Strange, Beautiful and Frightening Fishes from January Fish Facts

Soapfish, toadfish, flyingfish and dentex -- Let the experts tell you about these unusual fishes.

January 27, 2014
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I Caught my Mother-in-Law!

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? Bob Hayes Arlington, Virginia 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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Lather Up!

Q: We caught this strange little fish while night fishing with the kids from the pier at Taboga Island, 12 miles north of Panama City, Panama, in the Pacific. It measured 9 inches in length and took a small crab. At first we thought it was some kind of grouper, but upon a closer look, the discoloration of the front part and the slimy, almost moray-eellike flesh did not seem to fit. Can you identify this fish? Carlos Rabat
Doral, Florida A: Carlos, that singularly shaped animal is the mottled soapfish, Rypticus bicolor. Because they are small (maxing out at about 12 inches) and active only at night, these reef dwellers are rarely taken by anglers. This is a tropical species, found from the southern coast of Baja California, well into the Gulf of California, and down to Peru. They live mostly in nearshore waters, down to maybe 230 feet, usually near rocks or coral. Divers have observed that this species will stand on its head and quiver to attract small fishes as prey. When you noted that this individual was “slimy,” you touched upon the most interesting aspect of this species’ biology: Like all soapfishes, the slime of the mottled soapfish is quite toxic to other fish. When the fish is agitated, the slime can turn into a soapy, frothy mixture that will, given the chance, break up a predator’s red blood cells. — Milton Love
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Mottled soapfish

Another view of the unusually slimy critter. You can see photos of the soapfish indigenous to South Florida waters here.

Mahalo for the Malolo

Q: While fishing approximately 10 miles northeast of Molokaʻi, a malolo (flyingfish) literally sailed into my boat. Then I noticed something different about it — whiskers! I’m very interested in finding out more about this type of flyingfish. Mahalo (thanks). Paul Payne Lahaina, Hawaii A: Flyingfish are members of the family Exocoetidae, a group of fishes closely related to the halfbeaks (garfish). There are eight genera and around 67 described species of flyingfish found globally in the pelagic oceanic zone of all tropical and temperate seas. Around Hawaii, the most likely species of flyingfish to possess “whiskers” around the mouth is the barbel flyingfish (Exocoetus monocirrhus), a tropical species found worldwide. They are medium size for flyingfish (maximum less than 10 inches) and tend to lose the barbels as they approach adulthood. When startled, all flyingfishes swim rapidly at the surface and extend their pectoral fins, which act as very effective wings. These fins allow them to glide for periods of up to 45 seconds, at a speed of around 30 mph, meaning they can glide distances of nearly a quarter of a mile when conditions suit (unless they land in your boat first!). Flyingfish feed mainly at night on planktonic organisms near the surface, particularly salps, larval fishes and copepods. The fast-growing fishes usually mature when they’re six to eight months old at around 8 inches long. Females produce sticky eggs that attach to floating weed and other flotsam. Their ability to “fly” is thought to be effective evolutionary adaptation, allowing them to avoid predators such as dolphinfish and tunas. — Ben Diggles

Cape Verde Enigma

Q: While bottomfishing in the Cape Verde Islands, we caught a number of fish like this using small jigs. What is it? Riccardo Tamburini Milan, Italy A: Riccardo, the fish you’re holding is a type of Dentex, a genus in the family Sparidae (porgies). To determine whether it a species known as the pink dentex or the large-eye dentex, one would need accurate fin-ray counts, as well as the presence or absence of a spot at the base of the pectoral fin (obscured in the photo). Both of these species occur on the continental shelf on rocky and rubble bottoms, as well as on sand around rocks. These dentex occur around the Cape Verde islands, as well as other parts of the African coast from the Straits of Gibraltar to Angola. The young are close to shore, while the adults occur offshore in the vicinity of the continental slope. They feed mainly on crustaceans, fish and cephalopods. Maximum length of the pink dentex is a bit more than 3 feet a good bit larger than yours, which is probably a younger fish. In still smaller sizes, two very long filaments extend from the third and fourth dorsal fin spines. The flesh of both species is highly esteemed, and they are found in markets fresh, frozen, or dried and salted. — Mike Fahay See how dentex fared in SF’s Top 100 Game Fish listings!
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