January 25, 2016
January 25, 2016

What’s In A Name?

T he name game can be confusing in fishing. You need to cast no farther than in the direction of the nearest “speckled trout” to realize this.

Our most popular inshore saltwater fish is not a trout. It is a weakfish, although nobody this side of an ichthyology class says, “Wow, I just caught a spotted weakfish!”

Without getting into scientific jargon, trout are freshwater fish. The primary species of true trout are rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and brown trout. The first two are native to the Rocky Mountains and the Northwest. The brown trout is a transplant from Europe. Regardless of origin, trout are covered with black spots and they spawn during the spring.

Not a “trout.”

Well, that’s not quite true.

Just to keep things confusing, some brown trout boast red spots to complement the black dots, and all brown trout spawn in the fall. In doing so, they keep company with members of the char family. These lookalike trout include brook trout, lake trout and Dolly Varden trout. And, as you might expect, Arctic char. All sport light spots and white slashes on the pectoral fins.

But, back to our speckled trout. 

The weakfish is native to the Gulf of Mexico and the lower Atlantic Coast. In Florida, it often is called a “sea trout.” It’s hard to get away from the trout thing because the typical two or three pounder resembles a true member of the tribe. The gleaming profile and bold peppering suggest a real trout. 

As far as that goes, the whole sea trout issue gets complicated. True sea trout are anadromous. They are born in freshwater, but migrate to the ocean and return several years later to spawn in their natal streams. This genetic salmon-like quirk is shared by various native trout species, and all are referred to as sea trout. 

Well, almost all.

The sea trout label does not apply to the rainbow trout. A wild rainbow in the Pacific Northwest that abandons its stream and goes to sea is known as a “steelhead.” This is because a rainbow fresh from the ocean is silver and gun-metal gray, with virtually no red coloration on the sides or gill plates.

Of course, most other sea-run trout and salmon species share this monochromatic trait in the salt. They are referred to as “bright fish” or “chromers” as they enter the rivers. Superior fighting qualities notwithstanding, I have no idea why the steelhead gets special billing.

But again I’m getting sidetracked. The name game tends to lead you into tangled backwaters. Let’s return to Texas.

Our top freshwater sport fish is the largemouth bass; and as you might suspect by now, it is not a bass. The true bass family in North America includes striped bass, white bass and the diminutive yellow bass—and of course, the white/striper hybrids.

All black bass (largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, Guadalupe, etc.) are members of the sunfish family. This is a bit of a letdown since other common members of the sunfish family are panfish such as bluegills, green sunfish and crappie.

Incidentally, “perch” is incorrect when referring to any of the smaller members of the sunfish tribe. Examples of true perch are walleyes, saugers and yellow perch. But let’s not follow that thread as we rig for “perch jerking” on the nearest East Texas reservoir.

Returning to the coast, the common term “redfish” is reasonably accurate. Technically, the redfish is a red drum; however on the mid-Atlantic coast, the same fish is known as a “channel bass.” Totally wrong—and now we’re back to that bass thing again. 

So, any time you hear somebody on Galveston Bay or Matagorda Bay refer to a gleaming, coppery beauty as a channel bass, you may correctly conclude you are dealing with a transplant, and I don’t mean the fish.

The snook is another example of a fish with many regional names. “Snook” originated in South Florida and is regarded as the proper name in North America. Other tags include “linesider” and “soap fish.” The former is obvious with one look at the snook’s dramatic black lateral line. The latter—I have no idea.

Decades ago, old salts along the Texas coast often called snook “pike,” presumably because the slim body and sloping head suggest the profile of the freshwater pike native to our midwestern and northern states.

Incidentally, just plain pike is the correct name for that species—not “northern pike” and certainly not “great northern pike.” Great Northern is the name of a railroad, not a fish.

Put another way, there’s no such thing as a “southern pike.”

Because snook in Texas are found primarily along the lower coast, the Spanish influence spills over with “robalo.” This is perfectly acceptable since snook are most common in tropical regions of Mexico and Central America.

The Spanish influence also carries with “dorado” for dolphin. For years, every offshore fisherman who knew a feather jig from a cigar minnow was perfectly happy with “dolphin” when identifying the hard-fighting, excellent-eating fish. Note I say “fish” not “mammal.” The dorado is in no way remotely related to Flipper. 

But many non-anglers were horrified at the label of dolphin fillets in markets and on menus, so the politically correct media launched a campaign to avoid confusion. Now it’s “dolphin fish” or maybe “dolphin-fish” or, better yet, “dolphinfish.” I refuse to use any of them.

Some people prefer the Hawaiian term “mahi-mahi” when playing the name game with dolphin. Or, if you want extra style points, simply “mahi.” Bringing the Polynesian language into it is legitimate, but probably has more traction if you are an island-born, tough-guy kanaka rather than an inland tourist with a brand new Tommy Bahama shirt.

I wouldn’t overdo the Hawaiian thing in Texas. For example, don’t drop a triggerfish on a crusty dock in Seadrift and call it a humuhumunukunuku-apua’a.

Finally, on the PC subject, the term “fisher” seems to be gradually replacing “fisherman” in print. Actually, the shift is logical, following the long-time lead of “hunter,” “surfer,” even “golfer.” I mean, nobody says “golferperson.”

But I’m not buying it.

I grew up with “fisherman.” I am comfortable with “fisherman,” and I go on the theory that since most anglers are male, the majority in a democracy should win. If somebody should point and say, “Look at the three fishers on the other bank,” I expect to see three fur-bearing mammals of the marten family—not a trio of bearded guys with receding hairlines and cans of Bud Light.

The name game has many curious twists in fishing. Worth noting: Over time and tide the wrong word sometimes becomes the right word.

Email Joe Doggett at

[email protected]


Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]


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