Chicken of the Sea

Northern puffer fish have bounced back, bringing with them fun fishing and great eating.

Along the back bays and channels of the eastern seaboard exists an extremely odd-looking species of fish that, despite its willingness to bite and the tastiness of its flesh, has largely escaped the attention of today’s fishermen.

The northern puffer is known to most as the blowfish due to its distinctive defense mechanism. When threatened, the fish expands to three times its body size by drawing in water or air through its mouth. This is the best way for the blowfish, which grows to only about 14 inches, to avoid certain doom from much larger predatory fish. When an angler brings a blowfish out of the comfort of its underwater surroundings, it almost immediately “blows up” by sucking air in through its mouth and closing its throat to hold the air in, much to the delight of any young anglers present.

The blowfish has a mix of olive and orange coloration on its back and sides with a pure white underbelly. They have a very rough outer skin with bristles or small spines all over their bodies, making them rough to the touch, like sandpaper. The skin is loose so the fish can expand when threatened. Some anglers consider the blowfish to be a hideous little creature, while others see it as an underwater wonder; no matter what you think of the puffer’s appearance, you will find them to be one of best-eating fish available to us here in the Northeast.

2 year-old Brynn Misak is the first of the 5th generation of Misak anglers.
2 year-old Brynn Misak is the first of the 5th generation of Misak anglers.

Older fishermen who have been catching and eating blowfish for many years have told me that the Northern puffer population is highly cyclical, with the fish entering the bays and inlets in great abundance every 7 to 9 years. Every year blowfish are caught in some numbers, but these numbers fluctuate greatly on a yearly basis. The old-timers call blowfish the “chicken of the sea” and relish the thought of filling their freezers when the blowfish arrive in early summer, saving as many as they can for a delightful mid-winter treat after the fish are long gone.

Blowfish feed almost entirely on crustaceans, much like triggerfish, tautog and sheepshead. When crabs move into the back bays and tributaries, the blowfish take full advantage of the full-moon sheds that typically happen every August, September and October. The puffers travel in large schools, blanketing the bottom and foraging on the easily caught soft-shell and shedder crabs. Blowfish aren’t choosy; they will eat blue crabs, green crabs and even spider crabs. Blowfish feed very aggressively with their shell-crushing, beak-like mouths, which resemble the inside beak of a squid. Putting your finger near a puffer’s beak is not recommended, as they can give you a painful bite.

The Good Ol’ Days

The author displays an odd yellow blowfish caught in Barnegat Bay.
The author displays an odd yellow blowfish caught in Barnegat Bay.

Back when I was a youngster fishing Barnegat Bay, I remember thousands of blowfish filing into the bay to stay for the summer. Back in those days, fishermen used a number of methods to harvest the puffers in large numbers. Some anglers would bait a crab trap with bunker or squid and hold onto the line until they could feel the puffers banging around in the trap. Once they felt some puffers in the trap, they would retrieve it very quickly and catch three or four fish at once. Other fishermen used small frog “gigs” fashioned onto the end of a broomstick handle to spear the fish by drifting over shallow water. Most of the kids that I fished for blowfish with would grind the head off of a large galvanized nail, hammer it into a broomstick handle, re-sharpen it, and walk along the shallow shoreline, puncturing any puffer fish they spotted to make them blow up and immediately float to the surface. These methods were used to take hundreds of blowfish a day, and some folks even grew tired of eating them. Back then, however, there was one piece of equipment that was rarely, if ever, considered for catching blowfish – a fishing rod.

Blowfish numbers have declined substantially from what they were in the 1970s, and as the fish became less numerous and more spread out, a rod and reel became the best method for catching the species. In keeping with the old-timers’ theory that these fish are highly cyclical, 2009 showed a great resurgence of the Northern puffer along the Jersey Shore. The numbers were such that it reminded me of the massive runs of blowfish I witnessed decades ago. Hopefully, this trend will continue for a few more years.

Finding Puffers

Anglers have fine-tuned a few techniques for catching large numbers of puffers on a rod and reel over the past few years while the fish were not as abundant. To start, finding a good concentration of the fish is the most important part of bringing home a bucketful of these tasty morsels.

