What’s in a Name?

Longjaw Leatherjacket, Oligoplites altus

by Scott Sadil

My old buddy Peter Syka, the biologist, is in town, sharing a few choice words about the appalling lack of so much as a bag of dried pinto beans in my larder.

“I got tired of beans on my last Baja trip,” I explain.

Peter digs up a small baggie of black beans, tries to cook them – and four hours later throws out the lot, wondering if, perhaps, they might have been a wee bit old.

“Maybe,” I concede, suspecting they arrived home two years ago, not last fall.

“What do you eat on board Madrina, anyway?” Peter asks, scrubbing out the bottom of the bean pot.

“Beans, rice – and fish, mostly.”  

“What kind of fish?  It’s not like you’re going to kill a twenty-pounder for dinner.”

I list off the usual suspects: Corvina, grouper, pargo, halibut.

“But my favorite is this bright upright surf fish:  Two easy fillets, never a bone.  Great tasting. Good fighter, too.”

“What is it?” asks Peter.

I consider.  “I used to call it a palometa.  That’s what the locals call it.  Or pompano, or pompanito.  A young guy I fished with last year had some other name – and then started calling them scoundrel fish because we couldn’t keep them off our flies when we were trying to find roosters instead.

“So what are they?”

“I’m not really sure.”

Now, if there’s one thing that bugs biologists, especially those who love fishing, it’s talking about fish without accurately identifying them.  Call a fish a bass and they ask what kind.  What’s a trout, anyway – like a sea trout?  

Snapper?  Perch?  Jack?

I go to the office and dig out my thirty-five-year-old copy of A.J. McClane’s Field Guide to Saltwater Fishes of North America.

Local nomenclature is often the worst. In Baja the name pargo gets tossed around for a host of different species, like you or I might call a bird a hawk.  Same with cabrilla.  And sometimes it actually matters: in Bahía Magdalena, all rays, even the dangerous sort, are referred to as mantarraya.  I once watched a government doctor carve out a serrated inch-long spike from the side of a local fisherman’s foot – when I’d always thought that the manta rays they kept talking about were perfectly harmless.    

It’s as bad as beer:  A pilsner is a lager, but a lager isn’t necessarily a pilsner.

And if you want to start some trouble, try calling salmon in places by their indigenous names:  A king is a chinook, a silver a coho – but be careful where you use one or the other.

My “good eating” surf fish is no doubt from the Carangidae or jack family.   McClane gets Peter and me as close as the leatherjacket genus, Oligoplites: four species in the Pacific, three in the Atlantic – but I challenge with umbrage the claim that the biggest reach only 15 inches.

The internet homes in on Oligoplites altus – the longjaw leatherjack or leatherjacket. The all-tackle world record is more like it: 1.58 kg (3 lbs 8 oz), caught thirty years ago in Costa Rica, and then tied six years later by the same angler, Craig Whitehead, MD – a record I suggest to Peter I’ve shattered a number of times, without an iota of evidence to back up my claim.

“They do pull hard,” I state with conviction.

Peter frowns.  He asks if I have any tortillas to go with the leftover posole.

Posole verde, con pollo, that is.


Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil likes his fish like his coffee: fresh and good.