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.

1917’s Sweet Smell of Spring in Minnesota: 2 Million Pounds of Dead Buffalo & Carp

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

DEAD FISH, BUFFALO LAKE, MARTIN COUNTY, SPRING OF 1917.
Estimated 175,000 pounds smothered in this lake alone last winter. Game Warden Altenberg of Fairmount made a careful survey of the lakes of Martin county and found loss of fish in twenty lakes, the following, Martin, Charlotte, Cedar, Buffalo, Fish, North Silver, Iowa, Tuttle, Susan and East Chain, suffering most heavily. Mr. Altenbergy estimated the total loss from smothering of fish in Martin county last winter, chiefly carp and buffalo, at nearly two million pounds. There were caught and sold from the lakes of this county last season about 770,000 pounds of carp and buffalo, but several lakes were not opened for fishing by the county commissioners. The loss of fish in Martin county last winter illustrates the folly of closing shallow lakes to “rough” fishing.

The obvious question here: what do you do with 2 million pounds of dead fish? Luckily, the same issue provides some options:

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Gar Accomplished: all 5 US species

Contact with gar fires me up in a way no other group of fish does, and I know I’m not alone in appreciating these fish. The reaction they ignite in me is located somewhere deeper than the feelings touched off by more recently arrived fishes like trout, bass, or even suckers. It’s been said before by others who have found themselves addicted to these fish: they’re dinosaurs, dragons, pure predators, living fossils.

For me it is this: when I interact with a gar—hold it in my hands, feel its armor and muscle flexing and really look at it—I’m in contact with the Earth not as my familiar home, but as it truly is, stripped of maps, knowledge, and all the other baggage we pile up to create our illusion of understanding and control. A gar in hand is time travel, the Earth before names and ideas.

I know I’m probably reading too much into this, but something is definitely different about the gar experience.

Pseudo-poetic BS aside, gar are bad-asses. Muscle, teeth, armor, hunger, tenacity, and confidence add up to a fish that’s a hell of a lot of fun to catch. Small or large, they fight like crazy and no matter how careful you are, they can—and will—cut you. A truly spectacular, beautiful animal.

I have now caught all 5 gar species in the U.S. (and though I’ve caught all 4 that live in Illinois, I have yet to realize my goal of catching all 4 of them in a single day). Only the tropical gar (Atractosteus tropicus) and the Cuban gar (Atractostes tristoechus) remain, and I intend to meet both of them eventually. Until then, there is no chance I’ll lose interest in continuing to fish for the “local” gars at every opportunity.

Remember: compared to gar, all other fish are just bait.

July 12, 2014, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) Spotted gar! Spotted gar would NOT hold still. Luckily I've got shaolin monk speed.


January 6, 2014, Tamiami Trail, FL: Caught a bunch of Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) Florida gar Florida gar


August 31, 2013, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), believed to be the first one caught in Illinois since 1966. (More about this fish here, here and here.)Alligator Gar


June 7, 2012, Mississippi River, WI: My lifer longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47 inches long and about 17 pounds, caught on a hookless rope lure.

Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47" long, Mississippi River, WI, 6/7/2012 (on a hookless rope lure)


July 28, 2011, LaSalle County, IL: One of many shortnose gar (Lepisosteus platostomus) I caught the day I got my first one (8 landed in first 12 casts).

shortnosegar_7-28-2011_garvana

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.

 

Catching gator gar, making history

In 1966, at the very southern tip of Illinois, a 7 foot, 150 pound alligator gar was caught on hook and line. There are no records of any being caught (by any method) in the state after that.

1966. Three  years before I was born. No one had been to  the moon yet. Computers that couldn’t even send offers of cheap Canadian pharmaceuticals or display low-resolution pornography were the size of Econoline vans and required teams of engineers in lab coats. Hardly anyone had heard of Jimi Hendrix. Even in such remote times, however, we can recognize the familiar smell of human progress, because we had managed to eliminate yet another species, an apex predator, from big chunks of its historical range.

The alligator gar remained on Illinois’ endangered species list until 1994, presumably because in the mid-1970s 20 of them were found trapped against the water intake screens of a power plant on the Ohio River in Kentucky (where the Ohio is the border between Illinois and Kentucky).  In 1994, the species was declared extirpated from Illinois.

Efforts to reintroduce the species in Illinois began in 2010 with stocking of gators brought from hatcheries in the south (Mississippi, maybe?). Early indications are that the fish are growing as quickly as they would in those southern states where they have managed to hang on (though numbers are declining) in spite of the human propensity to misunderstand, ignore and  exterminate the oddballs and misfits of the animal  kingdom.

