September 1, 2003
Lighthouse Atoll, Belize
17° 12.505 North
087° 35.875 West

Thinking Like a Fish

By Douglas Bernon

- There are three ways to put fish on your dinner plate. You can buy them. You can hook them, or you can grab your spear gun and head to the reef, that fluid margin between land and sea. There, in an alien universe, you suck in your breath, dive down, and try to out-think creatures that move infinitely more easily than you do in an environment they know like the back of their fins. If you plan to return from the universe of fish to your own aerie triumphant, your only hope is to be more clever than they are, and that’s not always simple.

Painting on silk by Annika Oury, cruising with her husband Guy on their 34-foot sailboat Street Legal, currently on the west coast of Panama

While mankind devotes itself to inventing sneakers that light up as you walk, many fish have perfected the ability to change color in the face of danger. When you consider those human-versus-fish priorities, spear-fishing becomes a legitimate challenge for man. In fact, for sheer all-round guy-style fun, I’d rather spend an afternoon hounding fish than do just about anything else.

The other day, here at Lighthouse Atoll, I went hunting with Bernadette. On the way out to the reef in our dink, I launched into my pet theories about particular fish, the way they think, and the differences between them and us. My personal commodore listened politely. Her look said it all: she thought I had gone off the deep end. It’s presumptuous to claim I understand fish-reasoning. I can’t administer Rorschach tests, quiz them regarding traumas as guppies, or elicit musings about their fish-eat-fish world. Plus, different species behave in opposite ways, and individuals within species can be as idiosyncratic as dogs, some of whom, we all know, are more nimble-minded than others.

Sacagawea (Bernadette) snorkels off, serving as an advance scout for the hunting party
To get inside the head of fish, you’ve got to hang with them long enough to see how they go about their daily business. Only after that can you answer two basic sets of questions. First, what are their fatal vanities? What myths do they embrace about themselves? With fish as with mankind, once you grasp the hubris, you know the vulnerabilities. Second, as you leisurely study a family of fish, ask yourself, “Does this crowd worry more about eating lunch or becoming lunch?”

Armed with this data, secondary questions will answer themselves: Do they dart or dither? What, if anything, frightens them? Are they social or solo? What do they eat and when do they eat it? Do they seem more playful or business-like? More sneaky or curious? Bold or timid? Seductive, aggressive or both?

And finally, what’s the best way to go about shooting one?

This Nassau grouper, with grand, sweet lips, is one of the fish who, although blending well into dark coral backgrounds, didnt blend in quite well enough today.

Freud always maintained that “biology is destiny,” and if he’d done any scuba diving he would have applied that to fish as well. How they’re shaped and sized, how they’re colored, how thick their skin is, how they like to nosh, and where they fit on the food chain, all influence how they think. For examples, I’m considering two groups of fish that Bernadette and I like for dinner: triggerfish and hogfish.

The triggerfish (family: balistidae) has a sweet, firm flesh that’s perfect for ceviche because it doesn’t mush out when marinated. Triggers impress me as the prototypical “dumb blonds,” dull-witted beauties whose narcissism proves fatal when they over-estimate both their looks and toughness. Although fleet of foot, often when a trigger fish sees you, instead of swimming away to safety, it sashays up before your very eyes, as if taunting — á la Mae West —“Go ahead, big boy. Take a good look. I’m so gorgeous you won’t dare. And I’m tough enough to take anything you can dish out.”

Triggerfishunderwater seductresses
In fact, triggerfish are breathtakingly beautiful, especially the queen triggers (balistes vetula) who have blue and purple lines radiating from their eyes and running wildly onto their vertical fins. Against a gray background, they sometimes have thin, neon-bright, yellow and orange lines. With a primary dorsal fin raised prominently as a spike, and a compact body with eyes set high and close together, looking at triggers straight on can be other-worldly. They know they’re pretty and flaunt it, sometimes dancing before you and turning to the side, offering a billboard to aim at. This dare-devil game is their version of playing chicken on the highway. Their cousins, the ocean triggers (canthidermis sufflamen), who are less pretty, have not an iota more sense, and behave the same way.

The trigger’s ill-founded self-assuredness is further inflated because it believes that its rhino-like skin — thick, hard-to-penetrate and difficult-to-remove — protects it fully. (This would be like you and me thinking only Kryptonite can get us.) To pierce their leather does require a powerful, accurate shot with a sharp spear point. And some hunters are probably deterred, figuring the laborious cleaning task isn’t worth the pay-off, but I disagree. Trigger meat is well worth the extra effort.

Triggerfish often fail to keep a weather eye for danger.

The easiest way to clean a trigger is to take your best-honed filet knife and slit a wide incision under the skin near the tail, exposing enough of a skin-flap to peel it forward and wrap it around a long, wooden spoon handle. Then, like twisting back the lid of a sardine can, you can roll the skin toward the head, uncovering delicious meat that can be cut away easily. One good-sized ocean trigger will provide a dinner plate full of filets.

