Iris Catches the Unicorn

Iris with her first sucker ever, a Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei). Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

Iris with her first redhorse (and first sucker of any kind) ever. April 17, 2016.

As parents, we want our kids to be better than we are and to do better than we have done. The other day I got a little taste of this idea in action.

My daughters have fished as long as they’ve been able to hold a fishing pole. Both of them love it. But Iris, age 9, has developed a fishing addiction that rivals my own.

All winter we talked about the fishing we’d do when spring finally came. We talked about the species of fish found in each local stream and lake and speculated about where she’d have the best shot at catching a big carp, a pike, a gar, or a redhorse. When their birthdays came in March, the three of us went shopping and each girl got a new rod and reel, and Iris got a tackle box. A real one, with lots of space to fill. Like any dedicated angler, she brings it in the car any time there’s the slightest chance that fishing and/or lure shopping could occur.

A few weeks ago, though winter really hadn’t ended yet, Iris couldn’t take it any longer. We fished a little park pond, unsure of whether it even held any fish and, if so, what kind. The only action of the night was Iris catching the first fish of the year in our family. True to form, because this is what kids do to parents, she caught a fish that I almost never catch: a Black Crappie. Not a rare fish, not a difficult fish in general, but for some reason I rarely catch them.

  • Iris 1, Dad 0

A few days later it warmed up and I mounted my first fishing expedition of 2016, taking way too much confidence and gear to fish a great river. All I managed to do was lose two of my favorite spinners and all I could catch (aside from a thieving tree) were a scrawny White Bass and a small Freshwater Drum. Still, I was on the board.

  • Iris 1, Dad 2

After that, though, winter returned. Temps dropped (air and water), rain and then snow swelled all the creeks, and we again spent a lot of time talking about fishing and complaining about weather, making grand plans for spring. A rainy hour on the local creek brought no fish to either of us, but another quick visit to a pond got Iris a Bluegill.

  • Iris 2, Dad 2

Which Brings Us to Unicorn Day

Last week, the weather suddenly got it right. Sun, no more rain, blue skies. I semi-seriously considered taking the girls out of school for a day so we could go fishing somewhere better than a muddy little creek or a pond full of litter. If anything, the warm weather made us even more frustrated than the snow had, and by the end of the week we were both coming unhinged. Something had to be done. A plan was hatched.

On Sunday, April 17th, Iris and I packed a lunch, gathered our gear (well, most of it: I actually forgot my two main rods and had to use a spare that happened to be in the trunk) and headed for a river about an hour south. A river with no dams, clean, cold water, and lots of fish. A river that is home to at least 10 species of suckers, plus Longnose Gar, several catfish species, a bunch of bass and sunfish species, and dozens of cool minnows and other small fishes. Though it is a tributary of the Illinois River, it does not have any Silver or Bighead Carp.

A friend had caught a tuberculate River Redhorse, along with lots of other fish, a week or so earlier, so I was confident we’d get into some fish.

The day was perfect. Almost too warm, especially since the trees did not yet have leaves and there was little shade available. The water was absolutely clear, but still colder than I would have liked. Though a truck was parked at the spot and I feared having to share the river, no one was fishing there. We got our lines in the water, ate our lunches and waited. And waited. Nothing.

Iris took my Perfect Dipnet (I have to give Jonah’s Aquarium a plug here: that thing is awesome) and caught lots of tiny minnows I haven’t yet identified (and probably won’t), but the fishing was slow. When she did finally get a bite, it was a Smallmouth Bass that got off before she could land it. Other than the minnows, the only wildlife we saw was a turkey vulture that passed overhead.

A few of the darters we netted while waiting for fish to bite. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A few of the darters we netted.

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of minnows Iris netted while waiting for fish to bite. Feel free to suggest IDs in the comments, because I probably won’t get around to trying.

Lots of minnows were around, and some very small crayfish.

Iris in action. Lots of minnows were around, and some very small crayfish.

