Their common names conjure up those moments that define fishing outings. Just saying “smallmouth bass” puts together a high-flying hook-up on a picturesque flow or along a rocky shoreline. Merely mentioning the word “walleye” flips one through a mental photo book of stringer pictures on the dock, or slow trolling along a breakline in the gray morning mist. But would a fish by any other name set up the same scenes in memory, or would it be a whole other story?
Some fish nicknames are simply based on appearance, others add linguistic flair to perhaps less heralded species, but the many local and regional monikers for popular pursuits provide a greater look into the character of each fish.
The Few & Proud
There are a number of top-tier fish that aren’t subject to many aliases. Walleyes have but a couple, with “Ol’ Marble Eyes” being perhaps the most popular in front of the fading “walleyed pike” which has fallen into disuse to avoid confusion with the northern pike.
Along the same lines, largemouth and smallmouth bass have few nicknames. The former is occasionally referenced by its coloration with “green bass”, while the latter is often referred to casually as “bronzeback” or “brown bass” to distinguish it from its large-mouthed counterpart. The muskellunge, outside of its shortened name of “muskie” has few popular nicknames. All of these four species, being very popular pursuits, need little other heraldry to convey their reputation to the angling public.
The Name Game
On the other end of the spectrum there are a variety of species, often common catches or those less pursued, that have more aliases than a 1920s gangster and a 1980s boxer combined.
No fish plays the name game more than the northern pike. Often maligned for getting in the way of the other fish mentioned above, the many names attached to pike often deride it or attempt to play its reputation up. “Slimer” comes from its solid coat of protective slime; “snot rocket” implies the same, coupled with the burst of speed it uses to attack prey. Frequently “hammer handle” describes smaller specimens that predominate fisheries, while the more uncommon “gator” sized pike bear a striking semblance to the southern reptile. Others include “jack,” “snake,” and “water wolf” coming from its latin name, Esox lucius.
Another common catch which gets a wide variety of nicknames from around the country is the crappie. While the two species (white and black) are distinguishable based on coloration and pattern, the nicknames are often used interchangeably. Some describe the species’ physical attributes, like “papermouth” for the soft white jaws that often give way on too hard of a hook set or “speckled bass,” “speck,” or “calico perch” for the speckled or mottled appearance, particularly in the black crappie. Perhaps the funniest moniker comes from the Deep South, where French-Cajun populations refer to the crappie as “sac-a-lait” (sack of milk) for the tender fillets that cook up a perfect shade of white when done.
Insult to Injury
Ugly fish like carp, bowfin and eelpout have their share of unflattering nicknames, or those that overhype them. Carp are known as “the golden bonefish” for their fight, but their status as a rough fish is tough to overcome, no matter the nickname. Bowfin are often called “dogfish” for their primitive thick skull or “mudfish” for their ability to live in the most inhospitable of waters. Finally, no fish is more maligned than the burbot, claiming “eelpout,” “ling” and perhaps most offensively, “lawyer,” in its alias files. However, the jury is out as to whether that nickname is more insulting to the fish, or based on its slimy, wide-eyed appearance, practicing attorneys everywhere.
Whatever you call these fish when they come to the side of your boat, they’re all unique; and while some might conjure up the very definition of angling excitement by their common name, it’s those uncommon nicknames that give many of them their character…in our outdoors.