Species #129 — Smoothhead Sculpin

Species #129 — Smoothhead Sculpin

I had this down as a Scalyhead Sculpin at first, but after consulting with an expert, it shifted to another member of the genus: Smoothhead Sculpin. Note my reflection in the corner. #Swag.

Species: Smoothhead Sculpin (Artedius lateralis)
Location: Oregon Coast
Date: June 20, 2018

Freshwater sculpins, especially the Cottus species, are among the most difficult-to-identify fish around.

Marine sculpins aren’t quite as tough, especially with the odd Rosylip Sculpin or Buffalo Sculpin kicking around, but there are a lot of them with blurred edges. One such fish is the Smoothead Sculpin. There are three fish in this genus (Padded, Smoothhead, and Scalyhead), and they’re insanely difficult to tell apart. Strangely, the Scalyhead Sculpin is supposed to be the most common but is the only one I’ve never caught.

Honestly, I don’t even really remember how he distinguished the two, but since I’ve only caught one more in that genus (another Smoothhead) since, it hasn’t been an issue.

Lazy? Sure.

But at least I know my flaws and don’t try to *smooth* over them.

In all seriousness, I used Coastal Fish Identification: California to Alaska and the Mola Marine PNW Sculpins 3.0 supplement to help me identify them. It turns out 9-out-of-10 dentists recommend cutting your teeth on both if you’re a Lifelister in the PNW.

***

One thing that is noticeable about these particular sculpins is their massive heads, especially compared to their tidepool peers.

Look at that thing! Its head is huge.

The latest Smoothhead had me thinking it was a different, and it was. Because it was another Padded Sculpin.

I’ll get my Scalyhead eventually, though, so I’m not worried.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #130 — Mountain Whitefish.


Species #128 — Fluffy Sculpin

Undoubtedly my favorite marine micros, Fluffy Sculpin are just gorgeous little fish. This picture doesn’t do the species justice.

Species: Fluffy Sculpin (Oligocottus snyderi)
Location: Oregon Coast
Date: June 20, 2018

Do you believe in love at first sight?

I’m not sure I did, but then I looked at a picture of a Fluffy Sculpin, the most beautiful little fish you ever did see. To further sell me on it, God made sure it comes in three designer colors: green, red, and brown.

Fluffy Sculpins are, as much as is possible for a fish, actually fluffy. They have tons of cirri, little sensory receptors common in sculpins, all over the body. They are especially prevalent around the head and lend to the fish’s name.

Add to their fluffy hugability the bright, vivid base palette and a lapis lazuli-and-white checkerboard throat, and you might just be talking about the most striking fish in the Pacific Northwest.

My first one fell for my bold pickup line: a bit of shrimp on a micro hook dangling into a surf-line tidepool on an outgoing low tide.

Though visibility wasn’t great to begin with, I also had to contend with a green fish in a verdant sea of kelp and sea lettuce which didn’t make things any easier.

One I landed the fish and saw it’s unmistakable underside, I knew I had a Fluffy.

Fluffy Sculpins have a scrawled white throat and vivid blue belly.

It was my first time microfishing with a photo tank, but the water was so salty that it made my photos turn out worse than I’d expected.

Still, I got some decent pictures.

Gotta love the photo tank. I kept half a dozen species in there at a time. In the back is a partially-obscured Kelp Greenling, a Cabezon, and a Tidepool Sculpin, but the Fluffies stole the show.

I landed dozens of fish that day. Though Tidepool Sculpin and Kelp Greenling were the most numerous, I did manage a few more fluffies, including a red one.

Fluffy Sculpins can be red, too.

I haven’t caught one in a minute now, but they remain my favorite Oregon micro.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #129 — Smoothhead Sculpin.


Species #127 — Rosylip Sculpin

This is one of a dozen on so species on my Lifelist that has probably been caught by a total number of anglers in the single digits.

Species: Rosylip Sculpin (Ascelichthys rhodorus)
Location: Oregon Coast
Date: June 20, 2018

The nearshore saltwater species diversity in Oregon is pretty low. Excluding micros, there are only about 20 species you can catch from shore with any sort of realistic possibility.

This sounds high, but when compared to southern California, Florida, or even the similarly temperate Puget Sound, it’s minimal.

Sure, we have things like Pacific Sandfish and Salmon Sharks that are technically possible, but in the same way its technically possible for Shay Mitchell to finally notice me.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Though micros add some diversity, but it’s still not the most diverse place, with Black Rockfish accounting for nearly a third of all sport catch on the Oregon coast. No kidding.

So when I first discovered microfishing and then decided to try it in tidepools, it opened up a whole new world.

***

I will note that I’ve never heard of another (sport) angler-caught Rosylip Sculpin. I’ve caught half a dozen now, and a contact who works exclusively with Pacific Northwest marine sculpin research asked me where I’d caught mine, so they could get some much-needed samples, and that makes me feel pretty special.

So you think you caught one? Use the identification tools below to make sure.

 

One unique characteristic is that apart from Cabezon, Rosylips are the only Oregon marine sculpin without scales. The skin is smooth and produces a proportionately insane amount of thick slime. Every Rosylip has this characteristic.

Additionally, Rosylips are the only sculpin — marine or freshwater — found in Oregon that have no pelvic fins. They still have one, long anal fin. Every Rosylip has this characteristic. 

Also, Rosylips tend to hide under stuff. I caught and released this one, but it was the only one I’ve caught that wasn’t hiding under a rock or piece of driftwood. Mainly, I theorize, because it was staging for the pre-spawn. It was incredibly chill and just sat there for a minute or so after release and allowed me to get some good pics. Not every Rosylip has this characteristic, but most do.

Lastly, they have hot salmon edging on the top of the dorsal fin, very visible from above on most species. Not every Rosylip has this characteristic, but most do.

***

Identification aside, I’m not here to brag (that much). I’m here to tell a story. I wrote this story already, so read about it here.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #128 — Fluffy Sculpin.


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 #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 #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 #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 had caught my first Buffalo Sculpin seven years prior to my record-setting performance.

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 eight 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.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

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 than 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 from the sabiki 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 crank of the 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.

#SpeciesQuest // #CaughtOvgard

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


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