Fishes of Great Bay

Fish Fieldguide

Many kinds of fishes visit Great Bay, New Jersey and its nearby beaches. Anglers and other shore visitors do not commonly see most of them. That is because they are too small to catch by hook and line (at least at the stage when they visit), they live too deeply in vegetation or holes to catch by net, or visit too briefly. Some are even fresh water species from connecting marsh creeks that briefly tolerate brackish water. Here is a list of some that you may see and some that you won't unless you put on a diving mask or drag a net through some murky marsh creeks. This is not a complete guide, but the pictures and hints about similar species should have you well on your way.

(Raja eglanteria)

Gliding along on its broad fins, the kite-shaped clearnose skate can be found along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Florida, and along the eastern coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. This skate, which reaches sizes up to 30 inches long and 19 inches wide, earns its name from easily recognized translucent patches on either side of its "nose". As its downward-pointing mouth suggests, the clearnose skate often swims close to the bottom searching for clams, mussels, shrimp, crabs and small fish to catch and crush in its broad teeth. Like many skates, the clearnose lays eggs inside a protective case often referred to as a mermaids purse--these black cases are often found washed up along beaches. The clearnose skate also has a line of spines down the center of its back, giving it the less common name of brier skate.

(Raja erinacea)

Little skates have earned their name from being one of the smallest skates found in coastal waters along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Virginia. Reaching a maximum length of 21 inches, little skates are typically found on sandy or muddy bottoms looking for crabs, shrimp, worms and small fishes. The little skate also lays eggs inside a protective case. These "mermaids purses" are often found washed up along beaches. Little skates can be distinguished from clearnose skates (Raja eglanteria) by a lack of spines along the back, and can often only be distinguished from another species, the big skate (Raja ocellata), by comparing the number of teeth (little skates have fewer teeth than big skates).

(Alosa sapidissima)

The American shad is one of the largest members of a group of similar looking fishes called the herrings, reaching a size up to 30 inches and weighing up to 12 pounds. Shad are a dark blue-green on their back, and silvery to white on their sides and belly, often with several dark spots in a row behind their gill covers. Shad are anadromous, which means that they spend their adult lives at sea, and then return after several years to swim up freshwater rivers to lay their eggs and reproduce. Shad have no teeth, and feed on plankton (tiny animals) by swimming with their mouths open and filtering the plankton from the water. Many people catch shad using nets and rods when they return to rivers to spawn in late spring, and often enjoy eating the shad roe, or eggs, even more than the meat of the fish. The number of shad has decreased dramatically over the past 300 years as a result of overharvesting, pollution, and loss of habitats.

(Alosa pseudoharengus)

As a close cousin of the American shad, the alewife shares a similar appearance, range and habits, including: a dark greenish back and silvery sides, a diet of predominantly plankton that it filters from the water, and the need to return to freshwater to reproduce after maturing for several years at sea. Alewives are smaller than shad, reaching no more than 15 inches in length and typically not exceeding a pound in weight. The alewife travels far upstream to spawn in freshwater lakes, streams and ponds, and some landlocked populations exist in New York and Ontario lakes. Alewives are commercially fished, and while the eggs are sold as a delicacy for people, their meat is often used for fish and lobster bait. Many species of fish and birds also make alewife part of their diet, including striped bass, salmon, smallmouth bass, eels, perch, bluefish, weakfish, terns, eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, and gulls. A characteristic marking of the alewife is a small black spot behind the gill, and a row of scales that form a sharp edge along the belly, giving them the nickname of "sawbelly". The nearly identical blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) is often only distinguished from the alewife by the color of the lining of the belly cavity--the alewife has a pinkish gray lining, while the blueback has a sooty or black lining.

(Sygnathus fuscus)

The pipefish is a slender fish that can reach up to about 12 inches in length. Pipefish live among seaweeds and eelgrass in estuaries, and river mouths along the east coast of the Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. They sometimes wander out to sea. They like to eat small fish, fish eggs, copepods, and amphipods with their large snouts. They usually use their fins to swim, but when they need a quick get away, they can move like an eel.

A little known fact about the pipefish is that it can move each of its eyes separately, although we don't know exactly how this helps it.

