Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Longhead Darters and Streamlined Chubs (Western PA Pt. 5)

As the first full day in Pennsylvania wore on, it started to seem to Noah, Jake, and I that larger predatory fish were just not that active. Though we were on a fantastic watershed for big fish, the more we focused on them the less likely we would be to catch lifers. So I focused more and more on micros.

The Allegheny was teaming with small fish, and many were species I'd never caught. Some were also visually very striking. Peering into a riffle, I could see numerous longhead darters and a few small common logperch. These species are both in the same genus, Percina. They are a bit larger on average than other darters, and also quite aggressive. This meant they were pretty easy to catch on small flies, and with  minimal effort I had another lifer darter species in hand.

Lifelist fish #172, Longhead darter, Percina macrocephala. Rank: Species

I then put a bunch of effort into trying to get a logperch, and I did miss one, but the longheads and ever present silver shiners made this task all but impossible, beating the logperch to the fly time after time. Once, though, when I lifted a small minnow out of the water, thinking it was yet another silver, it clearly wasn't. I had no idea what it actually was, but after Jake caught some of the same fish later in the trip I was able to determine that I'd caught a streamline chub.

Lifelist fish #173, Streamline chub. Erimystax dissimilis. Rank, species.

This was a species I knew absolutely nothing about prior, and still wouldn't if I hadn't caught one. This little fish was quite lovely, though to some it may look completely uninteresting and extraordinary. To me every fish tells a story, a story about life on this planet. Streamline chubs had successfully held a small niche in this big river, changed and evolved from ancestors long gone, only still existing because they're fit to live where they do, as every organism is. To me that's always beautiful, and it makes no life insignificant. 

Back out in the river, I tried to find one more new species in this spot. I started targeting the different smaller darters that were perched up on boulders. This may seem odd, for a fish to be sitting on top of a big rock rather than hiding under it, but I've seen numerous darters and sculpins in freshwater and blennies and sculpins in saltwater doing so. 

Eventually I did catch one of these darters. I'm still not positive on it's identity but it is likely another greenside, so not a new species. 

Though the Allegheny was being oh so stingy with it's larger fish, these small fishes were not a bitter consolation for me at all. I love catching fish, with no exceptions. 

Until next time,

Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The World's 4th Largest Salamander (Western Pennsylvania Pt. 4)

My love for reptiles and amphibians runs deep. I can't remember a time when I wasn't captivated by frogs, snakes, salamanders, crocodilians, you name it. It certainly runs deeper than my fascination for fish. Herpetology was my first love, Ichthyology not even my second or third, so there are amphibians that I've wanted to see as long as I can remembered, but not fish. One of those amphibians is the largest Salamander in North America, the hellbender. 

The largest salamander in the world might be the South China giant salamander, Andrias sligoi, with one specimen collected in the Guizhou Province measuring a stunning 5.9ft in length. Because biology is a sloppy science, the South China giant salamander was lumped in as non-distinct and then forgotten. It was then revived as a distinct species when genetic research in 2018 proved that the Chinese giant salamander was not a distinct species, but a collection of clades divided among different river drainages, some of which were distinct enough to get species designation. Because the largest specimen of Chinese giant salamander could be A sligoi, but genetic material is not fresh enough to test, it remains a mystery which species the record breaking specimen is. A. sligoi and A. davidianus are critically endangered and it isn't even known if A. sligoi exists in its native range anymore. The Chinese affinity for using basically any animal for medicine or for food has driven these incredible and important animals to the brink, and continues to threaten their viability to this day. 

In Japan, the native Adrias japonicus , the third largest salamander in the world, has enjoyed better protections in recent history but is still listed as near threatened. The largest wild specimen was 58lbs and 4.5ft long. Thankfully Japan has recognized the biological an cultural significance of their giant salamanders and are better equipped to protect them than China is with their own. It seems likely that the Japanese giant salamander will be around for years to come. 

A fourth species of the giant salamander family (Cryptobranchidae) lives in the eastern United States. The hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, is the largest amphibian in North America and possibly the fourth largest salamander in the world maxing out at well over two feet. It, like it's Japanese relative, is listed as near threatened, and Pennsylvania is one of the last best places to see the species and the only state where it doesn't have special protections (and that's very stupid, it should, but PA is slow about this stuff... they still allow timber rattlesnake hunting, after all). Though I'd lived right smack dab in the middle of hellbender country for years and spent countless hours exploring streams where they live, I'd never seen one. So when we all woke up on the first morning of our trip and groggily got ready for a long day on the water, it didn't cross my mind that I'd have a good chance at seeing one that day. 

