Beautiful Fish: Sargassum Fish


Sargassum Fish, Mousefish

Color— Creamy white, the fins as well as the head and body mottled with pale and dark brown. The fleshy tags are yellowish.

General range— Tropical and subtropical, living at the surface among floating seaweed; sometimes drifting far northward with the Gulf Stream.

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine— A specimen about 4¾ inches (12 cm.) long, that was picked up in a purse seine near the surface over the west central part of Georges Bank, by the Schooner OLD GLORY on September 15, 1930, and a second of 2¼ inches, taken off the southeast slope of Georges Bank, by the sword fisherman LEONORA C, on June 15, 1937, are the only records of this fish in the Gulf of Maine; the most northerly records, in fact, for it for continental waters in this side of the Atlantic. But it has been picked up from time to time near Woods Hole. Living, as they usually do, among floating gulf weed (Sargassum), it is not astonishing that sargassum fish should drift in over the offshore banks, occasionally.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

                  Photo – Hauling the seine, Schooner Old Glory

It was the Gloucester Schooner Old Glory that seined up the first reported tiny sargassum fish specimen. (Howard Liberman photo, 1942, aboard Old Glory, courtesy of the Library of Congress Online Catalog)

Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: Pilotfish (2) -By Al Bezanson


 Sailing to San Juan with pilotfish 

Continued from May 15th GMG post: Follow the red from March 28th to April 10th

From the log of SERENDIPITY, April 10, 1961

El Morro is abeam and we are having a better day than Sir Francis Drake who was driven away from the fortress in 1595 with a cannon shot through his cabin. For us it has been 13-1/2 days from Nassau, sailing 819 NM at an average of 2-1/2 kt. Only after we reach the murky harbor water do we lose sight of the three pilot fish that have been our companions for 13 days. Three buckets hold components of our engine, which sputtered its last in Nassau Harbor.

Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish – By Al Bezanson

Pilotfish, Rudderfish, Shark Pilot

This is the fish that so commonly attends sharks in tropic seas, either picking up a living from the scraps left by the latter, or feeding on the parasites with which their protectors are infested. They often follow sailing vessels, also.  The only records of this species from within the Gulf include one taken in a mackerel net in Provincetown Harbor in October 1858, the fish probably having followed a whale ship that arrived a few days previous.  From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI            SERENDIPITY, SOPERS HOLE, TORTOLA, 5/8/1961

I sailed in this 26 foot converted USCG Monomoy Surf Boat for more than 700 miles with three pilotfish.  A double-ender with a tiller and very little freeboard, so we had a clear view of the rudder where our companions kept pace. On a 13½ day passage from Nassau to San Juan we were joined early on by thirteen pilotfish, but within a day ten were lost in an attack by dolphins.  The three survivors stayed with us for twelve days until we lost sight of them in the murky water of San Juan as we sailed in by El Morro.

It was 1961, we had no engine, and for a couple days of light wind the Antilles Current carried us backwards.  We named the fish after comic strip heroes like Smilin’ Jack and at times shooed away tropic birds as they hovered eyeing our fish.  Much of the passage was in the Sargasso Sea and the fish would leave us at times to graze in patches of Sargasso weed, causing us great worry for their safety.  We were prepared to turn back if they did not rejoin us.



Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: Basking Shark


This is a sluggish, inoffensive fish, helpless of attack so far as its minute teeth are concerned. It spends much time sunning itself at the surface of the water, often lying with its back awash and dorsal fin high out of water, or on its side, or even on its back sunning its belly; sometimes it loafs along with the snout out of water, the mouth open, gathering its provender of plankton.

The basking shark rivals, though it does not equal, the whale shark of tropical seas in size.  We read, for example, of one of 35 to 38 feet harpooned by Capt. N. E. Atwood off Provincetown, Mass., about 1863, that towed the fishing smack all night, and broke loose finally.  From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

The basking shark is the second largest fish, with reported specimens larger than the 33 foot schooner GREEN DRAGON.


Beautiful Fish: Snipe Eel

The Snipe Eel has been taken in deep water at many stations off the east coast of North America between latitudes 31° and 42°N., longitudes 65° and 75°W.  Capture near Bermuda of a snipe eel clinging by its jaws to the tail of a large red snapper has suggested that such may be a regular habit of this curious species.  Maximum length about 3 feet.

One specimen taken from the stomach of a codfish caught on Georges Bank in 45 fathoms is the only Gulf of Maine record, but several have been taken in depths of from 300 to 2,000 fathoms on the seaward slope of the bank.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Al Bezanson


Beautiful Fish: Slime Eel -By Al Bezanson

 Slime Eel, Snub Nosed Eel 

The most distinctive characters of the slime eel, its eel-like form, snub nose, long dorsal fin, and soft and slimy body.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

This true slime eel is not the same as hagfish (described in yesterday’s post).  Hagfish have since earned the nameslime eel.  “Being worthless itself, the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathsome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size. One hag, it is said, can easily fill a 2-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”  (1953)  Hagfish, thanks to a market in Korea, are no longer worthless.


