and caught a Rock Bass, which I quickly reeled in, released, and resumed microfishing.

Micros

Some micros are notoriously difficult to catch. Most micros — especially cyprinids — are notoriously tough to identify. I couldn’t tell what these fish were in the water, and as I battled the wind to place my tiny piece of worm in the path of the school, I had no idea what they were.

The Great Lakes are home to dozens of micros alone. Often, identifying micros is tougher than catching them and if the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources didn’t have The Baitfish Primer (Free PDF for Lake Ontario Micros), identification would be rough.

Catching them was no walk in the park, but eventually I did get one to bite my Owner New Half Moon Hook.

It was obviously a cyprinid, and I assumed a shiner, but I wasn’t sure on the species. I was sure that the iridescent green-blue contrasted with bright silver was absolutely gorgeous.

 

Often, I’ll spend hours fishing a school of micros in hopes of catching more than one species, but these were pretty obviously the same species. I hadn’t identified the species yet, but I was enough of a naturalist to see they were the same, and it was time to move to greener (or at least slightly less Emerald) pastures.

I carefully unhooked the fish and put it into the photo tank to take pictures.

Photo Tanks are glass or plastic boxes not actually designed for holding fish but re-purposed by enterprising microfishermen to take highly detailed photographs of fish with their fins fully extended.

Most species retract their fins when handled, and the number of anal fin rays, dorsal fin rays, fin shape, fin size, and a host of other factors can be lost if fish are held out of the water.

I’ve always tried holding fish in my wet palm just under the surface of the water to spread out their fins, but it doesn’t always work. You also risk losing the fish before a good picture is taken.

Thus, Photo Tank.

I took a few pictures, but the tank I had at the time was old and all scratched up. Further, it was windy and I didn’t have anything to wipe water droplets off the side of the tank, so I couldn’t get the best photo.

In this case, it was enough to identify the fish: Emerald Shiner.

Fitting, considering just 750 words ago I told you that microfishing is a hidden gem.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #162 — Rainbow Darter.


Species #118 — Tidepool Sculpin

What started on a whim has become one of my favorite types of fishing: marine microfishing. Tidepool Sculpins tend to be the most numerous micros in most Oregon coastal locales.

Species: Tidepool Sculpin (Oligocottus maculosus)
Location: Newport, Oregon
Date: December 22, 2017

After discovering microfishing in the Willamette a few days earlier, I took my time staying with my brother, Gabe, during Christmas Break to expand my microfishing horizon.

After finding about as much success fishing from the pier as I’ve found dating in my late 20s, I decided to grab some dinner.

This was the highlight of my evening, as I headed to Local Ocean Seafood, which, in my opinion, is the best seafood restaurant in the state and one of the best I’ve ever had. Their crab chowder isn’t quite to die for, but it would certainly be a part of my last meal if given the choice.

Their rotating dinner menu and desserts are also phenomenal. Seriously. Take a moment and try them out.

***

I returned to the pier that night and did a little fishing in the blackness before a lightbulb emerged over my head. I could try microfishing at night in saltwater, chasing sculpins just like I did in freshwater!

The figurative lightbulb was replaced with a literal one as I donned my headlamp and took to the waters underneath the piers on the Newport waterfront.

Tides were a little higher than I’d like, and I was wearing rubber boots instead of waders, but through a spot-and-stalk effort more akin to hunting than fishing, I finally hooked a sculpin … and promptly lost it.

Fishing for these little guys involves a keen eye. You’ll have to spot their saddles against the aggregate, broken shells, rocks, sand, and kelp. It’s easier said than done over a broken bottom.

Can you spot the Tidepool Sculpin? If not, you won’t enjoy the “Where’s Waldo” book series.

This excruciating process repeated itself two or three times before I finally landed one.

I knew it was a Tidepool Sculpin, and I was stoked.

Handling it wasn’t terribly easy, especially for a microfishing novice with cold, worn-out hands dealing with an Owner New Half Moon hook, but I managed to hold it long enough to snap this less-than-ideal photo for identification. I took that picture and began reading the Mola Marine Sculpin Guide, a link you definitely want to copy and save, just to make sure.

ID confirmed.

Tidepool Sculpins are not only the most common Oregon intertidal sculpin, they have (1) smooth skin and (2) a prominent saddle in between the dorsal fins with the open end of the V-shape facing back toward the head. It’s reversed in the species with which you might otherwise confuse it.

