The summer of 2017 was an interesting one to say the least. I caught fish in seven countries, 26 of them being new species. Although it was busy, the summer rewarded me bountifully. Thus began an adventure I will not soon forget.
The refreshing release from my sophomore year of high school couldn't have come soon enough. After my last final, I decided to do something I hadn't done before: fish the school pond.
Our school pond was not exactly the most aesthetic of waterbodies—with a visibility of around 3 inches, it also kinda smelled. Nonetheless, there were fish here, and I was determined to catch them. My friend Sam and I, after our finals, went over to the pond to get some fly fishing practice in.
Before we started fishing, however, I spotted movement in the grass and quickly snatched up a large, angry northern watersnake. Watersnakes aren't exactly the friendliest of snake species, in quite a stark contrast with the pacifist garters I had caught earlier in the year on the campus. Although their teeth are small, watersnakes (this one especially) seem to come from the darkest depths of hell and will stop at nothing until they've bitten you, your mother, and your dog. I admit it got me a couple times before I could secure a grip on it behind its head.
Upon casting our first flies into the water, we immediately found droves of small, but ravenous green sunfish, pumpkinseeds, and bluegills. I did catch one of note: a pumpkinseed x bluegill hybrid that was the first specimen of such that i have photographed.
The sunfish got tiring quickly, so we set out some cut sunfish for bullhead bait and some corn for carp. The corn never produced, although we did see some koi swim by. How to catch them will be a mystery for another day. On the other hand, we did find a plethora of solid-sized brown bullheads, which did prove to be good fun on light tackle. And by plethora I mean it, we had bites on cut bait almost every cast.
Nothing too significant for this rushed beginning to the summer, but more was to come. Besides, I had found my new favorite brown bullhead spot.
Then it was time for the contest. This was my third year participating, and while I ended up with a much poorer performance than last year, I did end up catching some very cool fish.
June 1st was a day to knock off the easy targets. A quick walk to the golf course pond produced a largemouth bass and a bluegill, my first two species of the contest.
Wasting little time, after those two were caught I headed down to the stream to catch some other sunfish species, as well as a creek chub.
Fishing with little jigs of various sizes, I was able to pretty easily catch a creek chub, followed by a redbreast sunfish, and then a rock bass. I find that the rock bass could be targeted specifically by utilizing larger lures that the redbreasts and bluegills couldn't fit into their comparatively smaller mouths, so by upping my lure size by quite a bit, I was able to catch the rock bass I was looking for.
For some ungodly reason what eluded me on that specific outing were the green sunfish and the pumpkinseeds; otherwise prolific and aggressive species. No worries, I was sure that I would come across them later.
That night I made my way to another local pond, with the objective of catching a channel catfish for the contest. Arming myself with cut bait, I ended up connecting with a bunch of nice-sized channel catfish.
Unfortunately, self-timer shots aren't always the best option....
I decided to fish later into the night, and that was when I caught what perhaps was my most memorable fish of the contest.
As the sun dipped behind the trees, activity picked up; with my lines bouncing all over the place, likely from smaller fish nudging the bait but unable to get hooked.
Intent on the small knocks, I failed to notice that the line on one of my rods had gone completely slack. How long it had been in that state, I'm still not sure. I picked up the rod, and slowly reeled my line. I felt a little bit of weight on the end, and set the circle hook by slowly sweeping the rod to the side.
Immediately I knew that the fish was a higher caliber than the others I had caught thus far. A short fight later, however, I had it near the bank. It was still dark, and my headlight was dim, so I couldn't effectively make out its size. What I could tell, however, was that the hook was barely handing on on a tiny flap of skin. As soon as this fact became evident, the fish proceeded to death roll right next to shore and I watched with horror as the hook popped out.
Luckily, reflex kicked in and I dunked my arm into the water and scooped the fish out onto the bank before it hand a chance to regain its senses and make a break for it. Once the fish was on the bank, I realized its size. I had caught my new pb channel, a fish that crushed my previous one.
Another stroke of luck—when I landed the fish, my dad had arrived and was able to take a proper photo. The day ended on a high note; with that fish still fresh in my mind I packed my things and headed home. There were several other species that needed to be caught in the following month.
As aforementioned, the green sunfish and pumpkinseeds were supposedly two surefire species that I had failed to catch on my first outing. That was a fact that needed to be remedied. A trip back to the creek had me wondering how I ever struggled to catch them in the first place. I also caught a beautifully marked stream bass.
