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April 2010 cover image 12 Hooked!

Skill Builder: What’s in a Name?

Texas fish have a plethora of confusing aliases.

By Dan Bennett

The unusual names people have for fish can be intriguing: sac-a-lait (white crappie), goggle-eye (warmouth), slick-jim (green sunfish), high fin blues (blue catfish), op or opelousa (flathead catfish), jack fish (pickerel) and choupique (bowfin). For biologists or fishermen, this diverse terminology often leads to confusion and misunderstandings.   

For instance, ask the average angler if he’s caught any fish, and he might respond, “Oh, just some bream.” When you ask what kind of bream he’s catching, he might say, “Well, you know, just some perch.” Now, anyone who has ever spent time fishing with earthworms at a local pond probably knows the terms “bream” (pronounced “brim”) or “perch,” and knows exactly what it’s like to catch one. But what is a bream? Examine the stringer and you might identify the fish he’s caught as any number of species — bluegill, redear sunfish, white crappie or warmouth, just to name a few.   

The origin of the word “bream” is likely from the Middle English word breme, or Old French bresme, used in the 14th or 15th century; it simply means “freshwater fish.” Tracing the word back even further to the Proto-Germanic language (an ancestor of European languages, including English), bream may originate from the word brehwan, meaning “to shine, glitter or sparkle.” The most common theme of all definitions of the word “bream” refers to fish with flattened, compressed bodies and shiny scales. The name is used in many cultures around the world.

In Europe, there are several species belonging to the minnow family commonly referred to as “bream,” including the silver bream and the carp bream. One definition defines bream as “any of various freshwater sunfishes of the genus Lepomis, especially bluegill.” Locally, many people refer to groups of sunfish species collectively as “bream” or “perch,” and may be unaware that those are common names used for different fish around the world. To avoid this confusion, biologists use a classification system known as Linnaean taxonomy. In this system, every species has a unique name derived from Greek or Latin that is used worldwide.

Many fish from the taxonomic order Perciformes are referred to as “perch.” This group contains about 7,000 species, including sunfish, bass and crappie. Perciformes means “perch-like”; the origin of the word “perch” comes from the Proto-Indo-European perk, meaning “speckled or spotted.” In biology, the term “perch” is commonly used to refer to the family of walleye and darters, called Percidae. Sunfish and black bass belong to another family, Centrarchidae. The largemouth bass is actually in the sunfish family.

True bass, in the family Serranidae, include the striped bass, white bass, yellow bass and white perch. In the northern United States, fishermen use the term “perch” when referring to the yellow perch. In Texas, “white perch” is commonly used when referring to white crappie. Confused yet?

The bluegill can be distinguished by the vertical bars on the body and a black spot on the back on the dorsal fin. Other common names include sunperch, perch or coppernose.

Bream, perch, panfish and sunfish are some of the most important species in fresh water. They are a primary food source for larger fish like largemouth bass and catfish. They are an important indicator of ecosystem health, and are often the first fish young anglers hook. Sunfish are easy to catch and can be good for showing new anglers how to fish. Some of the most common sunfish species that anglers catch in Texas are the bluegill, redear, longear and redbreast sunfish.

Redear sunfish can be identified by the red edge of the opercle flap or “ear.” Names for the redear in the U.S. include shellcracker, Georgia bream, cherry-gill, chinquapin and stumpknocker.

Redbreast sunfish can be identified by a red or orange belly and a long opercle flap or “ear.” Names for the redbreast in the U.S. include yellowbelly sunfish or redbreasted bream.

These species can be found in virtually every lake, pond, river or creek in Texas, and there are no statewide length or bag limit restrictions for harvesting sunfish. These “panfish” also make an excellent meal! Sunfish are caught on light tackle using small hooks with crickets, worms or small artificial lures.

No matter what you call the fish, freshwater fishing is fun for all ages. Get out and fish, and take a friend or family member along to share the experience.

More information on freshwater species in Texas can be found at: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/aquaticspecies/ and www.bio.txstate.edu/~tbonner/txfishes/index.htm

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