July 20, 2014

Hunting lifers with a kindred spirit

Passion has a strange way to connect people.

A few weeks ago, Michael called me and talked of an older gentleman living in Guelph, ON who wanted to get in touch with me. George, a retired professor, is an accomplished species angler with 628 species on his list. He was delighted to find a local species angler when he found my blog. There were local species that I've caught that he has yet to add, and likewise I have species that George can help me add.

After a few enlightening emails, we found a good weekend to meet. The goal was to help George add a few micro species.

During the car ride, George told me tales of fishing in Vanuatu, Manzatlan and Thailand, and my eyes feasted upon albums containing species which some I've never seen! It was simply astonishing!

Our first location was a small pond that, as far as I know, contained only Northern Redbelly Dace. A month ago, this pond was very fishable and schools upon schools of spawning dace were easy to catch. However, late July meant a weed choked location where my previous fishing location was completely unfishable. Instead, we explored a dock over deeper water where we did find some small dace. The smaller dace were difficult to hook, but we soon found a school of bigger dace hanging just within reach of my 8-foot tenkara rod. It took a little adjustment with timing before George added a Northern Redbelly Dace to his list!

Just before we left, I spotted a strange little orange fish. With a bit of patience, it came within each of our net and we found out it was a strange colour morph of a Northern Redbelly Dace. There was a normal colour dace of similar side within the same scoop of the net.

Finding one golden morph was rare, but there was a second golden morph swimming around as we took this picture!

Since mission #1 was complete, we moved to Location #2 where we would wade the stream for a Blacknose Dace. This stream yielded Longnose Dace for me three weeks ago. I caught one Blacknose Dace, but I was confident that there were many more. I have also caught Johnny Darter further upstream. While I searched upstream for Johnny Darter, George quickly caught his first Blacknose Dace.

When my search came up negative upstream, I waded downstream. I did see three juvenile Johnny Darter downstream but these were much to tiny to target with hook and line. I also spotted what appeared to be a sculpin, however, I did not have my tenkara rod with me. As luck would have it, just as I returned to George, I spotted a Tadpole Madtom scurrying under a rock. By the time I returned with my tenkara rod, the madtom has left. It was good to know they can be found in this stream. I'll have to come back to look for them!

Mission #2 accomplished (sans Johnny Darter) and a very short relocation later we arrived at Location #3. Disappointingly, the little culvert that had yield Brook Stickleback for me was reduced to a thread of slow flowing water too shallow to hold much of anything. Beside this culvert was a pond that has a population of Bluntnose Minnow and Fathead Minnow. George has not catch a Fathead Minnow so he wanted to try the pond, even in its weed choked state. We did find a rim of clear, open water that was very fishable. It was here that we found many small Brook Stickleback. Although they were very willing to bite, almost too willing, their small size made them extremely difficult to hook.

While I was poking around, I saw a little movement on bottom. Looking more intently, I soon spotted a slender shaped darter on the gravel bottom. I thought this might be a Johnny Darter since they can live in these swampy areas as well as slower portions of the stream that was connected to this pond. I started presenting the bait to the little darters, had many refusals and it was a tough time getting away from the sticklebacks. But finally, one moment of fortune fell upon me as I got the bait in front of a willing darter before the sticklebacks could find it. The darter greedily took the bait in its entirety into its mouth and I lifted the hooked darter onto shore.

Immediately, the darter appeared very different from a Johnny Darter. I had a hunch that this may be an Iowa Darter. The habitat was a perfect fit and the overall shape and colouration matched very well with the Iowa Darter. Once we consulted the guidebook, I was pretty much convinced.

On a day I was only expected to have a chance at Mottled Sculpin as a new species, I found a lifer Iowa Darter!

Iowa Darter (Etheostoma exile) - Species #394!

We had both George's and my Iowa Darter in the same micro photo tank. Here is the Iowa Darter that George caught, which was just slightly larger than mine.

There were discussion whether these were Least Darter or Iowa Darter. People often looks at shape and colour and forget about other distinguishing characteristics like fin spine and ray count.

In Iowa Darter, the first dorsal fin usually has 9 spines (but may range from 8-12, with females having the greater count). In Least Darter, the first dorsal fin usually has 6 spines (but range from 5-7). Thus, if you were to count the first dorsal fin spine, you can clearly tell that these are Iowa Darters.

There were a few of them in the area, which allowed George to catch one soon after. The second slightly larger darter in the picture was the Iowa Darter that George caught. We were very pleased by this surprise catch!

We couldn't find any Fathead Minnow, so I promise George that we'll try for them next spring when the pond is more opened. I know that the stream crosses the road just a little distance away and there is a culvert where we could fished. We relocated to the culvert to find a nice rocky bottom and a lot more depth. It was very evident that there were many Brook Stickleback and ever a few darters on bottom.

The culvert had steep sides. Since it was raining lightly, we chose to forgo the risk of a fall trying to get down to the bank. However, the culvert was at least 7 feet above the stream. My 8-foot tenkara rod can barely reached down. We had to lie down on our belly to reach the fish.

Trying to hook and land any fish was difficult in such situation. George hooked a few micros but they would wiggle off the hook as the fish broke the surface of the water. Like before, the stickleback was quite a nuisance since they would swarm the bait before the darter could be tempted. With a lot of determination, and quite a bit of tolerance, I finally hooked a darter. We finally had a confirmation that Johnny Darter lived here.

This gave George some renewed hope that the Johnny Darter could be caught. Attempts after attempts were made. Although the Brook Sticklebacks were ravenous, George could not get the hook into one of them. We had the darters in the micro tank and the water was getting a little warm. So I took a little hike to get down to the stream to change the water to keep the little darters alive. I spent time to get a few more shots of the darter when George asked me to get his long handled micro net. While lifting up a hooked fish, the line was wrapped around an overhanging branch. The fish was still hanging on the hook, but George wanted the security of the net under the fish while we try to sort out the line.

I hastily grabbed the net and immediately saw that it was a Brook Stickleback. The stake was not even higher now. But we finally got the net under the fish, the line untangled, and the Brook Stickleback safely in the micro tank and onto George's list!

We tried for the Johnny Darter over and over for quite a while after. But as the afternoon wore on and the rain getting more intense, we simply had to end the hunt. There are other areas where Johnny Darters can be found, so we'll put another effort for them another day.

While lying down fishing for these 1" fish, George said that most people will not understand why we do it. It definitely take a kindred spirit to appreciate the efforts put into species hunting. We were both glad to have found each other and I'm sure this is the start of many future adventures together!

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