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Fishing | Dealing with potentially dangerous puffer fish and lionfish

By CAPT. GEORGE TUNISON - Fishing | Feb 8, 2024

Capt. George Tunison

New to flats fishing? Why am I getting bites and losing soft plastic paddle and grub tails but still aren’t catching the fish that’s obviously biting? Welcome to puffer world.

These sharp-toothed soft plastic bait killers are out in force these days following and chewing on lures. Other than moving from your spot there’s not much you can do about it except carry plenty of plastic. The IGFA even lists records for 15 or so varieties of puffers with a 9-pound, 10-ounce jumbo caught off Port Canaveral, which is also the home of Florida’s largest tripletail like the huge 40-pound, 8-ounce Florida state record.

If you happen to hook a puffer fish and are thinking about throwing it in the live well to try later on the grill (or after inflating, tossing it around like a ball), it’s not a good plan as puffer fish are the most poisonous fish on the planet, carrying the lethal toxin tetrodotoxin which can easily kill humans within 4-6 hours. That’s from eating it or being stuck by its spines when handling.

Even so, puffer is still consumed and in Japan the dish called fugu is considered a delicacy. Chefs must be specially trained to prepare this meal so customers are capable of returning to the restaurant. Puffer is also prepared and served in the USA but requires special licensing to do so.

I’ll pass on the fugu but do enjoy eating the venomous spined invasive species called lionfish, which has become a huge problem here in Florida as well as warm water reef systems worldwide. Good news is if you know how to clean them and avoid getting stung, lionfish tastes great and there’s no limits on kept fish. On the plate lionfish are considered a healthier choice than traditional menu items like grouper and others due to higher Omega-3 content and lower mercury levels. When collecting, handling or preparing to fillet, if you get pricked or stung by one of the alive or dead fishes’ many quills or spines, it will be painful, for some very painful, with the best remedy being to simply soak the sting area in the hottest water that you can stand. Hopefully, it’s your hand or arm.

Inshore sheepshead still gets top billing and locally sold fiddler crabs and shrimp will get the job done. For fun, grab one of the ultra-realistic fiddler crab lures and try it against live bait presentations.

It’s also rat or small redfish time with an occasional slot-size fish in the mix along with lots of small trout, snook, whiting and pompano to chase.

With a predicted low chance of rain, light winds and 81 degrees by Sunday, this weekend should be a good time for a near or offshore trip before the coming week’s predicted cool front. Fat snappers are always welcome on the table.

For those that enjoy competitive fishing, there still might be time to register to fish in Miceli’s four-man-team tournament held this Saturday in Matlacha. A captains meeting takes place today at 6 p.m. and may be your only chance to sign up. Call 407-754-6303 for info and fees.

Another tournament also takes place this Saturday as the Flatsmaster Winter Series Tournament takes off in Punta Gorda. This event is lures only with a $300 entry fee and three anglers per boat. Call 941-628-0702.

Good news for the fish! In many tournaments, fish are not only caught, but then housed, transported around all day in a bouncing, sloshing, live well, bagged up, weighed, then released often to later die from the stress or weakened becoming dolphin and shark snacks. This is a catch, photo and release tourney using the FISHDONKEY app. Each participant has the app on their phone and allows for cell pictures showing the caught fish, measurements and a video of its live release, then sent to the tourney judges for verification and scoring.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. You can contact him at 239-282-9434 or via email at captgeorget3@aol.com.