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October 26, 2001

Grunting Snapper

Although the tomtate is very similar in appearance to snapper, the two are not closely related.

Q: While fishing on an artificial reef off Fort Lauderdale, Florida, my daughter caught several small fish about 6 inches long that looked something like small yellowtail snapper, except for a large, dark spot at the base of the tail. The fish were silvery except for a yellow stripe down the middle of the fish. The strange thing is the loud, grating sounds they made. I've never heard a snapper make a noise like that. My daughter released the fish, but she wants to know what they are and why they make that sound. - Gustavo Enriques, Hialeah, Florida

A: The tomtate (Haemulon aurolineatum) makes that noise because it's a grunt, not a snapper. Except for the dark spot at the base of the tail, the tomtate looks a lot like a small yellowtail snapper because both are silvery fish with a yellow stripe running from nose to tail. All the tomtate's fins are silver, however, while those of the yellowtail are yellow. Snappers and grunts have similar shapes and live in the same shallow, tropical reef waters, but snappers have canine teeth while grunts do not. Also, most grunts have forked tails, while most snappers (the yellowtail snapper being one exception) have straight-edged tails.
Grunts make loud noises by grinding their teeth and amplifying the sound through gas-filled swim bladders. The tomtate is the most common of all fishes on Florida's artificial reefs, where it's often found in large schools. It lives throughout the western Atlantic from Massachusetts to Brazil and grows to about 10 inches long. Although few anglers target grunts because of their small size, many consider grunts quite good to eat.