Running down a list of the best tasting fish isn’t easy or totally fair. Taste is subjective, after all. It’s a matter of opinion. We could argue for days over whether Burger King is better than McDonald’s and ultimately never reach definitive answer. Therefore, I took a different approach when compiling this list.
There are loads of fish that we can all agree are really delicious. Swordfish, flounder, redfish, yellow perch, tuna, crappies, catfish, would be a few examples. Some of you, based on personal preference, would say crappies are better than bluegills or yellowtail snapper beats mangrove snapper. The differences between many of their flavors and textures, however, are subtle in many cases—the average person can’t distinguish between a piece of fried black grouper and red grouper, but we know grouper is good. So, instead of focusing on all the fish that we already know taste great, I based my list around the fish I truly feel have a unique flavor or different texture. In other words, they are not easily comparable to five other similar fish.
I also went all in on taste and didn’t worry too much about accessibility. Yes, lots of people have walleyes and seatrout in their backyards, but their flavors don’t compare to some of the more niche or hard-to-catch species swimming around. I’ve outlined my favorite oddballs and sleepers, if you will, and whether you have a chance to catch them or just buy some, I highly recommend giving each of these a taste. For the record, I’ve also heard great things about burbot, a.k.a. eelpout, but since I’ve never eaten one, that oddball must stay off my list of the best tasting fish—for now.
Ever hear of a tautog? If you don’t live on the Atlantic coast between Virginia and Maine, there’s a strong possibility this fish isn’t on your radar. That’s OK, though, because it means there’s more for me to catch and eat.
Tautog—a.k.a. ‘tog or blackfish—are a member of the wrasse family, and they’re one of the ugliest saltwater fish in the U.S. They’ve got a rounded head, they’re dull gray in color, and they sport a set of thick fangs that would give you nightmares. Tautog are a hard structure-oriented fish, so they thrive around rock piles, reefs, and wrecks. They’re also a blast to catch and have a devout cult following, particularly in the Northeast. They’re bait-stealing masters that will crunch a crab right off your hook before you even think about swinging. If you do connect, you better muscle that fish out of its hole quickly or it’ll “rock you up,” as us toggers like to say.
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Those gnarly fangs and crunching ability, however, are what make tautog one of my favorite inshore species to eat. They’re diet consists primarily of clams, crabs, mussels, and shrimp, which gives their flaky white meat notes of clams, crabs, mussels, and shrimp. Of all the inshore salty fish at my disposal, like fluke, sea bass, and striped bass, tautog is my favorite whether it’s getting deep fried or turned in a hearty chowder.
The funny thing about these invasive fish is that I often hear people say they look hideous and gross and the thought of eating one turns their stomach. Folks forget that one of the ways snakeheads ended up in U.S. waters is because they were smuggled in as a food fish. Furthermore, in many Asian cultures, they’re considered a delicacy, sort of the filet mignon of freshwater fish. I can tell you from lots of firsthand experience, that analogy is accurate.
There are two species of snakeheads in the country; the northern snakehead which lives from roughly Virginia to New York, and the bullseye snakehead that lives in South Florida. Both fish thrive in shallow, weedy, muddy environments, which is part of the problem when trying to turn people on to chowing down on them. We associate mud dwellers like catfish and carp with having a muddy flavor. But snakeheads will never taste like mud, because they don’t do much feeding on the bottom and they don’t eat dead, rotting stuff.
I’ve caught my share of flack for this, but I don’t care—snakehead tastes better than walleye. Their meat is so firm that it has a texture more akin to a saltwater snapper or grouper, and I’ve yet to eat another freshwater fish where that’s the case. I’ve also never fed a snakehead taco to a first timer who wasn’t completely blown away by this fish. It’s white, mild meat can be cooked any way you like, and you can feel good about eating one because every snakehead you bring home after it smashed your frog lure is one less invasive in the environment.
Salmon doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I find it pretty mundane, though I will admit it’s slightly less mundane than trout—which I’d categorize as one of the least flavorful fish that swims. But not all salmon is created equal, and if you have the means or ability to eat salmon caught in very specific places, it can go from mundane to outstanding. For me, that place is pure saltwater.
The taste, texture, and flavor of any anadromous fish will change when it leaves saltwater and transitions into a freshwater environment. I’ve never eaten a migratory striped bass out of a freshwater river, but I’ve heard they are an example of a fish that maintains its salty flavor even after spending weeks in sweet water. Salmon, on the other hand, not only move into freshwater, but their bodies begin to break down during the spawning process. Therefore, no matter how you slice it, a Chinook or pink or Coho that’s been chilling out 50 or more miles from the salt for a few weeks isn’t going to taste as good as it would have if you caught it in the brine.
