Finescale Triggerfish

Order Tetraodontiformes

 Triggerfishes—Family Balistidae

Finescale triggerfish taken at the Cabrillo Mole at Avalon on Catalina Island by KJ in 2010

Species: Balistes polylepis (Steindachner, 1876); Balistes comes from the Latin word ballista (a device that shoots arrows—referring to the trigger-like spine) and the Greek word polylepis (many scales)

Alternate Name: Triggerfish. In Mexico called cochi, puerco coche, cochito or pez puerco.

Identification: The body is very compressed; they have a small mouth containing strong, protruding teeth (8 in each jaw); 3 strong, sharp spines are located in the first dorsal fin with 26-28 rays in the second dorsal; small gill slits are located in front of the pectoral fin. The skin is thick with large, rectilinear, plate-like scales. The coloring is brownish with blue speckles on head.

Finescale triggerfish taken at the Cabrillo Mole by Rita Magdamo in 2014

Size: To 32 inches and perhaps as much as 16 pounds.

Range: San Antonio, Chile, to Metlakatla, (southeastern) Alaska) but considered rare north of Baja California.

Habitat: Generally found on the bottom, nearshore near rocky reefs, but they can range down to 1,680 feet deep. Some have arrived north during the El Niño years and it’s speculated that there are at least three established groups near Redondo Beach, Santa Monica and Catalina. They feed on a variety of bethnic-invertebrates such as snails, sponges, sea urchins, shrimp, and crabs as well as the occasional fish and are most active during the day.

Finescale triggerfish taken from the rocks on Catalina Island by Jeff “Salty” in 2010

Piers: Reported from the Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Santa Monica Pier, and Cabrillo Mole in Avalon.

Shoreline: Several have been caught from the shoreline at Catalina and the jetty at Redondo Beach.

Boats: A fairly rare species for California boaters.

Finescale triggerfish taken at the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in 2012

Bait and Tackle: Will take most bait including squid, market shrimp, and ghost shrimp.

Food Value: Excellent, all-white fillets that can be cooked many ways. The only problem is that the skin is like leather so you need a good, sharp fillet knife.

Finescale triggerfish taken from the Redondo Beach Pier in 2007

Comments: Considered a fairly rare species in California although just enough fish are caught to keep it interesting. I’ve caught four—one in Maui, Hawaii, one while fishing out of La Paz, Mexico, one while fishing out of the Rancho Buena Vista resort in Mexico, and one from the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon.

A triggerfish taken from the Cabrillo Mole (Picture by Hashem Nahid)

Rita Magdamo and son Kyle at the Cabrillo Mole with her finescale triggerfish in 2014

KJ and his finescale triggerfish at the Cabrillo Mole in 2010

A finescale triggerfish caught at the Cabrillo Mole by PFIC member EgoNonBaptizo (aka as Sky) in 2017 (Photo by Hashem Nahid)


KJ and a different variety of triggerfish at Isla Espíritu Santo, La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico

A triggerfish caught on a boat out of the Ranch Buena Vista Resort in Baja California Sur, Mexico


The Hawaiian State Fish

If you visit Hawaii you might look for its most famous fish, a triggerfish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, which is pronounced “who-moo-who-moo-noo-koo-noo-koo-ah-pooah-ah. If you can’t pronounce that, just call it humuhumu for short.


From Fishing Hawaii Style, Volume 2, by Jim Rizzuto, 1987

Common name: Two species are commonly known by this name: the pig-nosed triggerfish and the aculeate triggerfish.

Scientific name: Rhinecanthus rectangulus (pig-nosed variety) and R. aculeatus (aculeate variety).

Other names: Reef triggerfish and lagoon triggerfish; tasulkimongara (J) and marasamemongara (J), hage.

Physical characteristics: Grows to a pound or two. Body deep and compressed. Head pointed, snout-like, ending in a small mouth with strong jaws. Eyes are small and set high on the head about one-third of the  way back along the body. Pectoral fins are small. A single prominent spine sticks up from midback directly behind the eyes. When erected, it is locked in place by a much smaller spine behind it and may not be lowered until the second spine has been depressed. The pig-nosed humuhumu is the Hawai’i State Fish. It has a dark band running from the eyes diagonally along the sides to the anal fin. The aculeate humuhumu has three or four rows of dark spines on the caudal peduncle. The skin of both fish is tough and leathery.

Humuhumu caught in Hawaii by sdfisherman (Don) in 2005

Habits: Feeds on shrimp, crustaceans and seaweed. Common in reef areas ranging from the shallows to depths of five or more fathoms. Generally solitary. Hides in openings in the coral when threatened.

The teeth of a triggerfish. Posted to PFIC by mufuti in 2005

Picture — Courtesy of Discover Hawaii Tours

The fish is featured in the following famous song —My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua Hawaiʻi By Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison & Johnny Noble

I want to go back to little grass shack
In Kealakekua, Hawaiʻi
I want to be with all the kanes and wahines
That I used to know long ago

I can hear the old guitars playing
On the beach at Hōnaunau
I can hear the old Hawaiians saying
Komo mai no kāua i ka hale welakahao

It won’t be long till my ship will be sailing
Back to Kona
A grand old place
That’s always fair to see, you’re telling me

I’m just a little Hawaiian
A homesick island boy
I want to go back to my fish and poi

I want to go back to my little grass shack
In Kealakekua, Hawai`i
Where the humuhumunukunukuâpua`a
Go swimming by

You can listen to Don Ho —

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