Called by many names, the pufferfish is not a fish that is commonly sought after although it is very delicious. With a white, mild flavor meat, the pufferfish are also known as puffers, blowfish, sugar toads, toadies (in Florida) and “Chicken of the Sea” (in New England). It is called the chicken of the sea because once the fish is cleaned, it looks like a chicken drumstick.
There are 120 different types of pufferfish in the world and they can measure from a few inches to two feet long. In Florida, the Checkered Puffer is the most common and in the Mid Atlantic area near the New England coast, the Northern Puffer is the most common. Several anglers claim that pufferfish are the best tasting inshore fish with no worrying about bones when eating. An interesting fact about pufferfish is that they were harvested for protein during WWII to substitute for the meat being sent overseas.
This awkward looking fish is bulbous in shape with a large head. They are terrible swimmers and only move forward when swishing their tail back and forth. They are found in numerous colors. The Northern Puffer is gray, brown or olive back and a yellow or white belly. The Checkered Puffer is pale tan to yellowish. The specks appear to be polygonal or rectangular. The stomach is whitish and unmarked. Lines are dark gray to olive, with small, dark brown spots on cheeks and lower sides.
In order to be successful in catching pufferfish it is important to know several aspects that relate to the pufferfish. First, you must know that some pufferfish are poisonous. Next, you must be aware of their defense mechanisms. Knowing where to locate pufferfish and how to catch them are important aspects of fishing for pufferfish and finally, what bait/lures to use is important as well.
There is good news and there is bad news when talking about the poison pufferfish. First, the bad news, almost all pufferfish are poisonous. Now for the good news, the most common pufferfish found in Florida (Checkered Puffer) only has poison in the liver and the most common pufferfish in New England (Northern Puffer) is not poisonous.
Most of the time, people confuse poisonous and venomous. Poisonous is when the animal transfers the toxin in a passive manner such as through consuming the animal’s meat or skin contact. Venomous is when the animal injects their toxin such as a bite or strike. Pufferfish are poisonous because the toxin is generally delivered into a human after consuming the fish or touching a species of pufferfish that has a skin toxin.
The toxin the pufferfish releases is tetrodotoxin which is 1200 more times poisonous than cyanide to humans. The symptoms of pufferfish poisoning could start as early as 10 minutes after coming in contact with the toxin or not show up for a couple of hours. The end result of this poisoning can be paralysis, loss of consciousness, and even death. There is no known antidote for pufferfish poisoning.
You will need to clean and eat at your own risk and research, research, research the kind of pufferfish you are catching. Fishing for pufferfish safely is all with the handling of the fish and the cleaning of the fish which we will discuss later. So if we haven’t scared you off, the next aspect of pufferfish fishing you should know about is their defense mechanism.
Pufferfish Defense Mechanism
We are so glad we didn’t scare you off and to keep you from getting scared or from being caught off guard, you should know about the pufferfish’s defense mechanisms. When the pufferfish gets scared, it will blow up its body by either gulping in water or air to double or triple their size. Even out of the water, the pufferfish will do this and it is very common when unhooking the fish. They make a laughable noise while puffing up that will send you into giggles. If you want to see the puffer inflate, try tickling its belly.
The puffer’s skin has little spikes that make it feel like sandpaper. If a predator gets the swollen fish in its mouth, it won’t be able to swallow it because of the tough skin. Wearing gloves while handling these fish is a good idea. It will help protect your skin and prevent any toxin from absorbing into your skin.
Another defense mechanism the puffers have is a beak like jaw. This beak is used to crush crustaceans that the puffers eat. However, they can use this beak as a weapon if needed. Getting your finger caught in the beak would be very painful. There is a history of fingers of divers being removed by the fish.Use caution when handling the pufferfish especially around the mouth.
How to Find a Pufferfish
Through the past few years, the numbers of pufferfish appear to operate in a cycle. In the 1980s, the number of pufferfish were abundant but the numbers started to dwindle for unknown reasons. However, in the last decade, the numbers have risen again. Now that the numbers are on rise, pufferfish can be found from Texas up to New York.