A Slow Day

We only got two bites all day. Actually, I got none and Iris got two (on her new rod). The second one was so light we didn’t even know a fish was there until we decided to check the bait. She handled it perfectly, and when the fish got close I could see it was a sucker (her first) and then that it was a redhorse. The river holds 5 (and possibly all 6) of the upper-midwestern redhorses: Shorthead, River, Golden, Silver, Black (and I suspect Greater, since they’re in neighboring streams). Iris’s fish had a gray tail and the dorsal fin and mouth of a Golden or Black. We snapped some photos, then she gave it a kiss and released it. I don’t think I was actually dancing with joy, but inside my head I was.

One of the scariest things about being the fishing addicted parent of a fishing addict kid is that I will oversell the potential of a fishing trip and it won’t pan out. It’s happened enough times that I should know better. I hate seeing the disappointment on my child’s face when she’s been skunked after I essentially promised her fish. Even worse, though, is seeing her try to hide it so I won’t feel bad. Knowing that this wouldn’t be one of those days was a huge relief (for both of us, probably).

But back to the fish. It was definitely not any of the red-tailed redhorses, and it was definitely not a Silver. Since Black Redhorse was an imaginary species (as I had established though years of trying to catch one in waters where they supposedly outnumber the other redhorses by wide margins), this one had to be a Golden. Iris didn’t care so much about the species—she was just happy to catch a fish, and doubly happy to catch a redhorse.

Moments after Iris released her fish a Bald Eagle flew over, gliding in slow motion so we’d have time to recognize the emphasis it was adding to her moment of triumph. I was too blissed out to think of grabbing the camera.

Iris before releasing her first sucker ever, a Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei). Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

Iris kisses her redhorse goodbye before releasing it.

The rest of the day passed without a bite. We netted and photographed tons of cool minnows and crayfish, and a pair of fossil hunters gave Iris two rocks with 300+ million year old fern fossils.

  • Iris 3, Dad 2

We headed home content, slightly sunburned, muddy, and already making plans for our next expedition.

Say Hello to a Mythical Creature

That night I looked at the photos. Out of habit I counted scales and fin rays, and I realized something: that fish had too many scales on its lateral line to be a Golden Redhorse. A Golden will usually have around 40-43, but this one had at least 45 and maybe as many as 47, depending where you stopped counting near the tail.  I didn’t take a good shot of the pelvic fin (because the possibility that I’d need it never crossed my mind), but in the one photo that showed it mostly spread out, there appeared to be more than 9 rays. It’s a crappy photo and not included here. (For those less obsessed with this stuff, the Black Redhorse has 10 rays in one or both pelvic fins while a Golden will only have 9.)

I emailed some biologists and asked them to count scales in case I was just plain doing it wrong somehow. I didn’t tell Iris of my suspicion. The word came back that each of the biologists, including the godfather of Moxostoma science, probably the world’s foremost authority on redhorses, that Iris’s fish was, unbelievably, an adult female Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei).

A Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei) caught by Iris Nelson. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei) caught by Iris Nelson. IL. April 17, 2016. (The orange on the scales is the reflection of her shirt.

If she was proud before that news, I don’t know what to call her feeling now. When your dad is the guy who is so nuts about redhorses that he has a website named for their genus, and he never shuts up about them, and his redhorse ID art is all over the place, and then you go and catch the one redhorse species on his ID materials that he’s never seen in real life, that’s a power move. That gets you bonus points.

  • Iris 3 (x100), Dad 2

The Black Redhorse is not necessarily the most rare of Illinois’ 6 (or 7 because we also have Smallmouth Redhorse in the state, though I know little about it) species of Moxostoma, but it does seem to be caught less often than any other. I’ve personally seen more Greater Redhorses (listed as endangered in Illinois) and River Redhorses (listed as threatened) caught in this state than Black Redhorses. I don’t know exactly why, but they may be more selective feeders than the other fish in the genus.

Coincidentally, my friend Ben, who has also been seeking a Black Redhorse for years, caught his first one that same day a couple hundred miles south of us.

So, I’m now pretty sure they do exist after all, but I might not fully believe it until I catch one.

UPDATE: A little over a month later, in the same spot, I finally caught my own unicorn. Iris was a little irked that she no longer had something on her lifelist that I didn’t, but she got over it. I think she’s scheming ways to catch other species I’ve been unable to get, and I fully support her in that.

