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The Mariposas

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"There we sit For a bit Till we fish entangle."

WALTON. Piscator's Song.

AMONG the fishes of semi-tropical America there are many which are passed by with indifference by anglers for the very good reason that their limited time is wholly occupied with tarpon and the larger game. To know them all and know them well, it is necessary to spend the hot months of summer in the haunts where they are at their best. It was my fortune for several years to have the midsummer fishing on the extreme outer Florida reef the land of the " tin cow " and the roaring nineties, where the heat at times was intolerable, and only cheerfully faced by youth or the most ardent lover of sport. I see the long stretch of water, the green-capped keys lying on its surface like gems, the clumps of graceful cocoa palms, through which the wind sighs and makes rippling music ; the groups of mangroves growing in the water, the long sub-merged reef, the old wreck, the clouds of snowy terns. I recall the submarine garden,, the coral groves cut by strange channels of turquoise-blue, the colossal heads of coral eaten out into curious, vaselike shapes, the masses of plume like gorgonias floating, waving eternally in the restless cur-rent, the paradise of the southern seas.

In these gardens were some of the most beautiful of all fishes, known as mariposas and angel-fishes, the various species being garbed in colors so brilliant and startling that one could almost believe that nature was masquerading. In the wealth of other game they are rarely noticed and rarely caught, so small are their mouths. Especially rigged tackle is necessary, at least the angler fishing for the gray snapper, yellowtail, or jack would never take a mariposa unless by accident ; but once caught, they would always be included among the delight givers of the reef.

Anchoring just outside the fringing reef on which the sea was beating, over one of the beautiful coral plantations, with a water-glass myriads of these gorgeous fishes could be seen in water fifteen or twenty feet deep, some attaining a weight of twenty-five pounds, though represented about the wharves by very much smaller individuals. My first introduction to them was more by accident than anything else. I was fishing for yellowtails (Fig. g) the gamy gold-tinted fish so common on the reef, when a huge barracuda came drifting in from the outer Gulf Stream, and hovered about, looking us over with its black staring eyes, which gave a suggestion of how the plesiosaurus might have looked. I had no bait, so dropped a " fly " hook over, hoping to catch a small grunt or yellowtail which could be used as a lure for the barracuda. Instead, I hooked a spadefish of three or four pounds, which gave me so spirited a contest that I determined to fish for them with intent to kill. An eight-foot bamboo rod was at hand and a delicate line comparing to a number twelve cuttyhunk ; to this was added a gutsnelled hook equivalent to a number eleven steel sproat hook, a very small affair for so powerful a fish, but necessary on account of the small mouth of this game ; briefly, the hook should be very small but stout. This I baited with the red meat of the crayfish, or spiny lobster, and cast a few feet out. Some manipulation was necessary to keep it from the smaller fry, but after a number of small catches I hooked a fish which soon demonstrated that it was essentially game. I had no thumb brake, and the fish took my line at marvellous speed, resisting all attempts to capture it, and putting the delicate tackle to the test more than once, coming in only after a well-sustained protest. The captive must have weighed between eighteen and twenty pounds ; and on other occasions I took larger specimens of this interesting and conspicuously beautiful fish, shaped very much like the typical angel-fishes, with a high, elevated body much compressed, the upper or dorsal and anal fins extending back in graceful points suggesting plumes, giving the fish the appearance of having three tails. My boatman, Long John, called it a porgee, the third fish to which the name was applied on this portion of the reef.

The fish, which is Chetodipterus faber of science, has a wide geographical range. I have caught small individuals in the Gulf of Mexico, at Aransas Pass, Texas, at the Tortugas, Old Point Comfort, Virginia, and have seen it taken from a pound net in New York harbor near Coney Island. Dr. Jordan describes it from San Diego, California. The young are easily recognized by the six or seven pronounced stripes, one of which passes directly through the eye. In Florida I found this fish everywhere about the large coral heads, al-ways in company with angel-fishes and yellow-tails, adding to the manifold attractions of these submarine gardens. The most constant companion of this gamy creature was the black angel-fish, which so far as shape is concerned closely resembles it. Very large individuals attain a weight of ten pounds or more, averaging much smaller about the wharves and docks; yet few fishes of their size present so brave a front and make so desperate and sustained a fight against capture. The struggles of a trout of the same weight or even a black-bass fade into insignificance when compared to this broad gray or black fish of extraordinary countenance and vivid white lips. The angel-fishes proper belong to the family Chaetodontidae, which includes nine or ten genera or about two hundred species, mainly found in tropical seas the world over, in some localities being known as coral-fishes, and every-where among the most gorgeous and beautiful of the denizens of the ocean, their vivid coloring rendered more striking by the contrast of the sombre olive-hued coral. Flashing like gems in all the colors of the rainbow, this group is well named the mariposas, or butterfly-fishes..

