Once purely a spear target, hogfish are being discovered by anglers—and scrutinized by fishery managers.
It is likely the most egregiously named fish in the sea: the “hogfish” is surely a misnomer for one of the most beautiful creatures with fins, as well as one that transports diners to delights unknown when it gives up its fillets.
The hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) is a species of wrasse native to the western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the northern coasts of South America, and appears most abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly off west-central Florida.
The inelegant name for a very elegant fish, both in appearance and in table qualities, comes from the elongated snout which it uses to search for crustaceans buried in the sediment. This very long “pig-like” snout and its rooting behavior give the hogfish its unfortunate name.
Hogfish are sometimes called hog snapper, but they are not in fact part of the snapper family according to the fish deans who know such things. And, according to most who have eaten them, including me, they taste even better than the snappers. Not even for fresh broiled flounder could you pry my cold, dead hands off a hogfish fillet. They reach a length of around 30 inches, and the current IGFA all-tackle record is 21 pounds, 15 ounces for a fish caught off South Carolina.
Historically, hogfish were seldom caught on hook-and-line in most of their range—in fact, it has been so rare that the IGFA does not offer line-class records for the species. They have been strictly in the purview of divers because, it was thought, they did not regularly eat any sort of bait anglers could present.
Turns out that’s not necessarily the case—an increasing number of savvy Gulf Coast anglers including Captains Billy Nobles of Apollo Beach and Dave Mistretta of Indian Rocks Beach now load up on them regularly by dropping large live shrimp down to the reefs offshore of St. Petersburg and on to the northwest in the Florida Middle Grounds. Hogs rarely eat cut bait—they feed mostly on crustaceans—but they appear to love shrimp.
In the Keys, Captain Chris Johnson (www.captainchrisjohnson.com) out of Marathon has made an art of loading up on hogs in winter, starting about the third cold front of the year and on to the end of March.
“It’s all about getting on the right kind of bottom,” says Johnson. “I find them in 25 to 35 feet where there are sea fans and sponges and sand between, rather than large chunks of hard coral—Hawk Channel has a lot of this and that’s where I find most.”
Johnson says the fish come out of Florida Bay to avoid the chilly water and settle into the deeper water ready to eat.
“On one trip right after the water temperature dropped to 70, we put 25 keepers in the boat, five limits, in a half day,” said Johnson. “We routinely expect to catch 6 to 12 per half-day trip.”
Another secret, says Johnson, is chumming the fish into range.
“They are crustacean eaters, so you want chum that has shrimp and shellfish in it. I use a commercial chum called Aquatic Nutrition Super Shrimps, which I get from Bass Pro Shops. You scatter that around the boat and give it about 15 minutes before you start fishing and it’s usually pretty quick action.”
His rig is as simple as it gets—a half-ounce jig head with a fresh shrimp tail covering the hook.
“Sometimes we cut off the tails and thread them on tail first. Sometimes the heads and put them on from the front, but either way if you put fresh shrimp down there where you’ve been chumming, you’ll get bit right away if the hogfish are there,” says Johnson.
He uses 12-pound-test mono on spinning gear, with 18 inches of 20-poundtest Seaguar fluorocarbon as leader to give a bit of protection from coral and from toothy species that hang on the reef areas. The fight can be spirited on this tackle with hogs over 3 pounds as they put their flat sides to work, but the main object in fishing for these tasty critters is to get them in the ice chest as quickly as possible, never mind enjoying the fight.
Johnson says fishing for hogs has gotten better over the last five years. “It may just be that we’re getting better at finding and catching them, but I think it’s also that there are just a lot more fish,” says Johnson. “The divers tell me some areas are just carpeted with them in the cooler months now.”
While the jury is still out on whether hogfish everywhere will be affected by this discovery—it seems either they don’t eat shrimp everywhere or that there are not enough hogs around most reefs to beat the other shrimp munchers to the hook— in the right place and at the right time it is clearly possible to crank up enough of them to feed a large dinner party—if no one makes a hog of themselves, that is to say.