Tidepool Sculpins often wriggle in your hands which makes them look like tiny, adorable little sea dragons. Like, how cute is this lil guy? Ignore the assorted tidal filth on my palm.

Though I thought I had it figured out, that was my one and only fish that night. I’d rose with the dawn, fished all day, and I was tired. I still had an hour to drive back to Corvegas, so I hopped in the car and went back to Gabe’s house one species richer.

If you have micro gear, it’s virtually impossible not to catch a Tidepool Sculpin on your first attempt. Tides can throw off your success rates, but they feed just as actively during the day as they do at night.

***

I’ve since discovered the beauty of tidepool microfishing, and though there are limited options on the Oregon Coast due to habitat protection laws, I’ve figured out a few places.

But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #119 — Shortnose Sucker.


Species #117 — Chiselmouth

I’ve actively fished for these during the day, but to no avail. Go figured that I catch one my first night microfishing.

Species: Chiselmouth (Acrocheilus alutaceus)
Location: Newport, Oregon
Date: December 22, 2017

Trout fishing, specifically walking and casting the shoreline with spinning gear, remains my favorite type of fishing. I also love fishing for bass with topwaters, chasing staging crappie and sunfish with ultralight tackle, tossing streamers for hungry perch

It’s pretty rare to catch any sort of micro cyprinid at night. It’s even rarer when the water is cold. I was just lucky enough to not only land a minnow on my first night microfishing, but a rare cyprinid in the middle of December.

Read about it by clicking here.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #118 — Tidepool Sculpin.


Species #116 — Torrent Sculpin

Still not the best photo, but clear enough to be used to identify your fish. Note the gray coloration and dark saddles.

Species: Torrent Sculpin (Cottus rhotheus)
Location: Corvallis, Oregon
Date: December 18, 2017

This is post 3-of-4 that will just link to an article after providing some basic identification tips.

Torrent Sculpin is the easiest sculpin species to identify in the Willamette River Basin. At least, in my opinion.

Not only do they behave differently (they’re very skittish and will shy away from light), but they look different from the other two common Willamette sculpins.

Identification tips:
1. The overall color of every Torrent Sculpin I’ve caught has been gray, whereas all Prickly and Reticulate Sculpin I’ve caught have had a brown base color. Torrents are also more consistently one base color whereas the other two area heavily mottled.

2. Torrents tend to be bigger. Every one I’ve caught has been at least four inches, with the largest almost seven. Now the other species get that big, but I’ve only caught one Reticulate over four inches long.

3. Torrents have three dark saddles beginning at the second dorsal fin. These saddles don’t extend all the way around the fish like they do in some saltwater sculpin species, but Torrents look more like saltwater sculpins than any other freshwater sculpins in Oregon.

Note the fairly solid gray coloration and visible saddles? Obvious Torrent Sculpin.

Read the story of how my first Torrent bit (not bit torrent, to be clear) by clicking here.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #117 — Chiselmouth.


Species #115 — Prickly Sculpin

Prickly Sculpin look decidedly frog-like from the front. Only the Riffle Sculpin has a mouth anything like them among Oregon sculpins.

Species: Prickly Sculpin (Cottus asper)
Location: Corvallis, Oregon
Date: December 18, 2017

Here’s another post that will just link to a story I’ve already written. Ideally, I’ll catch another Prickly Sculpin soon, so I can put it side-by-side with my Reticulate Sculpin to help with identification.

Sadly, my only photo of a Prickly Sculpin (above), is terrible.

I will add sculpin identification tips here, though, especially because Prickly Sculpin and Reticulate Sculpin. Though side-by-side, the fish do look slightly different because Prickly Sculpin have an anal fin with longer soft rays, when caught individually, they can be tough to separate.

The main characteristic is in the name: Prickly Sculpin are prickly. Their skin feels like sandpaper, while Reticulate Sculpin have smooth skin.

They share water, so that’s the most reliable way to identify them.

Read the story of all four by clicking here.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #116 — Torrent Sculpin.


Species #114 — Reticulate Sculpin

Oregon’s most common sculpin just so happened to be the first new species I caught microfishing.

Species: Reticulate Sculpin (Cottus perplexus)
Location: Corvallis, Oregon
Date: December 18, 2017

I try to provide content on my blog independent of what I publish in newspapers and magazines, but if I’ve already told a story well, there’s no point retelling it.

This is post 1-of-4 that will just link to an article after providing some basic identification tips.

