Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Voices from the Past: Bonefish of Biscayne Bay (1896)

The following article, written by the editor of The American Angler, was first published in this august organ in June, 1896. It is an early writing on the great bonefish.

The Bone-Fish of Biscayne Bay, Florida.

by Wm. C. Harris

An earnest discussion has recently occurred as to the proper classification of the so-called bone or lady fish of Florida waters, particularly the one taken in Biscayne Bay, Fla. This perplexity is caused by the existence and general use of the same common names—lady fish or bony fish—for two widely differentiated fish. I have passed many winters on the East and West coasts of Florida, and have killed at least one thousand of the so-called "bony " or "lady fish," and in 1895, my companion, Mr. J. L. Petrie, the artist, painted one of them in oils from about twenty-five live specimens, and it was not difficult for us to determine that the fish painted was not the true bone-fish, but a full brother to the tarpon, a big-eyed herring Elops saurus, a fish that has many of the physical markings of the silver king and some of its game qualities.

The observant angler will, upon examination of the true bone or lady fish and the one commonly called such, find that the first is much stouter, has larger scales, with fifteen rays in the dorsal and eight in the anal fin. The common bony-fish, E. saurus, has twenty rays in the dorsal and thirteen in the anal fin, a difference in physical structure so prominent that it will alone serve for the identification of either fish.

It is difficult to ascertain from the communications appearing from time to time in the sportsmen's journals on the capture of the lady or bone-fish, which of these two fishes the writers are describing, but in most instances they doubtless refer to the big-eyed herring, as the frantic leaps of the fish are described in glowing terms. The Hon. Matthew M. Quay wiote me in 1882:

"The bony-fish—I took two of them two feet in length each, on the spinner at Juniper and one at Punta Rassa. They resemble the herring, except'they are narrower in proportion to their length. When hooked they are as frantic in their leaps as the tarpon."

Mr. Quay's fish were certainly big-eyed herrings, as his description shows, and the true bone-fish, Albula vulpes, never leaps, but fights fiercely by long surges.

The true bone-fish, A. vulpes, is the only representative of the Albulida family. Its range is stated in the text books to be from Cape Cod southward to the warm seas, but it has occurred to me that the confusion arising from a similarity of common names for the two fishes described may possibly have led to error in the classification of the fish caught in Northern waters. I have examined a specimen of the so-called bony-fish, E. saurus, a big-eyed herring, which was caught on a hook in Princess Bay, New York, but in my personal and editorial intercourse, covering more than a quarter of a century, with New York salt-water fishermen (over ten thousand of them go-a-fishing every week of the season), I have never seen or heard of the true bone-fish, A. vulpes being caught in our local waters or along the adjacent sea coasts. But negative proof is no proof at all, yet it seems to gather substance when we consider that the true bone-fish has never been reported as caught on hook and line in any waters except those of Biscayne Bay, Fla., an unusual condition, when there are thousands of eager, intelligent and observant anglers annually visiting both coasts of Florida, and many more thousands indulging in their favorite sport from the St. John's River, Fla., to Cape Cod. Those who have captured this fish in Biscayne Bay at once classed it as the fiercest fighter, for its size, in southern seas, and it must not be forgotten that the presence of game qualities in a fish is an assurance that its habits, habitat and physical peculiarities will be studied by the angler who catches it, more particularly if the fish happens to be the first of its species captured on his rod.

-- Dr. Todd

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