Grill A Whole Fish

How To Grill a Whole Fish

Last weekend I headed out fishing for black sea bass with On The Water contributing writer John Silva. Late May is always a good time to target sea bass in Buzzards Bay, and this trip lived up to my expectations.

John Silva with a black sea bass caught on a jig.

While many people prefer to use bait for catching sea bass, I find that jigging for them with artificials is much more productive for putting big fish in the cooler. By using jigs instead of bait, you’ll spend a lot less time dealing with prickly and pesky scup, and you’ll increase your odds of getting a whopper sea bass.


Black sea bass are not particularly fussy, and when the bite is hot they’ll attack just about anything.


My favorite jigs are soft-plastic shad-style baits. They won’t pick up a lot of weeds, the single hook makes landing and netting them easier, and the fish seem to hold onto them longer than metal lures, which helps increase hookups. The downside is they are disposable, and after about 10 fish they will get mangled, and you’ll need to replace them. Traditional metal jigs like the Crippled Herring, Kastmaster or bucktails are always a good choice, and I’ve caught plenty of nice sea bass with them. For best results, use a light graphite rod and braided line (20-pound test is plenty), which will allow you to have a good feel for the bottom. We generally find the most fish in 20 to 30 feet of water.
We managed to find a good spot, and after a few hours jigging we had all the sea bass we needed.

We only kept the largest fish, releasing most of the females (male sea bass have humps on their electric-blue heads like the one in the photo above, females have less color).  I ended up keeping 7 nice fish, which means I’ll be eating sea bass every night this week, which is just fine with me.

A nice fat hump-head flying over the rail. Despite forgetting to bring a net, we managed to get most of them into the boat. -photo by John D. Silva

Sea bass is a very mild, white-fleshed fish, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s very versatile, and works in a lot of different recipes. One of my favorite ways to prepare sea bass is to cook them whole. Eating a whole fish makes for a primal yet delicious meal. It might be a bit messy, but it sure is tasty. Cooking a fish whole on the bone makes it tastes better. The skin protects the delicate flesh, the bones keep it juicy, and you can stuff the cavity with flavorful citrus and herbs. 

Use a knife blade to scrape away scales.

The first step is to scale the fish. They make a special tool for this task, but I find a rigid steak knife will get it done just fine. Scrape the fish “against the grain” until all of the scales are off. This is a messy endeavor best done outdoors, as the scales will end up flying all over the place. Next it’s time to gut the fish. A good pair of kitchen shears is the best tool for this task. Open up the belly of the fish and rip the guts out. You’ll also want to cut out the gills. I also like to trim down the fins and tail so they won’t burn on the grill.

The finished product will look something like this. You’ll want to fill up the body cavity with fresh herbs and lemon slices, along with a liberal amount of salt, and cover the outside of the fish in olive oil and more salt. You’ll also need to cut several slits in the side of the fish, which will help it grill evenly, and impart more flavor.

Now it’s time to fire up the grill. Get  it as hot as it will go, and take the time to thoroughly scrape the grates. Once the grill is red hot, give the grates a good coating of oil or cooking spray, which will help prevent the fish from sticking to the grill.

Black sea bass are delicious when grilled whole.

Now put the whole fish on the grill, close the lid, and turn the heat to low. Cook the first side for about 10 minutes. Resist the urge to probe, poke or move the fish! The less you mess with it, the better the odds it won’t stick.

Now it’s time to flip the fish. Use a large spatula and be careful! You’ll only have one shot. I like to finish the fish on the “upper deck” of the grill like in the photo above. Close the lid, bump the heat up to medium, and cook for about another 10 minutes.

A whole cooked fish isn’t the prettiest dish, so you’ll want to gussy up the platter with a bed of lettuce and some lemon wedges. I also added a radish top garnish for the eyeball, which I thought was a nice touch.
Serve the top fillet first, then grab the tail and lift it. The entire backbone will pull right out, revealing the bottom fillet to pick at. 

The finished result was a delicious, succulent dish that might have been one of my favorite fish meals so far this year. The meat was firm yet juicy and full of flavor. Cooking a fish whole on the bone changes a fishes flavor quite dramatically, and in my opinion makes it taste much better. Give it a try this summer, you won’t regret it! 

5 on “Grill A Whole Fish

  1. Sam Orr


    As a previous chef and restaurant owner, I think you did a great job on this article. I love pretty much everything that swims and agree that Seabass is as good as it gets for table fare. Your pictures were very helpful as well.

    Looking forward to “cooking the catch” this way once the season opens. I know you spend a fair amount of time with “Pops” and I think he would whole heartily approve of your preparation of this fine fish.



  2. Curt Weissinger

    when using cooking spray to prevent sticking on the grill, spray the item to be cooked instead of spraying the grille area itself. Typically when spraying the grille itself the spray flames up and the spray never makes it to the grille. I spray the item to be cooked, steaks-burgers-fish, on a platter put them on the grille sprayed side down and then spray the other side. The only time I spray the grille is when I’m cooking swordfish, I coat the swordfish with mayo to keep it moist. The mayo melts off and the sword is wicked awesome! I hope this helps the cause!

  3. Eddie Banks

    Good Job Andy,

    But by the looks of your recent pictures….it looks like you been grilling more then just sea bass….rumor is you been grilling up whole hogs…

  4. steve

    you can cook scup the same way and it is also delicious. you can also make it even easier and leave the scales on. The skin peels off easily after cooking and the scales come off with it

  5. Jonathan

    Nice article. You can leave the scales on and it will come right off after being cooked and protects the meat . Also a spoon works a lot better for scaling a fish if you don’t have a scaler. Keep up the great articles!

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