Saturday, February 2, 2019

Florida: A Plethora of Weird Fish

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"What the f*** is that thing" was the common theme for Noah and I on most of our visits to inlets south of where we were staying on the East Coast. We saw some weird stuff down there. Huge scrawled filefish... like, easily world record sized. All manor of species and color phases of parrotfish. Some very strange wrasse. I saw a huge lime green moray eel. Giant angelfish. There were things swimming in that water that I just could not identify.

This was a life-lister's wet dream. How many species down there would be new ones for me? The number could easily have been north of 50. And throughout the year I have no doubt at least 200 species I've never caught spend some time in this same water. Noah and I knew this before we even saw a South FL inlet, and it's why we fished them so much. We were down there to catch new species, and inlets and piers were going to put us very close to a lot of them.

I myself got 13 new species from one inlet that we fished three times. I'm not sure exactly how many Noah got but it was substantial as well. I should add that just because there were hundreds of fish and a lot of new species didn't make it easy to catch them. I had to work for new species. But the sheer biomass of the place meant I was assured to catch at least a few new ones. If you haven't already read it, this post covers the first trip and six species I got at this inlet: Ideally you should read that one before finishing this one.

Our second visit to this particular inlet was great fun for me because it yielded a few species that I really wanted to get. Of course I started out catching the ever present sergeant majors. We need to find a time when those buggers aren't so prevalent. I do wonder if there even is such a time.

Abudefduf saxatilis
Noah saw a yellow thing in the mix. He dropped his shrimp in front of said yellow thing, then hooked said yellow thing. The yellow thing turned out to be a French grunt. Did I say yellow thing enough? Yellow thing. You'd get it if you had been there.

 Haemulon flavolineatum (yellow thing)
Noah then went up the wall, and I was left to catch one of two new wrasse species I would catch at this inlet. Both have very hilarious names. This one probably has the funnier of the two. On a pheasant tail nymph with a soft plastic tail, I caught two slippery dicks. No, I did not make that name up. They are slippery though, and they are dicks about letting you get your fly back from them. So, aptly named I guess. They are gorgeous little fish though, in contrast to the rather dull colored wrasse we see in New England, bergalls and tautog.

Halichoeres bivittatus

Not long after I caught the slippery dicks I got a couple of damselfish. Some of the damselfish in Florida are very tricky to identify, namely longfin, cocoa, and dusky damselfish. Sergeant majors are a damselfish as well but they stand out from the crowd. Cocoa and longfin damselfish havevery distinct color phases, unfortunately when inshore their color varies almost none from eachother and dusky damselfish. I am fairly confident though that both of the ones I caught were dusky damselfish, Stegastes adustus.

The blue on this one's fin threw me off. Thanks to Patrick Kerwin I learned that dusky may have some blue.
As time wore on I caught fewer and fewer fish, even fewer non-sergeant majors, and even fewer fish on the fly. But eventually I managed to get something interesting to take the artificial again. A bandtail puffer! I had seen a lot of puffers on this trip and I couldn't imagine leaving without at least one, but I thought it would have been either a checkered of southern. I will get those, but catching the less common bandtail was a wonderful compromise.

Bandtail puffer, Sphoeroides spengleri
I believe that was the last fish I caught there that day. But we came back the next for more. We thought there's be more potential for new species there at slack tide. That seemed to be validated. Quickly upon getting there I made casts out into deep water, which was not fishable with the fly rod when the tide was moving, and the first fish I caught was the second wrasse with a funny name. The puddingwife wrasse. In my opinion this was the prettiest fish I have ever caught. 

Puddingwife wrasse, Halichoeres radiatus

Then a yellow thing jumped on my little streamer and I had a French grunt of my own. Slack tide was working out well.

These guys' eyes are just mesmerizing. Haemulon flavolineatum
Then, another grunt species came to the fly, my third species of grunt of this trip: a sailor's choice grunt.  

