A fish so ugly it’s beautiful

Don’t hesitate this month. Point the bow of your boat directly toward this perennial winter hotspot.

The words “I didn’t think that anything so ugly could ever win an award” really caught my attention. William “Ricky” Ruffin was addressing a large group of outdoor writers at the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association (LOWA) Convention in Lake Charles. LOWA is the official keeper of the Louisiana Fish Records Program, and annually honors what they judge to be the outstanding catch in Louisiana with a Fish of the Year award.

Ruffin had caught a 30.6-pound marbled grouper while fishing with Capt. Ed Frekey of Tuna Time Charters.

Now I happen to really like groupers. The ichthyophagist side of me appreciates their superb taste and texture. And the cool life history of most groupers appeals to my biologist side.

But, I have to admit, of all the cool fish in the grouper family, the marbled grouper is the coolest of all. A lot of it has to do with its looks. Let’s face it — they are ugly.

It is short, stumpy and wide-bodied and is a muddy, blotchy, marbled brown color. Its fins appear too big for the body, and it has thick rubbery-looking lips. In some ways, it looks like a deformed tripletail.

But the thing that really sticks out is the head. It slopes preposterously steeply from the front base of the dorsal fin down to the protruding lower jaw. That head gives the marbled grouper one of its common names, slopehead.

Groupers are members of the family Serranidae, the sea basses. Included in the 21 members of the family in the Gulf of Mexico are the odd but colorful creole fish, the diminutive sand perch and the bank, rock and black sea basses. Few of these would be recognized as groupers.

Fifteen of the other 16 family members look like fairly typical groupers, powerfully-built but stream-lined predators. Some are more colorful than others, but all are handsome fishes. Then there is the marbled grouper, Dermolepis inermis.

Also known as a john paw and in the Caribbean as a donkey fish, most references list it as a fish of the Caribbean, but with a range extending from Bermuda, through the West Indies and down the South American coast to northern Brazil. Little mention is made of its occurrence in the Gulf of Mexico, especially the northern gulf.

Yet, somehow, the waters off the Louisiana coast have gotten a corner on producing record-book marbled grouper. The Louisiana Fish Records Program didn’t even have a category for the species until 2002. Immediately after creating the category, an International Game Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle world record marbled grouper was recognized as the state record. The 14.5-pound fish was caught by John Costello from Green Canyon offshore of Louisiana.

Then in July 2005, the record fish was surpassed not once, but twice. David Chad Cormier caught a 17.62 slopehead, and Prentiss Perkins landed a 23.3-pounder. Both were caught at the Picketts.

In July of 2006, the IGFA world record left Louisiana, but not by far. Scott Keith Anderson caught a 27-pound, 10-ounce marbled grouper from the Flower Gardens Banks, which are found just on the Texas side of the Louisiana-Texas border. (I still think Louisiana should claim the Flower Gardens, but that’s another story.)

Finally, in February 2008 on Ship Shoal, Ruffin caught his big one, which is currently pending IGFA approval as the all-tackle world record. Ruffin was bouncing a live pinfish off the bottom while the boat was drifting over a 180-foot deep rise surrounded by waters over 400 feet deep.

Biologically, the marbled grouper is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. Little is known of its biology. It seems to be common nowhere, but its rarity may be more perceived than actual fact. It prefers deeper waters, up to 600 feet deep, and the fishes of these waters are little studied by scientists.

Most references describe it as a fish predator, but I know of no food-habit studies that have been done on the species. Some grouper species specialize in feeding on finfish and others on crustaceans, but most will readily accept either bait. Some sort of finfish is usually what is offered to them on a hook.

Like most, if not all, other groupers, marbled groupers are thought to change sex during their lifespans. Individuals in most fish species remain the same gender all their lives, something called gonochorism. But there are exceptions.

Among the several hundred families of fish, at least 14 families have species in which individuals change from female to male (called protogyny). Change from male to female (called protandry) is less common, and is known from eight families of fishes. Least common are simultaneous hermaphrodites — fish that can produce both eggs and sperm at the same time.

Groupers are protogynous hermaphrodites. They start their lives as females, then change to males as they grow to larger sizes. In the yellowedge grouper, another deep water species off of Louisiana, fish less than 30 inches long are almost all females. But by 31 inches long, males outnumber females two to one. All the fish over 37 inches long are males.

Scientists have long been puzzled as to why a few families of fish have developed the ability to change sex or be both sexes at the same time. Without question, as fish get larger, both their ability to produce eggs and sperm and their fighting abilities increase.

In species where the male keeps and defends a harem of females or where males stake out the best spawning sites, large males have the most opportunity to mate because of their ability to dominate smaller males. Therefore, changing gender from female to male as they grow larger is to their advantage, and evolution has favored those that change sexes.

On the other hand, for species that pair up at random, with no regard to size, being a female at a larger size is an advantage. Sperm are small and eggs are bulky. A small male can produce enough sperm to fertilize any female, but a large female can produce many more eggs than a small female because of her size. For these species, evolution should favor fish that change from male to female as they grow larger.

For species in which the males and females form spawning pairs matched by size or when males compete with each other to fertilize eggs in group spawnings, no advantage is gained by sex change, and males and females remain the same sex for life.

Most, but not all, simultaneous hermaphrodites (those that are both male and female at the same time) are deep-sea species that live where fish populations are very low and, therefore, the chances of finding a mate are also very low. Under these conditions, it helps a great deal for a fish to be able to mate with whatever member of its own species it meets.

Jerald Horst is author of Trout Masters: How Louisiana’s best anglers catch the lunkers. For ordering information, visit www.lasmag.com or call (800) 538-4355.

About Jerald Horst 959 Articles
Jerald Horst is a retired Louisiana State University professor of fisheries. He is an active writer, book author and outdoorsman.