Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Random Quotes XXXVII


“And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says he will never die. He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."


My god, what a book.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dream a little dream of....


..of large carp.

Lots...

..of large carp.

The reality turned out to be perfectly formed...

..but, as ever, somewhat smaller.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

More carp (and some catfish).

I suppose every angler complains about picking the wrong day to go fishing when it appears they are going to blank. It’s in the category of “should have been here yesterday”. Overnight rain, heavy overnight rain, altered the water I had built into some platonic ideal of a carp swim into a brown creamy mess with visibility down to an inch or two or less. Naturally it didn’t turn chocolate until after I’d arrived, plumbed the areas various depths, carefully set up the end rigs, filled in with four cans and laid my traps. No, only after that did the brown surge come down the neck of the lake and spread out over everything I was hoping to hold dear. And it rained more. Heavy showers came up the valley making free with their cotton-wooled wet stuff.
Evidence of the high regard carp are held in round here.

I had spent some time looking at this particular area of the lake. It’s a large lake. Dammed at the far end and fed at the end I was fishing by a creek of reasonable size. I chose to fish off a spit of land, accessible only by kayak, a narrow finger that stretched down into the lake with the decreasing speed of the river’s output on one side and a large bay on the other. The plan was to fish into the deeper water of the main channel and exploit the depth and diminished current for the large carp I felt must surely be nosing their way into the flow of food coming down to them. I can only say ‘felt’ there would be large carp as DP and I have fished further down the lake more than once. The place is full of carp no doubt, but for reasons neither of us can fathom, full of carp only in the two to five pound range. Even a low double has been beyond us. Perhaps because of this DP’s enthusiasm for the place has waned even though I try to persuade him that there must be parents of these striplings and more to the point grandparents, great grandparents and even, oh joy at the thought, greatto the power of grandparents given the carps well known longevity. So I venture back to this lake with the thought of large carp in mind but without DP who has gone to ambush much, much larger carp back at the Finger Lakes.
Kayak accessible.

I couldn’t tell anything from the electronic maps about the bay on the other side of the spit of land I was fishing from but on arrival it turned out to be acres of knee-deep water dotted with the backs of many, many carp disporting themselves in the mud. Trouble was they were all carp of a size met with previously. I saw nothing that was more than about four pounds. So I decided to concentrate on my initial plan and if all went pear-shaped resort to the bay and its babies. Twenty minutes after arrival and some five minutes after my baits had started to soak in the lakes water, the creek began to discharge its brown tide blotting out all including, after a pause, those fish feeding in the bay.
The brown arrives and more wet stuff cometh.

This dampened my mood and I started to fret. DP is a consummate fisherman having the controlled impatience to wait out the fish once he is happy that his rigs and bait are sitting correctly. I, on the other hand, lack the art of motorcycle maintenance and soon reach for the long rod for a bit of light float fishing. I tell myself that it takes time to build a swim, time best spent being patient, spent looking through the bins at the osprey mewing plaintively from the dead tree across the bay, at the strange animal swimming the width of the lake to climb out bedraggled and snake-tailed on the far bank (I decided it was a komodo dragon fleeing its larger brothers). I half managed it this time and instead of setting up the float rod simply dicked around with the baits and rigs on the main rods. So, soon after the brown tide plunged me into gloom I tipped one of the rods corn-loaded hook with a worm. This ‘cocktail’, a classic old-timey bait in England where some boring grain based hookbait - bread, corn or the like - is made daring and racey by the addition of a lobworm’s tail (night crawler to you lot), is a favourite ‘catch-all’ of a a bait. Still appealing to carp but also with potential to pick up fish with a more carnivorous palette.
Unexpected visitor.

After another hiatus I was away into a fish that revealed a factor that google maps, spot on though it had been so far, failed to show. The fish, yielding to pressure but still heavy and obstinate, became stuck on something very large, very submerged and very, very heavy. I lost the fish and the end rig. I lost three more rigs before I found the extent of the snag (snag seems way to delicate a word for what must really have been a drowned brontosaurus) which left me fishing uncomfortably crammed to the right-hand edge of the swim. Every subsequent run on the left hand rod necessitated me high-stepping over the right hand rod while applying all the urgent side-strain the tackle could stand. It worked, mostly.

