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Looking back on my first serendipitous encounters with a hard-to-catch saltwater fish

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - After a decade of trying, Ovgardr finally caught his starry flounder in one of the most unlikely — and most beautiful — places hes ever fished. Years ago, I dated a doctor who lived in New York. Ultimately, we were very different people with very different lives who lived about 3,000 miles apart, so we parted ways amicably once reality bloomed, and our shared military training course ended.

Her nickname was "Side Eye" because of how she would glance sidelong when she was not amused. When she learned I was from a tiny town in southern Oregon, I got an eye-themed nickname of my own: "Starry-Eyed Hick."

This is the story of how that Starry-Eyed Hick spent years looking for something in remote places that he would not find until he went to the heart of the big city.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Luke Ovgard2010

During Spring Break one year in college, on a striped bass trip in California's San Pablo, I watched my best friend, Ben Blanchard, catch the first starry flounder I'd ever seen. It was a visually-striking fish, and I snapped a picture with my disposable camera for posterity, the flash contributing, perhaps, to me being enamored — starry-eyed, even — by its strange beauty.

2012

A few years later, I found myself headed to Sequim, Washington with Ben, and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Autumn, for the region's Lavender Festival. While walking a pier in nearby Port Angeles, I watched an older man catch another starry flounder while I looked on, desperately wishing on a star that I had packed appropriate fishing gear.

Maybe if I'd been in Los Angeles instead of Port Angeles, that Disney magic would've come into play like the song suggested, but when I wished upon that star, the starry flounder my heart desired did not come to me.

2015

Fast-forward a few years to an Oregon coast surfcasting trip.

Though I was catching some redtail surfperch, they were few and far between. So when a couple of anglers walked up next to me and immediately caught a starry flounder from the surf, I muttered some things that would've been replaced with stars, asterisks, and other punctuation marks if in print.

2016

This was the year I began my #SpeciesQuest in earnest.

It was also the year I dated Side Eye. She had family in southern California she was visiting after the course, so I detoured through Los Angeles on the drive home.

You know what I saw there? Stars. They were on the ground in Hollywood.

But you know what I saw someone record on Fishbrain just a little north of there — something just at the end of the species' official range? Starry flounder.

Wistful sigh.

2018

Last year I began data mining to find new species. It was around this time that I first noticed a small, flat, fish caught with some frequency in the mainstem Willamette River, right near Portland. Fishbrain had half a dozen of them logged, so I knew it wasn't a fluke. Well, I knew it wasn't a fluke because that flatfish is an Atlantic species. This was a flounder.

I tried, and failed, yet again.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Ovgard's sister-in-law, Rylee, proved to be the good luck charm he needed to finally catch a starry flounder. She caught two that day. 2019

I caught almost all of the remaining species I hadn't yet caught in the greater Portland area this spring. Only one species remained, and it became my guiding light, my north star.

Despite floundering on my first three attempts, I pressed on. When you see stars, it's easy to lose sight of reality, so I kept trying despite the unlikeliness I'd catch one. After all, starry flounder are saltwater fish, and I was fishing hundreds of miles from the ocean.

Spring and summer came and went.

In late November, I spent a weekend visiting my brothers and sister.

Jake and Gabe had to work, but my sister-in-law, Rylee, was free.

She joined my quest for the starry flounder.

We arrived at the area mid-morning and set up where most of the starry flounder had been recorded on Fishbrain. In my last two trips here, I'd caught dozens of fish, but no starry flounder.

This time around, we used micro sabikis, a dropper rig with several small hooks, each baited with a small piece of worm.

I imagined the first nibble would be a yellow perch, golden shiner, or prickly sculpin since these three fish had dominated my catch there before.

Lo and behold, I saw a small, brown fish shaped like a disc, and I was instantly excited. It was my starry flounder!

It was a saltwater fish hundreds of miles up a river and small enough that it could have been born there in freshwater. Kind of unique. At least, that's what I thought.

When Rylee outpaced me with two more, and I finally got a second one myself, the Starry-Eyed Hick teared up a little bit. Years and years of chasing stars had finally paid off. I'd been after this fish for almost a decade. I'd taken my stripes for those stars, and I couldn't have been happier to hold one in my cold, wet hand.

Momentarily I saw how stars could make Super Mario invincible — I certainly felt that way.

Our mission accomplished, we decided to grab lunch. The meal was great and a fitting end to a great day. In fact, I'd describe the food the same way I'd describe the fishing: with four stars.

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