Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lifer hunting in the Ozarks

One of the benefits of moving to central Illinois is the much shorter drives to the Ozarks.  Knowing that the micros should be colored up and ready to bite, I took Friday off work and drove down to SE Missouri to do some lifer hunting with my friend Levi.  His drive from Oklahoma was a bit longer than mine, but he was able to fish the SW part of the state on the drive over as well as on the drive back.

Our first stop was a tributary of the Big River in St. Francois County.  Rain from Thursday night had muddied up the waters in the Big River, so we only fished the somewhat more clear waters of the creek.  No new lifers from this spot, but we did pretty well considering the conditions.  The species we encountered but not pictured here include bleeding shiner, stoneroller sp, greenside darter, rainbow darter, orangethroat darter, mottled sculpin, and northern studfish.

Central Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)

Bigeye Shiner (Notropis boops)

Our next stop was the St. Francis River in Wayne County.  The water was much clearer here, so we were better able to sight fish.  We again caught no new lifers, but we really enjoyed this spot.  The species we encountered but not pictured here include greenside darter, fantail darter, percina sp, longear sunfish, stoneroller sp, shiner sp, logperch, and northern hogsucker.  The male stonerollers here were spectacular.

Northern Studfish (Fundulus catenatus)

Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum) - male

Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum) - female

Bleeding Shiner (Luxilus zonatus)

In the afternoon we took a look at the Wappapello Dam further downstream on the St. Francis.  There wasn't much water coming through the discharge, and the fishing wasn't very exciting.  We caught longear sunfish, freshwater drum, channel catfish, and white crappie.  We also saw gar, buffalo, and suckers surfacing.  As the sun was going down, we drove over to Duck Creek Conservation Area.  With headlamps on, Levi caught a redspotted sunfish, and I caught a couple bluegill.  We also saw tons of starhead topminnows.

On the second day we met up with our friend Tyler in Poplar Bluff in Butler County.  He took us to a park with a small stream flowing into a pond.  The stream was loaded up with brook darters, a variant of the orangethroat darter.  It felt good to finally catch a new lifer!  The species we encountered but not pictured here include bluegill, redspotted sunfish, pickerel sp, and cypress darter.

Brook Darter (Etheostoma burri) - new hook & line species #217

Blackspotted Topminnow (Fundulus olivaceous) - male

Northern Starhead Topminnow (Fundulus dispar) - female

Around noon we headed to a tributary of the Black River in Wayne County.  This spring fed creek had clear water and plenty of aquatic vegetation.  The creek was full of big rainbow darters, but after looking hard enough we were able to find Ozark sculpin.  The species we encountered but not pictured here include blacktail shiner, bleeding shiner, central stoneroller, and shadow bass.

Ozark Sculpin (Cottus hypselurus) - new hook & line species #218

I would be content if the only new lifers from the trip were micros, but it's always a nice surprise when I can catch a new "normal" sized fish.  The pond above the creek was full of aggressive chain pickerel.  I swapped out my microhook for an orange and silver spinner and soon had a hit!  We also saw lake chubsucker and banded pygmy sunfish (good reasons to come back in the future).

Chain Pickerel (Esox niger) - new hook & line species #219

In the late afternoon we headed over to the Current River, stopping at a tributary before going to the main river.  This creek was full of different kinds of minnows along with a few longear sunfish and rainbow darters mixed in.  The only minnow species not pictured here is bleeding shiner.

Striped Shiner (Luxilus chrysocephalus chrysocephalus)

Southern Redbelly Dace (Chrosomus erythrogaster)

Ozark Minnow (Notropis nubilus) - new hook & line species #220

Hornyhead Chub (Nocomis biguttatus)

Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum) - male

We arrived at the main Current River as the sun was going down.  I put on a larger hook (#10 octopus) in hopes of catching some big knobfin sculpin, which were some of my favorite catches from my 2012 Missouri trip.  To my surprise, I caught a small redspotted sunfish hiding among the rocks near shore instead.  A half hour later I caught another new species, shadow bass, fishing blindly near shore.  You can see by the pictures that I had to turn the flash on for the shadow bass.  Levi also wanted a shadow bass, so he got out his headlamp to look for them among the rocks.  Meanwhile, I spotted a sculpin sitting on a concrete ledge in less than two inches of water.  He gobbled up my bait when I put it in front of his face.  It looked like a banded sculpin rather than a knobfin, and the complete lateral line and lack of black spots on the first dorsal fin confirmed the ID.  The species we encountered but not pictured here include whitetail shiner, bigeye shiner, central stoneroller, hornyhead chub, greenside darter, rainbow darter, pickerel sp, longnose gar, blackspotted topminnow, bluegill, and Black River madtom.

Redspotted Sunfish (Lepomis miniatus) - new hook & line species #221

Shadow Bass (Ambloplites ariommus) - new hook & line species #222

Banded Sculpin (Cottus carolinae) - new hook & line species #223

On the third day we headed up near the I-44 interstate to look for Meramec saddled darters in the Meramec River drainage.  The wind had picked up as a front was beginning to move through, making sight fishing nearly impossible. We were able to see one saddled darter, but couldn't get it to bite. The only hook & line catches were mottled sculpin, but we also saw rainbow darters, stonerollers, and smaller minnows.

Mottled Sculpin (Cottus bairdii)

Dark clouds were starting to roll in as we reached our final spot on the Bourbeuse River, so we got out the nets and skipped hook & line fishing.  The riffles were full of darters - rainbow, orangethroat, greenside, banded, and fantail - but we weren't able to find our targets, Meramec saddled and gilt.  We also netted yet-to-be-identified shiners, stonerollers, stonecats, and this monstrously large leech.  It was nearly 10 inches when fully extended!

North American Leech (Macrobdella decora)

Hope you enjoyed the pictures!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fishing in the desert - central AZ

With snow still on the ground in Illinois, Ruoxi and I took advantage of an opportunity to travel to Phoenix, AZ for a friend's wedding. We took Thursday and Friday off so we could make it a four day weekend and see the sights around Phoenix and enjoy some desert fishing. Neither of us have fished in the southwest, so this was quite the experience!

On Thursday we headed northeast out of town to the Salt River. The scenery was fantastic, but the water, being much lower than usual this time of year, was barely flowing. Our first stop was the Water Users Rec Site just downstream from the Stewart Mountain Dam. We could see our target fish, Sonora and desert suckers, in the shallow pools off the main river. To our surprise, they were more interested in spawning than eating tasty pieces of nightcrawler carefully placed in front of them. Any time a big female would get comfortable in a spot, a rowdy bunch of males would rush in, surround her, and vibrate until she couldn't take it any more and bolt away.

Lower Salt River - Water Users Recreational Site

With limited time before the sun went down, we kept moving to see if we could find suckers willing to bite. Heading back towards the city, we stopped at the Blue Point Picnic Spot. The water was extremely low, just a few inches in depth. We saw a few dead suckers in the riffle and move on again.

Lower Salt River - Blue Point Picnic Spot

Our final location for the day was a pool recommended to us by our friend Dave, who lives in the area and is experienced at catching desert and Sonora suckers. Despite having nothing more than a trickle feeding the pool, we could see that it was quite deep and full of fish.

Lower Salt River - the sucker pool

Before we put lines in the water, we enjoyed watching the wild horses hanging out on the opposite bank. They kept a close eye on us whenever we made any sudden movements.

Around this time Dave showed up to join us. While he set up two more rods, I took an interest in the Sonora suckers feeding on the rock wall below our feet. I put a piece of nightcrawler in the feeding path of one of the big females, and a few seconds later she moved towards it and my bait disappeared. I set the hook, fought the fish quickly, and with Dave as my net man we brought the fish out of the water for a photo op. Thanks for being my photographer Ruoxi!

Sonora Sucker (Catostomus insignis) - new hook & line species #213

On Friday we stayed in town. Ruoxi had some work to get done, so she took her laptop to a Starbucks and I investigated some of the parks and canals nearby. The canals were full of common carp, and the park ponds were in rough shape due to the lack of rain.

