A Most Peculiar Puffer and Other Mysterious Fishes from the Deep

Sport Fishing readers try to stump the Fish Facts experts with strange catches

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A Most Peculiar Puffer
Q: I saw this amazing fish in a recent issue of the South African fishing magazine, _Ski-Boat _(which happens to be running my feature on Sri Lanka). Apparently an angler foul-hooked it while fishing about 280 feet of water off the South African coast. University of Cape Town scientists declared it a threetooth puffer. It weighed a bit less than 5 pounds. What can you tell me about this surprising catch? Dave Lewis davelewisfishing.com Wales, United Kingdom A: That is indeed a striking example of the threetooth pufferfish (Triodon macropterus). Also known as the black-spot keeled pufferfish, this species is the only living member of the family Triodontidae, primitive relatives of toadfishes and pufferfishes (family Tetradontidae). The fossil record shows that several species of Triodon once occurred in the seas adjacent to today's Europe and North America during the Eocene period (30 to 50 million years ago). Studies of fossilized Triodon skeletons from these regions have found them to be nearly identical to today's T. macropterus, suggesting these fish have changed very little over the past 50 million years. Indeed, both primitive and modern Triodon possess the same “three-toothed-beak” characteristic of the genus, as well as many other structural features in their skulls and skeletons. Today, threetooth pufferfish are known only from the tropical Indo-Pacific region, from East Africa eastward throughout Southeast Asia to the Philippines, Tonga, Japan, and off the northern and eastern coast of Australia. The species grows relatively large for a puffer, to at least 21 inches, though it looks even larger to predators due to its strikingly large belly flap and ability to rapidly inflate by taking on water. Other anti-predator adaptations possessed by the threetooth puffer (apparently effective, given its 50-million-year heritage) include the black “eyespots” on the belly flap, and very strong and tough leathery skin. This species is quite rare, usually encountered only in deep-sea trawls at depths of up to 1,000 feet. The slim chances of foul-hooking such a rare species certainly makes this quite a memorable capture. — Ben Diggles
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Pompano, California Style
Q: While fishing from the Ventura (California) Pier this summer, my friend caught this odd-looking fish that was a little smaller than my palm. We've fished the pier for years, always catching live bait for shark fishing. However, this was a baitfish I had never seen before around the pier, or anywhere else in Southern California. Its appearance resembles a pompano from the East Coast, but pompano are not found around California, much less Ventura Pier. This mystery fish took a sabiki rig baited with squid. Can the experts at Sport Fishing identify this mystery fish and tell me what it was doing around Southern California? Zen Young Koh Westlake Village, California A: Hi Zen — actually, a species of pompano is found on the West Coast, and this is it — the Pacific Pompano, Peprilus simillimus, a distant relative of those East Coast species that belong to the family of jacks/trevallies, Carangidae. This fish is actually in the family Stromateidae. These are small fish (to about 11 inches long), which occur from British Columbia to Mexico, and from just beyond the surf line to about 200 feet of water (though possibly to 300 feet). During the daytime, Pacific pompano tend to be in shallow water, over sandy seafloors, and then disperse into deeper waters at night. As far back as the late 19th century, this was a popular market fish, although it was caught only in small numbers, and usually as bycatch in the purse-seine and lampara-net fisheries for anchovies and sardines. In the days when I worked as a deckhand on one of these commercial vessels, a large catch of pompano was very welcome because we could make far more money per pound from them than anchovies and sardines. On several of these occasions, beer was broken at 3 a.m. in celebration of a good catch. — Milton Love
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It's a Lesser, Says the Professor
