Fish Forensics

Look Beyond the Scales and See the Ocean’s Top Predators like Never Before

Dave Kustra April 27, 2017

Have you ever wondered why cubera snapper are so well equipped to crush and inhale spiny lobster? Why marauding wahoo prefer to maim fast food by cutting off their propulsion and returning to finish the kill? Maybe you’re intrigued how sailfish corral scaly bait into tight schools and bludgeon them with specialized weaponry? As anglers, we take great pride in the hunt and mimic the defined diet and eating methodology of our target species with a preferred lure, rig, bait or tactical presentation. The more we understand and observe the behavior and biology of the ocean’s top predators, the more successful our on-the-water angling pursuits will be.

forensics10_album

1 of 11

DoughertyPhotos.com : The biggest of all snapper species, cubera are best known for their large canine teeth.

Many fishermen are vigilant and extremely observant to prevalent and predicted ocean conditions in hopes of cracking the code to consistent success, but there are volumes to be learned by closely examining the fish themselves. When a fish hits the deck most take a quick look at the breathtaking colors, scale pattern and twitching fins, but I take it to a new level by preserving and assembling the bones for further analysis. Ultimately, it is my passion to create near biologically perfect and museum-quality articulated fish skulls that are as individual and unique as the angler and story that accompanies it. What I’ve learned about fish has really opened my eyes to a new world I never knew existed.

The top predators we chase have evolved to specifically accommodate their surroundings and available forage.

Using bones for analysis can expose a different type of visual understanding than a typical inspection on the fillet table. Absorbing the details from each bone, tooth and gill plate tells a complete story of a living unit that evolved a specific skill set for survival. Even within species, the variation never ceases to amaze me. One particular cubera snapper may appear to have a dietary preference for crustaceans, featuring missing, rounded and chipped teeth, when another has many more teeth, all sharp to the touch and honed to hold onto fish. Healed wounds or broken bones crudely self-repaired further define the legacy of a top predator. I have never seen two swordfish bills alike, nor have I seen a mutton snapper with an array of cone shaped teeth forming the same smile as another.

Osteichthyes, or boney fish, are the largest and most diverse class of vertebrates on the planet.  With fossil records dating back around 420 million years, they also have one of the longest withstanding and successful survival records of the entire animal kingdom. Through a relentless balance of survival and adaptation, you could say that the trophy predators we put so much effort in targeting have been approaching perfection for quite a long time. Much of this progression can be witnessed through fossil record comparison, with the unwritten blueprint for survival and reproduction beginning with a sustainable diet.

The top predators we chase have evolved to specifically accommodate their surroundings and available food sources. Drilling down the diet further, the teeth or bill can begin the obvious observation. Billfish incorporate the freedom of vast oceanic territory with the precision of locating and consuming individual or grouped meals. Having a beak or sword, pelagic knights are usually apex to their surroundings and deadly effective at stunning and disabling prey. A closer look provides some hints at their advantages. With an ultra-light frame of porous and oily bones, oversized eyes and specialized weaponry, billfish are clearly built for agility and high speed attacks.

Wahoo and kingfish also rely on speedy attacks and are commonly observed skyrocketing on surface bait, surprising or ambushing their victims with a steak knife grin. Both rely on enhanced sight and sharp orderly teeth to lead a lightweight frame through a deadly assault with dismembering consequences. After the strike, smaller portions of a significantly slowed meal are easier to choke down. With the ability to endure numerous open-mouth collisions at such high speeds, these toothy pelagics have carved out a violent niche among the competition with a mouth designed to kill.

Sink down through the water column and it’s a different world with different rules. Here, anglers drop bait near over-hanging ledges, deep holes and dark caverns. Ambushed by an enormous cubera snapper that has no intentions of letting go, forage is punctured, crushed and engulfed whole. Fish, lobster, and crabs can all be found on the menu, with this creature relying heavily on its bite’s hold, force and incapacitating effectiveness. With a stout frame, unlimited tooth replacement and massive capacity, there are few prey items not on the cubera snapper’s menu.

Similarly, many grouper species that live on the reef have adapted to a slightly varied menu that includes a diet other than fish. Have you ever gone to the cutting board after a day on the water and discovered strange and unusual snacks inside your catch? Maybe a spider crab or unlucky mantis shrimp? Miniature squid or see through cartoon-like fish? The reef’s biodiversity includes many predators and many more prey items. With such a broad menu, there’s plenty of room for a choosy appetite and specifically defined fish may exercise extreme preference. Additionally, demersal species relating to bottom structure have a more physical habitat interaction than pelagic predators found in the open ocean and often have a home within the reef. Heavy and dense bones become a ballast to alleviate the energy it takes to resist strong currents and stay put in their lairs. Ever get rocked up by a grouper? Their heavy shoulders and thick gill plates provide leverage through expansion that gives them the edge to defeat even the most prepared anglers.

While incredibly accurate fiberglass release mounts are commonly created to document impressive game fish, hunters have enjoyed a diverse availability for display including shoulder mounts, full mounts, rugs and skulls. Today, the skull mount of your trophy fish is available to document your experience just like the terrestrial hunter. Comparing the two, the most notable difference is that fish skulls have an articulation process that is dramatically more complex and time consuming than all other creatures in the animal kingdom. Unlike mammal skulls that become naturally fused together, a fish skull may have more than 100 individual and independent bones. When working with a fish skull, each species presents its own challenges.

We take great pride in the creation of truly one-of-a-kind museum quality specimens that integrate detail and craftsmanship to last a lifetime. These custom creations are available to immortalize the menacing bite from the hunted and capture the artistic beauty within fish osteology and nature itself. For more information visit dakusbones.com.

Join the Discussion