Aha! Apparently the bad luck that frequently accompanies our trips is because of the “Todd” portion of “Matt and Todd”. I left the dock with my brother and nephew, and Todd was elsewhere. And it was one of the BEST FISHING TRIPS EVER!

Double Hook Up - Croaker and TroutMy nephew, Ryan, was visiting from Oregon, and had never been fishing on the East Coast. He’s not a total newbie…he has the fishing theory down, and in fact has wet a line in some of the best fishing waters in Alaska. After fishing the salmon-laden rivers there, I was afraid that any fishing I could show him would pale in comparison. I felt a bit better, however, when he told me that when he was living in Alaska, he managed to get “skunked” in those salmon-laden rivers…to the point that the tourists there felt so sorry for him that they would give him the fish they caught. So, while not a newbie to fishing, his “catching” experience was almost nil. Excellent. That’s the kind of person that I have a chance of showing a good time on the water.

The day was planned to be a bit random. It would be a mix of crabbing, fishing, and using crab pots to catch a new (to us) species. We were actually targeting Pufferfish for the first time. The Northern Puffer, also called “swell toads”, “blow toads”, or “chicken-of-the-sea”, are supposedly a delicacy. Whenever I hear the term “delicacy”, I think about food that is so awful that people pay big bucks to eat it simply for the prestige. But, the locals kept telling us that once we eat one, we’ll never throw another one back, so we decided to try it. We stopped by the fish market on the way to the boat ramp and picked up the “secret pufferfish bait”, which we put in several crab pots in the “secret pufferfish location”. We were told that the puffers would swarm the pots. Promises, promises.

We dropped a few other crab pots that were actually baited for crabs, too. Crazy kids.

We were drift-fishing in the stiff breeze, hoping to catch flounder. It wasn’t long before I hooked the first fish, which was a spot. Awesome! More bait!

Ryan, the “newbie” soon after caught a double hook-up: trout and croaker. Instant perma-grin on his face…it was priceless. It was AFTER he caught these that he shared his previous bad luck fishing. He was happy, and he could have gone home happy right then and there.

Not long after that, when he was pulling his bait in to check, a shark followed the bait to the surface and bit the hook off his line. It was exciting. I didn’t think his grin could get bigger, but it did.

Then he caught a black sea bass.

Then he caught a pufferfish…on hook and line.

It was so cool to see him experience the variety of fish that we have in the Chesapeake Bay. I was commenting on how we sometimes see dolphins. No sooner had the words escaped my lips than a pod of about 8 or 9 dolphins cruised right by the boat. It was eerie. You could not have scripted the timing any better.

Sand Shark from the Chesapeake BaySand Shark from the Chesapeake BayThe super highlight for Ryan was the Sand Shark. He managed to play the fish to the boat, keeping it calm…until I dipped it with the net, at which point it went berserk. His permagrin was about to split his face wide open. It was awesome. (That picture with him holding the shark instantly became his Facebook profile pic.)

My brother and I caught a few other fish…mostly spot for me, and mostly bluefish for him. But in spite of our lack of fish, seeing Ryan catch the most, the most species, and the biggest fish, made our day.

We went to pull the pots, and I gotta tell ya…the locals weren’t lying about the secret bait or the secret location. In 6 pots, we caught 24 puffer fish. They’re relatively small…you don’t get a ton of meat off of them. But they are also relatively easy to clean (even though their rough skin does a number on your fingertips).Pufferfish in a Crab Pot

The crabs in the pots were all sponge crabs. They were orange sponges, not yet brown, so by Virginia law we didn’t have to throw them back…but we did. That’s how we roll. Go make more crabs. Besides, we bought a bushel of live #2 jimmies for $40 on the way home…all males, and much easier than trying to catch a bushel.

We came home and had family and friends over to steam the crabs and try the puffer fish. My wife gave them a beer-battered hot oil bath. And the locals weren’t lying about the taste, either. It was the mildest, least “fishy” fish I’ve ever put in my mouth. My crab pots might not ever be used to catch crabs again…they’ll be busy catching swell toads!

Northern Puffer from the Chesapeake BayIt was definitely one of the best trips ever in terms of having fun (the joy of seeing someone catch fish like never before), and in terms of good eats.  (Even though we never caught any flounder…the puffers were as tasty if not more-so.)

Not one thing went wrong on the trip. And it does not go unnoticed that Todd was not there. I’m just sayin’.

Every spring in Richmond, when the dogwoods bloom, the Shad are “running” up the James River in Richmond. It is that glorious time of year when the Ancarrows boat ramp becomes the home of countless boat-owning lunatics. The banks of the James are lined with people, who, if they chose, could hop to the other side of the river on the boats that are stacked in like cord wood.

