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Grand Ambition

8/19/2010

Chasing a school of jacks along a beach in West Africa, Steve Wozniak got much, much more than he bargained for.

As he turned to head back to the boat, he was confronted by an African bull elephant, staring directly at him from about 20 feet away. A trunk and tusks trumps trunks and Tevas every time, but "he let me live."

Wozniak, 46, of San Ramon, Calif., has experienced numerous adventures on his worldwide quest to land the most species of fish. About a dozen shy of 1,000, he has roughly 300 more species than the second-most prolific angler compiling a similar list.

Although the International Game Fish Association doesn't offer a 1,000-species award, IGFA conservation director Jason Schratwieser said it's a remarkable feat.

"That son of a gun has done pretty darn good," Schratwieser said. "There are 31,600 confirmed species of fish in the world, and he's caught 1/30th of them.

PHOTO GALLERY

Grand Ambition

"Going out and trying to catch that many species is not easy."

Among Wozniak's confirmed 987 catches are nine IGFA records, and he has six other records pending. He's fished in 62 countries (his goal is 100) and on every continent except Antarctica.

Along the way, Wozniak, not the Apple co-founder, has been warned to watch out for hyenas, stepped on a venomous fish, caught a rare stingray in the buff (Wozniak was naked, not the fish), and landed fish anywhere from rice paddies to a decorative pool in a mall.

He's made friendships with guides -- Scotty Lyons of Sydney, Australia, has guided him to 85 catches and well-known Thailand guide Jean-Francois Helias put him on 70 species -- while bewildering some and dissing others.

The idea to pursue his pleasure came about around 2000 when he and friend Mike Rapoport disputed each other's fishing prowess.

"It's one of the stories that happen all over the world -- two guys arguing over who has caught more species of fish," he said. "So we made our lists. I had him about 150 to 100. I thought it was a pretty cool idea. Around 2003, 2004, it starting turning really stupid."

The next progression for the self-proclaimed fishing geek, who as a youth saw a photo of an exotic fish and wanted to catch one someday, was how to get more.

As vice president of license compliance at SAP, Wozniak meets with companies spanning the globe. Around business trips, he planned weekend fishing excursions, or took vacation before or after the business part of the trip.

He also schedules personal vacations to bolster his résumé that's recorded on his computer in an Excel spreadsheet along with his photo database. Before each trip, he researches the species he could tally in that locale and lines up guides.

"There are two professions where the people will do anything you ask, and fishing is the least dignified," said Wozniak, who added he's run across some snotty guides among all the gems who have befriended him.

He recalls a trip when he asked the captain to stop so he could catch a sand perch -- "He looked at me like I'm absolutely out of my mind." Another time he tried to bring some bottom-fishing gear on a boat and was refused permission to board.

"It's your day," he said of booking a guide. "I told the guy, no, I'm paying. I ended up canceling the trip at the dock and not going."

Other times he'll try to sneak in a species. In Scotland with legendary salmon guide Bob Brownless -- a class act wearing a "tweed jacket with elbow patches" -- Wozniak noticed an eel in the lake. He dug up a worm, rigged it up and landed an eel.

Brownless "was beside himself," Wozniak said. "'We are not garbage fishing!' "

His girlfriend, Marta, was on that same 2005 trip, and Wozniak was distraught because his well-laid and well-paid for plans for a salmon had been fruitless.

"I was so sick of not catching one," he said. "Salmon were all around us. I thought it was a slam dunk. One salmon bit, and Marta got it. Thank God she didn't land that fish, or I would have killed myself."

Practically inconsolable, he muddled on as the trip continued to Northern Ireland to fish for pike, but luck had it that salmon season was still open there. After spending big on travel and guides in Scotland, he paid an Irishman 80 Euros, about $100, and got what he calls his $5,000 fish.

Wozniak has turned some heads by taking over the Sabiki rod used to catch bait in hope of adding new species. On that front, he has something on the local captains.

"I'll usually know a lot more about it than the captains," he said. "He'll have no idea what it is because he doesn't catch them, especially the smaller, oddball fish."

With most all the big glamour fish checked off, Wozniak had to turn to "what I like to call underrepresented fish." He snaps photos of all his catches, and when he's not certain, sends them off to ichthyologists to verify the exact species. He groups those into a "weird and wonderful" file.

These have names like Wallace's Sabretooth Characin, Sarcastic Fringehead, Bluewing Gurnard, Banded Porcupinefish, China Leatherjacket, Senator Wrasse, Guineafowl Pufferfish and Yellow Tang.

"Some the most beautiful photos I've stumbled into taking are little oddball reef fish," he said. "With a No. 3 Sabiki, you just never know what's going to grab it."

His fascination with the biology and variety of life in Earth's waterways helps fuel his quest, and the dangers and pains he's encountered just come with the territory, he figures.

An encounter with the Hawaiian turkey fish might be his worst, requiring him to hurriedly hobble from the reef into the lobby of a fancy hotel.

"I get to the concierge. 'Excuse me; I've stepped on a venomous sea creature. Can you get me to a doctor?'" said Wozniak, who recalled that, even with painkillers, the extraction of the spines was excruciating.

Wozniak has had hooks through fingers and every other imaginable angling issue, but he plows on, knocking out handfuls of fish on each trip. Amazingly, he has yet to complete any of the IGFA slams but is only one species away from several.

"Obviously, it takes a lot of time and persistence," Schratwieser said of Wozniak's quest. "It's pretty out there. If people think they're small fish, I challenge anybody, even if they are fairly well-traveled, to try to get several hundred.

"But it's not all about the fish; it's the experiences along the way."

There is a story for every fish, but one of his more unusual ones involved the IGFA-record "W-mouth" stingray he caught while completely naked. Wozniak had left a line out when he decided to shower. Just about the time he was rinsing off, the reel screamed. He had to race to attend it as the fish went under the boat.

"I either gotta have dignity or the fish; I can't have both," he said. After about a five-minute fight with no belt, he pulled in a 14-pounder and turned to see the two other men on the boat watching. "You can imagine how bad that was."

His favorite set of stories involves friend Mark Spellman, and usually ends with this line, Wozniak reports: "Mark sat stunned, covered in poo."

Wozniak, who is recording his exploits in a blog and plans on a book, said one particular fish got Spellman good … or bad.

"The Bermuda chub, they just explode with a pint of green goo," he said. "Mark had on a new Columbia flats shirt and wanted to get a picture with it. He was just covered."

By August, Wozniak hopes to cover his 1,000th species, but then what?

"Not take up golf. It wouldn't be safe to the world," he said. "Maybe start on 2,000?"

Speaking of safety, and messes, what really happened with the pachyderm?

"He stood there, stared at me, let me know it was his turf, and walked away," he said. "The only casualty was a pair of underwear."