(Gasterosteus aculeatus)

Sticklebacks are armored fish, with 3 spines on their backs, and bony plates surrounding their sides. They like to use their spines as weapons as they eat shrimp, fish eggs, small fish, squid, and diatoms. They are usually dark gray, dark green-brown, or blue, and grow no larger than 4 inches. Sticklebacks like to live by the shore, especially in estuaries. They can live in salt or fresh water, but they usually stick to the salt water, unless they're spawning in streams. They can be found in the western Atlantic from Canada to Virginia, as well as on the eastern Atlantic coast. The similar fourspine stickleback (Apeltes quadrates) has four spines on its back.

(Cyprinadon variegatus)

Sheepshead minnows are small fish, usually no larger than about 3 inches, found in shallow waters from Massachusetts to Mexico. They like areas like bays, marshes, and inlets, where the water is shallow and salty or brackish. These fish like to eat plants as well as animals, and they even attack fish bigger than themselves! Sheepshead minnows have square tails, deep bodies, sharp teeth, flat sides and a flat-topped head. They use their sharp teeth to attack large fish, and eat them bit by bit.

(Fundulus luciae)

Spotfin killifish look very similar to mummichogs (Fundulus heteroclitus), except they have a prominent spot on their fin. They reach a length of about 4 inches, and live in salt marshes along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina. They eat small fish, eelgrass, and other animals that live in the eelgrass with them. They are dark in color, with a round head, a pointed nose, and a round tail.

(Fundulus heteroclitus)

Mummichogs are usually no larger than about 4 inches, found in eelgrass beds and salt hay pools along the Atlantic coastline from Maine to Texas. They like the tidal creeks around bays and salt marshes, as well as streams, estuaries, and ditches. There, they can eat as many diatoms, mollusks, small fish, or pieces of eelgrass as they want! They have stout bodies, with a rounded back and belly, a round tail, and a blunt nose. Males are usually darker than females in color, and they have more stripes or dots than females too.

(Fundulus majalis)

The striped killifish are very similar to mummichogs (Fundulus heteroclitus). They are found along the coast from Massachusetts to Florida in eelgrass beds and salt hay marsh. Striped killifish eat small fish, diatoms, mollusks, and insect larvae. These killifish, however, are larger than mummichogs, reaching up to 6 or 7 inches in length. They also like saltier water than mummichogs, and are often found on open beaches, rather than in bays and estuaries. Striped killifish also have pointed noses, instead of rounded, and they may have both vertical stripes and distinct horizontal stripes on their bodies. When only the stripes show they are often mistaken for small striped bass.

(Lucania parva)

Rainwater killifish are very small, reaching only 2 inches long. They can live in the ocean, freshwater, or estuarine brackish water. They're found along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Florida, feeding on vegetation that they live in, or on very small animals. These killifish swim only a few inches from the surface of the water.

(Menidia menidia)

Silversides are often found in schools along the coast, on sandy or gravelly shores. At high tide, they are usually in the vegetation in bays and river mouths. They are usually no larger than about 5 or 6 inches in length, and like to eat shrimp, fish eggs, worms, squid, and mollusk larvae. Silversides have a long thin body, with a small mouth, a large eye, and a forked tail. They are eaten by a lot of larger fish, which makes them great for bait! Bait dealers commonly call them "spearing".

(Urophycis regia)

The spotted hake is one of several species of hake found along the Atlantic coast, ranging from Nova Scotia south to Florida. This slender fish lives in coastal waters and spends most of its time close to the bottom, looking for a meal of fish, shrimp or crabs. As one of the smaller species of hake, the spotted hake reaches lengths up to 16 inches and up to one-and-a-half pounds. Despite being relatively abundant, the small size and soft meat prevents it from being commercially important, although it is often accidentally caught by rod-and-reel fishermen. The spotted hake is easily recognized by having the outer half of its first dorsal fin colored black, a small barbel under the chin, and a dark lateral line running down its body.

