My family and I are avid anglers, with a special affinity for saltwater fishing.
My family and I are avid anglers with a special affinity for saltwater fishing. We make trips to the coast just for fishing, and we spend much of our beach vacations fishing. We’ve fished the Atlantic from North Carolina to Florida, and we’ve fished all along Florida’s Gulf coast. We mostly ply the waters of bays, tidal rivers, and estuaries in search of inshore species.
I also love to cook, and I really enjoy cooking fish. My family likes eating fish, too. Eating fish that’s super fresh is a real treat—much, much better than fish you purchase. Sweet, mild flesh, straight out of the water, is nothing less than amazing! We don’t like the taste of “fishy” fish or oily fish. With that in mind, below are my top 10 choices for the tastiest inshore species.
I know what some of you are thinking: grouper isn’t an inshore species. Well, where we fish a lot, in Southwest Florida, it is caught inshore. In my opinion, grouper is the most delicious fish in the world. The flesh is mild, firm, and flaky. It doesn’t dry out during cooking as many fish do. Grouper are thick, stocky fish, so the fillets are thick enough to stand up to grilling. It’s also good broiled and baked, and smaller fillets or “fingers” are good when battered and fried.
Flounder is a close second to grouper. The flesh is white and flaky, and it's extremely mild in flavor. It's not as firm as grouper. With a flounder, you get four fillets—two thicker ones from the top side and two thinner ones from the bottom. These can easily fall apart while grilling, so it's better to batter-fry or broil them. The whole flounder are wonderful when stuffed whole with crabmeat and baked, too. Flounder can dry out pretty easily, so be careful not to overcook it.
Pompano is highly valued by chefs because of its unique flavor and its firm, cream-colored flesh. Most cooks choose preparations that leave on the skin, which is edible. The flesh has a little more fat than the other species discussed here, but it doesn't usually have a strong fishy taste. The fish are on the smaller side and often cooked whole after the entrails have been removed. A great way to cook pompano is to saute it in a mixture of butter and olive oil and drizzle it with lemon juice or white wine. Herbs and spices will complement the flavor, but don't overdo it. You might want to try minced ginger, dill, chili powder, garlic, thyme, celery salt, or turmeric.
4. Mangrove Snapper
These tasty snappers don't get very big, but they have a wonderful flavor. To me, they have a milder flavor than their more popular relatives, red snapper. The pale pink flesh is sweet and firm and can be cooked in a variety of ways: fried whole, filleted and fried, pan-broiled, or baked. Our favorite way to cook mangrove snapper is to remove the entrails and scales, stuff the body cavity with crab meat, and grill it over moderately hot coals. Drizzle it with melted butter and sprinkle with your favorite spices.
Sheepshead was always my dad’s favorite fish to eat. The flesh is white, mild, moist, and firm. Because of the sheepie’s diet, the meat tastes somewhat like crustaceans. In fact, sheepshead is often referred to as “poor man’s lobster.” I like to broil the fillets in the oven with butter, lemon juice, lemon pepper, and Old Bay Seasoning. It really does taste a lot like lobster! Of course, the fish can also be fried, sauteed, baked, or grilled.
6. Spotted Seatrout
Also referred to as speckled trout or specks, spotted seatrout are delicious! The flesh is mild and delicate, and it breaks down quickly after the fish is landed. It's best to get these fish cleaned and on ice as soon as possible. We like to fillet the trout, dip them in a beer-egg wash, flour them, and fry them in hot oil. They can also be grilled whole or broiled. They're especially good drizzled with lime juice.
You've probably heard of blackened redfish, but there are other great ways to cook these fish. A legal-sized fish will be plenty large enough to fillet. The firm flesh can stand up to grilling and to strong spices like cayenne pepper, chili pepper, and Tabasco sauce. If you prefer, leave the fish whole, fill it with stuffing, and bake it. It's a lean fish, so you'll need to add some butter or oil when baking, grilling, or broiling. For a really savory sensation, try cooking redfish in hot bacon grease!
Whiting are vastly underrated. They're numerous, they're easy to catch, and they're quite tasty. Sure, most of them are small, but these little ones are great-headed, gutted, scaled, and batter-fried. Sometimes you'll catch a larger fish, called a "bull whiting," and these are large enough to fillet. Again, batter frying is the best way to cook them, but you might also saute them in butter. Another idea is to steam the cleaned fish and flake the meat into a bowl. Add an egg, mayonnaise, dry breadcrumbs, minced onion, minced bell pepper, and seafood seasoning. Form into patties and brown in butter to have yummy fish cakes!
9. Puppy Drum
Puppy drum are small black drum, usually under five pounds. Most people don't like eating larger black drum because they often contain worms and because the flesh isn't very flavorful. Smaller black drum have finely textured flesh with a mild, almost sweet, flavor. Cook these whole or fillet them. We like them fried, but they're also good on the grill. Another way to prepare black drum is to cut it into chunks, cook it, and use it in tacos.
You might be surprised to see sharks on this list, but when prepared properly, shark meat is delicious! It's lean and has a mild flavor, somewhat like chicken or pork chops. First of all, you need to get it from the water to the kitchen as quickly as possible. Remove the skin, as it contains ammonia. Cut the meat into steaks or fillets. The flesh can be rubbery, so pound it with a meat mallet. Next, marinate the meat for several hours. If you're going to grill or broil the shark, soak it in Italian dressing. If you're going to batter-fry the fillets, soak them in buttermilk. Our favorite way to eat shark is to batter it and deep-fry it in peanut oil.
If you bring home a fresh catch, don't be afraid to experiment! If you have enough fish, you might want to try two or three different cooking methods at the same time. Fry some of the smaller fillets, throw some larger fillets on the grill and bake a whole fish. Try different seasonings, too. Some you might wish to try are curry, lemon pepper, garlic, soy sauce, onions, peppers, fresh dill, celery, thyme, sage, ginger, citrus juices, basil, paprika, Italian parsley, and tarragon.
© 2021 Holle Abee