Face to face with the inshore lizardfish

An inshore lizardfish tries to make Don blink first.
An inshore lizardfish tries to make Don blink first.

We arrived at the dive site.

The mate tied off the bow line to the mooring ball line, gave a brief description of the reef and suggested a few different routes to follow during the dive.

We were at Snapper Ledge, only a short boat ride from Tavernier. It is loaded with fish, easy to navigate, usually has good visibility and is only 20 to 25 feet deep — making it great for divers of all experience levels and snorkelers on calm days.

I exited the back-end of the dive boat and slowly descended.

Upon reaching the bottom, I turned right swimming along looking under the ledge with no particular place to go.

An old Chuck Berry song started playing in my head.

“Riding along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel.

I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile, my curiosity runnin' wild.

“Crusin' and playin' the radio — with no particular place to go.” (“No Particular Place to Go” by Chuck Berry, released in May 1964 as a single by Chess Records).

I saw many of the usual suspects including snapper, grunt, moray eels, goatfish, parrotfish, trunkfish, butterflyfish, several other varieties of tropical fish.

But still no particular place to go.

Then, propped up on paired belly (ventral) fins I saw a strange foot-long creature — sort of a like the offspring of a chance encounter between a fish and a lizard during a full moon on a spooky Halloween night.

Its head looked reptilian; its gaping mouth was filled with teeth, and it had alligator eyes.

I had found a place to go, face-to-face with an inshore lizardfish (Synodus foetens). I slowly inched up to get a photo.

The fish held its ground. I got closer. The fish still its held its ground.

The music in my head changed from “no particular place to go” to the theme song from the 1966 movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Suddenly, I felt like I was in the middle of the gun fight scene looking the other guy’s squinty eyes. Nobody blinked.

OK, over the top drama but the inshore lizardfish did look fearsome and wasn’t one bit frightened by me or the bubbles blasting from my regulator.

The first part of its scientific name, Synodus, translates from Greek "tooth meeting.” Not a bad description. Lizardfish even have teeth on their tongues. The second part of their scientific name, foetens, means “stinky." Lizardfish deteriorate rapidly and smell really bad.

Lizardfish are bottom fish found both inshore and offshore but they are different species. The offshore type is smaller and lives in deeper water. The inshore lizardfish can grow to approximately 17 inches in length. The world record is 2 pounds. Females are generally larger than males when mature.

Inshore lizardfish are brown in color, with a row of white spots down the upper side and a row of brown spots down the side. They are a very cylindrical, boney and stiff fish.

The inshore lizardfish I saw was propped up on its fins for a reason. This is an excellent position from which to dart up and catch prey. It also provides a good launch position to escape predators.

The inshore lizardfish is a voracious predator that preys on small fish, anchovies, shrimp, squid and worms and other invertebrates.

They live a solitary life of up to nine years in shallow water over sand, mud or grass beds. Some partially bury themselves in the sandy bottoms for camouflage.

Adults may migrate to depths of 100 feet or more of sea water to spawn. Their eggs and larvae then free-float in open waters. When currents carry them nearer shore, the juveniles drop out of the water column and become bottom-dwellers.

Inshore lizard fish live the western Atlantic from New Jersey south along the U.S. coast, Bermuda, the Bahamas, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and St. Martin.

“Lizardfish are not known for their qualities as table fare. However, Charles S. Manooch III, author of the book Fisherman's Guide: Fishes of the Southeastern United States, notes that small local markets for lizardfish have been developed in Florida, catering to the demands of Asian restaurants. Manooch says that they may be broiled or deep fried,” according to Jerald Horst in a 2010 Louisiana Sportsman story http://www.louisianasportsman.com/details.php?id=2518

“Various sources, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, state that members of the lizardfish family are of commercial importance in Southeast Asia. The same source also reports the flesh of the fish to be of good flavor but bony.”

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, the inshore lizardfish species “is subject to significant fishing mortality in the north central Gulf of Mexico due to its susceptibility to shrimp trawls, which may be significant at the population level.”

The agency says: “There are no species-specific conservation efforts in place. It is not clear at this time if the implementation of bycatch reduction devices in the shrimp trawl fleet benefits this species.” (See: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/16441698/25)

I never tire of visiting Snapper Ledge. If you happen to be diving in the upper Keys give it a try. You might see an inshore lizardfish, but even if you don’t you will see walls of grunt and maybe a nurse shark or two with no particular place to go.

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.