Greenfield Park - Mesa

One of the places I wanted to visit was close by, the Riparian Preserve. It has a fishing pond, and then a series of ponds and surrounding habitats closed to fishing. Apparently there are some native fish in the closed ponds, but I didn't find out what they were.

Riparian Preserve - Gilbert

The fishing pond in the preserve had bluegill, largemouth bass, catfish, grass carp, and tilapia. I'm guessing they're blue tilapia, but there are a couple of species that are nearly identical. I tried a tiny piece of worm on a microhook with no luck. I bought some bread from a convenience store nearby, and tried a small wad of bread wrapped around a microhook, also with no luck. The fish were just too spooky.  I now have a lot of respect for anyone with one of these tilapia species on their lifelist.

Tilapia (Oreochromis sp.)

Since the tilapia were not cooperating, I hiked through part of the preserve. I almost forgot I was in the middle of town. There were a lot of neat desert flowers that attracted butterflies and hummingbirds.

Some of the preserve ponds were barely holding on with small amounts of murky water at their centers, while others were bone dry. I hope there weren't any endangered native fish in Pond 2!

Ruoxi finished her work, and the two of us went to one final spot for the day, a canal with a booming population of grass carp. I've tried to catch grass carp in the Illinois River a few times with no success, so this looked like a promising spot to finally add one to my lifelist.

South Canal - Gilbert

I still had the bread wad / microhook on my line, so I tossed it out in the canal. I had the bait about 2 inches below a bobber so I could see the fish coming up to bite. I thought my first fish was a nice sized grass carp, but when I saw its mouth I realized it was a common carp instead!

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

My next fish was a grass carp, but it broke my line! I put on a slightly larger hook, and soon had another grass carp on. It was quite a bit smaller, but Ruoxi was able to net it and get it to shore. Size doesn't matter when it's a new lifer!

Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) - new hook & line species #214

On Saturday we met up with Dave again and drove a few hours north to Fossil Creek, a beautiful clear stream that has been restored to support natives such as roundtail and headwater chubs. Fossil Creek was recently opened to fishing, making it a dream destination for anglers who don't want to catch the stocked bass and bluegill that are everywhere else in the country.

Fossil Creek

We had to check out several access points before we could find fish. We finally found them in a stretch pretty far upstream from the creek's confluence with the Verde River. The water was several feet deep here with a few small boulders providing cover. The chubs took interest in our presentations, but weren't committing. After downsizing to a very small jig they cooperated better, and we were able to catch a few. Based on the upstream location and the habitat, I'm adding headwater chub to my lifelist. Experts cannot visually tell roundtail and headwater chubs apart in Fossil Creek, but there is a consensus that the two species prefer different habitats and that once you go far enough upstream, all of the fish will be headwaters.

Headwater Chub (Gila nigra) - new hook & line species #215

I was pleased to find some recently hatched fry hanging out in shallow water sheltered from the main flow of the creek. You can see the shadow of one of the larger fry in the lower left of the picture below, but there were also hundreds of tinier fry that were too small to pick up with the camera.

With headwater chub out of the way, we headed downstream to a deep pool that Dave suggested we investigate. We could see dozens of larger chubs schooling in the pool. They were much easier to fish for than the ones at the upstream spot. Because of their preference to hang out in the middle of the pool and their generally larger size, I'm calling them roundtail chubs.  Many of them had spawning tubercles and bright orange coloration around their head and fins.

Roundtail Chub (Gila robusta) - new hook & line species #216

It felt good to successfully catch the two species of chub in the creek.  We put away the fishing gear and spent our remaining time enjoying the scenery.

Before we left, Ruoxi talked me into jumping into the pool, and I'm really glad that she did.  The water was cold, but on a warm sunny day it felt pretty good!  I took my waterproof camera with me.  Without goggles or a mask I couldn't see anything clearly, but I swam around snapping pictures anyway.  Most of the pictures were terrible as expected, but a few turned out pretty well!  I'll finish the post with some underwater shots of the roundtail / headwater chubs of Fossil Creek.  I hope people get to experience these native fish for years to come.