I’ve been anxiously waiting for this road trip for a long time. I was simultaneously terrified and exhilarated at the thought of moving from the Midwest to California. As my departure date got closer and closer, I started getting more and more anxious, but instead of letting that get to me, I invested as much as that energy as I could into researching and planning each stop of my trip. Finally, on a bright Tuesday morning, my day arrived: I hopped into my little SUV (full of my life in boxes) and started my trip.
The first leg of my journey took me from Indiana to the Meramec River near St. Louis, Missouri. My research told me that this river was a great spot to catch Redhorse suckers of multiple species. Sadly, once I got there, I didn’t feel very confident about my prospects. I had picked a location that was too close to the Mississippi River, and as expected, I could not get past the great number of Freshwater Drum and Channel Catfish to get to any of the more exciting species.
Seeing that I wasn’t going to catch my target species, I switched over to my microfishing tactics. I was hoping I could find something exciting before the hour and a half I had budgeted for this spot ran out. But no new species made an appearance. I ended up catching a good number of small Bluegill, Spotfin Shiners and Steelcolor Shiners. They were all cool fish to catch, but nothing that helped me to add fish species to my list.
Finally realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to add any new species at this spot, I hiked back to my car to finish up the drive for the day. I drove west until I got to the other end of Missouri and camped at Shoal Creek.
My goal was (once again) to catch any form of a sucker. As soon as I approached the shore, I saw a small Northern Hogsucker and thought perhaps it wasn’t going to be a difficult thing. But I was so very wrong. That particular sucker disappeared as I was getting my rods set up, and I didn’t see another for the rest of my time there. I spent some time targeting suckers, but once it became clear that wasn’t going to happen during the day time, I switched my attention over to sunfish. One of my goals was to catch a Missouri Longear Sunfish. These fish look dramatically different than the Longear Sunfish we had in Indiana. These have much deeper reds as well as a red line down the nape.
Once I caught one of these gorgeous sunfish, I started trying to catch as many species as I could before it got dark. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this creek was wildly diverse.
I had hoped that once it got dark the sunfish would stop finding my baits as often and I would be able to keep a bait in place long enough for a sucker to find it. What I forgot about was that the catfish would get active once the sun went down. As you’d expect, I ended up catching little Channel Catfish instead of suckers.
With this frustrating discovery, I decided to try something new. I’ve never microfished at night and it sounded like it could be a wildly productive thing. So, I put on my headlamp and started walking around the shallow areas of the creek. It didn’t take long to find where the various minnows were hiding. I saw a lot of species I recognized, but there were a few, odd, larger, white minnows scattered around. I had a good feeling that they would be a new species for me, so I spent my time trying to get one to bite. After a half an hour of putting a small piece of worm in front of these little fishes faces, one finally attacked the hook. As soon as I had the fish in my hand, I knew it was something new, though I’ll admit I couldn’t figure out its identity. After taking the pictures I needed, I released it back to the creek. I knew I would have plenty of time to work out its identity after this trip was done.
I caught a few other species during the night, but nothing new or particularly exciting. In the morning, I explored the riffles of the creek in search of another Rainbow Darter. To my disappointment, the creek was on the rise and I couldn’t find any. However, I did find the perfect habitat for Green Sunfish and took the opportunity to catch one since I didn’t have a good picture of one from this location yet.
Before starting the next leg of my trip, I wanted to catch one of the Topminnows I kept seeing. I expected them to be the usual Blackstripe Topminnows we had back in southern Indiana, but instead, they were Blackspotted Topminnows! This wasn’t a new species for me, but I still needed a good photograph of one so this was a pleasant surprise.
With that catch, I started the long drive to Texas. This was the drive I was dreading the most. Thankfully, the time changes were on my side and I got there before it got too late. I decided to camp the night at Lake Meredith, which conveniently was supposed to be good fishing. Seeing this lake was an amazing sight. I hadn’t seen any sign of water for quite some time and suddenly in the middle of this red terrain was this giant, blue mass surrounded by these gorgeous, rocky cliffs.
I had expected this lake to be a huge challenge to fish because of how large it was and the fact that the climate was so different than what I’m used to. But to my surprise, there were a large number of little sunfish in the shallows. I had expected to catch mostly Bluegill here, but here was an enormous population of Orangespotted Sunfish! I was even able to catch a few Longear Sunfish, which looked remarkably different than any of the others I’ve sampled in other states. I imagine within the next few years they will finally start separating Longear Sunfish into multiple distinct species, much like what they have been doing with black bass over the last couple of years.
