Thursday, December 24, 2015

San Diego Bat Rays

During my visit, Ruoxi and I met up with some guys from to fish for bat rays.  It was incredibly generous of them to take us to one of their spots, share their bait, teach us how to fish for big rays, and let me reel in a couple of fish on their gear.

Ruoxi and I arrived at the fishing spot about 45 minutes before anyone else.  I fished a few lures and soaked some squid while we waited, but there wasn't anything biting at low tide.

Tom and Steve arrived and got to work setting up their rods.  They use heavy conventional gear with braided line around 40 lbs.  After they cast out their baits (cut mackerel), they set their rods in PVC tubes and turned the reel clickers on.  As the tide came in we waited for bites.

Steve was the first to hook up with a nice bat ray on his surf rod.  Tom I missed most of the fight because one of his rods went off, but when the fish that took Tom's bait came off we hurried back to help Steve land his ray.  It looked to be the start of a good night!

Bat Ray (Myliobatis californica)

Tom's rod went off again.  He was closer, so he grabbed the rod, set the hook, and then insisted that I reel it in.  It was a fun fight, and we landed the ray, but I didn't set the hook so I didn't want to count it for my lifelist.

By this time the sun had set, and it quickly became dark.  Steve had another nice bite, and this time he reeled in a butterfly ray.  It was a big one too!  We were all very excited to see this less common species.

California Butterfly Ray (Gymnura marmorata)

A few other people showed up and set up their rods as well.  I had pieces of squid cast out with my small travel rods.  One rod had 10 lb line and a #4 octopus circle hook, and the other had 4 lb line and a #8 octopus hook.  My 10 lb rod went off, and to my dismay I had a fairly decent bat ray on the end.  It would have been awesome to catch my official lifer on my own gear, so I kept my drag loose and fought it as carefully as possible.

I was fortunate that the ray didn't wrap my line around anything, and after a long and slow fight I had it up in the shallow water less than 10 feet from shore.  You can see its tail in the photo below.  However, once its belly began scraping the sand bottom, I had to tighten the drag to bring it in further.  As soon as I did that, my line snapped.  Bummer!

Next my 4 lb rod went off, and I pulled something tiny in, more or less dragging it along the surface of the water.  It was a salema, a small fish in the grunt family.  Tom was surprised to see it this far in the bay.  I was happy to have my first lifer of the night.

Salema (Xenistius californiensis) - new hook & line species #315

Ruoxi focused her attention on cooking brats for the group.  We were impressed with her skills using locally sourced cooking tools.  The brats really hit the spot.

Tom let me grab his rod when it went off again, and this time I set the hook and reeled it in so I could count it on my lifelist.  It wasn't a big one, but I was excited to have the monkey off my back.

Bat Ray (Myliobatis californica) - new hook & line species #316

My 4 lb rod went off again.  This time is was an adorable round stingray.  You can't tell the size from this photo, but I assure you that it was VERY small.  It would have been more sporting if I had used 2 lb line!

Round Stingray (Urobatis halleri) - new hook & line species #317

Tom caught a few fish on his gear, and then he let me have another turn.  This time it was a much larger fish!  The fight was fun, but the ray was no match for the heavy gear.  Still, by the time we landed it my arms were pretty sore.  I can't imagine what a really big shark or ray would feel like.  This one measured 43 inches across its wings.

Tom caught the biggest ray of the night with a wingspan of 50 inches.  Their bodies get really thick at this size!  Tom also caught one with two stingers, which was pretty cool and freaky at the same time.

I received the honors of catching the smallest bat ray.  It had an adorable wingspan of 15.5 inches.  Ruoxi and I agreed that this was a good fish to end the night with.

California once again left me both humbled and impressed.  Humbled at how generous the fishing community is and impressed with how productive and varied the fishing opportunities are.  Tuna fishing with Eli last October was without a doubt my best boat fishing experience, and bat ray fishing with the gang in December was easily my best nighttime shore fishing experience.  Check out their website and online forum.  They're a great bunch of folks.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Intro to SoCal pier fishing

Ruoxi and I spent the holiday break in southern California, and during my stay we made three short trips to Oceanside Pier, and one trip to Shelter Island Pier.

