Thursday, January 5, 2017

Puerto Rico Pit Stop: Day 9 -Fishing with Ray

Day 9 of our trip to Puerto Rico was a day I'll never forget. Riding in a local skiff between emerald bays and the mangrove islands that dot Puerto Rico's southwest coast is an unspeakably amazing experience. And I have one person to thank for it: Ray, the kind New Yorker/local we had met a couple of days earlier. I took him up on his offer to go fishing in his skiff, and so on Sunday morning, my sister, my mother, and I left with a cooler full of ballyhoo and high spirits. 

Here we saw a 5 ft sea turtle swim past the skiff.

As we narrowed into the back bays, we set out lines to troll. I opted for the more traditional method of angling here: a simple handline with a teaser skirt and several hooks tethered to each other. On the hooks were delicately placed strips of ballyhoo. 

After a little bit of time without any action, my sister was the first to connect. Much to my surprise, she pulled in a blue runner which had savagely attacked a lure almost half its size. Knowing that they were schooling fish, we trolled the area a bit more but came up fruitless. 

I never ended up catching one of these. 

While crossing open water to another bay,  my bait was fairly near the surface when something hit it, and promptly came off. It then hit another few times until it was hooked, and when brought in, I was astonished to see an inshore lizardfish on the end of my line. In hindsight, this explains its aggressive nature but what a lizardfish was doing so near the surface in deep water is beyond me. Nonetheless, I was ecstatic to catch such an eccentric species, #87 if you're following along.

Its pattern perfectly camouflages with the sandy bottom: a true marvel of evolution.

These buggers have the teeth to match their aggression...

While drifting over the flats, I felt a small bump on my line and pulled it in to check my bait. much to my surprise (again) there was a small, skinny silver fish on the end of my line. As I brought it closer, I realized that it was a barracuda, our intended target! I held my breath as it was hoisted up and there it was, probably the least impressive great barracuda ever seen. A fish is a fish though, and I had species #88, all eight inches of it.

It then proceeded to become the most photographed tiny barracuda ever.

Though petite, a small barracuda still packs formidable chompers.

After the first fish, the barracuda action lit up. We all (even my mother) brought in our share of cudas. None were all too large, but there were several nicer ones in the mix (nicer being relative, of course).

An brief moment of excitement came when my sister hooked a small barracuda. Suddenly, as she was pulling it in, the line stopped and started peeling off. She held on to the spool while staring to panic, and off in the distance behind the boat, I saw the tail of a roughly 15 lb barracuda break the surface. As soon as it started, it was over. My sister reeled in what remained of the small cuda.

After hours of fun, we returned, giving all the fish to Ray. I decided to try the dock one final time, and despite hooking into a few tarpon (and losing them), I nonchalantly caught species #89, the longfin damselfish.

Thus ended our Puerto Rican adventure. A tale of highs and lows, but I left with 17 new species and priceless, unforgettable memories. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Puerto Rico Pit Stop: Days 3-8

And so the adventure continues. Day 3 and 4 were spent in El Yunque National Forest and Isla Culebra respectively, which was a ton of fun. El Yunque was beautiful, and I had hopes to catch some of Puerto Rico's native freshwater species, like bigmouth sleepers or mountain mullet. However, the park didn't allow fishing, and we ran out of time before I could check out some spots just outside of the park. 

Day 4 was spent on Culebra, an island famous for its beaches and snorkeling east of the main island. Despite waiting in lines for hours for the ferry, we arrived in good time. We went to a less crowded beach, without much white sand but arguably some of the best snorkeling in the world. Going straight out into the eelgrass beds, we saw a variety of porgies, mojarras, and jacks. The highlights, however, were the rays. My sister and I spotted many southern stingrays, and found one monstrous spotted eagle ray that zipped by us. To the right of the grass, not 20 feet from the shore, was an astonishingly well preserved coral reef. The sheer number of fish was intoxicating. Huge parrotfish, schools of 40+ grunts, colorful damselfish, bright wrasses, and lobsters were among those seen. I followed a massive 2 ft scrawled filefish for about 10 minutes before it got tired of me and swam off. Houndfish cruised along the surface. I had to resist my urges to fish since we were in a marine reserve. An amazing experience nonetheless.

