Caught Ovgard: The elusive 'Blackfish'
MONTEREY, Calif. — Though I can't place it, I know I've been to several bougie seafood and sushi restaurants named "Blackfish" in my travels. There's a documentary about orcas bearing the same name. It's a common nickname for the saltwater gamefish most people know as the tautog. There's even a Portland art gallery bearing the name.
But let me dispel any notions you may have about these blackfish and their relevance to this story.
Yup. I'm referring to another fish you've never heard of before, the blackfish. When I refer to the blackfish, I'm talking about the Sacramento blackfish, a filter-feeding minnow found throughout California. Though popular in a handful of Bay Area Asian markets, few people have eaten this fish in the past century. Perceived as a "trash fish" through no fault of its own, it has been relegated to a life of anonymity across its range, likely because it is a fish that doesn't readily bite lures or bait.
Granted, obscurity is a fate the oft-maligned pikeminnows probably would prefer, but blackfish still deserve better. These fish are officially capable of reaching about 2 feet in length, but one friend and commercial fisherman in northern California told me he's caught them up to 3 feet in length and sold them to willing gourmands.
Size doesn't automatically warrant attention unless we're talking basketball, which we're not, so consider the blackfish's other merits. As a filter feeder, it cleans the water and makes it less susceptible to toxic algal blooms, high parasite loads and keeps dissolved oxygen levels high serving a role non-native grass carp fill in many artificial ponds and lakes.
The blackfish serves as a viable prey species for most predatory fish such as the native trout and salmon and the invasive largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass found in the delta. Best of all, those fortunate enough to hook a blackfish on light tackle say it fights just as hard as a trout its size.
Collectively, these reasons were enough to make me drive all the way down to Monterey, California, one weekend in hopes of catching the elusive blackfish. If blackfish was good enough for sushi, cinema, Boston slang and fine art, it was good enough for me, right?
Though this fish is native to much of California's Sacramento Basin and has been introduced to other parts of California and Nevada due to the region's extensive aqueduct and canal systems, few places offer the consistent fishing opportunities as those found in downtown Monterey at the El Estero Park.
This green-tinged waterway filled with geese, paddleboats and the unmistakable scent of filth one friend always called "skunge," is the last place you'd expect to find people fishing. Yet, that's exactly what happens. My weekend job is in health care management, and late in 2019, I was planning to attend a conference in Monterey the following summer. I began to research fishing opportunities. I know. Completely out of character for me. Anyhow, I quickly found El Estero on Fishbrain, the app central to all of my fishing adventures, and I was shocked to see several Sacramento blackfish caught there on spoons, spinners, jigs and breadballs.
COVID canceled the conference, and subsequent ventures to Monterey Bay found me chasing other fishes, but this spring, I arranged to meet with my friends Steve Wozniak, Chris Moore and Braeden Moore, whom Steve affectionately calls "The Mucus," in Monterey in hopes of catching a blackfish. Our friend, Vince Golder, had caught some there a few weeks prior and assured us it was worth our time.
The Mucus was good luck, apparently, so I thought we had it in the bag. Steve even went so far as to take a picture of a sleeping Braeden, make a T-shirt and caption it "Fear the Mucus" in hopes of maximizing our luck. It's mostly good fun, and the few times Braeden cries in the corner about it, we just point and laugh until he stops. According to Chris, Braeden's therapist loves the nickname and considers it essential to her work.
Regardless, the water looked like it was coated with mucus, so Braeden was right at home.
Chris had crafted some sort of doughbait that we all used in hopes of catching a blackfish. Steve hooked up right away, breaking his own world record for the rarely sought fish by a quarter-pound. The rest of us just kept having the slimy doughbait slurped off our hooks and complaining about it.
Eventually, I switched to a doughbait treble (a treble hook with a spring circling the shaft), and I caught a 2-pound blackfish. It's not a competition, but mine was bigger. It's not a competition, but if it was, well, you get it.
It was my first blackfish and probably my last new species until my summer trip. It was also bigger than Steve's, but being caught on a baited treble, ineligible for a record. Braeden eventually got one, too, leaving just poor Chris without a blackfish.
Fortunately, he was able to get a few new species later that night because as all of us "species hunters" know, PETCO stays open until 9 p.m. and is usually too understaffed to catch you microfishing in the tanks every time.
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