12/22/2015 - Oceanside Pier

Ruoxi and I stopped by to check out the pier, but we didn't bring bait, and the shop on the pier was closed.  It was mid-morning, the tide was low, and it was windy.  I threw a krocodile spoon on a fish finder rig from about three quarters of the way to the end of the pier.  I hadn't used a lure with a fish finder rig before, but I felt it was necessary to keep my lure below the surface of the water with how strong the wind was .  I caught a few clumps of seaweed and then got a nice hit by this barracuda.

Pacific Barracuda (Sphyraena argentea) - new hook & line species #314

12/25/2015 - Oceanside Pier

The time of day, tide, and wind were the same as above.  I know rising and high tides are better for fishing, but I worked with what I was given.  This time I was armed with squid left over from bat ray fishing.  I set up one line with a dropper loop and small baitholder hook and the other with a fish finder rig and circle hook.  This time I fished about half way to the end of the pier.  Each rig caught one yellowfin croaker.  We didn't get any other bites.

Yellowfin Croaker (Umbrina roncador) - new hook & line species #318

12/27/2015 - Oceanside Pier

For my third trip, I checked the tide charts the night before and drove to the pier early to catch the rising tide.  Ruoxi wanted to sleep in, so I was on my own.  I set up at the end of the pier with a fish finder rig with a circle hook and a big chunk of squid as bait.  It didn't get touched all day, and I swapped the squid out every half hour.

With my other rod I fished a sabiki rig, sometimes straight down close to the pilings, and sometimes out as far as I could underhand cast.  On a slow retrieve, I got some quick taps and reeled in five chub mackerel.  Two flopped off, but I landed the other three!

Pacific Chub Mackerel (Scomber japonicus) - new hook & line species #319

I swapped out the squid on the fish finder rig with fresh cut mackerel, but it still didn't get any bites. It was a nice sunny day though, and I enjoyed myself a lot more than my previous trips.  Pods of dolphins cruised by every so often.

12/29/2015 - Shelter Island

For our last fishing adventure of the trip, Ruoxi and I drove to downtown San Diego to fish the Shelter Island Pier.  We set up as the sun was setting over Point Loma, and the tide was moving out.

I tied two dropper loops in one of the lines and tossed it out as far as I could.  It got hit pretty quickly, and both Ruoxi and I landed some nice barred sand bass.

Barred Sand Bass (Paralabrax nebulifer) - new hook & line species #320

I put out a fish finder rig as well, but it did not get touched.  While we waited, I rigged up my micro rod with a small hook and a piece of squid tentacle.  I dropped it as close to the pilings as I could and right away got small taps.  After a few juvenile barred sand bass and kelp bass, I caught a tiny California scorpionfish (the locals call them sculpin).

Kelp Bass (Paralabrax clathratus)

California Scorpionfish (Scorpaena guttata) - new hook & line species #321

Conditions weren't the best on this trip, partially because it was December, but also because of poor timing on my part with respect to the tide, wind, and time of day.  Nonetheless, it was fun to experiment and catch a few fish, learning a little more about southern California fishing each time we went out.  I'm definitely looking forward to spring and summer when I come out again!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Freshwater drum soup at the Chain of Rocks

Last weekend Brad and I went on our last Illinois fishing trip for the year.  We woke up early and drove down to the Chain of Rocks on the Mississippi River near St. Louis.  Even though it was mid-November, the weather forecast predicted warm and sunny, so we were a little worried that we'd have to fight for space.  However, when we arrived around 8:30 am, we pretty much had the whole shore to ourselves.

When Garren and I fished here in the summer, we each caught a few small blue catfish.  This time I decided to try for a bigger one, so I set up one of my two rods with an 8/0 circle hook with a nice big chunk of cut bait.  It was a "go big or go home" gamble, but unfortunately it didn't pay off.  It didn't get touched all day even though I swapped out the bait a few times.

I set up my other rod with a whole nightcrawler on a smaller circle hook.  Both rods had baitfeeder reels with the secondary drag set just tight enough so that the current didn't pull out line.  It took 4 oz pyramid sinkers to keep our lines from being pulled parallel to shore.  Even though the water level was fairly low, the current was still very strong.

Brad cast out a nightcrawler downstream of me and then tossed around a Panther Martin spinner with his other rod.  He told me that "river fish absolutely love Panther Martins", but apparently the fish didn't get the memo this time.

After about two hours of no activity, I finally got a bite and reeled in a nice freshwater drum.  It's my new personal best (I'm pretty sure) at 20 inches.  Unfortunately it didn't put up much fight with the gear I was using.

Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

I rarely do blog posts about eating fish, but since it was such a slow day of fishing, I'll make an exception.  The drum ended up being our only fish of the day, and it went on the cutting board right after we caught it.

I filleted it and very carefully washed off any grains of sand before cutting the fillets into bite size pieces.  There were a few bones to deal with, and I was able to cut most of them out.

We sautéed the fish in butter with some sweet peppers from my garden.  Once they were cooked, we dumped in a can of creamy mushroom soup and half a can of vegetable soup.  We let it simmer for about a half hour to help the drum get nice and tender, and as we stirred I added some wild oyster mushroom powder made from mushrooms I had dehydrated earlier in the fall.  Hunting, gathering, and gardening all in one pot!

As I mentioned, it was a slow day.  We kicked back in our camp chairs, ate our fish stew, and watched our rods do absolutely nothing.  The weather was perfect though, so we didn't complain one bit.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Hurricane pier fishing in North Carolina

I'm in North Carolina this week, and over the weekend I was able to visit some family in Greensboro and head to the coast for a bit of fishing.  It wasn't the best time to be in the area, because Hurricane Joaquin is currently offshore.  Joaquin didn't actually hit the coast, but its low pressure zone is causing historic amounts of rain and fairly steady 20 to 25 mph winds in the region.  This was one of those trips where you make lemonade out of lemons, so my friend Ali (who I met while fishing in NC two years ago) and I decided to give it a shot anyway.  We decided to avoid the ocean piers and go to a smaller pier in the Intercoastal Waterway near Morehead City.

By the time we arrived at the pier I had been awake for nearly 23 hours, so I promptly went to sleep in the front seat of the car.  I didn't care how many species I was potentially missing out on - sleep was a necessity.  Ali, on the other hand, was eager to fish and joined a couple other fishermen at the end of the pier.  As the tide was moving they did pretty well catching rays, skates, eels, and a variety of bottom fish like whitings and croakers.  Ali shared these photos with me once I woke up from my near-comatose slumber.

Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina)

Clearnose Skate (Raja eglanteria)

Shrimp Eel (Ophichthus gomesii)

Around 5am I woke up with a jolt.  It was time to fish!  I assembled my travel rods and made my way out to join Ali and his new fishing buddies.  Right away Ali and the guy next to him hooked up with a nice ray.  Ali's hook was in it's mouth, and the other guys' rig was tangled up in Ali's line, so turned out to be an awkward team effort bringing it in.

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana)

I wanted a ray quite badly (Atlantic and southern would be new for me), but the bite died down as the tide slowed and the sun began to rise behind the clouds.  Our luck of not getting rained on too much ran out when we saw a big storm front approaching.  The rest of the day was on and off heavy rain and constant wind.

The bite started off slow once I had bait in the water.  My first catch was this silver perch, a species that I only recently added to my lifelist when I was in Louisiana with Ruoxi earlier this year.

Silver Perch (Bairdiella chrysoura)

At low tide we caught a few hermit crabs.  They were pretty cute, and since we weren't catching many fish we didn't mind them stealing our baits from time to time.

