The fish that went to outer space

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One man’s adventure is another man’s waste of time. When asked what fish they most like to pursue, most fishermen will cite the “majestic” species: striped bass, northern pike, tuna, salmon. They want attractive, hard-fighting fish. I, on the other hand, have a special affinity for the downtrodden, the ignored, the bizarre. Sure, I like a good fighter, but I would also happily trade lack of effort for exceptional weirdness or stunning, jaw-dropping ugliness.

So, you can imagine how excited I was when I received the following text from my friend Dave:

“Any interest in entering a tautog tournament? I think it’s a $10 buy-in, with a cash prize for the largest one caught.”

Tautog have been on my bucket list for a while. They represent the best of both worlds. They are crafty, powerful fighters, and, when properly prepared, good to eat. But they also score major points for their oddness.

Let’s start with the name. It’s pronounced “Taw-Tog”, and man, it’s fun to say. I’ve spent a lot of time humoring myself, and annoying others, by saying it different ways. Give it a try.

Start with your deepest Barry White voice and equally, but softly, emphasize both syllables. “Taw…Tog, baby.”

Next, raising your voice so that you are nearly yelling, emphasize the first or second syllable. “TAW tog” or “taw TOG.”

Now, fast, like a rifle shot. “taw-tog, taw-tog, taw-tog.”

It gets better. The name comes from the Narragansett Indian word tautauog, which means “sheep’s head.” Close your eyes and picture it: a sheep’s head attached to a roughly football-shaped fish. They have big, rubbery lips and uneven buck teeth. But, best of all is the clueless “Whaaaa…?” expression on their faces as you haul them out of the water. Think Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants, or the donkey from Hee Haw.

Of course, I jumped at the chance to fish in a tournament where the largest tautog won half the pot, with the other half going to charity. It took place last October, and we did pretty well. In just over six hours on the water, we caught over 40 ‘togs, including eight keepers. The largest we estimated to be over seven pounds, and although it wasn’t the tournament winner, we figured that, had the sponsors been keeping a leaderboard, we would have finished in the top ten.

To be sure, the tautogs lived up to my expectations. Challenging and fun to catch? Check. Goofy looking? Check. Lots of chances to annoy my buddies by saying their name? Check. Tasty? Check (for the recipe I used to prepare my share of the fillets, go to theblondcook.com/herb-baked-tautog-fish).

As it turns out, though, I would be introduced that day to an even weirder looking fish, one with a more remarkable backstory. After about half an hour fishing at our first spot, I felt a light tap-tap-tap on my line. It was typical of the way the tautogs felt as they worked to pull the chunk of green crab off of my weighted jig. Only this was a little different. Lighter, but at the same time, less subtle. It was as if the fish wasn’t too concerned about being hooked.

I waited for the fish to bite again, prepared to set the hook between the second and third taps, as I had been instructed by Dave to do with the tautogs. Seconds later, I got my chance. Tap-tap…, then boom! I jerked up on the tip of my rod and set the hook.

“Fish on,” I said.

“Another ‘tog,” Dave asked. “Is it a big one?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not putting up much of a fight.”

As I got the fish near the surface, I confirmed it wasn’t a tautog. It was longer and skinnier, with a mottled brown color. And it made virtually no effort to avoid being hauled into the boat.

“Ew,” Dave cried. “It’s an oyster toadfish. Ugliest fish in the ocean.”

Grabbing the head of my jig, I steadied the fish and got a good look at its face. A face that only a mother oyster toadfish could love. It had big, frog-like eyes and thick, pouty lips rimmed with crusty, coral like appendages. It looked like a cross between a horned toad lizard and the angry elf from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was smitten.

“Take our picture,” I asked Dave as I worked to hold the fish up next to my face.

“I’d be careful,” he responded. “They’re poisonous and have stingers on their dorsal fins.”

Needless to say, I settled for a picture of me holding the toadfish in front of me. Then, carefully, I let it go.

Is there a dentist on board?

Intrigued, I did some research that night as the tautog baked in the oven. I discovered lots of interesting things about oyster toadfish, including:

1. They are, indeed, poisonous, capable of inflicting pain the equivalent of a bee or wasp sting.

2. The males attract mates by “grunting”, a sound they make by rapidly vibrating their swim bladders.

3. They can live out of water for up to 24 hours and can tolerate highly polluted waters.

4. They are widely used to conduct research on balance disorders, including vertigo, dizziness and motion sickness.

5. They have been to outer space.

A face only a mother oyster toadfish could love.

That’s right, oyster toadfish have participated in two space shuttle missions, including Senator John Glenn’s historic return to space in 1998. On both missions, they were on board to help conduct research on the effects of gravity (and the lack thereof) on the vestibular system—the network of fluid-filled canals in our ears that provide information to our brains about motion, head position and spatial orientation. Apparently, NASA wanted to analyze changes to vestibular systems that occur before, during and after space flight. Oyster toadfish were a good choice both because they have vestibular systems very similar to our own, and because, according to Dr. Stephen M. Highstein, one of the scientists in charge, it was easy to get the monitoring equipment to fit on the toadfish’s broad, flat heads. 

And what did we learn from the toadfish’s valiant trips to space? For you scientists, Dr. Highstein and his colleagues published an article in the Journal of Neuropysiology entitled Neural Readaptation to Earth’s Gravity Following Return From Space that is available at hawaii.edu/fishlab/pubs/Boyle2001.pdf. You will enjoy four-plus pages of sentences like: “Directional selectivity of utricular afferents are distributed in a fanlike shape (Fernandez and Goldberg 1976b) as expected from hair cell orientations in the utricular macula (Spoendin 166).” For everyone else, I’ll summarize: For the first 30 or so hours after space flight, oyster toadfish, and presumably, astronauts, have a harder time finding their balance than those who remained earth bound.

As impressive as this is—fish returning safely from space to teach us to be careful with our balance when we return from space—I was more impressed and inspired by the lead in an article that appeared in ScienceDaily shortly before the toadfish’s second mission. It read: “Some of the ugliest and laziest fish known to inhabit the waters of the northeast are accompanying John Glenn on his historic mission into space this month.”

Take that all of you striped bass, northern pike, tuna and salmon.

Mark’s first Oyster Toadfish. Photos courtesy of Mark Fiorentino