Let’s face it; there’s nothing glamorous about croakers.
Some of the other members of its family have a lot more pizzazz — a redfish is more powerful than a locomotive; a speckled trout is faster than a speeding bullet.
But a croaker?
Well, it tastes great, everyone admits that, but so do speckled trout and for the less prejudiced, redfish.
Atlantic croakers, their accepted common name, carry a lot of other names as well. On parts of the U.S. Atlantic coast, they call them hardheads (the little ones are called pin heads). In the 1970s and 80s, when the federal government was promoting them as a possible export fish, they labeled them “golden croakers.”
More interestingly, a 1946 article in the Department of Wild Life (yes the spelling is correct) and Fisheries’ Louisiana Game, Fur and Fish, what later became the Louisiana Conservationist, the great fisheries biologist James Nelson Gowanloch also listed Corvina, Roncadina, Ronco, Crocus, and Chut (La Monte) as other names for the fish.
Outside of Corvina, a common generic name for some members of the drum family, I have no earthly idea where the other names came from. I couldn’t even find any reference to them in the Multilingual Dictionary of Fish and Fish Products.
Its scientific name, Micropogonias undulatus, is easier to decipher. In Greek, “mikros” means small and “pogon” means beard. In Latin, “undulatus” means waved. The scientific name essentially means “wavy small beard,” an obvious reference to the 3 to 5 small fleshy whiskers under its chin.
The name “croaker” comes from the fact that they croak by using red-fleshed muscles to vibrate their swim bladders as a resonating chamber. The result is a sound that very much resembles a hyperactive woodpecker hammering on a hollow tree. Male croakers produce the sound to attract females for spawning.
Atlantic croakers are found from Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the north down to the Bay of Campeche in Mexico. However, nowhere are they more abundant than along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, where they are easily the most common bottom fish present.
Croakers have made the jump across the Atlantic as an invasive species in Belgium and Holland. Since this bottom-loving fish is unlikely to have swum across the ocean’s great depths to get there, scientist suppose that they made the journey in ballast water carried by large cargo ships for stability.
They are not very attractive fish, clunky rather than streamlined. Their color is silvery to brassy overall, with irregular brownish bars that run diagonally on their bodies. They can grow fairly large. Both the world record and the Louisiana state records are 8-pound fish, but they seldom reach such sizes in Louisiana anymore.
For fish in general, and croakers in particular, it is very difficult to guess age by the size of the fish. In the 1980s, biologists gathered otoliths (ear bones) from 1,291 croakers. They cut thin cross sections of them and counted the growth rings to determine ages. They found a wide range of sizes for each age, making prediction of age from size impossible.
For example, a 13-inch croaker could be 1 year old or it could be 5 years old. Part of this could be due to the long spawning season for the species, beginning in September and going well into March in the Gulf of Mexico.
Growth rings in otoliths are formed by the slow growth that takes place each winter. A croaker spawned in September would likely produce a ring that may be too small or too close to the center of the otolith to be noticeable. Such a fish would really be 15 months old when it formed a ring the following winter.
Compare that to a fish spawned in March, which would only be 9 months old when it formed its ring. Both fish would show up as 1-year-old fish in the analysis.
The biologist doing this research expressed good confidence in the average growth rates calculated in this study through age-6. But only two age-7 and three age-8 fish were aged in this research. With only three age-8 fish, having one particularly small croaker in the group could account age-8 fish averaging smaller than age-7 fish.
Other studies have confirmed that the maximum lifespan for croakers is 8 years. More than 95 percent of the croaker population dies every year.
A few croakers can spawn at 4.4 inches long, but on average males mature at 7.2 inches and females at 6.8 inches. More than 85 percent of both sexes are mature by the end of their first year and all are mature by the end of their second year.
Spawning occurs offshore at depths of 30 to 240 feet and females outnumber males. Their free-floating eggs hatch in less than 1 week and the larvae ride the salt wedge near the bottom of incoming tides into the marsh.
The young croakers gravitate to very low salinities and soft muddy bottoms in waters less than 4 feet deep. Survival and growth is apparently much greater in near fresh and muddy waters. Healthy coastal marshes are critical for this fish.
By May or June, the 2.5- to 3.4-inch juveniles begin to move to lower bays and eventually out the passes into the gulf. These are the croakers captured in the bait fishery.
Both juvenile and adult croakers have a downward pointing mouth, well suited for bottom feeding. Young croakers have been observed feeding by diving deeply into soft muddy bottoms to consume detritus — dead and decomposing plant and animal life.
Detritus and bottom worms are eaten by all ages of croakers, even large adults, but once croakers grow past 5 inches long they begin to feed heavily on fish and shrimp. Shrimp seems to be a favored food and is the ideal bait with which to catch croakers.
Croakers were held in higher esteem years ago than they are now. The same Louisiana Game, Fur and Fish article referenced earlier had this to say about the creature. “Inch for inch, and pound for pound, the Croaker yields the palm to no salt water fish for gameness or for that matter, as a food fish.”