Thoughts on a badass birthmark
"I got one once that had a spot shaped like Mickey Mouse ears— for real," says Captain John Turcot, referring to one of the more memorable markings he's encountered over his two decades of hunting reds in Florida's Mosquito Lagoon.
Redfish spots are beautiful, unique, and mysterious. No matter the years of experience among guide or angler, there seems a certain level of intrigue regarding those telltale blotches, smudges, and spheres. And theories as to why certain shapes or patterns exist can seem just as varied as the spots themselves.
"Here in the lagoon, at least in the winter and early spring, the juvie fish have more spots," says Turcot. "I also see a few spotless ones each year, and in the summer we'll catch some real big fish with a whole bunch of small spots. I have no idea what that's about."
The leading hypothesis is that a redfish's spot or spots mimic some sort of false eye(s), thereby throwing off predators. But is this theory based on evolutionary science or armchair biology?
"To my knowledge, there has never been an actual scientific study to answer the ‘redfish spots' question," says Josh Taylor, a Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) tech. "But there are certainly scientists and biologists who spend a lot of time studying red drum."
Taylor feels there's abundant evidence to support the false-eye theory. "Just look at how these fish feed on a flat or in the grass," he says. "That big tail is either high in the water column or standing straight out when they're feeding. If a predator attacks, it's hitting the tail-side first, which gives a redfish time to move, and move quickly."
The fake-eye characteristic isn't exclusive to redfish or even to fish. Mutton and lane snapper both have similar markings, as do peacocks (both the bass and the bird) as well as several types of butterflies. But there's more variety to redfish spots. "The first one I ever caught had a spot shaped just like a heart," Captain Jason Rucker tells me after a recent day on the Louisiana flats. "I think of redfish spots like I think of freckles; it has to be genetics, but it's like asking why mullet jump—I don't think anyone knows for sure."
Some suggest that certain reds, depending on coloration, might use the end of their tail to deceive just as much as they use their spots, especially considering a redfish's penchant for blue crabs. "Compared to other gamefish, reds spend a lot of time sitting still," Rucker says. "They'll lay up in grass and in the mudflats, and if you look really close, many of those tails have a blue line at the end that gives off a lot of color in the sun. It looks just like a blue crab's claw or arm, and that dot is the crab's eye. But it's kinda like looking at clouds; different people will see different things."