Monday, July 31, 2017

Chasing New Species in China

From repeated exposure to heartbreaking moments, I've come to learn that one cannot, and should not, pass up opportunities to catch new species of fish, no matter the circumstances.

My last trip to China, in the early spring of 2016, was yet another reminder of such an experience. I was in Tulufan, Xinjiang in the Gobi Desert, walking around a system of trails along the thousands of miles of underground irrigation canals. In the dim light of a lamp, movement caught my eye. Swimming in the water were small fish, the largest of which was several inches long. In the darkness, I couldn't make an identification, but I am sure that if I had a tanago hook with a little piece of worm I would have had the opportunity to catch a fish that I will very likely never in my life see again.

2017 rolled around, and I found myself heading to China once more, this time to teach English in rural Hebei with a program partnering with Tsinghua University in Beijing. This trip was going to be different. I came prepared to seize opportunity; the chase was on.

Luckily for me, I was able to make many stops along the way to visit family and friends before and after my teaching position, the first of which was in the heart of Shanghai, the second most populous city in the world. Nearby my uncle, aunt and baby cousin's apartment was a small, shallow canal. Poking around for a little bit, I found some medium sized cyprinids which were extremely spooky and wanted nothing to do with me or anything I had to offer. In the shallows I had found some western mosquitofish, a species I had only caught recently.

As unassuming as this fish was, it was a fish, and caught in China at that! China was now my 4th country to have caught a fish in.

Soon I bid my goodbyes to Shanghai and family, and headed west on a high-speed train to Changsha, to visit my grandparents.

My grandfather and I enjoying noodles for less than 1USD. 

The fishing in Changsha was mostly restricted to fishing man-made ponds for a variety of carp species. We used pellets for packbait, and the primary technique was securing several pellets with a rubber band to the hook under a float, and chum the water with pellets, which would sink slowly.

As would be expected given the constant fishing pressure in these ponds, the fish were reluctant to bite except for a few small common carp caught by my grandfather and his friend. Unfortunately for me, I had no such luck and was thoroughly convinced I would get skunked. However, as we were about to head back, I noticed a pod of small grass carp just meandering around the surface of one of the pond sections. I had noticed this behavior before, but the fish would generally scatter as soon as I got near enough to make a cast. If the off chance occurred that I placed my bait in the correct location, they would generally ignore it. Nonetheless, I gave it a shot and cast out my bait. I did, interestingly enough, miss my target slightly. My float and bait landed square in the middle of the pod, as opposed to off to the side a little, which I would have preferred to avoid spooking the fish. As expected, the fish scattered. In the murky water, I lost sight of them in seconds.

Just a few moments later, to my surprise, I watched the float shoot down.

I remember setting the hook hard. The fight that ensued was strong, especially given the size of the fish. It wasn't by any means a large grass carp, but it sure put up a decent struggle. A quick sweep of the net and I had my grass carp, the first new species of the trip, putting me at 98 species total.

Which became lunch. Americans seem to shy away from anything with bones, but once you learn to avoid them, the meat of the grass carp was white, flaky, and delicious. After several more days in Changsha, it was time to head to Beijing, China's capitol and where I would be spending several days with a family friend and several at Tsinghua University.

Not many fishing options in the city, so I paid a visit to the local aquaculture market, which was massive. I've included several snapshots of the more interesting things; several fish I wasn't allowed to take photos of but snuck in one or two anyways. A pretty cool experience seeing a variety of exotic species. 

Melanistic alligator gar

A 40,000 Yuan arowana—to top it off it says "no negotiations"

A leucistic alligator gar—as I reached my phone out to take a picture, the vendor jumped out of his seat and exclaimed that pictures were not allowed. I took one anyways. 

The best thing about living in a city like Beijing is by far the food. Food is good and cheap and always nearby.

My time with the family friend came to an end, so I was off to the University. I spent the first night walking around, watching the sunset and scoping out potential fishing locations, as any normal human would do upon arriving to China's most prestigious institution.