Another local creek I knew had the potential to yield american eel, yellow bullhead, and stocker rainbow trout. Unfortunately, when I arrived the creek was blown out and more rain was to come. To my great surprise, then, on the first drift with a bit of worm under a float I watched the float shoot down in a small eddy. I tightened up, and was connected to the first and only rainbow trout of the outing.
A worm on the bottom quickly yielded a small yellow bullhead.
The action died after those two fish were caught in short order, and the rain started to pour. I decided to call it a trip before I got soaked, without my american eel. Nonetheless, the outing was still successful, with two more species added to my contest total.
A little while later in June I made to trip out to a nearby lake, which had the potential to yield multiple species I still needed for the contest, including white perch, which would be a lifer and had eluded me thus far, to my great surprise. I had fished in locations where I knew for a fact that they were plentiful, and had even seen them caught right next to me, and yet I still failed to capture one.
Upon arriving to the lake, I sent out bottom-rigged nightcrawlers on two rods and fished another rod with a small jig.
Gently jigging by brush cover near the shoreline produced the first of many tiny black crappie: small, but another species to add to my contest total.
One of the worm rods got a hit, and I reeled in an american eel, which had previously avoided me at the other creek. Another species!
Immediately after the eel, I noticed one of my other rods was twitching. I set the hook into a beautiful little white catfish, only my third ever catch of the species and my second from New Jersey.
As the day descended into night, I caught plenty more black crappie and a couple yellow bullheads. Still, however, the white perch eluded me.
Sometimes, you need a break from the contest grind. I made the decision to spend a couple hours on the golf course chasing big sunfish with lures, and had a blast.
I don't know if this pumpkinseed is my biggest ever, but it has to be close—that thing was huge
Big bull bluegill
Several days later, I decided to make one last go at the white perch. Returning to my spot at the lake, I focused my efforts on jigging, this time using a smaller feather jig tipped with a little piece of Gulp!.
As expected, the black crappies were out in full force.
But as the sun got continuously lower, I noticed a grey flash behind my jig, far from the actual cover and more near the center of the bridge/dock I was fishing off of, in deeper water. I recast, and something hit it hard.
A short but spirited fight (definitely much tougher than the crappie) led to my first white perch! That's species #79.
Plenty more followed subsequently.
I think I cracked the white perch code at this specific lake—as dusk approached, they would rise towards the surface by the dock, but would go back down or to wherever they came from by dark. White perch are known to be a schooling fish. By nightfall, the black crappies returned.
With the white perch conquered, I set my sights on other venues to pursue perhaps even more elusive species. I traveled to a swampy tributary of the Delaware, in the hopes of catching a snakehead or a bowfin.
Why don't I cut to the chase: my aspirations for this outing were largely unmet; a couple hours chucking chatterbaits, weedless frogs, and other lures yielded none of the mentioned species. However, the day was not wasted...
Upon my arrival to a weedy, shady backwater, I noticed tons of killifish-like fish swimming in the shallows. Having suspicions that these were mummichogs, which I still needed for my lifelist, I whipped out the tanago hooks (always gotta be prepared) and promptly caught one.
Species #92: the mummichog.
Further fishing with micro gear led to this catch of a lit-up spawning male, dressed in sharp yellow and with blue edges on the fins.
With the larger predators evidently not cooperating, I set my sights on other, more plentiful species. Pumpkinseeds and green sunfish were readily available and eagerly pounced on the opportunity to bite a little piece of worm.
However, I poked around a piece of log with a small redworm, trying to see if I could entice any smaller, more interesting species.
That's when I saw a small, dark fish pop out from under the wood cover to suck in the worm, then promptly swim back to safety. I pulled tight, and lifted the fish out of the water—and froze.
It was a warmouth.
This sunfish species is incredibly uncommon in New Jersey, and I had no clue whatsoever that it would be present here. I knew of its relatively rare presence in a pond nearby, so looking back I shouldn't have been so shocked. Nonetheless, it caught me by complete surprise.
There's species #93: the warmouth.
This particular individual has a head almost half the size of its body.
I also ended up catching a few turtles of interest.
Common snapping turtle
Eastern Painted Turtle
Northern Red-bellied Cooter
Thus ended my adventures in pursuit of species for the contest. It was a fun month, and I ended with three new species from local waters!
