Sunday, June 22, 2014

Longnose gar from Gar Lake, they're Gar-r-reat!

Summer is heating up in Illinois, and that means gar are on my mind!  My encounters with gar have all occurred in the past two years.  In 2012 I met up with Bill "Garman" and Olaf at a spot called Garvana where I caught my lifer shortnose gar.  Then, in the spring of 2013, I traveled down to the southern tip of Illinois and caught huge examples of spotted gar and shortnose gar.  Catching such large fish was a matter of chance rather than skill, and I feel very fortunate for those experiences.  That summer I researched spots where alligator gar have been reintroduced in central Illinois, and I was privileged to watch Olaf, Bill, and my childhood friend J.D. each catch one of the fabled fish.  Hopefully mine will come soon!  At the end of 2013 I caught my lifer Florida gar in the Everglades.  There are 5 species of gar in the U.S., which means longnose gar and alligator gar have become my top priorities.  What can I say?  Gar are just really cool fish!

I was free yesterday, so I loaded up the kayak and headed north to check out Gar Lake, a spot Bill and Olaf have recommended.  This was my inaugural kayak fishing trip, so I was excited to get on the water with rods in the rod holders.  I actually launched at an adjacent lake called Carp Lake and worked my way toward Gar Lake.  After seeing a few splashes on the surface ahead of me, I tied on the rope lure that Olaf gave me last year, hoping to catch my first gar with the hookless lure that is used to catch gar and only gar.  I put in about 100 casts with the rope lure, but gave up after not getting any hits.  I wanted to stretch my legs and fish from shore, so I pulled my kayak out of the water at a nice secluded spot.

Gar Lake

Once on shore, I set up one rod with a locally sourced shiner on a #6 circle hook under a weighted float, and put in a few more casts with the rope lure with the other.  My float disappeared under the water, but by the motion of it I assumed it wasn't a gar.  It turned out to be a very ambitious white crappie.

White Crappie (Pomoxis annularis)

You can see from their mouth shape why people catch them so easily with jigs.

At this point a thunderstorm rolled in.  Thunder and lightning, torrential rain, and gusts of wind, the whole bit.  I flipped my kayak upside down and put my tackle box under it to stay dry.  At first I enjoyed the rain... then I felt like a tough guy for enduring it... but finally I just felt miserable.  It was a relief when it ended.  I baited up both my rods with shiners on circle hooks and played the waiting game.  A big fish took one of them on a run, but after a few seconds it came off, taking the shiner with it.  A little later, I had another take, and this time the fish was securely on!  I kept the drag loose and played the fish as carefully as possible.  My lifer longnose gar, and a big one at that!

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) - new hook & line species #239

The gar measured 48 inches exactly, and was moderately cooperative as I made my first attempt to photograph myself holding a fish using the 10 second delay on my camera.  The photo above was actually the first one I took, and I'm surprised that it tuned out the best.  I'm glad I have this picture rather than one of it lying on the ground.

There have been several occasions where I catch a new lifer and then promptly pack up my gear and head home.  This was one of those occasions.  I packed up the kayak and paddled back to my car with a smile on my face.  Alligator gar, I have my sights on you!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Save Our Sandy - Sandy Creek, IL

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll recall my post from last fall about Sandy Creek, IL. If not, here's the link:

Sandy Creek is one of my favorite fish spots in central Illinois. It has an incredible diversity of species, such as darters and redhorse that serve as indicator species for clean water, smallmouth bass and sunfish for casual fishing, and big river species like flathead catfish and smallmouth buffalo. Last fall I counted 27 species of fish in the short stretch of Sandy Creek between the IL-26 bridge and the Illinois River. Since then I've found 16 more species, bringing the total up to 43.
  1. creek chub
  2. western blacknose dace
  3. southern redbelly dace
  4. sand shiner
  5. red shiner
  6. spotfin shiner
  7. emerald shiner
  8. golden shiner
  9. central stoneroller
  10. suckermouth minnow
  11. bluntnose minnow
  12. fantail darter
  13. johnny darter
  14. rainbow darter
  15. orangethroat darter
  16. mud darter
  17. banded darter
  18. blackside darter
  19. logperch
  20. walleye
  21. blackstripe topminnow
  22. western mosquitofish
  23. shorthead redhorse
  24. golden redhorse
  25. northern hogsucker
  26. quillback
  27. smallmouth buffalo
  28. common carp
  29. grass carp
  30. channel catfish
  31. flathead catfish
  32. tadpole madtom
  33. white bass
  34. smallmouth bass
  35. largemouth bass
  36. rock bass
  37. bluegill
  38. pumpkinseed
  39. green sunfish
  40. longear sunfish
  41. orangespotted sunfish
  42. shortnose gar
  43. gizzard shad
I'm writing this post because Sandy Creek is being threatened by an industrial hog factory that is proposed to be built adjacent to the creek. The Save Our Sandy facebook page has links to articles about the issue.

