puffer teeth

WaterLine file photo by Capt. Josh Olive

Puffer teeth can hurt you.

Almost all of our local fish can hurt you somehow. Most of the time, it’s not intentional — they just want to get away from you and get on with their fishy little lives. I know some anglers take it out on the fish when they get poked, bitten or cut. I have a word for those fishermen: They’re jerks.

Ya gotta remember that the fish was just swimming along, minding his own business. He didn’t pick a fight with you — you picked a fight with him. And even if you plan to let him go, he has no way of knowing that. Every fish you hook is fighting for its life. It’s not fair to get angry when one gets a lick in.

A buddy called me the other day to tell me he’d been on the receiving end of a fish hitting back. Specifically, it was a blacktip shark. He was holding it up for a photo op when it started thrashing around. The guy standing next to him freaked out a little, and my buddy ended up getting tail-slapped.

A shark can hit pretty hard with that tail fin, and this one happened to be aimed just right: He took the full force right to the oompa loompas (that’s gonads, for those of you who aren’t Pearls Before Swine fans).

Gentlemen, you know exactly what that feels like. Ladies, I’ll try to describe it: Take the discomfort of the most full your bladder has ever been, add in intense waves of nausea, throw on a lingering electric shock, combine with the pain of a toothache throughout your lower torso, and top with a dash of leg paralysis.

It’s a unique experience. I can’t say that I would have been able to hold onto the shark, but he did — even though he went down on his knees and then crumpled to the deck. From there, he was able to get the fish back over the gunnel.

I’ve never been tail-whipped by a shark, but I have had some fish draw blood on occasion. It’s certainly taught me to be more cautious in my fish handling, but most of the fish that got the better of me were ones I hadn’t been properly educated about. Therefore, I though it might be helpful to our readers to provide a brief rundown of some common fish-caused injuries and what an angler might do to avoid them.

Most of us know to avoid getting stabbed by catfish and stingrays. Almost all catfish have sharp spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins. In most species, they’re just spines, but in both of our local saltwater catfish, those spines are venomous. Catfish and ray venom isn’t considered life-threatening, but it does hurt — a lot. Hot water (don’t scald yourself) will help, as heat denatures the proteins in the venom.

To avoid stings in the first place, always do the stingray shuffle while wading — slide your feet, don’t lift them. Use a hands-free dehooking tool to release rays and catfish, or get a special catfish-grabbing device. If you handle these fish bare-handed, it’s not a matter of whether you’ll get stung but when.

Lionfish have also been showing up on the local reefs. These fish, though beautiful, are also venomous, and their venom has the potential to be more dangerous that catfish or stingray venom. If you get hit, you’ll feel it for several days. In the short term, you can experience shortness of breath and numbness, sometimes even partial paralysis.

The way to avoid a lionfish sting is to avoid the fish. If you’re spearing them, wear puncture-proof gloves and carry a clipper so you can cut the poisoned spines off.

The leatherjack (aka skipjack locally) is a common venomous fish. Its sting is milder but still something best avoided. A leatherjack’s venom is transmitted by spines on the belly just in front of the anal fin. As with catfish, a dehooking device is the best way to deal with these fish.


Many fish that aren’t venomous can still stab holes in you. Two of the worst offenders are pinfish and cobia. If you remove them from the water or grab them, pinfish react by raising their dorsal and anal fin spines. I’ve seen more than one fishermen with a pinfish stuck in the palm of his hand and dangling — ouch!

The best way to avoid the hurt is to wear gloves. It also helps to handle the fish gently, without squeezing. Cobia have a row of short spines down their backs. They’re short but thick and very sharp. Don’t put your hands on a cobia’s back, and don’t wrap your arms around one.

Anything with a mouth can bite you, and all fish have mouths. Of course, some fish bites are worse than others. Sharks and barracuda are particularly nasty and have been known to remove body parts — even small ones can take off a chunk of finger. Again, a hands-free dehooker is the best way to go.

Other notorious biters include gar, needlefish, flounder, mackerel, bluefish, trout (which don’t bite hard but have impressive fangs) and redfish, which can make you bleed pretty good if you try to grab one by putting your thumb in its mouth. Sheepshead and triggerfish, which often dine on hard-shelled creatures, have heavy-duty teeth that can easily crush a finger, or at least mangle it. Puffers have powerful clipping teeth.

Probably the worst offenders are the snapper, especially mangrove snapper. It’s hard not to laugh when you see a 6-inch mangrove locked onto your buddy’s thumb. It’s not so funny when those teeth are buried into your flesh and your eyes are watering from the pain. Treat the business end of any fish with respect, and use a lip-grip tool for any known biters (don’t forget to support the belly with your other hand).

Then there are fish that carry blades with them. Snook, tripletail and sand perch (aka squirrelfish) have sharp gill cover plates. The term “razor sharp” is overused, so let’s just say they’ll cut you and you’ll notice the blood before you notice the pain. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to avoid this hazard through good fish handling: You should never grab a fish by the gill covers, and if you don’t grab these fish by the sharp bits you won’t get slashed.

The last category is fish that jump in the boat. There’s not a whole lot you can do here, except avoid going out on the water. We don’t have silver and bighead carp, which have been knocking people out in the Midwest, and we don’t have sturgeon, which have caused a few incidents in the Florida Panhandle.

But we do have mullet and tarpon and eagle rays, all of which I have personally seen launch themselves into boats that were in no way involved with the fish. Fortunately, these are freak events.

People handle fish incautiously all the time, and people are frequently injured doing that. But there’s one fish that no one seems to want to touch. Toadfish have a generally yecchy look, and most people seem to think they are venomous. They’re not. I’ve handled many and not had one bite me, even though they always open their mouths wide to show off the teeth.

Funny that the fish that looks like it would be the most dangerous is actually pretty harmless. I suppose that’s what we get for judging anything based on its appearance.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

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