The Eel

I don’t mind eels

Except as meals.

And the way they feels.

Ogden Nash (1902-1971)  [photo from US postage stamp]


Beautful Fish: Hagfish


The hag, like the lamprey, lacks paired fins and fin rays. Its skeleton is wholly cartilaginous, without bones, its mouth is jawless; and its skin is scaleless. It is easily recognized by its eel-like form; by its single finfold (a fold of skin, not a true fin) running right around the tail and forward on the lower surface of the body with no division into dorsal, caudal, and anal fins; by the single gill pore on each side, just forward of the origin of the ventral finfold; by its lipless mouth, star-shaped in outline when closed; by the single nasal aperture at the tip of the snout; by its peculiar barbels or “tentacles,” two flanking the mouth on either side and four surrounding the nostril; and by the evertible tongue studded with rows of horny rasplike “teeth.”  Being blind, it doubtless finds its food by its greatly specialized olfactory apparatus. It feeds chiefly on fish, dead or disabled, though no doubt any other carrion would serve it equally well.

It is best known for its troublesome habit of boring into the body cavities of hooked or gilled fishes, eating out the intestines first and then the meat, and leaving nothing but a bag of skin and bones, inside of which the hag itself is often hauled aboard, or clinging to the sides of a fish it has just attacked. It is only too common in the Gulf  of Maine; perhaps it is not absent there from any considerable area of smooth bottom.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Al Bezanson


Beautiful Fish: Boarfish -By Al Bezanson

Its very thin body is deeper than it is long .

Color, in life, pink and pinkish white.  Maximum reported length about 1 foot.

General range— Tropical and subtropical Atlantic, mostly offshore.

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine— We mention this fish because we have seen 8 specimens and heard of 6 others that were trawled in 55-80 fathoms, south of Nantucket Lightship in May 1950.  Other records of it near the American coast are one trawled by the Albatross III at 50 fathoms and a second at 22 fathoms off North Carolina, in January 1950. It has also been taken near Madeira, off the Barbados, and in Cuban waters.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: Wreck Fish

Wreck Fish, Wreck Bass

Reaches a length of 4½ to 5 feet at least, and a weight of more than 100 pounds. Small wreck fish are most likely to be found under floating logs or wreckage, as the common name implies. When larger, they take to bottom.

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine—  The only report that has reached us of a wreck fish in any part of the Gulf of Maine is of one 24½ inches long, weighing 9 pounds 7 ounces (dressed), taken on the northern edge of Georges Bank, August 13, 1951, by the trawler Winthrop.  Another, 6 inches long, was caught on the surface off No Man’s Land Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, August 21, 1925; and two have been brought in from the Grand Banks, one of them many years ago, the second in 1929.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: Sturgeon


Large quantities were shipped to Europe from near Ipswich, Mass., in 1635.

The sturgeon makes most of its growth in salt water but enters fresh-water rivers to spawn, as do the salmon, the shad, and the alewife.  Nine weighing between 350 pounds and 600 pounds were landed in Portland, Maine, from the South Channel, Georges Bank, Browns Bank, and Western Bank off Nova Scotia during the period 1927-1935.  About 12 feet is perhaps the greatest length to be expected today. But 18 feet, reported for New England many years ago, may not have been an exaggeration, for sturgeon as long as that have been reported from Europe also.

The sturgeon is a bottom feeder, rooting in the sand or mud with its snout like a pig (the barbels serving as organs of touch) as it noses up the worms and mollusks on which it feeds and which it sucks into its toothless mouth with considerable amounts of mud.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Sturgeon have the curious habit of leaping out of the water.  This may explain why:

Al Bezanson


Beautiful Fish: Anchovy

 Anchovy, Whitebait

This is a whitish silvery, translucent little fish, its most characteristic marking being an ill-defined silvery band scarcely wider than the pupil of the eye, running from the gill opening back to the caudal fin. There are also many dark dots on body and fins.  Seldom more than 3½  inches long.