I join the unicorn catchers club.

(Thanks to Konrad Schmidt, John Lyons and Robert Jenkins for confirming my scale count and ID of Iris’s fish.)

 

A little perspective on the relative rarity of Illinois redhorses, thanks to the Illinois Natural History Survey:

First the red-tailed species: Shorthead Redhorse (M. macrolepidotum), River Redhorse (M. carinatum), Greater Redhorse (M. valenciennesi). (There is no INHS map for Smallmouth Redhorse.):

macrolepidotumcarinatumvalenciennesi

And the gray-tailed species: Golden Redhorse (M. erythrurum), Silver Redhorse (M. anisurum), Black Redhorse (M. duquesnei)

erythrurum anisurumduquesnei

The Black Redhorse isn’t as uncommon in the collection records as 2 out of 3 red-tailed redhorses, but it’s a hell of a lot rarer than its near-twin, the Golden Redhorse. (I would guess that the Silver Redhorse is more common than this map indicates.)

More dipnet photos

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won't. Feel free to suggest IDs. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite, x-rayed by the sun. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won’t. Feel free to suggest IDs. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won't. Feel free to suggest IDs. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of little fish we netted. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won’t. Feel free to suggest IDs.

This male stoneroller (I'm not going to ID it, but it's either Central or Largescale), sporting nuptial tubercles, was just lying on the bottom of the river. No obvious signs of trauma. It had been dead a while as it was completely stiff. Very cold water, so no decomposition. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

This male stoneroller (I’m not going to ID it, but it’s either Central or Largescale), sporting nuptial tubercles, was just lying on the bottom of the river. No obvious signs of trauma. It had been dead a while as it was completely stiff. Very cold water, so no decomposition. Scooped it up with the dipnet.

I don't know what species it is, but this little (I assume) sunfish was the only one of its kind we netted. Length about 1" (2.5 cm). Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

I don’t know what species it is, but this little (I assume) sunfish was the only one of its kind we netted. Length about 1″ (2.5 cm).

 

 

 

 

 

Shortnose Gar Bonanza! (includes underwater video)

 Shortnose Gar

The Spot

There’s this spot. It’s on a river. Tough to get to: a long hike in wet grass, a rocky downhill, slipping in mud and stumbling and rolling on loose stones. Poison ivy everywhere. Trail barely visible unless you know where to look. Then you get to the river, where you slip and trip some more, and lots more poison ivy.

Most of that is not exaggerated much. You won’t like it, even if I tell you how to get there (and you’ll hate the climb back up at the end of the day).

Unless you look at the water, because at any given moment several shortnose gar are surfacing exactly where you’re looking, no matter where you’re looking. They like to bite. Especially spinners. A guy I know caught over 50 of them the other day. (I only caught 30.)

You might see Smallmouth Buffalo and Grass Carp, too. Less visible but catchable are Bowfin, Freshwater Drum, Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish, Walleye, Sauger, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Mooneye and Goldeye. And the White Bass: as aggressive and tenacious as the Shortnoses, and everywhere. I know a guy who caught over 50 of them in 5 hours the other day. I only caught about 20.

Unfortunately, Silver Carp and Bighead Carp have moved in over the last few years, and sometimes they’re everywhere. In my experience, when the carp are numerous, the gar are not easy to find and catch. Partly it’s the fact that every cast hits and bounces off multiple carp on the retrieve, often spooking an entire school to jump out of the water (you’ve seen the Silver Carp footage, right?) making it difficult to maintain a winning presentation, but it does seem like the Shortnose population (or at least the number seen and willing to bite) decreases when the carp are there in force.

But the Other Day

The other day, though, I fished for 5 hours and didn’t see a single carp of any kind. This guy I know said he saw a few Grass Carp, but I didn’t. The gar (and White Bass) were biting like crazy. Getting hits on 5 or more consecutive casts wasn’t even notable. Hooking and landing fish several casts in a row was common. I take a photo of every fish I land so I can get an accurate count at the end of the day, and as I scanned through them later I noticed several series of shots separated by only a minute or two.

