Species: White Catfish (Ameiurus catus) Location: Cosca Lake, Washington, D.C. Date: July 16, 2015
For most people, a visit to D.C. means history and tours and American nationalism. It meant all of those things to me, too, but it also meant fishing.
After spending a good chunk of time researching where to fish within a reasonable distance of my Maryland hotel room, I settled on my first stop: Cosca Lake.
The urban lake is not easily accessible. It required a long walk from the parking area, and in late July heat, anything more than five feet might as well be the the Bataan Death March.
I arrived on the lawn surrounding the lake and began to setup shop. I only had one rod, so my first bet was a handline baited with a worm while I tied up my one and only rod for the occasion.
Before I even managed to get the tiny jig on my line, the stick I’d tied the handline to started bouncing, and I pulled in what appeared to be a bullhead.
Technically, it was. Just not a Brown or Yellow Bullhead like I’d seen in my native Oregon. This was a White Bullhead, more commonly called the White Catfish.
Heck yeah! I hadn’t even cast yet, and I had a new species on the board. Sticky, sweaty weather aside, I could tell this day was shaping up nicely.
That is, until some strange dude in absurdly baggy pants came up and kept talking to me while I tried to fish. It was obnoxious, and he was just wrong on every account. After I landed a few Brown Bullhead, I decided to pick up and move to the tiny feeder creek leading into the lake.
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what they were. Not that day, not that week, not when I left New Zealand.
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:
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.
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.
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: Redtail Surfperch (Amphistichus rhodoterus) Location: Winchuck River Mouth, Brookings-Harbor, OR Date: September 8, 2009
From a journal entry of a same date:
“With careful planning, and about $220 apiece, Ben (Blanchard) and I got to go on an incredible trip. The drive was full of conversation and excitement. The worst part of the drive was the last 20 miles to Brookings, where construction was underway.
When we got to Harbor, we ate lunch and planned the rest of the day. The seagulls here were even more voracious, eating every scrap that we did not want. Once I was done with my pear, I threw the core on the ground, thinking that the birds would pick it apart. One greedy seagull proceeded to eat the whole thing in one bite. Imagine how horrified it was when it realized the pear core was too big to swallow. For several minutes he entertained us with his gluttonous ways, hopping around, flapping this way and that, and making some sort of pained combination of wheezing and squawking noises before finally getting it down.
We spent some time finding the location of the charter boat we expected to take the next day, scouting bait shops, and getting some answers from the owner of Chetco Outdoor Store. He said we reminded him of himself at his age and gave us the tackle we needed free of charge.
Arriving at the Winchuck River Mouth at Crissey Field State Park just a few minutes’ walk from the California border, we were ready to fish. “Crappie rigs” baited with shrimp almost assured our success. Or so we thought.
It took a few hours, but eventually I did catch two small Redtail Surfperch (one just under six inches and the other eight) as daylight faded.
We crossed over to the north side of the river and prepared for an evening bite. Before we started that process, though, I decided to put on a blue-and-silver Nordic jigging iron. This lure, initially designed for Kokanee, had enticed my first surfperch (a Walleye Surfperch) on the pier in Southern California at the start of that summer, and I thought the combined shininess and castability might earn me a striper or other aggressive game fish.
At this time in my life, I had limited fishing experience and even more limited gear. Using the same light tackle trout rods in the surf wasn’t ideal, but it was my only option. As such, each cast required a lot of force. One of my casts sailed out through a small group of circling, feeding seagulls. When the lure hit the water, I felt a tension and resistance almost immediately.
Thinking I had a big fish, I worked the rod in a pump-reel motion. Before long, I noticed that a gull resting on the water was swimming toward me. Frantically, I began to worry that it was chasing my hooked fish. Then came the horrible realization: I had caught a seagull.
The hook wasn’t actually connected with bird — thankfully — but the bird was wrapped with the line. Working together, Ben and I unwrapped the line from around the poor bird and set it free.
Darkness fell, and we fished off the rocky part of the beach and managed to catch half a dozen small lingcod (something I haven’t caught in the surf since).
Wet, cold, and hungry, we headed back to camp.
After the very full day, we got back to the car. A large van drove up and put its lights on us. We were terrified. Our first real trip out on our own after high school, and we were about to be kidnapped before we’d even survived alone for one night.
A man rolled down the window, and we braced for the tranquilizer darts.
They never came. A rather cross man informed us that the park closed at 9:00 p.m. every night. We played the ‘Dumb Kids Card’ and avoided a fine, while just missing being locked in for the night.
We hurriedly returned to Harris Beach State Park, where we were camping, and enjoyed a nice campfire meal of hot dogs and beans finished with a blackberry-peach cobbler cooked right in the coals. We relaxed, quietly reminiscing about all of the near-misses two wide-eyed teenage boys had managed in a single day.
Through it all, we still agreed: freedom sure was sweet.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.