July 08, 2022
Unfortunately, we have no ability to discover alien life forms, except on old Star Trek re-runs. But then, “alien life forms” comes pretty close to describing many of the creatures that swim in the untouched abyss that is the deep sea. When cranking up fish from deep water, strange, wondrous and sometimes frightening monsters — some small and some larger — can make an angler’s jaw drop.
No one knows that better than Steve Wozniak (and no, not that Steve Wozniak, though this one also lives in Silicon Valley). For decades, he’s been obsessed with catching on hook and line as many different species of fish as possible. Remarkably, to date, Wozniak has fished in 94 different countries (plus all 50 states) and at the time of this writing had documented catching on hook-and-line an astonishing 2,044 species of fish. Ranging from the size of a child’s pinky finger to the size of grown man, Wozniak keeps detailed accounts of each one in his blog here.
While certainly not all of his efforts are in deep water, that’s often the case since Wozniak says that the depths harbor some of the weirdest and most surprising critters. Here, Wozniak shares his top 10 most bizarre and unique catches (so far).
10. Atlantic scombrops — the Bahamas
Wozniak caught this odd-looking creature with a scary visage from friend Marty Arostegui's boat off Bimini. The anglers were fishing right around 1,000 feet deep and landed two of these while losing quite a few others to sharks. “We were unashamedly trying to set a new IGFA all-tackle world record on this species but were unsuccessful, to the great delight of the current record holder,” Wozniak recalls.
That record holder happens to be the author of this article; my standing record scombrops weighed 21 pounds, 12 ounces, and came from even deeper water off Bimini in 1997. Cut barracuda and a Penn International 6/0 sealed the deal on the record fish.
9. Brilliant pomfret — Hawaii
Dropping bait to what Wozniak describes as “1,600 arm-cramping feet” off south Kona Island with well-known Capt. Dale Leverone, he cranked up this brilliant pomfret (Eumegistus illustris). Yes, cranked by hand, not by using an electric reel.
Pomfrets get considerably bigger, but even so, the angler recalls what an amazingly tough fight the fish put up. In fact, brilliant pomfrets — found in the middle and Western Pacific and Western Indian oceans — are known for their dogged fights even from deep water (not disabled by barotrauma — where the gas in swim bladders expands inside the fish — as are many deep-water species).
8. Grey cutthroat eel — Japan
This eel is one of those species of fish which makes one glad it doesn’t get the size of, say, a manatee. “The cutthroat eel can swallow stuff that looks way too big for it to swallow,” Wozniak notes.
He caught it in about 1,100 feet and says that, interestingly, when released, “It swam off nonplussed.” Cutthroat eels are found in deep waters around much of the world. Read more about this catch here.
7. Oilfish — Japan
Wozniak hooked this hefty fish in 1,200 feet of water just outside Tokyo Bay. The catch is particularly noteworthy since he was fishing very light, 15-pound test braid. The result was a protracted battle of an hour and a half. “One of the better deep-drop fights I’ve ever had,” he shares. He is a fan of jigging in these waters where, “Some amazing dropoffs lead into abyssal depths, where almost anything can swim out of the blackness to eat a jig.” The angler also offers some fun facts about the oilfish, commonly labeled “white tuna” in sushi eateries. “While the flesh is delicious in small amounts,” Wozniak explains, “Servings larger than about four ounces can result in spectacular intestinal consequences.”
6. Hagfish — Norway
The same afternoon as Wozniak caught the amazing velvet belly lanternshark (see #2, below), he, “Landed perhaps the most disgusting thing I've seen after college — a hagfish(Myxine glutinosa). Much like my cousin, they defend themselves by producing a ball of mucus.” So much so that the angler had to, “Cut the thing out of a softball-sized glob of snot.” See more of Wozniak’s capture of the hagfish (and the aftermath) here.
Hagfish are small, eel-like fish that burrow into carcasses to feed on the decaying flesh — not only with their mouths but they are also able to absorb nutrients through their skin! Simultaneously one of the nastiest creatures on earth and the most amazing, their most noteworthy attribute, as Wozniak discovered, is their ability to instantly produce copious amounts of a unique slime.
Once a small hagfish feels threatened, they can produce enough slime to fill a large bucket in just seconds, a slime with incredible properties that expands by 10,000 times almost at once. Videos show predators like sharks and wreckfish biting a hagfish and almost immediately spitting it out to try to rid their gullets that have suddenly filled with slime. As nasty as they are, they’re eaten in Korea and are apparently popular among men there who believe them to be aphrodisiacs, which is somewhat ironic considering that flaccid hagfish are entirely boneless.
5. Spotted ratfish — Alaska
“These spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei), or chimaera as they are called in more erudite circles, were a deep-water surprise for me in southern Alaska in 2007,” Wozniak says. He goes on to explain that, “A chimaera is a mythical beast cobbled together from unrelated and sometimes inconsistent parts, kind of like the Detroit Lions.”
He caught ratfish on that trip from water as deep as 600 feet, “Although I later discovered they were in the harbor and I could have saved all that reeling.”
4. Monkfish — Maine
After a great day of fishing for big bluefish off Kennebunkport on a beautiful fall day in 2005, Wozniak — “in deference to my species obsession” — convinced guide Richard Oliver to move to deep reefs and jig up whatever they might find.
“Along with a load of beautiful cod and haddock, we got this monkfish (Lophius americanus). The closest thing I've ever seen to my stepmother that wasn’t in an outer-space movie.” In fact, the angler says monkfish are superb eating, despite that appearance.
3. Deepbody boarfish — Hawaii
Deepbody boarfish (Antigonia capros) are a small species of fish with a unique appearance that dwell in deep ocean habitats worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters. The capture of one came as a complete surprise to Wozniak who reeled it up from 900 feet of water off Kona where he had no idea he had even hooked a fish until he grabbed leader. “But I have to give it credit for getting that tiny mouth around a 3/0 circle hook.”
Wozniak was fishing near shore with Capt. Dale Leverone in an area close to shore. He says the Big Island, from its underwater base to the top of its volcanic peak, “Is the tallest mountain on the globe; you can be fishing in thousands of feet of water less a mile offshore.”
2. Velvet belly lanternshark — Norway
This little shark with oversized eyes came from more than 1,000 feet of water while Wozniak was fishing “A central Norwegian fjord, or Chevy — I forget which.” (Author’s apologies for including that comment: I was forced at gunpoint.) “In researching the species,” he elaborates, “I discovered that this family of diminutive sharks can actually make their own light and different species exhibit different light patterns.”
In fact, the velvet belly, a species of dogfish shark is common in the cold depths of the Atlantic, but something few anglers ever see and even fewer would ever catch. They may live in water more than 6,000 feet deep. Their photophores allow them to literally light up in the darkness. Some species of lanternsharks are among the world’s smallest sharks, well under the length of a human hand when mature.
1. Gorgeous swallowtail — Kenya
Clearly unusual doesn’t have to mean creepy. Wozniak says that this fish, taken from 600 feet off Watamu, “Is still both the most surprising thing I have ever pulled from the water and one of the most beautiful. I had to take a moment to process that I had not caught an eight-pound decorative goldfish.” The gorgeous swallowtail (and, yes, that is its officially recognized common name) is a member of Serranidae, the family of sea basses and groupers. As a bonus, Wozniak submitted this 7.5-pound catch to the IGFA and has since been the official all-tackle world-record holder for the species. Wozniak holds a total of 217 records currently, with hopes to grow the number in his pursuit of catching as many fascinating species as possible.