Blowfish are rarely caught by simply spotting them in shallow water, as was common in the past, and now your best bet is pursuing them in deeper water. Look for 8- to 10-foot depths and clean, clear water between 68 and 75 degrees. If there is cloudy water, you will still be able to pick away at the fish, but overall, the cleaner the water, the better.

In 2009, it was my experience that an incoming tide produced twice the amount of blowfish as the outgoing, but the best tides can vary from year to year and location to location. If you’re unsure which tide is best for your area, fish both and the puffers will let you know which tide they prefer. Usually, a slack tide turns the fish off and does not disperse the chum as well as a running tide, so moving water is a must for bringing the fish close to the boat.

To attract as many blowfish as possible to the boat, chumming is essential. Most anglers use a chum pot with heavy weights attached to it to keep it in one spot. A typical blowfish trip will require 8 to 10 blocks of clam chum, depending on the water temperature. Warmer water will disperse the chum faster. A boat with four or five guys fishing should consider using two chum pots, one on each side of the boat, so that everyone is fishing in the slick. Without the use of chum, your chances of loading the boat with fish are minimal. Also, you shouldn’t let the pot run low on chum, or you will notice the fish will start to disperse.

A display of large blowfish caught by the author.
A display of large blowfish caught by the author.

For bait, I like to use fresh sea clams in the shell. I remove the “lip skin” and foot of the clam and use those for bait because they stay on the hook much longer than the soft bellies. I dice-up the bellies of the clam and toss them over the side to enhance my chum slick. Tiny chunks of squid are also an effective blowfish bait. Remember that the blowfish has a tiny mouth, so tiny chunks of bait work the best.

To ensure your boat stays directly over your chum slick, double anchoring is best. To do this, drop the front anchor and let out 30 to 40 yards of line (or more depending on wind conditions), then drop the rear anchor and pull back, taking in your front anchor line until the rear anchor is secure. Be very careful of your propeller when doing this so you don’t make a mess of things; this is almost always a two-man operation. This will ensure that your boat stays directly over your chum slick, which should keep your baited hooks right in front of the fish. The concentrated schools of blowfish tend to hang tight to the dispersing chum. Keep in mind that puffers travel in schools, so if you don’t catch fish within an hour or so, you may want to make a move a few hundred yards to the north or south in order to find schools of fish. In terms of chumming and finding fish, looking for blowfish is similar to fishing for winter flounder.

Rigging for Blowfish

The rod you use to catch puffers should be a sensitive, 5- to 6-foot light-action rod. Puffer fish feed with light pecks that can be difficult to feel, so light line and the light, sensitive rod should help you detect hits.

A typical high-low rig setup works for blowfish.
A typical high-low rig setup works for blowfish.

Due to the fact that puffers have an extremely tiny mouth, very small hooks must be used to hook them. The blowfish is a masterful bait thief, second only to the tautog, the king of all bait-stealers. I like to go down to a size 8 or 10 Gamakatsu red hook, or a size 8 Mustad baitholder hook. I like to use the bait holder hook for two reasons: one, the blowfish has a harder time ripping off the bait, and two, when the hook is in the fish’s mouth, they have a harder time spitting it, as the bait holder barbs will catch on the skin of the fish, giving you an extra bit of time to set the hook before the puffer makes off with your bait.

A high-low rig with a bottom hook that hangs even with the sinker, just touching the bottom, and the other hook 8 inches above that, is best. Although most of the blowfish will be caught on the bottom hook, the top hook acts as an “attractor bait,” bringing attention to both baits. A very light weight, sometimes as small as a ½ ounce, is essential when fishing for puffers. The less weight you use, the easier it is to detect a strike from the light-biting puffers.

Double-headers are not uncommon when the frenzied feeding starts, and because blowfish are heavy for their size, all bigger fish and double headers should be netted to avoid having the fish break the light line or rip the hook out and flop back into the water.

There is one more small tip that will improve your success rates when fishing for blowfish. Puffers rarely tap hard or run away with your bait like other fish. The hit has more of a scratching feel. This is the puffers’ two large teeth, or the “beak” of the blowfish, as it tries to clean your hook without being detected. If you lift the rod tip slowly, the weight of fish will be enough to set the hook for you. Violently setting the hook will almost always result in a missed fish.

