Northern Sea Robins, a local member of the Gurnard family, have always been considered a “trash” fish by nearly every fisherman I’ve met. They are common catches for those fishing near the bottom, aggressively hitting anything from bait to Fluke gear- even Striped Bass jigs, plugs, and baits. With a spike-covered, armored head and huge, wing-like pectoral fins they resemble a flying fish gone horribly wrong and handling them often leads to cut fingers and a growing desire to avoid them at all costs. Despite the bad rap, however, catching Sea Robins and keeping them for the table is well worth the effort and yields dishes that compete very well alongside more prestigious fishes.
When I was a kid I remember trips out seeking Tautog, Scup, or Striped Bass using bait on a bottom rig. We would often unintentionally catch Sea Robins, which we would call Dogfish because they often would come over the rail “barking” like a dog. With a big, rubbery mouth, those huge wing-like pectorals, rough armor-plated head, and often vibrant orange hues they were a frightening fish to behold, especially when they began croaking loudly with indignation. Spikes on the head and leading edges of the gill plate are razor-sharp and handling them was always a challenge. Awkwardly trying to grab them by the head, with thumb and fingers placed on the flat spot just below the eyes, would often involve some blood-letting if the fish flopped at the wrong time. Once successfully off the hook we would laugh as we threw them to awaiting Seagulls who, in spite of the protective spikes, would swallow even the biggest fish whole. We never considered keeping one for the table as common knowledge had us believe they were inedible.
For nearly 30 years I firmly believed they were simply an interesting looking, albeit painful “trash” fish that was not worth the effort to bring home and clean. Last year, however, Fluke fishing from shore produced a large Sea Robin or three for each Fluke landed and, while lamenting to a buddy, he was flabbergasted at my disregard for them and eagerly offered to take any and all I could harvest. His earnest interest was enough to convince me I had severely underestimated this “trash” fish and I was suddenly determined to give them a try.
The next foray to my shoreline Fluke grounds again produced several large Sea Robins along with a couple keeper Fluke. With an awakened interest in trying them, coupled with the finger-saving tip that they can be “lipped” like a Bass, made catching them much more enjoyable. For those who might not be familiar with “lipping” fish it’s a handling method whereby you insert your thumb in the fish’s mouth and grab the lower lip firmly. Obviously it only works for a select few fish whose teeth are no concern such as Striped Bass or freshwater Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass. While it doesn’t paralyze a Sea Robin as it does a Striper or Largemouth it does provide a solid handle that’s free of spikes and was a revelation in handling them. Filleting the Sea Robins was also easier than I had imagined, producing beautiful, white fillets. Once fried alongside the Fluke it was nearly impossible to tell them apart! Only the shape of the fillet gave away which fish was which and both were equally delicious.
Regulations for Sea Robins are non-existent: there is no minimum size, no maximum catch limit, and no closed season. They grow to about 20 inches but 12 to 15 inches is more common. Any fish smaller than that would yield very little meat if filleted and are better cleaned through scaling, gutting, and beheading. Once cleaned and cooked it is definitely on par with fish such as Fluke or Black Seabass- white, flaky meat that has very little discernable “fishy” taste. Due to their non-specific feeding habits they can also be caught a wide variety of ways from bait to jigs to plugs—even fly fishing! As long as the bait or lure is near the bottom odds are you’ll hook one sooner or later. Before you curse them and feed the Gulls, however, take a moment to consider them as the main course. It’s a wise decision and one I wish we had made many years, and countless Sea Robins, ago. – Ty Leger, Kettlebottom