Can a fish have personality? Do you think that sharks are bad-tempered? Are jacks pugnacious? Are snook cagey? There may be some truth to these statements, but people tend to assign human characteristics to animals when it is really not warranted.
The fancy word for this is anthropomorphism. If you really believe that your dog is looking forward to celebrating its birthday with you, then you are guilty of anthropomorphism. Fortunately, anthropomorphism isn’t a crime, since many of us are frequent offenders — often without really thinking about it.
There may be some crusty, cynical, cranky old fishermen reading this and laughing at the visual of a ribbon-wearing lap dog with pink-painted toenails blowing out birthday candles. But some of these anglers may be doing the same type of thing with their fish.
No, not painting their toenails. That would be silly. Fish don’t even have toenails; you have to paint their fins. I mean that they might be treating fish as if they had human tendencies. I’ve done it myself.
Years ago, I had a saltwater aquarium in which I kept an ocellated moray eel I had caught while fishing offshore. When I opened the aquarium lid, he’d rise to the surface and I could rub the back of his head. I convinced myself that he liked being petted like a dog. The reality was that he was simply conditioned to being fed when the aquarium lid opened, and was willing to put up with being touched in the hopes that a feeding was imminent.
What about you? Have you ever explained to someone how hard it can be to land a snook by telling them that snook are super smart about wrapping your line around dock pilings or mangrove roots to break free? Sure seems that way, anyhow.
I hate to be a party pooper, but snook are not that smart. If a snook were intelligent enough to know that there was a hook stuck in its mouth that was connected by a frail fishing line to a guy in a boat and that it could escape the perilous situation by finding sharp-edged oysters with which to cut the line, it would never have taken the bait in the first place.
Snook don’t figure all that out. They have an instinctive flight response to danger that evolved after eons of being chased by dolphins and other predators. It consists of heading for the nearest heavy cover. We think they’re “smart” because that flight response happens to work pretty effectively against anglers.
But is a bonefish less intelligent than a snook because its flight response involves a high-speed dash across open water? I have lost bonefish that managed to lace my fly line through mangrove roots, but that’s another story.
Back to the original question: Can a fish have personality? Different species of fish have different tendencies for sure, but I’m not sure that constitutes personality. If we polled Southwest Florida’s saltwater anglers about which fish was the meanest, we’d probably get lots of votes for sharks and probably a handful for barracuda or bluefish.
My top two candidates would be mangrove snapper and southern puffer. Mangrove snapper are one of the few fish we handle that will actively try to bite you when you are unhooking them. And the puffers will use their parrot-like beak to attack stuff way bigger than themselves and nip off a mouthful. I’ve even had them bite chunks out of popping corks.
If we took the same poll among local freshwater anglers, we’d probably get votes for mudfish (bowfin) or gar as the meanest fish. But my vote for the most ill-tempered and aggressive freshwater fish among our native species would probably go to the diminutive stumpknocker (spotted sunfish).
These angry little fish often swarm to attack any bait or lure that comes near, even when the target of their aggression seems far too large for them to eat. Maybe we’re lucky that the stumpknockers in our area seldom get much bigger than the palm of your hand.
These tendencies towards aggression are characteristics of an entire species rather than the personality of an individual fish. What about the fact that similar-sized fish of the same species can fight much differently? Is the harder-fighting fish a more determined adversary?
Maybe, but more likely it’s due to hook placement or to the physical condition of the animal at the time it was caught. A gaunt fish that hasn’t eaten for a few days might not fight as hard as one that’s sleek and well-fed.
I don’t think we can do it. I just don’t think that we can claim that fish are smart or stubborn or grouchy or anything else that equates to human personality, no matter how much we’d like to use those qualities to explain why the darned things can be so hard to catch. They’re just fish.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.