A sure sign that the full summer bayside fishing season is going full tilt: blowfish.
And lots of them...with more than a few being caught in the suds by those soaking blood worm or Fishbites for kingfish.
Properly known as the northern puffer, and by all of us who enjoy a luscious fish dinner as “Chicken of the Sea”, the blowfish is the ideal quarry for anglers of all ages.
Used to be this was a May visitor, with the bucket, cooler, and laundry basket filling times extending from around the first weekend in May until the first weekend in June. We’re talking about my memory here, which was the Sixties. Our fave place was the bulkhead at the end of Butler Boulevard in Bayville, the Glen Cove bungalow development. A stop at Whitey’s Marina for a box of frozen squid, then across the street to set up. Save for dead low, schools of blowfish would roar in at just about any time, and drop and lift mayhem would ensue.
Our last great catch was the Memorial Day weekend in ‘69 when we tallied an amazing 869 puffers. Cleaning them was a chore for us youngsters, and the roughed, skinned palms were a badge of honor. A huge evening feast and the remaining tender lil’ drumsticks of meat were double wrapped, bagged, and frozen for future bungalow hoe downs.
In ‘70, during the near same weekend on the calendar, the combined catch was a mere 24, and after that, it seemed that the blowfish took the extinct route. Catches dwindled to just about nothing, and over the ensuing couple of decades, the species became an afterthought.
Fast forward to July 2006. Reports were coming in from various sources, mostly from Barnegat Bay, but also Great Bay and stretches of beach from
Belmar down through Ocean City. Not the horny-toothed hordes that I remembered, but numerous enough to warrant attention.
Since then, the blowfish have been back in a huge way, and the “season” has often lasted well into September. We’ve even caught them from inlet jetty rocks. From the various sizes, ranging from 4-5 to 12-plus inches, it’s safe to say that blowfish are breeding successfully and populations are healthy. (We’ve had them as small as 2-3 inches in our crab traps, and have seen them this size in fluke bellies during filleting chores.)
There’s no mistaking a blowfish. An easy google. White belly tinged with yellow and black bars running down the side. The big kick is how it inflates itself when threatened. The #100 sandpaper grade skin makes rough work of the hands when cleaning, but a glove takes care of that. One thing to be wary of is the dentition. The parrot-like top ‘n bottom choppers are scalpel-sharp and will neatly cleave a piece of a finger off in a blink. Ouch!
These are a ton of fun to catch. Drop the bait down, wait for the tug tug, lift up, and reel. Simple as can be. Known as drop ‘n reel fishing. Big-time schoolers, catch one and chances are there are dozens, if not more, in very close proximity. Access to a boat will greatly enhance catch rates, as the mobility will allow one to try different areas during the course of the day and tidal shifts. Chumming has become the modus operandi when it comes to attracting puffers to the area under the boat. A chum pot loaded with a frozen clam chum log will get them in. Chumming can be as esoteric as one wants to make it, and we’ve observed rabbit feed pellets, canned and/or dried cat food, and various other mixtures. All worked, but some were better than others. We follow the k.i.s.s. principal and load with three or four clam chum logs. You’ll go through a few, particularly in the warmer bay waters, so unless it’s an hour or so sortie, plan on at least a trio of logs.
No fancy tackle required. A light action spinning rod, say 5-5.5 feet and a matching reel spooled with 6 or 8-lb. test monofilament will handle puffers all day long, no problem. In a pinch, we’ve used little 4-foot push-button outfits, and they did the job. The standard two-hook high-low rig baited with pieces of salted clam, squid, mussel, or Fishbites with a one-ounce sinker is the ticket. No mistaking a blowfish rig, either. Besides the puffer icon, you’ll notice the long shank hooks. Yep, these will help keep your fingertips away from the teeth.
There are a myriad of Youtube videos about how to clean a blowfish. Way back in the day it was a nail in the piling, a cut behind the head, a grasp with tongs, and a sharp pull was the tack. Pretty much the same today, except that, well, check the videos. Easy peasy.
There is no minimum length limit or bag limit. We set a minimum of 7.5-8 inches. A big blowfish is 10-12 inches, but we’ve seen some as long as 14-15 inches. Saltwater salamis in sandpaper skin.
The sweet, succulent meat of the pulled “fillet” has thin cartilage running down the center. No side bones, so it’s easy to remove while eating. We go one better and actually fillet both sides before cooking. Blowfish are excellent fried, broiled or baked. (A tray of blowfish parm went so quickly one evening last August one would think a blast of wind carried it away!) Put it this way: after you eat blowfish, you’ll give your fluke to the cat.
Trust me on this one!