Field Guide: Fish

Protein
Types

Amberjack

What is it

Known as a worthy opponent to veteran anglers throughout the Gulf Coast, the Amberjack is worth the fight. While it’s pretty mild on the flavor scale, a good cut of Amberjack will be thick and meaty when it’s cooked up.

When to get it

April and May are the best times to try to hook your own Amberjack. Recreational Amberjack is closed in June and July, but there’s plenty to be found late in the summer and into October and November.

Where does it come from

There’s a reason they call them “sea donkeys.” If you’re trying to reel one in, you’re in for a workout—Amberjack are known as one of the toughest fighters in the Gulf Coast. Amberjack settle throughout the northern part of the Gulf from the shoreline to depths of up to 300 feet. They tend to find some type of ground structure, especially oil and gas platforms, to call their home.

How it's prepared

If you’ve got the means to cook up a fish this hearty, blackened Amberjack will make for a great entrée. When you fillet your fish, make sure your filets are just over half an inch thick. Once you cover them in butter and a mix of spices, all it takes is a few minutes in a cast iron skillet. Just don’t try this one indoors—the blackening process comes with a lot of smoke.

Species

Greater Amberjack.

Black Drum

What is it

You’ll know you’ve hooked a Black Drum when you see one—it has a patch of whiskers on its chin, and it’ll put up a fight. Unlike most fish, the Black Drum varies in taste depending on the size of the fish. Those who know their seafood will tell you that these “puppy drums” (anything ten pounds or less) are the tastiest of the tribe.

When to get it

With a season that peaks in the winter months, Black Drum can offer a nice change of pace for those willing to fish with their coats on. The cold weather brings in the freshest variety, but this fish can be enjoyed all year long.

Where does it come from

While they do live offshore in coastal waters, they’re not afraid of fresh water and tend to dwell in inshore passes like bays, lagoons and river mouths. Popular hiding spots include oyster reefs and muddy floors.

How it's prepared

A small, properly-cooked Black Drum can be even tastier than some of the “premium” Gulf Coast selections. They’re a meaty fish that goes well in a number of recipes, like chowders or Creole dishes, but a quick and easy method calls for sautéed filets. Just season them with salt, pepper and paprika, roll them in flour and pan-fry them for five minutes on each side.

Species

Black Drum.

Cobia

What is it

Not a fish to take lightly, Cobia will put up a fight with even the most seasoned anglers. As the Gulf Coast’s king of nicknames—they’ve been called “cabio,” “ling,” “lemonfish” and “crabeater”—an average Cobia runs about 20-30 pounds, but they’ve been roped in at sizes of up to 100 pounds. You’ll get plenty of good eating out of them too; a favorite amongst seafood lovers, they pack a sweet, almost nutty flavor that pairs well with a number of sauces and seasonings.

When to get it

Cobia are a migratory fish, so their peak season only runs for a few months. As long as the winter doesn’t last too long, you can start hunting them down (in the seas or in a restaurant) from mid-March to mid-May.

Where does it come from

These guys live in warm tropical waters during the wintertime, but when they make their way up to the coastal regions, you can find them hanging out around natural and artificial reefs.

How it's prepared

This fish is quite flavorful on its own, so if you’re cooking up some Cobia, go easy on the seasoning. You can grill it, broil it or sauté it, but whichever method your choose, try cooking with olive oil and garnishing the filets with lemon juice or lemon wedges afterwards.

Species

Cobia.

Croaker

What is it

The Croaker is quite possibly the most underrated fish on the Gulf Coast. Known lovingly as “frogfish” for its signature croaking sound, the Croaker also has a reputation for stealing bait. But if you’re looking for a tasty meal that’s often compared to Trout, Croaker will give you plenty of bang for your buck.

When to get it

There’s never a bad time to cook up a Croaker because the Gulf Coast is full of them. They’re at their best in the summer, though, so look for them anytime between July and September.

Where does it come from

As one of the most common coastal fish, these “ribbits” can be found by the truckload in bays and estuaries but are most common around docks and piers. When they get old enough to breed, Croaker make their way to deeper offshore waters during the colder months.