If you don't use facebook, you can search online for "Sandy Creek hog factory" to find articles.

I'm not a professional in any fish or conservation related field, but I hope my personal experiences can help show why Sandy Creek is a resource that we should not throw away. I've spent many hours in the creek, taking photographs of fish to post on this blog, fishing for fun, and also fishing to put food on the table. Earlier this spring, my girlfriend and I caught about a dozen shorthead and golden redhorse in Sandy Creek that we used to make fish burgers. I've served these redhorse burgers to friends and family, and they've always been a hit.  If Sandy Creek becomes polluted, these redhorse won't be able to survive.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum)

Golden Redhorse (Moxostoma erythrurum)

A few weeks ago, I caught this flathead catfish and brought it home to put meat in my freezer. I practice catch & release most of the time, but when I find spots like Sandy Creek where fish populations are thriving, I'll often take a few fish home. This one fish put 10 lbs of meat in my freezer, some of which I've already cooked and eaten. It has a good clean flavor, which is a testament to the water quality in Sandy Creek.  If the water becomes polluted, these taste of these catfish is going to reflect it.

Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)

10 lbs of meat for the freezer!

Please join the fight to keep this hog factory from being built alongside Sandy Creek.  If it is built, it will only be a matter of time before pig waste ends up in the creek, and many of the unique species will be gone.  Help out in any way you can, but as a start here is an online petition that you can sign.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

2014 NANFA convention part 4 - Catawba drainage

Saturday was our last day of microfishing in North Carolina before heading back to Illinois (Minnesota for Greenwood) on Sunday.  We made a loop through the Catawba drainage, but had trouble finding public access to several of the sites I had planned on fishing.  I chose the sites based on sampling data, but I learned the lesson that sampling data does not necessarily indicate public access.  However, we were still able to find fish at the sites we did fish.  The first was the Johns River.

Carolina Fantail Darter (Etheostoma brevispinum) - new hook & line species #233

Sandbar Shiner (Notropis scepticus) - new hook & line species #234

Spottail Shiner (Notropis hudsonius) - new hook & line species #235

Our second site, Jacob Fork, was the highlight of the day.  The sampling data showed large numbers of margined madtoms, and sure enough we found plenty of them hiding under rocks.  However, the fish we really enjoyed finding were fieryblack shiners in full spawning colors.

Fieryblack Shiner (Cyprinella pyrrhomelas) - new hook & line species #236

Margined Madtom (Noturus insignis) - new hook & line species #237

Madtom habitat

Crayfish - with eggs!

At the end of the day we stopped at one more spot so Greenwood could try for redhorse and jumprock.  He caught a white sucker and a couple northern hogsuckers instead, but he left happy after finishing the day with a lifer flat or snail bullhead.  I put out baits as well and caught a couple redbreast sunfish.

Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)

I really enjoyed my first NANFA convention.  Everyone was very welcoming and took a genuine interest in getting to know me.  I'm already looking forward to next year's convention in eastern Oklahoma!

Friday, June 6, 2014

2014 NANFA convention part 3 - New drainage

Friday was our first full day in North Carolina. I had intentionally planned the days according to drainage, with the French Broad being on Thursday, the New on Friday, and the Catawba on Saturday. Greenwood and I hit the road early, arriving at the South Fork New River a little after sunrise. This spot was right in town and had a nice place to park. Bigmouth and bluehead chubs were the dominant species here, and we were glad to see them colored up with tubercles!

Bigmouth Chub (Nocomis platyrhynchus) - new hook & line species #228

Bluehead Chub (Nocomis leptocephalus)

Chub (Nocomis sp.) - didn't bother trying to ID without tubercles

Northern Hogsucker (Hypentelium nigricans)

Further north we fished a small creek near the border between North Carolina and Virginia.  We caught a nice variety of smaller fish here.

