juvenile red snapper

Photo by Chris Hessell, FWC Charlotte Harbor Field Laboratory

This cute little fella is the first (and so far, the only) red snapper documented in the Charlotte Harbor estuary system.

Last week we discovered that there are at least 279 species of fish which have been documented in the Charlotte Harbor estuary system. This includes fish that live here year round and that we see every day, fish that are only found here seasonally, fish that grow up in the Harbor but then leave for the ocean when they approach adulthood, and fish which really don’t live here in any numbers at all but which occasionally stray into our waters.

You are probably familiar with some of the fish on the official list but you are unlikely to know all of them. Here’s a fun exercise: Take a piece of paper and write the names of all the species of fish that you can think of that are found in the estuary. Most avid anglers can get up to about 50 species without much trouble, but not many people can get past about 75 fish. This means that there are still a couple of hundred fish species that most of us don’t know about — or, at least, that we can’t pull to top-of-mind when we try to make that list.

Some of the fish on the official list are really uncommon here and are just not likely to be encountered by fishermen. For example, most of us know that red snapper are offshore fish that don’t live in Charlotte Harbor. Even juvenile red snapper live offshore, since they are not a species which normally uses estuaries as part of their life cycle.

But red snapper is on the list for Charlotte Harbor because the FWC researchers at the Charlotte Harbor Field Station who are doing Fishery Independent Monitoring of fish in the Harbor did collect one red snapper in one of their nets in 2018, a small 3-inch specimen which was absolutely, positively identified as a red snapper. So for the rest of our history, red snapper will reside on the list that’s labeled “Documented in Charlotte Harbor” because there was at least one individual that wandered in here, though there could be more that no one’s documented.

Perusing the list of fishes reveals that there are some interesting creatures living in Charlotte Harbor. Did you know that we are home to the lesser electric ray? Yes, an electric ray. Kind of like an electric eel, but the electric ray can reportedly only generate up to about 37 volts while an electric eel can produce a stunning (literally) 600 volts. Still, the University of Florida reports that our electric rays can generate enough of a shock to knock a man off his feet. The electric field they generate might be useful in confusing potential prey animals, but I’d bet that the electricity might also confuse hungry sharks, many of which like to chow on stingrays and which have very efficient electroreceptors on their snouts which are used to locate prey.

Reading further through the fish list reveals some fish names that sound interesting. For example, there is a fish called a taillight shiner which lives in Charlotte Harbor. Maybe having fish that shine taillights makes up for having so many humans in the area that don’t use turn signals. There’s a pirate perch, a little freshwater guy which sounds like he ought to be found among the pirate crew over at Fishin’ Frank’s bait shop.

What about a polka-dot batfish? Doesn’t that name bring up some interesting mental images? Speaking of which, there’s another fish here called a slippery dick. Yes, there really is. Look it up. Just be prepared to sort through some unexpected and non-fishy images. Better yet, just Google “slippery dick fish.”

And mullet are mullet, right? Not so fast. Many of us know that there are both striped mullet and silver mullet in Charlotte Harbor, but did you know that we are also home to whirligig mullet and redeye mullet? Snook are a popular gamefish in Southwest Florida. Five different species are found in the state, three of which have been documented in Charlotte Harbor. Ours are the common snook, the tarpon snook and the fat snook. Thus far no one has documented a swordspine snook or a Mexican snook in our area. Maybe you’ll be the first.

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.

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