How it's prepared

Like most fish, Croaker makes for good eats when it’s fried, but baking this fish helps to bring out its natural flavor. Simply sprinkle the filets with salt, pepper and lemon juice and bake 10 minutes for every inch of fish. When they start to flake easily, you’re ready to dig in.

Species

Atlantic Croaker.

Flounder

What is it

One of Alabama’s favorite fish, the Flounder can be found all over the place—from coastal passes to fresh waters as far upstream as a hundred miles. Our coast houses both the Southern Flounder and the Gulf Flounder, and you’ll know you’ve caught one if the eyes are both on the same side. While the flavor varies a bit, Flounder are generally on the mild side in taste of the seafood spectrum.

When to get it

Flounder are a late-summer fish, so you’ll get the freshest catch if you order from July through October. Thanks to a long season and a big harvest, you’ll find Flounder in most places year round.

Where does it come from

Because of their built-in camouflage and their sneak-attack feeding habits, you’ll find these masters of disguise along the muddy floors of shorelines and back bays. Docks and piers are the best places to track them down since tidal currents and rock pilings create the perfect hideout for Flounder.

How it's prepared

Flounder meat is very delicate, so this lean, flaky fish will go well in just about anything. Try pan-frying your filets for about ten minutes, adding salt and pepper before they cook, and rounding them out with butter and lemon after they’ve fried to a crisp.

Species

Gulf Flounder, Southern Flounder.

Grouper

What is it

From Reds to Scamps, Grouper is another popular catch along the deeper waters of Alabama’s coast. You won’t find a big difference in taste or texture among the Gulf Coast family, so expect a mild, sweet flavor from any Grouper you reel in.

When to get it

As a standard of Southern seafood, Grouper is a top quality item that you’ll find on most menus throughout the year.

Where does it come from

Grouper make their home in deep waters amongst the rocks and reefs of the ocean floor. These fish grow in size as you move farther from the shore, so if you’re looking to catch a few big ones, make sure you venture out at least twenty or thirty miles from the coast.

How it's prepared

Grouper can be prepared several ways, but if you’re going to toss a few onto the grill, try seasoning them with onion and black pepper beforehand. If you’re thinking about breading and baking your filets, lemon juice and butter are always a good idea.

Species

Black Grouper, Gag Grouper, Red Grouper, Scamp Grouper, Snowy Grouper, Warsaw Grouper, Yellowedge Grouper.

Lionfish

What is it

Lionfish is an invasive species, meaning they’re not from around here. They prey on all kinds of commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important species, and with venomous spines on their bodies, you don’t want to touch ‘em. But here on land, Lionfish is not just edible, but considered a delicacy. Flaky but firm in texture, these white filets have a hint of natural buttery taste, so catch and eat as many as you can!

When to get it

When it comes to Lionfish, obtaining it is not usually an issue. This invasive species is available along the Gulf coast in abundance all year round.

Where does it come from

Originally hailing from Indo-Pacific but introduced to the Gulf through the aquarium trade, Lionfish can be found on just about any kind of reef structure, from nearshore waters to 1000+ feet. Keep in mind, though, Lionfish usually don’t bite at a hook; divers usually have the most success hauling them in.

How it's prepared

Lionfish isn’t just delicious—it’s good for you. Compared to many fish, Lionfish is high in heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fats. These flaky white filets taste great lightly fried, but they’re also quite good raw—in sushi, sashimi, or ceviche. (And don’t worry; their armor may be venomous, but the filets are perfectly fine to eat.)

Species

Lionfish

Mackerel (King and Spanish)

What is it

These sleek, medium-sized fish come in two sorts: King Mackerel (or Kingfish) and Spanish Mackerel. The “kings” and “princes” of Alabama’s coast weigh in at an average of 10 and three pounds respectively making them a great target for family fishing trips. Mackerel hold a strong, robust flavor and are often compared to Salmon for their texture and taste.

When to get it

Spanish Mackerel arrive every year in late March, just in time for Alabama’s spring break charter boat season, and they only stick around for a couple of months before making a return appearance in early fall. King Mackerel show up as early as May and stick around as late as October, but they’re at their seasonal peak in the late summer months. Keep in mind, Mackerel don’t freeze well, so make sure you buy fresh and eat soon.

