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The Hogfish

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"And there were crystal pools, peopled with fish, Argent and gold; and some of Tyrian skin, Some crimson-barred."


The angler is a true lover of nature ; were he not the gentle art would flag and die, as in his experience there come dark days when the game for some strange and unreasonable cause will not rise, or sink to the lure. By such periods you shall know the true rodsman, as when the fish refuse to bite he finds solace in a thousand and one objects : the soft sighing of the leaves along some favorite stream ; the gurgle of the water as it flows from pool to pool ; the call of the locust, which "stabs the still air with its shrill alarm " are all understood. If a sea-angler he can " call spirits from the vasty deep ; the deep blue of the ocean, its many moods, the shadow of clouds upon its surface, the delicate glasslike shapes that drift across his line ; the sounds of the sea which come from far away, deep in the heart of some roller from the vast unknown, at first low murmurs, then the clash of cymbals as the silvery crest topples over, bursting into thundering crash all down the line, spreading out upon the sands, where the pebbles are castanettes, or leaping high upon the face of some rocky cliff with ponderous roar, all these the true angler loves and understands, so never draws a blank in a day's fishing. To the world he goes a-fishing, yet the actual catch is far from being the sum total of his pleasure ; he never fails to land his game, if not fish, some new delight in the appreciation of life and nature.

The haunts of the hogfish are among the most aesthetic of all fishes, and if the game is not found when sought the angler may pass the day taking the many-hued courtiers which make up the train and retinue of this radiant creature. My fishing-ground was a long submerged coral reef, which began with Bush Key of the Tortugas reef and extended southward, a barrier to the sandy lagoon to the west. The reef was made up of dead coral heads, which were bare at extreme low tide, but at the flood the sea rolled over it, pounding so furiously in storms that the roar could be heard far away. Out from the reef the water deepened so quickly that fifty feet to the east it was twenty feet deep and the bottom rapidly fell away, merging into the deep water of the Gulf Stream. In the shallows were many large heads of coral, some like huge vases, hollowed out, the homes of angel and other highly colored fishes, while the floor of the reef was covered with a forest of waving plumes of gorgonias, massive seatlike sponges and other forms. There were rich yellow reticulated sea-fans, three feet in height, with beautiful yellow shells clinging to them. Others were of the richest lavender hue, while here and there were plume-shaped forms in brown plush tints, long branchlike shapes in black, lavender, and yellow. Beneath these was a carpet of low-growing algae, and patches of fan coral in large palmate branches of a rich olive hue, with round heads and clumps of branch coral everywhere, forming a garden in the sea of marvellous beauty.

Not far away a fine large ship had gone down, and part of the hull lay in this garden spot in deep water, while the rest, tossed by the hurricane like chaff over the sharp teeth of the reef, lay in the smooth shallow water of the lagoon. Peering down into what had been the hold, now filled with growing coral :

" Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks ; A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon ; Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels. All scattered in the bottom of the sea."

This ocean garden, which flashed every tint or color, was the home of the hogfish, one of the gamiest of the tropical fishes and, with its long plume-like fins and its coat of red, one of the most beautiful. Ordinarily, fishing was had by pushing the dinghy through a narrow channel, known as the " five foot," the only retreat through the great reef in case of sudden squall, and anchoring in three or four fathoms ; but I often preferred to haul my boat upon the reef on the lagoon side at the ebb tide, wade out waist-deep, and climb upon a coral head, or a heap of dead heads, which had been piled up for the purpose, and fish standing in the water without the boat to alarm the game. On the average summer day the sea was glasslike, the heat intense, the water so clear that every object upon the bottom could be seen. Every head, fan, and bunch of coral was the home of some gaudy or beautiful fish. The radiant yellowtail, Ocyurus chrysurus, was most common and one of the gamiest. The angel-fishes, especially the black and white variety, would astonish one by their strength, while the great parrot-fishes in gorgeous tints should be included in any account of game fishes, affording good sport with light tackle.

Among these gorgeous creatures, which seemed colored to accord with their environment, the hogfish reigned supreme, its striking shape and brilliant color rendering it a conspicuous object as it poised beneath a lavender sea-fan, as though for effect, or slowly swam about followed by a train of curious and brilliant yellowtails. The hogfish ranges in weight from six to twenty-five and even thirty pounds, though the large specimens are rarely caught, individuals weighing twenty pounds being considered large. But this ocean park in summer was the home for fishes of extreme size, and the sport they afforded compensated for the pitiless -heat that ashore made butter a liquid and life correspondingly miserable.

