Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chain of Rocks and Baldwin Lake

We had an unbelievable warm streak in February with highs reaching into the seventies.  This got me pretty excited, so naturally I had to go fishing.  All my friends told me, "Yes Ben, but the water is still cold!"  I refused to be dissuaded though, so I woke up several hours before sunrise on Saturday and hit the road for St. Louis.  My plan was to fish the Chain of Rocks on the Mississippi River.  Perhaps the shovelnose sturgeon would be biting again (see my post from last September).

Fast forward six hours, and I was driving away from the Chain after not catching a single fish.  I saw other people catch one shovelnose and one shorthead redhorse, but that was it.  A lot of walleye fishermen came and then later left disappointed.

I salvaged the day by driving down to Baldwin Lake, a power plant cooling lake an hour south from Chain of Rocks.  I've heard good things about hybrid striped bass and blue catfish, so I was curious to see it for myself.

I walked along the shore until I reached the no trespassing sign near the discharge.  There was a pretty good current running parallel to the shore.  However, when I put my hand in the water, I was surprised to find that it wasn't warm.  I cast out a fish finder rig with a nightcrawler, and within seconds I had a small channel catfish on the line.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

After three more similarly sized catfish, I switched to lures to see if I could catch a hybrid striper.  I started off with my usual two jig setup.  I felt a few tiny bumps that didn't quite feel like bites, and eventually I discovered what was causing them when I pulled in a snagged threadfin shad.

Threadfin Shad (Dorosoma petenense)

I switched several times between spoons, swimbaits, and jigs.  After hundreds of casts I finally got a good hit on one of the white jigs right next to shore.  It turned out to be a very fat white bass, probably a prespawn female.

White Bass (Morone chrysops)

I hoped the bite would pick up after that first fish, but it did not.  The weather forecast showed storms headed my way, and I had a long walk back to the parking lot, so I packed up.  One good fish is good enough for me!

On Sunday I got up early again and gave Chain of Rocks another try.  I didn't have high hopes for catching fish, so I took some scenery shots instead.

I found some ancient hieroglyphics on one of the rocks.  Not sure what it means.

Around noon I packed up my gear and met up with a high school buddy who lives in St. Louis.  We went for a walk across the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge just upstream from the Chain.

It was neat seeing the Chain from a different perspective.

When we got to the Missouri side of the river, we really got a sense of how big the Mississippi is.

I'll return for those shovelnose sturgeon, but I think I'll wait until the water warms up a bit.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Clinton Lake spillway buffalo

On my way home from Champaign, I stopped at the Clinton Lake spillway to see if anything was biting.  I had fished it once before, and I remember catching quite a few black crappie.  I arrived a few hours before sunset to find several people already there.  They weren't catching crappie, but they were getting walleye on live minnows.  I tried a few swimbaits and jigs that looked similar to their minnows, but I didn't get any bites.

Right as the sun was setting I accidentally snagged a number of gizzard shad with the small jig I was using.  They weren't snagged randomly though; they were all hooked very close to the mouth.  For those of you who don't know, gizzard shad has been my nemesis for over half a decade.  I've tried for them in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but they always refuse to cooperate.

The last one I caught / snagged looked like the hook might have been inside the mouth, but before I could see for sure it flopped off the hook onto the ground.  There's no way I'm going to count it on my lifelist.  I need to be 100% sure it's a fair hooked fish.

Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)

The next weekend I returned to Clinton to make another attempt at the shad.  I thought maybe they would bite at sunrise, so I left Peoria early so I could be at the spillway as the sun came up.  I tried a super tiny jig, a #20 hook with a bit of neon green plastic, and a #20 hook with small piece of bread.  The shad did not make an appearance.

As I was packing up to leave, a teenager hooked into a big fish.  He was using light tackle, so it took him a while to land it.  When he got it to shore, we saw that it was a large bigmouth buffalo.  Everyone congratulated him, which put a big smile on his face.  He dragged the fish up onto the bank, and then took a large rock and hit it on the head.  Not good...

I walked over and congratulated him again on catching the buffalo.  He said thanks, grinning ear to ear.  I asked him how he planned to cook it.  He replied, "Those f*$&ers are nasty as sh#$, I don't eat them."  I kind of figured he'd say something like that, but I didn't want to make a scene, so I said, "Yeah they're awesome aren't they! Isn't it great that we can catch these big native fish here?"  He wasn't sure what to say, so I followed up with, "They taste great too, once you deal with the bones." He told me I could take it, so I did.

Bigmouth Buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)

Giving up on the gizzard shad, I returned home.  The buffalo weighed 23 pounds.  I would love to catch one this big someday!

I filleted it, leaving the ribs on the fish.  In hindsight, I should have filleted it so the ribs stayed with the meat, because I planned to smoke it.  Bones are easy to deal with in smoked fish.  I did remember to leave the skin on the fillets, because you can let the skin burn without worrying about ruining the meat.

Next I cut the fillets into pieces and boiled a pot of brine on the stove.  The brine consisted of filtered water, brown sugar, sea salt, fresh garlic, and several different spices.  I cooled the brine in the fridge and then poured it over the pieces of buffalo.

The fillet pieces soaked overnight, and the next day I fired up the grill and smoked them for five hours.  I kept the temperature low, around 130 to 140 degrees for the first four and a half hours.  For the last half hour I raised the temperature up to 160 to make sure the fish was cooked all the way through.

Buffalo is a great fish for smoking.  The meat is firm and flaky, and the small bones can be easily picked out while you're eating it.

It's really such a shame that rough fish have such a bad reputation in the midwest.  I'm not saying everyone has to enjoy cooking and eating them, but at the least they should be respected.  If you don't plan to eat a fish, you should release it, simple as that.

I vacuum sealed the majority of the smoked fish and ate the remaining pieces over the following week.  My friends even came over for fish tacos featuring Clinton Lake spillway buffalo.

Native fish are not trash, regardless of what species they are.  Let's treat them with respect.  If you catch one, be it buffalo, gar, pike, walleye, or crappie, please either eat it or let it go.  Set a good example for the younger generation.  These fish are our heritage, and we want them to be here so our children and grandchildren can enjoy them.

Oh and gizzard shad, I will catch you one day!!!