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Northern Puffers (Blowfish)

“What are these blowfish that I’m catching?”

Blowfish, or Northern Puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus) fish suddenly showed up in the Ocean City area the last week of April. They were in the surf, the bay, the inlet, and caught from the Oceanic Pier. Not to be confused with the Southern Puffer that can be poisonous when eaten, Northern Puffer meat is perfectly safe to eat. I read that no one in the United States has ever died from eating a Northern Puffer, although we are told that we should not eat the skin, liver, entrails or row.

“What do they look like?”

This is from the Chesapeake Bay Program website:

•Yellow, brown or olive body covered in small prickles

•Yellow or white belly

•Puffs up into a ball in self-defense

•Dark, vertical, splotchy bars on the sides

•Small, black spots on the back, sides and cheeks

•Tiny, beak-like mouth

•Small dorsal fin set far back, near the tail

•Usually grows 8-10 inches long

Northern pufferfish feed on crustations and have rabbit like protruding teeth that they use to crush clams and mussels. Yes, they can bite off your short-shanked hooks, so if you’re into catching blowfish, use Pacific Bass long shanked hooks. If you are surf fishing, use a small bluefish rig. Their mouths are small, so a size #4 or #6 hook is all you need.

Blowfish eat just about anything, but since their natural diet is crustations of any kind, anglers do best with shrimp, squid, bloodworms or Fishbite bloodworms. I like to use a combination bait of either bloodworm or Fishbite bloodworm and a little strip of box squid. Use a high/low rigs with size #6 or #4 hooks. If nothing else is biting that day, maybe the blowfish will! They may not be the greatest fight in the world, but they sure are good eating!

Blowfish tend to swim in schools. Where there is one, there is more. Though not the world’s greatest fighter they are definitely good eating!

“I always just throw them back! How do you clean them?”

First of all, wear gloves, as their skin is like course sandpaper and even though the fish are not poisonous their prickly outer skin can irritate your hands. Without gloves, the blowfish hide can take the skin right off your fingers!!! Cut the blowfish with a sharp knife right behind the gills and cut all the way through the meat till you get to the skin. At this point, you can pull the meat away from the skin. It looks like a skinned chicken leg. This is a hard pull. Some people do the second step with a knife. Once you cut down to the bottom skin, turn your knife away from you and run the knife down the fish and the skin will peel off.

You can Goggle search “YouTube Cleaning Northern Puffers” and see many demonstrations of anglers cleaning blowfish. Some are better than others for sure. Some anglers use skinning tools. I like to use a sharp knife!

Most anglers cook the meat as a whole piece like a chicken leg. You can dip it in egg and coat with your favorite fish breading and pan or deep fry, or you can simply sauté them with butter and lemon. I have also taken the whole piece of meat and filleted out the middle cartilage to get two boneless fillets. These are good too!

I have found that any fish that feed on crustations are always tasty! Blowfish don’t have sharp bones like other fish either, so they are easy to eat.

Blowfish tend to run in schools in the spring. Anglers in the surf fish for them with a kingfish rig or small high/low bluefish rig. Again, bait up with a combination bait of some kind of worm with a little strip of squid or shrimp. They aren’t that particular. Rinse the sand off them, before putting them in the cooler. Many anglers fish a long rod for stripers, and a small rod in close for the blowfish, kingfish or whatever pan fish comes along!

Anglers in the bay tend to catch blowfish while fishing from the Sea Wall. They can also catch them from the Oceanic Pier, the 9th Street Pier and even Homer Gudelsky Park. If you are in a boat, I like fishing around the Route 90 Bridge or back in the bay behind Assateague around the Verrazano Bridge and Buoys #8 and #10. Anywhere there is rough bottom and some structure you can catch blowfish all season long. They are usually in 6 to 15 foot of water. Any place you usually catch croaker and spot later in the season would be typical blowfish territory in the spring.

When I grew up, blowfish were everywhere! We’d sit on the Talbot Street Pier and catch them one after another while fishing for winter flounder in the spring. My brother and I could bait a hook with a chicken neck in the lagoon atCaptain’s Hill and dip a half dozen at a time with a landing net when you pulled in your line. Mom cooked them all the time. Markets were selling them as sea squab and Chicken of the Sea in the 70’s. I remember catching and boiling them up for the cats in the garage. (I can still smell that…)
Northern puffers practically disappeared in the 1980’s. Traditionally a by-product of certain fisheries, commercial fishermen are using peeler pots to catch blowfish for sale. They say to their friends: “I’m goin’ toadin’!” and they bait up their peeler pots with crab scraps and catch Northern pufferfish!

Instead of calling them sea squabs or Chicken of the Sea, they are now calling them blow toads or sugar toads and they are becoming popular again!

Regardless, I’ve been eating them since I was a kid, and have continued to eat them whenever I catch a few. And yes, I have been known to target them because they are ummm, ummmm good!

Good fishing….

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 18:38