07/03/09 — OUTDOORS - Ladyfish pack big bite

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OUTDOORS - Ladyfish pack big bite

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on July 3, 2009 1:46 PM

As the water heats up along the North Carolina coast, saltwater species undergo a dramatic change. Spadefish show up at the offshore reefs, dolphin move within sight of the beach and summer flounder flock to the nearshore ledges and inlets.

But there's one fish that migrates to the backwaters and inlets that can give any light-tackle angler a big-fish battle for its dinky size. While it is called a ladyfish, the fish is not dainty. It surges away line like a red drum, then puts on an aerial display unrivalled by another other fish weighing between a pound and four pounds that swims in either fresh or saltwater.

"Look at that fish leap," said Ned Connelly. "I think it must be a bluefish."

Connelly was casting to a mullet school congregating along the edge of a grass bed in a coastal river with a chartreuse MirrOlure, hoping for a bite from a speckled trout. Connelly lives in Wilmington and had sneaked out on a rare Friday afternoon for a few hours, taking a break from his high-pressure technology sales and representation business.

It was the cusp of sunset when the fish struck. In the weak light of the shadow cast by a threatening thundercloud, and considering the distance the fish struck, she had been hard to identify. But upon nearing the boat, the ladyfish revealed her true colors, which is really no color at all except the colors of her surroundings. The ladyfish is also affectionately nicknamed the "miniature tarpon" because of her habit of leaping continuously when hooked and for her mirror-like scales. When the light strikes her, she's as silver as a newly minted quarter. It's also her alluring, very large eyes that are dead giveaways as to her actual species once she's secured in the landing net.

Ladyfish could also be called the lady-of-the evening fish, because they strike very aggressively under lighted docks, piers, and roadway bridges at night. As their huge eyes in relationship to the size of their sleek bodies indicate, ladyfish can easily see they prey in the dark. They feed on squid, minnows, small fish and juveniles of larger fish species. Those anglers who target them watch for their leaps in illuminated areas at night.

But while the ladyfish is a very successful predator, it has no teeth, just an extremely hard set of bony jaws. Connelly's ladyfish did what most of them do when he netted it. She disdainfully spit out the lure.

The lure had hooked her in the gill plate, which is also very hard. Once it strikes, the ladyfish is very difficult to keep on the hook. At this time of year and through all summer months through August, anglers everywhere along the coast can experience multiple strikes when casting lures, or multiple runs when fishing with baited hooks in the surf, only to try to set the hook and feel the line goe slack.

It's hard to hook a ladyfish securely. Most that anglers land are hooked in a the inner or outer gill structure or in the tongue support structure. A fair number of landed fish, such as Connelly's, aren't really hooked at all. The fish fights so hard that the line is kept taut. A tight line is insurance that even a hook not buried to the barb will keep a ladyfish fighting until she's landed. Then the hook simply falls free. Treble hooked lures, float rigs with treble hooks and baited hooks that the fish can take deeper into the mouth account for most landed ladyfish.

"Ladyfish aren't good eating," Connelly said. "But they sure are fun to catch."

Connelly admired the fish flailing around on the deck at his feet, lifted her for a better look then released her to fish another day. Ladyfish have extremely bony bodies - another nod to the moniker of miniature tarpon. Nobody considers a ladyfish to be table fare, which is great thing for keeping the water stocked with this unsung saltwater gamefish.

It took a few moments to for Connelly to de-hook the multiple-hook MirrOlure from the net mesh. Once he did, he continued casting. Darkness gathered, until it cloaked the entire Cape Fear River. Heavier than the night was the evening humidity. Compounded by the summer's heat, the humidity made Connelly wipe his forehead with a shirtsleeve to keep the sweat from falling into his eyes.

"Maybe it was just too hot for specks this afternoon," he said. "When the water is so hot you're hooking up ladyfish, you realize full-blown summertime has arrived."