Reflections On The Plainfin Midshipman
San Francisco Bay is filled with numerous mud dwelling bottom feeding little baitfish type species and all of these tend to have very descriptive and interesting names. It’s almost as if the same guy was naming all of them. There’s the longjaw mudsucker--
a particularly apt and poetic title. The Pacific staghorn sculpin, which is a real mouthful—until you’ve said it 500 times written it on innumerable forms and measured and catalogued many thousands of these.
Then of course there’s the mysteriously named, sarcastic fringehead. A fish which, despite its small size and comical appearance can deliver a very painful bite to your finger—trust me I learned this the hard way.
But of all of these strangely named, eel-like/goby/sculpin/toad-fishy sort of weirdoes that live on the bottom of the bay, the star of the lot is Porichthys notatus, or in the common tongue: the plainfin midshipman.
The plainfin midshipman enters San Francisco Bay to spawn in the spring and by early June when the big minus tides happen, has established itself intertidally. I have found them under rocks in the south bay as far as Coyote Point but they are commonly caught as far south as Alviso. My "special place" for plainfins is the rock-strewn shoreline along the south side of __________. Midshipmen make for an excellent live bait, especially if you’re into leopard sharks—which I for one am not. But I do not see why a striper or a halibut would refrain from eating one.
The sexual division of labor in midshipmen is very pronounced. When one turns over a rock in the mud flats in July, the healthy and robust midshipman is the female, the emaciated, dejected and abused looking midshipman is the male. This is because male midshipmen are stuck with the inglorious duty of guarding the egg cluster while mama goes out on the town, binging on crustaceans, worms, copepods and whatnot. Did I mention that they bite? Well, they do.
A Rare Bird
The plainfin midshipman is a rare bird. First, it has photophores (small light producing “spots”) second, and most famously, it hums. Or maybe “buzzes” is more correct. In fact the buzzing of midshipmen caused quite a furor in Sausalito several years ago, when newly arrived houseboat owners could not figure out what that terrible buzzing was.
Evidently, the buzzing of midshipmen in May and June is so loud the citizenry of Sausalito has a hard time getting to sleep at night. Tsk tsk, poor little Sausalitans.
Anyway, as if the voice box of a Tuvan throat singer, the uncanny ability to survive at a ridiculous range of depths, and a body covered with blue-green lightbulbs was not enough, the midshipman comes armed with poisonous spines on its gill covers. Again this is something I had to learn by experience. Suffice it to say if a midshipman ever slips through my hands again, I will not attempt to catch him as he falls. One day I did this (dropped a midshipman and tried to catch it before it hit the ground). Wouldn’t you know the opercular spine jabbed me underneath my fingernail? Of course shoving anything under your fingernail is going to be unpleasant… but a venomous gill spine is, I think, among the more unpleasant of things. Suffice it to say it was like Viet Cong torture camp for the rest of that particular day and I now handle midshipmen with caution, reverence and the type of respect that a fierce opponent can inspire.
What else... I guess I find it rather interesting that this species lives offshore at depths over a thousand feet, but comes into the bay to spawn in two inches of toxic mudflat. This journey is quite remarkable... imagine all the adventures, all the brushes with death, all the near escapes a midshipman must experience!
I will now wax haikuic:
In spite of ling cod
Sharks, and his crazy journey
If you are wondering how the midshipman got his strange name, wonder no more: Sometime in the 19th century, the photophores on the belly of notatus, evidently reminded someone (Theodore Gill? That's my guess.) of the buttons on a naval cadet’s jacket.
As a baitfish midshipmen stay alive as long as, (or longer than) bullheads. I have rarely heard of anyone using them for anything other than leopard sharks… but again I don’t see why they wouldn’t work for bass or halibut. I have seen the partially decomposed remains of large midshipmen in the bellies of lingcod--but that should come as no surprise. Last summer a reliable source told me he found a common murre, in the belly of a ling cod!
Anyway, I included all this so that the MFN readership might better understand my reverence for and obsession with this "marvelous" little species... and to explain why a reasonably sane individual (am I that?) would make a movie like this:
Giving It Up For "Mooch"
And One More thing before I go. It appears our man "Mooch," one of the great kayak fishers of the Bay Area, and a founding member of Norcal Kayak Anglers, has been stricken with cancer. Norcal is organizing a fund raiser to help affray some of his costs. Please see the flier below or go here: