We were on the road by 6:30am with motel breakfast in hand. Crappy as stale bagel and bad coffee may be, we didn't have time to stop for anything else. It didn't help that GoogleMaps seemed to have made the biggest blunder in its route calculation, and our drives were often 1-2 hours longer than planned.
As we rushed from Anderson, IN to a beautiful corner of Illinois, we saw miles and miles of farmlands. The Midwest is truly one of the biggest food production region of the US.
After 5 hours of driving, we finally reached Shawnee National Forest and left the farms behind. This beautiful area was dotted with the occasional farm while much of the forest and streams remained wild. It had rained on Monday and Tuesday, and as we passed muddy creeks after muddy creeks, we were quite apprehensive toward the prospect of microfishing for Darters and Minnows.
Luckily, we were greeted with a small intimate stream with gin clear water. Ben assured us it would be fishable - how dare we doubted him!
Our main targets on this little creek were two Darters species. The males of these Darters guard nests under larger slabs of rocks. In order to catch them, Ben suggested that we should catch some nymphs. However, on this day, small nubs of nightcrawlers were equally welcomed.
I systematically placed the bait next to any space under rocks that appeared large enough to house a male darter. It didn't take too long before the first species was found!
Spottail Darter (Etheostoma squamiceps) - Species #551
The Spottail Darter is identified by white knobs at the tips of its soft dorsal rays. Short rays alternate with long knobbed rays to give a saw-like fin margin. It also has three spots at the base of the caudal peduncle hence the name Spottail Darter.
I caught another Spottail Darter shortly after, but it took another 20 minutes and quite a bit more searching until I finally found the second species.
Stripetail Darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) - Species #552
The Stripetail Darter looks almost the same as Fantail Darter. However, Stripetail Darter has a black submarginal band on its spiny dorsal fin just under the golden knobs on each spine.
Aside from these two new Darters, there were also a lot of Rainbow Darter in the gravel shallows. While Michael search desperately for his own Stripetail and Spottail Darter, I played with a few Rainbow Darter. This male was especially stunning. I'm grateful that this individual can grace the lifelist for years to come.
Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum)
We also caught some Creek Chub and Striped Shiner. We saw two Topminnow upon arrival, but they quickly spooked away and we never saw them again.
Michael finally caught his darter lifers. We spent a little over 2 hours at the creek and likely lingered a bit too long already. It was time to go.
Driving out of Shawnee National Forest, we returned to more farm country. Soon, we reached the border of Illinois and crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri. The Mississippi was indeed high and fast. There was no way we could fish it for Shovelnose Sturgeon.
Another 3 hours later, we finally reached Van Buren. We've reserved a campsite at Big Springs Campground along the shores of the Current River. Part of the Current River is designated as Ozark National Scenic Waterways, and within this area hunting is prohibited. We have never seen so many Whitetail Deer in our lives around the campground. Deer simple wander about fearlessly day and night. We made certain to drive carefully and slowly, but the deer seemed rather keen to avoid vehicles for the most part.
We were on a rush to set up camp before dusk, and to have a bit of remaining daylight to scope out the area to fish at night. A short drive later took us to the bank of Current River where Ben suggested as a good location to find Shadow Bass and Knobfin Sculpin.
The river was very high and the water was uncharacteristically murky. Visibility was a foot at best. We really didn't know if it was at all fishable. However, with a number of Minnows feeding off the surface, we quickly explored the area with our tenkara rods and found a couple of new species.
Whitetail Shiner (Cyprinella galactura) - Species #553
Ozark Minnow (Notropis nubilus) - Species #554
Ben mentioned that he had better luck finding Shadow Bass after dark. As dusk fell, I switched over to a bottom bouncing rig to fish the rocky bottom along a current seam. A few drifts later, I felt a series of taps and the first Shadow Bass of the night came to hand. Just like the Rockbass I know from Ontario, their bite and struggle on the line felt just the same.
Shadow Bass (Ambloplites ariommus) - Species #555
Shadow Bass has a characteristic blotchy dark patters on its body that could get quite striking in appearance. However, all the fish we caught were quite pale in colour.
It took Michael a while longer to catch his lifer Shadow Bass. In the meantime, I tried to look for the Knobfin Sculpin among rocks but it was difficult to sight any of them with the murky water.
Michael decided to search along the shallows and quickly found some Banded Sculpin. According to Ben, this area was better known for Knobfin Sculpin, but on this night, we only found Banded Sculpin.
Banded Sculpin (Cottus carolinae) - Species #556
The Banded Sculpin has distinct bands on its tail, often greater than 3 bands. It has clear dorsal fins where the spiny dorsal is well separated from the soft dorsal.
Unable to find our Knobfin Sculpin after a couple of hours, we moved to another spot only to find the area unfishable due to the high water. We returned yet again to our initial spot and fished until 12am without any success with the Knobfin Sculpin. If it hadn't started to rain, we might have continued to fish losing all sense of time.
We had planned to end the evening by 10pm, but our stubbornness to accept defeat kept us up way past bedtime. By this time, we had been awake for over 19 hours...and after all...we ONLY needed to wake up at 5am the next morning to drive 4 hours to our first fishing location.
It rained steadily and heavily all night. The rain kept my sleep quite broken even though I was very tired. I think part of me was worried about how the rain would affect our fishing the next day.