(Urophycis chuss)

Red hake, also known as squirrel hake, can be found in coastal waters from Newfoundland south to the Chesapeake Bay. As one of the larger hakes along the Atlantic coastline, the red hake can reach lengths of 25 inches and weights over 5 pounds. Although nearly identical in appearance to the white hake (Urophycis tenuis), the red hake can be recognized by having larger scales and a longer filament extending from its dorsal fin. Preferring to live close to the sandy or muddy bottom, this reddish-brown fish prowls the waters for a meal of crabs, shrimp, worms, squid and small fish. Similar to other hakes, this species lays eggs that include a small amount of oil, which allows them to float towards the surface where the young fish have a better chance of finding food. Because of their soft meat only the largest red hake are eaten by people, and are usually salted, smoked or made into fish cakes.

Q: What did the fisherman get who forgot to mend his nets?
A: A lot of missed hakes!

(Opsanus tau)

The toadfish has a large flat head, a round nose, a large mouth, and a plump belly. It has a very fleshy head, with a layer of slimy mucous covering its skin and no scales. Toadfish are generally dark in color, but they may change to match the seafloor. They may grow to a length of 12 inches, but this is rare. They live in holes in shallow water and under banks and like to eat the shrimps, hermit crabs, crabs, squid, and small fish that also live there. Toadfish can be found anywhere from Cuba to Maine, and they are not fun to catch! They snap and grunt when handled, and can swim very quickly to avoid being caught. They are called toadfish for their ability to croak, and large choruses of toadfish can be heard right through the hulls of anchored boats during spawning season!

(Mugil cephalus)

Young mullet look very similar to silversides (Menidia menidia); however, there are a few key differences between them. Mullet have a much smaller eye than silversides, as well as a shorter head, a blunter nose, and a deeper body. Striped mullet are often bluish gray or greenish on the top of their body, and silvery toward the bottom. They can grow to a length of 30 inches, eating smaller fish as they grow. Mullets can be found anywhere along the Atlantic coast from New York to Brazil, and on the Pacific coast as well! The smaller white mullet (Mugil curema) are also common.

(Pomatomus saltatrix)

The bluefish is one fish that you don't want to interrupt when it's eating! They have very sharp teeth all around their mouth, which they use to cut large prey into pieces instead of swallowing it whole. Bluefish are considered one of the most bloodthirsty fish of the ocean, feeding on other fish, such as mackeral, menhaden, and herring as they travel in schools along the Atlantic. They like the open ocean as well as the shore, so they can be found in a variety of habitats. Bluefish have forked tails, a flat belly, a pointed snout, and a relatively slim body. They can grow to a size of 42 inches or more, weighing up to 20 pounds!

(Trachinotus falcatus)

Permit are best known by sport fishermen as an elusive fish that can provide an exceptional fight, but occur in coastal New Jersey mostly as small young fish. Although permit are known to occasionally be found as far north as Massachusetts, they are most abundant in the warm, shallow waters of Florida and throughout the Caribbean. Reaching lengths up to 45 inches and weighing as much as 50 pounds, these beautiful fish patrol the shallow flats and mangroves at high tide in search of a meal of crabs, shrimp and small fish. Young permit tend to travel in schools in shallow water, while older ones are more solitary and prefer slightly deeper water. Permit are characterized by a dark blue-green or grayish back, silvery sides, a light yellow color on the belly, a narrow body, and a deeply forked tail. Permit resemble the closely related Florida pompano (Trachinotus carolinus), but have a deeper body and are usually much larger.

In some areas you may need a license to get a permit! Get it?

(Caranx hippos)

The crevalle jack is a fast swimmer that typically travels in schools and is found along the entire coast of eastern North America, the Gulf of Mexico, and northern South America. Smaller fish are found in coastal bays, estuaries and shallow waters, including those of New Jersey, while larger fish are more common in deeper coastal waters up to 300 feet. Although these fish can reach up to 40 inches and 55 pounds, they typically reach a length of 24 inches. In order to reach this size, crevalle jacks are constantly searching for a meal of shrimp and other invertebrates, as well as fish that they often chase right up to the surface of the water.

Young crevalle jacks have 5 dark bars along their body that fade as the fish reaches about 6 inches in length, and the silver adults have a dark oval spot on their pectoral fins. Although some commercial fishing occurs for crevalle jack, they are pursued mostly by sport fishermen who enjoy their energetic fight when hooked.

