California Scorpionfish: When a sculpin is not a sculpin?

Fish names can be confusing and even though I preach the value of keeping a “Fish ID” book with the tackle, it’s a sermon rarely followed. The result is that too many anglers simply never learn the true names of fish even if at times it might prevent a citation — or a nasty sting. Compounding the problem are the local names often assigned to species. Thus a white croaker is called a tom cod in SoCal, a roncador in the Santa Barbara area, and a kingfish in CenCal; only a few anglers seem to actually call it a white croaker. Rare though is the distinction given to the fish commonly called a “sculpin” by most Southern California anglers. The fish, whose true name is California scorpionfish, is a member of the  Scorpaenidae family that includes the scorpionfish and rockfish species; it’s only remotely related to the true sculpin family Cottidae, a family that includes many small species of sculpin and the larger cabezon. Given the fact that using the name scorpionfish might prevent some unsuspecting newbie from being stung, it seems logical to use the right name. But it’s doubtful if it will ever happen. The fish have been called sculpin for many, many years and even scientists seem to accept the fact that the name is going to stick with the fish. It’s tradition and few anglers seem interested in change.

 California Scorpionfish

 Species: Scorpaena guttata (Girard, 1854); from the Greek word scorpaena (scorpion, referring to the poison spines), and the Latin word guttata (a form of small drops or spotting).

Alternate Names: Commonly called sculpin although also called scorpionfish, scorpion, little poker, rattlesnake and scorpene. Early records show stingfish and spinefish as favorite appellations. In Mexico they’re called escorpión Californiano.

Identification: Typical rockfish shape, heavy-bodied and with strong head and fin spines. Their coloring is red (deeper water) to brown (more shallow water) with dark spotting over the body and fins. Fin spines are venomous and can cause a very painful, although not fatal, wound.

Size: To 17 inches, although most caught from piers are less than 12 inches long. The California record was for a fish weighing 3 lb 0 oz. It was caught at the Silver Strand Beach in 1997.

Range: Uncle Sam Bank, central Baja California, and the Gulf of California, to Santa Cruz. They are uncommon north of Point Conception.

Habitat: Most abundant on hard bottoms such as rocky reefs, sewer pipes and wrecks; frequently found in caves and crevices. Some are also found on sand. Found from fairly shallow water down to 620 feet.  May travel over 200 miles in annual spawning migrations (spring and early summer) that see them form large spawning aggregations on or near the bottom (at a variety of depths).

Piers: Although scorpionfish are most common around rocky areas and reef areas, I have seen them caught at almost every oceanfront pier in southern California. Best bets: Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon) and the Cabrillo Mole (Avalon).

Bait and Tackle: Scorpions are carnivorous, ambush predators that are primarily nocturnal, feeding at night. Their main diet consists of small crabs, octopus, shrimp and small fish. A high/low leader with size 4 hooks baited with squid or shrimp seems to work best although they also really like ghost shrimp. Still, I’ve also caught them on cut anchovies, strips of mackerel, and even pile worms, so they’re not too discriminating.

Food Value:  An excellent eating, mild-flavored fish that is best fried (although they are a favorite fish for sushi and command top prices when fresh fish are available).

Comments: Handle with extreme care. California scorpionfish are the most venomous member of the family found in California. If handled in a careless manner and a puncture wound does occur there will usually be pain (sometimes intense) and perhaps swelling that should subside after a few hours. If possible, soak the affected area in hot water as soon as practical (since the hot water alters the toxin and makes it less harmful). Multiple punctures may require doctor’s attention or even hospitalization. The worst story I ever heard of such multiple punctures concerned a middle-aged angler fishing from a boat near Catalina. This lady had caught upwards of a dozen scorpionfish that were dutifully deposited into her gunnysack. Unfortunately, many of the long spines were protruding from her bag when a heavy wave caused her to lose her footing and to fall, bottom-first, onto the bag. The result was butt-porcupine and a helicopter trip back to a hospital.

Although studies showed a decline in the scorpionfish population before 1980, their numbers seem to have increased and today have a healthy population.

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