Once you have found fish, gotten the touch for hooking them and started putting fish on the boat, 80 to 100 eating-size puffers on a 4- to 6-hour trip is not uncommon. Since there are no size or possession limits on puffers here in the Northeast, you can catch and keep puffers until your boat sinks, but try to use fair judgment on how many you are going to actually clean and eat, which can be a bit of a chore. As you are loading up on puffers, ask yourself several times: am I going to clean all these fish? This should serve as a good gauge of when you have had your fill of puffers.

If you have the opportunity to get out and catch a boatload of blowfish this summer, by all means go! You will join an elite group of anglers that have been enjoying puffers for many years, and you will be able to enjoy one of, if not the, finest-eating fish our local waters have to offer.

67 on “Chicken of the Sea

    1. Bob Misak

      Still have that yellow “toad” mounted in my living room…?

      1. bunker

        wow that thing is nuts, cool stuff, great read

    2. Bob Langelius

      Say Bob! do you know of any “Bulkheads an 81 yer old “duffer” might throw a line in and get some this Summer or Fall?? I’ve no knees left, but if not too far from a parking lot. I’d sure love to catch and fry-up some of those “Chickens” again!

      1. jerzdevil0001

        if you use a chum pot with clam /or bunker chum in late aug/through oct you should be able to pick some up around the lighthouse.

  1. George Breig

    In the early 1960’s, it was common to catch 50 to 100 blowfish in Barnegat Bay in a day. I recall one neighbor returning to the dock with 250. We usually used cut squid to catch them. It was just too easy to call it fishing. The blowfish fest lasted for about three years. (1962-65)
    Before the blowfish, (1956-61), we were able to catch crabs in abundance.
    I always felt that development around the bay and septic seepage screwed up the bay. After the Blowfish run, (1966-67) the water became quite foul with rotting plant matter probably due to high nitrogen and phosphorus levels. In July and August, we couldn’t swim in the water. It was that stinky.
    Shortly after that time, they put waterfront developments on central sewer systems. That seemed to fix the (smell) problem. The crabs and blowfish never returned at least in my time at Barnegat. Catching two-three crabs or blowfish in a day on the bay was our typical yield.

    Catching blowfish as a ten year old kid was fun. Just drop a simple rig with a square of squid, jig off the bottom, and bang! A blowfish. Unhook them, watch them blow up, maybe bounce them like a ball into a bushel basket.
    To clean them, we would drive a large nail into the top of a piling. After cutting behind the head, tongs would be used to grab the meat. The head would be hooked on to the nail. Pulling on the tongs, would produce a “drumstick” of meat. If you didn’t wear gloves, the rough skin of the blowfish would make you skin raw.
    Mom would bread them and fry them like chicken. They were better than most fish. No bones to deal with and a nice flavor.

    I really appreciate your article as it brings back many memories. We had very little understanding of these fish and their habits. The “Barnegat” blowfish seems to be overshadowed by its cousins the “puffer fish: and the “porcupine fish”. I glad to see an update and know that blowfish are still prized as a catch.

    For your record , we fished from Glen Cove,(Bayville). We would fish from Forked River to Ocean Gate. My parents bought their summer home in 1956 and owned it until 1982. After the blowfish run, we had to go to Barnegat Inlet to fish where flounder and bluefish were the primary catch. It was never the same.

    Today, I live on the Chesapeake. When you talk to the guys my age, they have similar stories about former abundance. Here it is about oysters, crabs, and Striped Bass aka Rockfish.

    BTW, I have never seen a yellow blowfish,
    George Breig, former kid on the Barnegat, now 66 years old.

    1. Jim

      What a great read. I am ten yrs your Jr. but fished and lived in Forked River for 40+ yrs. and I know blowfish and crabbing and the bay as good as anyone. Still do, but your read put it so well – thanks. Wishing you the best. You forgot to talk about clam island! That was fun – and still is.

      1. Donna

        I really enjoyed you informative article as well! We caught one in our crab pot from our backyard canal and let him go. I had no idea they were such good eating! Time to look for some recipes!