After returning from Culebra, we immediately hit the road, driving across the mountains to La Parguera, a town on the southwestern coast. Driving across the mountains proved to be a daunting task, with our gps not realizing some roads were closed, etc. The whole thing took about twice as long as intended. Thanks to the incredibly kind people who lived there, we made it out. 

The next morning, I was up at sunrise despite not much sleep to see what I could catch off the hotel dock. I didn't have any bait, so I tied on a small jig with a Gulp! minnow, cast it parallel to the dock, and immediately hooked a small yellowtail snapper, species #78, for those following. 

Pretty little feller

There were school of some short of small herring around the dock, that, try as I might, simply could not get to hook. Then, I noticed a small fish that looked slightly different that was more than eager to bite the tanago hook with a flick of bait. The hardhead silverside, species #79 came rather easily, then was immediately put on a hook. 

I tossed it out on my ultralight (poor decision in hindsight) under a small float, and the struggling fish immediately caught the attention of several roaming houndfish. Unlike the needlefish, the houndfish pounced on the bait immediately savaging racing off at blinding speeds after grabbing the silverside. I waited, then closed the bail and set the hook. I can attest than houndfish can pull hard. It gave a short but spirited fight, often times leaping completely out of the water. I fun fish to catch by any means. I held my breath as I lifted it up onto the dock. There, flopping wildly, was species #80!

Sharp teeth on those little buggers. It's crazy how parallel evolution works; they look so similar to gar, with long, bony jaws, backset fins, and sharp teeth, but have completely different hunting behaviors.

Species were coming in at a nice pace now, and I sent out some needlefish pieces out on a bigger rod. I began to observe more, and noticed a large tarpon would pass the dock every once in a while. A grey angelfish passed as well, and I threw everything I had at it to no avail. I spent much of my time targeting some small barracuda, but they really didn't want to play around either. I had several screaming runs from what I assume were tarpon, but never hooked up. I was severely undergunned for most of the tarpon anyway.

Meanwhile, my mom was walking around town when she met an older gentleman named Ray. According to him, he was from Puerto Rico but lived most of his life in New York City. He was now retired. He offered to take me to a dock to show me how to catch tarpon. It seemed kind of sketchy at first, but I considered the circumstances and took him up on the offer. We went to a dock not 10 minutes down the road from the hotel. There, I bought some frozen squid and ballyhoo for bait. The tarpon were not cooperating, much to Ray's dismay, so I turned my attention to the shallows where there were plenty of new species to be found.

Dropping down a size 16 hook with squid, tiny little grunts swarmed the bait. The first fish that came up was a tomtate grunt, species #81!

Dropping down another piece of squid, a yellowfin mojarra picked it up, and nonchalantly became species #82. A beautiful specimen at that.

This particular mojarra became bait for one of the many tarpon swimming around the dock under the dock. A little while later, I looked over and my float had disappeared. I grabbed the rod resting under the dock and set the hook, praying it was a smaller tarpon. The fish gods were on my side, and I saw a roughly 20 lb tarpon flash at the end of my line. Unfortunately, that luck was short lived. I fought the fish for a solid 10 seconds before, in a dazzling display of water and aerobics, the tarpon shook the hook mid jump. I was fairly dismayed, knowing that was probably the last chance I could hook a smaller tarpon, as the majority of the fish were in the hundred pound range. I turned my attention back to the small fish.

One species that I was constantly pestered by was the checkered puffer. I had already caught this species, and they were everywhere. Nonetheless, it was fun to watch them puff up.

Fisherman brought their hauls in to the dock as well, full of grouper, snapper, and spiny lobster.

Down went the bait, up came a tiny french grunt, species #83.

The next species is most definitely new, but its identity is a little muddled. I only caught one of these, and my best bet as of now is a jenny mojarra. Either way, it is species #84.

There were a couple purple-backed, yellow-bellied damselfish swimming around. I finally got one to bite, and pulled up a beaugregory damselfish. Species #85's photo turned out fairly cruddy, but I'm not losing sleep over it...right?

