The immense, steel-sided tanker slithered through the
dense fog as it made its approach to the mouth of Southwest Pass of the
Mississippi River. Nearby anglers, preoccupied with the very busy ends of
their fishing lines, hardly noticing its stealthy entry. It became a brief,
nonetheless, when towering, chocolate-colored wakes lazily rocked their boat
in a slow, diminishing succession. Of even less concern was the damp, foggy
air that hovered around their faces and saturated their clothing.
Perhaps to the uninformed observer, it would have seemed
that only hard-core anglers seeking redfish or speckled trout would brave
such menacing conditions. Furthermore, with the river stages reaching peak
level, what in the world could possibly be caught at this time of year?
Would you believe, Atlantic croaker?
Admittedly, while the croaker supports a substantial sport
fishery, it is a less popular species than several others of its family,
such as the redfish and speckled trout. But, to those who have tasted its
sweet-flavored flesh, it's a fish worth catching; and with current
regulations on primary species, anglers are now giving consideration to an
array of other sport fish.
Various areas along the northern Gulf of Mexico have an
abundance of Atlantic croaker, which is most prevalent from just east of the
Sabine River to Mobile, Ala. This is a species that is also caught along
coastal waters from Cape Cod, Mass., to the Bay of Kampuchea, Mexico. Though
its name, "Atlantic" croaker, gives the connotation of its range
being along the entire U.S. Atlantic Coast, research has found that it is
only occasionally caught north of New Jersey. Yet, comparatively speaking,
they are most abundant off the Louisiana and Mississippi coast.
Scientifically known as Micropogonias undulatus, the
croaker is also known by the names: corcus, hardhead, King Billy, and la
corbina, depending on where it's caught. Obviously, the name croaker is
derived from the predominate croaking sound that it produces by vibrating
its inflated swim bladder, much like that of a person rubbing an air-filled
The croaker has no doubt been confused with other species,
despite having obvious traits that make it easily identifiable. For
instance, those who have caught them are quite aware of the sharp, prickly
gills that flare out upon handling. This is why many anglers use a rag or
fish grabber when handling the species, particularly when dislodging a hook
from its mouth.
Other identification marks include six to ten tiny,
inconspicuous, barbell-like whisker on the underside of its chin. These are
used as a sensory mechanism for locating food, as it is an exclusive bottom
feeder like many other ground fish. Its back is greenish or a grayish-
silvery color to brassy yellowish and highly iridescent. Its underside is
silvery white. The back and sides are marked with several brassy or brownish
short, irregular, oblique bars formed by spots on scales. These bars are at
times less distinct in the larger adults. Its size is about 12 inches on the
average, though they infrequently reach a size of some two feet and may
weigh six or more pounds. In the latter size, they're easily mistaken for
redfish without spots on the tail.
Croakers seem to have a broad range of water depths in
which they are found, as spawning is reported to occur within a depth range
of 26 to 266 feet of water. Biologists who study the croaker have found that
spawning occurs in the open Gulf near the mouths of various passes that lead
into shallow bays and lagoons. Along the South Carolina coast, females ripe
with eggs have been found as far as 30 miles offshore.
Due to its prolonged spawning season, the Atlantic croaker
is one species that is easily caught. Within its entire range, larval and post larval
stages are collectible in passes and bays from as early as August
to as late as June in Louisiana. However, the normal range for the Gulf of
Mexico is from October to March with a peak in November, according to three
notable consultants on the species. Some experts have maintained that in
Louisiana, peak gulf ward migration occurs from September to November, though
October to November is the most commonly cited peak migration period.
Croakers have high mortality rates and few live beyond
five years, but there has been some discrepancy whether the species dies
after spawning. Such information is often alluded to in certain books
dealing with fishes of the Gulf of Mexico.
Interestingly, however, information taken from the report
entitled Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements
(Gulf of Mexico) Atlantic Croaker has cast some doubt on the aforesaid
theory. It stated, "No one has suggested that this species dies after
spawning, and there have been no reported observations of massive numbers of
spent Atlantic croaker carcasses as is common for salmonid and osmerid
species of more temperate waters."