(Prionotus evolans)

Sea robins are known for their wing-like pectoral fins. Their entire head is surrounded by protective bony plates. They have a large mouth and 3 feelers formed from part of their pectoral fins to "taste" their surroundings. Striped sea robins grow to 18 inches, eating shrimps, small fish, and squid. They are usually found from Massachusetts to South Carolina on the seafloor, but will swim to the surface for almost any bait, even though most fishermen don't want the sea robins!

(Morone americana)

The white perch is very similar to its cousin, the striped bass, except that it is much smaller, doesn't have stripes as an adult, and has a deeper body. They will only reach a size of 15 inches, weighing 2 pounds. White perch also don't like the open ocean as much as bass but prefer the protection of vegetation and fallen branches in the brackish water of bays, estuaries, and barrier beaches along the Atlantic coast, from Canada to South Carolina.

(Morone saxatalis)

The striped bass is one of the most sought after fish along the Atlantic coast, as fishermen head to the waters each morning to see if they can land a few. They are marked by rows of stripes, usually dark blue or green along their silvery body. They can grow up to 48 inches, weighing 30 pounds or more. Stripers often swim in schools for protection, and to capture more food, such as smaller fish, squid, shrimp, crab, and clams. Fishermen know that stripers have a one track mind, so when one food sources is plentiful, they'll ignore all other food until they're done with the one they're eating. If that wasn't bad enough, all of the fish in a school may do the same thing, making it very difficult to catch any fish!

(Centropristis striata)

The black sea bass is a very dark fish, from gray to brown to blue black, to blend in with the rocky ocean reefs where it lives. Black sea bass can be found as large as 24 inches and 8 pounds. Tehy occur along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Florida but seem to have preferred homes. They eat animals that live on the bottom of the seafloor, like shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and small fish. Fishermen can easily hook them with bait on the bottom near reefs.

(Tautogolabrus adspersus)

The cunner looks very similar to the tautog (Tautoga onitis), except the cunner has a flat-topped head, thinner lips, and tougher skin. The cunner will change color depending on what bottom type it is living on to blend in with its surroundings and can easily catch its prey, like barnacles, mussels, shrimps, crabs, and lobsters. Cunner are usually dark; however, because most of the seafloor that they live on is dark colored rock or mud. Cunner will only grow to about 10 inches, and reach no more than half a pound. They are found from Newfoundland to New Jersey, usually in shallow waters of bays, harbors, or rocky and sandy shores but also occur on deep reefs and wrecks.

(Tautoga onitis)

The tautog looks like a large cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus), with a deeper body. It is usually dark in color, with a rounded head and a square tail. Young tautog are usually blotchy, while older ones are darker and more solid in color. Males are slate gray with a white chin and white spot near the top on either side of the back. Tautog can grow to a length of 36 inches, and weigh up to 20 pounds, although they are usually no more than 5 pounds. They like shallow water even more than cunners! In colder northern waters it is rare to find one in water deeper than 50 feet, or further than 3 miles from shore. Toward New Jersey and Maryland, however, they can be found very deep, and up to 12 miles from shore. They like to hang out along steep rocky shores, and especially near piers anywhere from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. Along the way, they will eat mussels, barnacles, crabs, hermit crabs, sand dollars, shrimps, and worms.

(Cynoscion regalis)

Weakfish are slim fish, dark on the top, and light on the bottom, which grow to about 36 inches and weigh 12 pounds. They usually have spots all along their body, either black, bronze, or green, that form lines that go from back to front in a diagonal. They seem to like shallow water in bays, creeks, and sandy shores, and they are almost never found in fresh or deep water. Weakfish are sensitive to the cold, so they only travel as far north as Massachusetts, but as far south as Florida. They are often found in large schools, sometimes with thousands of fish in one group! The food they prefer is crabs, shrimps, squid, worms, and especially smaller fish. Their bones, including the jaw, are soft and so they easily get off anglers hooks. This is probably how they got their name. Weakfish and their relatives in the drumfish family can produce croaking or drumming sounds.

(Menticirrhus saxatalis)

Kingfish and weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) look very similar, except for a few things; the kingfish has a barbell on its chin, its upper jaw is farther than the lower jaw, where the weakfish's lower jaw is farther out than the upper jaw, and the first spine on its dorsal fin sticks out much further than the rest of the fin. It has thick, black diagonal bars on its body that are much more noticeable than the dots on the weakfish, and it has a dark top and lighter bottom. Kingfish grow to a length of 17 inches and weight up to 3 pounds. They like to eat mostly shrimps, as well as small fish and crabs. They like to stay by the coast in the summer, anywhere from Massachusetts to Florida, and travel in schools. In the winter, they go back to the open ocean.

