Ladyfish

Ladyfish, illustration by Diane Rome Peebles

Copyright © Diane Rome Peebles

Description

Ladyfish are elongated, slender fish with a compact oval cross section and large deeply forked tail or caudal fin with long, slender symmetrical lobes. The small head is pointed and both the mouth and eyes are quite large. The scales are small and thin. The teeth are very small but quite sharp. The gular plate, a bony plate located between the two lower jaws, is narrow.

Ladyfish, photo by Jim Franks, GCRL
Ladyfish. Photo by Jim Franks. Click for larger image.

 

Ladyfish have very large eyes and a large mouth.
Ladyfish have very large eyes and a large mouth.
Photo by Casey R. Smartt. Click for larger image.

The color is silvery on the sides and silvery green or blue on the back. The dorsal fin and tail are dusky; the pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins are pale and may be yellowish.

The ladyfish grows to a maximum length of about three feet and weight of about five pounds. Typical fish weigh two to three pounds. The nickname "ten-pounder" is probably related to their strength and speed; the current IGFA world record fish, caught in Brazil, weighed eight pounds.

True to their appearance, the scientific name for ladyfish translates loosely into “serpent reptile.”


Similar Species

Ladyfish resemble their tarpon and bonefish cousins (all of the order Elopiformes) in many ways, but they are easy to distinguish from tarpon by the lack of a trailing filament on the back edge of the dorsal fin. Some say that ladyfish may be confused with bonefish, but the configuration and size of the ladyfish's mouth makes the difference obvious to even a casual observer. Ladyfish and tarpon have a distinct gular plate - a bony structure visible externally between the lower jaws - while bonefish do not.

A newly identified species, Elops smithi, is very similar, but it is relatively rare and occurs only in the more southern waters of the U.S.

Occurrence

Ladyfish are found in inshore waters along the U.S. Atlantic coast south of Cape Cod and throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, and the east coast of South America to to Brazil. Similar species occurs in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.

Ladyfish tolerate a wide range of salinity and are typically found in brackish lagoons and bays and out several miles into the open ocean to depths of about 160 feet (50 m). They feed where food is most available, deep channels to grass beds to shallow sand flats. Ladyfish often feed at night and they the Mississippi barrier island beaches in in waist-deep water.

Ladyfish are found in Mississippi waters from spring through fall.

Life Cycle & Reproduction

Like the related tarpon and bonefish, the ladyfish spawns in the ocean and goes through a primitive leptocephalus stage as larvae. Their life history is not well understood.

Spawning

It is thought that ladyfish spawn offshore. On the Gulf Coast, spawning probably takes place in the spring and summer. Scientists have never identified the eggs of the ladyfish or yolk-sac larvae. So, specific spawning details are not known. Ladyfish larvae and juveniles are common in estuarine waters, including beaches.

Larvae

Two ladyfish leptocephalus larvae and a tiny shrimp. The larvae are approximately 1.25" long. When alive, they are nearly transparent; the milky color is caused by the alcohol in which they are stored.
Two ladyfish leptocephalus larvae and a tiny shrimp. The larvae are approximately 1.25" long. When alive, they are nearly transparent; the milky color is caused by the alcohol in which they are stored.

In the leptocephalus stage, ladyfish larvae have thin, transparent, and ribbon-like bodies. Despite the fact that they feed only by absorbing nutrients through their skin and their digestive tracts have not developed, the leptocephalus has large fang-like teeth. Lacking gills, the leptocephalus absorbs oxygen directly from the water.

Ladyfish, tarpon, bonefish, and eels are the only fishes that have a leptocephalus stage. Leptocephalus translates as "slender head."

The larvae are transported to estaurine waters that serve as nursery habitat. As they develop, the larvae go through two stages of increasing length (up to two inches) followed by decreasing length before finally transforming into juveniles with a familiar fish-like form.

Leptocephalus larvae metamorphose into early juveniles within several days to a few weeks, depending on environmental conditions. Leptocephalus larvae have been collected by GCRL in Mississippi waters from March through August.