We headed straight to the river I'd seen the muskies and Moxostoma in the evening before, each of us prepared to target both, as well as micros. As we walked down some railroad tracks to the spot, we saw the first herp of the day, a DeKay's brown snake making a morning move. 

I had my 8wt rigged to indicator nymph and 10wt rigged to throw big streamers when I hit the water. I bumped spot to spot with one rod tucked under my arm, casting with the other, alternating methods. I then settled in a good looking run for a little while and nymphed it hard, hoping to dredge up something interesting. The first fish was a little smallmouth and so was the second, but the third was a silver shiner than somehow managed to drop my indicator with quite a bit of force. 

It became clear very quickly that the redhorse I'd seen all over this creek the day before were being far more shy this morning. I was seeing a few flash, but I sure wasn't getting eats and I wasn't even getting much in the way of takes from other fish. Jake got a log perch and his lifer river chub, Noah was getting the odd bass and chub, but the muskies and redhorse were being cold and distant. With the muskies that wasn't at all surprising, but I didn't know to expect it from the Moxostoma.  

River chub

We wandered upstream a ways, then started back down after deciding we weren't especially likely to find anything different above us. In the spot I'd seen the muskies, we found a small pike. I got it to exhibit interest in a big black muskie fly but couldn't get it to eat. There were schools of minnows and shiners holding along the same weed edge though, and we started fishing to those. That's how I got my first lifer of the day and my second Luxilus species, and my favorite species of the genus, the striped shiner. Colored up male striped shiners are one of the most beautiful freshwater fish in the world. I have a watercolor taxonomic painting of one hanging on my bedroom wall. This one was a dull female outside of spawning season, but still a gorgeous little fish.

Lifelist fish #171, striped shiner, Luxilus chrysocephalus. Rank: species.

Jake and I were catching a bunch of river chubs out of this spot, and eventually I hooked a pretty good one. 

We headed back downriver to the same run I'd really pounded on my way upstream. We all went over to the opposite side, Jake and I stayed in the run, Noah headed downriver. I parked myself on a big slab of sandstone with a deep pocket in front of me and nymphed it hard, pulling one smallmouth out. Then Jake hollered that he had some unusual amphibian eggs in front of him. I waded over and it was true, these were some large and odd shaped eggs I'd never seen before. They did have some hallmarks of salamander eggs, but huge ones, and all we could think was that they were a hellbender's They looked in awful conditions though, certainly not alive, but there were a few good rock slabs around and I decided to gently lift one. As I did so, a huge cloud of mud erupted from it and a long brown animal roiled out and vanished. Jake felt it bump his legs but it was completely lost in its own smoke screen of disturbed mud and detritus. We began searching around for what we were now sure must be a hellbender. I saw something roll on the surface in some shallow weedy water a few feet away from me and headed to it, feeling around with my hands. Suddenly there was a commotion behind me and Jake yelled "I got him, HELLBENDER!". I whipped around to see Jake with the largest amphibian I'd ever seen writhing in his hands.  We shouted down to Noah and quickly moved the animal into shallow water where we could control it more safely. Noah rushed up. All three of us have interest in amphibians and reptiles. Noah and I have done night drives on rainy spring nights looking for migrating amphibians and looked for snakes in the Everglades. Jake is a herper and has been for a long time. We all understood how special the animal we were looking at was. 

The small wound on this individual's head was unfortunate for photography, but amphibians have the most remarkable ability to heal, and undoubtedly this wound is but a small scar now as I write this. I was in love with everything about this bizarre creature. It's tiny eyes, it's folded, smooth skin, it's remarkably large hands... this was nothing like any animal I'e ever seen, let alone held. Some might find it ugly, some might even be scared of it, but anyone that find themselves drawn to amphibians dreams of seeing any of the giant aquatic salamanders. These animals can live as much as thirty years, and they are just so big... there's really nothing like that experience. To me it was akin to seeing my first timber rattlesnake, another species that draws a very real, very visceral response from everyone that gets to see one in the wild. There's a number of animals that stick with me in the same way this hellbender did, animals that I can honestly say changed my life. It takes something special, and it's personal too. Black bears and moose didn't do it for me, though I'm sure they have for many others. It may seem crazy that this salamander shook me up that much, but you know what? If you don't get that, either you haven't seen one and you will get it if you do, or you're not the sort of person I could get along with, simple as that. Noah and Jake though got it, the understand. There's no two people I would rather have been with at that moment in time. We were all just in awe of this animal. 

