The name “triggerfish” is applied to about 40 species of the family Balistidae. They’re often brightly colored, but alas, the one you’ll find most off the coast of North Carolina is the relatively drab and aptly named gray triggerfish. If you’re lucky- and much farther off the coast- you may run into the much more tropically-colored queen triggerfish, but the gray triggerfish is what most often makes its way to local kitchens.
Despite its lack of tropical color, the gray triggerfish is anything but boring. For one thing, they are one of the best values at your local seafood market. They’re relatively inexpensive and they have a mild, delicate flavor and a unique sweet aftertaste. If you’ve never tried it, pick some up today and you might find you’ve found a new staple of your seafood diet.
Just as interesting as their taste is their physiology. They have large, incisor-like teeth and laterally compressed bodies, and their skin is so rough it’s often used as sandpaper by fine furniture makers (Author’s note: that’s not true. But the skin is definitely like sandpaper).
Here’s where it gets really interesting- the triggerfish has three dorsal spines. The first (anterior) is very long and sharp, and can be locked into place– which provides two distinct means of self-protection. First, the triggerfish can swim into a crevice just big enough for its body and then erect the anterior spine so it can’t be pulled out by a predator. Second, any predator that chomps down on the triggerfish while the spine is erect will need some serious oral surgery. Or more likely, a burial at sea.
The anterior spine can be unlocked by pressing down on the second “trigger” spine- hence the name “triggerfish.” This raises a design question though- since the triggerfish can lock and unlock its anterior dorsal spine itself, who the heck is this exterior “override” button provided for? Don’t think about it too much.
The triggerfish flaps its fins to uncover its bottom dwelling prey (such as crabs) and squirts water from its mouth to further clean it off. Their strong, sharp teeth do a good job of crushing hard-shells. You don’t want to get bitten by a triggerfish, and they are a bit more aggressive than some other fish. Naturally curious, triggerfish are often the first ones to investigate an underwater camera.
You’ll find them as close as 10 miles offshore, but if you want to catch them with any regularity, you need to go out at least 35 miles. You’ll find triggerfish in hard bottom areas like coral reefs and wrecks, typically hanging out at depths of 80 to 300 feet- similar to the types of places grouper like to hang out. So they share a similar challenge when it comes to angling for them- finding a captain who knows the underwater topography well enough that you won’t be wasting your time.
Triggerfish will bite on cut squid and cut fish, and you’ll need a small hook- a 1/0 or a 2/0 circle hook is best. The bag limit is 20/day- that’s an aggregate limit that also includes spadefish, white grunts and others. You’ll be working hard if all you want is triggerfish, as you’ll be hooking a lot of small snappers, grunts, and black sea bass with your triggerfish bait and tackle. Most of the gray triggerfish you catch are going to be between one and three pounds, and somewhere between 12 and 15 inches long.
Triggerfish are a little harder to clean, thanks to that tough sandpaper skin. A regular filet knife can get dull pretty quick, so some people like to use a serrated knife or even a box cutter-style knife to get through it. After you get through the skin though, it’s pretty easy.
And now the reward- eating triggerfish! As mentioned earlier, they’re a mild fish with a sweet aftertaste. While you never want to overcook fish, triggerfish doesn’t become rubbery if you let it go too long. There are lots of ways to cook triggerfish, but one of the easiest ways to enjoy it is to filet it, salt it, and pan fry it in some butter. No breadcrumbs needed-just serve with a bit of lemon juice and you’ll have a very tasty dish. Broiling is also a good method, and this recipe for triggerfish with a spicy lemon caper butter sauce is sure to get you some serious chef props.
If you’re interested in learning more about triggerfish or how to catch them- and even some hot tips on where they’re biting lately- stop by and see Ben & Arlen at Intracoastal Angler on Oleander Dr. in Wilmington.
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