Fishing Adventures

Hard Luck Tail

Some days you wake up with your hair looking like a rat’s nest and you think, “Why me?” Other days you dribble coffee on your favorite tie and again say, “Arrgh, why me?” In fact, the universe is more than happy to deliver you endless raw deals. But to prevent a bad luck barrage from getting you down, just think how much better you have it than fish number 34 in our quest to catch and eat every kind of fish in New Hampshire: the slimy sculpin.

We think the diminutive slimy sculpin is likely the source of many jokes and double entendres beneath the surface of the water. For example, rainbow trout probably say, “Whoa, what a night of spawning. All I remember is doing shots and then waking up next to a slimy sculpin.” Largemouth bass might say, “Dude, I was so sick I hacked up slimy sculpins all night.”

It is not the sculpin’s fault. They are just victims of some insensitive scientist who named them and some unfortunate features that God clearly gave them to build character.

To some, the slimy sculpin, Cottus cognatus, looks like a monster from a Stephen King novel. Two beady eyes sit high on its head, well above the disproportionally huge mouth that spans most of its face. The upper and lower jaws are lined with fine, sharp teeth and it has a distinct overbite. Its mottled face is covered in small, sharp spines called prickles, and it is framed by wide, fan-shaped pectoral fins. The splotchy brown and beige pattern of the sculpin body makes it well suited for life among the rocks of a stream, but not for winning beauty contests. Luckily, the fish only grows to about four inches long, otherwise nobody would dare swim in the water with these miniature nightmares.

The sculpin does have some interesting attributes that fish nerds like us appreciate. One is that slimy sculpins do not have a swim bladder like most fish. A swim bladder is a balloon-like organ in the body that makes a fish naturally buoyant so it can move effortlessly through the water. Since slimy sculpins do not have a swim bladder, they sink like a stone and therefore must move over the stream bed with short bursts of speed, as if hopping from point to point.

Another interesting thing is that sculpins are very sensitive to water pollution and rarely move very far from the place they were born. This makes them very good environmental indicators of stream health.

There are many scientific studies that look at the toxin levels in sculpin tissue to determine the impact of development and industry along particular streams. If the pollution gets too bad, the sculpins simply die off in that area.

From our research we know that sculpins like clean, clear water that flows over cobble-sized stones. We therefore went to a tiny brook on Artist Falls Road in North Conway that matched this habitat description. Before we wetted a line, we walked in the stream to kick over some large stones. One sculpin that was hiding under a large rock was exposed and darted only a few feet away to hide under another rock. Once we identified its hidy hole, we simply took advantage of its ambush hunting style by bouncing a hook and worm past the entrance until it lurched out and attacked.

A sculpin in hand is a good thing, and surprisingly, it is not particularly slimy. It is true that they do not have scales, but compared to an eel, hornpout or pickerel, these fish score pretty low on the slimy scale. Perhaps the scientist that named the fish was just in a foul mood that day. Or perhaps he ate one.

We ate ours in a sculpin scampi that looked great. But with just one bite we realized why sculpins don’t make it on the menu. The initial taste was a pleasant mix of garlic, pasta, and olive oil with just a hint of fish flavor. Then the hint became a strong suggestion that quickly evolved into a painful crescendo. For some reason the aftertaste of the sculpin had a lingering spirit that enveloped the tongue like an old fishing boot. We tried to wash the taste out with water, but it seemed to gain strength with each gulp. Not since the tragic pickled pickerel incident had we had such a tough time shaking a fishy taste.

But we choked down the fish and checked another species off the list. We have only 10 more remaining before we can call our quest a success. We are not sure if we can make it by February 2012, but we are going to try. If we miss the deadline, we will continue the quest until we are done, like a couple of breathless marathon runners who cross the finish line after everyone else has gone home.  Follow our efforts to catch the last 10 at www.catch-m-all.com.

 

-Published in The Wire on 10/5/11

Holy Carp

It was 8 a.m. when we climbed down the 60-foot embankment to the Merrimack River in Manchester. The sun was already hot in the sky and the water was low and calm. We were in search of common carp (Cyprinus carpio), fish number 39 in our quest to catch and eat every kind of freshwater fish in New Hampshire. Catch-M-All fans will remember we’ve been chasing carp for over a year. Today, failure would not be an option. Carpe Diem, Carpe Carp! It was time to bag our fish!