The best fishing was in the morning, and by poling over the lagoon in shallow water, just at sunrise, quantities of crayfish could be caught feeding, and grained, the bait of baits for hogfish, the tail making three large baits, which were fastened upon the hook with soft copper wire or thread a measure to outwit the small fry. I used a rod about eight and a half feet long, weighing sixteen ounces, a reel which held three or four hundred feet of a number twelve line. The leader was three feet of very light but strong cop-per wire, with no sinker ; the tackle was exactly what I used for the six and eight pound yellowtails, the only difference being that for the latter often a trout rod was employed. A larger hook was necessary for the hogfish, its enormous mouth rendering a very small hook inoperative. With a big net to hold the bait and to bag the game, and sometimes a pair of grains, the coral head was mounted and a cast thirty or forty feet made out into deeper water, where the bait could be seen white against the blue, sinking slowly into the forest of plumes and fans. Up rose a cloud of fishes to meet it. Now " breathe soft ye winds ! ye waves, in silence sleep," as attracted by the swarm of small fry that tosses the bait hither and yon, filling the water with flecks of white, comes a vision in red, a harlequin, or Mephistopheles of the sea, with flaunting plumes. It shoots ahead with a peculiar arrowlike flight, the yellowtails parting on either side, and presto ! the large bait disappears in the maw of the hungry hogfish. As it turns and attempts to descend the slender copper leader sags into the corner of its mouth, the point of the hook pierces its soft jaw, a streak of red and fading plumes and the fight is on.

The great height of the hogfish and the powerful tail enable the fish to make a fight which, when unseen, as is almost invariably the case, impresses the angler with the belief that a much larger fish is hooked. And so with my fish. At long range I estimated it at twenty pounds, as it nearly jerked me from my uncertain foothold, but no forty-pound kingfish or barracuda ever made a braver rush. Out it went, the silver reel singing a merry refrain, the fine threadlike line cutting the water with a hissing sound. The fish headed for the deep azure heart of the channel in some " dark unfathomed cave " to find shelter from this new and unseen enemy. Slowly pressure was placed upon the reel, down went the pliable rod, down to the danger point, the tip fairly at the surface, the reel giving way ze ze ze ! to protect the line, then crying out z-e-e-e-e-e-e! as the fish made a strenuous rush. It was so far away now, that the line did not touch the water within thirty feet, and slowly rose with a peculiar rhythmical thrill. Forward went the butt and it was slowly lifted ; down dropped the tip, the reel singing, of victory, the multiplier eating the line with its marvellous appetite. The fish swam in a semi-circle, bearing off, but losing ground, coming in steadily. It soon recognized the situation and, with a lunge forward, turned and plunged directly outward with an impetus that was irresistible, taking back the hard-earned line. The water was comparatively shallow and there was no deep sulking, and as the fish played midway between bottom and surface the sport was intensified by the insistent surging, the great curves, and the repeated plunging ever outward. Again and again the fish was turned by the pliant rod ; now to the right, leading it into shoal water, again to the left. And now, as its strength was waning, the reel gained, and soon a great red spot against the blue grew larger, and still making a gallant fight, bearing hard against the marvellous thread which held it, the great fish came to gaff and was ignominiously hauled ashore, its queer little eyes gleaming, its tail beating the water in furious and impotent protest. As it was hauled into a little bay among the algae-covered rocks, the home of the micramoc, it was a striking object ; about three and a half feet in length, the body very deep, colored a vivid brick-red, the base of some of the fins black, a jet-black crescent at the base of the tail, a dark inky blotch on the forehead peculiar to the male, while the lower jaw was yellow. Other minor tints and differences between the sexes may be found, but the prevailing color is red, and the catch might better be called the flame fish, as it blazes its way with lurid scintillations, through the blue waters. It is known as hogfish because its mouth is supposed to bear a resemblance to that of a hog ; at least, it is very large, and armed with prominent teeth which project outward. The first three dorsal spines are provided with long red streamers, while the first rays of the soft dorsal and anal are very long, which, with the outer spines of the tail likewise extended, give the hogfish a gay and festive air. Preserved specimens, individuals found in the markets, or even in the wells of smacks, convey no idea of the beauty and briliancy of the hogfish fresh from the coral groves, where aeration is perfect and the bottom highly colored.

The deep-water forms, from forty or fifty feet, are the most beautiful ; those which have been in shallows for some time are less pronounced. So marked is this variation of color and difference between the sexes, and old and young, that the unfortunate hogfish has, like others, been named so many times that with the channel-bass it might take the prize as a terrible example of the insatiate pursuit of names and new species. Leopold von Buch, the well-known geologist of Berlin, and friend of the lamented Agassiz, once said, " When I am at Neuchatel and I knock at the door of Agassiz I am always afraid." " Why?" asked a listener. " I dread," said Von Buch, " lest he take me for a new species." It is only just to say that Agassiz never experimented with the nomenclature of the hogfish. Among other names it is el capitan, and in Jamaica and Porto Rico, perro perro ; but among the Conchs on the reef, and the Bahamians, I never heard these names : it was always the hogfish. One of the finest table fishes in America, game in every sense, yet fate ordains it to be " yanked in, by the smack fishermen, with grouper lines.

