From Tommy Thompson, Natural North Florida Fishing Expert
Since the spring of 2015, there’s been an “outbreak” of smoothback puffers along Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Tampa Bay to Pensacola. Likely a deepwater species, I’d never seen one until I caught 4 off Steinhatchee on Florida’s Big Bend last year. These are NOT the small porcupine blowfish that usually cut chunks from soft plastic baits and steal live shrimp. So far, many specimens over 20-inches have been caught. And they’re not coming from offshore waters. Catches have been reported in less than 3 feet of water, over close to shore rock piles and oyster beds. I’d never seen one in my 60-plus years of fishing in Florida, and many anglers and marine scientists are also baffled.
Many of my readers have asked about the edibility of these fish, having heard about some pufferfish that are poisonous, but still popular as food in Asia. These puffers are not the same as fugu, often listed as one of the most dangerous foods, there is some concern that anglers might contaminate the flesh during the cleaning process.
At a recent meeting of marine scientists, I had the opportunity to ask one who is probably one of the leading experts on seafood safety about smoothback pufferfish. His thought, “I wouldn’t eat one!”.
That’s good enough for me. I’ll stick to catching them (they really fight well!) and practicing catch and release!