Fish began to come. The first was a channel catfish of about four pounds or so, as was the second, and the third. The last being a little bigger but still a catfish. I took off the worm and the next fish to hit the corn, was a catfish. I know nothing of catfish. They played no part in my fishing upbringing as we don’t have them. Well we do, Silurus glanis the European catfish or Wels, was introduced into England in a very select few lakes so I suppose the country did have them when I were a lad. But not widespread like. Drown a gobbit of worms and you got tench or perch (fluviatilis rather than flavescens that is), carp or chub or barbel or any of a number of traditional, native fish. Not catfish though. But I have caught them previously here. From this very lake as it happens when I was deeply impressed by a five pounders implacable strength felt through the light float rod. But I considered the fish to be something of a rare event. Didn’t you have to fish at night, with chicken guts, or liver, or the entrails of Oprah Winfrey to catch catfish in a serious and determined manner? Yet here were four in regular succession even when the smallest suggestion of meat had been taken off the hook.

And then I lost a good looking carp, its tail flashing bronze through the murk as it dove into that dinosaur snag. This loss was followed by something really impressive. It was certainly a catfish but of a strength and proportion (even if calculated hastily from the sight of a tail and the breach of a back) that made me wonder if I wanted it on the bank with me. I needn’t have worried though as, with my usual consummate skill, I lost it on a snag. Not the prehistoric snag but another I could see clearly yet, rabbit in the headlights of a big fish as I was, still managed to successfully steer the fish into. Leviathan neatly unhooked itself leaving me, such was the denuded state of my end rigs, to wade out and retrieve the tackle from a very solid tree trunk.
Yes, but where are your great great great great grandparents hmm?

Another catfish, a leaner, darker, almost blue-backed fellow, then another bigger chap that weighed in at just under ten pounds. Then the carp arrived. All the same small size. Fun to be sure but not exactly of the avoirdupois I was after. They were good healthy looking fish, and a definite improvement on the sometimes worn individuals I had caught previously at the more accessible boat ramps further down the lake. They were still small though, no different to the numerous fish gulping and grubbing on the mudflats in the bay behind me. In the last hour I waded these flats throwing a small worm, ahead of me to the edge of pods of feeding carp. Hooking one made the others flush like quail partridge only to reform after a short wait a little distance away.

All in all no hint of the larger carp I had come for but the catfish are intriguing. If you had asked me before about catfish I would have mentioned catching a number of bullheads and that channel catfish turned up rarely. To seriously take on the bigger specimens my limited knowledge suggested some arcane rituals were needed. Roll a trouser leg up to the knee, secret handshakes on meeting other brethren of the catfish, wear silly hats with tassels. And as mentioned, to get them to eat one would need to gut Oprah, disembowel Cowell, decapitate Morgan or slice and dice any Tea Partyite you’d care to mention (that’s enough wishful thinking - Ed.), to provide sufficient and and bloody enough bait for the mainly nocturnal purpose. To find that they quite happily picked up corn devoid of any other enticement and to discover that they can be caught without an all night vigil (though the murkiness of this trips water may have helped) piques my interest. That and the fact that the largest tripled the size of the carp I caught and the leviathan, if landed may well have been able to eat those carp.
And they carry the adipoid sigil of a true game fishTM.

Even at this stage of ignorance I did know there were different kinds of catfish - channel, flatheads those small brown bullheads but I hadn’t heard of a blue catfish before and it wasn’t until arriving back at the boat launch that I heard of this alternative version. A gaggle of fishermen were installing themselves, gobbets of worms, beta light indicators, talk of liver and stink baits. I asked about the carp of course and he looked a little nonplussed. “Well, we’ve had them to about fifteen pounds he said but we don’t fish for them. Ya know?” Yes I did know - the one hanging up in the tree indicative of how the fish is regarded. And then after prompting him with my exploits he told me about channel and blue catfish. How the former were common, a ten pound fish a good one, and the latter, for reasons not specified, had once been in the lake but were no longer. Which was a shame as they “grew real big” he said wistfully. Real big meant fifteen or twenty or even thirty pounds might have once been on the cards. I kept my little two pound capture to myself, a remnant of a once viable population or a smaller but still active population kept discrete by the relatively inaccessible nature of their lair and the peripatetic habits of boat fishermen. Won’t really know until I have another go at them.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Some Carp

Glutton for carp punishment that I am this summer DP and I went to a new water the other day. My children and I had explored it the previous week. A reasonable sized bay off the main river had formed and the water made sluggish by an old and crumbling dam. The recce had strongly suggested carp were present, good bubbling and a couple of times the water tilted heavily to movement below the surface in a way characteristic of a carp easing its bulk.