Where does it come from

These silvery bolts are always on the move, roaming through near-shore and coastal waters in search of food. While Spanish Mackerel tend to stay closer to the beach, you’ll usually find both types in open water, and they’re particularly fond of offshore oil and gas platforms.

How it's prepared

Mackerel filets can be fried, broiled or baked, but the easiest (and perhaps the tastiest) method for cooking the whole fish is poaching. Once you’ve prepped it, simply put the fish—skin and all—in a large pot of cold, salty water and cut the heat off when the water starts to boil. If you’re ever on a charter boat with an onboard stove, don’t be surprised if the captain serves up poached Mackerel for dinner.

Species

King Mackerel, Spanish Mackerel.

Mahi-Mahi

What is it

Often called the “dolphinfish” or “dorado,” Mahi-Mahi is a true beauty of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Their bodies are a brilliant blend of blue and green with a golden yellow that reaches its fins and forked tail. But as with most fish, the real beauty comes from the inside. Mahi is a firm but flaky fish with a sweet, mild flavor that tops the lists of many seafood fans.

When to get it

Thankfully, Mahi is one of the more plentiful fish in the Gulf, so you’ll see it on the menu all year long. The biggest harvests happen from April to August (with a peak in May), so expect the freshest catch during the warm months.

Where does it come from

This fish prefers the warm tropical and subtropical waters of the Gulf Coast, so you’ll find it offshore as far south as the Caribbean.

How it's prepared

Mahi-Mahi can be prepared with any of the standard techniques for saltwater fish. If you’re looking for a meal on the lighter side, Mahi goes great on a sandwich. Just toast and butter a pair of French bread slices, grill the Mahi for a few minutes on each side, and add any trimmings you like. If butter isn’t enough extra flavor for you, try adding some tartar or aioli.

Species

Mahi-Mahi.

Mullet

What is it

It’s not unusual to see a Mullet flying through the air. Not only are there entire festivals dedicated to tossing this fish, they often jump on their own accord, possibly to avoid deep-sea prey. They’re used as bait fish more often than not, but the old salts will tell you that fresh Mullet from the Gulf Coast is one of the tastiest fish you’ll find.

When to get it

When a fish is thrown for sport, you know there’s going to be plenty to go around all year long. Mullet are freshest when enjoyed during the spring or fall months, so look for it when the weather is moderate.

Where does it come from

Mullet aren’t very picky about their living spaces, so you’ll find them in both salty and fresh waters, especially where the two waters meet. It’s been said that salt water Mullet are the tastiest sort, so choose wisely if you’re fishing for your own. And remember that regular bait won’t do—these guys are vegetarians.

How it's prepared

You can cook Mullet just about any way you please, but folks will tell you that this is the perfect choice for a backyard fish fry. Once you’ve rounded up enough filets, season them heavily with salt and pepper, roll them in corn meal and deep fry them in peanut oil for about five minutes.

Species

Striped Mullet.

Pompano

What is it

The Florida Pompano is a delicacy of the seafood world. But don’t let the name fool you—this fish spends plenty of time along Alabama’s Gulf Coast too. They may be small in size, usually ranging from two to five pounds, but they’re big on taste; these tender, succulent filets pack so much flavor that they frequently fetch the highest price in restaurants and markets.

When to get it

If you look hard enough, you can reel in Pompano all year round. The fishing is best during the summer and fall, though, so check the waters and the menus from May through November to try this premium fish.

Where does it come from

You can find Pompano along the beaches of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, but if you venture a bit further out to depths of up to 30 feet, you’ll find that they like to spend time around structures like oil and gas rigs as well.

How it's prepared

With a fish that’s in such high demand, it’s safe to say there are plenty of ways to cook it. Fried or broiled Pompano works just fine, but try grilling it if you want to bring out the most flavor. Just make sure you’re using a charcoal grill and you’ve got plenty of lemon butter on hand.

Species

Pompano.

