OUTDOORS: Can you tell one fish from another?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 18, 2002


Can you tell a white crappie from a black crappie? Since both have stripes how about a striped bass from a hybrid striped bass? And surely you know the difference between alligator garfish and spotted garfish even though they both have spots. Cases of mistaken fish identity can get you into trouble with the fish police. And by the way I’ll have the answers later.

In the last few years the size and daily bag limits on a number of previously unregulated freshwater species have practically required a biologist and an attorney on every boat.

Many times anglers fish too infrequently to get to know every species or catch one of those rare “UFOs” (Unidentified Fish On board). So how do you know whether to live release or ice it down?

Now there is a comprehensive new reference book designed with the freshwater angler in mind – Sport Fish of Fresh Water by Vic Dunaway. Dunaway is the founding editor of Florida Sportsman Magazine and has written numerous books, stories for national magazines and hosts a TV fishing show. He has previously written the popular Sport Fish of the Gulf of Mexico, the saltwater counterpart to this latest work. This book should be a standard item for freshwater fishermen to have as a reference. The book covers hundreds of common local and national species. It even has chapters dedicated to minnows and other baitfish.

Each fish has a page dedicated to describing its general appearance, listing average size and world records. Specific points of identification are included for species that are easily confused. All fish are also rated for food value and game qualities.

Dunaway makes recommendations for the best tackle and baits as well as fishing techniques for every species. Explanations of the range locations and what habitats where each will typically be found are outlined. Each is identified by its common name, scientific name and other local names and nicknames. The most valuable tool, however, is the full side-length color photo of each species. These well-defined illustrations will serve in most cases to provide proof-positive identification. Where other publications fail in poor quality photos of fish that were taken as black and whites or of dead fish with faded colors, Sport Fish of Freshwater has 231 accurate illustrations. It’s the kind of reference guide that you can pull out and get quick information without having to do timely, major research. This book is as important as any piece of gear in that it will very quickly allow conservation-minded anglers to make “keep or release” decisions with minimal damage to the fish’s chances for survival. It could even prevent fishermen from getting fined for unintended possession of misidentified species that may be protected by size limitations or moratoriums.

There is a comprehensive introduction that outlines the history of freshwater fishing and fisheries management. Although the book covers a vast area, it’s right on the money in providing specific details of what species will be encountered in local areas. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into providing a true “field guide” for the travelling angler. This book is a must for those wanting to parlay family vacations with a little fishing in unfamiliar territory.

Now, here are the answers to the above questions. While there are a number of differences in the white and black crappie (which by the way are known collectively around these parts as “sacalait”) there is one test that leaves no room for error – the number of spines in the dorsal fin. Whites have six while blacks will have seven or eight. Hybrid striped bass, like striped bass, also have horizontal stripes. The difference is the hybrid’s stripes are broken and irregular.

Alligator garfish have two rows of teeth and all other members of the gar family have only one.

DON DUBUC is the outdoors reporter for L’Observateur.