Agri Leader

Fish lovers looking to hog hogfish

Sometimes, my story ideas for this column fall right onto my plate. Literally.

My son and I were ordering a shrimp platter and deep fried alligator bites at Captain Eddie’s Seafood Restaurant in Nokomis, when server Tim Masura went on to praise their house specialty of Gulf-caught hogfish, described on the menu as “sweet, firm, white fish prepared fried, broiled, or blackened.”

My first reaction: “What’s a hogfish?” I’m no fish expert, but I’ve been in Florida a few years now, and I fish occasionally. Hogfish was a new one for me — the name conjured up some imaginative looks for the fish.

While waiting for our meal, we went back to Captain Eddie’s seafood market for a closer look, where they sell hogfish for $25 a pound. Next thing I know, Jason Fitch of Captain Eddie’s brought us out a 1½ to 2-foot hogfish to ogle. The hogfish we saw was red, although they apparently can also be white.

They can open their mouth very wide — their hog-like snout is one reason they earned that

infamous name. Another reason is they tend to feed on the bottom of the ocean, hanging around reefs.

Although they’re also called hog snapper, they’re not in the snapper family. They’re actually part of the wrasse family of fish.

Masura told us that hogfish taste better than Florida’s superstar fish, grouper. Hogfish is pricier and not as common as other fish because you almost always have to catch them by spearfishing. It’s usually only sold when restaurants have a relationship with a supplier who spearfishes for them. In fact, my ag-geek statistics yearbook from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reports that in 2012, nearly 3.5 million pounds of red grouper were caught for commercial fishing ventures, compared with only 45,483 pounds of hogfish.

Like me, not everyone is aware of hogfish, Masura said. “It’s pretty much the locals who know about them. People who are on vacation are not as familiar with them,” he said. Some patrons even think that hogfish may be gross because of their unusual name.

Still, the folks at Captain Eddie’s were nothing but enthusiastic about their hogfish, cooked as part of a dinner platter, or, as Masura told us, stuffed with lobster bisque and crab.

Hogfish are found in Florida mostly in the Gulf of Mexico down to Key West, Masura said. However, they’re also found off the state’s east coast. The catches at Captain Eddie’s often come fresh from Key West.

“You can get them year round,” said David Bailey of Parrish, who enjoys spearfishing for them. He’s found smaller hogfish 10 miles offshore and larger ones further out. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, you can catch up to five a day; your catch must be at least a foot long. The state record catch is 19 pounds and 8 ounces, caught in Daytona Beach.

Bailey prepares hogfish with extra virgin olive oil and onions and flash fries them for about three minutes. He’ll then add lemon and cook for another minute. Like Masura, Bailey echoed that they taste better than grouper.

Matt Humphrey of Bradenton has also done spearfishing for hogfish and called them great eating. He likes to catch them himself when possible to save on the hefty price tag when you buy them from a market — that is, if they’re even available, since they’re hard to find.

One last interesting fact about hogfish: They’re hermaphrodites. Around age three, the females can turn into males.