Like most Southerners, many varieties of Gulf Coast fish prefer the warm weather.
So when the temperatures start to drop, locals and tourists alike get the impression that their seafood dinner is less fresh than it would be during the spring and summer—or that there just aren’t that many seafood options during the cold months. And maybe they end up ordering the burger instead.
This is not the case, of course. We’ve all heard that oysters are freshest during months that have an “r” in their name, and blue crab is plentiful all year long, but there are several finfish that thrive during the cold months.
Here are a few of our favorite winter fish to spice up your dinner fare. Look for them at your favorite local restaurant or market, or put on a jacket and go and reel in a few of your own.
With a patch of “whiskers” below its chin, Black Drum isn’t exactly a beauty queen. But if you’re able to reel one in (be warned, they put up quite a fight), you’ll see why it’s one of the Gulf Coast’s favorite fish. Unlike most Alabama fish, though, Black Drum varies in taste depending on its size. “Puppy Drums” (any catch that weighs in at 10 pounds or less) are the tastiest sort, and it’s not recommended that you eat any Black Drum over that size. The smaller, the better.
But these guys are anything but small on taste. Black Drum is a meaty fish that goes well in just about any seafood recipe, like chowders or Creole dishes. For those that like to keep it simple, simply sauté the filets after you’ve rolled them in flour and seasoned them with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Like Black Drum, Flounder may not be much to look at, thanks to their muddy brown color and that “wandering eye” on the other side of its face. But because you can find them in lots of different spots—from coastal passes to fresh waters as far upstream as a hundred miles—you’ll have plenty of opportunities to reel in a few during a winter fishing trip.
There’s a reason Flounder is one of Alabama’s most popular seafood items, too. These filets are lean and flaky, even delicate, and they feature a mild natural flavor, all of which lends this fish to just about any preparation technique. Whatever sauce or seasoning you pair with your filets, you’re in for a treat.
You’ve always been told not to judge a book by its cover. Well, catching Sheepshead is the perfect time to apply this advice. These small fish (usually three or four pounds) have a full set of human-eqsue teeth to complement their black and silver stripes. In short, Sheepshead might be the ugliest fish on the Gulf Coast—but on the inside, it makes for some of the tastiest filets. And with a cold-weather peak season that runs from November to April, now is the time to give this fish a try.
If your favorite restaurant has Sheepshead on the menu, try it blackened, broiled, or fried up golden brown. But if you catch your own or you find filets at your local seafood market, Sheepshead can be a great substitute in any dish that calls for crab meat. Just make sure you cut the red meat from the filet before you cook it.
Triggerfish season begins in January, so start looking for these guys on your favorite restaurant menu. They used to fly under the radar of commercial fishermen, but in recent years, Triggerfish has made quite a comeback. They’re relatively light in size (typically less than five pounds), but they pack a sweet flavor that has to be tasted.
These fish are served as boneless, skinless white filets, and because they’re light in size, pan-frying is a quick and easy cooking method. Don’t go overboard on spices and seasonings, though—because the Triggerfish is full of natural flavor, you don’t need much more than butter, lemon juice, and white wine.
Red Snapper season isn’t until summer, but until then, these smaller (but just as pink!) cousins should serve you well. They’re rather plentiful in our Gulf waters, too, especially around offshore rigs and artificial reefs. In fact, you’ll find Vermilion Snapper in the same environments as other snapper, including Red Snapper and Yellowtail Snapper.
As with other species of snapper, Vermilions are great eating fish too. With firm and flavorful filets, this fish doesn’t need much extra flare for a tasty meal. Try them lightly fried with salt and pepper with a splash of lemon.