Our Beloved Toadfish

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By RON “WRANGLER” SMITH

I have a theory that more toadfish are left to waste than any other fish in Tampa Bay each year. The hardhead catfish ranks a close second, but it’s the toadfish that gets absolutely no respect. They are never targeted, just left to die when caught. If you’ve walked the length of a pier or a bridge with a catwalk you’ve seen a toadfish. Sometime no one will be around it. It’ll just be lying there, dead, or nearly so.

The Gulf toadfish, also called dogfish or oysterdog by veteran and new-comer fisherman alike, is an ugly fish, no doubt. A toadfish is a mottled brown and gray in color and has a tremendous mouth, a feature immediately noticed by the angler. Full of teeth, too. Not a place a fisherman would like to place his finger. If you’ve ever caught a toadfish then you know they often grunt or “croak” when handled. This sound is made through their swim bladder and not their throat.

Fortunately, gulf toadfish don’t get very big. Twelve inches is pretty much their maximum. They spend their entire life on the bottom, within or near structure, waiting for anything edible to pass by. They are ambush predators. So, a shrimp or minnow, dead or alive, dangled on a hook is an easy target for a toadfish. Their big mouths rarely miss and then they find themselves being reeled to the surface, only to be mistreated.

Many anglers do not want anything to do with a toadfish. They’ll step on it while they try to unhook it, whack it on the ground until it is dead before they’ll touch it, and sometimes anglers will just cut the line and leave the fish to fall where it may. Again, the toadfish gets no respect.

But the gulf toadfish has a very interesting life history. They spawn in February and March when the water temperature begins to rise again. The male selects a “nest”, which is usually a shell, or sponge, or some burrow within a congregation of barnacles. The male then “grunts” to attract females, who come and lay the ¼-inch sized eggs. These eggs, which are quite large considering the toadfish’s size, are guarded by the males until they hatch – which could take a month. Even after the little toads are hatched, the males stay with the nest for quite some time, guarding them. A pretty attentive fish, I’d say.

Some toadfishes have been marketed for human consumption, but it is a practice which in America has never taken hold. Interestingly, two toadfish made space history recently when they were taken on a space flight with Senator John Glenn (many years after his astronaut days). The role of the toadfish was to be studied for the effects of microgravity on their balance system. You see, the balance system of a toadfish is very similar to that of humans.

I like to catch mangrove snapper from area bridges and piers. Often times, when cleaning the snapper, I’ll open up their stomachs to see what they’ve consumed. I’m embarrassed to say that I often find one or two of my previously hooked shrimp or minnows in them, but I also have found small toadfish, too. Toadfish have a tough life.

If you’ve stayed with me this long and are still reading this article, I would hope that you’ve gained a new respect for our beloved gulf toadfish. Like all the fishes in the sea, the toadfish has a purpose. Treat it with respect. You’ll feel better about yourself.