In the late morning the bite picked back up.  Unfortunately it mostly consisted of pigfish and pinfish, two species that are ubiquitous to the Atlantic coast.  They're handsome fish though, and it was nice to have a more steady bite.

Pigfish (Orthopristis chrysoptera)

Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides)

In the early afternoon I finally caught a new lifer, a northern puffer.  It was hanging out close to one of the pier's wooden pilings.  I'm lucky I got a photo of it, because as soon as I got it over the railing it bit through my 8 lb fluorocarbon line.  He posed nicely for a photo and swam off quickly when I released him.

Northern Puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus) - new hook & line species #313

Ali caught his first toadfish when he fished close to one of the pilings.  He was quite pleased about it!

Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus tau)

Later in the afternoon the outgoing tide was moving pretty good.  As the grass and other debris floated by, we caught a few other interesting species.  This spottail pinfish was especially large.  I had never seen one with blue pelvic fins.

Spottail Pinfish (Diplodus holbrookii)

Black Sea Bass (Centropristis striata)

Even though we could have fished quite a while longer, the rain and wind kicked our butt, so we packed up around mid-afternoon.  As we moved away from the coast the rain switched from sudden bursts to a steady drizzle.  Ali's dog and I were pretty out of it, and I'm glad Ali brought us back safe.

This was a day of fishing unlike anything else I've experience, and I'm happy we did it.  I'm also glad I was able to get a lifer!  Huge thanks to Ali for driving from Chapel Hill to the coast and finding a somewhat sheltered pier for us to fish.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Captain Eli and the California tuna

Ruoxi moved to southern California this summer, and last weekend I was able to fly out to see her.  We had a great time, and Ruoxi demonstrated how much she loved me by agreeing to a day of offshore fishing.  On Sunday we drove to Newport Beach to meet up with Eli W, a local species fishing legend and friend of a friend.  Ruoxi and I have met a lot of great people on our fishing trips, and Eli is right up there with the best of the best.

We launched our rental boat before sunrise, and by the time the sky begain to brighten we had purchased bait, a half scoop of anchovies, and motored outside the bay.

We saw people catching fish from the end of a jetty, and several boats were fishing in the area, so Eli told me to tie on a sabiki with a silver spoon on the end and start casting out.  Right away I hooked up with my first lifer of the trip!

Pacific Bonito (Sarda chiliensis) - new hook & line species #306

Ruoxi took over with the same rig, and while I unsuccessfully fished with an imitation shad swimbait, she hooked up with a bonito as well.

Next we headed offshore.  The water changed color from a blueish-brown to the deepest blue you can imagine.  Our depth finder wasn't working, so we didn't know how far down the bottom was, but we knew it was deep.  We stopped whenever we found a floating kelp paddy.  Each one, even the ones no larger than a coffee table, had dozens of yellowtail jack swimming beneath.  We freelined live anchovies to them, and usually it only took a minute or two to hook up.

Yellowtail Jack (Seriola lalandi) - new hook & line species #307

Occasionally we couldn't get the fish to bite.  There didn't seem to be any reason why some schools were biting and others were not.  At one of the bigger paddies, we saw a lone dorado swimming near the surface.  Eli tossed out a bait with one of his light rods, and the dorado hit it!

After a few minutes of fighting, I think Eli regretted using such light gear.  If he tightened his drag, his line would snap, so he had no choice but to take his time and let the dorado run when it wanted to run.  Once or twice it came to the surface and jumped, and Ruoxi was able to get a really cool photo of it in the air.

After a few more minutes, Eli got the dorado up to the boat and was able to grab it by hand.  We were all very excited about the catch!

Dorado (Coryphaena hippurus)

We were headed in the direction of Catalina Island, but we continued to stop at kelp paddies on the way.  We saw a large group of boats in the distance.  Eli excitedly said that there must be a tuna bite.  We caught up with the group, and sure enough there was a large kelp paddy in the middle.  However, several boats were giving up and leaving, and we even heard the captain of a party boat say that the bite had died down.  We stopped and freelined out anchovies anyway.  We also chummed with the ones that had already died in the livewell.  Pretty soon we saw blue and silver torpedos racing through the water.  My heart was pounding as I watched one of them slam my bait.  I let line peel off my reel for a few seconds before I closed the bail and lifted my rod tip up hard to set the hook.

