No such thing as 'trash' fish

·5 min read

Sep. 23—Luke Ovgard dangled a small hook baited with a piece of shrimp off a Singapore dock, hoping to catch something weird — anything weird — that the Indian Ocean had to offer.

The bait yielded a small, shiny fish that Ovgard identified as a silver moony. It's a small tropical fish that you can see in the aquarium inside your dentist's waiting room.

"It's a weird little fish, for sure," Ovgard says. "But it's a unique fish, a little more exciting than a herring or a shiner."

But that little fish catapulted the 32-year-old Klamath Falls man into the top echelon of one of the nichiest of niche fishing genres: species hunters.

That silver moony caught July 12 became the 1,000th different species that Ovgard has caught and documented in his lifetime, making him only the sixth angler to do so.

That means Ovgard has caught, photographed and often released about 3.1% of the approximately 32,000 known fish species on the planet.

But Ovgard and that day's fishing partner and fellow species hunter Dominick Porcelli didn't really celebrate. Well, Porcelli kinda did.

"He actually ate that fish," Ovgard says.

That pisces de resistance came during a 56-day fishing excursion through Asia by Ovgard, who obviously isn't married.

Species hunting is a cult-like subset of the angling world, assembling what's akin to the "life lists" of species spotted by hardcore birders.

And like birders chasing their species list during a "big year," fish-species hunters likewise have their own set of rules.

The first is that there is no such thing as a "trash fish," he says. Every fish has its worth, even if it's just to be on someone's life list.

"You're going after fish that are otherwise neglected," Ovgard says.

Species hunters say they also value science and where small and otherwise overlooked fish fit into their ecosystems. Instead of just catching trout, for instance, he's also catching the fish on which trout feed.

"It makes you a better angler," he says.

Species hunters also don't eat their young, as they say. While trout bums won't tell you where they fish or even show you what fly they use, these guys will tell you what rock they stood on when catching a yelloweye mullet in New Zealand's Kuaotunu River Feb. 25, 2014.

And like many of the fish on Ovgard's list, he identified it via a picture and a Google search.

"It was a mullet with a yellow eye, so the first Google search turned up my answer," Ovgard wrote in his documentation post.

Ovgard and his ilk also are all over social media, sharing their catches at places like specieshunters.com or roughfish.com and myriad Instagram accounts.

And above all, Ovgard says, theirs is a code of honesty. Only fish legally caught count, and always be clear on whether you caught a specific species with hook and line, a spear or a net.

Though the vast majority of the fish he's documented have come from the United States, he's caught species in nine other countries. Spain, Portugal, Croatia and New Zealand show up on Ovgard's life list.

Ovgard never thought he's rack up those kinds of stamps in a passport.

As a kid in Klamath Falls, he hunted and kept the requisite logs of waterfowl he shot for reporting purposes. Then he decided to do the same for the fish he caught, and his first piscatorial spreadsheet was born.

While in grade school, he read a magazine piece about a California angler named Steve Wozniak (not that one) who caught 1,000 different fish species.

"I was really casual about it at first, but then I realized as I got older that people did this on purpose," Ovgard says.

The obsession has him fishing 200-plus days a year, sandwiched around his day job of teaching business at Klamath Falls' Henley High School and writing a fishing column for the local Herald and News paper. The 2016 catch of a Klamath large-scale sucker earned him his first world record as categorized by the International Game Fish Association.

"It was a fish no one cares about," Ovgard laughs. "But it got me hooked."

Five years later, he has joined Wozniak and four others on that special angling pedestal few people ever see.

"In fishing, it's like 12 people know that it exists," Ovgard says.

He's also shopping a new but unpublished book, "Fishing Across America." It details a summer entirely spent targeting new species while fishing across the country in 2019 to add to his life list while trying to shake the malaise of living in one place his whole life.

But through it all, Ovgard has learned to live comfortably in his own waders in this different way for anglers to keep score.

That's not counting the biggest fish, or the most fish. It's catching the most obscure fish that everyone else overlooks.

Their trash is his treasure.

"Now, a perfect day on the water is to go someplace new and catch a lot of species in different ways," he says. "That's it, really."

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or email him at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.