Thursday, January 22, 2009

A (true) fish story

What is a sallygrowler?

I would love to know! I can't find it in any dictionary and it produces only one hit on Google. As far as I can tell, it's a Jersey shore colloquialism for a certain saltwater creature I remember from growing up on the Metedeconk River. I remember a meaty, prehistoric-looking fish that lurked in the mucky depths of the river and would sometimes show up with blueclaws in our crab traps--but most memorably, was capable of "biting your foot off."

If you know more about sallygrowlers, please let me know. If I could find out their official name I'm sure I could get more info, and I hope even photographs.

In the meantime, picture teeth and slime and consider them a good reason to keep your feet kicking in the water.

Lisa at

Longhorn sculpin
Myoxocephalus octodecimspinosus

We called them "sallygrowlers"--we thought toadfish was the official name. We caught them, feared them, heard them (they grunt when out of the water, but that hardly explains the "sally" part).

I got acquainted with one years and years ago--in bad moments I still hear it growling, buried in a white cardboard box that held the squid that fed this butt-ugly critter.

Yep, another fish story. This isn't your father's wikipedia.

Jack McCloskey was a barber with longish hair while the war still raged in 'Nam. He owned a wooden 25' boat, before wood became cool again. We ate short lobsters because he told us they tasted better, and because they were illicit, they did.

He died when I was young, the first person I knew selfish enough to do so--crushed in a car crash before our third fishing trip. He liked me, even though I was a kid, and not just because I was my father's son.

Jack wore his hair like Elvis. Jack talked a lot. And Jack liked to fish.

Twice Jack took us out tuna fishing. He had poles rigged with bunker spoons the size of my head. We were going to the Mud Hole, to the Acid Sea, to a place where we could not see land.

One time the motor conked out, another time 15 foot swells kept us close to shore. I bet if he had lived long enough he'd eventually make it out to the Mud Hole, but with Jack, reaching the goal was almost besides the point.

Kids can sense these things, sometimes before their parents can, both unnerving and invigorating. Jack was the first grown up I called by first name, and the last for more than a decade after that.

By late afternoon on a long day of a sputtering engine and too much drinking (drunk men, buzzed kids), we drifted in the shoals of the Navesink River. We had yet to catch a fish. Dreams of tuna were now reduced to bouncing squid on the bottom, hoping for a fluke or an eel.

Tug....tug tug. I yanked the pole, and wrestled out a fish uglier than pimples on a frog, bug eyed, covered with spines. And it growled at me.

"Watch for the spines!...Don't let your fingers near its mouth!
You got yourself a sallygrowler!"

"What's a sallygrowler?"

"A toadfish, son."

A toadfish. Of course, what else could it be. It was a reasonably large toadfish, as far as toadfish go, and it was ugly and fearsome and it growled. We dumped the rest of the squid from cardboard bait box, and put the sallygrowler in it. I figured it would die in a few minutes, and I wanted to show it to my mom.

The dock was about 20 minutes away. The box sat on the floor. It shuddered a couple of times.

While unloading the boat, I peeked at the fish--the gill flaps kept pumping--its eyes continued to stare up. It looked more frumpy than fearsome. Water slapped against the pilings There are rare moments in a 7 year old's life when decisions with lifelong consequences are made. I made the wrong decision. I took it home.

Fish breathe through their gills. Water has dissolved oxygen, and the water passes by millions of tiny capillaries. The capillaries are supported by the water. When a fish is out of water, the capillary beds collapse, and the fish suffocates. At least that's what the textbooks say.

Some fish can live for a long time out of water. Scientists do not spend a whole lot of time studying fish of no economic value--earlier generations of naturalists spent hours observing critters, but even a naturalist with tenure does not have the luxury of time we have as children.

The longhorn sculpin, at least this longhorn sculpin, does not suffocate when out of water. After a few hours of showing off my fish to my pals and my mom, it still breathed. Its eyes still stared.

I buried the fish, in the box, a few feet from our garden. A little while later I dug it up to make sure it had died. It had not. I buried it again, and have not dared to check since.

I can still hear it growling.

Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder, "Longhorn sculpin", Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, Fishery Bulletin 74,
Fishery Bulletin of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Volume 53

Oooh...momomom found a site where you, too, can hear a sallygrowler growl.


Alfred Heath said...

You give good story.


doyle said...

The world gives good stories. All anyone has to do is pay attention.

Thanks for resurrecting this one!