I kept seeing small minnows with gorgeous red fins darting around while I was fishing for sunfish, and I couldn’t leave this lake without catching one to add to my species list. I tied on a size 28 fly hook and tipped it with a small piece of worm (the Bluegill stole the last of my tango hooks when I was at the Meramec River). It didn’t take long before one of these little beauties found my bait! After getting some good photos to properly identify him, he was safely released and swam off back to other minnows in the shallows.
With that little shiner, I decided to hop back in my car and make my way down to the area below the lake’s dam, where the Canadian River starts to reform. The landscape was breathtaking, even though the rocks I had to hike over looked like rattlesnake heaven.
Here, there is a nice little fishing pier, but there was a family with two young kids fishing off it that were having so much fun that I didn’t want to crowd them. I hiked down from the dam a little ways and set up my gear in a break in the reeds. I quickly started seeing fish hanging around the rocks near the bank. The water was amazingly clear (I could see straight to the bottom at depths over 10 foot, a very different case than most waterways in Indiana). I could see many familiar fish moving around, but one type in particular caught my eye. I could see a few Golden Shiners on the outskirts of the margins, and I knew that would be my first target. I have good pictures of most of the species I’ve caught, but the day I caught my first Golden Shiner, I didn’t take my good camera and all I had was an incredibly grainy picture from an old video camera. It took a few tries to get past the large number of Green Sunfish, but I did manage to get a Golden Shiner to take a small piece of worm.
There were a few other minnows hiding in the cracks of the shallow rocks, but once again, my search for microfish was thwarted by Western Mosquitofish. They were just too numerous for me to be able to get past, so I quickly gave up on my search.
At this point, I decided to play around with the sunfish. I figured there had to be some more Longear Sunfish down here, but to my surprise, all I found were Green Sunfish, and not just a few…I have never seen so many greenies in one place before in my life. I caught close to 50 of these guys before giving up on the idea of getting any other kind of sunfish.
One of the coolest things that happened while I was fishing this spot was a small group of Bullhead Catfish wandered in and started searching around for food. I was able to pitch a worm toward them and was lucky enough to get it past the sunfish. It was amazing to see how quickly these fish could zero in on a bait. Not a new species for me, but it was pretty neat to see a Black Bullhead from a different location.
Checking my phone, I realized that it was going to get dark soon and I hadn’t even decided where I was going to camp yet. I quickly dashed to my car and found a campsite right as the sun was setting.
That ended up being a rough night of camping. First, it was hot, and then as soon as I fell asleep, a huge thunderstorm hit the area. I ended up sleeping in my car while the storm raged on. On the bright side (since I couldn’t sleep well), I was able to start my drive to New Mexico bright and early. Sadly, this drive was cut short when my alternator went out and stranded me overnight in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Luckily, there was an auto shop that was willing to work hard on my car and get me back on the road the next afternoon.
At 2 p.m. the following day, my car repairs were finished, but I still had 4 hours of driving left to get to my campsite for the evening. That short of a drive never felt so long. I knew the only thing standing between me and trout fishing was this stretch of road. But finally, the miles ticked away and I was standing on the side of the Pecos River. And I can easily say that none of pictures even do this place half justice. It was such a calm, serene, and peaceful place that I was a little tempted not to leave.
This stretch of the river fell into special trout regulations, meaning I had to use barbless hooks. I’ll just go ahead and say that trout fishing and barbless hooks isn’t a very good combination. Between my spinning gear and fly rod, I lost 7 trout before finally landing a little Brown Trout on a spinner (a new species for me). I think my performance proves I need to practice using barbless hooks because between them jumping and the current, they seemed to have no problem shaking the hooks.
That evening, I camped beside a small stream. Once again, I had lost track of time and didn’t arrive to the site until after the sun had set. I was very happy that I had packed my winter sleeping bag for this site. Fishing in the rain all day had chilled me to the bone and I needed to warm back up. Early the next morning, I got up before the sun had broken over the horizon. The section of the stream I was camping beside had a few decent pools formed by fallen trees, so I took the chance to throw a spinner into these spots before the sun got too high. My camera doesn’t handle low light conditions well so the picture looks way darker than it actually was, but this lovely little Brown Trout bit my spinner at 6:30 in the morning…before any of the other campers were up!
