One of the Oddest and Tastiest

To an overly curious 5-year-old boy, it was a fascinating creature to witness for the very first time
Say cheese! Bottlefish — a.k.a. blowfish, blow toads, northern puffer, sea squab, puffers, and chicken of the sea — are being caught in great numbers in local waters. Terie Diat

The first fish I ever caught was a snapper. Fishing off our rickety community pier on the east side of North Haven, the baby bluefish took a piece of spearing that was fished from the end of a saltwater-aged bamboo pole. The pole itself was a remnant salvaged from a broken-off Greenport Oyster Company oyster bed marker that had washed up on our beach a few months earlier. The fishing line was not much more complicated — old kite string. We’re talking old-school fishing here, a setup not far from the pages of Huck Finn. From a fishing point of view, it does not get any simpler than that.

However, the next fish I caught that same afternoon on my no-frills tackle was a blowfish. And to an overly curious 5-year-old boy, it was a fascinating creature to witness for the very first time. Blowfish go by several names — bottlefish, blow toads, northern puffer, sea squab, puffers, chicken of the sea, and a few other local monikers. No matter what you decide to call them, they are one of our oddest-looking fish, as well as one of our tastiest and most affordable. A mix of dark brown and pale orange on top with black, vertical tiger-like stripes, they have a prickly, pearly white underbelly that quickly expands when threatened. Unbeknownst to me at that time, blowfish also possess perfectly honed buckteeth. While eagerly playing with my newly discovered creature in my pail of water, my freshly captured friend must have tired and lost patience with my intruding hand and decided to take a bite of my right index finger. I can’t recall if I yelped in surprise, pain, or fear, but I quickly learned a lesson that day on that long-gone pier. Blowfish may be adorably cute to look at, but they clearly don’t tolerate probing fingers all too well.

Blowfish run in cycles. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the waters of just about every bay and cove teemed with blowfish in all sizes. I still recall a story told by my mother of my grandfather catching 67 blowfish off that old dock one day. That’s a lot of fish cleaning for sure. By the 1980s, they became scarce and were hard to find on a consistent basis. Over the past five years or so, they have made a solid and welcome comeback to our local waters.

“Up until three years ago, I rarely sold a blow toad rig,” said Sebastian Gorgone of Mrs. Sam’s Bait and Tackle in East Hampton. “Now I can hardly keep them in stock. The action in and around the commercial dock in Three Mile Harbor has been particularly good since May. It’s great to see so many around these days.”

Over at Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor, Ken Morse recommends small pieces of squid or clam as the bait of choice to put a catch together. “Smaller, long shanked hooks are best,” said Morse, who noted that Long Beach on the southern end of Noyac Bay is one of the most productive local areas to try.  “And if you are casting from the beach, there is no reason to cast your bait that far off either. The fish are in close to shore.”

Preferring to call them bottlefish, Harvey Bennett, owner of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett for 37 years, has witnessed the peaks and valleys of the species over a number of decades. “Bottlefish are all over the bays right now, as well as the hangar dock in Fort Pond Bay,” he said. “And they are really big too.”

No time to catch a blowfish? Not to worry, as many of our local seafood markets now have them. At Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett, a healthy supply of blowfish can usually be found in their ice-cold display case starting in spring, courtesy of local pound trap fishermen. And compared to other fish, the savory tail meat sections are usually the cheapest on display, rarely reaching more than $15 a pound. A great treat for those in the know.

Beyond the great blowfish run, fluke and striped bass fishing remains strong out in Montauk. Porgies and sea bass are also in great supply. 

Farther offshore, the action for sharks, in particular threshers, has been particularly strong as more than 20 were weighed in on Saturday alone on the various docks of our easternmost port. Bluefin and yellowfin tuna activity has also perked up as well.

Back at the Tackle Shop, Bennett proclaimed the porgy fishing was off the charts. “There is some mighty fine porgy fishing off of Promised Land and Napeague, along with some fluke,” he beamed. “If you want sea bass, try off of Eastern Plains Point. Fishing has been good there. And snappers are snapping baits everywhere too.” Bennett was also enthused about the improved freshwater fishing scene. “Some cooler temperatures got the largemouth bass feeding at Fort Pond in Montauk too.” Bennett suggests trying a yellow popper or night crawlers for optimal results.

Action on the ocean beaches has been a bit quiet, but Bennett did note that a customer from Australia on holiday hooked and released a six-foot stingray while fishing clams, before landing a nice, 37-inch striped bass. Some good eats for the barbie there. 

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