As we watched it swim/walk/crawl back into it's stony lair, we knew this day had peaked... it couldn't get any better. We fished a bit longer there but then started to make our way back to the car. On the way, I flipped a piece of shale along the railroad track and there was an odd looking garter snake under it. Research seems to indicate that this was a shorthead gartersnake. Jake found a few eastern garters the same size under another rock and the differences were striking. The shorthead had a stouter head (of course) and no checkering pattern at all. I may have seen one of these when I was young but I wouldn't have known it, so for all intents and purposes this was my first. 

Thamnophis brachystoma

Jake then flipped another rock with four snakes under it, and two were stunning adult Northern redbelly snakes, a species I'd been trying and failing to get good photos of in CT all season. I'd seen two and photographed one small, in shed juvenile, but these two were the sort of individuals I really wanted to photograph and they could not have been more different looking. It's amazing that these two individuals of the same species were found under the same rock. 

So it had been a slow morning of fishing but an incredible one for herping... we could only guess how the rest of the day might go. It seemed that just about anything could be possible on this trip. 

*If the conservation and protection of hellbenders and other species that use the same habitats is of interest to you, take initiative in keeping streams natural. Rock stacking, small dam building and other such seemingly low impact activities have huge consequences on such species. Actively dismantle such structures when possible and discourage people from altering stream structure in such ways. in addition, please vote for leaders that support strong clean water, clean air, and environmental protection policies in local and national elections. 

Until next time,

Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Spotlighting Stonecats and Darters (Western Pennsylvania Pt. 3)

As Noah and I drove through Franklin to where we'd meet Jake, I recognized places that hadn't changed and noticed others that hadn't. To me the biggest change is that my childhood home no longer exists, so though it was tempting to drive by where it used to stand just to see, I felt it would just make me sad. But the bar on the corner, the bank, the schools, the place my Dad worked; none of that looked any different. Even the small ice cream place we were meeting Jake at was very much the same. While we waited I decided to walk back to the river behind the place just for a look. In a quick, short circuit, I saw tons of redhorse and quillback rolling and three (!) different muskies. NEVER leave the rod in the car, dammit! It was getting dark, and we wanted to do something else with our time first. So when Jake got there we chatted for a while, this was the first time we'd actually met him after all, then headed back into town to a park on the river.

Our plan was to use our lights to sight fish for small fish species that become somewhat more active after dark, as well as those that are easier to single out that way. Hunched over, searching the shallows, we soon began to find fish we'd not caught before. Jake spotted one first, a small longhead darter. We ended up spooking that fish. Then Noah spotted a stonecat; a species of madtom, small catfishes of the Noturus genus. We tried to get that particular individual for a while without success, but soon found more. Jake got one before Noah or I. It was the first lifer of the trip for him, and in my opinion the most interesting of the ones caught already between the three of us.

Catfish are incredibly diverse and widespread. They are nearly ubiquitous in waters worldwide. From candiru to redtail to Mekong giant catfish, to saltwater gaftop sail cats, the size and variety of catfish is stunning. And the little madtoms of North America are really cool fish. Stonecats are on the large side as madtoms go, and though their lifestyle matches up with other species in the genus, they're named for their habitat: the undersides of stones in flowing water. Some of what we did looking for them was to flip over stones, and this did reveal a few, but at night they often exit their hides to feed and more were out than in. 
I struck next with a stonecat of my own. It was definitely hard to get them to eat a fly, but I was able to deceive one, or rather bother one into snapping at a tiny nymph. This was my 4th new species of the trip and my first madtom of any species. It was also my 8th catfish species on the fly.

Lifelist fish #169. Stonecat madtom, Noturus flavus. Rank: Species.

Then I found a darter. I'd put my tanago midge in front of many already this night but none were at all interested. Most were quite scared of it, actually. But this one ate. I knew that whatever it was, it was a new species. This individual turned out to be a greenside darter. 