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine –We mention the anchovy because it has been taken in Casco Bay and at Provincetown. It has no real place in the Gulf of Maine fauna, seldom straying past Cape Cod, though it is abundant about Woods Hole and thence westward and southward. Stragglers may be expected most often in the Gulf in midsummer for it appears from May to October in southern New England waters. Sandy beaches and the mouths of rivers are its chief resorts.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI


Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: Pipe Fish

Usually 4 to 8 inches long; occasionally up to 12 inches.  The chief home of this pipefish is among eelgrass or seaweeds, both in salt marshes, harbors, and river mouths, where it often goes up into brackish water, and on more open shores as well. In such locations it is caught as often today by boys dipping up mummichogs for bait as it was when Storer wrote of it, nearly a century ago.  Male pipefishes nurse the eggs in the brood pouch.  The embryos within the eggs are nourished by the epithelial lining layer of the pouch, so that the latter functions as a placenta.  The young are retained in the brood pouch until they are 8 or 9 mm. long, when the yolk sac has been absorbed.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI


Beautiful Fish: Sea Bass -By Al Bezanson

Sea Bass, Black Sea Bass, Blackfish

Sea bass grow to a length of 2 feet or more and a few reach a weight of 7½ pounds; but northern specimens are seldom heavier than 5 pounds, and they average only about 1½  pounds. A fish a foot long weighs about one pound, one of 18 to 20 inches about 3 pounds.

The sea bass contrasts with the striped bass in being strictly confined to salt water. The sea bass enters our Gulf only as a rare stray from the south, Pemaquid Point and Matinicus Island being its nothernmost known outposts.  Too scarce to be of any importance in the Gulf, the sea bass is a very valuable food and game fish in more southern waters.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI


My boat was berthed next to a commercial hook and line black sea bass fisherman in Little Creek (Norfolk), VA for a time.  He would anchor about 50 miles off Chesapeake Light and bring in about 3,000 pounds per trip, which he sold directly to a couple restaurants.  This is one of the sweetest fish I have tasted.  We filleted them, shook them up in a bag of breading from the Piggly Wiggly market, dumped them into a fry pot.  Everyone stood around the pot, no utensils but paper towels and washed them down with Bud Light.

Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: White Perch -By Al Bezanson

White Perch, Sea Perch

The white perch resembles its larger relative, the striped bass, in the number, outline, and arrangement of its fins, and in its deep caudal peduncle without longitudinal keels.  White perch are occasionally as much as 15 inches long, 5 inches or more deep, and 2 pounds or a little more in weight; but the average is 8 to 10 inches long and 1 pound in weight, or less.   The white perch is much more closely restricted in its seaward range than the bass, for while they are taken in undiluted sea water along southern New England, and at various other localities thence westward and southward, they are much more plentiful in ponds connected with the sea, in the brackish water of bays behind barrier beaches, in estuaries, and in river mouths. Run in salt and brackish reaches of the Parker River.  Also occur landlocked in fresh-water ponds in many places.   Swarms of young perch have been seen following the alewives around the shores of ponds on Marthas Vineyard, eating their spawn as it was deposited.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI


Al Bezanson

Beautiful Fish: Striped Bass -By Al Bezanson

Striped Bass, Striper, Rockfish, Rock, Linesides

The bass grows to a great size, the heaviest of which we have found definite record being several of about 125 pounds that were taken at Edenton, N. C., in April 1891.  Stripers are powerful fish; so strong in fact, that they appear to have no difficulty in handling themselves in the surf, where one is sometimes seen actually in the translucent crest of a comber just before the latter breaks.  The bass is very voracious, feeding on smaller fishes of whatever kind may be available, and on a wide variety of invertebrates. Lists of its stomach contents for one locality or another include alewife, anchovy, croakers, channel bass, eels, flounders, herring, menhaden, mummichogs, mullet, rock eels (Pholis gunnellus), launce, sculpins, shad, silver hake, silversides, smelt, tomcod, weakfish, white perch, lobsters, crabs of various kinds, shrimps, isopods, gammarid crustaceans, various worms, squid, soft clams (Myra) and small mussels. In our Gulf the larger bass prey chiefly on herring, smelt, sand launce, eels, and silver hake, on squid (on which they gorge when they have the opportunity), on crabs large and small, on lobsters, and on sea worms.  When bass are gorging on any one particular prey it is common knowledge among fishermen that they are likely to ignore food of other sorts for the time being. It seems also that when prey is plentiful, bass are likely to gorge, then cease feeding to digest, then to gorge again; also that all the members of a given school are likely to do this in unison, with consequent annoyance to the angler.


From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI


Al Bezanson


Beautiful Fish: Bluefish -By Al Bezanson

Bluefish; Snapper (young)
It is perhaps the most ferocious and bloodthirsty fish in the sea, leaving in its wake a trail of dead and mangled mackerel, menhaden, herring, alewives, and other species on which it preys. Goode[89] wrote long ago, the bluefish, “not content with what they eat, which is itself of enormous quantity, rush ravenously through the closely crowded schools, cutting and tearing the living fish as they go, and leaving in their wake the mangled fragments.” It is not only the schooling fish that fall prey to them, but scup, squeteague, hake, butterfish, cunners, and small fish of all kinds, besides squid. Baird, writing in the 1870’s, when bluefish were at the height of their abundance, estimated that they annually destroyed at least twelve hundred million millions of fish during the four summer months off southern New England; and while this calculation surely was wildly exaggerated it will help give the reader a graphic realization of the havoc that they wreak during their periods of plenty.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Beautiful Fish: Menhaden -By Al Bezanson


Menhaden: Pogy, Mossbunker, Fat Back, and 30 other common names.

