Treasure in the Pan

Stop throwing those croakers back, and toss them in your ice chest. You’ll be so glad you did when you get home.

The immense, steel-sided tanker slithered through the dense fog as it made its approach to the mouth of Southwest Pass. Nearby anglers, preoccupied with the very busy ends of their fishing lines, hardly noticed its stealthy entry. It became a brief, bothersome concern, nonetheless, when towering, chocolate-colored wakes lazily rocked their boat in a slow, diminishing succession.

Of even less concern was the damp, foggy air that hovered around their faces and saturated their clothing.

Perhaps to the uninformed observer, it would have seemed that only hard-core anglers seeking redfish or speckled trout would brave such menacing conditions. Furthermore, with the river stages reaching peak level, what in the world could possibly be caught at this time of year?

Would you believe Atlantic croaker?

While the croaker supports a substantial sport fishery, it is a less-popular species than several others of its family, such as redfish and speckled trout. But to those who have tasted its sweet-flavored flesh, it’s a fish worth catching, and with current regulations on primary species, anglers are now giving consideration to an array of other sport fish.

Various areas along the northern Gulf of Mexico have an abundance of Atlantic croaker, which is most prevalent from just east of the Sabine River to Mobile, Ala. This is a species that is also caught along coastal waters from Cape Cod, Mass., to the Bay of Kampuchea, Mexico.

Though its name, “Atlantic” croaker, gives the connotation of its range being along the entire U.S. Atlantic Coast, research has found that it is only occasionally caught north of New Jersey. Yet, comparatively speaking, they are most abundant off the Louisiana and Mississippi coast.

Obviously, the name croaker is derived from the predominant croaking sound that it produces by vibrating its inflated swim bladder, much like that of a person rubbing an air-filled rubber balloon.

The croaker has no doubt been confused with other species, despite having obvious traits that make it easily identifiable. For instance, those who have caught them are quite aware of the razor-sharp gills that flare out upon handling. This is why many anglers use a rag or fish grabber when handling the species, particularly when dislodging a hook from its mouth.

Other identification marks include six to 10 tiny, inconspicuous, barbell-like whiskers on the underside of the chin. These are used as a sensory mechanism for locating food, as the fish is an exclusive bottom feeder like many other ground fish.

Its back is greenish or a grayish-silvery color to brassy yellowish and highly iridescent. Its underside is silvery white. The back and sides are marked with several brassy or brownish short, irregular, oblique bars formed by spots on scales. These bars are at times less distinct in the larger adults. Adult fish are about 12 inches on the average, though they infrequently reach a size of some 2 feet and may weigh 6 or more pounds. In the latter size, they’re easily mistaken for redfish without spots on the tail.

Croakers seem to have a broad range of water depths in which they are found, as spawning is reported to occur within a depth range of 25 to 265 feet of water. Biologists who study the croaker have found that spawning occurs in the open Gulf near the mouths of various passes that lead into shallow bays and lagoons. Along the South Carolina coast, females ripe with eggs have been found as far as 30 miles offshore.

Due to its prolonged spawning season, the Atlantic croaker is one species that is easily caught. Within its entire range, larval and post-larval stages are collectible in passes and bays from as early as August to as late as June in Louisiana.

However, the normal spawning range for the Gulf of Mexico is from October to March with a peak in November, according to three notable consultants on the species. Some experts have maintained that in Louisiana, peak Gulfward migration occurs from September to November, though October to November is the most commonly cited peak migration period.

Croakers have high mortality rates and few live beyond five years, but there has been some discrepancy whether the species dies after spawning.

Along Louisiana’s coast, croakers are caught in estuaries and bays by small-boat anglers, but many are also taken near offshore oil production platforms.

Bull croakers, those of the larger size, are more often caught in the deeper waters near passes and at rigs in depths between 100 and 200 feet. For example, oil production platforms found out of Empire, in the West Delta blocks of 70, 71 and 90, are particularly suitable to croaker.

Such sizes can also be taken around the Mississippi Delta passes and other similar areas along the Gulf Coast. Croakers also flourish in Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, which are considered nursery grounds for the species.

Another factor that contributes to the species’ wide availability is the fact that it can survive in a versatile range of salinity, specifically from that of very dilute (0.2 parts per thousand) to hyper-saline (75 ppt).

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council reported in 1981 that ground fish stocks in the Gulf occur at the highest densities in waters of less than 300 feet. During warmer months, most are in waters less than 60 feet. Winter stock concentration is greatest in 60 to 180 feet.

In Louisiana waters west of the Mississippi River, croakers are found down to a depth of 150 feet. Near the mouth of the Mississippi River, they are found as deep as 300 feet, and in winter migrate to depths of 210 to 360 feet.

Finding croakers near flowing rivers that meet with Gulf waters is common. This is because croakers are prone to be influenced by a highly turbid runoff that stirs the bottom, moving both bait and sediment. Naturally, such areas provide food and cover from predators.

Since croakers have a relatively small mouth, it’s imperative for anglers to use a small hook (no bigger than 1/0) when trying to catch them. In other than deep water, light tackle is more in order when trying to detect their subtle strikes.

With these vigorous bottom feeders, it’s a must to keep your bait at the bottom for maximum effectiveness. Catching two at a time on tandem bottom rigs with cut squid is one of the better methods when fishing the deeper waters near oil platforms.

In moderate depths, the use of small jig heads, fished singly or in tandem, also can be effective, especially when the hooks are tipped with cut squid, white trout (sand trout), croaker or shrimp chunks.

Twenty-five years ago, the wellheads in 25 to 30 feet of water just outside of Southwest Pass flourished with croakers. In the fall season, it wasn’t uncommon to catch them two at the time on tandem sparkle beetle rigs — without baiting them.

Since then, for some unknown reason, the population of Atlantic croakers has diminished in those locations with the exception of the areas along the jetties and passes.

In an extensive survey taken in 1983 on the species, the Atlantic croaker was one of the most abundant Gulf fishes caught by both commercial and sportfishermen. The species also was a main ground fish fisheries during that time.

Landing surveys from 1985-90 showed a steady decrease in the number of Atlantic croakers taken by commercial fishermen in the U.S. This may or may not suggest over-fishing, but possibly a lesser demand by seafood purchasers for this species.

Nonetheless, biologists are concerned, and are looking again into the impact that both user groups may have on the species.

A reported 6,786,000 pounds of croakers were landed commercially in the U.S. in 1990. From 1990-1994, a total of 50,000 pounds of croakers have been commercially landed in Louisiana, according to figures provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Though no size or other restrictions have been imposed on this species, it should not suggest that their numbers are secure. Some studies suggest a decline in at least the 2- to 5-pound size range of the species.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries biologist Henry Blanchet has indicated that it is inevitable at some point in the future that a management program will have to be instituted for the survival of the Atlantic croaker.

Until then, though, anglers can keep all they care too when hooking and reeling some of the best-eating meat in the Gulf.