OUTDOORS: A fish by any other name

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 19, 2002


It was bound to happen – reports of the dreaded Chinese snakehead in Louisiana waters.

But so far the culprit has turned out only to be a local impostor. Ironically this primitive freshwater fish may have been here longer than any other species. But it does closely resemble the celebrated snakeheads both in looks and habits.

I’m talking about the fish that’s owns last place in Pisces beauty contests. The fish that makes Linda Tripp look like Demi Moore. The fish that would make the elephant man turn away in disgust.

I’m talking about freshwater fishing’s answer to the hardhead catfish – Mr. Ugly himself, the choupique. While not quite as unpopular as the snakehead, catching this guy doesn’t excite many local fishermen. It’s more like, “Oh blank, another blankety-blanking choupique,” followed shortly by “Get the billy club, the knife, the gun,” or all three.

The choupique may be short on looks but definitely not on aliases. Depending on where he’s found which is just about anywhere there’s water, he’s known as bowfin, cypress trout, grinnel, dogfish, mudfish, mud pike, blackfish, grindle and jackfish.

Maybe they ought to call it the “Tysonfish.” Every one I’ve caught put up a fight to the death and believe me, if it gets close to your ear, well, you know the rest of the story.

But before we ridicule, insult and disparage it any longer, let’s get the name and identity of this fish straight. In south Louisiana it’s most frequently called Choupique, pronounced “shoe-pick.” In the northern part of the state it’s most commonly referred to by it’s official name, the one also recognized by the Louisiana Outdoor Writer’s Association’s fish records, the bowfin.

Seems like Missisippians call it grinnel. And I believe the cypress trout is kind of a New Orleans thing. That’s where largemouth bass are known as green trout. Seems like everything is a trout with an adjective thrown in front.

But I like to call ’em Mr. Ugly. It just seems to fit. I mean look at this fish, big ol’ lips like Mick Jagger, eyeballs on top of its flattened head, enough slime to qualify for a part in Ghostbusters and teeth like Donny Osmond.

Any similarity with the red fish ends with that black spot just in front of the tail found only on males.

They remind me of the funny-looking kid down the block who had to get tough or get beat up everyday. Maybe that’s why choupique fight so hard. In fact another name might be the “let-down fish.” Choupique hit hard and often. First you think you’ve tied into the lunker bass of a lifetime. Then it feels like you’ve snagged a log on the bottom. When the log starts to move away, then you pretty much know what’s on the other end. It’ll run, take drag, try to wrap you around stick-ups and dive under the boat. If it weren’t for being so ugly and nasty they would rank right up there with any gamefish for its fighting ability.

Even though it can put a bend in your hook, choupique rarely shake loose. And always seem to get even by making you deal with getting your fingers dangerously close to those big, gaping jaws lined with razor-sharp teeth. Probably the nickname “dogfish” comes from its pitbull-style bite.

Choupique have been around a long time. They are equipped to survive. They can survive in shallows and swamps during droughts because of a unique breathing ability. If oxygen levels drop too low to absorb through the gills they can gulp air from the surface. This is accomplished by an air bladder connected directly to the throat.

It can also withstand very high water temperatures. You’ll find choupique in any waters that sustain any other species and some places that won’t. Or let me put it this way – they will find you.

Choupique will hit anything dead or alive. I’ve caught them bassfishing with spinnerbaits and plastic worms. I’ve caught them on crickets under a cork fishing for bream.

I’ve caught them on other live baits like baby crawfish and grass shrimp while fishing lakerunners or chinquapins. I’ve caught them on shiners and tiny tube jigs meant for sacalait. They’ve been on my trotline catfish hooks and I’ve caught them more than once in crawfish nets trying to steal beef melts. One even crawled out of a ditch trying to get my wife’s Chihuahua (ok, so that one’s not true).

I’ve never caught what you might call a trophy choupique. My personal best (or would it be worst) is about six pounds. I say about, because I don’t want to desecrate my ice chest and drag the slimy things to a scale. But they do get much bigger. According to the LOWA state fish records there have been 10 documented catches exceeding 14-lbs, 4ozs. The biggest to date at least in Louisiana is a 20-pound, 8-ounce monster hauled in by Brian Fant back in 1976.

Fant’s giant wasn’t too far off from the all-tackle world record 21-pound, 8-ounce caught in Florence, S.C. by Robert Harmon in January 1980.

As mentioned earlier, choupique fillets are not exactly a delicacy and if its teeth and slime don’t make it the most popular candidate for catch and release, then it’s attitude does. My only experience with eating choupique was at the rather extreme persistence of a fellow outdoor writer.

Coming from a true south Louisianian who has tried everything from armadillo to crows, I draw the line at possums and choupique. The best way to describe it was warm, wet cotton with barbecue sauce. The more you chewed, the more there was. There is a market however for the roe, sold as “Choupique Royale.”

Let’s hope the snakeheads don’t make it this far south, one Mr. Ugly is enough.

DON DUBUC is the outdoors reporter for L’Observateur.