On a 95 degree day at the end of August, 300 miles north of the location of the 1966 catch, Ben, Garman and I set out to reintroduce gator gar to fishermen. We knew it was a needle vs. haystack situation and that needles in haystacks often remain lost, but we also knew that finding one would be an important personal (and historical) milestone.

Three hours into the expedition, Garman had landed a silver carp snagged on a crankbait, Ben had caught a shortnose gar,  and we had all cursed a few missed hooksets on spinners, cut shad and bluegills. It was hot, there was no shade, and the lack of gators was starting to make the reality of the expedition’s odds sink in. Ben headed to an adjacent lake to take a shot at  spotted gar (which he quickly succeeded in catching), and Garman followed shortly thereafter. I elected to keep trying for the gators. I had a whole bluegill (alive when I first chucked it out, but deceased the first time I checked it) with treble hooks embedded in it, no float or weight, 100 feet from shore. As Garman drove off, promising to come get me  later, I decided to check the bait again. I reeled up a pile of slack line and felt solid, unmoving resistance. A snag. I pulled and felt it dislodge. Then it pulled back!

The fight was not particularly epic, but there was a fair amount of buzzing drag as the fish took line and I resisted the urge to tighten up and crank it in. Given the stakes, I  was nervous as hell. If I had a gator on the end of my  line this was no time to rush. If I somehow lost it, it might be months before I could stop beating myself up. Still, I assumed I had a catfish or shortnose gar on until I got it to the shore and saw the wide, short snout. Adrenaline kicked in. Heart rate doubled. With Ben and Garman absent, no net, and a sudden rush of memories of fish I’d lost at the last moment, I was well  aware of how quickly things could go wrong.

It was not a large fish. It did not freak out, run or jump when it bumped against the rocks at the shore. I was able to grab it without any particular difficulty. Holding it tightly, I took it far from the water, snapped a few emergency pictures in case it somehow  got back into the water before I could call for assistance, then tried to work my phone one-handed without coating it in gar slime and without being able to see the screen in the bright sun. Garman and Ben returned, took some photos of my fish and quickly resumed fishing with patience and optimism fortified. I mostly wandered around mumbling and smiling, casting a spinner and trying not to start singing or dancing. For weeks I had been working to keep my expectations low, and against all presumed odds I had managed to make a little history. Plus, I’d beat Garman to it and he’s called Garman.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the northernmost record of an alligator gar in Illinois is one that was caught (sometime before 1923, method unknown) in the Illinois River, 50-100 miles south of our spot. Garman suggested that my fish might be the northernmost catch in history, then promptly set up his rods 25 yards further north. He landed a slightly larger gator an hour or so later, breaking my record. He mostly refrained from gloating.

After that, we landed a few channel cats, a few shortnose gar, and all had many strong runs that ended with nothing. Ben, unfortunately, did not connect with a gator that day, but since he lives not far from the spot I have no doubt he’ll fix that very soon.

I had hoped to follow the gator with a spotted gar (also a species I have yet to catch), and then get a shortnose and a longnose to complete the Illinois gar grand slam. I managed the shortnose, but the spotteds eluded me and by the time we left I was too tired and sun-baked to go in search of a longnose.

Thanks to Ben for providing the bluegill and location, to Garman for rigging suggestions, to Garman’s boat for not almost sinking until after I hopped out, and to two young alligator gar for cooperating.

It’s just a baby, as alligator gar go, but it’s fine for now.

Here are a few shots of Garman’s norhernmost gator gar ever caught:

Information on the history of alligator gar in Illinois from “Distribution of the Alligator Gar, Atractosteus spatula (Lacépède, 1803), in Illinois” by William J. Poly, in Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Sciences, vol. 94, no. 3 (2001), pp. 185-190.

A blue sucker in the hand is worth 100 in books

I have held blue suckers. A bunch of them.

Tuberculate blue sucker. They are incredibly cool looking fish. Wisconsin River, May, 2013.

Tuberculate blue sucker. They are incredibly cool looking fish. Wisconsin River, May, 2013.

 

(There are more photos below. Read on or scroll down.)

It turns out that if you start a site devoted to catostomids, and you’re very polite to the right people, you might find yourself spending a sunny May day on board a boat in the Wisconsin River with a net in your hands and hundreds of suckers (of many species) and sturgeon (of two species) surfacing all around.

Wisconsin DNR research scientist and fish expert John Lyons invited me to join him and his crew on a DNR electrofishing (shocking) boat as they stunned blue suckers (Cycleptus elongatus) and shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus), measured and weighed them, checked for existing PIT tags and tagged those that had none. In several hours we covered about 3 miles of river and pulled in 2 lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), 39 shovelnose and 17 blue suckers (9 female, 8 male). Almost all of the blue suckers had completed their spawning efforts for the year.

