Q: I caught this strange-looking critter in Sarasota Bay along a seawall in about 5 feet of water. It hit the live shrimp I was fishing on the bottom for snook and redfish but didn’t fight much. The fish had a huge head, round pectoral fins, camouflage coloration and a slender tail. I thought it was a pufferfish at first, but it was much uglier. In fact, our guide jokingly referred to it as a “mother-in-law fish.” Any thoughts as to what this might have been?
A: Bob, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, your “beauty” is a Gulf toadfish, Opsanus beta. Actually these are really interesting fishes. They can tolerate waters almost devoid of oxygen, which helps them do well in quiet, hot sometimes-polluted habitats. Voracious predators endowed with very effective dental work, toadfish strike quickly. The species is primarily a Gulf of Mexico resident, with a few isolated populations off southeast Florida and the Bahamas. But their very close relative, the oyster toadfish (O. tau), lives along the Atlantic coast, as does a much-less-ugly cousin in deeper waters, the leopard toadfish, O. pardus. The latter is adorned in a mottled maroon color, unlike the brownish colors of its nearshore relatives. All the toadfishes are rather small, topping off at about a foot. They have an uncanny ability to wriggle into the most tight-fitting cracks and crevices; if they can squeeze into an old piece of junk like a discarded can, they will, and they might stay in such an abode for weeks. — Bob Shipp
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