Porgy (Sea Bream)

What is it

Sometimes called “Sheepshead without the jail time,” Porgy (also known as Sea Bream) is one of Alabama’s most underappreciated fish. Because this silvery red fish only measures in at a few pounds, it’s been labeled as nothing more than “by-catch” by some folks around the Gulf. But if you’ve ever tried fresh Porgy, you know why seafood fans from England to Japan are crazy about this fish.

When to get it

Porgy is a reef dwelling fish sharing the domiciles in many areas with other fish such as red snapper. They are available all year around but usually are more abundant in the spring and summer months.

Where does it come from

You’ll catch plenty of Porgy in the deeper waters of the Gulf, but Porgy can also be found in shallow waters under 100 feet. This fine fish occurs over hard sand, rock and patch reef areas.

How it's prepared

Chef Rob McDaniel chose pan-seared Porgy as his dish for the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in 2013. But if you’re trying to cook a Porgy or two in your own kitchen, try it baked. Try stuffing the filets with capers, olives and herbs, wrapping it in parchment or aluminum foil, and baking them for half an hour.

Species

Red Porgy, Whitebone Porgy

Red Drum

What is it

You’ll hear most locals call this species “Redfish” thanks to its rusty tint, and the black spot on its tail is hard to miss. But the real treasure is on the inside. This cousin of the Black Drum is a firm, succulent fish with a mild, sweet flavor that’s ideal for blackening.

When to get it

Red Drum is one of the more abundant species in the Gulf, so you’re likely to find it on your line any time of year. But the ideal time to hook a few Redfish is during the winter months when warm-weather fish are in lower numbers.

Where does it come from

These fish will migrate in large numbers to shallow water in the early fall. Throughout the year, though, you’ll find the larger Red Drum in deep estuary waters and island passes while the younger drums are living inshore near piers and jetties.

How it's prepared

In the 1980’s, Red Drum were a big catalyst in the rise of the blackened fish craze, and that’s still a popular preparation. Just make sure you’ve got all the proper equipment for blackening (and don’t forget to open your windows and turn on your ventilation system).

Red Snapper

What is it

If you’re looking for Red Snapper, you’ve come to the right place—Alabama is known as the Red Snapper Capital of the World. You can tell you’ve hauled in one of these beauties by its rosy red color and a pair of red eyes to match. With a natural nutty flavor that goes well with just about any seafood recipe, Red Snapper is a premium fish on the Gulf Coast. Just make sure to ask your waiter if it’s the real thing—a fish this popular has a lot of imposters carrying its name.

When to get it

While the recreational Red Snapper season tends to change year to year, this fish is available commercially year round. Red Snapper is a popular target for recreational fishermen, so if you’re looking to hook a few yourself, June is your best bet.

Where does it come from

Red Snapper tend to live in places with a lot going on—from reefs and rocks to ship wreckage and pipeline valves. Fortunately for us, Alabama has one of the best artificial reef building programs in the world, making our state one of the most popular Red Snapper hang-out spots in the world.

How it's prepared

Like many of the Gulf Coast’s finest fish, Red Snapper is best when grilled. You could season this fish with just about anything, but lemon and butter are the most popular pairings. Make sure you cook at a low heat, and if you’re bold, take the locals’ advice and grill it on a cedar plank.

Species

Red Snapper.

Seatrout

What is it

There are a few types of Seatrout, our most abundant fish, that live along Alabama’s Gulf Coast. If it’s on the menu, that’s either the Silver Seatrout or the Sand Seatrout (often called White Trout), with thick, white filets and a taste similar to any freshwater Trout. If you reel in one with spots, that’s that Spotted Seatrout (also known as Speckled Trout or just “specks”).

When to get it

Spotted Seatrout, a popular gamefish, will bite anytime, while Sand Seatrout are on the menu all year long (except for the winter). Just remember to bring ice for any Seatrout you plan on eating as their flesh will soften when it gets warm.

Where does it come from

Don’t let the name fool you—Silver Seatrout and Sand Seatrout may spawn offshore in the wintertime, but these fish love to hang out in mixed waters throughout the rest of the year. And with that in mind, Alabama’s Gulf Coast the perfect home for Seatrout.

