Sunday, May 22, 2016

Creek fishing by Charleston, Illinois

Towards the end of May my friends Ken and Michael were doing a road trip through the midwest.  They were in the Ozarks while I was busy working like a normal person, but over the weekend I was able to join them in eastern Illinois.  We fished a small creek in the Embarras River drainage near Charleston.  This creek has a good mix of micros and non-micros, and Ken and Michael were hoping to add quite a few to their lifer count.

Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
There isn't much in this creek I haven't caught before, so I messed around with sunfish, bass, and suckers while Ken and Michael cursed at their darters and madtoms.  Longear sunfish in this drainage are really beautiful.  The bluegill were handsome as well, even if they don't have eyepopping colors like the longears.

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
This creek is one of the best spots in Illinois to reliably catch spotted bass, which are at the edge of their range.  Ken and Michael were both excited to catch theirs.

Spotted Bass (Micropterus punctulatus)
Besides the obvious spots on the white belly, one way to ID spotted bass is to look for the rectangular shaped tongue patch.  Largemouth bass sometimes have a faint one, but it's more prominent on spotted bass.

There was a mixed school of redhorse and hogsuckers, so I tried for them as well.  A big hogsucker actually broke my line, believe it or not, but I redeemed myself by catching a few golden redhorse.

Golden Redhorse (Moxostoma erythrurum)
Most of them had spawning tubercles that were starting to fade, but this one still had pretty good ones.  There were some shorthead redhorse mixed in as well, but I wasn't able to land one.

Ken and Michael did pretty well with darters, but the brindled madtoms proved to be quite difficult.  I gave a few pointers, but for the most part they worked on them on their own.  In my experience madtoms are initially frustrating, but eventually something clicks and you're able to find and catch them consistently.  Ken and Michael will get there!

Brindled Madtom (Noturus miurus)
After a hard day of fishing we drove up to Champaign-Urbana to eat at one of my favorite BBQ places from my undergrad days, the Black Dog.  As usual, Ken ate way more food than would seem possible, and all of us enjoyed kicking back and relaxing back in civilization.

More to come soon!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Milwaukee and Racine

You have to strike when the iron is hot, and shortly after returning from D.C. I knew alewives would be running in the Milwaukee River.  I had missed the opportunity to fish for them when I was living in Wisconsin, but now I was determined to make things right. After spending an evening with my friend Terry and his girlfriend Kayla, I headed to downtown Milwaukee with a one day Wisconsin fishing license in hand.

There were a few other shore fishermen near the mouth of the river.  I asked around if anyone was catching alewives, but no one said yes.  One guy said they should be in there - it was just that everyone was fishing larger lures for steelhead.  He recommended a small plain bronze hook, which if you remember, is exactly what I caught blueback herring on in the Potomac.  I tied up the same rig and walked along the wall jigging the two hooks up and down.  I made it from the mouth of the river to the start of the restaurants without a bite.  I walked about half way back towards the mouth when I felt a tap-tap-pull.  Fish on, and it was an alewife!

Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) - new hook & line species #333
Descriptions online say that alewives are nearly impossible to distinguish from blueback herrings, but I think they look quite different.  My alewife was less streamlined, had a bigger eye, and a larger mouth.  Granted, I'm basing this observation off of one fish, but to me it seemed noticeably different.

I'm happy to share my secret alewife spot with the world.  From what I've heard they can show up in much larger numbers, but when I was there I only caught the one fish.

I continued jigging the plain hook rig in hopes of catching a few more, but my only other bite was from a very small steelhead.  The adults are mostly silver, so it was neat to see one with typical rainbow trout patterns.

"Steelhead" Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Here's a photo of the rig I was using.  The hooks are threaded on to the line and then a small loop knot is made my wrapping the line around itself three times and feeding the hook through the opening and cinching the knot up tight.  The hook dances around erratically when you jig it up and down, which I think is what catches the fish's attention.

I didn't spend too much time looking for more alewives, because I also wanted to try for trout-perch (which are neither trout nor perch) in the Root River in Racine, 45 minutes south of Milwaukee.  I fished the same spot where I caught my lifer longnose sucker years ago.  Several of my friends caught trout-perch there in the past, and I hoped to repeat their success.

I started off using a presnelled Tanago micro hook with a piece of redworm as bait, but a trout quickly broke me off.  Trout-perch can get fairly large for a "micro" species, so I switched to a size #20 hook on 4 lb line.  Small trout continued to be the most common catch.  I didn't have a trout stamp, and honestly it made me feel uncomfortable catching so many of them!  If a conservation officer approached me I'd have to convince him that a relatively unknown minnow species was my target, not the trout.

Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)

"Steelhead" Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

Eventually I did begin catching other species, but unfortunately none of them were trout-perch.  Round gobies were the most common, and there were a few creek chubs and bluntnose minnows as well.  I moved around trying different depths and currents, but the mix of species that went for my bait didn't change.

Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomus)

Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)

Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus)
Catching one of two target species in a day is nothing to feel bad about, so I drove back to Illinois feeling victorious.  Someday I'll try again for my lifer trout-perch.  Oddly enough, their distribution shows them in the entire length of the Illinois River, but I've never heard of someone catching one.  I still think the Root River in Racine is my best bet, but who knows, maybe I'll be able to find one closer to home.

Monday, May 9, 2016

D.C. and Virginia part 3 - more Potomac River

My third D.C. post combines the evening of the second day with the third and final day, because both took place back in the Potomac River drainage.  American eel was high on my "want" list, so after dark we went back to the spot where we caught white catfish the night before.  I didn't bother with lures this time.  Instead, I used two bait rods - one with a piece of nightcrawler and the other with a piece of cut sunfish.

White Perch (Morone americana)
I was hoping for a big eel to hit the cut bait, but to my surprise I caught one on the tiny piece of nightcrawler I was dangling right next to shore.  That was easy!

American Eel (Anguilla rostrata) - new hook & line species #332

This was my first eel of any kind.  What a cool fish!

The cut bait attracted catfish, and lots of them.  We had a steady bite from channel cats, white cats, and Pat caught one blue catfish.

White Catfish (Ictalurus catus)

Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)

In  the morning we were on a mission to catch herring and shad.  Michael and George had caught them in the tidal basin a few days earlier, so we headed there and walked along the walls looking for schools of fish.  Michael suggested a plain hook, so I tied a rig with two #14 bronze hooks, one twelve inches above the other and a small weight 12 inches below the bottom hook.  To my surprise, it quickly attracted the attention of small white perch.

White Perch (Morone americana)
The herring were hard to find, but eventually we found small schools of about 10 individuals moving quickly along the wall.  An actively jigged plain bronze hook turned out to be irresistable to them.  All of the fish we caught were fair hooked inside the mouth!

Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalis) - new hook & line species #333
I never thought a rig like this would be so productive.  The plain hook must look like a small aquatic insect desperately trying to swim away in the water.

The only potential lifers left to go after were American shad, hickory shad, and gizzard shad.  We knew the Potomac River near the fall line would be blown out from the recent rains, but we decided to check out anyway.  Perhaps we could find a side pool full of fish trying to avoid the main current.

After a difficult hike through the woods and scrambling over boulders, Pat and I made it to the river.  We did in fact see big schools of gizzard shad in the side pools, but we could not get them to bite.  Snags were frustrating.  On top of that it began to rain.  The difficult situation got the best of us and we gave up.

Pat had one more spot to try for American and hickory shad, so we gave it a try before I had to head out to the airport.  Several other fishermen were trying this spot, but the bite was slow.  My shad jig got one hit from a tiny striped bass, but that was it.

Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis)
With very little time left, I hoofed it to the nearest train station to head back to the airport.  I made it to my gate 5 minutes before boarding started - a little too close for comfort!  However, the rest of my travels went smoothly, and I made it back to Peoria late that night.  I had a wonderful three day trip thanks to Pat and his wife Lia.  Thanks to both of you for the hospitality, home cooked food, and great company!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

D.C. and Virginia part 2 - tannin ponds

On day two, Pat took me on a mini road trip to some tannin ponds a few hours south of D.C.  We knew it would be tough for new lifers, but there was a chance for mud sunfish, so we were going to give it a shot.  Even if we didn't find them, the other lowland species that live in these ponds would be cool to see.  We started off at a creek near the ponds in hopes that I could get a fallfish.  The only bite I got was a redbreast sunfish, so we moved on.

Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)
Pat took me to the spot where he had netted mud sunfish in the past.  We poked around the edge of the pond, dropping tiny baits where we thought small fish might be hiding waiting to ambush tiny baits.  I don't think we got a single bite.  While Pat was exploring down a small creek I found an injured bowfin in the shallows.  I'm not sure what was wrong with it, but unfortunately it didn't look like it would make it.

Bowfin (Amia calva)
We  hiked to the next pond, which was a little bigger and deeper.  Again, we didn't get any bites next to shore, so we added bobbers and cast to the center of the pond.  We started catching sunfish right away.  The cool thing about the fish in this pond is that they were waaaay darker than their counterparts living in clearer water.

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
Pat caught the one redear sunfish of the day.

Redear Sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)

On  one of my casts, something viciously attacked my bobber.  I had a suspicion what the culprit was, so I tied on a large spinner and cast to the same spot.  As soon as my lure hit the water, I got a hit and pulled in this big chain pickerel.  It was my first time catching one from the east coast.

Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)
I'm glad Pat had his fish grippers, because pickerel are hard to hold on to!