To many of us who choose to fish for little-known and seldom-seen species, the blue sucker is a holy grail. As befits grails and objects of quests, they are difficult to find and rarely caught on hook and line. Even among all the roughfishing experts who frequent roughfish.com, only two or three have done it. Just to taunt us, every year a few are caught (and/or snagged) by walleye anglers since walleye are also bottom-feeders. The problem for would-be blue sucker anglers is that blue suckers are at home in fast, deep water. Getting a bait to the bottom in such locations, let alone getting it to stay there long enough for a blue to find it, requires a lot of weight. Unfortunately, that weight also means it is difficult to feel a subtle bite if it happens.

The blue sucker is listed as threatened in Wisconsin (see the WI DNR blue sucker page for information and photos). Its range has been massively curtailed by the march of progress: dams, dredging, pollution, silt, reduced flow, warmer water, and other side effects of our presence.

Those same factors make life and reproduction difficult for the shovelnose and lake sturgeon, but there is a glimmer of hope.

Lyons explained that the sampling we did (and which he and his crews do periodically in the same area) is part of a project aimed at better understanding the biology—age and growth, seasonal movements, habitat use, and timing and locations of spawning—of shovelnose and lake sturgeon, paddlefish, and blue suckers in the Wisconsin River. The plan is to build a serious fish passage to let fish get around at the Prairie du Sac dam. This will make it possible for paddlefish, shovelnose, and blue suckers to re-establish themselves above the dam and it will allow lake sturgeon access to prime spawning habitat above the dam. Information gained in advance of such a major project should help make sure it is designed and operated as effectively as possible.

Lyons believes that both blue sucker and shovelnose sturgeon populations are stable in the Wisconsin River, which is good news. If they can get a passage built around the dam and the fish actually use it, the news will only get better and better.

I’m no fan of dams, and I’d prefer to see them all gone. That said, I know it’s not going to happen and I’m glad when states realize that they have an obligation to do something to reduce the negative impact of dams as much as possible.

A final note on my first experience electrofishing: it was awesome.

There was a time when I didn’t know how many interesting species were swimming around with the bass, pike and trout I fished for. Then I found out that suckers, bowfin, gar and other rough fish were literally all around me. It was a revelation. In the years since, I’ve become comfortable in the idea that I have a good sense of what the water holds, even if I can’t see it. In other words, I was ripe for another revelation.

Standing in the middle of the electrofishing boat gripping a 10 foot long net handle, trying desperately not to miss blue suckers or sturgeon, I watched literally hundreds upon hundreds of fish surface, some floating still as if dead and other launching themselves out of the water like miniature silver carp. In addition to the sturgeon and blues we were after, there were shorthead, golden and silver redhorses (and at least one river redhorse), quillback (and possibly some river and/or highfin) carpsuckers, smallmouth (and possibly bigmouth and/or black) buffalo surfacing all around me. There were also a few walleyes, smallmouth bass, mooneyes, and one large, beautiful paddlefish.Sometimes there would be a couple dozen fish within a few feet of me—fish I would have had no idea were there in such numbers if I’d been fishing.

I learned, again, that I have no accurate sense of what is below the surface. The number of suckers I saw that day without even trying was much greater than the total number of suckers I’ve seen in my life. It may have approached the total number I’ve seen in photos in books and online.

It is a useful revelation in at least two ways. First, I have a better sense of how many unseen targets are out there for me as an angler. Second, an excuse has been removed from my arsenal. I can’t as easily fish a big, healthy river like the Wisconsin and blame failure to catch fish on an absence of fish. I will have to admit to myself much more quickly than I might want to that I am probably doing something wrong.

I regret that I did not shoot any video of the constant crowds of fish passing by. Next time…

Many thanks to John Lyons, Aaron Nolan and Dan Walchak for letting me tag along.

Now, some photos. I didn’t take as many as I should have. It means I’ll have to convince them to let me join them again, and next time I’ll keep a camera close at hand the whole time.

Juvenile quillback carpsuckers on hook and line

Multi-species angler Ben Cantrell managed to catch a couple of juvenile quillbacks (Carpiodes cyprinus) recently (late March, 2013), and since I have never seen any this young—in person or in photos this clear—I asked if he would let me post them here.

(Edit: Ben has since written up this story on his own blog, along with other fishing successes. Check it out for some great fish and photos: http://bencantrellfish.blogspot.com/)

These were caught in an area of no visible flow in a side channel or small creek connected to the Wisconsin River. Ben estimates the water was 18 inches deep with a temperature of about 40°F.

