Story by Tom Pagliaroli

That’s kids of all ages!

“Northern puffer” in fisheries parlance, the blowfish is enjoying another population boom after the last couple of years when counts seemed on the wane. This was leading to fears of another decades-long disappearance as occurred from 1970 through 2005 when they all but disappeared. Many who enjoyed the bucket and laundry basket-full days blamed the commercial sector, as the “Chicken of the Sea” was suddenly in great demand as increasing numbers of people discovered just how delectable the bone-free meat was. Suddenly they were found in every fish market and supermarket seafood case.

Others blamed the huge numbers being kept by recreational (read: meat) fishermen, and still others blamed environmental factor. No matter, the fact was that the northern puffer vanished from the Jersey bay fishing scene, not to be seen again for years upon years. In fact, the general opinion was that they were gone for good, not having been seen for such a long time.

Fast forward to 2005 when the blowfish were suddenly being caught in crab traps in Barnegat and Great bays. Lots of them. A few of the curious dropped over chum pots loaded with clam chum, baited with squid or clam bits, and then the word soon spread: the blowfish were back in numbers that rivaled those of the good ol’ days.

Puffer mayhem from late May into early October up until that fateful day in 2012. After Super Storm Sandy, the bay bottoms changed drastically, the most notable being the subsequent lack of vegetation. It took several years for the green to start showing again, and after picky fishing, things came together, however briefly, last September. It was two to three weeks of non-stop puffer mania, then the fish moved out.

It wasn’t until mid-June of this year that blowfish returned (back in the day it was always the second week in May and they stayed until early June), and the past couple of weeks in particular there’s been notable puffer fishing going on from piers, bulkheads and boats.

It’s a schooling species, and once you’ve caught one, figure there a lot more around. Getting a chum trail going is key to keeping them interested, and a chum pot and a block of frozen chum goes a long way filling a bucket, bushel or cooler. Some opt for putting several holes in a big can of cat food in lieu of a chum log, and these will draw blowfish as well.

Bait with a small piece of clam or squid, and drop it down. This is a light tackle experience, no need for outfits meany for stripers or bluefish. Even the standard fluke setup is on the heavy side for this drop ‘n reel fishing. A “keeper” blowfish is between 8-13 inches, although we’ve caught a few topping 14 inches, so light action rod, say 6-feet, matching reel spooled with 10-lb. mono, and a standard blowfish or kingfish rig with a one-ounce sinker is all you need.

Once you’ve brought up a blowfish, it will instantly inflate, hence its name. Upon handling, it will dispel the water it inhaled to become a bristling ball that a predator would avoid. Be careful when unhooking, as its parrot beak-like dentition can neatly remove a fingertip if presented within biting distance. Separating the luscious back meat is not as easy as catching, that’s for sure. Until a few years ago, we used the standard “nail in the bulkhead” technique that called for making a deep cut behind the puffer’s head, affixing the gap to the nail, grasping the meat with a tongs and then slowly pulling it away. Time-consuming, for sure, but the nostalgia of sandpaper palms brought back fond memories. At the suggestion of John DeBona, advertising manager for The Fisherman Magazine, we reviewed a “How to Clean a Blowfish” YouTube video that cut the time in half with no need for the nails and tongs. Check it out. You’ll agree.

There is one thin cartilaginous bone running the length of the fillet. The more esoteric blowfish connoisseurs painstakingly remove this with a thin blade fillet knife. We’ve never found the need, as the flesh separates easily. These can be baked and broiled, and really come into their own when deep-fried.

In Barnegat Bay, blowfish can be found just about anywhere, and if you have access to a boat (plenty of boat rental liveries available), work the areas around the BI, BB and Research buoys. In Great Bay, Grassy Channel is a blowfish highway.

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