Which fish to fry

11 August 2011 By Jonathan Crawford

Not all fish in the ocean are created equal. While some fish are prized for their delectable meat, others are too oily, too fishy or are downright toxic and better left to swim the briny depths unperturbed, lest you have unhappy or sick guests. This brief guide gives a run-down on the good and the bad of Poseidon’s bounty.

Among the reef fish most sought by chefs, the black grouper tops the list, says Owen Doyle, a yacht chef and owner of Owen Doyle Provisions of Delray Beach, Florida.  He notes that it’s tightly regulated in the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts as stocks have been depleted.

“It’s the biggest, thickest white fish coming out of tropical waters. It has that cod-like filet that’s a good vehicle for flavor with a white meat that’s lightly sweet,” remarks Doyle.

Other favorite reef fish include red grouper, Warsaw grouper, lane snapper, hog snapper, queen snapper, yellow tail snapper and yellow eye, says Doyle. Ensure you have a reef fish guidebook handy for accurate identification and are well versed with the local fishing rules and regulations.

For smaller reef fish, such as yellow tail snapper, Chef Chris Wadden of M/Y Silver Cloud prefers to whole fry the fish, following in the tradition of many Asian cultures. “When whole fried, you exhibit all the flavors from the cheeks to the tail. That is my ultimate favorite way,” he says.

But when it comes to eating tropical reef fish, caveats apply. Fish that consume reef algae can accumulate toxins that cause ciguatera poisoning. Cooking the fish does not eliminate the toxins. Symptoms, to name a few, include muscle pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. To limit exposure, avoid consuming tropical fish caught off shallow water reefs where the alga is most prevalent. Reef fish caught in deeper waters are generally safe bets, says Doyle.

Also, be sure to avoid common carriers of the toxins, like barracuda as well as smaller herbivorous reef fish that dine primarily on algae. Very large reef fish – which accumulate the toxins from preying on the smaller reef fish – may also have elevated levels of the toxins. Doyle says that he carries Cigua-Check, which bills itself as the only commercially available ciguatera test kit. For more information, visit the Web site at

“In our business, there are no taking chances,” he says.

As for pelagic fish Doyle names dolphin fish as one of his favorites. But special preparation is required as the skin is not edible. After peeling back the skin, it’s necessary to go back with a knife to scrape off any remaining fibers. Also be sure to cut out the bloodlines. The end result, says Doyle, are two beautiful long bars of meat, which can be prepared in any number of ways thanks to the inherent versatility of the meat. Doyle recommends using dolphin fish in fish tacos, wrapping it in a half-cooked bacon then swabbing it with barbecue and grilling or simply cooking with no added flavors, to savor the subtle sweetness of the meat.

In Doyle’s estimation, though, wahoo, a member of the mackerel family and the fastest fish in the sea, is tops. In addition to having the versatility of the dolphin meat, because of its thick and heavy meat, you can treat it like a steak. For this reason, Doyle says it loves the grill. The meat won’t fall apart. Doyle warns against keeping the wahoo in the freezer, as it will come out like a sponge.

Striped bass, a seasonal fish found in waters off the East Coast is yet another favorite, with its white flaky meat that can be spread apart with a fork. Like the dolphin fish and wahoo, the striped bass is friendly to a lot of flavors. However, unlike wahoo, it freezes well and offers longevity. It can keep for three months or longer, says Doyle. Note that striped bass is tightly regulated and it’s necessary to check local rules and regulations. Of course, yellow fin tuna and swordfish are other prized fish.

It’s always a possibility, of course, that what’s hooked on the other end of the line is better left in the ocean. One fish you may want to stay away from is kingfish, also known as king mackerel. Wadden describes his appreciation for the fish, or lack thereof, in two words: cat food. He says you’d be better off using kingfish as fertilizer. The fish, a member of the mackerel family, is too oily. The meat can be made more palatable by smoking it, and this is the reason why it is the fish of choice for fish dips in South Florida. Bonita, known as poor man’s tuna, and amber jack also are worthy of being thrown back into the sea.

When it comes to releasing turtles and sharks, for safety reasons it’s best to avoid bringing them onboard, Whitney Reiter says, a lifelong fisherman who captains M/Y Themis.

“Hawksbill turtles can crush a conch shell. You don’t want to find out what it can do to your hand,” Reiter says.

Instead, cut the line as close to the hook as possible. The hook, he says, will eventually rust out. On the other hand, if you hook a seagull, your best bet is to bring it on board and cover the bird’s head with a towel to keep it calm and then remove the hook with pliers and using gloves.

Fishing regulations, including size limits and bag limits and restrictions on type of rig, change from country to country and state to state. Do your homework well in advance to avoid falling afoul of the rules.

Related Topics:

Fishing Hot Spots

If You Teach a Guest to Fish

Rigging The Yacht

More from Dockwalk