The menhaden, like the herring, almost invariably travels in schools of hundreds or thousands of individuals, swimming closely side by side and tier above tier. In calm weather they often come to the surface where their identity can be recognized by the ripple they make, for pogies, like herring, make a much more compact disturbance than mackerel do, and “a much bluer and heavier commotion than herring, which hardly make more of a ripple than does a light breeze passing over the water,” as W. F. Clapp has stated to us. Also, pogies as they feed, frequently lift their snouts out of water, which we have never seen herring do, while they break the water with their dorsal fins, also with their tails. And the brassy hue of their sides catches the eye (as we have often seen), if one rows close to a school in calm weather.

No wonder the fat oily menhaden, swimming in schools of closely ranked individuals, helpless to protect itself, is the prey of every predaceous animal. Whales and porpoises devour them in large numbers; sharks are often seen following the pogy schools; pollock, cod, silver hake, and swordfish all take their toll in the Gulf of Maine, as do weakfish south of Cape Cod. Tuna also kill great numbers. But the worst enemy of all is the bluefish, and this is true even in the Gulf of Maine during periods when both bluefish and menhaden are plentiful there. Not only do these pirates devour millions of menhaden every summer, but they kill far more than they eat. Besides the toll taken by these natural enemies, menhaden often strand in myriads in shoal water, either in their attempt to escape their enemies or for other reasons, to perish and pollute the air for weeks with the stench of their decaying carcasses.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI


Currently, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, based on the 2017 Stock Assessment Update, Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.  More here on the commercial harvest for reduction to fishmeal and oil and the commercial and recreational bait fishery.

Al Bezanson


Beautiful Fish: Grenadier -By Al Bezanson


Common Grenadier, Rat-tail, Marlin Spike

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine—

The common grenadier was formerly regarded as a rare stray in the inner parts of the Gulf of Maine for only two had been recorded there aside from the Eastport and Lubec specimens mentioned above, the  one from the western basin in 160 fathoms, the other from off Gloucester, both of them taken many years ago. But they must be rather common on the muddy bottoms of the deeper parts of the Gulf in 85 to 125 fathoms, for we have caught more than 100 of them at various localities on recent trawling trips. No doubt it is because few vessels ever fish on these grounds, which are not productive either of cod or of haddock, that the presence of grenadiers there has been overlooked. A grenadier, too, was reported from the slope of Jeffreys Ledge, in about 50 fathoms, during March 1934.  Usually about a foot long.


Rough-headed Grenadier, Rat-tail, One-eye

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine—

Three quarters of a century ago, when halibut were more plentiful in the Gulf of Maine than they are today, and when vessels, long-lining from Gloucester, still resorted regularly to the deep channel between Georges Bank and Browns Bank as well as to the deep gullies that interrupt the Nova Scotian banks, large grenadiers were often hooked. Fishermen described them as common enough to be a nuisance, for they stole the baits meant for other fish and were of no commercial value themselves. It was on the strength of such reports that Goode[7] characterized them as “exceedingly abundant on all of our offshore banks.”   Maximum  length of 3 feet and a weight of 4 or 5 pounds

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI

Beautiful Fish: Stickfish -By Al Bezanson

The stickfish was first reported in 1954, hence not included in Fishes of the Gulf Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953).  This curious fish is included here because the first specimen showed up in a trawl from a Gloucester dragger [M.A.T.W] The stickfish has neither scales nor armor plates, rather a thickish, rough skin that provides camouflage.  Color – brown to golden brown; mean length 3.5 to 4 inches with little variability.  Largest specimen on record is 6.4 inches.  Stickfish are often observed in schools.   Said to be an acceptable table fish, and like smelts, convenient, with no need for filleting and skinning.  Some have mentioned that the odd, rough skin has a crispy texture and pleasant flavor.

Beautiful Fish: Burrfish -By Al Bezanson


Closely allied with the Puffer.  The members of these two families are capable of inflating their bellies to balloonlike proportions with air or with water, if annoyed, and of deflating at will. And it is a matter of general interest (though not touching   the Gulf of Maine directly) that the flesh of some of the species of puffers, and perhaps of all of the porcupine fishes, is poisonous.

From Fishes of the Gulf of Maine by Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) online courtesy of MBL/WHOI