Sometimes called the “oyster cracker” because of its prominent teeth and powerful jaws capable of crushing and eating crabs and other crustaceans, the toadfish has gotten a bad reputation, especially among anglers. To get an idea why, read this opening description of the fish from Life in the Chesapeake Bay, a standard reference book:
“Toadfish may lay claim to being the ugliest fish in the Chesapeake Bay, a vision for nightmares, slimy and ragged, with fleshy flaps hanging from their lips and over their eyes, covered with warts and with threatening, wide-gaping jaws armed with sharp teeth. Oyster toadfish, Opsanus tau, or dowdies, as they are also called, are known to anyone who has dropped a fishing line into Bay waters. Toadfish are omnivorous feeders and quickly take to bait. The unhappy angler must be wary of this pugnacious fish. When caught, it erects sharp spines on its dorsal fin and gills and snaps viciously with its powerful jaws. Fortunately, it is not very large, attaining a maximum length of a foot or so.”
While edible, toadfish rarely are eaten by humans, perhaps because of their grotesque appearance and grumpy attitude, according to EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program. They’re fairly abundant throughout the Chesapeake, although more common in the lower, saltier parts of the estuary. They can tolerate litter and other pollution, and can survive out of water longer than you might guess.
But there’s more to this Bay critter than scary looks and sharp teeth. For starters, male toadfish sing when they’re in love.
Adult males use their tail, gills, and large mouth to make a nest, hollowing out a dark, secretive depression in the mud and backing in tail-first. Then they sing, calling out into the black abyss to attract a female to their lair. More from Life in the Chesapeake Bay:
“On a warm summer night, when below deck on a moored boat, it is not unusual to hear distinct but plaintive foghorn calls through the sides of the hull. The foghorn or boat-whistle call is made by spawning male toadfish calling for a mate. Females and non-spawning males apparently do not make this call, but they are all capable of making loud grunting noises...When taken out of water, toadfish often respond with loud grunts.”
After the male has attracted a paramour to his love nest and spawned, the female toadfish lays her eggs – nearly one-fourth inch in diameter, the largest eggs of any fish in the Chesapeake Bay – then abandons him to hang out in underwater grass beds, leaving egg protection and child rearing completely to the male.
He’s up to the task, however, dutifully guarding the eggs until they hatch and even riding herd on the youngsters and protecting them for several weeks after they become free-swimming.
You got to love this guy – ugly and secretive but full of attitude and romance, a responsible single dad who is fearless and tough, a survivor.
“I do really like them,” says Dr. Troy Tuckey, a fisheries researcher at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). “They’re unusual-looking fish, even alarming, with their flattened head and huge mouth…but they’re pretty cool.”
Tuckey is very familiar with toadfish, finding them often as he’s culling through monitoring nets and trawls in the course of his work. He’s also painfully familiar with the business end of this critter, having been bitten many times.
“It sort of feels like banging a finger with a hammer…a full-finger crunch,” he says.
Okay, I think I mentioned toadfish can be cranky.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Photos courtesy of (top to bottom): NASA, VIMS, CBF, NOAA.