Ben’s description of his tactics:

There was a massive school of shiners in the channel, so thick it was difficult to see the bottom.  Every now and then I saw a flash of silver as slightly larger fish on the bottom turned on their sides, which I assumed was feeding behavior.  I was fishing with a Tanago new half moon hook and a tiny bit of nightcrawler.  The shiners would attack the bait before it could reach the bottom, so I put a bigger piece of crawler on (a piece smaller than a pencil eraser).  This allowed the bait to get past the shiners and reach the bottom.  I left the line slack and every 5 seconds gave it a pop to see if a fish was on.  This produced 2 of those juvenile quillbacks in about 15 minutes.  They were both definitely fair hooked in the mouth.  I checked the lower lip for a nipple and did not see one in order to rule out highfin or river carpsuckers.  I suppose it’s possible that juveniles of those species do not have the nipple on their lips.  However, quillback strongly outnumber the other 2 species in the lower WI River, so I’m sticking with quillback.

In fact it is possible for the nipple to be absent from juveniles of the other two species: Etnier and Starnes (The Fishes of Tennessee, 1993, pp. 264-265, full text available online) say of the quillback “This is the only carpsucker that lacks the tiny, nipple-like projection on the lower jaw, but young carpsuckers of other species may have this process absent or weakly developed, and are very difficult to identify.” These are quillbacks, however, based on scale counts. According to Becker (The Fishes of Wisconsin, p. 630, full text available online) the quillback has 36-40 lateral line scales, while the highfin (p. 638) has 33-35 and the river (p. 634) has 34-36. There are about 39 on both of Ben’s fish. There is always the possibility that young specimens of Carpiodes can be confused with young specimens of Ictiobus. Anal fin ray counts can help distinguish the two, but are not available in these photos. Based on their bright silver coloration and general appearance, and on the shape of the suboperculum (symmetrical in Ictiobus, assymetrical in Carpiodes and Ben’s fish), I don’t think there is any need to worry about these being young buffalo.

Ben estimates (based on a measurement of his hand) that these fish were about 5.8 inches long. Given the vagaries of measurement in photos, I’m arbitrarily considering them somewhere between 5.25 and 6 inches (roughly 130 to 150 mm). Becker’s growth chart shows southern Wisconsin young-of-year quillbacks, hatched in May or June, reaching an average total length of 41 mm by the middle of July and 100-110 mm by the middle of September. He writes that “in the lower Wisconsin River, age-I quillbacks are 144 (134-155) mm TL by mid-July; age-II fish average 202 mm.” (p. 632) If Ben’s fish were 130-150 mm long, and if I’m reading the data correctly, they would be products of 2012’s spawn.

Now, let me get to the point. I love fish and fish science, but I am first and foremost a fisherman. Even worse, I’m a fisherman who chooses to pursue suckers. I have to point out the most remarkable thing about Ben’s story:

“This produced 2 of those juvenile quillbacks in about 15 minutes.”

Those who do not target quillbacks may not know that they are generally very difficult to catch fairly because of their extreme skittishness, their preference for small foods (see below), and their ability to suck in and spit out a bait faster than the vibration can travel up the line to the angler’s hand. By the time the signal has traveled from the fish to the hand, then from the hand to the brain and back to the hand as an order to react, the quillback has already expelled the bait. Because of this, quillbacks are frequently snagged outside the mouth when the angler attempts to set the hook. I know fishermen of undisputed skill and expertise who have tried for years, without success, to fair hook a single quillback despite snagging many. That Ben managed two of them in 15 minutes is both remarkable and probably annoying to some others.*

On the subject of quillbacks’ culinary habits Becker writes (p. 632):

The quillback feeds freely on debris in the bottom ooze, on plant materials, and on insect larvae. According to Harrison (1950), only small amounts of indentifiable material are found in the visceral contents: 86% undeterminable debris, 12% algae, and 2% insect remains, with a trace of other invertebrates. Very small tendipedids, sometimes occurring by the thousands, were the only insects found intact in the digestive systems examined. Other insects were represented by larvae cases, detached legs, and wings. In southeastern Wisconsin (Cahn 1927), the quillback’s food consisted of fragments of aquatic vegetation and algae, occasional Chironomus larvae, and a variety of snails (Planorbis, Physa), and small clams.

Thanks to Ben for the photos and information, and for making the rest of us feel like chumps.

The following video shows a feeding quillback (starting at about 2:40, after lots of gar, cats and others) in an aquarium at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, IA. I keep meaning to go back and get some better quality footage. (http://youtu.be/iuVh2BWmUoQ)

*(Due entirely to dumb luck, and not at all to skill or knowledge, the first sucker I ever caught was a quillback. That was several years ago and despite seeing thousands of them since, and trying every trick in my arsenal, I have never hooked another one.)