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A Fish by Any Other Name
By Joe Malat

May 2012

Is this a sea mullet, a kingfish, a roundhead or a whiting? The answer is "yes." It all depends on where you catch one. Photo by Joe Malat

A few weeks ago one of our readers asked if I could write something about the variety of names a species of fish may have in different regions of the coast. Oddly enough, I wrote a column about that very topic for the Chesapeake Angler several years ago. If any of you were reading this magazine in 2007, the following might seem a bit familiar.

In the pre-dawn darkness, several anglers shuffled on to the Nags Head fishing pier.

Four of them, one Outer Banks local and three visitors, settled within earshot of each other, and began rigging up tackle. "How was fishing yesterday?" one of them said to the group.

"Not bad," responded an angler from Delaware. "I had some nice kingfish," he replied. The others were perplexed, not sure of the species.

"That's pretty good, but me and my brother caught enough whiting to cook up a mess for dinner," responded another. "At home in Georgia we don't usually catch 'em that big," he offered. The other fishermen weren't sure what fish he was talking about, but no one offered a challenge.

"I didn't catch many fish, but I had a roundhead that must have weighed two pounds," the visitor from Virginia said proudly. Again, no response from the group.

While the others were rigging, the local baited his hooks with bloodworms and made a cast into the breaking surf. His rod bent over immediately.

"There he is!" he hollered, setting the hook and soon swung his prize over the pier rails. As the silvery fish flopped on the deck, the other three fishermen, almost in unison said, "That's what I caught yesterday!"

The North Carolina angler walked over to pick up his fish and said, "Boys, that's what we call a sea mullet!"

All were correct. Each had their own name for the same species of fish. These long, slender bottom feeders have many aliases. So do many other fish. Most are regional names, but they can be confusing to a rookie angler, or someone who might be new to an area.

False albacore are often called albies, Alberts, or Fat Alberts. There's a distinct difference between false albacore and "true" albacore. Both are tunas and both are excellent sport fish, but the correct name for the albies we catch along the Outer Banks is little tunny and they are found primarily in nearshore waters. The dark red and strong tasting meat is less than desirable. True albacore are highly prized and are the albacore tuna that we see canned in the grocery store.

On many seafood restaurant menus dolphin are frequently referred to by their Hawaiian name, "mahi-mahi", probably to reassure diners that they are not enjoying one of Flipper's cousins baked, broiled, fried or blackened.

Anglers also have different names for them. "Gaffers" are so big a gaff is needed to bring them in the boat. Small dolphin are called "bailers" because they can easily be pulled out of the water and over the side of the boat. When you hear a charter boat mate say "we bailed dolphin" that means his party caught one after another of the smaller size fish, which is not uncommon when a school of them is located.

North Carolina's official salt water state fish is the red drum, but Virginians call them channel bass. Anglers from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina call them redfish, but they are also known as spottail bass. In North Carolina we call the little ones puppy drum, medium-sized reds are referred to as yearlings. Some anglers call the big fish, over forty pounds, old drum. Whatever the name, they are a wonderful and exciting fish to catch!

What about the flatfish we see in the waters of the Outer Banks? Any one that you catch could be a summer flounder, a southern flounder, or rarely a Gulf flounder. Most of the flatties we catch along the Outer Banks are summer flounder, called a fluke by our northern fishing buddies. The really big ones are called "doormats", an appropriate description if I ever did hear one.

I haven't had much first hand experience with doormats, and if I ever catch a doormat it will be a fluke in more ways than one.




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