February 25, 2018
If black sea bass grew to six feet long, I'd quit swimming in Gulf or Atlantic waters. These guys are fierce. Luckily, we rarely see them over a foot long in the Gulf and a 4-plus-pound Atlantic version is considered a “trophy.” Bag limits vary, too. You can keep 100 pounds of 10-plus inchers in the Gulf, but only seven, 13-inch plus fish on the eastern side of the state.
All too often, black sea bass are considered bycatch by anglers targeting larger reef fish. They seem to inhabit the same reefs as grouper and grunts, and are often found nearshore over live bottom in the 6- to 10-foot depth. And slot-sized specimens are worth keeping for dinner. They'll attack almost any bait you offer, especially soft plastics or jigs tipped with shrimp or squid. They can be pesky, and all too often are overlooked. However, I don't think there's a better tasting fish available.
Yes, the soft white fillets are small, and it takes a bunch from the Gulf to make a great fried fish dinner, but frying isn't your only option. My advice: Fire up the grill, gas or charcoal, and cook them whole. Or almost whole.
Grilling whole fish can be tricky, and members of the grouper family, like black sea bass, have “big shoulders.” That means that due to its body's shape, one end of the fish cooks more quickly than at the other. Allow at least one fish per serving, and after scaling and gutting your catch, take a pair of kitchen shears to the pectoral fins. Trim them off, but leave the tails and dorsal fins intact. Cover them with aluminum foil to prevent them from burning off while cooking. I like to leave the heads, for drama—and for some of the best-eating meat.
Eating from the head and spine of even a trophy black sea bass involves some effort and patience. While many of us relish the throats and cheeks from big groupers and snappers, those same places don't offer much more than a half-mouthful of meat from a black sea bass. However, the meat from the head of any fish is usually more fatty, and if grilled, much more tasty than that from the loin or fillet. If you're skilled and have a small fork, try the cheeks, throat and the meat around the eye sockets. And don't forget the eyeballs. The tender meat from around the backbone and the ribs is good, too. There are places in coastal Florida where fish backbones are prized as the best part of the fish. Just remember, tiny bites are often the best!
Score both sides of your fish with a sharp knife and put a sprig or two of your favorite herb in the body cavities. Dill or rosemary work well. Generously salt the fish with sea salt and brush with extra virgin olive oil just before you put them on the grill.
Eating these small fish, in fillet form or whole, is not an exercise in big forkfuls of meat. If served whole, there's some picking involved and to some of your guests, getting used to their dinner looking them squarely in the eye can be off-putting. Just remember, heads are optional.
First published Florida Sportsman February 2017