Sunday, January 2, 2011

Baitcasting Misadventures

Fishing provides endless opportunities to practice humility and patience. One such instance was December 31 when I went "fishing" with my new baitcasting gear. My wonderful in-laws sent my wife and I a pair of absolutely gorgeous St. Croix Rod 9' steelhead rods and premium Shimano baitcasting reels for Christmas. I am blessed with in-laws who are excellent fisherpeople and generous gift-givers. This is serious gear.

I'm still pretty new to fishing and I've only ever fished with ordinary spinning reels, mostly for trout and bass (and once I accidentally caught a muskie). I made the mistake of assuming baitcasting was just as easy, and being a gung-ho sort of dude, I went charging off to the river to "catch me a steelhead."

I had no trouble tying on my drift-fishing setup (bobber, weight, swivel and jig head tipped with raw shrimp) and I felt good about my chances.

The water was moving swiftly but I found a quieter area just around a bend. There was even a nice, wide shore for casting my 9' rod. I had the whole place to myself. I lit a cigar.

I set my sights on a riffle near the far bank and wound up for a nice, long cast. Just as I snapped my wrist, I pushed the release button and expected to see my bait slice smoothly through the air en route to a fish about 30 yards away. Instead, everthing went KERTHUNK about five feet in front of me. I looked down at my reel and saw what looked like a plate of spaghetti. I have since learned that baitcasters call this a "birds nest." It looks something like this:
Lesson No. 1: you can't just press that release button willy nilly.

After 20 minutes of untangling my birds nest, I Googled "how to baitcast" on my iPhone. At this point, I felt silly for having brought a net. I was in no jeopardy of catching any fish.

I skimmed some articles and learned that I must develop a "smart thumb" to prevent the reel from spinning too quickly and creating "backlash," i.e., a birds nest. After three more casts and three more birds nests, I concluded that my thumb was dumb and went home.

I am determined to become a proficient catcher of steelhead and salmon. For me, this quest is part of being an Oregonian. And until such time as the in-laws return to teach me, I have the internet to get me started. There are plenty of resources for people learning to baitcast - including, for some reason, a nice article on the Livestrong Foundation website. It begins like this:

A well-balanced baitcasting rig is more accurate, stronger and more reliable for big fish than a spincaster, but only if you know how to use it. Mastering the baitcasting technique takes time. The best equipment in the wrong hands will lead to lots of backlash and an afternoon of frustration. Committed practice will "educate" your thumb so that your casts fall within a foot of your target every time.

Wise words. My thumb and I have some learning to do.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


This blog post is about retrofitting my Marineland Eclipse 12 lighting system. It sort of reads like a Vonnegut novel. The Eclipse comes with a 13W compact fluorescent bulb that looks like this:

It's clunky, it gets pretty hot, and it doesn't put out enough light. Here is what my nano reef looked like under 13 watts of blah:

So like many aquarists, I decided to retrofit! After a little research I opted for two Ecoxotic Panorama LED Modules. They're 12.5" long so they fit nicely inside my 18" hood. Each module contains eight 8,000K white lights, four 453nm actinic lights, and consumes only 13 watts of power while giving off a crapload of light. I paid about $85 per module over at PetSolutions. This price is about $10 cheaper than anywhere else on the web and they were on backorder for a week or two, but were delivered faster than expected and in pristine condition. To the mod!

First, I removed the old light module. It was surprisingly easy and involved only unscrewing a few simple screws:

I dried off the hood with a paper towel and noticed some plastic pegs that would hinder the placement of the LED modules. I "fixed" them with some pliers and elbow grease:

At this point, the cats started trying to smack the clownfish on the now-exposed surface of the water. The Nerf gun fixed that problem. Next, I lined up the modules in the hood and drilled holes for the screws:

I used neoprene washers to seal the screwholes, nylon nuts & bolts to avoid rust, and black plastic screw caps to hide the screwheads atop the aquarium. It all looked like this:

I attached the modules without much trouble, side-by-side, like this:

I plugged these into a power-strip attached to a timer switch to simulate daylight/nighttime. In reality, this approximates "Jesse wants to look at his fish" time / "Jesse is sleeping" time. I work from home, so the former is significantly longer than the latter. Anywho, the lights looked awesome, but within a day or two, one of them started flashing. I did a little Googling, and found an Ecoxotic troubleshooting page that said, essentially: "Attention idiot: Your lights are flashing because they're overheating. Unless you want your LED strips to overheat, don't install them so they're touching each other." I then discovered that Ecoxotic had kindly included mounting brackets with the retro kit, and these brackets nicely separated the LED strips by 1/2" so as to not overheat them. When doing the initial install I had seen these brackets, puzzled over them, and threw them in a box. I felt silly for doing this.

