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Needlefish Scomberesox saurus (Walbaum) 1792


[Jordan and Evermann, 1896-1900, p. 725.]

Needlefish (Scomberesox saurus)

Figure 82.—Needlefish (Scomberesox saurus). Adult, Woods Hole. From Goode. Drawing by H. L. Todd.


The needlefish resembles the silver gars in its slender form and in the fact that both its upper and lower jaws are prolonged, but it differs from the gars in having a series of five or six little separate finlets, both on its back in the space between the dorsal fin and the caudal, and on its lower side between the anal fin and the caudal. Its body is about nine times as long (not counting caudal fin) as deep, flattened sidewise, tapering toward the head and tail, with slender caudal peduncle, and all its fins are small. Its dorsal fin originates slightly behind the origin of its anal; these two fins are alike in outline and stand far back. Its ventrals are situated about midway the length of the body. Its caudal is deeply forked and symmetrical, much like the tail of a mackerel. Its trunk is covered with small scales as is a patch on each gill cover. Its lower jaw projects a little beyond the upper, and its teeth are pointed but very small.


Olive green above with a silver band on each side at the level of the eye and about as broad as the latter. There is a dark green spot above the base of each pectoral; the dorsal fin is greenish; the lower parts are silvery with golden gloss. Young fry, which live in the surface waters of the open Atlantic, have dark blue backs and silvery sides.


Up to 18 inches long. Those caught along Cape Cod run a foot and more in length.


The skipper is an oceanic fish. So far as known it always lives close to the surface; so much so indeed that in English waters, where it is plentiful in summer, few are caught in nets set as deep as a fathom or two. Its hordes are preyed upon by porpoises and by all the larger predaceous fishes; cod and pollock, for instance, feed greedily upon them, as do bluefish. When they strand on the beaches, as often happens, it is probably while they are fleeing from their enemies. At sea they attempt to escape by leaping, whole companies of them breaking the surface together as has often been described, and as we have seen them doing in Massachusetts Bay.

Needlefish, young, about two and a half inches long.

Figure 83.—Needlefish, young, about 2½ inches long. After Murry and Hjort.

It is not likely that they ever spawn in the cool waters of the Gulf of Maine, for we have never taken their fry in our tow nets, although they are among the most numerous of young fish in the open Atlantic between the latitudes of 11° or 12° N. and 40° N. Although their eggs are covered with filaments like those of the silver gars,[14] they are not adhesive as the latter are, but drift near the surface. The most interesting phase in the development of the skipper is that its jaws do not commence to elongate until the fry have grown [page 171] to about 15/8 inches (40 mm.), and that the lower jaw out-strips the upper at first, so that fry of 4 to 6 inches (100 to 150 mm.) look more like little halfbeaks ("Hemiramphus" stage) than like their own parents.

European students tell us that the skipper feeds on the smaller pelagic Crustacea and probably also on small fish, for it is sometimes caught on hook and line. One examined by Linton at Woods Hole contained chiefly annelid worms, fragments of fish, copepods and crustacean larvae, with some vegetable debris.

General range—

Temperate parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, known in the open sea as far north as northern Norway off the European coast, and to southern Newfoundland and southern Nova Scotia[15] off the eastern American coast.

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine—

While the skipper is a straggler to our Gulf from warmer waters offshore or farther south, it has been taken along the northern coasts of New England more often than have any of its relatives; specifically along Cape Cod; at Provincetown; at several locations in Massachusetts Bay where we have seen schools of them; at Annisquam a few miles north of Cape Ann; at Old Orchard (Maine); in Casco Bay; at Monhegan Island; in the central part of the Gulf;[16] among the islands at the northern entrance to the Bay of Fundy; and on the northern part of Georges Bank, where one was gaffed from the Albatross II on September 20, 1928. But we find no record of it along the Nova Scotia shore of the Gulf of Maine. The inner curve of Cape Cod from Provincetown to Wellfleet seems to be a regular center of abundance for it, as Storer long ago remarked, for schools of billfish are picked up in the traps along that stretch of beach almost every year, the catch occasionally amounting to hundreds of barrels, and hosts of them have been known to strand there. Its numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year, however, and it often fails to appear.[17]

They are likely to be taken any time from mid-June to October or November, the largest catches usually being made late in summer.[18] We have seen several schools skipping, as is their common habit, off the Scituate shore on the southern side of Massachusetts Bay. But skippers are so much less common farther within Massachusetts Bay that some fishermen had never heard of them there. They appear only as strays north of Cape Ann. But it would not be astonishing if a large school were to be encountered anywhere within the Gulf; witness their occasional abundance off northern Nova Scotia.[19] When skippers do invade the waters of our Gulf, they may be expected in multitudes, for they usually travel in vast schools. Day,[20] for example, mentions the capture of 100,000 in a single haul in British waters.

Commercial importance—

The skipper is not of much commercial importance, being too sporadic in its appearances. However, when large catches are made on Cape Cod they find a ready sale near by. If too many are caught for the local trade to absorb, they are sent to Boston, where they are sold for bait.

[14] Skipper eggs were so described by Haeckel (Archiv für Anatomie, Physlologie, und Wissenschaftliche Medecin, 1855, p. 23, pl. 5, fig. 15) 75 years ago. They were not seen again until 1910 when similar eggs, 2.2 mm. in diameter, covered with filaments, were towed in the Atlantic by the Michael Sars (Murray and Hjort. Depths of the Ocean, 1912, p. 742, fig. 531).

[15] Cornish (Contrib. Canadian Biol., (1902-1905) 1907, p. 83) states that large schools can often be seen at Canso, Nova Scotia, skipping over the water as they flee from the pollock.

[16] The Museum of Comparative Zoology has a specimen, taken 115 miles southeast of Portland Lightship.

[17] Blake (American Naturalist, vol. 4, 1870, p. 521) remarked that while years before he saw thousands stranded at Provincetown not one was seen in 1870. It failed in 1921, also, and no doubt in many intervening years.

[18] We are indebted for information on the local abundance of billfish on Cape Cod to Capt. L. B. Goodspeed, a fisherman of long experience and close observation.

[19] Cornish (Contrib. Canadian Biol., 1902-1905 (1907), p. 83) states that large schools can often be seen at Canso skipping over the water as they flee from the pollock.

[20] The Fishes of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 2, 1880-1884, p. 152.