An Ode to Trash Fish: Reflections on South Carolina’s other Gamefish

By Grant McClure | South Carolina Wildlife magazine intern
Illustrations by Duane Raver

I.

The longnose garfish tangled itself in my cast net on a muggy September night. It was the first night of shrimp baiting season. My dad flipped on the dock light, sending schools of mullet and menhaden into a frenzy. Shrimp skittered across the surface of the water as I mixed the clay and fish meal together, molding the concoction into a patty shape. Dad and I took turns casting over the bait balls, nets spiraling open before splashing down in the warm estuarine water of McCauley Creek.

I held open the bottom of my net with a tooth, then began my rotation, shifting my weight from front to back foot, twisting my torso and slinging my arms outward. Microscopic bioluminescent organisms flashed a greenish-blue light as the net made impact. I let the net sink to the bottom, then closed it with a hard upward tug. As I hauled in the net, I felt resistance. I anticipated a net full of shrimp, but was instead greeted by the round, wide eyes of a garfish.

The garfish thrashed its head side-to-side, its razor teeth ensnared in my net’s monofilament diamonds. The powerful, leopard-spotted tail writhed around. I tried shaking the fish out, but it rolled like an alligator in defiance, making matters worse. Dad attempted to remove the gar by negotiating with its long snout, an oyster glove on one hand, gripping the hard scales. After a minute or two of slime-covered wrestling, the fish managed to free itself, but not without shredding two holes in my cast net.

II.

Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus tau)

The oyster toadfish in Colonial Lake lived right in front of the spillway where the tide from the harbor came and went. The incoming tide swept in shrimp, croaker and small perch through the spillway and into the concrete impoundment. Joggers and dog walkers circulated around the lake, while I baited my hook with a piece of frozen shrimp. My friend Preston and I tossed our lines out, letting our popping corks drift with the current. On a good day, we caught flounder, sea trout, ladyfish and the occasional red drum. But most days, under the hot summer sun, we caught oyster toadfish.

The fish croaked like bullfrogs, their mouths open, revealing rows of snaggleteeth. I worked with precision to remove the hook from the powerful jaws which closed shut on their own accord.

Calling a toadfish ugly is a compliment. I once caught a toadfish that must have been near the state record. I remember the swollen yellow stomach. The bulbous head was larger than my fist, making the rest of the body look disproportionate. I removed the hook, careful to avoid the sharp spines. Hook removed, the fish flipped around on the concrete sidewalk, leaving behind a trail of slime, before flopping back into the lake to terrorize more shrimp.

III.

 Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana)

There is a photograph of my grandfather hoisting up the largest southern stingray I have ever seen. A crimson stripe runs down the stingray’s white belly. My grandfather is shirtless in the picture. His arms and shoulders are tanned from hours spent in the sun. Black-tinted glasses hide his blue eyes. There is a mustache on his lip. Having won the battle, he holds the stingray up by its spiracles, triumphant.

My grandfather was fishing off his dock on the Whale Branch River when he hooked into something big. Line squealed off the reel as the fish fought for freedom, doubling over the rod, putting 20 lb. PowerPro to the test. Later that night we ate the sinewy stingray scallops. It tasted like salt marsh.

IV.

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus)

The fish we call trash are survivors. The prehistoric longnose gar is capable of breathing air out its swim bladder. Slimy, barbed and ugly, oyster toadfish can live in low quality water with little oxygen. Where other fish struggle to survive, trash fish thrive, standing the test of time. They are armed with sharp teeth, strong jaws and dangerous barbs –– not afraid to pick a fight with an unsuspecting angler. While gars, toadfish and rays are often not the target species, they play vital roles in a complex estuarine ecosystem. I’ve learned to appreciate and revere the grit, tenacity and will to survive in these species­ despite their propensity to shred cast nets, swallow hooks and thrash tails.

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