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The Parrot-Fishes

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"And there crystal pools, peopled with fish, Argent and gold ; and some of Tyrian skin, Some crimson-barred. And ever at a wish They rose obsequious, till the wave grew thin As glass upon their backs, and then dived in, Quenching their ardent scales in watery gloom, Whilst others with fresh hues rowed forth to win My changeable regard." —THOMAS HOOD.

It is said that the gods held the scarus as first among fishes, and Pliny tells us that during the time of Emperor Claudius an epicure and angler of great wealth, one Optatus Elipertius, collected a large number of the most beautiful of these fishes and liberated them in the Italian sea for the benefit of posterity. The waters of the outer reef, and of our new colony Porto Rico, abound in these birds of the sea, which, in their fanciful coloring, brilliant, indeed dazzling, tints, are among the most conspicuous of the dwellers in these tropic seas. In my early days on the reef I at times fished from a small craft known by the euphonious title of the " Bull Pup," under the command of a genial character of the reef, " Long John." I frequently hooked a fish on the edge of the coral in fairly deep water, which bit the hook in two as cleverly as I could have cut it with a file, though it was only when I fished with the small 1/o hook described in angel-fishing. I believed the unknown to be a small shark, but my Conch boatman, Long John, said it was a loco verde, a fish which had a beak like that of a parrot, — was, in fact, a parrot-fish. Acting on his suggestion, I changed the hook, putting on what he termed a " grunt hook," which had a leader, or snell, of silver guitar string. This hook was what is known to dealers as a number five, spring steel blackfish hook, and while small, was stout and inflexible, almost impossible to break. With this and a very light line and pliable rod I continued fishing, landing first, as though to show what bizarre game there was over this remarkable coral wall, a porcupine fish, which when brought to the surface expanded to a perfect ball covered with spines, and when cut loose sailed away on the sea like a balloon.

I next hooked a fish which made so gallant a rush that the reel sang again, and Long John, unused to rods, stared in amazement at the bamboo, and expressed the opinion that it was " dun fer." I can recall no North Atlantic fish, except a large bluefish, with which to compare this gamy creature. It made a clean dash of at least one hundred feet down into deep water, evidently following the sloping bottom, then circled around, coming back when checked, stopping and evidently shaking its head, imparting to the rod a most erratic series of motions which seriously threatened its future usefulness. At times the rod was more than outclassed by this fish, and I considered it good fortune more than anything else that I succeeded in holding it at all. Now it was away, deep in the blue channel, then came rushing in, plunging down the coral wall by the side of which we were fishing. A gamier, more keenly active fish I never had played. For sustained and powerful resistance, it was a royal fish, and when finally it was brought to the surface after a hard contest, I saw that I had been playing a despised and, so far as anglers are concerned, utterly neglected parrot-fish. I was amazed. I was familiar with the young, and of all fishes it is to the eye the slowest, the most easy-going, playing about the coral heads; lying in gorgonian snug corners, a gorgeous poseur, a scaled coxcomb of the fishes' rialto, perhaps the last individual of this gorgeous throng that would be selected as a hard fighter, a breaker of hooks.

The names given fishes are sometimes without rhyme or reason ; but no better appellative could be chosen than the sea-parrot for this doughty creature which lay upon the surface, rolling its oddly colored blue and yellow eyes, flapping its broad pectoral fins, and occasionally lifting its big tail to scatter water over the boat, as though to emphasize the fact that while in the toils it hurled defiance at us. In color and general appearance it suggested some of the gaudy ma-caws, especially in color, as encased in an armor of huge scales it was painted a vivid turquoise blue from head to tail, and possessed a remarkable set of beaks, solid nippers, and biters also colored. Other fishes have more tints, are more beautiful ; yet I recall none which made a more striking impression upon my mind than this sea-parrot, which eyed me so intently, I fancied, wondering whether I was the kind of an angler who had a high appreciation of a good fighter and would release it, or whether I was merely a plain, pot-hunter fisherman, who would murder it in cold blood, and stow it away in a bag to gloat over its size and weight with other barbarians ashore.