Pat had a similar encounter with a predatory fish, but his turned out to be a very dark bowfin.  It was cool to see so much diversity from one little pond.

Bowfin (Amia calva)
Pat knew there were flier in this pond, so he set to work figuring out where they were.  Eventually he found a school of them hanging out underneath the branches of a tree.  He told me to cast my bait there, and I immediately caught one as well.

Flier (Centrarchus macropterus)
We  had one more pond to try, and this one was small and very shallow.  We switched to our smallest hooks and hopped in with our waders.

Fish weren't out in the open, so we fished our baits close to vegetation and submerged wood.  The easiest fish to find were juvenile warmouth with their proportionally large mouths.

Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)
Mosquitofish were in the dense mats of vegetation and could be caught by dragging your bait along the surface of the water.

Eastern Mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki)
The coolest fish in this pond were the tiny bluespotted sunfish.  They were harder to find, but if you fished your bait right up against submerged wood you could usually get one to come out and grab it.  They were beautiful.

Bluespotted Sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus)

Daylight was running out, so I grabbed Pat's dip net to see what we missed out on.  Lots of the three species above, a few salamanders or newts (sorry I'm not an amphibian guy), and this one lone mudminnow.  I don't have one on my lifelist, but my hopes of catching one on hook & line were slim to none at this spot.  Perhaps during a different time of year they would be more common and larger.

Eastern Mudminnow (Umbra pygmaea)
Thanks Pat for taking me to more of your secret spots!  I hope I can try for mud sunfish and eastern mudminnow again someday.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

D.C. and Virginia part 1 - Potomac River

In the second week of May I traveled to D.C. to visit my friend Pat Kerwin.  It was the first time I took a flight for the sole purpose of a fishing trip!  We had been talking about a snakehead and shad trip for quite a while, and I was excited that the time had finally arrived.  My flight landed late Friday night - well after midnight - but I felt well rested the next morning and ready to fish.  We started off at a small discharge to see if I could get my lifer striped bass out of the way.

We  were surprised to find our friends Michael and George already at the discharge when we arrived!  Pat and I knew they would be in town, but we hadn't made any plans to meet them that morning.  It was good to finally meet George in person, because he would be joining our group to Peru later in the summer.  Fishing was slow, and I wasn't able to catch my striper.  I did catch a few bass and white perch.

Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)

White Perch (Morone americana)

After lunch Pat and I headed to his top secret snakehead spot.  It was a huge privilege to be taken there.  On the way we tossed chatterbaits at a couple of spots where Pat has caught snakehead before, but we didn't get any hits.  The water was muddy, so all we could do was fish close to structure where we thought fish might be hanging out.  The water at Pat's good spot is clear, and when we arrived we could see nearly a dozen snakeheads hugging the bottom.  On my first cast I hooked up, but the fish came off.  Second cast hooked up again, and this time the fish was on!  Snakehead can swim backwards by undulating their long dorsal fin, which makes for a very unusual fight.  It's kind of like playing tug of war with a small bulldog.  It didn't take too long to bring it in though, and man was I stoked when I saw the size of it.  30 inches and beautiful fins and markings.  Thanks so much Pat!

Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) - new hook & line species #329
I made quite the ruckus bringing my fish in, but Pat was able to hook into one as well before the rest of the fish spooked and took off.  He played around with under water photographs while I was trying to recover my chatterbait, and some of the photos turned out really well.

It  really was a bummer that I spooked the rest of the fish.  We tried the current seam where the clear water met the muddy water, had a few follows, but did not get hit.  Our only option was to continue on and see if we could find more fish elsewhere.  I saw a few snakeheads as I was wading in shallow water, but they always saw me as well and refused to bite.  My last fish from this spot was a nice largemouth bass that hit right next to one of the bridge pilings.

Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)

In  the evening Pat's wife Lia joined us, and we headed down to the Potomac River's tidal basin near the Washington monument.  We saw a few snakehead here as well, but they refused to bite.  After a while we put away our lures and switched to worms and cut bait.  We caught a variety of sunfish, white catfish, channel catfish, and striped bass.

Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)

Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)

White Catfish (Ictalurus catus) - new hook & line species #330

My  lifer striped bass hit a small pearl colored curly tail jig.

Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis) - new hook & line species #331

Lia wandered off in search of her lifer striped bass as well.  She came back successful, and of course hers was bigger than mine.

Several of the white and channel catfish were missing one or both of their eyes.  I have not seen this in the midwest.  I'm curious if they're being born this way in the Potomac or if something is attacking their eyes when they're young.  The catfish seemed to be in good health regardless of how many eyes they had.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
It's hard to keep your fishing spot a secret when one of our most famous national monuments is in the background, haha.  Thank you Pat and Lia for a fantastic first day of my trip.