Top cuts of fish and shellfish from Florida’s fishing experts.
We get a lot of questions at Florida Sportsman about the best seafood to eat in our home waters of Florida, and we have a lot of discussions—many of them heated over the coals of a grill—about what’s the best kind of grouper, or snapper or good ways to prepare kingfish or what fish are good eaten raw…But here are the final answers—the very best eating Florida seafood, fish and shellfish, each of them worth tracking down and catching yourself.
But first, a couple of caveats: the quality of a cut of fish has as much to do with its handling, freshness and preparation as it does with its kind. The table quality of the fillet drops off a bit after 24 hours in the fridge, and after three days, it’s really not considered fresh anymore by Florida fishermen standards—though still fine to eat. Secondly, there can be variation in the quality and taste of certain species, maybe depending on what that individual has been eating, maybe its age, maybe the circumstances of its catch. For instance, most mutton snappers I’ve eaten have been excellent—certainly a fish worth seeking out fresh if you haven’t tried it—but there have been those muttons that just tasted off—both in flavor and texture.
The Top Cuts:
Best Eating Fish, Inshore: Tripletail
If you only like “white, flakey” fish, you’ll love tripletail. The meat is delicate, rich, flakey—nothing short of exquisite. It melts in your mouth with a shimmer of sea flavor and leaves you wanting more after each bite. Tripletail meat—like a lot of the best meats—seems to express contradictions: How can a meat so intense in flavor be so mild? When it’s so dense, how can it taste so light to the tongue? Compact and firm, flakey and light, the flavor an echo of the briny creatures the fish has munched—really distinctive.
You can sometimes find tripletail fresh in local markets, but often that will be tripletail imported from Central America—still quite good but without the luminosity of a fresh-caught fish.
You’ll find plenty of people who’ll say pompano is the best (which I love), or snook, or flounder—but each of these fish also has its detractors—none of whom, I’d wager, would ever turn down a meal of tripletail.
Best Eating Fish, Offshore: Yellowfin Tuna
Yellowfin is the filet mignon of fish. Its lean, red-blooded, pristine sea flavor packs a protein punch that satisfies. That flavor is ethereal and intense, saline and vigorous. Yellowfin is clean tasting meat, with no lingering aftertastes or strange hints of other flavors (like the metallic whang associated with kingfish and wahoo)—quite a pure flavor hit. Its texture is crisp and creamy at the same time, which makes it such a delight for sushi, ceviche and other raw and near-raw preparations. The loin of the fillet has such fine grain as to be nearly undetectable to the tongue—one solid rush of protein richness.
While yellowfin might be caught randomly offshore in Florida, they are not regularly caught without some effort and expense from anglers, mainly in two regions. They can be targeted from the Panhandle with trips to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico—and from the east coast with trips to Gulf Stream waters and into Bahamian waters. These are both long runs and the provence of experienced anglers who know fresh yellowfin is well worth the endeavor.
Best Eating Fish, Offshore: Dolphin
Don’t underestimate how good fresh dolphin really is. A lot of these fish and shellfish on this list are a bit tougher to get than the most common Florida seafood, and maybe their rarity does contribute to their appeal. That’s not really the case with dolphin, which are available nearly year-round in Atlantic waters offshore, and in the Gulf throughout the warmer months. A good dolphin fillet has a creamy texture and a rich, deep flavor that goes well with grilled preparations and strong sauces. That mix of the light body, creamy texture and surprisingly robust flavor of the meat makes dolphin one of the most desired offshore catches in all Florida, no matter how easy or hard they are to get.
Best Eating Fish, Bottom Fish: Red Snapper
This is a delicate question, and red snapper is my answer. Of snapper and grouper, red snapper is the most sweet, most firm and most succulent—probably three characteristic qualities of the snappers and groupers most commonly thought of as bottom fish. When you get a fresh fillet of red snapper in your hand, you can see its quality in the almost translucent cast to its meat—it’s that delicate and yet firm. The flavor is sweet, and the meat is not hearty, as some groupers are, and not light, as some other snappers are—in other words, red snapper is just right. Red snapper, widely distributed around Florida though available only in certain seasons, is a delicacy.
- <h2>Blue Catfish</h2>Glenn Flowers, a regular competitor in the Catfish Classic Series in northwest Florida each summer, caught this blue cat at night.
Best Eating Shellfish: Lobsters
Some Floridians get to shuck lobsters as Midwesterners shuck corn. You can make Florida lobsters—spiny lobsters, that is—into fancy food, but really they’re a simple pleasure available close at hand, literally, for divers. Though the entire lobster can be halved and prepared and the legs eaten, most Floridians take the tail only. Its meat is very rich with a rustic, deep flavor that fits grilled preparations perfectly. When cooked properly, Florida lobster meat is dense, firm and tender to the bite.
Another species of Florida lobster—the bull, also called the slipper lobster—has meat with an even creamier texture and less briny flavor than the spiny. They’re a lot rarer to find and not caught regularly by many divers, but if you ever get a chance, grab one. Sometimes bull lobsters pop up in seafood markets.
Best Eating Shellfish: Big Bend Scallops
You can buy bay scallops in the grocery store—but not these bay scallops from Florida’s west coast. These scallops are closed to commercial harvest and sale. But each summer, throngs of folks come to Big Bend towns, including Steinhatchee, Homosassa, Crystal River and Port St. Joe to dive in the shallows and catch buckets full of the bivalves. Each scallop yields a little, sweet, glossy nugget of meat that is a single bite of sea goodness. To watch Reel Time Florida Sportsman host George Gozdz roundup scallops with forum members in the Big Bend region, click here.
Best Eating Shellfish: Key West Pink Shrimp
People who like shrimp (and considering that by pounds-per-capita-consumed, shrimp is America’s favorite seafood, just about everybody likes shrimp), need to seek out two varieties of Florida shrimp: Key West Pinks (also called Tortugas shrimp) and the Royal Red shrimp. Key West Pinks come from the Gulf off the Keys and are meaty, sweet and delicate. A fat Key West Pink off the grill compares to any shellfish, anywhere.
Best Eating Fish, Fresh Water: Crappie
Crappie is the fresh water delicacy of Florida—yielding light, firm, mild white fillets that usually get breaded and fried for good home-cooked meals. Legions of devoted crappie (also called speckled perch and specks) anglers target the fish during high season in Florida winter. Crappie is a good choice for a classic country-style fish fry, a true crowd pleaser.
Next Best Eating Fish, Fresh Water: Catfish
Catfish are a close second choice for best eating fresh water fish of Florida. It seems like there are more and more varieties of catfish available in Florida every year—blue, brown bullhead, flathead, yellow bullhead—and who knows what catfish species is next to inhabit our rivers and lakes. That might be a good thing for fishermen, because catfish fillets are tender and delicate and melt in your mouth. Their flavor is mild, sometimes touched up by hints of wildness from the waters where they live. Even small catfish yield a lot of meat, too. Catfish are good, simple comfort food, and if you haven’t had them fresh-caught from the wild, you probably underrate their eating quality.