May 24, 2024

Hardcore Game Fishing

Game Fishing News

Squeteague and Why We Fish

(Illustration by Andy Nabreski)

Sergeant Feller drove his truck down the familiar countryside roads bordered by stonewalls painted yellow and green by centuries-old lichen and headed toward the northern reaches of the megalopolis. The stonewalls mark what were once fields for crops or farm animals to graze, but in the last 50 to 75 years, they have been reclaimed by nature and become “new growth” forests. The sun had set while he drove, and in his rearview mirror, Feller saw the May full moon as a brightening area expanding in the cloudy sky.

Feller joined the highway traffic flowing south through continuous urban sprawl, each town indistinguishable from the next. He appreciated the irony of driving into one of the most densely populated parts of the world in search of a rare and elusive fish. When he arrived at the parking spot, looming mountains of concrete emitting intrusive light dominated the darkness and stole the night. He turned his head and looked up to the east but couldn’t discern the bright spot of the moon. 

He found it odd not having to use his headlamp to ready his gear. On the other hand, he felt welcomed by the sight of the sandy head of the trail cut into the head-high reeds (phragmites).  He had anticipated walking back and forth while scanning his light to find it and puzzled how collective light pollution could hide the full moon. He figured the artificial light from the city was reflecting uniformly across the cloudy sky, which outshone and kept the moon hidden without contrast. Feller had visited the cities of the Northeast many times and had some great memories, but having a fly rod with him made the city feel foreign and he an alien. 

He trekked through the estuarine jungle of phragmites. Over soft sand flooded with tidewater, he crossed the shallow, armpit-shaped cove and reached the wind-whipped tombolo. The prominent sand spit extended out like a flexing arm, jutting into the bay, and provided a barrier from the wild ocean. Behind Sergeant Feller, the towering city of glowing dots colored white, yellow, and orange reached into the heavy cloud ceiling. He could still hear the monotonous din of the highway, only interrupted by emergency sirens. Ahead, a 15mph straight south wind lashed his face with cool and heavy ocean air, and the beach clapped with 1- to 2-foot waves. The sergeant took a deep breath and felt invigorated. He took a moment to reflect on what had brought him there.

Months prior, one cold winter night, Feller committed himself to catching his first squeteague. He had made some half-hearted attempts in years past, when only school bass were around and the first squeteague were starting to show up in fishing reports. The best time and tides for squeteague are also typically the best time and tides for large migrating striped bass in his local haunts. 

Feller prioritized his striped bass fishing and kept an annual tradition of procrastinating catching his first-ever squeteague until the following spring. Studying the tide charts, he noticed the best squeteague tides in late May were around a full moon, and he saw the dreadful striped bass conditions as an opportunity for something new. He mentally committed himself to fish a couple of late high tides and began to prepare early. His cycle of procrastination and regret became a hell-bent determination.

He did some preliminary research on fly patterns and tied-up a dozen gaudy Tutti Frutti (pink over chartreuse) heavy Clouser minnows, each with a silver mylar body and a red head. Feeling content creating his chosen ammunition for a good shot at a squeteague, the sergeant walked away from his vice and sat back down at his desk. From his small refrigerator, he grabbed a local brewed winter ale and resumed his research. He read that “squeteague” is an English echo of the Algonquin/Narragansett language spoken by the people native to the region. To the south, they are more commonly called weakfish.

Algonquin is a family of common languages to which the Narragansett language belongs.  The Narragansett name for weakfish is pesukitweag. Narragansett, as with many languages spoken by Indigenous peoples, is considered to be “verb-heavy.” Most of the words in the language describe an action, state of being, or an occurrence. Verb-heavy languages encode lots of information in few words to its speakers. For the first people and first fishermen, pesukitweag meant “where the glue comes from.” The Sergeant’s curiosity grew, and he wondered how glue was made from squeteague and what the glue was used for.

He read that squeteague have particularly large and robust swim bladders, which are made up of the gelatinous and elastic protein collagen. Because many Indigenous peoples didn’t have a written language and their histories and world knowledge was transmitted by spoken word, much has been lost. However, Feller’s research revealed that fish bladders were used to produce a type of glue known to bond well with leather, wood, and other porous materials. Fish bladders were also used in the process of making parchment by many civilizations, including the ancient Egyptians and Romans. An adhesive collagen product made from dried fish bladders called isinglass is used today by conservators to restore artwork, stuccos, and historical documents. 

The most common use of isinglass is as a clarifying agent for beer and wine. It is added to casks of alcohol, and the suspended particles and leftover yeast are drawn to the isinglass. In other words, the isinglass accelerates the process of sedimentation on the bottom of the cask. In New England, squeteague was a major source for isinglass production by companies such as the Cape Ann Isinglass and Glue Company of Rockport, Massachusetts. 

In addition to squeteague, the swim bladders of cod, pollock, hake, and other fish were used in local isinglass production. The sergeant, who had been unconsciously swilling his beer while reading, paused and let a sip of beer sit on his tongue, then swished it around before gulping it down. He wondered if and how long he’d be enjoying squeteague without ever catching one. 

