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 #31 — Pacific Staghorn Sculpin

The commonly used term “bullhead” is not accurate when used for any of a host of species, but the Pacific Staghorn Sculpin is the fish most victimized by this label.

Species: Pacific Staghorn Sculpin (Leptocottus armatus)
Location: Chetco River South Jetty, Brookings-Harbor, OR
Date: September 10, 2009

Rashomon Effect 6-of-6: My Hands

The phone started beeping, and I fumbled for it in the blackness. My hand found it in the dark, but as I flipped it open with my thumb, the split at the base of the thumbnail cried out with the motion.

I knew I should’ve put on hand lotion the night before.

The salt and sand and fish blood weren’t going to do me any favors, but the shower soothed my aches and pains momentarily.

***

Buckling my belt wasn’t pleasant, nor was tying my shoes. Getting my gear ready wasn’t a picnic, either. Why do so many things require using your hands?

***

Finally, I was fishing.

Braided line carves through wet skin. My left hand learned this lesson almost immediately. The weight of the line worked against me, as numerous cuts and slices joined the splits and nicks from the night before.

There was no freshwater on board, so in order to get the blood off, my only recourse was saltwater. Nothing feels better in a wound like saltwater.

Since my hands were so ravaged, I didn’t even want to use them to wipe the vomit from the corners of my mouth, so I used my sleeve. Man, I was disgusting. But I didn’t even care.

***

The boat returned to the marina, and despite the prospect of catching our own bait fish on ultralight tackle, I made a beeline for the bathroom.

Relief washed over my ailing hands with soap and water that might as well have been ecstasy in the moment.

Hands clean, I returned to the marina to chase bait.

***

The tiny fish and tiny hooks didn’t cooperate with my sausage fingers, stiffened lightly from the infection slowly setting in.

Still, we filled a bag with bait in short order and headed to the jetty.

***

After catching several species on the jetty, including my first Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, the laterally-compressed big-headed things that look more alien than fish, I was pretty excited even if they were all relatively small fish. Then my rod bent sharply, and I knew I had something bigger on the line. After a short fight, I pulled the mystery creature up to the edge of jetty and lifted it from the water.

I was dismayed to see it was a Dungeness Crab, but then hope sparked in me as I realized it might be a keeper. Not knowing how to hold crabs, I just grabbed it. It rewarded my stupidity by slicing my already-mangled finger open.

Crawfish pinch, and it can hurt a little, but it doesn’t break the skin. Crabs can carve you up like a hapless Thanksgiving turkey.

The high-pitched screech reeked of masculinity, and I watched in horror as the crustacean from Hell maintained its death grip on my finger. Finally, Ben pried it off, and we released it, realizing it was a female.

I was out of tissues, so I ripped a small strip off fabric off of my tee shirt and tried to cobble together a makeshift bandage, but it was impractical, hindering every reel and basically making my right hand useless.

We ended on a low note and headed back down the jetty to start the long journey home, where I coated my hands in the only lotion I’ve ever found that actually fixes my hands after long fishing trips: Goldbond Diabetic Hydrating Foot Lotion. It seems strange, but it works.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #32 — Cabezon.

Species #20 — Calico/Kelp Bass

The mainstay of Southern California charter fishing is the Calico or Kelp Bass.

Species: Calico/Kelp Bass (Paralabrax clathratus)
Location: Huntington Beach Coastline, CA
Date: June 12, 2008

I wrote a detailed account on how and when I caught my first Calico/Kelp Bass as part of my How I Got Hooked series.

From How I Got Hooked — The Third Lesson (Part 2/2): Determination.

“The Charter

One day of the trip included a charter fishing excursion, which I had looked forward to for years.

In fact, I’d led the class fundraising efforts throughout high school, starting a concession stand for junior high sporting events, then, seeing its success and noting that hot lunch was only served at our school three Fridays a month, starting a snack bar that served microwavable lunches and snack items once a week. It did quite well.

As our funds grew, we rolled into senior year. One of my best friends, Tony Maddalena, and I, had been given three pages of yearbook ads to sell. We sold about three times that many.

All told, our efforts had resulted in more than $12,000 that we could put towards the trip, but all I cared about was what would become my first-ever chartered fishing trip.

The opportunity to choose a half-day or full-day trip day came, and everybody wanted to do a half-day trip. I was crushed. One of the chaperones, Dan Phelps, either took pity on me or really wanted to go fishing, because he volunteered to accompany me on the full-day trip.

The barracuda had been running, and the last three boats before us had caught hundreds of them, so I was optimistic. Perhaps too optimistic, because our boat caught less than a dozen between the 50-plus anglers on board.

I had a five-footer strike my anchovy right as I brought it to the surface, slurping the soft-bodied bait right off of my hook.

I stood there, momentarily frozen, before the shock and disappointment set in.

Sure, we caught lots of Pacific Mackerel, Calico Bass, and Dan even got a brilliantly-colored, red-orange California Scorpionfish — which we were told had dorsal spines as poisonous as its flesh was delicious — but no barracuda.

On my first-ever charter fishing trip in 2008, I caught and released 8 Pacific Mackerel and kept 5 Calico Bass.
On my first-ever charter fishing trip in 2008, I caught and released eight Pacific Mackerel and kept five Calico Bass.

Returning to the house, we learned the guys on the half-day trip had caught almost a dozen species between them, including barracuda, yellowtail, and even a four-foot shark.

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #21 — Walleye Surfperch.

Species #18 — White Croaker

The Southern California Coast is lousy with White Croaker. They don’t get very big, they don’t fight well, and they’re basically the saltwater equivalent of Brown Bullhead, but they’re a new species.

Species: White Croaker (Genyonemus lineatus)
Location: Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA
Date: June 11, 2008

You meet all sorts of people fishing. Some of them are terrible. Some of them are great.

My senior year of high school, the Class of 2008 went to Seal Beach, California. Within an hour of arriving, I’d already started fishing. I camped on the pier with some of my classmates and threw out all sorts of lures and bait. I witnessed a guy land a skate of some sort or the other, and I was so excited about the possibilities.

We stayed out way too late that night trying to catch a fish but to no avail.

***

Two full days passed. I landed zero fish. Zero.

It was depressing. Though I did hook a nice California Halibut that might have hit 10 pounds, I was unable to bring it up the 30 feet or so to the pier, and just as I thought about how to do it, it broke my line.

***

On day three, I met a meth addict who helped me catch a fish.

Yeah, you read that right.

He had become addicted to meth as a teenager in Mexico. After his wife became pregnant with their first child, he found Jesus, got clean, and emigrated to the States.

When I spoke to him, he’d just celebrated his son’s fourth birthday now nearly five years clean.

He caught fish after fish, and since I was using a trout rod completely unprepared for the saltwater situation it was facing, I continued down the path of failure.

I think he felt bad for me, and he said I could fish one of his rods for awhile.

Less than an hour passed before I caught my first fish outside of the state of Oregon.

Humble doesn’t begin to describe the eight-inch White Croaker I pulled out of the brine that day, but it made my day.

I parted ways with my new friend, thanking him and wishing him the best.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #19 — Pacific Chub Mackerel.