A portly little start

On the morning in question DP manfully surfaced after only a couple of hours sleep. The reason for the brevity soon became evident as an alcoholic fug permeated the car and DP’s garrulous conversation suggested he hadn’t yet gone head down into the hangover.

Thankfully, no one was occupying the only comfortable fishing spot and the only place one could cover pretty much the whole bay. We decided on our marks and filled in with a couple of cans.

I’ll admit to a fair amount of anticipation here. I’ve seen plenty of carp up and down this river some of a good size and it has a reputation for forty pound fish with the record more than fifty. Though the bay turned out to be shallower than expected there was a constant splash of fish some even heavy enough to suggest they were our quarry.

Hangover or not DP still managed to snare the largest of the day


Eventually, after a pause long enough for me to start getting frustrated, break out the float rod and murder a few bluegills and pumpkinseeds, the left hand rod’s bottle-top bobbin rose majestically and the reel handle churned to the run of a strong eight pound fish.

Final fish of the day being unhooked


DP responded with a thirteen pounder and though I parried with a string of smaller fish and ended with a twelve pounder as well as the inevitable prehistoric snapper requiring another nervous unhooking, DP’s fish remained the largest of the day. Typical.

That's a 12 foot, 2 3/4 lb test curve rod this little four pounder is putting through its paces. A characteristically strong fish.


Although the river siding didn’t live up to my fevered imagination (I suppose I am really on the hunt for a local twenty pounder) it is worth another look. There’s a profound channel along the dam wall and then a short kayak trip across the bay is the main river itself, wide deep and a slow moving.

But before all that I have somehow won another day-pass which will be spent trying to ambush fish at the mouth of a different river emptying into a familiar lake. Solo. DP has gone back to find his forty.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Not A Carp

This is turning into a summer spent pursuing large carp. But with little success since returning home from our Finger Lakes trip. This weekend DP and I visited an old haunt where he at least has caught sizeable fish. We blanked and were doubly put to shame by the variety and quantity of fish my daughters nonchalantly reeled in.
The only bit of excitement to our rods came when DP snared one of those prehistoric snappers. Forcibly delegated to commit the surgery necessary to remove hook from tail I did so. Apprehensively.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Random Quotes XXXVI.


I'm reading a collection of E. B. White's essays at the moment and in this version the inside sleeve has the following quote taken form the citation that accompanied his winning the Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


"If we are remembered as a civilized era, I think it will be partly because of E. B. White. The historians of the future will decide that a writer of such grace and control could not have been produced by a generation wholly lacking in such qualities, and we will shine by reflection in his gentle light.
Of all the gifts he has given us in his apparently careless essays, the best gift is himself. He has permitted us to meet a man who is both cheerful and wise, the owner of an uncommon sense lit by laughter. When he writes of large subjects he does not make them larger and windier that they are, and when he writes of small things they are never insignificant. He is, in fact, a civilized human being - an order of man that has always been distinguished for its rarity."


I'm only a third of the way through but the quote sums up what comes across. A fantastically smooth, thoughtful writer of hugely engaging and beautifully crafted essays. I shall take a piece form one titled "Here is New York" for the next Random Quotes.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Very clever grouper.

Reading about fish cognition always reminds me of a paper that came out in 2006 about grouper and moray eels in the Red Sea. Hunting associations between species has been well documented particularly where “followers” accompany a nuclear species to take advantage of their activities - lions and jackals, wolves and ravens, buffalo and cattle egret and in a fishing world, rays and permits. Grouper and moray eels are often the objects of other follower fish too but these two species have also been shown to hunt cooperatively.

Roving Coral Grouper


Eight years ago a study2 was published that showed roving coral grouper in the Red Sea recruited giant moray eels to go hunting with them. To initiate the cooperative hunt the grouper swim up close to a resting eel and perform a stereotypical horizontal body “shimmy” to “ask” it to come along.

Giant Moray Eel


For a grouper asking a moray eel to go hunting is a good strategy. Grouper are diurnal hunters of the open water and so a sensible course of action for any hunted prey fish would be to dive into a rocky outcrop or coral head and hide whenever threatened by this large predator. Groupers that ask eels to hunt do so to cover this particular eventuality. The eel can squeeze into all the crevices that a grouper can’t get into and may flush the prey fish back out into the open water.