White Bass

White Bass

I had blisters on my hand from setting the hook (or trying), my pants were coated in gar slime and as inflexible as armor when it dried. Hooks that started the day extremely sharp were dull by the end of the day thanks to gar bone and rocks.

Two guys fishing, well over 150 fish caught. At least twice that many bites missed or fish lost during the fight. I realized too late that I was using too light a rod, so next time I’ll use something less flexible in order to more immediately communicate my hookset to the hook itself.

Video

Since I had the GoPro with me, but not the extension pole or underwater weighted mount, I clamped it to a submerged root and weighted it down with a rock. The water was late-summer dirty and visibility was poor, but I managed to steer a few gar close enough to the camera to be visible.

Hey Jerky

Several gar came home with me to be cleaned, cured with salt and spices, then smoked long and low. The intent was to make jerky, but the result is excellent, spicy smoked fish, crisp on the outside and smooth inside. Some say that gar meat gets rubbery when cooked, but that must be due to cooking methods as both times I’ve eaten it the result has been delicious.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, etc.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, smoked paprika, etc.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar "jerky"

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar “jerky”

Shortnose Gar "jerky" after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

Shortnose Gar “jerky” after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

 

Shorthead Redhorse Spawning in Living Color

Spring is the best season. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Anyone who claims fall is better is secretly paid to say it.

Among the surest and most exciting signs of spring are the annual spawning runs of various fish in local waterways. The arrival of White Bass (Morone chrysops) in large numbers makes for exciting fishing. Though futile from a reproductive standpoint, the runs of Coho Salmon and Steelhead (Rainbow Trout) up Lake Michigan tributaries in Wisconsin and Indiana can provide some trophy fish.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015

Above all, though, the congregation of spawning suckers signals the irreversible arrival of spring. If spring is new life, rebirth, renewal, etc., then hundreds of spawning redhorses are every bit as vital a symbol as any fawn, lamb, Easter egg or daffodil.

 

On the first of May, I visited my favorite redhorse stream (where less than 2 weeks earlier I had caught what would have been the new state record shorthead redhorse) to see if anyone was home. They were.

 

I shot some photos and a little video of the spawning fish. Attempts to get underwater video with my GoPro failed because I spooked every fish in the creek in my clumsy efforts to place the camera, so that will have to wait for next spring.

 

Among many photos of semi-interesting reflections, there were a few that made the cut.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015
Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015
Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015

An album of these and the rest of the photos is at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ognelson/sets/72157654024708812

Watch the video https://youtu.be/vVG3-MDrIkA in the highest HD it will allow or lots of detail is lost. (Click the little gear icon and choose the highest quality option you see. Turn off “auto” if necessary.) If you really like hot redhorse action, click the full-screen icon in the lower right corner. You’ll be glad you did.

State Record Shorthead Redhorse Caviar

Shorthead Redhorse (female) ready to spawn

I have asked myself many times what I would do if I happened to catch a record-sized fish. I suspect most of us who fish obsessively have thought about this. There are really only two choices. You either kill it, take it to a certified scale, fill out paperwork and get the record, or you photograph the hell out of it, measure it every way you can think of, then release it and bask in the satisfaction of knowing you caught the record, even if you can’t prove it. (There are, of course, other options. The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum tracks catch-and-release world records, and many states have some sort of catch-and-release record system, plus it is possible to get a portable scale certified.)

I am mostly a catch-and-release fisherman, and always have been. It is partly a conservation-minded thing: I don’t want to kill animals that would (in my opinion) be better left to grow and reproduce. It’s not that I’m opposed to killing the fish, exactly, but that I usually see no reason to do so and lots of reasons not to, such as the fact that I’d rather spend my time catching more fish, not carrying them around, cleaning them, and cooking them. No one else in my home eats fish anyway.

That said, I’ve eaten many fish I’ve caught. Shortnose gar is a fantastic food fish: the meat is pure white, firm, boneless, and utterly without any of the “fishy” smell or flavor that repels some people from eating fish. It is, apparently, more like alligator meat than fish (having never eaten gator, I can’t confirm this). Cleaning gar is simple, though completely unlike cleaning any other fish. If I catch them in a river with a healthy population (and clean water), I sometimes keep a few. Mostly, though, in order to get back to fishing as quickly as possible, I release them (or they flip themselves out of my hand before I can decide).