In slightly deeper water, I dropped down some squid on a tiny hook and was met with plenty of aggressive horse-eye jacks. Now, I know this species gets a little big larger than this specimen(just a little), but I'll settle for this one. Species #86!

More grunts, mojarras, snappers, etc. followed. I tried to get some small snapper species to bite but they were not cooperating very well. The biggest heartbreak of the day came when a green moray somehow was swimming in the shallows. I stupidly tossed out my small hook with some cut bait on it in fear of it swimming away before I could tie on a wire leader and a stronger hook. It grabbed it, and I got it basically on shore at the boat launch when its sharp teeth sliced through the 8 lb mono. It's not very often that a moray swims out into the open like that, so I was pretty bummed, to say the least.

I spent the rest of the day feeding and occasionally hooking tarpon. They would wrap me around the dock, and then the sudden slack would cause the hook to pop. Nonetheless, it was fun seeing the fish violently vacuum in a ballyhoo chunk. One time, I hooked a tarpon, and an old fisherman, amused at the spectacle, guided me around the dock, half shouting, half laughing in rapidfire Spanish. I ended up playing that fish out for about 8 minutes, finally getting it close to the dock. With a final surge of energy however, it screamed off and my line popped. That was the closest I would get to a tarpon. Once, fishing for grunts with a #16 hook and a tiny piece of squid, a tarpon came out of nowhere and nonchalantly sucked my bait in. I had no choice but to clamp down on the spool and snap the line. With 4 lb test, the fish was bound to spool me.

On the bright side, Ray invited me and my family on his boat to go fishing that Sunday. We invited him to dinner to get to know him better and as appreciation for his help. He said he hadn't gone fishing in ages and was really looking forward to it.

The next day, we woke up early for a scuba diving trip. It was just me and my sister, since my parents weren't too comfortable with the idea of diving. Long story short, it might have been the highlight of the trip! It was incredibly fun. We dove down to 40+ feet, and saw endless marine life, including several angelfish, mantis shrimp, sea cucumbers, lobsters, very large snappers, and so much more. It was with an instructor around some deeper reefs. I'm actually thinking of getting certified! In the afternoon, we went to Gilligan's Island, which was a lot of fun but unfortunately allowed no fishing. We saw tons of barracudas (including a big one) and jacks in the open, and venturing into the mangrove channels, we saw plenty of grunts, goatfish, and snappers. I picked up a live conch in the midst of a pinfish school and placed it somewhere safe, as these are delicious.

After Gilligan's, I returned to the dock, but didn't catch anything new.

The next day we woke up bright and early, I being excited to see what I could catch in more open water.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Puerto Rico Pit Stop: Day 1-2

Over our winter break, our family made the decision to head over to Puerto Rico. Relatively close, yet offering so much, I was ecstatic about the fishing opportunities. The first two days were spent in Old San Juan, where much of our time was spent going around old forts and churches. The Castillo San Felipe del Morro was magnificent! 

But on to the fishing-

Walking the the castillo on the first day was only about a mile, so we opted to walk along the southern end of Old San Juan. Along the pathway, I was delighted to spot sergeant major damselfish and atlantic needlefish right by shore! Unfortunately, fishing wasn't allowed. The only spot where it was was by a small pier adjacent to the fort. After touring around, I wasted no time insetting up my gear on the pier. I had brought squid and shrimp from a supermarket, since no bait shops were around. 

The pier was small, with the water on its deepest end only about 5-6 feet deep. The water was murky as well, with poor visibility. Nonetheless, I was able to see many colorful sergeant majors dancing around some pipes under the pier. Excited, I dropped down some squid and shrimp. The squid was processed, and the fish hardly even looked at it. On the other hand, the shrimp was met with immediate results. After figuring out the fish's preference, I was receiving strikes often. The first fish I pulled up, however, wasn't a lifer, to my disappointment. 

A female hairy blenny: My first Puerto Rico fish. 

