The meat in the cooler, we opted to try shore fishing the next day, and it was slow. Apart from a few Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, we were more or less getting nothing.
So we improvised, and I goofed off which my relatively new smartphone and its built-in camera.
All we caught were tiny flatfish after that, and at the time, I couldn’t identify them. That’s partly because California Halibut, a species I’d hooked before but never landed, can be left- or right-eyed.
To the non-flatfish aficianados out there, flatfish are completely flat and have all coloration and external organs on one side while the other side is plain, semi-translucent white. The white side rests on the bottom while the side with eyes, camouflage, and the mouth goes up. They rest in the sand or mud for some hapless prey species to come by, and it’s all over.
Most species are either right- or left-eyed, but California Halibut can be both. It’s more problematic that they’re usually left-eyed, and we caught five that were right-eyed that day.
Eventually, I got my ID, and Species #48 was in the bag.
Species: Grass Rockfish (Sebastes rastrelliger) Location: Mill Beach, Brookings-Harbor, OR Date: July 14, 2012
Over the years, I’ve been admittedly quite blessed when it comes to fishing. I’ve captured rare species, rare color morphs, rare body types, and frankly, I can’t complain.
One such catch was a Grass Rockfish, and I caught it on a trip that was as unlikely as any I’ve taken.
As I’ve aged, my fishing buddy group has shifted and changed. As friends have married, had kids, and moved away, their availability to fish has changed, too. I don’t fault them for it, and I’m happy they’ve found happiness in off-the-water pursuits, but I’ve never really outgrown fishing.
We started out casual, but after high school, she became my soulmate.
“Don’t worry,” well-meaning folks tell me from time to time, “you’ll find a girl who likes to fish someday.”
But I have found girls who like to fish before, and that’s great, but I don’t like to fish. I love to fish. In fact, I live to fish.
If I ever found someone who shared that passion, I might eventually give my mom the grandkids I know she wants someday, but I’ve always thrived on flying solo. Despite good friends over the years, I’ve always preferred my own company to that of anyone else’s, and so #SingleByChoice has been my honest mindset for decade in which almost all of my friends traded reels for rings.
Now, that’s not a slight against them or their wives in any way. All of my closest fishing buddies today are married with wives who let them fish a lot, but they are still certainly more restricted than I am.
One friend who moved away was Travis Lyman. He and I fished all of the time when he lived in Klamath, but when he moved and had kids, we basically stopped fishing together. Crazy, because at the time, we fished together often.
He even introduced me to one of his friends, a guy named Brian Ryckewaert, who invited me along on a spur-of-the-moment fishing trip to Brookings. For $100 toward expenses (a great deal), he let me tag along for a weekend of shore-based fishing for rockfish — something I’ve never had much success with.
We woke up incredibly early. We hoofed a lot of gear down the beach and over the rocks at low tide to our perch. We had a long board that we used to shimmy across gaps in the rocks, and when we finally made it to our destination, it was still dark.
Using anchovies as bait, we did quite well on Black Rockfish and even picked up a few Lingcod. As time wore on, I decided to mix it up and started throwing lures. I got a few smaller Blacks to dart out from the rocks and kelp and smash my WildEye Swim Shad before I decided to switch to shrimp and target surfperch.
At the time, this was the biggest Greenling I’d ever caught.The surfperch and greenling were a nice bonus, but I released the greenling, thinking I could catch a bigger groundfish instead. I also released the surfperch because my one experience eating them had been poor, so I thought they tasted bad. Idiot. I now know they taste great, and I kick myself for releasing the big Redtail Surfperch and Calico Surfperch I caught that day, since I’ve never been able to eat Calico.
I stuck with shrimp and got a bigger fish to play. I was surprised to see it was a rockfish as I brought it close, and I immediately thought it was a brown because of the coloration.
I later learned it was a Grass Rockfish.
To this day, it remains the only rockfish over eight inches that I’ve ever caught on shrimp.
First, the color was wrong. The body was neither blue nor slightly mottled as in all of the Blues I’d previously caught. Its coloration was dark brown/gray, just like a Black Rockfish.
Black 1, Blue 0.
Second, the head was wrong for a Black. It was striped like a Blue. Only the stripes were very faint.
Black 1, Blue 1.
Third, the fins were blue. At least, the ends of the pelvic and pectoral fins were.
Blue 2, Black 1.
Fourth, but then again, with the mouth closed, a Blue’s jaws should be even, and the bottom jaw of this fish was victim of the underbite found in Blacks.
Black 2, Blue 2.
It was tied, but the deckhand told me it was just a variant of Blue Rockfish. I wasn’t convinced and recorded it as a “Black/Blue Rockfish Hybrid” in my journals. I caught three more in the time it took for them to be identified as their own, unique species, recording each one as “Black/Blue Rockfish Hybrid” in my increasingly digital records.
That wasn’t the first time my identification had been corrected, resulting in a new species, but it remains the only time a species I’d already caught became a species new to science.
In the Fall of 2017, I got a Deacon just over two pounds with Tidewinds Sportfishing, thanks to Captain Levi Schlect that will be a world record if I submit it. I saved the line sample, had multiple pictures and witnesses, but I just don’t know if a Deacon of that size is worth the hassle for a record?