I eat (usually smoked) any salmon and trout (except Lake Trout) I catch in the Great Lakes. Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Brown Trout and Steelhead (Rainbow) Trout are not native to this region, are stocked (at great expense) by state agencies solely to be caught, and are (with a few exceptions) unable to reproduce naturally, so I feel absolutely no guilt in enjoying them.

The record fish question is another thing entirely. Is killing a healthy (and perhaps genetically important) fish to claim a record anything at all beyond satisfying the ego? Seriously: what other purpose could there be? It doesn’t really add anything beyond a few data points to scientific knowledge. It might encourage a few people to take another look at an under-appreciated species, but probably not many. The only rewards for catching a state record (assuming it’s not also a new world record Largemouth Bass or Muskellunge, which would probably lead to substantial financial gain) are certificates and patches, a mention in the state’s fishing regulations booklet, perhaps a picture in the local paper, and a story to tell until, inevitably, someone breaks the record. (I think a world record would probably be a lot simpler to decide.)

Until recently, the whole question has been nothing but a thought experiment, a distraction while waiting for a bite. Though I could easily have said, having not been faced with the decision, that I would choose to release the fish, I’ve honestly never been sure what I would do.

April 21, 2015: Kendall County, IL

Fishing my favorite Illinois creek on a rainy April afternoon, I caught the fattest Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) I have ever seen. It was so much bigger than the Shortheads I usually catch there that even as I netted it I thought it might be a Greater Redhorse (M. valenciennesi), another red-tailed species that is rare but not unknown in the creek. As soon as the splashing stopped, though, I could see that it was an obvious Shorthead (short head, tiny mouth, concave dorsal fin, red tail). I could also see that it was a potential state record. The current Illinois state record Shorthead was caught in the Fox River on April 24, 2008. (Read more about it here.) It weighed in at 3.74 lbs. The weight of my fish, according to the scale built into my Lucid Fishing Grip (I get no compensation for mentioning them, but I have been very satisfied with the product and have used it for many different species of fish —including a hammerhead shark—in both fresh and salt water), was exactly 4 lbs. Though I could not remember whether I’d ever checked the scale’s accuracy with known weights, it seemed unlikely that it would be off by a quarter of a pound. That meant I had just caught the new state record and had a decision to make.

Biggest shorthead I've caught

The biggest shorthead I’ve caught.

Weighing a big shorthead

Weighing the big shorthead with Lucid grips.

Indecision Time

I have a well-documented addiction to fishing. It’s extremely difficult for me to stop. I’ve been late for a lot of dinners and I’ve been lost in unfamiliar forests after sunset. More often than not when I ignore the (at least) half of my rational mind telling me it is time to stop, I don’t catch much. Maybe it’s that I rush, knowing I should get going, and my presentation isn’t good. Maybe adrenaline causes minute muscle tremors that are transmitted through rod and line. Maybe my aura gets stormy and scares the fish. I don’t know. Still, despite knowing I’m probably not wise to keep trying, I often keep fishing.

The problem in this case is that fish seem to lose weight after being caught. I have seen several explanations, though no scientific investigations. If the fish is dead, then loss of water would be an obvious cause of weight loss. Even if kept alive, however, a stressed fish may regurgitate stomach contents and/or excrete fluid and solid wastes. In a livewell or net the fish is also not taking in any food. Maybe their ability to regulate the body’s water content is compromised by stress, causing water loss. Guess what I did. I kept fishing. For several hours. The redhorse remained alive in my landing net in the creek, but it couldn’t move around much. I transferred it to a plastic tub full of creek water for the drive home, and it was still alive when, maybe 5 hours later, I finally found a store that was open on Sunday afternoon and had a certified scale. The official weight: 3.73 lbs. That’s right: .01 pounds under the current record. I later tested my scale and found it to be very accurate, so unless I read it wrong at the creek, my fish had been a record and had lost a substantial amount of weight.