With this fish, I packed up my camp and left without disturbing any of the other campers. On my way out of the forest, I passed by Monastery Lake. I hadn’t really planned to fish this lake, but I figured if I already had my fishing license I might as well catch a few stock Rainbow Trout before leaving the state. This lake was surprisingly busy, but I hiked to the far end and found a space all to myself. I was happy to find some new minnows hiding under a water drainage pipe, so I grabbed my microfishing gear and got to work. I was happy to find a strong population of Fathead Minnows- a new species for me- so I was very excited to catch one.
I worked my around the lake a little more and targeted the down-stream side of the water overflow. I expected some Rainbow Trout to be waiting for an easy meal, but was elated to find a much more exciting species waiting: the Rio Grande Chub! I had thought that this species was going to be a long shot to catch, but there you go!
With that catch, all I needed was a little Rainbow Trout and I was ready to hit the road. I spent some time tossing lures at them, but they just would not hit them. Luckily, this lake allows the use of bait, so I put a piece of worm on a hook and started slowly jigging it close to the bottom. It didn’t take long before a little Rainbow Trout found the worm and struck with all of its might. After a fun fight, this fish was donated to a family who was having trouble catching dinner and I started my next long drive.
I arrived in Sedona, Arizona to the unwelcome realization that every single campsite was full…even though none of them allowed reservations. I decided I would worry about that later, and made my way to an access point on Oak Creek in search of my first sucker of the trip.
I fished a number of different pools with no luck. I kept seeing trout come up and hit the surface, but the water was too muddy to even consider getting out the fly rod. I decided to stick with my sucker tactics and keep a small piece of worm on the bottom and wait for a bite. I ran into another angler hiking out of the canyon I was fishing in and he was kind enough to point me to a place that should hold a few fish. Words couldn’t describe how excited I was when my rod tip finally bounced and my line went tight with a fish. I was even more excited when I reeled up what turned out to be a Roundtail Chub, another new species!
I cast my rig back out and waited for a sucker to find the bait, but this time when the rod bounced something very different was on the other end…a confused little Brown Trout. I’m not really sure why he decided my sucker rig looked attractive, but he did.
With this last fish, I looked up and realized that a thunderstorm was quickly approaching. I didn’t want to be stuck down here if lightning started dancing around, so I started the hike back to my car. I was lucky enough to get the last room in a cheap motel in Sedona (my only other option was to park the car and sleep in it). Bright and early the next morning, I packed up my stuff, checked out of the motel, and made my way back to Oak Creek. I wasn’t going to let this trip end until I caught a sucker. I hiked back close to area from the day before, set up my rod, and waited for a bite. A long hour passed with only a few small nibbles but no takes. Suddenly, my rod doubled over and a fish started screaming drag downstream. When it got itself wrapped up in the reeds, I was scared my 4 lb test line wasn’t going to hold up, but eventually I worked the fish out and was absolutely over the moon to be holding a Sonora Sucker.
I took my quick pictures and then released him back into the creek. I was shaking from excitement after that catch; I don’t think many other people get this excited to catch a sucker. I had seen a few minnows hiding near the reeds that the sucker had gotten tangled in, so I decided to tie on my micro gear and see if I could catch one. Most of them were far too small to be able to get a size 28 fly hook in their mouth, but one of the larger minnows charged my bait and I was thrilled see another new species for me: the Speckled Dace!
With this fish, I knew I was out of time and I needed to start the final leg of my drive to Los Angeles. I’ll admit that this was the part of the drive I was most anxious about: I hadn’t ever tried to navigate traffic like they have there. But I knew that it was time for me to face that fear head on. I’m happy to report that I arrived safely and that the driving wasn’t nearly as frightening as I expected. This trip was a once in a lifetime experience and I’m so happy that I’m finally out in California. Life out here is rather different than back in Indiana, but that isn’t a bad thing. There is still plenty of nature to enjoy. You just have to look in different places, and exploring for those places is half the fun!
Now it is time to explore the fishing that California has to offer. I’ve already found some new places to try for Carp, Tilapia, Plecostomus, Largemouth Bass and Bluegill, plus the wide variety of saltwater fishing piers that can provide seemingly endless amounts of fish. But that will have to be another blog post in and of itself.