Juveniles

Juveniles move into the saltier lower regions of estuaries as they mature, eventually moving offshore at an age of one to three years.

Adults

One study suggests that adyfish reach a length of 6.5" to 10" during their first year. The age and length at which sexual maturity is reached are not know. Ladyfish may live six years.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Ladyfish feeding frenzy

Adult ladyfish are aggressive carnivorous feeders and swallow their prey whole. The feed primarily on small bony fish, including menhaden, silversides, and smaller ladyfish. They also take shrimp and other crustaceans.

Predators

The primary predators of ladyfish are sharks, larger toothy fish, dolphins and porpoises, fish-eating birds, and alligators.

Fishing for Ladyfish

Ladyfish often make spectacular leaps when hooked.
Ladyfish often make spectacular leaps when hooked. The nickname "poor man's tarpon" is well deserved.
Photo by Doug Olander, Sport Fishing Magazine.
Click for larger image.

Most anglers encounter ladyfish while fishing for other species, like spotted seatrout, redfish, or Spanish mackerel. Though frequently considered a nuisance, a growing number of anglers are targeting ladyfish because of their extraordinary strength, speed, and level of activity when hooked. The ladyfish's aerobatic jumps and high-speed runs are legendary. More and more anglers are targeting ladyfish as an exciting and plentiful gamefish.

When hooked, ladyfish become even more active and make astonishing twisting and turning leaps and the occasional somersault. Runs are long and fast and the fish do not tire easily. Adjectives used to describe their behavior include aerobatic, berserk, wild, explosive, and spectacular. One group of Mississippi fly fishermen respectfully refer to the ladyfish as the Mississippi tarbone and point out that local anglers can experience much of the thrill of catching tarpon and bonefish without having to leave Mississippi waters.

During summer, ladyfish are abundant on the beaches of Mississippi's barrier islands.
Ladyfish caught while wade fishing.
Photo by Captain Baz Yelverton, Gulf Breeze Guide Service, Pensacola, Fl.  Click for larger image.

Use care when handling a ladyfish. Their scales are easily damaged and they bleed profusely from any injury. When handling a ladyfish, it's advisable to keep the vent pointed away from yourself. If fishing from a boat, hold the fish over the side. When stressed, they frequently release a surprising quantity of recently digested fish and crustaceans.

Ladyfish feed aggressively and take almost any bait or lure and can be caught by beginning anglers and children. During the summer, ladyfish are plentiful on the Gulf Coast, particularly on the barrier island beaches. Ladyfish often feed actively in large schools and can be found by looking for surface activity beneath diving birds. The most effective lures are shiny, silvery, or white. A fast retrieve with plenty of action provides the best results. Ladyfish are sometimes difficult to hook, but they will strike again and again. They frequently throw the hook during their wild jumps. The ladyfish's mouth is very abrasive; leaders should be checked frequently for fraying.

Regulations

Mississippi saltwater fishing regulations are available on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website.

Ladyfish are not regulated in Mississippi or any of the other states on the Gulf of Mexico. The fishery is mostly recreational, though some sources report a commercial catch for fish meal, bait, and human consumption.

The current Mississippi state records for ladyfish are 3 pounds, 9.28 ounces for conventional tackle and 3 pounds, 7 ounces for fly rod.

Ladyfish on the Table?

Ladyfish patties

Ladyfish patties, reportedly delicious
Photo by Barry Bevis, BigBendFishing.net Fishing Forum. Click for larger image.

Ladyfish are generally regarded as poor table fare, on account of their many small bones and the mushy texture of the flesh. However, a recent web search revealed several references to cooking ladyfish, along with interesting instructions and recipes. The most popular, and plausible, preparation involves scraping the meat from the skin of filets and frying the meat as patties, fish cakes, or balls. The preparation is similar to gar balls, popular in southern Louisiana. For details, see How to Clean and Cook Florida's Ladyfish/Skipjack.

Conservation Status and Management History

The status of the ladyfish is listed as "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List. Populations are described as stable.


Resources and References

Ladyfish Videos

Ladyfish at Silver Glen Springs, Florida