    2. Cemmie Hartley

      I remember those years going around the piers and just scooping themup. and catching the blow fish. that was a special treat

    3. Bob Langelius

      We used to take the kids out to mouth of the Raritan River, in New Jersey, armed with cheap rods and spinning reels and some squid for bait and they’d catch the Blow-fish right off the bulkheads along the Bay edge!!
      Once a fellow showed us how to “skin” them it was “Game-On”!! They are really good just breaded and fried and the kids loved it!!

    4. Hilarie Stone Donahue

      Enjoyed your post George. I grew up on the Island….Ramapo Lane in BH Terrace. We fished the bay in the shallows for blowfish. Their eyes are such a vibrant emerald green color and their bite is fierce! Never got my flesh, but cut a fingernail short for me!! I never liked at one again!! Just visited LBI a few weeks ago….still mourn the loss of the Lucy Evelyn but glad to see some enduring landmarks and businesses. Love that Island!!

    5. Lou W

      Had the same experience in the early 60’s with my uncle taking us on his boat. Next day would be a picnic with a hundred ‘ladyfingers’ as they were called, grilled to perfection. Great tasting fish. Remember those days well.

  2. Tricia Niziolek Janitzky

    When I was a child/teenager, and being Catholic, Fridays were Fishday… My mom would send me to The Broadway Market, in Fells Point, Baltimore, MD. It was one of the neatest experiences; loved the sounds, smells and atmosphere of all the activity of the fish stalls and mongers. A standard purchase was either steakfish or “Chicken of the sea” or “chicken legs /drumsticks”. Oh, how great it those legs tasted… My mom would fry them up and lots of boarder house reaching by 5 kids to get their share. Loved all the white meat and a single bone down the center…. yuuuummmm. Kids in the neighborhood were always welcomed into our home, even for meals… It seemed that Fishdays were among the most attended… all for the fish called drumsticks. Had never realized that it was a “ugly blowfish.” Thanks for bringing back the memory…

    1. Cole Allen

      I live on Martha’s Vineyard and I’m and avid scientist and fish finder. I love toe eat flounder, swordfish, and salmon but now I want to try somthing different. Please tell me the best way to attract them into shallow water.

  3. royski

    how to you identify the poisonous one? I thought puffer fish is highly poisonous, that in Japan you need a license to cook one. when we are fishing I found this fish annoying since it always took the bite and we were unable to keep them.

    1. Chris

      The northern puffer, local from new england to the Chesapeake are not toxic. They are an exception to the larger portion containing toxins either in specified parts of the body (the japanese for example only contain high amounts of the toxin in the digestive track) or throughout the entire body. If you aren’t fishing in this region do not risk eating puffer fish.

  4. a57se

    I used to catch Blowfish off the Docks in Bay Shore when I was a kid (late 60’s). I’d bring home a bucket full of them as well as an occasional Fluke or Flounder.
    They were great eating, my Mom would wrap the tails individually in Aluminum foil after basting them with butter and a lil S & P. AS the old timers said, Chicken of the Sea!!!
    The Great South Bay was teeming with fish and clams back then…

    1. Joe

      I remember the 60s well. Caught plenty of blow fish in barganet bay. Would use a long shank hook with squid. They were the chicken of the sea. Wow hard to believe it was 50 + years ago. Thanks for the memories

    2. Tom Cable

      Wow! I also fished at the Bay Shore Marina around 66 to 70 when I was 14 years old… All I had was a bamboo rod, a float and a pack of squid… They would hit the bait and I would pull them up onto the dock… If I remember correctly, they were about 8 inches long… I would catch 20 to 30 of them at a time! Great memories of those days…

  5. Carmen Schrieber

    WOW!!! I enjoyed reading about the blowfish. My family used to vacation in Surf City, Long beach island and I remember eating blowfish/ We would go fishing at the bay and the guys would prepare, season them and fry them. They do taste like chicken. Remembering the fun times we had at Barnagat and Lucy Evelyn’s which I have been told is no longer there. This was back in the 60’s.

  6. CT

    Great article. Caught our first blowfish from the surf today. My brother said he felt something “nibbling” on his clams and I figured maybe he would be hooking into a snapper blue but it was a puffer about the size of a canteloupe. Like you mentioned, the water was crystal clear and in the mid-60s. Very cool looking at one up close and it made some funky noises too when it was expelling water. Always exciting pulling something new out of the ocean!!





  9. David

    I just got back from my first trip to the North Fork of LI. Bought a mess of blowfish to bring home. What a treat! So delicious, simply pan fried with a little flour, butter, etc. Unfortunately, the local fish market doesn’t get them, and won’t! I asked… looks like i’ll have to head to the sound on my own, or head back to Southold Fish Market.

  10. Beverly Sutton Lawrence

    I was so pleased to read that the ‘blowfish’ can still be found and fished in the northeast waters. I grew up on the Great South Bay in the 60’s, and have very fond memories of my Dad packing the tool kit, and we kids packing the spinning rods and reels, a loaf of bread, a package of hotdogs, a bottle of ketchup, and going out for the day on the Gung Ho, a 28′ Luhrs ‘sportfisherman’ with a flying bridge. We’d get from the Bay Shore Marina to just about the Captree Bridge, when there’d be some sort of motor ‘trouble’ – Dad would lift the deck – and we kids would start our fishing. The bread crust was often enough used for baiting hooks – those blowfish would bite anything! (Of course … some squid was also used – and as you mention, in very small pieces on very small hooks) In no time, we’d have a half-bushel basket of balls to play with – then kill, clean (“Just turn them inside out ….”), and Y U M! Just as mentioned above, they’d get dredged in flour, dipped in egg beaten with water, then rolled in seasoned breadcrumbs, and fried. So, so good. I thought the fish was gone, from the GSB and other northern waters … I never hear of such fishing excursions, these days. In 2003, I left the land of taxes and traffic, and moved to the northernmost reaches of the Eastern Shore – and around here, no one has any idea what I’m talking about, when I mention the blowfish. We never called them ‘northern puffers’ … and we Long Islanders certainly never called them ‘sugar toads’, as I’ve recently read is the ‘common’ name in the Chessie area. Thanks for the wonderful photos of the catch – especially the ‘yellow’ individual.

  11. Carole Pipolo

    I’m 74 years old and remember fondly eating these in abundance in my childhood on northern LI. We would catch them off Sound Beach with a fishing rod and my mom would fry them up for a delicious treat. I just ordered these online for Christmas Eve dinner as I NEVER see them in the market and I just printed out your article to show all the 30-40 year olds who will be at my dinner so they can learn what they are eating. Thanks for all the details and the photos. Nice to see.

    1. Mike Nervik

      Sound Beach…and Miller Place we stayed in Sound Beach every summer from about 62-70..I remember a friends dad taking us over to Miller Place beach (saved walking down and climbing up the 120+ steps to Sound Beach)…we caught garbage bags full of blow fish…man were they delicious!!! Now on the west coast (and Baja) we catch the Pacific variety and cant eat them!!

  12. Juli

    My Dad and I would fish for them in the 1960s near Greenport. He would take the meat and leave the puffer sack alone. We panfried them dredged in flour or cornmeal. Absolute heaven!

  13. Frank

    What a great story. It fired up a lot of memories. My friends and I would rent a garvey (flat-bottom bay boat), grab a case of beer and some sandwiches, and spend the whole day in the bay catching blowfish galore. Good old-fashioned fun!

  14. Herbert Miller Jr

    I caught with my son and friend at Long Beach Island near the light house. 2016 august and early september about 300 small too large blowfish using squid for bait on a single size ten hook.Let me know when they arrive this season thanks and enjoy your catch.

    1. Herbert Miller Jr

      still love it and still love eating a very great fish you can not buy in fish stores but some times when in season you can for about 15 dollars a pound.

  15. Dan

    I’m glad to see that there has been some recovery of the “blowfish” though the scale of the ” harvest” in the 60s may explain why they disappeared. I have heard similar stories about party boat fishing for blues in the 70s.
    My father caught and cleaned dozens of blowfish and they were incredible pan fried and he told us he had to be careful to avoid some gland or sac that was poisonous. There is no mention of that here in the article or comments. Ideas?

    1. Bob Misak

      Yes Dan, there are no cases of puffer poisoning reported from eating northern puffers….however, the skin of puffers s where the toxins lie in other countries.

  16. Bob Bott

    Nice job Bob. Its great to see there are still guys around who love to fish the back as much as I do. We need to get together for a blowfish outing one day.