He read that some big beer brands removed isinglass from their production process to satisfy vegan requirements; however, some brewers may still be using it as a clarifying agent. Today, much of the commercial isinglass comes from farm raised sturgeon. Sergeant Feller finished his ale, refocusing his research on the nature of the squeteague and what the available science could teach him.

In the scientific community, squeteague are formally known as Cynoscion regalis. From Greek, Cyno means “doglike” and scion means “descendant of.” The Greek word for a “sea fish” is skiana. In Latin, regalis means “kinglike,” and is the root word for “regal,” a nod to the squeteague’s striking majesty. “Regalis” may also be a reference to squeteague being one of the largest in the genus Cynoscion. 

The translation of the scientific name Cynoscion regalis is the “beautiful saltwater fish with dog teeth.” Feller knew that if he was lucky enough to catch one, he wouldn’t lip it with his thumb because of its two fangs. For some, bass thumbs and cuts from squeteague fangs are a badge of honor; to Feller, any type of injury suffered while fishing was evidence of a lack of preparation. Like falling because his boot cleats were too worn down or a hook in the hand because he forgot pliers, fishing-related injuries embarrassed him. Despite Feller always remembering a fish gripper, he never caught squeteague, and past trips felt like a failure due to a lack of commitment.

Squeteague belong to the family Sciaenidae, the drum fish. They have large swim bladders and highly specialized sonic muscles that rapidly contract and relax the swim bladder to produce drumming sounds. Although they are not sexually dimorphic (and both males and females grow to large sizes), only males have sonic muscles and the ability to produce sound. During the spawning season, the sonic muscles increase 3 times in size. This rapid seasonal growth is called hypertrophy, which is triggered by increased sunlight exposure and warming water.

The drumming sound produced by male weakfish is used to attract mates during the spawning season as well as being a warning signal to the rest of the school that a predator is in the area. This ability to find mates and warn of danger is a valuable adaptation in the murky waters squeteague are often found in; however, this advantage also makes them vulnerable to sophisticated predators. 

Squeteague are a favorite food of dolphins, and their drumming is easily heard and tracked. In addition to hearing the acoustic signature squeteague produce, dolphins easily locate them by echolocation. Dolphins emit sonic clicks that travel through the water and bounce off the fishes’ gas-filled swim bladders, especially the super-sized ones of spawning males. 

Squeteague are a schooling fish, and when stressed, they tend to school more tightly together. This behavior provides safety, but it also makes the school vulnerable to commercial-fishing techniques. Because squeteague faithfully return to their natal waters each year to spawn (which is called site fidelity), an entire local or “discreet population” can be decimated by commercial fishing. 

A discreet population is a local school of fish that spawns around the same estuary annually and spends the summer nearby in deeper water. As fall becomes winter, the discreet population migrates southeast for the winter and remain relatively isolated from other larger schools. In the Mid-Atlantic region, where they’re more commonly called weakfish and sea trout, the stocks are more robust. 

What Feller found most alluring about squeteague was that surf fishermen seem to have a tactical advantage in targeting them. For many other target species, surf fishing is almost a handicap compared to the advantages offered to boat fishermen. Squeteague are a particularly wary and skittish fish, similar to trout, and unnatural noises from an engine (or even footsteps on a deck) may spook the school. Surf fishermen have stealth on their side and can stalk the beach without alerting the school to their presence.

On the beach, the tide still flooded, and had about two more hours before slack high. With the straight south wind, Feller anticipated the water would continue to rise and the tide would be late to turn. Perhaps this would hold the bait close and invite the squeteague to feed within fly-rod-casting range. He walked along the beach until he reached a hump in the sand marking the southernmost point on the tombolo before bending inward toward the bay. 

He waded out until the water pushed up on his stripping basket, and then took a few steps back. He stripped off an ambitious amount of line in spite of the wind, unhooked his Tutti Frutti Clouser minnow from the holder, and began his casting rhythm. The 330-grain, slow-sinking line loaded his 9-weight rod deeply and quickly, allowing him to shoot line through the wind with minimal false casting. 

Feller fished his Tutti Frutti with a slow retrieve to keep it just above the bottom, using frequent pauses to imitate a shrimp or forage fish showing hesitation, followed by an abrupt fleeing-like strip or two. He continued casting, mechanically adjusting his balance to the wave action and shifting sandy bottom, thinking of nothing else but keeping his line in the water and managing his posture. The environment focused his mind, so it came as a surprise and startled him a bit when he noticed red lights floating above the beach uptide of where he was standing. He’d thought he was alone, but he had been oblivious to casters walking behind him. He caught a glimpse of metallic shine with a camera flash and knew immediately what was happening. “They’re here!” Feller said aloud. 

The sergeant contained his excitement and soaring optimism with laser focus, and hauled out a tight loop into the wind that landed a straight 60 feet out. Feller let the Tutti Frutti fall to the sandy bottom, where he imagined it crawling and darting with mantis shrimp, squid, and small forage fish. He began the retrieve by making short, abrupt strips of line, followed by long pauses while he maintained contact with a tight line. On the third strip, Feller felt resistance and weight on the line. Initially, he thought he was snagged, and made a long strip to bring the line in and recast. However, his long strip was followed by a set of wide and rapid head shakes and odd pauses. 