Waste Not

My ego led me to kill a fish, so I had to make sure that it was not totally in vain (and vanity). I cleaned the fish, getting a decent amount of clean, firm meat and a ton of ultra-tiny eggs. I chopped the meat (not wanting to get out the grinder for such a small job), mixed in simple seasonings, cracker crumbs and egg, coated with panko crumbs, and fried. It was delicious, and the hot oil melted any small bones that remained. Fried Redhorse balls
Redhorse fish cake

I fried one skein of eggs in basically the same way, but the tiny eggs got hard and it was a lot like eating deep-fried sand. The rest of the eggs I made into caviar. Their size meant that there was no satisfying pop possible (as you’d get with regular caviar), but the fishy, salty taste was quite good. Shorthead Redhorse eggs
Shorthead Redhorse eggsFried Redhorse eggs
Redhorse Caviar

One note on homemade caviar: if you make some and then forget it’s in the fridge for a few months, and if when you open it to share with a friend he says something like “I didn’t expect that sort of sweet, fruity taste,” then you should probably put in more salt next time AND eat it sooner.

Next Time

What will I do the next time I catch a record fish?

To be honest, I don’t know. Stay tuned.

Garz! (In hoc signo…)

Passed this sign the other day on the way to a river with a good population of Shortnose Gar (I still can’t get used to the idea that it’s now the accepted practice to capitalize common names, but I’m trying). The plan was to catch some. The sign seemed to promise me success. (In hoc signo vinces, right?) The obvious promise was broken.

A neon sign that says "GARZ."

In hoc signo vinces? Not this time. (Oglesby, IL)

 

As long as I’m posting signs of the coming of The Gar, here’s another one from a couple years ago.

Neon sign saying GAR.

Brookfield, IL

Illinois Gar Summit I, Feb. 2014

After months of hopeful but vague discussion about getting together to talk gar (and other cool fish), three of the most gar obsessed citizens of Illinois finally managed to meet at the end of February. Solomon David, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Shedd Aquarium (and see primitivefishes.com), hosted Bill Meyer (founder of garfishing.com and the Gar Angler’s Sporting Society [GASS]) and me for a full day of fish nerding.

We enjoyed a tour behind the scenes at the Shedd that allowed us to see fish the public doesn’t get to see and smell odors the public doesn’t get to smell. The humid air and fishy scent were medicine to me, given how long the world had been frozen and fishless. Thanks also to Kurt Hettiger, Senior Aquarist at the Shedd, for answering my novice questions and showing us various off-exhibit tanks and fishes. One highlight was a South American catfish the size of a large couch, with a mouth big enough to inhale a medium-sized dog. Another was Grandad, the Australian lungfish who holds the title for oldest fish in any aquarium in the world (80 to 100 years, and counting). We were there specifically to do some gar-gazing, so it was very cool to see some of the gars that were off exhibit at the time.

Over lunch we got to talk suckers with Phil Willink, formerly of the Field Museum and now a Senior Research Biologist at the Shedd.

Thanks to everyone at the Shedd for the hospitality and for giving use a glimpse into things far cooler than anyone looking at the exhibits would guess.

The second half of our day was spent in the bowels of the Field Museum of Natural History, where we had the opportunity to examine a wide variety of specimens. 30-gallon jars of preserved gars, suckers, and bowfins; skeletal gars, paddlefish, and sawfish; a 100-year-old alligator gar mount that I’ve seen in old publications (see below); two of the 30 or so harelip sucker specimens in existence (the first fish driven to extinction in North America since Europeans arrived, Lagochila lacera/Moxostoma lacerum is the subject of a very long post—it threatens to become a small book—I’ve been writing for more than a year). It was a fish nerd’s candy store. The overwhelming terror of shattering a shelf full of giant jars and drenching myself in preservative and antique fish parts kept me from grabbing everything in sight for a closer look. Barely. Thanks to Susan Mochel and everyone else at the Field Musem for allowing us into what felt like a holy place, again more interesting (to me, anyway) than the public parts of the museum. The fact that I was less than a foot of discolored, oily liquid away from a couple of gen-u-ine coelacanths is still making me giddy a month later.