Lifelist fish #170. Greenside darter, Etheostoma blennioides. Rank: species

This was only my second species of darter. CT has only two species, tessellated and swamp darter, and swamp darters are extraordinarily rare. I'd never really gotten to target darters in any areas with much diversity, so I'd only ever caught tessellateds. Darters are some of the most beautiful fish in freshwater. That said, though this greenside was a gorgeous fish, it doesn't hold a candle to, well, itself in spawning season. Like many fish species, darters color up extensively for the spawn, but are much duller the rest of the year. 

We continued fishing, seeing a number of species ranging from sauger to tiny darters and minnows, but Noah then took the cake with a notably large stonecat. His lifer was quite the specimen, and simply seeing it at all was a real privilege. It was such an awesome fish. 

When we got to some faster water, the small black water beetles I've always know as whirligigs became a giant pain, swarming our light and making it impossible to spot fish. So we started to work our way back down. On the way up, Jake had noted a slack, muddy, weedy spot and drew correlation between it and where we'd spotted the first longhead darter. Sure enough, he found one there and then caught it, his second lifer of the night. 

Longhead darter, Percina macrocephala

 By then our spines were destroyed, it was getting quite chilly, and we'd fished quite a lot of water and caught a bunch of very cool fish, so we decided to go find a spot to sleep in the cars. We found a good spot, said goodnight, and went to sleep wondering what the next day might bring. 

Until next time,

Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Allegheny Micros (Western Pennsylvania Pt. 2)

 I stood on a huge boulder looking out over the Allegheny River. The water was strikingly clear, but also held that classic blue-green color that I see all over in Pennsylvania, but rarely ever here in Connecticut. It comes from the sedimentary geology. Limestone, sandstone, shale... that's what makes up much of Pennsylvania's bedrock. In Connecticut, we have schist, gneiss, granite, traprock, and brownstone. Different rock, different minerals, different colored water. 

Swimming in this water were fishes I may well have seen as a child, but I was looking at them now with new eyes. I knew at least loosely what I was looking at. Moxostoma, Notropis, Semotilus, Micropterus... latin names came to mind, not simply "suckers" or "minnows" or "bass". I didn't know the exact species of every fish I was looking at, but I was equipped to find out, and that was just so damned exciting.

I'd lived in this place a nature-curious kid until I was 8, now at 23 I was here with the same excitement, joy, and curiosity, but with new eyes and new tools and a lot more experience. So I hopped down with fly rod in hand, ready to tackle whatever the Allegheny was going to throw my way. At the moment, targeting micros seemed the best way to learn what was in these waters. I could see redhorse, quillback, and gigantic smallmouth, but those fish were extremely unwilling. The smaller cyprinids were ready to attack, but still difficult to hook and then keep hooked. Inevitably, the first was a Cyprinella which are a royal pain to identify. Unfortunately, careful examination showed it to be a spotfin shiner, the only Cyprinella I've caught yet. 

Cyprinella spiloptera

The next fish was something very clearly new. It was a chub, one I didn't recognize. Noah got one as well. Some research on my phone resulted in the determination that these were river chubs. My 166th life list fish and my first lifer from these waters of my childhood.

Nocomis micropogon, river chub. Lifelist fish #166, Rank: Species 

A short time later I caught one of the many small Notropis in front of me. I wasn't certain, but I thought it was an emerald shiner. Fellow multispecies angler Tim Aldridge later confirmed suspicions I'd gotten after a little research, this was actually a silver shiner. My 167th lifer. 

Notropis photogenis, silver shiner. Lifelist fish #167. 

After seemingly exhausting our options at this spot at this time of day, we moved again. This time, we stopped at a spot I did remember a little bit. It was a small tributary of the Allegheny that flowed under a bike trail my mother often took me too. Again, this was a place I'd never fished. And again, I was quickly gratified with a species I have no doubt I'd seen as a kid, but knew very little about until recently. As it turns out, Northern hogsuckers are quite abundant in Western Pennsylvania, and we'd see them all over the Allegheny and other watersheds. My first was a juvenile that took a tanago midge after methodically presenting it to each fish in the school repeatedly. Some attacked the split shot, most either did nothing or spooked, but this one did eat the tanago. And what a beautiful little lifer this was! I'd love to catch a large adult so this certainly won't be the last time I target northern hogsuckers. 