The tale of my first Reticulate Sculpin was already published. It was my first attempt at microfishing and one of my most successful nights microfishing; I added four new species!

I will add sculpin identification tips here, though, especially because Prickly Sculpin and Reticulate Sculpin are so similar. Though side-by-side, the fish do look slightly different because Prickly Sculpin have an anal fin with longer soft rays, when caught individually, they can be tough to separate.

The main characteristic is in the name: Prickly Sculpin are prickly. Their skin feels like sandpaper, while Reticulate Sculpin have smooth skin.

They share water, so that’s the most reliable way to identify them.

Read the story of all four by clicking here.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #115 — Prickly Sculpin.


Species #98 — Frillfin Goby

The most fearless fish on earth are the size of your thumb: Frillfin Goby.

Species: Frillfin Goby (Bathygobius soporator)
Location: Graffiti Bridge, Pensacola, FL
Date: August 1, 2017

This is likely the most aggressive fish I’ve ever caught. I buy frozen shrimp as bait, allowing a few pieces at a time to slowly defrost in the water to achieve that perfect, almost-frozen-but-not-quite texture that best allows them to stay on a single hook.

Where I happened to be fishing in Pensacola, the shoreline was pockmarked with rocks ranging in size from peas to watermelons. When I plopped a few shrimp in the one- or two-inch-deep water at the edge of the shore, I waded past them and began fishing.

Every time I went back for more bait, I noticed tiny little monsters that could’ve been fish, eels, or some sort of Floridian parasite greedily attacking my bait. It was broad daylight, the water was shallow, and I was two feet from the shrimp, but that didn’t stop the little fishes as they made short work of bait after bait.

Since I had limited shrimp, and the bite was on fire, I was at first upset. I tried digging a little pool a few inches from the shoreline with a rock, filling it with water, and then putting the shrimp there.

That didn’t stop the little  beasties, though, as they timed the wave action and used it to propel themselves across the moist, rocky group into the pool and devour the bait only to retreat once the bait was gone.

I was intrigued. This was long before I started microfishing, and the smallest hooks I had were my (roughly) No. 16 Bergie Worm Jr. 1/64-ounce jigs. This is a lot of hook for a three-inch fish, but it proved effective when I put a tiny piece of shrimp on it, and I promptly caught several.

Since I couldn’t notice any other types of gobies amassed there in the rocks, once I caught a few, the novelty wore off, and I was back to chasing larger prey.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #99 — Pigfish.


Species #71 — Slender Sculpin

How adorable is this Slender Sculpin? I mean, OMG.

Species: Slender Sculpin (Cottus tenuis)
Location: Link River, Klamath Falls, OR
Date: December 15, 2015

Some #SpeciesHunters only worry about fish caught in the mouth on hook and line.

Disclaimer: I’m not one of them. There are numerous ways to fish, and snagging a fish, catching one by hand, shooting it with a bow, or spearfishing are all equally viable ways to fish — if legal.

This is the third species on my “Lifelist” that was first caught by means other than a hook (Thicklip Gray Mullet was snagged and Klamath River Lamprey have been caught by hand or have been attached to trout I’ve caught), I have since caught dozens of them the old-fashioned way since I discovered microfishing (S/O to Ben Cantrell for putting me onto that entirely new way of fishing), but I would count it even if that weren’t the case.

So now, my two remaining fish I didn’t hook in the mouth are just the Thicklip Gray Mullet and Klamath River Lamprey.

***

This was a pretty uneventful fish. While trout fishing in the dead of winter in just about the only place worth fishing for trout in the dead of winter, Link River, I realized the water was really low. When this happens, I usually wade out to a few of my favorite rocks to look for lures snagged by hapless anglers out of their element.

I usually find a few.

That day, I found a few of the usually rusted-beyond-hope Rooster Tails and some terminal tackle, I found nothing noteworthy. That is, until I saw a small fish trapped in a small pool of water that had apparently been isolated there when the water level dropped.

It took a minute to grab the speedy little guy, but when I did, I’d just “landed” a Slender Sculpin. My first.

Since then, I’ve caught a few microfishing, and I even helped guide Species Hunting Legend Steve Wozniak to one when he came and visited in spring of 2018. You can read that story here.

Steve Wozniak’s first Slender Sculpin. It felt good to help him onto this fish even if I couldn’t get a great picture of it.

