12/23/11 — Despite strange look, "puffers" make some good eating

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Despite strange look, "puffers" make some good eating

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on December 23, 2011 1:48 PM

Winter is transition time for anglers who visit the North Carolina coast. Cold fronts passing through send the most popular game fish like flounder and speckled trout packing for warmer waters. In their place arrive some smaller fish that do not have as high a profile.

One of these smaller fish is not considered a game fish because it doesn't put up much of a fight. To the unknowing, it is not even taken home as table fare. However the northern puffer (Sphoeroides maculates) is a great-tasting fish, despite its strange appearance.

While "puffer" is not seen on menus, the fish are marketed as "sea squab." Some anglers call them "chicken of the sea." Some other puffer species, including the southern puffer found as far north as Florida, can cause dire, even fatal consequences if not cleaned properly before being eaten.

Species of one genus, Takifugu, are eaten as fugu in raw fish recipes in Japan. Learning how to clean these potentially-deadly puffer species takes years of training and anyone partaking of the finished product is hailed for his bravado because there are a small number of reported deaths by paralysis due to puffer poisoning each year.

Our local puffer species is great to eat, as explained by Walter White (Whitewater Surf Fishing Charters) after he caught several of them from the surf at Carolina Beach. White also works at Seaview Crab Company, a seafood market at Carolina Beach. He said they sell puffers as fast they come in the door.

"We're having a great run of puffers this year," he said. "There's a lot more meat on a puffer than you would think."

White hauled a puffer he had just landed from the sea foam. The fish was nondescript, oddly shaped. But when he stroked its belly with the back of a forefinger, it huffed and it puffed and it blew itself up.

"Some people think because it looks hollow, there's not enough meat on a puffer to make it worth cleaning," he said. "But they're wrong."

White laid a puffer on a board in the bed of his four-wheel drive pickup and removed a sharp knife from its sheath. He made a deep cut behind the head of the fish. Then he used pliers to grip the skin and strip it all the way down to the tail. He cut the skin off at the tail and held the remaining fish in the palm of his hand.

"It looks like a chicken drumstick and the meat is firm, like that of a chicken," he said. "The backbone is flexible and easy to eat around, like eating a chicken leg. There may be one rib bone remaining on each side in a flap of meat. But I cut the flaps off when I get home and get ready to fry the fish."

Puffers have been running along the beaches recently. Reports of great catches have come from Oak Island Pier, Topsail Beach and many other places that have easy access for people who do not have boats.

"If you can get to the surf, you can catch some puffers," White said. "The best bait is a sand flea or a piece of shrimp. I catch my sand fleas when it's warm, using a basket to scoop them from the sand at the edge of the waves. Then I freeze them in plastic containers to use as bait for puffers, whiting and other fish through the winter. If you want to use shrimp, the best thing to do is find the freshest shrimp you can."

White uses a No. 4 or No. 6 hook to catch puffers. He casts a two-hook bottom rig, which can be bought at any tackle shop or discount store in coastal areas. Baiting one hook with a sand flea and the other hook with a piece of shrimp assures that any puffer swimming past by will find something he likes and give it a nibble.

"I use a 3-ounce sinker most of the time," he said. "If it gets too rough for that, it's usually too rough to be fishing for puffers in the surf."

A pier is a great place to fish for puffers when the weather is rough.

Contact information for the state's ocean fishing piers, as well for 100 lakes, rivers, ponds and sounds, is available from Mike's book, Fishing North Carolina. For information or to order, visit www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.