The fight that followed was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  It wasn't even that large of a fish, but with the gear I was using, whenver it wanted to strip line off my reel, it stripped line off my reel.  Eventually I worked it up to the side of the boat, and Eli reached down to grab it by the tail.  My first California tuna!

Skipjack Tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) - new hook & line species #308

Skipjack tuna would be a new lifer for Eli as well (there aren't many species in California that he hasn't caught), but for some reason we couldn't get any more fish to bite.  While we were fishing, we saw a hammerhead swim by.  It was attracted to all the activity.  I snapped a photo as it swam under my line.  If you look closely you can see my bait out past the end of the braided line (the fluorocarbon leader is invisible in the water).

Smooth Hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena)

Eli was persistent, and eventually he caught his skipjack tuna.  We were very glad he got one!  It turned out to be the first of many, because the next spot was loaded with them.  Within seconds of your bait hitting the water, a tuna would come racing up and slam it near the surface.  Ruoxi had no problem hooking up with one

After a tiring fight that started with a cut finger and ended with sore muscles, Ruoxi joined the skipjack tuna club as well!

Eli caught one or two yellowfin tuna at this spot, but all I could catch were skipjack.  I was beginning to worry that I wouldn't get my lifer yellowfin.  Eli moved us closer to the kelp paddie, and again I hooked up with a strong fish.  I couldn't tell what it was, but something about the way it pulled was enough for Eli to declare that it was a yellowfin.  The next few minutes were intense.  My forearms were hurting, and I really did not want to lose this fish.  When I brought it close enough to the boat to see it, Eli and I both saw the yellow on the fins.  Eli grabbed it by the tail, and I added yet another tuna species to my lifelist.

Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares) - new hook & line species #309

With our tuna fishing a success, we continued west until we reached the southern tip of Catalina Island.  The steep slope of the shoreline was impressive.

The dropoff was so steep that even though we were very close to shore, the water depth was still several hundred feet.  Twenty or thirty feet below the boat we could see a large school of halfmoon, a type of sea chub.  They were easy to catch using a sabiki baited with pieces of squid.

Halfmoon (Medialuna californiensis) - new hook & line species #310

When we dropped our baits to the bottom, we caught ocean whitefish, which are a type of tilefish.  I've wanted a tilefish for a long time, so it was great to finally catch my first one, regardless of how small it was.

Ocean Whitefish (Caulolatilus princeps) - new hook & line species #311

As we drifted a little closer to shore the bite changed abruptly from ocean whitefish to kelp bass.  We assumed that the bottom had transitioned to kelp.  This was the only species of fish I caught on the trip that was not a new lifer.

Kelp Bass (Paralabrax clathratus)

Ruoxi wanted a kelp bass as well, so she dropped a sabiki to the bottom and caught one right away.  As usual, hers was bigger than mine.

We were running out of time, but before we wrapped up we moved closer to shore to see if we could catch something else, like a blacksmith or mackerel.  However, the only fish that took my bait was the garibaldi below, which is a protected species in California.  After taking a few photos I quickly released it, and we packed up to head back to Newport Beach.

Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) - new hook & line species #312

Eli and Ruoxi took turns driving the boat back towards shore, and they both did excellent jobs.  We can't thank Eli enough for being our captain for the day.  Ruoxi and I knew very little about offshore ocean fishing, and Eli was a great teacher.  He showed us how to cast out sabikis and reel in quickly to catch bonito, how to scout out kelp paddies on the open ocean, and how to freeline live bait to catch pelagic fish.  We can't wait for our next offshore trip!

Expect more posts from California in the future!

Edit:  I guess I need to clarify - Eli is not an actual licensed captain.  I didn't pay him for the trip.  We split the cost of the rental boat, gas, and bait.