Napolean Wrasse


The benefits are less obvious to the eel because, being mainly nocturnal, it is being asked to hunt when it would otherwise prefer not to. Nevertheless, moray eels don’t have to flush the prey fish out but can catch and eat it themselves if they manage to trap it in its hiding place. And the data seems to show that moray’s hunting with grouper catch more fish in a set time period than when they hunt alone.

Now this interspecific accord, this recruitment of one species to hunt cooperatively by another different species is interesting and rather cool in its own right. But the behavior goes one further3.

Coral trout


These Red Sea grouper have been shown not only to ask a moray eel to hunt with them at the beginning but also to direct an eels attention to the specific place a prey fish is hiding after it has been chased there by the grouper. And not only eels. Napoleon wrasse, a large fish that bludgeons its way into coral and can suck prey out of hidey-holes, are also recuited. More recently, observations on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have shown that the Coral Trout, actually another species of grouper, recruit octopus to come and do the same job moray eels do many leagues away.

Having chased a prey fish into hiding the grouper modifies its horizontal shimmy, the one it uses to ask another fish to come hunting, by doing the shimmy while performing a headstand. The headstand is directed at the specific place the prey disappeared. Grouper only do this if they can actually see a possible partner in crime, either one they were already hunting with that didn’t notice where the prey fish escaped, or directed at a local bystander the grouper can see. If the partner or bystander doesn’t quite get it, looks in the wrong place or swims in the wrong direction or, heaven forbid, loses interest, the grouper may swim to within a few inches of the potential helper, do the horizontal shimmy to reinforce the fact that they are meant to be hunting (duuh!) and then go back to the bolt hole and repeat the headstand shimmy.

You can see bits of the behaviour in this short video.


I was wondering whether the fish actually go and look for a partner to recruit if they were hunting alone and couldn’t see a suitable candidate in the vicinity after the had cornered a prey fish. But they don’t. I suppose this is because it would result in the “oh bugger” reaction when they arrived back, partner in tow, to find the prey had scarpered long ago. How embarrassing - “look it was here a minute ago…”. No, but what they do do is wait for a potential helper to happen by, wait over twenty minutes at times, and then go into their headstand.

This is all fascinating stuff and the underlying point here is that the sort of signals these grouper have been observed to make are very rare in the animal world. Animals that perform ‘referential gestures’, as they are known, intentional signals directed at a recipient with the aim of influencing the recipients behavior in a particular way, belong to an exclusive club. Or so it has been claimed. Primates have been known to gesture to the handlers and to a lesser extent to each other in the wild when it comes to showing exactly where they would like to be scratched. Ravens have been claimed to make referential gestures to each other too as have Australian magpies that adopt a particular body posture when they see a wedge-tailed eagle.

But I’m a little confused at the wider definitions of referential gestures and cognitive ability. For example, dogs have been trained to make particular postures when they identify the presence of game - a sitting bird or rabbit or the like. This posture, being ‘on point’ as I seem to remember it being called, must also be a referential gesture as it fulfills those requirements outlined above. And that makes me think of my post on buffalo democracy. In the post I highlighted a study that showed how buffalo vote on where to find food after they have had a rest. Each buffalo stands up, adopts a specific posture facing the direction they think the herd should go in to find food after they have finished resting. This would appear to be an intentional signal aimed at influencing other herd members. So why would this not be a referential gesture?

It’s a sticking point (at least for me) because such behaviours are often claimed to be evidence of higher cognitive ability, of moving some animals intelligence more on a par with non-human primates. But if the behaviour is actually quite widespread those kind of claims look more like wishful thinking.

That is not to diminish the recruitment behaviour shown by the groupers and their various partners. But it may only remind us that animals can adapt in very complex ways and evolve, as the second paper noted below clearly states, cognitive solutions according to their ecological needs. Grouper stand on their heads, buffalos vote and dogs point but it doesn’t mean they have the cognitive ability of primates. Especially not the dogs.




2. Bshary, R et al. (2006) Interspecific communication and coordinated hunting between groupers and giant moray eels in the Red Sea. PLoS Biology, 4(12): e431. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040431.
3. Vail, A. L. et al. Referential gestures in fish collaborative hunting. Nature Communications, 4:1765 doi: 10.1038/ncomms2781.