How it's prepared

Once you’ve filleted your Seatrout, it can be served several ways—baked, fried, grilled, you name it. But if you’ve got the time, try it poached. Leave the head and tail on after you’ve gutted and cleaned the Seatrout, then dress the fish and wrap them in foil before you put them in the oven for half an hour. When they’re ready, just take the skin off and serve ‘em up.

Species

Silver Seatrout, Sand Seatrout, Spotted Seatrout.

Shark

What is it

There are several different kinds of Shark that patrol Alabama’s coastal waters, the most common being the Blacktip, and they can be vicious if you test them. Most of us were raised to fear Sharks, but what lots of folks don’t realize is that they make for great eating. Shark meat is a real delicacy when it’s served as thick, juicy steaks, and its texture and mild taste draw comparisons to Swordfish.

When to get it

When it comes to the Gulf Coast, there are plenty of Sharks to go around. These guys tend to thrive in warmer weather, so look for the freshest cuts in May or June.

Where does it come from

You can find Sharks in mixed waters like bays and river mouths, but most commonly you’ll find them in shallow beach waters. They tend to stick around waters that are less than 100 feet deep. If you take a boat out beyond the shoreline, don’t be surprised if you see a Blacktip or a Spinner leaping through the air while they hunt down their lunch.

How it's prepared

Shark meat is usually sold as steaks around here, so it grills up quite nicely just like any other “beefy” fish. But if you’re feeling adventurous, try marinating your cuts in beer for three hours. Once your filets are good and “drunk,” slice them half an inch thick and fry them up like you would any other fish.

Species

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark, Blacktip Shark, Bull Shark, Finetooth Shark, Lemon Shark, Mako Shark, Sand Tiger Shark, Scalloped Hammerhead Shark, Spinner Shark, Tiger Shark.

Sheepshead

What is it

If you’re not the type to judge a book by its cover, then Sheepshead ought to win you over. Its black and silver stripes earned this fish the nickname “the convict,” but it’s the mouthful of flattened, human-esque teeth that gave the Sheepshead its true namesake. A typical keeper runs about three to five pounds, and you’ll enjoy every last bite of the pure white filets.

When to get it

Because they arrive in November and last throughout the winter, Sheepshead season is a blessing for the pros who don’t find many regular catches during the cold months. The peak comes in March when these fish return to the ocean for offshore spawning.

Where does it come from

Sheepshead tend to reside in places like bays and river mouths where salt water meets fresh. You’ll find plenty of them offshore during the early springtime when they spawn. Because they like to feed on hard-shelled critters like oysters, crabs and even barnacles, you’ll find plenty of Sheepshead gathered around piers and bridge supports.

How it's prepared

This fish makes a tasty meal in all sorts of ways, the most popular being blackened, broiled or fried up golden brown. If you’re feeling adventurous, try substituting Sheepshead in any dish that calls for crab meat. Just cut the red meat from the filets, cook it with crab boil for several minutes and serve when it gets flaky.

Species

Sheepshead.

Tarpon

What is it

Often called the “Silver King,” the Tarpon is Alabama’s Official State Saltwater Fish. But we don’t eat it—not just for its statewide prestige, but because this fish has a lot of bones and the meat isn’t up to par. However, the Tarpon is on the radar of every good sport fisherman and is a popular target for saltwater fishing tournaments.

When to get it

You can find Tarpon throughout the Gulf Coast whenever the weather is warm, but you’ll get the most bites if you cast a line in May or June.

Where does it come from

Fully grown Tarpon spend their time in mixed waters—anything from bays, salt marshes and tidal pools to the mouths of creeks and rivers. In fact, they’ve even been known to travel upstream into fresher waters.

How it's prepared

No cooking tips here; if you catch a Tarpon, it’s best to snap a photo and then throw it back.

Species

Tarpon (recreational only).

Triggerfish

What is it

For a fish that’s small in size but large in taste, look no further than the Gray Triggerfish. Once ignored by commercial fishermen, these guys made a comeback and are now considered among the finest fish on the Alabama Gulf Seafood menu. Their clean white meat carries a uniquely sweet flavor when cooked, so give this fish a try if you’re in the mood for something different.