The hogfish, of which there is but one species, belongs to the family Labridae (the Wrasse fishes), to the genus Lachnolaimus (Cuvier and Valenciennes), and is known to science as Lacknolaimus maximus (Walbaum). It is essentially a West Indian fish, being more or less common at Cuba, Porto Rico, Jamaica, and the various islands of the Bahamas, and north to the Bermudas, where, at the mouth of Great Sound, on Hogfish Shoal, stands a gigantic facsimile of a hogfish in metal, announcing that there, at least, the hogfish is sufficiently esteemed to be the only game fish in the world to have a monument. Key West and the immediate keys, west to Loggerhead, is a favorite ground of the fish, which for years has been a valuable catch, and always found in the wells of the American fishing-boats, which generally hailed in the old days from Mystic, which provided Cuba with a large part of its fish supply. Exactly why the Cubans should prefer fish from America when the same fish could be taken from their own waters, was difficult to understand by laymen ; but formerly the hogfish was supposed to be poisonous and a law prevented its sale. Some fishermen informed me that not many years ago the Cubans believed that there was so much copper in their waters that nearly all the fish were poisonous, hence the demand for American fish caught one hundred miles distant.

The hogfish is found in water from four to six or eight fathoms. Where the reef dips rapidly into deep water, and is covered with coral and gorgonias, in a word, is a good browsing-ground, there the hogfish will be found by the discerning angler. While a swift swimmer when occasion demands, it is normally a slow-moving fish. I have often watched it through a water-glass, or from some point of vantage as it poised by some plume, or sea-fan, or slowly swam about, occasion-ally tipping down with a display of caracoling to take some reckless crab. It has been described as capturing fish, but I never found evidences of this diet in scores examined; the food of its choice is crabs, crayfish, shells of various kinds, as the fan-shell, which it takes from the gorgonias, sea-urchins or echini, starfishes and hermit-crabs. In shallow water described, mullet bait would not attract the hogfish, but conch or crayfish, crab or squilla, was especially to its taste. The deeper-water fishes appear to be more democratic. The hogfish is always to be found in the localities of its. choice. In winter it undoubtedly moves into water slightly deeper, at least in summer more were seen on the shallow reef mentioned; and as several were taken in seines at night in the lagoon, in water from three to five feet in depth, the fish doubtless came in at this time to feed upon crayfish, which were then in the open, and the large white short-spined echini found there. Little is known of its breeding habits. Young two inches long were taken in August in the lagoons, and it was supposed to deposit its spawn in water fifteen or twenty feet deep just outside the breakers ; but this assumption was obviously not justified by actual observation. Females with spawn were taken in May and June.

The hogfish is rarely caught by anglers who fish with the rod, as almost the entire fishing is conducted or carried on in deep water, and it is necessary to go out in the smacks and fish for them, a la cod, with a hand-line not a satisfactory proceeding to the man who has been trained to look upon the hand-line as a device of the pot-angler, which is hardly true. The strongest argument against hand, or cast-line methods is that by them the fisherman can take too many fish.

Found with the hogfish in the new American possession of Porto Rico is a fish known as robalo (Centropomus), which attains a length of three feet and bears some resemblance to a wall-eyed pike with the lower jaw of a barracuda. It is a gamy hard-fighting fish, and local sportsmen go to the Rio Plata for the purpose of taking it. On the Texan coast, on sandy bottom, is found another species, C. undesimalis (Bloch), which attains a length of four feet and a weight of twenty or thirty pounds. I fished in vain for it in the vicinity of Aransas Pass. Singularly enough, this fish is rarely found on the outer Florida reef, at least, I saw but one individual ; but there were numbers of fishes there which undoubtedly were present all the time, for some reason seen but once or twice, even when fishing or drifting over the reef was a part of almost every day's experience. It is not safe to exclude a fish from a locality because it is not caught. Many of the game fishes described in contemporary works are underestimated as to size, for the reason that descriptions are often made from market specimens, or from specimens in alcohol, in either instance large specimens not being desirable. There are numbers of fishes on the outer reef from four to ten pounds in weight which, if taken with light rods, afford fine sport. In this class I would include some of the grunts, all the small snappers, the parrot-fishes, the large angel-fishes, and large (sea) gars. I have had the latter on a fly-rod leap into the air and play with all the fervor of a trout; yet there is a prejudice among anglers against many of these fishes.

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