Some days you wake up with your hair looking like a rat’s nest and you think, “Why me?” Other days you dribble coffee on your favorite tie and again say, “Arrgh, why me?” In fact, the universe is more than happy to deliver you endless raw deals. But to prevent a bad luck barrage from getting you down, just think how much better you have it than fish number 34 in our quest to catch and eat every kind of fish in New Hampshire: the slimy sculpin.
We think the diminutive slimy sculpin is likely the source of many jokes and double entendres beneath the surface of the water. For example, rainbow trout probably say, “Whoa, what a night of spawning. All I remember is doing shots and then waking up next to a slimy sculpin.” Largemouth bass might say, “Dude, I was so sick I hacked up slimy sculpins all night.”
It is not the sculpin’s fault. They are just victims of some insensitive scientist who named them and some unfortunate features that God clearly gave them to build character.
To some, the slimy sculpin, Cottus cognatus, looks like a monster from a Stephen King novel. Two beady eyes sit high on its head, well above the disproportionally huge mouth that spans most of its face. The upper and lower jaws are lined with fine, sharp teeth and it has a distinct overbite. Its mottled face is covered in small, sharp spines called prickles, and it is framed by wide, fan-shaped pectoral fins. The splotchy brown and beige pattern of the sculpin body makes it well suited for life among the rocks of a stream, but not for winning beauty contests. Luckily, the fish only grows to about four inches long, otherwise nobody would dare swim in the water with these miniature nightmares.
The sculpin does have some interesting attributes that fish nerds like us appreciate. One is that slimy sculpins do not have a swim bladder like most fish. A swim bladder is a balloon-like organ in the body that makes a fish naturally buoyant so it can move effortlessly through the water. Since slimy sculpins do not have a swim bladder, they sink like a stone and therefore must move over the stream bed with short bursts of speed, as if hopping from point to point.
Another interesting thing is that sculpins are very sensitive to water pollution and rarely move very far from the place they were born. This makes them very good environmental indicators of stream health.
There are many scientific studies that look at the toxin levels in sculpin tissue to determine the impact of development and industry along particular streams. If the pollution gets too bad, the sculpins simply die off in that area.
From our research we know that sculpins like clean, clear water that flows over cobble-sized stones. We therefore went to a tiny brook on Artist Falls Road in North Conway that matched this habitat description. Before we wetted a line, we walked in the stream to kick over some large stones. One sculpin that was hiding under a large rock was exposed and darted only a few feet away to hide under another rock. Once we identified its hidy hole, we simply took advantage of its ambush hunting style by bouncing a hook and worm past the entrance until it lurched out and attacked.
A sculpin in hand is a good thing, and surprisingly, it is not particularly slimy. It is true that they do not have scales, but compared to an eel, hornpout or pickerel, these fish score pretty low on the slimy scale. Perhaps the scientist that named the fish was just in a foul mood that day. Or perhaps he ate one.
We ate ours in a sculpin scampi that looked great. But with just one bite we realized why sculpins don’t make it on the menu. The initial taste was a pleasant mix of garlic, pasta, and olive oil with just a hint of fish flavor. Then the hint became a strong suggestion that quickly evolved into a painful crescendo. For some reason the aftertaste of the sculpin had a lingering spirit that enveloped the tongue like an old fishing boot. We tried to wash the taste out with water, but it seemed to gain strength with each gulp. Not since the tragic pickled pickerel incident had we had such a tough time shaking a fishy taste.
But we choked down the fish and checked another species off the list. We have only 10 more remaining before we can call our quest a success. We are not sure if we can make it by February 2012, but we are going to try. If we miss the deadline, we will continue the quest until we are done, like a couple of breathless marathon runners who cross the finish line after everyone else has gone home. Follow our efforts to catch the last 10 at www.catch-m-all.com.
-Published in The Wire on 10/5/11