I was delighted to find people fishing for carp in a pond across the road from where I was staying. I remember being relieved, because it meant I wouldn't have to figure out a way to illicitly fish. I decided I would return the next day.

The days at Tsinghua were busy, so I really only had a short window of time each day to catch fish. The first day, I had some time in the early afternoon. I saw schools of small fish in the water, but quickly realized they wouldn't even react to the artificial smelly stuff I had brought along.

I realized bait would be an issue. I rushed off to the supermarket on campus as fast as I could walk, which took a fair deal of time, given the huge campus. There I bought a small loaf of sliced bread, only to find upon my return that the bread was "slighted toasted" as advertised on the label. Alas, it would have to do. The toasted aspect made getting it on the hook troublesome, and like most bread, it tended to come off the hook whenever disturbed by, for example, a fish. Despite this, the quantity of fish in the water resulted in the inevitable catch of something.

That "something" turned out to be stone moroko, an invasive species in Europe but native to Asia. Species #99 was in the books.

The next fish came when I got tired of the morokos, and moved a little aside from the schools of fish that dotted the shallows. I threw a bit of bread by some reeds hanging over the water, and lo and behold a small, brown fish popped out to grab it. I then fumbled to put some bread on my hook, and the same fish came out again to eagerly grab the bait. Species #100. A milestone. Not the most impressive specimen for the three-digit milestone, but hey, I'll take it.

A female Round-tailed Paradisefish (Macropodus ocellatus). Not an impressive fish for the species, either, but no one's complaining.

I noticed bitterling species swimming in the same school with the morokos, but the morokos proved to be the more aggressive fish, not allowing the bitterlings to reach the bait. I moved aside from the school to chase some colorful bitterling in the shallows. I couldn't tell if they were spawning, but they were chasing each other around. It took a while of coaxing before one finally bit long enough to hook into. Another new species, this time a rosy bitterling (Rhodeus ocellatus), #101.

That was it for the first day. I headed out the next morning before sunrise, and luckily got another new species, Acheilognathus sp., #102.

I also tagged into a beautiful male rosy bitterling. Absolutely stunning.

Hey, it's the fish on the hook packet!

As the sun rose, I also got a prettier specimen of paradisefish, a male. The photo doesn't quite do the iridescent blue on the fins justice. Interestingly enough, the aquarium-bred counterparts of this species are a good deal more colorful, kind of like goldfish and their bronze wild counterparts.

The cafeteria food wasn't bad. 

The last day at Tsinghua, it came to my attention that their was some sort of predatory goby in the pond (direct translation: old-headed fish). I devoted hours to try and find one, and find one I did. It first bit my split shot and then my bait, but I hooked it and it came off. It did not want to bite again, despite my best efforts. I didn't find another one, unfortunately.

My nemesis, camouflaged into the substrate. 

I left the university with a grudge against gobies. It was off to rural farmland in Hebei, where I would be teaching. No fishing was done here, but it sure was pretty. And hot.

I made one more pit stop in Beijing on the way back before my flight. Here I stayed with the family friend again, and we stopped by a small lake to see if we could catch some carp species. It was not to be, but I did catch an interesting new species. Every now and then, I would see small, shiny fish come to the surface. I tried using a bit of bun from lunch, but it didn't seem to attract the fish at all. Then, as I lifted the bait out of the water, I saw a fish try to come up and grab it. That gave me an idea, and I tried skimming the bait on the top of the water, similar to the way I attract mosquitofish. This worked fairly well, and I proceeded to have fun for the next hour with vicious little topwater strikes micro-fishing.

A new species to boot, Hemiculterella wui. #103 if you're following along.

Seafood hibachi for dinner, with beef sashimi, regular sashimi, and caviar. 

The next day it was a hot pot restaurant specializing in beef. They cut the meat up front by the window.

The flight back to Newark was long, but I had lots of fish photos to go over and identify. I ended the trip with 6 new species, a rather meager number but decent considering I had very little time to fish and didn't really know where I would be fishing or what I would be fishing for. One of these days I'll go back to get that darn goby.