Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 7, 2010

Dead Fish Talking

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:13 pm

Though I love catching and eating fish from Dollar Lake, I do not enjoy cleaning them. It is a necessary function of rendering fish to filet but part of the problem involves having to destroy their perfect form. When a freshly dead sunfish or perch is lying on my cutting board, the naturalist in me requires that I give “the specimen” a good look over before even thinking about unsheathing my knife. You could say that I am trying to see what the fish can tell me about life in the weedy depths of the lake. Even after being rendered into parts, the partial fish may still have something to say, so I keep on listening. The only time I do not want a fish talking to me is after I have eaten it!

So far, none of my fish have actually talked. They have not murmured things like “I see dead people” or “help” but my recent set of fish – a nice little batch of Perch, Bluegill, and two Pumpkinseed Sunfish -did provide some mute testimony regarding scale design, snails, and the meaning of roughage.

The first step in the fish preparation process is the scaling. This is the part I really hate because it removes the beautifully patterned skin of the creature. The scales themselves have no color but they are things of beauty none-the-less. I saved samples from each fish in order to later look at them under high magnification. The resulting images are, even considering my meager micro-photo abilities, fascinating.

Scales are thin rigid plates that both protect the fish and streamline their form for swimming. Each scale is imbedded in the skin and only a small part of it is exposed (see skin detail here). Perch have a heavily scalloped scale (see above and beginning photo) that looks very much like a baseball mitt. The Bluegill (see here) and Sunfish (see below) are more rectangular in outline. On all three images, the exposed portion is facing downward and the embedded part is uppermost. All three species have a type of structure called a Ctenoid scale which means that the exposed portion has “teeth” or multiple tiny spines.

Multiple concentric lines on the scale reveal seasonal growth patterns. These lines are somewhat like rings on a tree, but only the more prominent lines are actual year indicators (the rest are random records of yesterday, the day before last Tuesday, etc.). It takes some staining and light angling to really see these annular lines, but you can make them out on my pictures if you squint and stand on your head. If you can’t make them out then please take my word for it that fish cannot lie about their age. The perch was probably about three or four years old by the time it latched onto that worm-concealed hook dangling in Dollar Lake.

Both of the Pumpkinseed Sunfish spilled their guts in order to inform me that they enjoyed multiple escargot meals while dining below the waves. Their stomachs were packed with small orangish discs like those shown above (and in detail here). These discs are operculums from Banded Mystery Snails (now that’s a name!).  Not all snail species have them, but some possess this hard operculum which acts as a front door whenever the creature withdraws into its shell (see below). It is carried back behind the shell, on top of the fleshy foot, when the snail is roaming out and about.

It should be no surprise that these snails would compose a large part of the fish diet because they are extremely common in the lake. The shoreline of the lake is littered with their empty shells and live individuals can be seen climbing over the aquatic vegetation (see above). It was interesting to see that the pumpkinseeds seemed to have the corner on this shellfish market. The shells are easily crushed on the smaller individuals and the fleshy creatures contained within are probably quite the morsel.

It appears that the only downside to eating Banded Mystery Snails are those darned operculums. They do not break down and therefore accumulate in the stomach. I can only imagine what the fish has to say when it eventually has to pass these things. I mean their anal opening isn’t all that large and, well…..the question is begged: when a fish screams underwater does the sound reach the surface? I will be listening on my next visit to the lake.


  1. Beautiful.
    Fish have to be so very dead before I will undertake (so to speak) to gut them. Because their anal openings always make a noise when the filet knife gets near them, and I’m afraid I relate to that a little too deeply.
    That said, once that has been broached I too examine stomach contents.

    Comment by Murr Brewster — October 11, 2010 @ 2:31 am

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