After releasing the blenny, I dropped my shrimp on a fly fishing hook down by the pipes. It caught the attention of a small but bright sergeant major, which grabbed the bait but promptly spit it out. Not to worry, because as soon as it spit it out a much larger dark fish raced out from under the pier to snatch the bait up! A doggish fight from a bluegill-sized species reminded me just how much stronger saltwater fish were than their freshwater counterparts.

I carefully lifted the interestingly dark specimen up, and there I had it: Species #73, the Sergeant Major Damselfish!

I continued to fish, figuring out the aggressive sergeant majors pretty quickly. I moved near shore, and found a pair of needlefish, much to my excitement. Despite using a variety of tactics and baits, I simply could not get the needlefish to strike. I had one hit on some shrimp skimmed across the surface, a light tap that had the needlefish scurrying away. I tried lures and sabikis, but those were only met with halfhearted follows.

The sun was getting higher and higher in the afternoon, and the dizzying bright hot day was starting to get to me. It was then that I noticed several small, deep-bodied fish racing in and out of the surf. Unsure of their identity, but thinking that they might be blue runners, I cast out a freelined shrimp under a small float, and watched the float get tossed around by the waves near the beach, waiting for fish. As soon as the fish raced in, the float immediately shot down, but hooksets were futile, leaving me with a stripped hook. I downsized to a size sixteen hook, and repeated this process until, finally, i connected to a small fish. In the water, it flashed its side and I was even more confused than before. It shone bright silver, and I thought, Lookdown? Pompano? I brought it up and then knew it was a pompano of sorts, but whether it was a florida pompano or a permit still confused me. I, not being familiar with many saltwater fish species, did a quick consultation and figured that I had in hand a juvenile permit, species #74!

The long dorsal and anal fins gave it away, as did the sharply humped back rather than a gently sloped one. Interestingly enough, the permit is highly regarded as a wary and coveted sport fish. The permit I caught were not wary at all, attacking my bait savagely even with 15 lb braid. Perhaps it had to do with their being juveniles. I caught several more permit until the small school went away, and then I went back to the end of the pier.

I caught a magnificent specimen of a sergeant major...

And then, while letting my shrimp sit on the sandy bottom, I felt a tap and reeled in a small fish which most definitely was not a damselfish. In fact, I had no clue of its identity other than the fact that it was a mojarra of sorts. Later, I identified it as a spotfin mojarra, species #75, uneventfully caught but still an exciting catch nonetheless. That would wrap it up for day one.

Day 2 began early in the morning with me heading out to the same pier. It was disappointing, to say the least. The winds were pretty strong, and they actually blew one of my tackle boxes into the water, with me going for a quick swim in the delightfully warm water to retrieve them. At one point a huge school of sardines came in, being chased by an unseen predator. Using a sabiki, I was largely ignored by sardines who were too busy swimming for their lives. One sardine, however, decided to bite, but as I lifted him up onto the pier, the fell off the hook and slipped away in a crack between the wooden planks on the pier. A shame, indeed. I also saw a scrawled cowfish that wanted nothing to do with me whatsoever. The highlight of that outing was probably a colored up male hairy blenny, complete with red eyes and horns.

In the afternoon, we opted to head to Escambron Beach. There were rocks and small tide pools on the eastern end, so I quickly raced over there. Despite winds howling across the rocks, I managed to set up tanago hook and cane pole without much hassle, finding lots of aggressive gobies in the shallows. Just like that, I had species #76, the frillfin goby!

Fishing in some deeper pools, I saw several brown damselfish, to my excitement, but first I had to weed through several of probably the smallest sergeant major ever caught on hook and line. 

Once I got past those however, I caught the brown damselfish wit relative ease. Now came the hard part. To the best of my ability, I identified all the following as dusky damselfish. Now, brownish damselfish are notoriously hard to identify, so please correct me if I'm wrong. Whatever it is, I am sure that it is a new species, so that makes it #77!

I also caught a cardinalfish of sorts, and hooked several wrasse, one of which slipped out of my hand and into the drink. If my luck wasn't bad enough, my phone got saltwater in it in a sudden turn of events (all of which was my fault), costing me the cardinalfish and several brownish damselfish which may have been new species. I'll spare you the details, but I wasn't too happy with myself.