It was a somewhat small fish in a big pond.

Though measuring just under a foot, this creature would never have to fish for a compliment. It was a beauty, with its five to six vertical bands down its body, making for a unique look.

A few of the regulars at State Beach knew it was something different, an unfamiliar guest swimming around the buoy. While it hung around for almost a week, they weren’t able to get a photo of this fabulous fish.

They did not find Nemo; he was a clownfish. They did, however, find another trickster. A tentative, but probable, identification was made; the fish in question was likely a banded rudderfish. The confusion came as the result of those beautiful bands. Banded rudderfish have bands only in their juvenile stage. Once they age and reach over a foot long, the bands disappear. A lookalike is the pilot fish, which maintains its bands through its life, but is a tropical fish more rare in these waters. 

Banded rudderfish, Seriola zonata, is alternately known as slender amberjack, jackfish, amarino and banded mackerel. They feed on smaller fish, shrimp, squid and crustaceans The adults spawn offshore and have a habit of following boats, while the young tend to swim among jellyfish and drifting weeds.

While I have never encountered this species, most resources say that it ranges from Nova Scotia to Brazil. However, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has this to say about the prevalence of the species in the area just north of us, “The rudderfish is ordinarily a rare visitor to the Gulf of Maine, and most of those that have been seen there have been small, made conspicuous by their crossbarred pattern. Two were taken at Wellfleet in 1844 and 1849; another at Beverly in May 1866; one five inches long at Provincetown in 1870; and one at Salem sometime prior to 1879. A gap then follows in the record until September 1921, when one was caught by an angler fishing for smelt at a wharf in Portland Harbor. Another, of five and a half inches was caught on September 22, 1929, also by an angler fishing for smelt; one of six and a half inches was taken on Nantucket Shoals August 1, 1930; several were reported in 1949 at Boothbay Harbor, the Sheepscot River, and at Gloucester.  However, in the summer and fall of the years 1949-51 large numbers of them were caught or observed in and around the traps at Barnstable, Cape Cod Bay, and one day’s record catch by one set of pound nets, within this period, amounted to two barrels indicating that, in some years, large schools of rudderfish are sometimes present in the latter region. Small fry one and a half to seven inches long are regular summer visitors at Woods Hole.” 

So though it might have seemed like a fish out of water in these parts, reports vary.

Anglers might not be disappointed to find this fish on their line. It is a decent eating fish, suggested down south as an affordable alternative to grouper. If there were plenty of rudderfish in our seas here, it might have been considered for dinner. It is only its uncommonness that precludes that option here.

The beachgoers that saw this banded rudderfish weren’t telling a fish story: they were learning one. It’s the story of a solitary and sporadically seen fish whose wandering appeared aimless, but definitely not rudderless. 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.