Specifically, pufferfish can be found in shallow grass flats or seagrass beds with sandy bottoms. They also can be found near channels in the estuaries and prefer the moving tide. In the Mid-Atlantic Region, pufferfish enjoy the full moon sheds in August, September, and October. Like most smaller fish, puffers will congregate around rocks and structures as long as there is other life. Because they feed on crustaceans including mollusks, clams, and shellfish, pufferfish can be found where their food is. They also eat algae and other invertebrates. Find their food source, find the pufferfish.
Pufferfish can also be caught in the surf. If you enjoy beach fishing and want a new target, try targeting pufferfish. Puffers can be found near piers as well, especially in the Outer Banks.
How to Catch a Pufferfish
Now that you have located the sought after pufferfish, you can catch it. Puffers are not hard to catch once they are found. They are often caught by accident when fishing for flounder, redfish, trout, and snook. Pufferfish are not very powerful fish and it is believed that they have the defense mechanisms discussed earlier because they are not fast swimmers. These characteristics show that a super light rod with low test fishing line are ideal in catching pufferfish.
Once you are where the puffers are and your rod and reel are ready, you’re ready to catch a puffer. The first thing to do is to chum up the water. You can do this by throwing some dead shrimp into the water or you can lower some weighted chum pots into the water. The pufferfish will gather around the chum pots. Drop your fishing line right next to the chum pots with a tight line. When you feel a bite on the line, set the hook lightly. Pufferfish are excellent bait stealers so set the hook lightly but quickly to ensure a proper hook up.
With the fish on the line, reel it in. Put gloves on before touching the fish to ensure there is not toxin transmitted through your skin. Watch for the teeth on the pufferfish as you remove the hook. You can use pliers to help. If you plan to keep the fish, do not put it on ice, put it in the live well or a bucket of water. When you put these fish on ice, it makes it hard to skin and unable to clean. Remember, there is a chance the puffer will inflate once you start messing with it so be cautious and enjoy a good laugh.
Now that the hook is removed and the puffer is safely in the water. You are ready to catch another one! If you are looking to have pufferfish for supper, you want to target the 7-8 inch puffer fish. You will also need several pufferfish for each person as there is not a large amount of meat in a pufferfish.
The Fishing Wire discusses introducing kids to pufferfish fishing.
Best Bait and Lures for Pufferfish
Pufferfish can be caught using live bait, frozen bait, hard poppers, and soft plastic lures. The best way to catch pufferfish is to use bait. Puffers are great bait stealers so getting the perfect amount of bait is essential. Some of the puffers preferred baits include shrimp, clams, fishbites, blood worms, cut mullet, and squid. Putting these baits on a long shank hook with a split shot lead sinker.
Finstrike makes a blowfish rig that includes a long shank hook, red bead, and a sinker snap. These would be easy to use when using bait or a soft plastic lure. These soft plastic lures need to resemble invertebrates that the pufferfish would eat normally. They are known for eating off the tails on the lures thinking they are bait. Fishing with soft, tough plastics can be very rewarding.
How to Clean a Pufferfish
Once you have caught the pufferfish and decided to eat it. It is important to clean the fish properly to ensure there is no toxin being consumed. The toxin is generally a green color so as you clean the fish if you notice this color, clean the meat extremely well or get rid of the fish. To clean the puffer, cut the fish just behind the head. Fold the head back and with a pair of catfish pliers, remove the skin. The liver in the checkered puffer is toxic and this liver is in the head so you don’t want to eat the head. What you are left with should be a piece of white meat that looks like a chicken drumstick. Pufferfish is often prepared battered and fried.
Keep in mind, you fish for the pufferfish at your own risk and it is important to research the puffers in your area to know how to handle them. Please use caution when handling puffers not only because of the poison, but also because of their defense mechanisms. The Northern Puffer and Checkered Puffer are the two most common puffers on the east coast. Although these fish can be poisonous, they are a delicious treat all over the world. With the proper handling, this poison can be avoided. Once you’ve located the pufferfish, caught it, and cleaned it, you are ready to try this delicacy.
Before cleaning it, give it a little tickle on its belly and watch it inflate and enjoy fishing for pufferfish.
Continue reading: How to Catch a Sailfish