The sudden tightening and slackening of the line felt as if he was holding a pendulum-like cat toy getting slapped by a playful kitten. He wasn’t certain if he was tied into a squeteague, but he knew it was not a striped bass or bluefish. Feller had read squeteague were called “weakfish” because an overly eager angler can easily tear the lure or fly from the fish’s mouth, as the tissue and muscle are delicate. 

Sergeant Feller kept the drag on his fly reel relatively modest and allowed the fish to go about a game of give and take while keeping the hook firmly in place. The fish made its final run and swam against the drag along the shoreline, though Feller could feel it running out of steam.  With the next roller breaking, he turned the fish and let the wave do the work of landing it. After the clap, the receding wave revealed a dream come true. Feller switched on his headlamp, set it to red, and saw a very shiny fish with no stripes, no yellow beaming eyes, and a trout-like body. He noticed the short, triangular dorsal fin quickly followed by an elongated rectangular-shaped second dorsal fin, then the telltale croaking sound of a male squeteague.

He grabbed his fish with a plastic gripper, avoiding the canine-like fangs, and walked above the high-tide line for a closer look. With his back to the sea, he switched his light to white, and admired his first squeteague of about 26 inches. Feller was stunned that it looked almost as shiny and metallic as an albie. The back was dark olive fading to an iridescent turquoise, the belly bright silver and white, and the pectoral and anal fins were cartoon-like yellow. Its speckled flank was a thing to behold, for a moment or two at least. The forward area was colored pearlescent purple and electric lavender; then coppery and gold toward the tail. The eyes looked ghastly reflecting the white light of Feller’s headlamp, and the sinister ivory-colored fangs stood out against the garish Tutti Frutti in its mouth.

Feller carried his squeteague past the surf break, and with one hand under the belly and the other ahead of the tail, slid the fish into the dark and turbid surf. He felt its muscles contract without any effort on his part to revive it, and it swam away quickly to rejoin its school, feasting and preparing for their spawning ritual.

The sergeant, with a rare and fleeting sense of satisfaction, cast for another squeteague. He could have left the beach at that moment and been happy, but he knew with his limited fishing time and the coming bass tides, he’d be hard-pressed for another squeteague trip. He fished for another two hours into the dropping tide but went without a touch, and he didn’t spot any headlamps or camera flashes. 

Finally, he packed up his gear, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and began hiking toward the city lights, leaving the wilds behind him. He thought about how years ago, Indigenous people likely came to this tombolo and netted squeteague for food and the production of glue. For Feller, fishing wasn’t about the acquisition of food, although he enjoyed occasionally making a harvest and having fresh fish for dinner. Fishing was a tradition uniting him with generations of his family, both living and dead. 

At family Christmas parties, he and his grandfather, father, and uncles always found themselves in the basement “checking on the wood stove” and sharing old and new tales of their great catches or comical mishaps. He listened to tales about his great grandfathers and great-great grandfathers, and other relatives who lived long ago with whom he shared at least one thing in common—a love of fishing. A whole family history told in fish tales, many of them “tall tales” to be sure, but his family’s fishing tales nonetheless. Fishing also provided a connection with Feller’s own ever-distancing childhood and time spent with his father. Fishing, he thought, grew his heart and mind as he imagined someday teaching his own future children to fish.

In a world removed from nature, fishing was Sergeant Feller’s way to connect with it and experience something wild, something timeless and true. Feller appreciated how the beautiful squeteague arrived on the same beach, with the same tides, as they have since time immemorial, and then abruptly vanished until the next year.  A fish of mystique, only available to those committed and fortunate enough to find them for a few weeks when conditions and tide align, and maybe the stars, too. However, Feller’s thoughts and reflections on fishing came after the act. There was something more primal, more basic, and perhaps more profound to why he fished.

He fished because he was a fisherman, and because it felt good.  Whether he was stalking brook trout or casting to the night tides, he always felt a sense of purpose and rightness absent in his professional life. When he tried a new trout stream or striper spot and understood the minor nuances that collectively added to angling success, or learned how to catch a new species, he felt like he was unlocking secrets of the universe. Fishing, Feller thought, was a celestial mandate, and life without it was unimaginable.  Although the end result of fishing is different for a sport and a subsistence angler, Feller imagined both feel a pull, an attraction like gravity, to bodies of water and the need to test thoughts and knowledge by casting lines.

As with hunting, Feller knew his fishing was a predatorial act, though he had the option to release his prey. In a way, through the fish, he felt a connection to the native people who once caught the ancestors of the same fish along this beach today. Feller imagined they also timed the arrival of squeteague with the moons and tides, and felt the same draw to water, as all anglers do. 

Feller was intrigued by the squeteague’s unique fight and found the finesse required to land one pretty exciting. Before reaching his truck, he thought of other bays and sandbars that resembled the tombolo he had just fished. He wondered if those spots also had their own discreet populations of squeteague, and he began to scheme where and when he’d target this strange and beautiful fish again.

The post Squeteague and Why We Fish first appeared on On The Water.

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