Originally from Asia, the carp is New Hampshire’s largest species of minnow. For centuries people stocked the big and meaty fish in new places, so now it is found on every continent except Antarctica. Fisheries managers released them in New Hampshire in the late 1800s to replace dwindling shad and herring fisheries in the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers. It was believed that the carp would be welcomed as a familiar food fish by the growing immigrant population. The fish did well, but the people were not impressed.

Carp are considered invasive species because they are prolific and eat like pigs. Carp are omnivores and eat anything they can suck off the bottom of a pond or river. They root around in the mud and tear up native plants to find food. A thriving carp population can radically change a habitat and displace native fish.

But carp in the Merrimack also got a raw deal. As cities grew along the river, so did the pollution from factories and sewage plants, making the water toxic for New Hampshire fish that like clear, clean, cool water. Carp, on the other hand, can tolerate pollution better, so they flourished. Many people have falsely accused carp for killing salmon, shad and herring. To make matters worse, the bad water made the carp taste bad, so people did not even want to catch them. Now that the river is getting cleaner, attitudes may change.

While we prepared our gear, we tossed handfuls of canned sweet corn into the river to get the carp in an eating mood. Immediately we noticed fish moving closer, and our hopes began to rise. We pulled crust from a slice of bread and drizzled it with vanilla extract before squishing it around a hook to form an acorn-sized ball. We cast the ball 20 feet out and loosened the drag on the reel to let the line pull out freely. We’ve been told carp will spit out bait if they detect any resistance. We rested the rods on an old log and passed the time by wondering if carp are called koi because they are so shy.

Not only did we need to catch a carp, but we had to eat one, too. The problem was that we couldn’t find anyone locally who would admit eating carp. Even our friends who are avid carp anglers scowled when we asked their favorite recipe. We instead turned to a recent favorite book of ours, “Eating Aliens” by Jackson Landers. Traveling the country eating invasive species, Landers reports that he fed carp fishsticks to his kids, and they never knew the difference. Landers believes a market for invasive species like carp would easily diminish their numbers without government intervention.

Suddenly we heard whrrzzzZZZzzzZZZz!—the beautiful music a reel makes as a fish strips out line. Clay grabbed the rod and watched the line rocket off the spool even faster. He tightened the drag and set the hook. “Holy carp, fish on!”

This fish was not going to come in easily. Clay had to carefully play the fish so the eight-pound line wouldn’t snap under the strain. The fish made several strong runs and put an impressive bend in Clay’s vintage aluminum rod. But then it began to tire and, like an expert carp pilot, Clay steered the fish into the shallows. Reaching his hand into the gills, Clay lifted the hefty fish from the river. It was a considerable fish of about 15 pounds that nearly pulled Clay off balance and into the drink.

With this brute in hand, we wondered if a New Hampshire state record exceeding 33 pounds was waiting for us under the surface. We laughed at the thought of anglers chasing puny bass and weakling trout, when schools of large carp were swimming unmolested in the Merrimack.

We vowed to return once our quest was complete to tangle with the mighty carp again. At the car, Clay dug in his fishing bag and laughed. “I only have a two-inch paring knife! This will be fun.” After hacking through the quarter-sized scales, he gouged out several pounds of pink meat and then declared the poor fish done. We buried the carcass on the shore where it would eventually decompose and nourish the river from which it came.

Once in the kitchen, we wanted to honor the largest fish we’ve caught in our quest. After a brief Internet search, we learned that carp is commonly used in gefilte fish, a popular Passover meal. Neither of us had eaten or even seen gefilte fish, but we thought it must be pretty good to be so popular. Then we found that most gefilte fish recipes call for using the fish carcass and head to make a complimentary fish jelly. This did not bolster our confidence in the dish, but thankfully, we did not have the carcass.

We left out the jelly and, in the end, we thought we made a nice approximation of gefilte fish garnished with horseradish sauce. It tasted kind of like a fishy meatloaf. We did not hate it, and it confirmed our experience that minnows were pretty good eats.