(Enneacanthus obesus)

The banded sunfish is dark colored, usually reaching about 6 inches in length, weighing less than half a pound. It can be found in shallow waters from New Hampshire to Florida. It prefers fresh water, like rivers, lakes, and ponds, where they eat small fish, shrimps, crabs, and worms. Like its cousin, the black banded sunfish does well in the acidic waters of the New Jersey Pine Barrens that drain into Great Bay.

(Enneacanthus chaetodon)

The blackbanded sunfish is a silver colored fish with bright black lines. They grow to about 6 inches, and no more than half a pound. These sunfish like to eat small fish, shrimps, and worms and live in freshwater ponds, lakes, and rivers. They can be found anywhere from New Jersey to Florida.

(Chaetodon ocellatus)

Butterflyfish are usually associated with tropical reefs, but young butterflyfish can be found as far north as Massachusetts. As adults, they can grow as large as 10 inches, weighing 2 pounds or more, but the young that are delivered to New Jersey by ocean currents never make it through their first winter. From September to November these doomed juveniles can be quite common in warmer shallow back bays. Butterflyfish are brightly colored, yellow and white, with a black spot on the fin.

(Etropus microstomus)

These flounder are left-handed flatfish. That is, they have both eyes on their left side and lie on their right side. Flounder are born like other finfish, with an eye on each side of their head, and they swim straight up. As they become adults, however, their right eye begins to move, and they start to swim on their side, rather than their bellies. They live along the bottom of the seafloor from North Carolina to Mississippi, growing up to 8 inches and weighing 1 pound. Smallmouth flounder are bottom feeders, eating small animals that live on the seafloor, like small fish, shrimp, and worms.

(Scaphthalmus aquosus)

Windowpanes are another type of left-handed flatfish, lying on the right side, with both eyes on the left. Their body can be almost as broad as it is long, but they are very thin from side to side, so that sunlight will almost shine through a small one. Flounder are born like other finfish, with an eye on each side of their head, and they swim straight up. As they become adults, however, their right eye begins to move, and they start to swim on their side, rather than their bellies. They can reach a length of 20 inches, at a weight of 15 pounds or more. Windowpane, sometimes called "sundials" by anglers, can be found along the coast, in shallow waters from Canada to Florida. Windowpane live on the seafloor and can match their coloration to that of their surroundings, making it easier to hide and hunt.

(Paralichthys dentatus)

The summer flounder is flatfish that lies on its right side and has both of its eyes on the left side of its head. They develop from an upright swimming larvae to an adult like the other left-eye flounders. Summer flounder, (also called "fluke") can be found along the coast from Maine to South Carolina in the warm summer months (which is why they are called summer flounder!), and much farther off shore in the winter months. These flounder grow to a size of about 36", weighing 15 pounds or more, eating squid, smaller fish, crabs, shrimp, worms, and mollusks as they grow.

Summer flounder almost always have a very pale bottom side, and their top-side often blends in with their environment. If they are on a pale bottom, they will be pale in color. If they are on a darker bottom, they will be darker in color. This makes it very difficult for predators, prey, and humans to see these fish in the water.

(Sphoeroides maculatus)

Puffers are very different from normal finfish. They have no teeth, but they use the bones of their jaws to cut food. They have no scales, but they are covered in prickles, which become sharp and pointy when the puffer inflates itself. When it's not inflated, it has a somewhat slender body, but when it is inflated, it's really fat. It uses air or water to inflate itself, usually when it's in a dangerous situation so that it looks bigger (and scarier). Puffers are usually dark colored on top and have white bellies. They can grow to a length of 14 inches, but they're usually much smaller than that, and the females are larger than the males! Puffers are found along the shoreline, sometimes in estuaries, but never more than a couple miles from shore, or in deep water. They feed on crabs, shrimps, worms, sea urchins, and barnacles anywhere from Florida to Massachussets. Another common summer visitor that can inflate itself is the spotted burfish (Chilomyctrus shopfei), but it has sharp spines!