Hogfish: There’s a Catch
The hogfish is what the biologists call a protogynous hermaphrodite: juveniles start out as female and then mature to become male. The change usually occurs around three years of age and about 14 inches in length. Obviously, if most are harvested before 14 inches, bad things will happen to the population. Hogfish social groups are organized into harems where one male will mate and protect a group of females in his territory. So, fewer males are required than a one-on-one species, but there still has to be a good number of male survivors for nature to function.
Both Florida and federal fishery managers long allowed harvest at 12 inches to the fork, with a bag of five, but that has changed dramatically.
A recent stock assessment in U.S. South Atlantic waters found the Florida Keys/East Florida stock (from the Keys to the Georgia/Florida line) overfished and undergoing overfishing. The federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted in to increase the minimum size from 12 inches fork length to 16 inches fork length. The Council also voted to decrease the recreational bag limit from 5 fish to 1 fish per person per day and establish an annual recreational fishing season from May through October (clearly, this season would be problematic for anglers like Chris Johnson, who says the fish don’t show up in his local waters until winter). The Council also voted to specify a commercial trip limit of 25 pounds (there is currently no trip limit in federal waters).
In the Gulf of Mexico, according to the most recent Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council review, the hogfish stocks are not overfished or undergoing overfishing. However, the Council is still moving to make a gradual reduction in harvest to avoid problems ahead. Considering the growing number of hook-and-line anglers who are learning to catch the species, this is probably a wise undertaking.
Fishery managers use a statistic called the spawning potential ratio (SPR) as one way of measuring when a fish stock is healthy. The SPR is calculated as the average number of eggs per fish over its lifetime when the stock is fished compared to the average number of eggs per fish over its lifetime when the stock is not fished. The Gulf Council’s preferred alternative is an SPR of 30 percent for hogfish, a level that’s commonly used for highly successful inshore fish management by the FWC. In general, the council is aiming at a gradual reduction in catch over the next four years to assure that the fishery remains healthy. To do this, the size limit has been changed from 12 inches fork length to 14 inches. They also put closed seasons in place, perhaps triggered by the estimated harvest in any given year.
Gulf Council researchers say the size and age at which 50 percent of the hogfish have transitioned to males has been estimated at 16.8 inches fork length, about 6.5 years in the west Florida shelf. Sex change in hogfish is estimated to take several months, so removal of the dominant male has the potential to significantly affect harem stability and decrease reproductive potential. Size limits above 16 inches may provide hogfish greater opportunities to form harems and transition to males.
Research on the west Florida shelf indicates that hogfish in this region will transition to male earlier and younger in water less than 100 feet deep (13.5 inches FL and 4.9 years versus 25.2 inches FL and 9.8 years within deep water). All hogfish that have been aged at over 10 years have been male.
Hogfish have historically been landed primarily by spearfishing (88 percent of commercial landings in pounds and 83 percent of recreational landings in numbers 2007-2012), so there are minimal data regarding catch-and-release mortality. There’s also very little discard mortality in spearfishing. The increase in hook and line fishing could cause release mortality to become a factor, but barotrauma usually occurs only in water of about 100 feet or more, and most of the fish in this deeper water are over the old minimum of 12 inches, so are not discarded.
The Gulf Reef Fish Advisory Panel recommended a 14-inch size limit, which they say will reduce the recreational harvest by 10 to 35 percent. This could allow for extended season lengths and may avoid a closure at least in the initial year. Increasing the length to 16 inches, when over 50 percent of the fish would live long enough to become males, would likely eliminate the need for a closed season altogether, according to the council. However, release mortality could then become a factor. Fishery management is a tricky business.
In any case, for the time being, recreational anglers are learning to harvest a whole new reef fish that looks great, tastes great and is around in reasonable abundance at least in part of its Florida range. Now all we need is to figure out some way to get those lionfish to bite a hook. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2016