- Scientific Name: Elops saurus
- Common Names: Ladyfish, skipjack, banana fish (Louisiana), ten-pounder, chiro
- Order: Elopiformes
- Family: Elopidae
- Status: "Least Concern" on IUCN Red List
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 move into the saltier lower regions of estuaries as they mature, eventually moving offshore at an age of one to three years.
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
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.
The primary predators of ladyfish are sharks, larger toothy fish, dolphins and porpoises, fish-eating birds, and alligators.
Fishing for Ladyfish
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.
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.
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.
Ladyfish on the Table?
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
- Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements
of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (South Florida), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report 82(11.104)
TR EL-82-4, July 1989
- Ladyfish species profile, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 2010
- Global conservation status and research needs for tarpons (Megalopidae), ladyfishes (Elopidae) and bonefishes (Albulidae), Aaron J Adams et. al., Fish and Fisheries, 2013
- Silver Glen Ladyfish, (See above.) Youtube, 0:37, Underwater video of ladyfish at Silver Glen Springs, Florida
- Ladyfish, Youtube, 1:24, Underwater video of ladyfish at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park , Florida
- Gulf Surf Fishing for Ladyfish, Youtube, Slide show of catching, cleaning, and cooking ladyfish.
- Ladyfish, Youtube, 0:16, Underwater video of close packed school of ladyfish
- Lower Laguna Madre Ladyfish, Vimeo, 0:22, close-up look at ladyfish being released by angler
- Fly-fishing for Ladyfish, Pensacola, Florida, Youtube, 1:18, Fly fishing for ladyfish from the beach
- Ladyfish Feeding Frenzy, (See above.) Youtube, 0:35, School of ladyfish aggressively feeding on the surface
- Ladyfish South Andros Island / Bahamas, Youtube, 3:29, catching ladyfish on the flats with a guide
- Catching big ladyfish in Key Largo - Youtube, 2:55, Two young boys decide that catching ladyfish is "Awesome!"