This column won second place in Best Daily Newspaper Story category of the 2014 SEOPA Excellence in Craft Awards.
A lady is supposed to be well-mannered and reserved, with a politeness expected of the higher classes. However, the ladyfish is totally the opposite and makes its appearance in area waters during the sweatiest months of the year.
While prospecting for speckled trout near Southport last week, a debutante ball broke out with the dawn. First, mullet swirled in defensive circles, balling tightly against the suitors half-light would bring. Aerial attacks began, with pelicans and terns diving down to join the buffet. Menhaden were flipping and I managed to snag a dance with a speck.
Then the water churned a hundred yards away. Figuring the party was being crashed by supersized specks or chopper blues, I pulled anchor and made way to the scene of the commotion.
As soon as I saw the first fish turning a pirouette in mid-air I knew the party-crasher was a ladyfish. Why a ladyfish is so named, I've never heard a reasonable explanation. Perhaps it is due to outsized eyes, which glows in sunlight like those of a walleye. The eye physiology indicates ladyfish are active at night and are attracted to nightlights, so the name could be a nod toward nocturnal activities. A big one weighs 4 pounds, so why is their other nickname "ten-pounder?"
As badly as I wanted to catch some specks, I could not resist the temptation as ladyfish flaunted their wares. They chased mullet as the hapless baitfish leapfrogged across the water's surface, an escape maneuver that did them absolutely no good.
I cast a trout jig near a boil made by a ladyfish that instantly attacked. The fish streaked away and leaped a half-dozen times, shaking its head and twisting around like a miniature tarpon. It tossed the lure in my face.
The interior of the mouth of a ladyfish is hard bone, as are the outer jaws. Hooking one securely enough to land it involves a lot of luck and a bit of skill. Many landed ladyfish are hooked in the gill cover or tongue. I turned up the drag as much as I calculated the 10-pound braided line and 15-pound fluorocarbon leader could withstand when trying to stop a runaway skyrocket, then made another cast.
The fish struck hard and I hauled back harder, setting the hook solidly. I wanted the fish for a photo. But, as the fish approached the boat, I imagined it was exhausted enough to land by grabbing the leader. It's a beginner's mistake, I know, but I misjudged the ability of the fish to recover after such a strenuous fight. With a shake of its head, the fish broke the leader and swam off with my jig.
Several hook-ups but no landings later, the ladyfish dissipated along with the mullet schools. The sun had risen, warming water and air. The lackluster trout bite became even slower.
I was ready to call it a morning when a fish attacked my jig. I set the hook and a fish rocketed out of the water. The ladyfish wasn't as big as the first one that made it to the gunwale, weighing perhaps 2 pounds. Still, it gave at least 10 pounds of fight to earn its other name and was adequately ladylike to pose for photos before being released to dance across the water another day.