Along Louisiana's coast, croakers are caught in estuaries
and bays by small-boat anglers, but many are also taken near offshore oil
production platforms. Bull croakers, those of the larger size, are more
often caught in the deeper waters near passes and at rigs in depths between
100 and 200 feet. For example, oil production platforms found out of Empire,
in the West Delta Blocks of 70, 71 and 90 are particularly suitable to
croaker. Such sizes can also be taken around the Mississippi Delta passes
and other similar areas along the Gulf Coast. Croakers also flourish in Lake
Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, which are considered to be nursery grounds
for the species.
Another factor that contributes to the species' wide
availability is the fact that it can survive in a versatile range of
salinity, specifically from that of very dilute (0.2 parts per thousand) to hyper- saline
(75 ppt). But survival of croakers at the upper end of this
range has not been studied extensively; therefore, biologists are uncertain
as to their survival rate under such prolonged conditions.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council reported in
1981 that ground fish stocks in the Gulf occur at the highest densities in
waters of less than 300 feet. During warmer months, most are in waters less
than 60 feet. Winter stock concentration is greatest in 60 to 180 feet. In
Louisiana waters west of the Mississippi River, croakers are found down to a
depth of 150 feet. Near the mouth of the Mississippi River, they are found
as deep as 300 feet and in winter migrate to depths of 210 to 360 feet.
Finding croakers near flowing rivers that meet with Gulf
waters are common. This is because croakers are prone to be influenced by a
highly turbid runoff that stirs the bottom, moving both bait and sediment.
Naturally, such areas provide food and cover from predators.
Since croakers have a relatively small mouth, it's
imperative when fishing to use a small hook (1/0 or smaller) when trying to
catch them. In other than deep water, light tackle is more in order when
trying to detect their subtle strikes.
With these vigorous bottom feeders, it's a must to keep
your bait at the bottom for maximum effectiveness. Catching two at a time on
tandem bottom rigs with cut squid is one of the better methods when fishing
the deeper waters near oil platforms. In moderate depths, the use of small
jig head hooks, fished singly or in tandem, also can be effective,
especially when the hooks are tipped with cut squid, white trout (sand sea
trout), croaker or shrimp chuncks.
Twenty-five years ago, the wellheads in 25-30 feet of
water just outside of Southwest Pass, Venice, La., flourished with croakers.
In the fall season it wasn’t uncommon to catch them two at the time on
tandem sparkle beetle rigs–without baiting them. Since then, for some
unknown reason, the
population of Atlantic croaker has diminished in those locations with the
exception of the areas along the jetties and passes.
In an extensive survey taken in 1983 on the species, the
Atlantic croaker was one of the most abundant Gulf fishes caught by both
commercial and sportfishermen. The species also was a main ground fish fisheries during that time.
Landing surveys from 1985-90 showed a steady decrease in
the number of Atlantic croakers taken by commercial fishermen in the U.S.
This may or may not suggest over-fishing, but possibly a lesser demand by
seafood purchasers for this species. Nonetheless, biologists are concerned
and are looking again into the impact that both user groups may have on the
A reported 6,786,000 pounds of croakers were landed
commercially in the U.S. in 1990. From 1990 –1994, a total of 50,000
pounds of croakers have been commercially landed in Louisiana according to
figures provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Though no size or limitations have been imposed on this
species at the time of this writing, it should not suggest that their
numbers are secure. Some studies suggest a decline in at least the two to
five pound size range of the species. Louisiana Department of Wildlife &
Fisheries Biologist Henry Blanchet has indicated that it is inevitable at
some point in the future that a management program will have to be
instituted for the survival of the Atlantic croaker. Obviously, without such
a program, the profile of the Atlantic croaker–as well as other
non-restricted species–may become reminiscent of what happened to the
Wagner & Leroy Lee: Fish the mouth of SW Pass of
the Mississippi River during heavy fog conditions in
November for the prize catch of bull Atlantic croaker. A
huge tanker ship passes in the background, making its
entrance into the main shipping channel of SW Pass, Venice,
this bull Atlantic croaker caught near the outside rock
jetties of SW Pass in East Bay, Venice, Louisiana.