While I was installing the brackets (creating two superfluous holes in the Eclipse hood that I plugged with black plastic thingies) I decided to reinforce the hood with a metal brace from Home Depot. I did this because my aquarium doubles as a cat-warmer and I was concerned that Scout, in her chunkiness, might put undue stress on my fancy LED modules. The reinforcement looks like this:

The mounted LED strips look like this:

The top of the hood looks like this when the lid is open for feeding:

Ecoxotic promises that these modules will "Dial up the WOW!" and they certainly deliver. I get very pretty, very bright light, nice shimmer and very happy critters. BEHOLD:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Upcoming Lighting Retrofit!

Ideally, reef tanks are fun and low-maintenance. Your little ecosystem thrives symbiotically and all you have to do is sit back and grin stupidly while struggling against the urge to overfeed. It is, of course, not so simple as all that. You must closely monitor your levels of salinity, nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, pH, and so on. If you fail to do that, your critters become pissed off and/or dead (more on that later). And among much else, you must have really awesome lighting. Coral reefs exist on the equator in shallow water, where it is very, very sunny. That's what reef inhabitants prefer. Unfortunately, the stock Marineland Eclipse bulb (a 13-watt compact fluorescent POS) doesn't cut the mustard. Hence my upcoming super-sweet modular LED retrofit project!!! I bought two of these babies:

This is the Ecoxotic Panorama LED Module, and it is super awesome!!! Two of these will deliver 26 watts of LED light, which is an enormous amount for a 12-gallon tank. My LFS says "the more light the better." And the best thing about LEDs is that they radiate very little heat. The standard reef aquarium lights (metal halide or T5) threaten to boil your fish unless you install a fan to chill your aquarium hood, a chiller to chill your water, and a robust investment portfolio to pay your electric bill. Even my little 13W compact fluorescent puts off enough heat to be a serviceable cat-warmer (see pic to the right). Not so with the LED. Scout will just have to curl up on my laptop like she used to (with her paw on the Delete key if an important document is open).

The dude at my LFS regards LEDs as new-fangled, unproven technology. I guess I'm the guinea pig. A guinea pig with an electric drill. Stay tuned. They're on backorder.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My nano reef

I like science. I delight in the wonders of the universe. It was therefore only a matter of time before I took an interest in fishkeeping. The time came this year when I started learning about nano reefs. The concept is that you create a microcosm of a coral reef ecosystem in your home. You get live rock (calcified coral skeletons), live sand (filled with probiotic bacterial goodness), janitor critters (hermit crabs, snails, shrimps, etc.), corals, anemones, and fishes. The concept is that these creatures all have important symbiotic relationships and they contribute to the overall health of their ecosystem. Naturally, my feeling about all this is: AWESOME!!!

Here is my tank:

This is the Marineland Eclipse 12, the 12-gallon model from the Marineland line of "Seamless Integrated Aquarium Systems" (read: they're for idiot beginners like me). Marineland says that these systems contain everything you need to get your hobby up and running. And they're right. They have a built-in light, filter and water pump. Just add fishies. However, I've found that you need to kick it up a notch if you really want to do the reef thing (more on that later). Some day I'll have a much bigger tank and the 12-gallon will be my quarantine tank. But until then, this is it.

Here's the roster of critters I have in my tank:
- White Sea Anemone (the dude at the Local Fish Store ("LFS") said this was the most idiot-proof kind of anemone)
- Dr. Shrimp (paging Dr. McShrimpy!)
- Fire Shrimp
- Turbo Snail
- Non-turbo snails
- Two nassarius snails (they live under the sand and poke out their tongues like periscopes)
- Some hermit crabs
- Emerald crab
- Lava star
- Mushroom corals

You'll notice there are no fish listed there. We had a mated pair of Saddleback Clownfish but the male died unexpectedly of a bacterium or parasite so we took the female back to the store for quarantine. Alas. Reef tanks can be a pain in the butt.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ahoy, mateys!

I am a man who enjoys his hobbies. Two of those hobbies are: 1) fishing Oregon's rivers and streams, and 2) my nano reef aquarium. Are these contradictory hobbies? Absolutely. I fully admit to applying a double standard where aquatic creatures are concerned. If you're a rainbow trout, I want to catch you and eat you. If you're a clownfish, I want to nurture you and name you George. What can I say? I like what I like.

Thus far, I'm a pretty lousy fisherman, and an even worse aquarist. I aim to improve at both pursuits, and to blog about it.