THE PINE BARRENS
In the summer of 2017, I was presented with the opportunity to conduct an independent research project in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. I had won a project grant from my school with a proposal I drafted to study fish species distributions in Pine Barrens watersheds. I had read about the Barrens for years, and although its ecology fascinated me, I had never had the privilege of actually visiting, despite living in close proximity to it almost my entire life.
The Pine Barrens is a large expanse of coastal plain stretching across more than seven counties of southern New Jersey, isolated from the rest of the coastal plain habitat farther south. Its nomenclature refers to the area's sandy, acidic, and nutrient-poor soil. For this reason, the Pine Barrens has a unique ecology that supports an aquatic environment. Several species of fish have ranges in New Jersey primarily restricted to the unique ecosystem of the Barrens.
Of course, what this project in the Barrens allowed me to do was sneak in a little time for species hunting for those less common species. My primary interests were the sunfish of the Enneacanthus genus and Acantharchus pomotis. These smaller sunfish species, namely the bluespotted, banded, blackbanded, and mud sunfish, have captivated me for years with their beauty and proximity, similar to the Pine Barrens themselves. Also in the Barrens were several fish species which took less priority, as I expected them to be much harder to catch: these were the pirate perch, redfin pickerel, and eastern creek chubsucker. So the sunfish remained my primary targets.
Upon finding myself in the Barrens for the first time, it was everything I could have imagined and more. The landscape was in fact quite alien, in a beautiful way.
Sand roads crisscrossed the pine forests; in places it was tough to get the minivan across. I particularly found the tannin-stained blackwater fascinating. It was only a matter of time before I could drop some lines in pursuit of new species.
But first there was work to be done. With that aside, I settled on a single location I had surveyed earlier in which I knew all the four target sunfish were present. I only had about an hour of daylight after a long day of work, so I set myself upon the water fairly quickly.
The first fish came quickly. I was fishing a tanago hook with a nub of worm close to shore, and by that I mean no more than several inches from shore. I dropped my line by a slightly undercut bank, and lo and behold, a sunfish popped out. A couple jiggles of the bait were all it took for the fish to commit, and I had species #95, the banded sunfish (Enneacanthus obesus).
Originally, I had thought this fish to be a bluespotted sunfish, but upon returning after the trip, I looked through my photos and realized I had caught a banded sunfish. The key identifier here was the shapes of the light facial markings: bluespotted sunfish would have more prominent dots, whereas banded sunfish have more crescent and line shaped markings, as shown in the fish above.
I was then treated to a handsome bluespotted sunfish in actuality: Enneacanthus gloriosus, species #96.
I also caught plenty of more drab female bluespots, convinced that they were banded sunfish and I had caught both bluespotted and banded. They proved to be female bluespots, however, and I was upset I failed to catch the banded until the realization came that my first was a banded.
The blackbanded sunfish was the tricky one. The final Enneacanthus species, it was also the smallest, and I could see it darting in and out of the weeds in the shallow water near shore. Before fishing however, I had the opportunity to read this: the story of another lifelist angler's experience with catching blackbanded sunfish. I can say that the total number of people who have caught this species can be counted on one hand, but this guy had a specific recommendation for the technique used to fish for these skittish, small sunfish.
To sum it up, it was basically moving the split shot much farther up the line, so the bait would have a more natural presentation of free-falling in the water, rather than the jiggle motion which the other species would react to. Being snubbed by the blackbanded sunfish, I decided to give this technique a go. On the first try, I watched as a blackbanded sunfish slowly approached the bait as it slowly dropped, and nonchalantly sucked it in.
I set the hook, and the fish promptly came out of the water and into my hand. A success! Species #97, Enneacanthus chaetodon. I had caught all three Enneacanthus species in less than an hour!, which I was fairly excited about.
One target had not been caught: the mud sunfish. It was not to be, however; I ended up hooking one, but it came off the tanago hook as daylight faded. Curiously enough, I also hooked a very large chain pickerel, around 18-20 inches, on the tanago hook. It snuck into shallow water, almost motionless, and very gently ate the bait. It snapped the line, as was to be expected with the hair-thin filament snelled onto the hook.
The Enneacanthus had been conquered, but one more sunfish remained.
I would be back in subsequent months, as my project needed to be done over time, so I did not feel that missing the mud sunfish was too significant of a loss, especially given the short time frame allotted.
Here are some various pictures from my project (fish not caught by hook and line).
This is part 1 of what I plan to be a four part series of my 2017 summer. If you stayed with me for that long, sorry for all the photos of small fish of various species. More exciting/exotic things are to come in the next part(s) so stay tuned.