My catch was estimated at three and a half feet in length as it lay on the surface, for I would not allow Long John to take it in, much to his amazement; and that it would have tipped the scales at nearly thirty pounds, I am confident, having weighed several individuals taken in a trap or net for scientific purposes, which tipped the scales at twenty and twenty-five pounds. As it lay on the water it was a beautiful object, seemingly painted with the same brush used in decorating the marvellous turquoise channels of the reef ; body, fins, tail, even the iris, was the same rich and radiant hue, giving remarkable expression to its eye. At the base of the fins the blue was deeper, more intense, bordering on purple ; the belly was greenish blue ; while upon its "cheeks," below the eye, this macaroni of the "gulfs enchanted " had touches of rouge, — at least a decided pink flush was seen that heightened its gorgeous costuming. The lower jaw was touched with yellow, the pupil of the eye had a narrow yellow band inside the deep blue iris ; give to the fish a long, high dorsal, a ramlike "snout" extending beyond the mouth, and a faint idea of this fish may be had by the reader who has not seen it. My boatman announced it as " pizen," and proposed to kill it on general principles ; but so rare a foeman, so gallant a contestant, never died by my hand unless it was strongly in demand, and to Long John's wonderment I cut it loose. In the years I spent on the reef I do not think my catches of large parrot-fishes would number over ten or twelve, and this was the largest, though I saw a crudely mounted specimen in a shop in Key West which must have weighed over forty pounds; but such fish are the exception, a twenty-five-pound fish being moderately rare, the average fish seen around the coral heads near in ranging from five to eight pounds. I unhesitatingly give the loro a place among the hard-fighting game fishes of our tropical and semi-tropical waters when taken with proper tackle.

This fish, known as the blue parrot-fish, loro, and many local names, is the blue scarus (Scarus cceruleus) of science. It has a wide geographical range from the coast of South America to Maryland. On the reef the fishermen and boatmen with whom I came in contact all believed it poisonous, and invariably killed and threw it away. It affected water of medium depth, but came in upon the lagoons at night to feed. At Porto Rico, according to Evermann, it is a more or less important food fish, the people not having the foolish superstition of many of the Conchs. Dr. Jordan states that " In Hawaii the parrot-fishes, being eaten raw, are very highly esteemed and even once held as tabu, to be touched only by royalty." As near as I could determine, the men whom I knew, believed the fish to be poisonous because it was " green," when in point of fact it was blue, though another large green parrot-fish and several small ones found here fell under the ban. Long John explained to me that on the Cuban coast there were "submarine ledges of copper," which certain fishes, like parrot-fishes, ate and so became poisoned. No argument could convince the men that they were mistaken, even though I ate the parrot-fish and others, and still lived to tell the story. Long John met this self-sacrificing experiment with the remark that " Some folks was pizen proof."

With the blue parrot-fish at Long Key another form, Pseudoscarus guacamaia, equally as large was occasionally caught in the manner described with a very small but stout hook on the face or at the base of a perpendicular coral cliff. The channels here were very deep and precipitous, and were often lined with branch coral which formed an almost perpendicular wall, a perfect cheveaux de frise, the interstices of which formed favorite lurking-places for the parrot-fishes of large size. This fish, though rarely caught with a line, was, when three feet in length and ranging from eighteen to twenty pounds in weight, a powerful, active fish. Large individuals were frequently taken at night on the edge of the lagoon, showing that, like many others, it came into the shallows to feed. It was held in no esteem by the fishermen, being considered poisonous ; its only economic value lay in the " bills," which were a vivid blue when fresh, green later, and which were sold to visitors as curiosities. The remarkable feature about these fishes are the singular bills " or teeth, which in the different species coalesce, more or less, forming a sharp, solid ridge instead of several teeth. This biting armament partakes of the color of the fish. In the large parrot-fish described they were pinkish and white ; in another genus, green. The fishermen believed that this armament enabled the parrot-fishes to bite off the tips of branch coral, which constituted their principal food. When I expressed a doubt of this, Long John took me to a "grove" of branch coral and showed me the tips of countless branches where the polyps had been destroyed by the parrot-fishes ; but I found that the real "coral eater " was a huge marine worm, which literally drew itself over the tips of branch coral as one would pull the finger of a glove, swallowing it to a distance of four or more inches, thus securing the polyps. That the parrot-fish could bite off a coral branch there is little doubt, or that it does at times I would not venture to deny; but its principal food consists of crustaceans, seaweed, echini, and the ordinary game of the tropical shallows, — this from an examination of its internal economy.

But a few ardent anglers will have the temerity to spend a summer on the outer reef where my old boatmen, Long John, Bob Rand, Chief, and Busby, lie buried by the great current which sweeps silently on through these isles of eternal summer.

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