This was just the first meeting. I know that dedicated freaks like us will find more excuses to get together and talk about the fishes we love. Once weather and water are conducive to fieldwork, I know we’ll be out there catching gar for science and sport, taking samples and photos, and having fun. Can’t wait. I think we’ll also work on finding more ways to educate the public—anglers and non-anglers, young and old—about the less-loved fish, such as gar, bowfin, suckers, sturgeon, etc.

If anyone’s handing out jobs at the Shedd (how about Roving Photographer and Writer at Large for a job title?), tell me where to line up.

Not wanting to derail the tour, I intentionally left my good camera at home. The photos that follow were taken with my trusty Pentax waterproof point-and-shoot. I take it everywhere with me, as it can take a beating and I won’t cry for weeks if I happen lose or crush it while fishing. That said, its photos are nothing special. I’ll return with a better camera, multiple lenses, and more time in the near future. All those dead fish whisper to me at night, but I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. I have to go back.

Illinois Gar Summit I, 2014: Bill Meyer, Olaf Nelson. Solomon David and a cenury-old (plus) Alligator Gar in the deepest recesses of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Illinois Gar Summit I, 2014: Bill Meyer, Olaf Nelson. Solomon David and a cenury-old (plus) Alligator Gar in the deepest recesses of the Field Museum in Chicago. Hypnotized by the self-timer’s flashing light, I forgot to smile.

This same gar appears in a 1905 photograph of Richard Raddatz, Field Museum staff preparator (some monitors show better than others that the gar’s base and the rope suspending it are blacked out on the negative):

FieldMuseum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar

Field Museum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar. If I ever get a job at the Field, I’m going to wear a tie and overalls every day. Every single day.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Gar scales, can't remember which species (dry specimen). Field Museum, Chicago

Gar scales, can’t remember which species (dry specimen). Field Museum, Chicago

A section of skeletal Paddlefish rostrum (the paddle). Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

A section of skeletal Paddlefish rostrum (the paddle). Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

Skeletal Paddlefish rostrum, side view. Basement of the Field Museum, Chicago.

Skeletal Paddlefish rostrum, side view. Basement of the Field Museum, Chicago.

Anyone unsure exactly what a paddlefish looks like, see this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_paddlefish or do an image search.

Fossil gar (Lepisosteus simplex) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Lepisosteus simplex) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Masillosteus janei) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Masillosteus janei) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago. Each of these jars could hold 8-10  chickens, if you had 8-10 chickens in need of pickling.

Bichirs. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Bichirs (pronounced “bikers”). Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

 

Another Gar and Roughfish podcast to download (not me this time!)

Want to hear what it means to talk without ambiguity about something you really love?

Doing his part in our ongoing effort to storm the halls of fishing power and supplant the trout and bass overlords, Garman appeared recently on the same public radio outdoors show I was on a couple weeks ago. He is much more entertaining than I was. I promise.

Download it here: Garman on "Outside" radio (380 downloads)

Thanks again to Dale Bowman for the coverage and permission to share the podcast.

Check out my previous podcast post for a link to my episode of the show and links to several other episodes with related content.

Contact our agents to inquire about optioning our stories for movies or television.

And please spend some time at garfishing.com and roughfish.com. You’ll be glad you did.

Garman shows how it’s done

Here’s the man in action, with a longnose from one of the spots he talks about in the show.

1: Bringing in a rope lured longnose. This gar was between 40" and 50" (don't recall exact length) and leaped repeatedly completely out of the water. Despite that, it had no chance of coming loose from the rope lure.1: Bringing in a rope lured longnose. This gar was between 40″ and 50″ (don’t recall exact length) and leaped repeatedly completely out of the water. Despite that, it had no chance of coming loose from the rope lure. As Garman mentions in the show, sometimes longnose gar have spots on their heads that lead people to mistake them for spotted gar. With a beak that long, though, it’s clear what this fish is.

Note that the rope lure is so well tangled in the gar's teeth that it can support the fish's weight.2: Wear gloves and be quick. Note that the rope lure is so well tangled in the gar’s teeth that it can support the fish’s weight.

3: Grab the beak with Bruce Lee speed and confidence. The fish will thrash around and if your grip is not solid, you'll drop it. A gar is a lever and has the advantage.3: Grab the beak with Bruce Lee speed and confidence. The fish will thrash around and if your grip is not solid, you’ll drop it. A gar is a lever and has the advantage.

