Crab fishermen surprised by deep-dwelling mystery fish

WRYMOUTH: It might have been edible; no one wanted to eat the totally ugly catch.

September 19, 2009 

An example of a giant wrymouth.

ALASKA FISHERIES SCIENCE CENTER PHOTO

KENAI -- From ship-encircling serpents of Norse mythology to the multi-armed beast of a more modern Jules Verne tale, sea monster accounts are found in virtually all cultures that have contact with the sea. Homer is no exception.

Near the end of July, Bill Coghill of Soldotna, along with his daughter Carolyn Coghill up from San Diego, and Homer friend Bill Nelson, took a boat out to pull up pots for tanner crabs they had set in Tutka Bay. They were shocked by what they caught along with the crustaceans.

"It was weird. It was a huge eel-like animal with a big head and big lips, and a big belly like a lingcod, and it was pinkish-beige with some speckling down the sides. It looked just like a sea monster. None of us knew what it was," said Bill Coghill.

Since they were uncertain what the creature was, or if it could harm them, the fishermen proceeded slowly as they removed it from the rigid mesh of the pot.

"We were cautious with it, but it was very lethargic. You could touch it and it wouldn't try to snap you, or jump and flop around like a salmon," Coghill said.

The pot -- baited with herring -- had been set at a depth of roughly 320 feet, and had only soaked for about four hours. This was enough time to catch plenty of crab, but it didn't appear to Coghill that his bycatch had the interest or ability to eat them.

"We had about a dozen keeper tanners in the pot with it, plus a few smaller females, but I don't think it could have eaten them. It had a big mouth, but it didn't have any teeth. You could run your glove over it and there was nothing there, but the inside of its mouth was just like sandpaper," he said.

As it turns out, on the water-taxi ride back across Kachemak Bay, Coghill showed some photos of the creature to his taxi driver, who was able to identify it immediately.

"It was a strange coincidence that our driver was a retired (Alaska Department of) Fish and Game biologist. He took one look at it and said it was a giant wrymouth," Coghill said.

Unfortunately, due to the size of the creature, Coghill wasn't sure of the man's meaning.

"I asked 'Do you mean giant because that's its name, or are you saying this is a wrymouth that is a giant?' He said 'Both. Its name is giant wrymouth, but that's also the biggest one I've ever seen,' " Coghill said.

The retired biologist was right. According to "McClane's Field Guide to Saltwater Fishes of North America," the giant wrymouth, which occurs from Northern California to the Bering Sea, typically only reaches a length of 46 inches.

"But ours was at least 5 feet long," Coghill said.

Also, while wrymouths may not have teeth, it doesn't stop them from wolfing down other bottom-dwelling critters. According to "The Wise Fishermen's Encyclopedia," wrymouths create burrows in the muddy bottom of the sea floor where they live. They may be seen protruding about a head's length from these burrows as they attempt to feed on small invertebrates, such as shrimp and crabs, but they are seldom seen out in the open.

Coghill sent the photos he took to numerous commercial and sport fishermen friends; none of them could remember ever catching a wrymouth, or even hearing of anyone catching one.

As a result, he said he felt even better about his decision to let the creature go.

"I asked Bill if he thought it was edible, and he asked me right back if I would eat it if it was, so we let it go," Coghill joked.

Coghill said beyond not wanting to eat the animal, he also had another reason for letting the wrymouth go.

"We felt good about letting it go because the world should have sea monsters and things you don't see every day."

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service