Which is why we decided go to fishing on a Thursday instead of a weekend. And why we chose to use Todd’s boat, aka “The Tank”. So named because it is the heaviest aluminum you can use to make a boat and still float, and powered by a jet outboard (like a jet ski, not a plane. Let’s not be silly.). The jet intake is set up high enough that with the two of us in the boat, it can run wide open in about 6 inches of water. Really. We’ve done it. We’ve tried it in less than 6 inches with unpleasant results, but that’s a story for another time.

Anywho, when we’re in the tank, we have the ability to navigate up river. And by up river, I mean LITERALLY up the rapids. Sure, we bang the hull on a few boulders, but that’s what it’s for. And it allows us to access parts of the river that no (sane) person ever fishes.

Thursday the river was running swiftly…faster than I’ve ever fished in. (And faster than I was comfortable fishing in.)

We headed up to a spot where there was no one else. And proceeded to catch fish. I said ‘catch fish’, not ‘catch A fish’, though merely a technicality, since we only caught two of the smallest Hickory Shad I’ve ever seen.

We moved, tried again, where I caught another fish. I just add that little detail so we all know that I caught twice as many fish as Todd.

So, that’s the boring part of the fishing report. Now for the fun.  (Small Picture Alert:  click on them to see them full-sized)

tree frog on james river

Todd hangs his head in shame for being scared by this cute little fella

The first chuckle came when Todd reached his hand into one of the rod boxes and pulled his hand out like he’d been stung by a bee. Which I thought he had by the way he screamed quite unlike a little girl. Turns out there was this cute little tree frog hiding in the rod box, and it tried to climb out on his hand. After I caught my breath (from laughing so hard), we took this little pic of the frog.

Todd wanted to turn him loose into the hard-flowing river (vengeful, don’t ya think?). But we put him back. I would have said he screamed LIKE a little girl, but that would prove false because when we got home, we showed the frog to the kids, and my 5-year-old daughter said, “Cool! Can I hold him?” and didn’t flinch when he jumped into her hand.

Don't mess with machete-wielding, gizzard-shad-eaters.

Later, we moved downstream to fish for herring. We spotted a couple of folks standing around the water outflow from the Wastewater Treatment Facility. Though the river water was muddy, the formerly-poo-laden waters of the outflow were perfectly clear. These folks had a net on a long pole, and were dipping fish right out of the stream. (The fish feel the current coming out and try to swim up the outflow.) Now, I’m pretty redneck, but dipping gizzard shad out of “clean” sewage is a whole ‘nuther category. But I wasn’t going to say anything, especially since one of the guys was sharpening his machete on one of the rocks. Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up. This is in the city of Richmond. In the United States.

Well, what with no fish, and no desire to be hacked to bits, we moved further downstream where we watched the workers at one of the quarries load gravel into a barge. It was interesting enough to take a picture. That’s how slow the fishing was.

Loading gravel onto a barge in the James River.

We packed it in, and headed back to the ramp, where we were questioned by “the man”. There have been times where I’m pretty sure the Virginia Marine Police were going to draw their sidearms at me (like the “What are you doing?!” episode with the crab pots…again, another story), but the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries surveyors are cut from another cloth. This ol’ guy couldn’t have been any sweeter or nicer. He was asking us questions about what we were fishing for, how many fish each of us caught, how far we drove to fish there, etc..

This is significant because somewhere, in some database, thanks to this gentleman, it is recorded in the annals of fishing history that today I caught twice as many fish as Todd.

"The man" checking us at the boat ramp.

When I first started collecting fishing gear, I had one rod, and one tackle box. The rod was used in salt or fresh water. I used it to catch 4-inch bluegills in a local pond, and I hauled in 20-inch striped bass out of saltwater. My tacklebox had one rack for freshwater (hooks, and bobbers…that’s it), and one for saltwater (hooks and sinkers).

Those days are astern. Now I have a specific rod for each species of fish, and multiple tackle boxes.

In all fairness, once you get a boat and start taking other people out fishing, you need a whole new level of gear. And you never, ever, throw out a fishing pole…it can always be fixed up for something, right?!

So, the garage gets cluttered. Well the garage would get cluttered even if I took all of my fishing gear and stored it in a nearby self-storage unit. But the problem is that those places don’t have individual units big enough for all my fishing junk, and I don’t feel like paying for more than one. Which leaves me with my garage.

In effort to make the garage a bit more organized, and to capitalize on the vertical space, I builded me a movable rod rack, redneck-style!

It’s amazing what some PVC and a little ingenuity can do!

Here are some pics that further illustrate the genius, er…the redneck, design:


Note the sturdy design. When I first built it, the pipes were annoyingly straight. Now there is a nice, gentle, aesthetically-pleasing bow in the frame.

Yes, I did actually use a stud-finder so that the load-bearing pulleys are mounted into solid wood. Actually I had my buddy Ted mark the studs for me. Every time I try to use a stud-finder the thing won’t stop beeping at me.

Nothing says “secure” like a hitch knot over a couple of nails hammered in at opposing angles.