Q: I caught this fish in 150 feet of water off Morehead City, North Carolina. I assume it to be a jack, but it’s not one of the usual suspects. Bars on the back are dark purple; the lateral stripe is bright green. Bill Holbein Washington, North Carolina A: Based on the stripe extending from the fish's eye to its nape, and the number and shape of the bars on its body, I believe your fish is a lesser amberjack, Seriola fasciata, Bill. The specimen you photographed is changing from its juvenile color pattern, consisting of seven bars on its body, to its adult coloration, where the bars are lost. The members of the amberjack complex can be difficult to distinguish from each other; in fact, records for many members of the complex might refer to other species. This is the case for greater amberjack, S. dumerili, and the almaco jack, S. rivoliana, which have often been confused. In the case of lesser amberjack, this fish appears to have been confused with the Guinean amberjack, S. carpenteri, in the eastern Atlantic. In the western Atlantic, the lesser amberjack ranges from Massachusetts through Brazil, at depths to 400 feet. This species is smaller than the greater amberjack, attaining a maximum reported length of slightly under 2 feet. While decent table fare, lesser amberjack have been implicated in cases of ciguatera poisoning. — Ray Waldner
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Turtle Take Out
Q: I caught this dolphin (mahi), about 40 pounds, out of Freeport, Texas. We were 100-plus miles out on a weed line at the edge of the continental shelf. When we cleaned the fish, we found two small turtles in its stomach, each about the size of a baseball. The captain said they see this from time to time, and that the largest turtle they’ve found in a dolphin’s stomach was about the size of a large human hand. I’ve caught a fair amount of dolphin and have certainly never seen this, so I’m wondering how commonly it occurs? Do stomach analyses show that dolphin eat turtles often, or rarely? Thanks! Mike Mazur Orlando, Florida
A: I performed a short literature search and didn't find any record of dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus) feeding on sea turtles, Mike. However, there are records of dolphinfish having sargassum in their stomachs, so the sea turtles could have been ingested accidently while the fish were foraging through floating mats of seaweed, or they could have been purposely ingested. Due to dolphinfish having extremely rapid growth rates, they need to eat a considerable amount of food every day to meet their metabolic needs and thus can't afford to be too choosy about what they consume. As such, I'm not too surprised that sea turtles turned up in your dolphin's stomach. Other fishes are known to purposely feed on hatchling sea turtles, and one of the most notorious of these is the mutton snapper, Lutjanus analis. During periods when sea turtles hatch, mutton snapper may leave the sandy areas adjacent to reefs, where they spend their daylight hours, and, at night, patrol the troughs that are often located just offshore of many beaches, apparently lying in wait for hatchlings. One inventive South Florida tackle-shop owner once observed fish feeding wildly on a group of hatchling loggerhead turtles and responded by producing lifelike replicas of the juvenile turtles, complete with molded-in hooks! — Ray Waldner
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The Hake You Say!
Q: I was buying some live shrimp at the Long Beach Harbor on Mississippi’s Gulf coast in early March. This funny-looking thing was swimming around the bait tank. We scooped it out to get a closer look and were stumped. It was about 2½ inches long with a body that shrank as it got closer to the tail. My guess was some sort of brotula, but I believe those are deepwater fish; I’m almost certain the guys pulling nets for bait were in the Pascagoula River. Could you tell me what kind of fish this is? Does it grow much bigger? I tried to let it go in the harbor, but a sneaky blue heron took advantage of the easy meal. Capt. Sonny Schindler Shore Thing Fishing Charters Bay St. Louis, Mississippi A: Well Sonny, you were close. It's not a brotula but pretty similar. Your little guy is almost surely a spotted hake, Urophycis regia. Hakes are often placed in the same family as the codfishes (Gadidae) but more recently are considered in their own family, Phycidae. The brotulas are in yet another closely related family, Ophidiidae, which also includes the cusk eels. About a half-dozen hakes live in our part of the world, and most are small, topping out at about a foot and a half. They range widely in their habitat, from nearshore estuaries when young to depths well in excess of a thousand feet when mature. These bottom dwellers feed on small crustaceans, so they occasionally take a baited hook. All the species are pretty similar in appearances, but the dark lines trailing the eye on this one give it away as spotted hake. Though the hakes are small, they have fine flesh, and there is a commercial harvest for the larger species. After all, they are first cousins to the cods. The Pacific hake (often marketed as whiting) is of huge commercial value in the North Pacific; anglers hold their flesh — soft and insipid — in low esteem, but it is ideal for processing (much of the world's surimi — flavored fish paste — comes from hake). — Bob Shipp