When to get it

The Triggerfish is sustainably managed throughout the Gulf, so there are plenty to go around. Look for it on seafood menus all year long.

Where does it come from

Warm waters are the habitat of choice for Triggerfish, so they’re right at home just off the shores of the Gulf Coast. They tend to settle in depths of 60 to 120 feet around artificial and natural reefs, but they’ve been spotted near the beaches at marks as shallow as five to ten feet around structure.

How it's prepared

Triggerfish filets are normally light and thin, so they’re great in just about any standard fish recipe. Pan-frying makes for a quick and painless recipe, so try cooking these filets with butter and then using the same pan to stir up a sauce made with white wine and lemon juice.

Species

Gray Triggerfish.

Tuna

What is it

If you think you’ve eaten tuna because you’ve had the stuff that comes in a can, you’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Gulf Coast Tuna—particularly the Yellowfin and the Blackfin—are not only great eating, they can make for great sportfishing trophies. Blackfins typically only run as big as three feet and 40 pounds, but Yellowfins have been reeled in at monstrous sizes of six feet and 400 pounds. Yellowfins are a premium seafood selection, but both types make for great eating whether you prefer them grilled up as thick steaks or eaten raw as sushi.

When to get it

Whenever you do decide to go on a Tuna voyage, make sure it’s an overnighter—you’ll have the best luck with these guys just before daybreak.

Where does it come from

If you’re looking for Tuna, prepare to sail out a good ways. Blackfin and Yellowfin both live out in the deep blue waters of the Gulf, usually at least 60 miles away from the coast. Look for them hanging out around oil rigs or tide lines.

How it's prepared

If you’re a fan of sushi, Tuna make for some great sashimi. But if you’d rather go the traditional route and cook them up, they’re best when grilled or seared. Tuna meat is pretty thick, so they’re commonly cut up and served as steaks with a deep pink color—all you have to do is season them with garlic, butter and pepper and throw them on the grill. Just make sure you don’t overcook them or else they’ll start to lose flavor.

Species

Yellowfin Tuna, Blackfin Tuna.

Wahoo

What is it

A real prize for both sport fishermen and land lubbers alike, Wahoo are known for their quickness. If you happen to reel in one of these speedy fish, which usually run between ten and 50 pounds, then you better have plenty of hungry friends. This fish is a cousin to the Mackerel, so you can expect a similar quality and taste from their flaky white filets.

When to get it

If you’re patient with your rod and reel, you can hook Wahoo throughout the year. You’ll get the most bites during the summer and fall months. And if you’re not the patient type, just look for fresh Wahoo at your local markets and restaurants from May through October.

Where does it come from

Wahoo are a deep-sea breed, so if you’re looking to catch one of your own, make sure you leave the beach and head out to depths of at least 150 feet.

How it's prepared

You’d be hard pressed to find a bad recipe for Wahoo—there’s a reason why the Hawaiian name for this fish, “Ono,” is also their word for “tasty” or “good to eat.” So whether it’s fried, grilled or served any other way, prepare to dig in.

Species

Wahoo.

Whiting

What is it

Some call it the “Southern Kingfish,” but around here we just call it Whiting. While this fish normally only weighs in around a couple pounds, their mild-tasting, flaky white filets make for good eating.

When to get it

You can find this fish on the menu or in the ocean just about all year round (and in high volume, too).

Where does it come from

There are plenty of Whiting throughout the Gulf Coast. Start near the beach, close to sand bars and where the waves begin to crash. If you don’t have any luck, move farther out gradually until they start biting. Just remember that Whiting like to hang out around the sandy ocean floor—that’s how they earned the nickname “ground mullet.”

How it's prepared

If you’ve ever been to a fish fry, there’s a good chance that Whiting was the main fish (if not the only fish) on the menu. Whiting can be caught dozens at a time and keep well, so the best plan for preparing them would be to catch as many as you can, fry them up golden brown and invite the neighborhood over for dinner.

Species

Whiting.

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