Mountain Redbelly Dace (Chrosomus oreas)

"Tennessee / New River" Fantail Darter (Etheostoma flabellare ssp.)

Redlip Shiner (Notropis chiliticus) - new hook & line species #229

Redlip Shiner (Notropis chiliticus) - gravid female

Our last New River drainage stop for the day was Big Laurel Creek.  This spot was very good to both of us.  Greenwood and I each got several lifers here in a short amount of time.

New River Shiner (Notropis scabriceps) - new hook & line species #230

Kanawha Rosyface Shiner (Notropis sp.) - new hook & line species #231

Rosyside Dace (Clinostomus funduloides)

Tonguetied Minnow (Exoglossum laurae) - new hook & line species #232

Thursday, June 5, 2014

2014 NANFA convention part 2 - French Broad drainage

After our second night in Kentucky, Greenwood and I continued south, passing through the corner of Tennessee before arriving in North Carolina.  We met up with some of the NANFA crew on the bank of the French Broad River where we got to see fish that the NC Wildlife Resources Commission electroshocked.  Smallmouth redhorse, river redhorse, and black redhorse were neat to see up close.

We didn't stay long though, because we had microfishing to do!  We wanted to keep driving to a minimum, so we only stopping at creeks that were along the route to our campground.  Our first stop was the confluence of Big Laurel Creek and Little Laurel Creek.  Here we saw chub nests with spawning groups of Tennessee shiners and a few warpaint shiners.  The adult warpaints wanted nothing to do with our baits, but I did manage to catch a juvenile one for my lifelist (luckily I caught bigger and more colorful ones later in the trip).

River Chub (Nocomis micropogon) - new hook & line species #226

Tennessee Shiner (Notropis leuciodus)

Warpaint Shiner (Luxilus coccogenis) - new hook & line species #227

Chub nest - I swear there were fish here right before I took the picture!  :)

We also tried the North Toe River as the sun was beginning to disappear behind the hills.  We saw a few darters, but weren't able to hook up with any.  In the interest of getting our tent set up before it became too dark, we packed up and headed to our campground near Linville Falls.  We caught a few fish in the Linville River after dark.

Warpaint Shiner (Luxilus coccogenis)

Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus) - possibly a hybrid with Green Sunfish

Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 NANFA convention part 1 - driving through KY

Last weekend I attended my first NANFA (North American Native Fishes Association) convention in North Carolina, and what an adventure it was! I'm starting to get pretty comfortable with intense trips covering multiple states and multiple days, so I wasn't worried about whether or not this would be a productive trip. Another multi-species angler and fish enthusiast, Greenwood, joined me for the long car ride. As expected, we caught about half of our targets, missed about half of them, and picked up a good number of surprise lifers.

Thanks to Josh Blaylock and Brian Zimmerman for helping out with some spots in Kentucky for the drive down! We stopped at two locations on the Green River. At the first spot we saw massive spotted darters, greenside darters, banded darters, and possibly a few others, but the only fish we were able to catch were juvenile longear sunfish. Fortunately the second spot was more microfishing friendly.

Orangefin Darter (Etheostoma bellum) - new hook & line species #224

Orangefin Darter (Etheostoma bellum) - female

Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum) - male

Fantail Darter (Etheostoma flabellare) - male

Scarlet Shiner (Lythrurus fasciolaris) - new hook & line species #225

Spotfin Shiner (Cyprinella spiloptera) - male

Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus)

Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)

Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)

Next we stopped at Fishing Creek. Clearer water and a more quiet setting made the fishing much more enjoyable. We only saw a couple darters, but weren't able to catch them. There were also some redhorse (black perhaps?) in one of the pools.

Whitetail Shiner (Cyprinella nivea) - super male!

Whitetail Shiner (Cyprinella nivea) - female

Northern Studfish (Fundulus catenatus) - super male!

Striped Shiner (Luxilus chrysocephalus)

Tennessee Shiner (Notropis leuciodus)

I learned my lesson on past trips that $40 motels are always bad ideas.  While in Kentucky we stayed at a Red Roof Inn the first night and a Super 8 the second night, both being around $65-$70.  Definitely worth it - no mildew smells, clean (enough) rooms and bathrooms, and free WiFi.  I made sure to shower extra well the first two nights because for the rest of the trip we were tent camping in North Carolina without access to showers.