  17. Herbert Miller Jr


  18. Herbert Miller Jr


  19. jerzdevil0001

    do you know of anyone who still walks the flats for blue claw?

  20. John

    Great article! Have made sure to do a few trips a month to stock up. My favorite eating fishing bar none. Any reports on blowfishing on the southern sifde of LBI? Heading down this weekend.

  21. JOHN B

    Great article and fond memories of catching them off the bulkhead as a kid. Any reports of folks catching them on the southern side of LBI

  22. Rochester Van Jones

    I remember catching them one after another in 1970. They were great. No bones in the nest and tastes like chicken. But I thought they were related to the Japanese fugu blowfish and parts of its innards were poisonous. Is that true?

  23. Bob Cianci .. I met you at the GEEZER DOCK 5st Barnegat Light..

    I was lucky enough to fish the olde south jetty back in the early 60’s… 64 or 5..It was 3 long shank hooks and bring in 3 at a time… standin ankle deep near the pilelings… bait..we rented and salted our own Shop Rite bulk squid which cut into great small strips…. and the nail on the 2×4 with the glove.. ..but I never used tongs.. I grabbed the meat with my bare hand and yanked… ahhh those were the days… goin back to the research bouy tomorrow morning.. ya gotta grow olde, but ya aint gotta grow up..

  24. blowman

    just fished the pier on 13th street in ship bottom. we easily caught 100+ on blowfish rigs and clam tongue. they are back and they are delicious.

  25. Hilarie Stone Donahue

    Enjoyed your post George. I grew up on the Island….Ramapo Lane in BH Terrace. We fished the bay in the shallows for blowfish. Their eyes are such a vibrant emerald green color and their bite is fierce! Never got my flesh, but cut a fingernail short for me!! I never liked at one again!! Just visited LBI a few weeks ago….still mourn the loss of the Lucy Evelyn but glad to see some enduring landmarks and businesses. Love that Island!!

    1. Kathy

      My cousin just made a.couple caught them in Lon beach isle he made them in garlic and oil. They were delicious. Are they ok to eat tho.

  26. Gar

    I and my family always ate blowfish and we never knew about it being poisonous. I just read an article that blowfish now are poisonous. Can someone shed some light on this? Thank you.

  27. nancy juretie

    I just wrote a poen about catching blowfish at Rocky Point when I was a kid (I’m 84 now) and other things about swimming and mostly playing in the waters there. I am missing it as I swim in a pool here in Machias, Maine, so I wrote a “thank you”poem to my parents (deceased of course) for having given me the gift of Rocky Point when I was a child and sparsely populated. I wonder if Billy Behr, the pumber’s son, our playmate then, is still there? Are the blowfish? Is Anna’s still there, where we would get an orange cream stick when we came into town for tice? Nancy Juretie, 1/2 way house.

  28. nancy juretie

    I just wrote a poen about catching blowfish at Rocky Point when I was a kid (I’m 84 now) and other things about swimming and mostly playing in the waters there. I am missing it as I swim in a pool here in Machias, Maine, so I wrote a “thank you”poem to my parents (deceased of course) for having given me the gift of Rocky Point when I was a child and sparsely populated. I wonder if Billy Behr, the pumber’s son, our playmate then, is still there? Are the blowfish? Is Anna’s still there, where we would get an orange cream stick when we came into town for ice? Nancy Juretie, 1/2 way house.

  29. Kathy

    My cousin just made a.couple caught them in Lon beach isle he made them in garlic and oil. They were delicious. Are they ok to eat tho.

  30. Pattie

    Fun read. Yesterday hub and I caught a small batch off the docks in waretown. He cleaned them up and butterflies them like shrimp to make francaise. Aka lemon and butter sauce to keep the delicate fish light and sweet.

  31. Terry

    Great story. My grandparents used to take my brother and me fishing for blowfish at a dock in Barnegat. Pulling into the lot the first time, I was so disappointed…what’s this? About and hour and a half and a hundred blowfish later, I sang a different tune. My grandfather would gut the fish much as you described, plunking two bite size pieces of sweet filets from our catch. I’m puzzled to think I found bouncing a blow fish entertaining? Who was i anyway!

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