, Gloucester, MA

July 12, 2013

Fishing for wolf fish in local waters

Dave Sartwell

---- — Sal Sorace leaned into the rod as he felt the light strike some 300 feet below. With two quick jabs he set the hook. He had already brought two nice cod to the Yankee Clipper and was ready for another.

“Wow! This is a big one!” he exclaimed. “It’s really heavy.” The electric reel he was using was giving out a high-pitched whir as it wound the fish up off the bottom. When the big fish broke the surface next to the boat, Sal looked down and his eyes went wide.

“Look at this thing. What is it? That’s the ugliest fish I have ever seen,” he said. “Look at those teeth! We don’t catch anything like this in New Jersey.”

Folks leaned over the rail to watch as the mate, Ross Clayton, hauled the huge wolf fish over the rail and onto the deck. Sal was right. It is one of the ugliest fish in the ocean. Over the centuries it has evolved into a very efficient grinder of shelled ocean life. As a result, it’s mouth looks like a bear trap. However, because of what it eats, this fish is also one of the tastiest in the ocean. Unfortunately because of the decline in their numbers, they are now a protected species and can not be taken.

“Stand back,” cautioned Ross. “This baby could really hurt you if he accidentally glommed onto you.”

The Atlantic Wolf fish (Anarhichas lupus, for you Latin fans) has an unusual body structure geared for the specific way it gathers and consumes food. They eat almost exclusively crabs, sea urchins, sea clams, star fish and other hard-shelled bottom dwellers. Because of that, their mouths are specially designed to capture and crush hard things.

They have four to six conical teeth that protrude from their jaw. They look like weird fangs jutting out of their face. Just behind those teeth are rows of what can best be described as hard nubs on both the top and bottom of the inner mouth. The great projecting tusks, rounded nose, and small eyes give the wolf a singularly savage aspect.

When the wolffish clamps down on his victim, he just crushes the shell inside his mouth. These teeth get ground down quickly from the crushing and are replaced annually after the spawning season. They usually fast until their new teeth grow in.

The wolf fish body is eel-like. It has a long dorsal fin the extends all along the top of his body to his tail like a cusk. He has another long fin along his belly. Although he does have scales, they are almost invisible in the heavy skin. The skin itself is thick, smooth and slippery like an eel. When it swims, it does so slowly with a long undulating motion.

Wolf fish are found from around Cape Cod through to Greenland. They are also exist in Europe from Iceland to the North Sea off from England. There is surprisingly little research done on this fish, probably because it has not been a big part of the annual commercial catch.

However, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, under the leadership of Dr. Elizabeth Fairchild, has been doing a study that has already revealed some interesting facts. For example, according to Dr. Michael Armstrong of the Division of Marine Fisheries, an aggregation of fish were recently located and tagged on Stellwagon Bank, the oldest of which was 33 years.

The wolf fish reproductive process is one quite different from most fish. First, they mature very late, somewhere between eight and ten years old.

The female does not deposit the eggs on the bottom and then have the males cover them with sperm. Instead, she keeps the eggs inside her body where they are internally fertilized.

Wolffish lay relatively few eggs compared to most fish, but they are very large. The number of eggs produced is relative to the females body size, but they lay anywhere between 5-12000 eggs. These fish are negatively impacted by bottom trawling which causes the re-suspension of bottom sediments which cover the spawning areas.

When they are young they live off the yolk sac and stay close to the bottom. They are not subject to the long involuntary migrations that are carried out by most of the members of the cod and flatfish tribes, but pass through their entire larval stage near where they are hatched. Localities where the young are taken are evidence of local spawning.

Again, unlike most fish, the male guards the nesting site for up to four months, fasting as he does so. He also becomes uncharacteristically aggressive during this period. During that time the youngsters grow to a size where they can take care of themselves. The adults do not school up during the year, but move off to live relatively solitary lives until it is time to mate again.

They like hard bottom in deep water. They can be found in water up to six hundred feet deep although they prefer depths from 250-350 feet. Where we often fish there are a few rock outcroppings we drift over. Wolf fish love to wait for their prey in small depressions, holes and caves in these rocky structures. They also like cold water. In fact, they are one of the few fish that have a natural antifreeze in their blood to keep it moving through their systems when the temperatures drop. As adults they move very little, staying tight to structure.

Ross took the hook from the mouth of the big fish and tossed him back into the ocean. Because these fish do not have a swim bladder, his chances of survival after being released is quite high. If you catch a wolf fish that has a tag, record the information and call 603-862-1244. Your information could be very helpful to the project.