Good Eatin' on the Gulf Coast

Anglers spend a lot of time chasing glamor species when they're fishing the northern Gulf of Mexico. On the other hand, when it comes to fish fries, these are the species that more often show up!

By Mike Thompson

Anglers on the northern Gulf of Mexico have a multitude of species of to choose from as their favorite fish to catch. For inshore fishermen, flounder, speckled trout and redfish are the most sought after. For the offshore anglers, red snapper, king mackerel and cobia receive the most attention.

While it is true that any or all of the above-mentioned species could be found at a Southern fish fry, the odds are that you will encounter other species more often than not.

There are two main reasons why the glamour species are usually absent from the fish fry menu. The first is that all of the heavily targeted fish have pretty tight restrictions in the form of creel and size limits. The other reason is that with such heavy pressure being applied to the glamour stocks, catching the allowed limit is no gimme!

For those who love to cook and enjoy the camaraderie and fellowship of a fish fry, you just have to count on a few of the more reliable and available species.

A lot of the fish we are going to discuss are considered by-catches that are encountered while fishing for other species. After you have a plate of some crispy fried filets from some of these fish, they may no longer be held in such low esteem!

White trout are cousins of the much-sought-after speckled trout. Unlike their spotted cousins, white trout are silver in color with a lavender hue across the shoulders. The fish run small in size, with a 2-pounder considered a brute.

White trout are scavenging fish that roam the bottom. They hit a variety of baits, with some of the best being squid, fresh or frozen shrimp, and strips cut from another white trout.

White trout do share a common quality with their spotted cousins in that they readily hit artificial lures. Soft-plastic grubs in white, chartreuse and smoke colors produce nicely.

For its size, the white trout puts up a good fight and is known for its savage strike. They can also put quite a bend in your rod. By fishing with tandem rigs for white trout, anglers can get double the fun and fight from the fish.

The whiting is another bottom-scavenging fish that attends a lot of fish fries. This fish is sometimes called a ground mullet, channel mullet or black mullet, and its actual name is the southern kingfish. Since it rarely exceeds 2 pounds, that name is misleading. Still, all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, it is more often called a whiting.

The whiting is virtually always caught on the bottom. The fish hit the same baits as the white trout, but unlike its bottom-feeding buddy, it is rarely caught on artificial baits.

This species has a small down-turned mouth. Because of this feature you must use smaller hooks; otherwise, the constant nibbling away of the bait will turn into a major frustration. A No. 4 bait-hook fits most situations.

The flesh of the whiting is very firm and tasty and freezes well. This helps if you have to make more than one trip to gather enough for your fish fry.

Sheepshead are plentiful around all kinds of structure in Gulf waters, and they make excellent table fare. Photo by Mike Thompson

Sheepshead is a fish that many anglers toss overboard as soon as they catch it. If these same anglers ever taste one of the pure white filets from this fish fried up golden brown, the sheepshead they catch thereafter would be tossed in the cooler instead.

Sheepshead hang around structure such as pilings, rock jetties and piers and are fond of crustaceans. They can be caught on shrimp, fiddler crabs and even the meat of oysters.

The fish have chopper-like teeth and are often seen chomping on barnacles to get at the meat inside. For that reason, they can be "chummed" up. Sheepshead pros take along a shovel to scrape barnacles off structure to put food and scent in the water. This often causes a sheepshead stampede!

Fishing is done vertically, very close to the structure. This means you have to be quick on the hookset so you can pull the fish away from the barnacle-covered structure. A 6-pound sheepshead will put a strain on your wrist if you're not prepared.

Sheepshead are excellent prepared several different ways. Of course, they are good fried, but I like mine blackened on a white-hot cast iron skillet with plenty of seasonings!

The meat of a sheepshead is often served as imitation crabmeat. Cut off any red meat from the filets and cook it in crab boil for a few minutes (until flaky). Then cool the meat and substitute it in dishes that call for crabmeat.

Surf anglers catch pompano often. This smallish oval-shaped fish is great sport on light tackle, putting up a great fight when they turn broadside.

Besides being caught in the surf, pompano also frequent structure in waters of less than 30-foot depths. They are particularly fond of oil and gas rigs. By fishing on the bottom with fresh shrimp, you can locate nice schools of the tasty pompano.

Pompano will also take artificial lures. Soft-plastic trailers on jigs are readily attacked by hungry pompano. Some of the best colors are white, pink and yellow. Be sure to use the larger, 1-ounce jigs to ensure that you stay close to the bottom. Give the jig sporadic twitches on the retrieve to provoke strikes.

The flesh of the pompano is very dense and succulent. While you can fry the filets of pompano, they are excellent grilled over charcoal, drizzled with lemon butter. They are also wonderful broiled and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese during the last two minutes of cooking.

When most anglers hear the mention of black drum, they cringe and think of the huge fish that is targeted with cracked crab. While it is true the large crab crunchers don't have much appeal as table fare, it's the smaller puppy drum that can surprise.

The name puppy drum is given to black drum under 10 pounds. These smaller fish are often caught side by side with redfish. That should come as no surprise, since they are members of

the same drum family.

Small black drum can be caught using conventional light tackle. The fish take shrimp or small crabs. They are often found at the mouths of rivers and bayous that flow into bays. These fish are very tolerant of fresh water.

The drum is a bottom hugger, as you soon find out when you hook one. Strong, slow methodical runs are to be expected from the black drum.

Unlike the larger black drum, which have coarse, oily flesh, the puppy drum are very similar in taste and texture to redfish. In fact, some people prefer the black drum to redfish.

The fish that gets the least respect among northern Gulf fishermen is the croaker. This diminutive little fish is best known as a bait stealer. Quick to nibble the legs off your expensive live shrimp, the croaker receives more than its share of cussing on most fishing trips.

Croakers are also members of the drum family. They get their name from the croaking sound the male of the species makes in an effort to attract females. It also makes that distinctive sound when pulled from the water on a hook. The croaker has a golden color with reddish pectoral fins.

Croakers are very small in size on average, with most being less than 3/4 pound. However, they can grow to several pounds. Any caught over the three-quarter-pound threshold should be considered eating size.

Croakers are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, from the shallows to depths of more than 200 feet.

You can catch croakers on fresh or frozen shrimp, squid, cut bait or just about anything else you care to put on a hook. Almost always a by-catch, croakers are plentiful.

The taste of croaker can be put on a level with that of speckled trout. Besides its smallish size, the other drawback to croakers is the multitude of tiny bones to deal with.

When you encounter croakers exceeding a pound, they should go in the cooler. They taste very good fried.

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