What’s in a Name?

Shortfin corvina, Cynoscion parvipnnis

by Scott Sadil

In his graceful early report from Baja California, The Forgotten Peninsula, Joseph Wood Krutch invites us into a rich discussion of the notion of “convergence” – “which means,” Krutch says, “that plants or animals not closely related . . . come to resemble one another because they have evolved similar devices for meeting the demands of a similar situation.”

Krutch introduces the topic with the apparent similiarities between the desert peninsula’s striking boojum tree, or cirio(Fouquieria columnaris), and the equally strange elephant tree, torote blanco, or copalquín (Pachycormus discolor).

The two plants, both elegantly freakish in appearance, actually have little in common in the way of evolutionary ancestry, other than having developed similar characteristics to survive in a harsh desert climate.

To paraphrase something Steinbeck wrote on observing the ungainly feeding of pelicans diving clumsily into bait, if it didn’t work, there wouldn’t be any pelicans.

The attentive angler generally finds his or her way into the discussion of convergence on considering the similarities and differences of fish, both in their appearance and their actual kinship, scientifically, on the genus or family levels of Linnaean classification.

California corbina, Mentricirrhus undulatus

Better still, anglers are often part of an even richer discussion, considering the often confusing common names of their prey.  When is a bass a bass, a trout a trout?

I bring up these ideas after a recent outing in the surf along the boca at Santo Domingo, one of several openings from Bahía Magdalena into the Pacific along the Baja peninsula.  Two different fish to the fly—a bunch of corvina, plus an unusual, for these parts, corbina—both caught in the foamy trough just outside the gentle shorebreak.

Now, in the Mexican Spanish I’ve heard throughout my life, the pronunciation of the letters “b” and “v” are all but identical.  If I told you I caught a corvina or a corbina, you might not hear the difference—unless, perhaps, I offered, “corbina with a ‘b’” or “corvina with a ‘v’.”

Corvina with a ‘v’

The two fish have a similar appearance and are generally found in a similar inshore environment—though I should add that the California corbina (with a ‘b’), is caught fairly infrequently this far south and the IUCN questions the extent of the California corbina’s southern range due to the presence of similar and easily misidentified species that exist in the Gulf of California.

Corbina and corvina share the family name: Sciaenidae, the croakers or drums that surf and inshore anglers seek enthusiastically along coastlines elsewhere. The corvina belongs to the genus Cynoscion, which includes weakfish and seatrout (trout?), plus their oversized cousin, Cynoscion regalis, the regal white seabass (bass?), and the granddaddy of them all, the much endangered toatuava, from the upper Sea of Cortez.

The corbina, Menticirrhus elongatus, is noted for the small barbel protruding from beneath its turned-down mouth—better to creep through the shallows and somehow sense or feel or even smell the presence of sand crabs, their favorite fare.

The corvina, on the other hand, has a mouth clearly designed to attack and capture baitfish.  

Yet I caught my most recent corbina on a four-inch baitfish pattern, the same fly I was using to catch innumerable shortfin corvina—which proves, once again, that the fly is probably the last thing that matters when it comes to casting flies into the surf.

Plus, nearly all fish that show up in and around the surf, fish that converge in the wash and currents and waves that define this particular environment, are necessarily strong aggressive predators, there to feed on bait, of any kind, that gathers or huddles along shore.

For the ardent fly angler, there’s really no other sport quite like it—even when you aren’t sure what name to call what you catch.

Nearly thirty years ago now, Gray’s angling editor, Scott Sadil, misidentified a fish in a photo he used in his first book, Angling Baja, an unredeemable error, he still feels, on his part.