One of the most crucial yet overlooked skills for any angler is identifying fish species. This makes it unsurprising that in online fishing forums, one of the questions that fishing newbies often ask is to identify the fish they caught, along with a photo of said fish. But it's not just newbies that run into this issue. Even experienced anglers may have trouble with this task, as there are countless species, some of which look similar to each other.
Despite the challenge, it’s important to try to know where to look for clues and what resources can help you identify fish much easier.
Why it’s good to know how to identify fish species
There are a handful of reasons why it’s vital to know how to identify fish species.
First, this skill can help anglers decide whether to keep the fish they catch or let it go. This is because some species that are threatened or endangered are protected by law, which means anglers aren’t legally allowed to catch and keep them. Local fishing regulations also typically have size and catch limits on different species. To be able to follow these rules, fishermen and women should know what species they've reeled in.
From another perspective, if you want to catch more of the same fish, it pays to know what it really is so you can read up on its specific behaviors, which in turn will help you improve your fishing success. You can also reach out to other fishermen and women who like fishing the same species. Many fishing clubs across the country are dedicated to a particular type of fish, like bass, catfish, or marlin. Joining one of these clubs can help you learn about the habits and behaviors of the fish you want to catch, along with the proper tackle and techniques to use.
And of course, it’s a nice bonus to be able to tell others about your fishing success. Saying that you landed a 176-pound giant trevally, for example, is much more impressive than just saying, "Hey, I caught a really big fish."
What to look for when identifying fish
Physical characteristics can give you important clues when trying to identify fish species and differentiate between similar ones.
Most fish today are cold-blooded, have scales, gills, a backbone, and a bony skeleton, and use fins to move around.
But where they differ from each other are in characteristics like the size and shape of their bodies, the shape of their heads, the kind of jaw and mouth they have, the kind of fin they have, where the fin is located, and their average adult size. Other clues to look into are coloration and markings like stripes, spots, and patterns, along with where they live and what kinds of behaviors they show.
Again, because there can be many similarities and overlaps, what you want to do is narrow down your search to match the fish you caught to the one pictured in a fish database or guidebook.
Koaw suggests starting with the body and size, and from there moving to other clues like coloration and markings, then mouth, fins, area, and behavior.
One thing to remember is that different individuals can look very different, even when they belong to the same species. This boils down to factors such as whether the fish is very young or mature, whether the fish is male or female, or what season it is. One example would be the Pacific salmon that turns from a silvery to a bronze color as they get closer to spawning.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some fish can have similar physical characteristics, so it’s best to consider more than one characteristic to figure out what kind of fish it is.
Where to look for guidance
Field guides, online resources, and fish experts can all provide valuable help when it comes to correctly identifying fish species.
Field guides are books that have pictures and written descriptions on the fish’s appearance, habitat, and behavior. You can buy them from stores that sell outdoor gear, bookstores, or online retailers.
There are plenty of online resources for fish identification as well. These include smartphone apps, websites, and forums. Like field guides, many of these have photos and written info, but some have an interactive component that lets you ask others for help or advice. Some smartphone apps also use AI in fish identification, drawing from a database of photos and other information.
Lastly, you can reach out to fish experts like fish biologists, naturalists, taxonomists. These people have tons of information and knowledge about identifying fish and can help answer your questions or clear up any doubts.
It’s often advisable to use multiple resource when identifying fish and verify information with more trustworthy sources.
All things considered, fish identification is a handy skill that any fisherman or woman can improve on. Aside from giving us better appreciation for wildlife, it also helps us be better at protecting threatened species, and following local fishing regulations. What’s great about fish identification these days is that there are so many resources available to anglers of all levels of expertise, along with guides that tell you exactly which clues to keep an eye out for. And the way I see it, correctly identifying the species we catch makes the fishing experience all the richer and more enjoyable.