Hypentelium nigricans, Northern hogsucker. Lifelist fish #168

In a short time the Allegheny had served up three new species, two were fish I'd noted, seen prior, researched a little, and knew I wanted to catch. One (the silver shiner) was a fish I new basically nothing about then but know a little about now. And look at all three new species and the spotfin shiner together... what a beautifully diverse little group! These are all fish that would be lumped under the heading "bait" by the hoards of online idiots, which remains the most annoying and stupid comment on posts asking for fish identification help. But to Noah, Jake and I, the diversity of these fishes makes them worthy of our time and respect. Fish are fascinating at any size or stage of life. Ironically we also happened to be in a part of the country were the understanding of fish diversity is especially lacking, and it shows in the fact that I, as a nature obsessed kid, new nothing of any of these species at all when I was living there. Nobody around could tell me exactly what I was looking at. Little did I know just how diverse these waters actually are. 

Until next time,

Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Memories (Western Pennsylvania Pt. 1)

We were going to Ohio. We had a fool proof plan to get on loads of new species around Cincinnati, with a local friend, Jake, as our guide and a good few days at our disposal. Then Covid, or more accurately Connecticut's policies regarding Covid, threw a monkey wrench in the gears. I double checked state listings while we were en-route and Ohio had been added to the list of CT's travel advisory states. I couldn't justify quarantining for 14 days upon returning home. I had things to do. As did Noah. The trip came to a screeching halt outside of DuBois, Pennsylvania as we tried to figure out what to do now.

If there's one thing that Noah and I are good at it's on the fly adjustments. In no time, we had a plan B. Jake started to get ready to drive out to meet us, and we changed our destination to the town I was born in and where I lived until I was eight years old: Franklin, Pennsylvania. 

For me, this trip had suddenly turned into a homecoming, an exploration of water I could be living near had my life followed just a slightly different course, waters I spent my early childhood around, but none of which I fished, or at least remember fishing. The middle Allegheny watershed also happens to be some of the most fish-diverse freshwater in the country, so although we wouldn't have a local guide that knew the ins and outs of the fishery as Jake knows his area, lifers were assured for all three of us. But for the first few hours it was up to Noah and I to do some scouting before Jake got there.

We drove through the bucolic upland areas of northwestern PA before steadily dropping in elevation, following the watercourse of a small tributary of the Allegheny. When it made a more abrupt drop in elevation, the road turned to dirt and we followed it to a pull off. Though I'd been here many times before I didn't quite recognize it. It was the same place but time had altered my memory. We then walked down a trail that was steeper than I remembered, past an old stone furnace that was smaller than I remembered, to as stream that was narrower than I remembered. There, I flipped slab rocks that were smaller and lighter than I remembered and found fewer and smaller salamanders under than than I remembered. That, I'm confident, was the only thing that really had changed. My memory of the quantity of sleek black salamanders that would dart out from under those stones is so vivid. Is it coincidental that my most vivid memories from early childhood are of amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects? I think not.

Northern dusky salamander (I think?)

One thing I knew was that I'd never fished this place, but we were about to. At a glance it looked almost completely lifeless. It wasn't exactly brimming with minnows and dace like some streams, and it took some really close inspection before fish revealed themselves. Actually it took Noah one cast with a jig for a brown trout to come flying out from under a big sandstone slab. It didn't connect but now we knew they were there. And eventually we found a large hole with some chubs in it as well. Unfortunately, they weren't a new species, but the creek chubs we'd caught plenty of other places before.

Semotilus atromaculatus

As Noah continued to fish a tungsten ice jig, which revealed that not only were there trout in this stream but a few quite large ones, I decided to hone my focus on the shallow tailouts, the sort of water darters and sculpins love.

It took some legitimate patience but eventually I found some sculpins. They were tiny, and if I could catch one it would be in the running for the smallest fish I'd ever caught. It took extremely minute adjustments, but I managed to get two to eat a tanago midge and caught the second. It looked tome to be a slimy sculpin, a species I'd already caught in CT. This may indeed be the smallest fish I've caught on hook and line at much less than an inch in length. Absurd though it may seem to many of you, I'm very proud of this. 

Noah then finally connected with one of the wild browns he'd been dueling with. I rushed up to see it and I'm glad I did. I can't believe, all those years ago, I'd had no idea there were fish like this in this little creek. 

We headed back up the trail, not un-pleased as we'd just found a spot Jake would likely get this lifer brown trout in. I was just in a very strangest mindset at that time. This was the first time in my life I was going back somewhere that had been such a big part of my life after such a long time away. It was surreal. I was looking forward to seeing more of the places I remembered, but was also oddly apprehensive. 

 Until next time,

Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.