Any fibers left in the gar's mouth could lock it shut and make feeding impossible. As long as you've got a glove on the hand that's holding the fish, you'll be fine. Take your time and do it right.4: Use needlenose pliers to get ALL the rope out of the teeth. Any fibers left in the gar’s mouth could lock it shut and make feeding impossible. As long as you’ve got a glove on the hand that’s holding the fish, you’ll be fine. Take your time and do it right.

Painting lines at known distances on your boat makes measuring a 4-5 ft. fish a lot simpler than trying to hold it still while using a tape measure.5: Measure the fish. Painting lines at known distances on your boat makes measuring a 4-5 ft. fish a lot simpler than trying to hold it still while using a tape measure, especially if you’re fishing alone or in a small boat.

Seriously. What could be more fun than that? Now catch another one.6: Smile! You have a dinosaur in your hands. Seriously. What could be more fun than that? Only one thing: catching another one.

longnose gar close-upClose up with 100,000,000 years of predatory efficiency.

 

Gar and suckers (and me) on the radio (and iTunes) today

As if the newspaper article about my deviant fishing tastes and the alligator gar I caught wasn’t enough, today a radio show is being broadcast on the same subjects. I was actually allowed to sit in a recording studio and talk for half an hour about my thoughts on fish, fishing, and more. After a week of imagining all the stupid things I might have said and strange sounds I might have made, I’m relieved to be able to say that I didn’t curse, belch, forget the names of my children, or otherwise completely screw it up. I’m still waiting for a scientist to correct my pronunciation of moxostoma, since I’ve only heard one or two people say it out loud. So chime in, scientists. There’s still time for me to be embarrassed.

Download:

It’s available through iTunes, or right here: Talking gar, suckers, fishing, family and more on "Outside" radio/podcast (305 downloads)

(Thanks to Dale Bowman and WKCC for permission to host the file on this site.)

iTunes users can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/olaf-nelson-loves-native-fishes/id424644694?i=168720244&mt=2

While you’re at it:

Previous episodes of “Outside” with a focus on gar and roughfish include:
An interview with Solomon David of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (iTunes link)
An interview with Nathan Grider about the reintroducation of alligator gar in Illinois (iTunes link)
An interview with Nick Doumel, the (another) Brookfield Angler (iTunes link)

I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting. I’m grateful to Dale for hosting a show in which mentions of gar, redhorse and other rough fish are common enough that I can’t remember them all. Anyone interested in fish and nature more generally will probably find episodes of his show worth downloading, particularly those who live in IL, IN, WI and MI.

Moxillumination

Sunshine and a cooperative little shorthead.

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

What do we call this intermediate zone between scales and fin?

What do we call this intermediate zone between scales and fin?

Is there a word or term for that zone of both rays and barely-formed scales, or for the stage of scale formation where they are more hints than scales? If not, there ought to be. Suggestions?

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) small enough to be translucent. Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) small enough to be translucent. Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

This little channel catfish (8 or 9 inches at most) also had a healthy glow when x-rayed by the sun.

Gar fans, take a look at these sites

Two gar- and bowfin-related sites I found a few days ago are worth looking at if you’ve caught that particular sickness. Both are run by Solomon David, currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation & Research at the John G. Shedd Aquarium and jointly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. (I took that text straight from the About page of one of the sites.)

http://primitivefishes.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/shedd-photos-tpg-7112013-ps-3.jpg

Tropical gar at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo by Solomon David.

First, http://primitivefishes.com is about gars, bowfin, sturgeons, paddlefishes, lungfish and other primitive fishes. Some very cool information and photos.

Second, http://lepisosteidae.net is focused on the seven species of gar in the world, David’s research, and news about gar.

Everyone who lives near or finds themselves near the city of Chicago should definitely take a trip to the Shedd Aquarium to see the gar on exhibit (and all the other cool fish and other animals). There are currently no Cuban gar being exhibited, but there are the other 6 species: longnose, shortnose, spotted, alligator, tropical and Florida.

Cool.