Years ago, during a trip to Valdez, Alaska, we trolled Cohos in icy-cold, high saline Prince William Sound. We just needed them for salmon shark bait, but we iced a few for the table. Hands down, that was the best salmon I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was so good that a buddy and I consumed almost an entire fish raw with a bowl of soy sauce in our motel room. I’ve been to some pretty fancy sushi joints since, and none of their salmon was as buttery and flavorful.
Escolar aren’t winning any beauty pageants. The best way I can describe them is a cross between a king mackerel and a skinny tuna. Got that? OK. Now, give it a pure white eyeball that looks like it’s been boiled and cover the entire fish in raw black crude oil. That’s an escolar, but under an exterior that would have fit perfectly in the movie “Beetlejuice” is some of the most decadent fish flesh you’ll ever taste.
You can likely get escolar somewhere close to home no matter where you live, you just may not know it because this fish is rarely sold under its true name. Most commonly you’ll find it on sushi restaurant menus as “white tuna.” It has the muscle structure and texture of a yellowfin or bluefin tuna, but the meat is, in fact, bleach white. It also has a naturally sweet flavor with a bit of oiliness. But that oiliness isn’t fishy, oh no. It makes the fish taste like it’s been basted with fresh-churned butter. Sounds amazing, right? Trust me, it is, but it does come with a warning.
Treat escolar like extremely fancy, expensive chocolates—enjoy a couple but don’t overdo it. This fish is not any more expense than other offerings in sushi joints, but it can have a laxative effect on some people. I (thankfully) have never experienced that, but still, don’t order an entire plate, just get a few pieces. Also, it’s worth noting that a seared piece of this fish is equally delicious, but I prefer it raw.
Escolar is a bucket list catch for me, though one I’ve yet to check. These bruisers live all over the world in salty depths of a thousand feet or more. During several visits to Louisiana, I’ve looked on jealousy at crews on other boats posing with massive escolars. The problem is you can’t really target them—you just have to get very lucky while deep-dropping for swordfish or tilefish.
Thousands of anglers flock to Alaska every season in hopes so shipping home coolers full of halibut and lingcod, both of which are outstanding. But if I had to choose one of the Alaska’s salty denizens for my pick as the best tasting fish, I’d opt for the lesser-known and less frequently targeted sablefish.
Although the sablefish is often marketed as “black cod,” it’s not a member of the cod family despite sharing some resemblance. These fish gravitate to areas of soft bottom in incredible depths, which explains why they are not caught very often on rod and reel. While there is a thriving commercial fishery for sablefish, to pin one on a hook you need to be willing to go on a dedicated mission with exactly the right gear, namely electric deep-drop reels that can handle weights of 3 pounds or more. Of course, I’ve known a few cowboys that hand crank sablefish, and it works wonders for toning the biceps.
I’ve never had the opportunity to catch a sablefish, and even if you never do either, don’t pass on a chance to taste one. Their other nickname is “butterfish,” and it fits them perfectly. The meat has a natural buttery flavor and though firm after cooking, its damn near melts in your mouth. It’s not cheap in a seafood market, though, so save this rich, luxurious fish for your anniversary dinner or tax return day.
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If you’ve never seen the film “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” you’re missing out. It centers around voodoo culture in the Caribbean, where witch doctors turn people into zombies with dried fugu powder. Fugu powder is derived from a tetrodotoxin found in puffer fish, and fugu is the Japanese name for puffers. In Japan, fugu is a delicacy that can only be prepared as sushi by the most highly trained chefs. Carved up correctly, that tetrodotoxin has a mild numbing effect; cut it wrong leaving too much tetrodotoxin in the flesh and it’ll kill you. Many, many adventurous eaters have met their maker dabbling with fugu. I don’t plan to be one of them, which works out because norther pufferfish are poison free and mighty delicious.
Northern puffers can be found in inshore waters from Nova Scotia to Texas, though they have the most cultural significance from roughly New York to Maryland. As a kid, I’d target them on New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay in the late summer. It was simple fishing—hang a tiny piece of squid or a grass shrimp under a bobber and wait for it to drop. For well over a decade, pufferfish numbers declined sharply in my area, though in recent years they’ve bounced back. This is good news because not only has it allowed me to relive my youth, but it provides me with saltwater chicken wings.
There’s not much meat on a puffer, so the only way to make eating them worth your while is to catch a whole mess of them. If you do, follow this simple cleaning technique, and what you’re left with is a pile of tail-on “drum sticks” that are ready to be battered and dropped in hot grease. Puffer is light, sweet, mild, and very flavorful. For my money, it’s one of the best tasting fish in the Northeast. Before you know it, you’ll have put a half dozen away while watching the game. Just make sure you’re catching northern pufferfish. We don’t want you to become a zombie.