The gentle hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus), is the marine version of corn-fed cattle. Hogs hover over the top of reef beds or in sandy, rubble areas near a reef, spending much of their day eating tiny shellfish, mollusks, crabs, sea urchins and chewing on coral, which they grind into little bits, swallowing the sweetness, and spitting out the rocky residue. Rooting away like happy little porkers, they ignore life as it passes by, choosing instead to keep eating. I can relate.

Generally less than six or seven pounds, hogfish can grow to 20 inches or more. You’d think if an individual lived enough years to get that large, it might know better, but they don’t seem to learn much about self-preservation. The older, bigger ones are equally glib in the face of peril. Even when they see you and your spear gun, they just can’t seem to stop feeding.

“Love me tender, love me true. Never let me go…” -- Elvis Presley
The first three dorsal spines on a hogfish are a caricature of Elvis’s swept-back doo. A mature hogfish often has a block spot near the end of its dorsal fin, as if it’s a period concluding an emphatic sentence. As they get older, they lose their spot and develop a long sloping, ski-nose, morphing from Elvis to Bob Hope. In a bright light, the older ones shimmer silver and blend in quietly to their surroundings, especially against a white sand bottom.

For all life forms (including you and me), it’s potentially dangerous to imagine oneself as unseen. For the adult hogfish, this error in self-perception often proves fatal. As for the juvenile, they’re like teenagers everywhere—tending toward the flamboyant and imagining themselves immortal. Dressed in gaudy, orange, mottled splashes they might as well be wearing neon spandex to a New York Yacht Club dinner dance.

The hogfish’s appetite is its great pleasure in life, but combined with its naiveté about the potential treachery of invaders, it’s also his downfall. Insufficiently leery, and with few natural predators, hogfish just don’t get that it’s a jungle out there. They can’t wrap their adorable little heads around the possibility that some creature as oddly shaped and ill-suited for the marine environment as man — who from a reef’s eye perspective must look like the Bullwinkle float in the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving parade — is there for something other than a walk in the park. Failing to flee or hide in the face of danger, especially if they’re eating, hogfish become sitting ducks. Like mafia dons who end up riddled with bullets while supping on manicotti and mussels at their favorite eatery, the hogfish falsely assumes that no-one would have the gall to kill them during dinner.

Along with our friends on Gabrielle, Zia Lucia and Dutchess, we bring all our catch into the Lighthouse beach to clean and filet them, and avoid making an on-boat mess. Clockwise from upper left are a hogfish, red-hind grouper, dog snapper and ocean trigger.

Lest one fasten to the conclusion that mankind is clever and fish not very, it’s worth considering a less self-flattering hypothesis. Perhaps we should think of the reef itself as a supernatural force that brings man and fish together, knowing full well that sometimes it will sacrifice a few good soles so that two species can see a bigger world. I floated this theory by Bernadette, as we headed back over the reef to Ithaka with dinner in the dink: a hog fish and a trigger that I’d just speared. Bernadette listened kindly and shook her head in wonder. “Tomorrow,” she asked. “Could you think a little more like a lobster?”

This past year, on a street in Cartagena, Colombia, we found this massive two-part mural. Everywhere throughout Central and South America people talk the universal language of fishing.

Marine-Life Identification Books

Paul Humann (a great name for a fish guy) has put together a brilliant three-volume set of books that contain large, gorgeous color photos, terrific identification data, and comprehensible and thorough scientific background for us laymen. Even the physical composition of the books is practical: they have plastic covers and tough paper that stands up to a boat’s demanding environment. Titles: 1) Reef Coral Identification Florida, Caribbean and Bahamas; 2) Reef Creatures Identification Florida, Caribbean and Bahamas; 3) Reef Fish Identification Florida, Caribbean and Bahamas.

A first-rate, one-volume guide on fishes is Coral Reef Fishes: Caribbean, Indian and Pacific Ocean Including the Red Sea by Ewald Lieske and Robert Myers. (You can order from Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. The ISBN number 0-691-00481-1).

The Bible for Cruising and Fishing

With Scott and Wendy Bannerot’s The Cruiser’s Guide to Fishing on board, you have everything you need except wasabi powder for your sashimi. These two know more about fishing while cruising than anybody else on earth. In clear, witty and sometimes exciting prose, they tell you what you need and don’t need, how to be successful in different situations, which fish and invertebrates are edible, how to modify your boat for fishing and how to clean the critters once you land them.

The Bannerots have been cruising and fishing since the seventies, and they bring to this volume practical advice, a wry sense of humor and a rollicking enthusiasm. Fish-o-logically speaking, they are my idols. You can order this book from The McGraw-Hill Companies, Customer Service Department, PO Box 547, Blacklick, Ohio, 43004. 800-262-4729. (ISBN 0-07-134560-4)