Haemulon parra

And then, a new snapper species. Schoolmaster snapper. I think these are probably the most handsomely dressed of the snappers. I caught a mangrove snapper a while later, for comparison a photo of that fish follows the photo of the schoolmaster. Though many target snapper species as food fish, keeping a schoolmaster would be a poor decision. They often carry cigutera poisoning, something found in some reef-fish and fish that eat reef-fish. They are so frequently associated with cigutera that in some areas locals just label the species itself poisonous. Though that isn't true... don't eat one. Or any other species you have limited knowledge of, for that matter. 

 Lutjanus apodus

 Lutjanus griseus
Noah caught a couple fish that I was kind of jealous of. One of them was a big, gorgeous terminal phase slippery dick. Another was a juvenile gray triggerfish.

Halichoeres bivittatus, terminal phase (Photo courtesy Noah Johnson)

Balistes capriscus
But the fish I was most jealous of was a really bizarre one. We had seen this thing swimming around for about an hour. We both got casts in front of the thing and both had interest from it. In fact, the second photo in this post shows this fish. At the time we didn't know exactly what it was, which is a shame because it was actually an all tackle world record. Eventually Noah got the fish to take a jig. We walked it down the wall, where I hopped down to help him land it (this is where things broke down if we had wanted to get this fish confirmed as a record). I leadered the fish and led it around the rocks. Touching it was questionable. There were a lot of spines to get poked by and we had no clue what kind of strange toxins this fish could be carrying around with it. 
As it turns out, this was a spotfin porcupinefish. The world record was just over 8lbs, caught by a rather legendary angler in the life-listing community,  Steve Wozniak (not the apple one). This one would have gone 12 easy. And we didn't even properly identify it until we were on our way back to camp. Oops. 

Diodon hystrix

Missed world record opportunity aside, we did really well there on our last visit and really well there in general. We caught a total of 18 species between us at this one inlet, most of them new.

Blue runner,
Horseye jack,
Yellow jack,
Leather jack,
Sergeant major,
Dusky damselfish,
Tomtate grunt,
French grunt,
Sailors choice grunt,
Spottail pinfish,
Puddingwife wrasse,
Slippery dick,
Mangrove snapper,
Schoolmaster snapper,
Bandtail puffer,
Spotfin porcupinefish,
Gray Triggerfish

That's just wild. And I know we didn't even catch half the number of species we saw there. I can't wait to return to that place. It has so much potential. When we finished out there that evening we headed for our last night of the Florida trip. I wouldn't catch any new species before we left. I ended the trip with 29 new species and 1 new hybrid, bringing my life-list total to 130. My goal of reaching 150 by the end of 2019 seems very attainable if not surpassable. Time to put an inhuman amount of effort into catching fish people rarely think to target.

This Florida trip is not entirely complete though. Expect one more post, hopefully just as exciting as the rest have been. Unfortunately it seems you all haven't enjoyed these as much as I did as my readership has fallen even further over the last month, but I plan to do more trips like this in the near future whether or not they result in good numbers here on the blog.


  1. Man, I really gotta remember to check in here more often. Great stuff as always, Rowan. A lot of these tropical fish species you're catching are quite similar to what we have here in HI. You really gotta try and make it out here one of these years.

    1. Thanks!
      I will make it to Hawaii, no doubt. There are so many species there I am desperate to catch.

  2. I can imagine your excitement in catching all these new critters. There is no end in what those waters hold. Each one is just magnificent.
    Tie, fish, write, conserve and photo on...

    1. Well, there is an end. It'd be a very hard end to reach in the human life-span.

  3. This is outstanding. And even moreso because I saw all sorts of cool small fishes--often chasing my flies--but except for the following, none would ever actually take:
    white grunt
    jack c
    one other unidentified fish species>
    I saw many of these fish while snorkeling in S. Florida this winter. Interesting to see them taking a streamer.
    (Yes, the snorkeling became more interesting than fishing--partly because I am so bad at it). I hadn't had a chance to do that in 29 years there. I have to say though that the coral is in utter ruins compared to 1990. I was deeply saddened. I am hoping that when I get lucky with conditions and get to Looe Key I'll see significant healthy coral again.