The black angel-fish, Pomacanthus arcuatus might better be termed the gray angel-fish, as in thousands observed on the reef I never saw a black individual or one that approached black ; hence the black angel-fish is black in the sense that the white elephant of Siam is white. Its color is a peculiar beautiful gray, some of the scales being very dark with white borders. The broad tail has a white border ; the mouth is pure white. All these fishes, due to the lofty or elevated "forehead," the projecting mouth, and their faculty of moving the eyes more than many other fishes, have more of a " face " in the human sense than almost any other group of fishes; and to watch them in the home of their choice is an interesting, indeed, fascinating, occupation. In movement they are exceedingly dignified, spending much time posing among the branches of coral, and assuming many mannerisms which attract one's attention. I hooked them readily with the tackle described, and was always repaid. The first rush away of the fish is so violent that the novice almost invariably loses the delicate line and hook ; and so impetuous is the dash, so determined the resistance, that one is easily over-matched.

In watching the fish I found that it made its sturdy resistance by keeping its broad side to me, fighting inch by inch ; and when wearied it would bound upward and wear away round on the other tack, presenting its opposite front, all the time making a struggle that could but arouse the admiration of the angler. These experiences were, of course, with light rod and delicate tackle. With a twenty-five-ounce rod six and a half feet long, and a large line, the angel-fishes would drop back into the ranks of " bait stealers " and not be considered worth catching, nor indeed would a trout under the same circumstances. I have seen the black angel-fish taken in Virginia, though rarely, its home being in tropical seas, and on the Florida reef and the West Indies in general. There it is one of the commonest of fishes, and by no means a poor table fish, though there is a strong prejudice against it in some localities, many believing it to be poisonous.

Not so common, but a gamy catch, is the yellow angel-fish, Holacanthus ciiaris, with brilliant yellow margins to its scales, its body not so elevated as in the black angel, the tip of what might be called the dorsal and anal "plumes " extending beyond the tail with graceful sweep, making the fish a charming object in the gardens of the sea. It attains the length of two feet and is often seen, its curious face peeping from some crevice in the coral, from which it can be lured with crayfish bait. The young of nearly all these angel-fishes differ so in appearance from the adults that they would hardly be suspected as relatives, and often are far more beautiful. In the Southern California waters is found a form known as the golden angel-fish. The adult is a rich golden yellow with no break ; but the young, which I have kept alive of all ages, present a singular contrast to them and are thought by the fishermen to be an entirely different fish, and are called " electric " fishes from the fact that the blue tints which mark them are so vivid that they appear to flash with an iridescence, or like an electric spark. The very young are blue over the entire surface, but as they grow this brilliant and beautiful color seems to give way and they become spotted, then striped, then faintly tipped with blue, finally losing it entirely to become golden angel-fishes in all the term implies.

Interesting feature of the latter fish is its tameness. Through a water-glass I have watched a diver in armor at the bay of Avalon, who sat upon the bottom and crushed some black echini, whereupon numbers of these fishes swarmed about him, eating from his hand with great complacency. At my request he took down a wire box and placing some bait in it, caught several of the little creatures. On the Florida reef a brilliant assemblage could be collected by tossing over some crayfish at which the radiant creatures would rush, and amid them there generally would be the singular surgeon fish which carries its lance in the side of the tail, which is freely used to enable it to hold its own in the struggle for existence. To land the game is not everything in fishing, or the chief end of the angler ; indeed, these diversions, the study and observation of the habits of fishes, the unexpected glimpses of their home life, the view of their beauties and charm of coloring, are a part of the day's fishing, which are perhaps more compensating than to make a goodly bag. This is especially true on our southern borders, where vast reefs stretch away, embracing coral lagoons and shallows.

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