Now I catch them by sightfishing with micro gear at night, something I call night-micro-sight-fishing and something I think I’m a pioneer of, especially considering Steve said he didn’t really fish for sculpins at night, and this is first story I’ve found that writes about that method.

Heck yeah, Luke.

***

I’ve pulled a resource from a later post to help you identify Upper Klamath Basin endemic sculpins. Read below.

To make it clearer, I’ve made this handy chart:

Know Your Upper Klamath Basin Sculpins
Skin Dorsal Fins Dorsal Spot Body Type Mouth
Klamath Lake Sculpin Rough Joined No Normal Upward-Facing
Klamath Marbled Sculpin Smooth Joined Yes Thick Downward-Facing
Slender Sculpin Smooth Separated No Normal Downward-Facing

I don’t normally post pics of fish out of chronological order, but it may help here.

Klamath Lake Sculpin — Note the joined dorsal fin without a spot? The upward-turned mouth? I also wish you could’ve felt its rough skin. These are all signs of a Klamath Lake Sculpin.

Klamath Marbled Sculpin — I only have one picture of a Klamath Marbled Sculpin, but it’s all you need. Note the joined dorsal with a big black spot? The massive, downward-facing mouth? The body thick enough to be that of an Instagram model? It also had smooth skin.

Slender Sculpin — The photo tank was a gamechanger, folks. Note the separated dorsal fins? That with the smooth skin and no remarkable or unique features indicates Slender Sculpin.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #72 — Spotted Bass.


Species #63 — Fathead Minnow

Male, spawning Fathead Minnows develop big fat, black heads.

Species: Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas)
Location: Klamath Lake, Klamath Falls, OR
Date: January 15, 2015

I’m writing this post just hours after guiding The Species King, Steve Wozniak, to his first Fathead Minnow, so it’s particularly apropos that my own written species progression puts me here at this time. Read about that trip here.

I caught my first Fathead by hand when the weather-warn minnow, both dazed and confused, came just a little to close to my reach. Minutes later, I snagged another while throwing my Rapala X-Rap 10 through a small school of them in hopes of catching a trout.

I found a place where you can catch Fatheads all day long. If I had a bass pond, you can bet they’d be the prey base…

Since the telltale black streak along the lateral line made me realize it wasn’t the usual suspects (chubs and dace), I knew I had a new species. Granted, this was still well before  I was tracking a species total, but I still added a row to my Lifetime Bag spreadsheet, and typed “2” in the box next to its newly-typed name.

It’s funny because though both methods I used to land my minnow were legal, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I got one to willingly bite a micro-rig — just weeks before Steve’s arrival.

***

Steve came to fish, but Fatheads wouldn’t cooperate. We got other targets, focusing on chubs and sculpins and even trout, but no Fatheads.

After spot-hopping and catching enough chubs to , I took them to the place I’d caught my first and second Fathead Minnows. This, our final stop, had an expiration date because both Steve and his fishing buddy Mark Spellman had to be back home that afternoon.

Time rolled up behind us like a carpet after the big show. We had an hour left, and we could feel the cold stare of the audience waiting for us to finish.

Seconds after we stopped, I noticed a school of what were clearly Fatheads feeding by the shore, and Steve went to work.

He said Mark and I could move ahead and trout fish, but I opted to drink from the fountain of his wisdom (though I used no metaphors that over-the-top) and stayed for a few minutes, talking with Steve.

It didn’t take 10 minutes for his quarry to oblige.

Steve micro-fished for a Fathead Minnow with the focused intensity of any trout or bass fisherman.

He pulled up a mouth-hooked Fathead. It wasn’t in spawning colors, but it was a male. This was significant because males and their oversized skull give the species its name.

Fun fact, right? Shut up. Just keep reading.

Though the trout didn’t cooperate for our last few minutes, that species was an ego-booster.

It was the end of a solid weekend of fishing and fueled the fire for my own species hunting once again. I’m sure Steve will tell this story from his perspective, too, and you can find it here.

Despite fishing with Steve and getting my 15 minutes, the only fat heads that day were of the tiny little invasive minnows that rolled up our trip so nicely.


Species #29 — Pacific Sardine

Occasionally, a wandering sardine or salmon smolt schools up with the anchovies in the marina. It’s always a nice surprise when a much larger baitfish surprises you.

Species: Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax)
Location: Brookings-Harbor Marina, OR
Date: September 10, 2009

Rashomon Effect 4-of-6: My Eyes

Black.

I rubbed them.

Gray.

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.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #30 — Kelp Greenling.


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