Update 2019: I lost the line sample. I’d set it aside with some old fishing gear and threw it away. Guess I’ll have to catch another one…
I rewrote this story later for a column. Read it here.
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: Speckled Sanddab (Citharichthys stigmaeus) Location: Myers Creek Mouth, Gold Beach, OR Date: September 9, 2009
After an eventful day, today paled in comparison.
My friend Ben Blanchard and I tried fishing the Rogue River Jetty in Gold Beach, but the sea lion sirens were deafening, so we didn’t stay there long.
On the drive back to Brookings, we noticed a small creek flowing over the beach between some large rock formations. It looked idyllic, so we parked and walked down.
It ended up being Myers Creek, and we fished in the surf where it flowed in. We managed a few small Redtail Surfperch, but the fish weren’t interested in our shrimp. The beach was littered with mussels, and on a whim, we decided to use them as bait.
Almost immediately, I caught a right-eyed flatfish. It took years for me to identify it as a Speckled Sanddab because these fish are usually left-eyed flatfish (meaning their eyes are on the left side of their bodies), but occasionally, they can be right-eyed.
It was barely five inches in length, but I’m always happy to add a new species.
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.”
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 afternoon 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.
The mind is a funny thing. How we can remember the subtle differences between the radio-edited song and the original, but draw a blank on the name of a childhood friend, I will never understand.
While I don’t understand, I do remember.
I remember loading into a red van, sitting with my freshman classmates — only a few of whom had discovered the miraculous properties of deodorant — and waiting, sweat forcefully introducing my shorts to my unmentionables, as we drove through blistering heat without functional air conditioning.
I remember setting up camp and getting filthy in the process. As the sweat and dirt formed a grainy paste on my body, I remember learning that the ocean was calm enough to take a trip out that afternoon.
I remember the salty air slapping my face and opening my mouth at just the wrong moment. I remember seeing Black Brants and Long-Tailed Ducks (still listed as Oldsquaw in my dated National Audubon Society Pocket Guide) flying in formation low over the water. I remember the rubbery little fish we used (Wildeye Swim Shad) that really worked.
But mostly, I remember the blood.
Only a handful of us wanted to try fishing that afternoon (Ben Blanchard, Christopher Puckett, Cody Toschik, and I), and we boarded the Bayliner very pensively. It was a bit intimidating, even if Brookings did have “the safest bar on the Oregon Coast.” But in a miracle of Mosaic proportions, somehow, the sea calmed, and we made it across. While we didn’t die, the lap, lap, lapping of the water against the side of the boat, the shifting horizon, and the smell of the fish we’d already caught sent several of us into a despondent state of seasickness — something I’d never before experienced.
As I stared into the gray waves, suddenly, the soprano song of a reel saved me from losing my lunch. Behind me, I watched intently as Perry Fields, one of our chaperons, hooked up.
He was making progress, inching the fish towards the surface, pump-reel, pump-reel, when the theme from Jaws began to play in my head. The fish he was fighting seemed to get a second wind, becoming exponentially stronger than it had been just moments before.
The intense minutes watching the fight culminated with a fleeting glimpse at this beast of the depths, a hulking behemoth of a fish that looked a little like the catfish I’d caught still-fishing at Crystal Springs Bridge on the Lost River, but maybe 20 times larger and clearly birthed by a demon.
Then I noticed. There were two of them. The first fish, which had hit the swimbait, was maybe 16 inches long. Not big enough to keep, but just big enough to make a tempting dinner for the fish attached to it, which was approaching three times as long.
Just as the fish got within distance of the gaff, the larger predator realized the peril it was in and released its meal, remaining stationary for just a moment too long.
It was at this moment that our biology teacher, Mr. Dean, performed what is, to this day, the greatest landing of any fish. Ever.
Just as the fish shook its head and started to dive, he leaned over the boat, drove his gaff into the water, hooked the fish, and lifted all forty-plus pounds of it over the gunwale, dropping it onto the floor of the little boat.
There wasn’t room for both of us, and this fish knew it. Many fish flop towards freedom, but this fish, this hellion, WAS TRYING TO BITE US.
As it flopped, our final chaperon, Mr. Wehr, kicked it hard in the head, before grabbing a knife and cutting its gills to put it out of its misery and sending its tormented soul back to the depths of Hell.
In its death throes, it turned into a bloody sprinkler, spraying the whole boat with its dark, syrupy blood.
As I looked at my brand-new Levi’s, I saw a spot of blood that I knew would become a stain. (It did, but those became my “fishing pants” for most of high school).
I can’t remember the exact dimensions of the fish, but I do remember that I could fit my head inside its mouth. I do remember posing for a picture (which I couldn’t track down) of four of us, standing side-by-side, all behind the fish.
It was, of course, a Lingcod.
Along with about a dozen Black Rockfish and Blue Rockfish, I caught my own Lingcod the next day, but at 23 1/4 inches, it was just shy of 24-inch minimum length (which has since been lowered to 22 inches), and I had to let it go.
To this day, I’ve never seen an Oregon ling that size. Not in pictures, not online, nowhere. They often reach that size in Alaska and British Columbia, but not down here.
That Lingcod was the first “Fish of a Lifetime” I ever saw, and I’ve been on a quest to catch my own ever since.