– appeared in The Wire, 10/16/12

The Stories of the Quest in the Mountain Ear

During the Quest, Dave and Clay wrote biweekly articles that appeared in the Mountain Ear newspaper in Conway, as well as The Wire in Portsmouth, NH.  Below are our favorite layout designs in the Mountain Ear.

 

 

Here is link to one of our favorite articles: ‘Gills Just Want to Have Fun”.

FishaVision

The Catch-M-All quest has been a joyous year-long adventure that has included many different types of fish and anglers. It has also featured a nearly equal diversity of fishing methods. During our quest to catch and eat every kind of freshwater fish in New Hampshire, we have used fly rods, spin casting gear, tip-ups, spears and even a bow and arrow. But recently, we tried a new way to go fishing that might be our latest obsession. We went fishing with a television.

We unabashedly love TV because it has been with us our entire lives, turning our brains into the mushy goodness they are today. So it makes sense that we would want to bring this lifelong friend on a fishing trip.

In the last 10 years or so, video cameras and small portable televisions have made their way into the sport of ice fishing. We pretended not to want one because it would offend our purest fishing sensibilities, but they were really just too expensive. But, as with everything else, fishing TVs have gone digital and gotten cheaper. The glut of analog sets on the market brought them into our price range, and we found an eBay unit for a mere $35. A few clicks later and it was ours.

Our unit includes a small 5.5-inch, black-and-white television, with a spool on top wrapped in 50 feet of cable leading to a high resolution underwater video camera rimmed with LCD lighting. It was state of the art just three years ago, but now it is antiquated, which suits our wallets just fine.

We decided to try the camera in a shallow pond in Hampton Falls. After drilling a few holes in the ice, we lowered the camera into the water and watched the screen intently as it descended. We both gasped when a bluegill appeared on the screen, looking back at us from its watery realm. At that moment, we were hooked on the fishy drama unfolding just eight feet below our feet.

The fish exited stage left while Clay lowered a small ice fishing jig tipped with a waxworm down an adjacent hole. The lure hit its mark onscreen and did a tantalizing Rockette-like dance. From the wings, the bluegill watched. Clay jigged the lure up and down a few times to give the cue. Action! The small fish attacked the lure and Clay set the hook.

This is when things got weird. In that moment, the television show became reality. Up until that point, we could have been watching “The Bachelor” or “American Idol,” but, like Neo in “The Matrix,” we were jolted into reality from the electronic world.

The experience was intoxicating. We took turns luring a fish into frame and then transporting it from television world to our world. We then pondered what it would be like to do this with actors on real TV (without the hooks). Imagine pulling Sofía Vergara from the set of “Modern Family” or Iron Man from TBS. We could flick annoying politicians in the head or pet dinos from “Jurassic Park.”

As we discussed the possibilities, we felt we had seen this before, and then Clay said, “Wonkavision”!

In “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” the confectionery genius invented Wonkavision, which allowed viewers to reach into their televisions and grab chocolate bars from advertisements. We now had Fishavision!

Just then a big action star appeared on our screen, Esox niger, the chain pickerel. Like Bruce Willis sauntering on set, the pickerel confidently swam up to the lure and sized it up. We cheered as if Jack Bauer himself had just made an appearance. The pickerel’s star power made the lesser B-list sunfish scatter.

The pickerel circled the baits like Seth Rogan around a craft services table. It hovered in front of the camera and stared at Dave’s glow-in-the-dark jig tipped with a waxworm. To entice it, Dave wiggled the lure and the pickerel engulfed it. The weight of the fish at the end of the line broke the TV-induced spell and Dave expertly fought the 17-inch fish onto the ice. An Emmy-winning performance if there ever was one!

Even though our television premier only had a viewership of two, we considered it a big hit. We would still be out on the ice if we had a sofa and some beer. We can’t wait to tune into Fishavision again. Until then, we can watch reruns of our underwater ice webisode on our blog at www.catch-m-all.com and, of course, fans can follow the rest of our adventures on our Facebook page.

 

As published by The Wire on Tuesday, 21 February