Marine monsters offer spooky 'Fish O’Ween'

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Tight Lines

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Many times, it is misinformation, or lack of information, that scares people about certain fish.

There are still people who believe that the whiskers of catfish are electric and can shock people. Of course, that is absolutely not true. The real danger is that the dorsal fin of a catfish can impale you and can cause serious injury, and I have a scar to prove it.

Thanks to Peter Benchley’s book and movie, “Jaws,” we have an innate fear of the great white shark, which is probably not the most aggressive of species. There’s more history about the bull shark biting and hurting more people than all white shark attacks combined. When you hear about the shark bite, it is usually a shark simply looking for food. The most likely bite times are just after sunrise and just before sunset, so it makes sense not to swim early in the day or late in the afternoon.

Few fish attack humans. Fish can certainly take on strange and weird attributes, especially for those who do not fish. Let’s explore.

Ask any angler for a weird fish story, and they certainly do have some. We saw Elwood Harris, a lifelong fisherman, and he told of a strange fish he encountered in the Chowan River. He first thought it was dead and decaying, then it began swimming in the crystal-clear water. It was an odd, yellowy white color, but the fish was definitely a trout. Fascinated, he watched and realized it was not a ghost of a trout, but an albino trout. Pretty cool.

When wifey was a Junior Girl Scout on outings at Camp Hardee on the Pamlico River, 50-ish years ago, she recalls being fascinated by things along the shoreline that made some of the other Scouts quite squeamish. Apparently, there had been a fish kill leaving dozens of fish dead upon the shore.

Several things were awry. First, there were many fish with unusual sores on their sides, nasty open festering wounds. Others had lampreys attached, which made you think that the sores had come from a lamprey bite. It would be easy to make that assumption.

Yet more than 20 years later, N.C. State University biologists discovered that type of injury actually was due to microscopic organisms, which became known as Pfiesteria Piscicida. These toxic heterotropic dinoflagellates are responsible for the many harmful algae blooms in fish kills from coastal North Carolina waters, reaching up to tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay into Delaware.

Without a microscope, you really cannot see the monstrous tiny pathogen. Piscicida means “fish-killer.” It is still not known if that microscopic alga poses dangers to humans. Erring on the side of safety, even the Boy Scouts at Camp Bonner were not allowed to swim or be in the waters of the Pamlico River due to what was then called “Pfiesteria hysteria” during the 1990s. Who knew that it was the same cluster of organisms killing fish nearly three decades prior along those same Pamlico River shores.

Back to those fish with one or more leeches or lampreys attached. Indeed, it was a fascinatingly gruesome sight.

Don’t forget those lampreys, that their round mouth is quite a fright, with those rings of teeth latching onto its prey, sucking on blood and body fluids.

You know wifey would have carefully snapped dozens of pictures, so where are the photos?

Back in those days, you were more careful about taking pictures, as you had to not only buy the camera, but also rolls of film, then pay for processing. If you only had 12 exposures, you had to be very thoughtful about expenses before snapping the next frame.

Also dead on the shore was the long nose Gar, with its long sword-like mouth. If these were in the dark murky waters of the Pamlico, the very thought of sharing swimming space with them was intimidating. The hard, gray scales were more like an armor of tin, called ganoid scales, rather than typical fish scales — yet there were lesions or sores, which became known as pfiesteria decades later.

To most people, a gar isn’t pretty. Our Tar River gar are quite large but not nearly as large as the alligator gar that are found in Texas and along the Gulf Coast. Both are descended from prehistoric fish and are referred to as a living fossil. Gar retain many characteristics of their prehistoric ancestors’ appearance, with jaws like an alligator and scales that are reminiscent of dinosaurs. The gar date back to the early Cretaceous period, over 100 million years ago. So, the alligator gar, which grow up to 10-feet long and may weigh over 300 pounds, is a true prehistoric predator.

Another scary sight is a beach strewn with dead jellyfish. Any of the sand that contains bits of tentacles from the jellyfish can sting and hurt you with the toxic venom, even after the tentacles may have disappeared.

Have you ever seen jellyfish on the salad bar? Yes, it’s supposed to be healthy protein, but I do draw a line around eating jellyfish. Seriously, it was on the salad bar at Pitty-Pat's Porch in Atlanta.

As children, we recalled reading in “Weekly Reader” about the dangers of the Portuguese man-of-war. It’s not really a jellyfish, but a complex creature of several parts that create a monstrous whole, whose tentacles may reach up to 100-feet or more. The Portuguese man-of-war is locked and loaded with a powerful venom that causes severe muscle pain, could make you vomit or even kill you.

So with those facts in hand, a beach where the water line is packed with numbers of large Portuguese man-of war can be very intimidating.

Why is it called a Portuguese man-of-war? They were named after the war ships from Portugal, which were very swift and deadly centuries ago.

Why are sea creatures named odd things? Why did people name sea creatures after things from land rather than giving them their own original title? The simple answer must be familiarity.

A prime example of that is the tiger fish, found throughout Africa. We know the tiger is a mammal, and we do not associate it with water. But in the rivers of Africa are this lean, muscular fish that has huge teeth that are capable of taking a chunk out of a man, out of any beast — even out of a crocodile.

It looks harmless, much like a striped bass but with amazingly sharp teeth and jaws. Therefore, the tiger fish must be as deadly a predator in the sea as the tiger is among mammals on land.

Another strange fish is the cookie cutter or cigar shark, which isn’t as big as we expect sharks to be, maybe just 18-inches to thee feet in length. They populate warm tropical waters and pack a powerful punch, which can take a two-inch circle of flesh, as if cut out with cookie cutter.

Most everyone has heard of the famed Loch Ness monster and have varying ideas of what it may look like. Research has been done over the years seeking what may be the source of the legend. Marine biologists believe that it is a Wels catfish, which may grow to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 800 pounds, thus giving it a monster status in the freshwater lake. The Wels catfish populates most of the rivers of Europe and is widely known for attacking fish, snatching birds out of the air and even attacking people.

The bottom line is there are darn few fish out to get you — probably a good ending for you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of your surroundings at all times.

Fishing Success? Good for you! Give us all the nice details at carolinaangler@gmail.com. Large file full-size, high-resolution fishy pix make us tap dance. Stay hydrated and be careful out there. Autumnal weather on the water can be tricky and unforgiving.

See you on the water, my friend.